If you didn’t know, the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day is today. Of course, if you are a part of a church context whose direct lineage is not the Reformation (like me), then you have no immediate reason to know this other than simply because you keep up with the extended Christian Church family. So in thinking about this momentous event, I figured I would offer a few reflections.
First, I do not believe God is ultimately pleased with division.
There are many reasons why God would not celebrate Reformation Day in the way that many Protestants do nowadays, but mostly because I do not think God celebrates division in his people – even when it’s perceived as necessary…
The immediate push-back to this line of thought will be statements like:
- “But the Protestant Reformation ‘saved’ the Church!”
- “The Reformers didn’t seek to separate, but just to reform – so it’s the Catholic Church’s fault, not theirs.”
- “Look at all the good that has come from the Reformation!”
However, none of these statements get at the heart of the issue. The issue I perceive is whether God would celebrate such an event like we do, or would he mourn it? Or would it be some combination of both?
As I reflect upon this all I can think is: Did the Reformation please God?
Did the fact that the Reformation happened the way it did please God? Did the state of the Church that existed at the time which “required” the Reformation please God? Did the reality of the Reformation (which ultimately has caused all-out schism) dividing the largest representation of the Christian family at the time please God??
You may say: “Yes, it did please God, because Reformation Day represents those in the Church who were championing the Gospel and the Truth.” And I would say you are correct in what many feel it represents. But it is also about a host of other realities, both about that time period and the results that have been caused today…and are those things about the state of the church then and the state of the church now pleasing to God? I think it is much more up for debate than many who religiously celebrate Reformation Day would allow.
Second, I do not think Scripture teaches us to desire division.
From the very beginning division was not a part of God’s plan for humanity. Separateness (from God and from each other) has always been a result of sin. We see this first in Genesis 3 with Adam, Eve, and the Garden; then again soon after in Genesis 6-9 with the Flood and Noah and his sons; and then again in Genesis 11 with the Tower of Babel.
So even when division is deemed necessary (like God kicking Adam and Eve out of the Garden so that they would not eat from the Tree of Life after eating from the other tree), it does not seem to be something God is pleased with – nor should we be.
We see God’s desire for unity most prominently in Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and for us in John 17:20-21 (NLT):
“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”
So this places us as Christians in an interesting position, where we acknowledge that division can be necessary at times but that God does not celebrate it…and if you simply look around the Christian world today, you will see rampant division (much of which could be argued is unnecessary) which seems to simply fly in the face of Jesus’ own prayer.
Why is it a big deal whether we celebrate the Reformation or not?
Our celebration of the Reformation unfortunately is entangled in a much larger reality than just what Luther did on that day years ago. The very reality that Luther had to do what he did reveals that God’s people had become distracted by their own pursuit of knowledge rather than a relationship with God. And this would not be pleasing to God. God would have been burdened by this reality, not pleased. And so the action of Luther (while that specific action may have been pleasing to God), is still the result of a situation that God would not be celebrating.
So should we be so short-sighted as to celebrate a day in which the church had lost its way simply to acknowledge a single action of one man who was calling the church back to its first love?
Maybe. But probably not.
The issue with celebrating this day is also not about the day itself. It’s about the resulting realities of what this day has now come to create. To talk about what I’m trying to get at it might be interesting to look at the concept of the “butterfly effect”:
“In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.” – Wikipedia
“The butterfly effect is the concept that small causes can have large effects.” – Scholarpedia
Reformation Day was a small event in and of itself. But it had large effects on the broader church culture and history of the church…
No, Luther was not trying to divide from the church. Yes, Luther was trying to help bring reform to the church. And yes, the Catholic Church is the one who decided to divide from Luther. However, understanding all that, and all the positives of the Reformation, division was still caused – a division that I still do not believe is pleasing to God just because there are justifiable reasons.
Also, this is not an issue of dividing based upon someone fully leaving the Christian faith behind, which I might be more willing to understand. Luther did not leave the faith.
What I would relate this situation to is a marriage – since Paul relates Jesus’ relationship to the church to a marriage, it seems like a good analogy to work with.
When a marriage ends in division (or divorce) because of a potentially necessary or justifiable reason, should we celebrate? Certainly we should celebrate the faithfulness of a person who may have remained faithful when infidelity is the cause. That’s not the issue. But should we celebrate the day that begins the end of that marriage? Even if it’s the unfaithful spouse who initiates it and even if it’s for a supposedly Scriptural reason (infidelity), there is still no reason to celebrate such a thing. Why? Because division is harmful no matter what the reason and is certainly not what God desires.
The same reality is true in the church. And most division in the church post-Reformation is for far less justifiable reasons than Scriptural infidelity.
Just like the butterfly effect, the effects of Reformation Day on the worldwide church have been traumatic, if we are honest. It gave way to the immediate multiplication of more divisions based upon personal readings of Scripture that led to persecution even within the Reformation camp itself!
How quickly we forget the atrocities…Anabaptists were being drowned for their belief in immersion baptism…people were being burned at the stake for their differing views on the Lord’s Supper…
Seriously. These realities were a part of the results of the Reformation (no matter whose fault they are) and we still desire to celebrate Reformation Day?
And that does not even count the ridiculous divisiveness we see in the church today that are mostly results of a reformation movement that eventually gave way to the justification of division based upon secondary issues of personal preference in interpretation of Scripture (including the explicit racial division that exists!). Is it the Reformers faults that such division has been caused? No. Is it still a reality that exists largely because of the movement they led? Yes.
So are you saying we should just refuse to acknowledge Reformation Day at all?
No I am not. Remember earlier in this post I acknowledged the differences between mourning and celebration. And this is where I would say that Reformation Day should be acknowledged, but should be done with sobriety and realism.
It should not be a celebration of achievement. It should not be a celebration of victory. And it certainly should not be a celebration of advancement.
We should appreciate the contributions of the Reformers. We should appreciate the context in which the Reformation happened and the positives that came from it (like Scripture being translated into native languages!). And we should look to the Reformation as a reminder of the importance of Scriptural Christianity.
But in all of that, we should not forget that ultimately the Reformation was about a division in God’s people that eventually would fracture His people into a multiplicity of divisions (mostly based upon personal preference or secondary issues). So as much as we would like to divorce the results from the cause, the reality is still there: the Reformation began a period in the church unlike any other – where our differences became what we were known for rather than our similarities.
And this should make us sad.
And that sadness should propel us to seek healing (in our circles of influence) for the brokenness and division that has for too long existed in the church. We should lay down denominational names, theological distinctions, and personal preferences where appropriate and find ways to serve & worship together.
And even more boldly, we should combine our congregations with other congregations, and our denominations with other denominations, in order to once again move back toward the displayed unity that the body of Christ once had – to the best degree we can. If there is going to be necessary division, those divisions should be few and far between – and they should definitely not be what we are known for.
And most importantly, we should pray the very prayer that Jesus prayed for us:
“May [we] experience such perfect unity that the world will know that [God] sent [Jesus] and that [He] loves them…” – John 17:23, NLT [my adaptations]