Every 500 years or so, the church goes through a re-ordering. Consider:
- 0: Jesus is born and (talk about an understatement) shakes things up considerably
- 300AD: Constantine legalizes Christianity
- 1000AD: The Great Schism cements the East/West divide
- 1500AD: The Reformation dramatically alters the west
(All dates are approximate, of course…precision isn’t my aim here, but a larger point)
The manner in which each change impacts the five hundred years that followed is a topic I’ve considered fairly exhaustively in my life, which leads me to my thesis:
We are, in this century, in the middle of a Second Reformation — a period of time when the church is changing dramatically — and paving the path for future growth and change for the five centuries which will follow.
If this is true, then I think looking back at the previous eras of substantial change (and in particular, the First Reformation Movement) can help us survive this one.
I can think of three helpful lessons in particular:
A Good Reformation Takes a While
Reformations don’t happen overnight. Even Constantine’s compassion toward Christians was a process, and the church had to adjust to the more generous climate. The Great Schism which divided the Roman Catholics from Eastern Orthodox believers had been brewing for centuries before the formal split. The Reformation — the one led by Luther, Calvin, and others — was 150 years start to “finish.”
In some ways, the Church never stops reforming. But even the particular movements we have named took decades to unfold.
As for this present Reformation (what I’ll continue to call the Second Reformation), I believe when it’s studied the beginning will be traced to the middle of the last century when the conclusion of WWII brought a new global community, the end of modernism, and the emergence of new technologies that would change everything.
Like the advent of the printing press helped facilitate the First Reformation, so too will the digital age equip the Second. But we’re only at the front edge of this movement. People say the First Reformation was fanned into flame by Martin Luther in 1517. But Jan Hus (one of the most famous pre-Reformers) was burned at the stake a hundred years before that in 1415, and the Catholic Council of Trent (the Church’s official response to the Protestants) didn’t conclude until almost 50 years after Luther’s dramatic 95 Thesis in 1563. And centuries of progress, division, and expansion followed.
As I’m writing this in 2019, we’re only about 60 years into a re-ordering that could continue for another 100 years or more. We’re not at the end of all the change. Not even the middle.
It’s only just begun.
Careful Who You Call a False Teacher
Almost all the influencers we revere in church history were once labeled as heretics. If you’re going to reform, it’s going to invite critique.
- Paul was considered a heretic by his Jewish ancestors.
- Early councils branded various church leaders as heretics.
- During the Great Schism, church leaders were excommunicating each other left and right.
- Hus, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli — they defied popes, called out corruption, and challenged the established order. All of them were called heretics, some by one another. Many were exiled and killed.
And you thought social media was cruel.
Sadly, we’re not able to zoom out from our present day and see that it is often the reformers, the questioners, and the challengers who have made the church what it is today. If we were able to gain this perspective, I think we’d be more cautious to label our modern-day reformers as heretics. The people who we now esteem and celebrate in retrospect were considered corrupt when spoken of by their peers. The difference in the perception? A couple hundred years.
You may not believe me, but I promise you the popes who reigned during Luther’s time would not have imagined him being esteemed as he is today. Many of the people being blasted online today as heretics will be the same people history lauds as leaders of the Second Reformation.
So be careful who you label a heretic.
Change Always Wins
This last lesson is a tough one to swallow. But with each Reformation comes dramatic change. If these were only incremental alterations, we wouldn’t call them Reformations. Church History has smaller titles for smaller things — awakenings, revivals, etc.
Reformations are more dramatic. And change always wins.
While many fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith have remained the same (and I’m glad of this), nearly everything else has changed. Both beliefs and methodology have endured massive metamorphosis, and it’s happening again before our eyes. Change always wins. Things staying the same never does. The status quo, the powers at be, the way things have always been — that’s the loser every time.
- There was a time when being a Christian was illegal. Then it became legal.
- There was a time when there was essentially one church hierarchy. Now there are many.
- There was a time when the Catholic Church only celebrated mass in Latin. No longer the case.
- There was a time when there was basically one Bible translation. Now there are thousands.
- There was an age when men and women sat separately in worship. Now they don’t.
We are in the middle of massive changes in the Church today. The Church has always changed. Change always wins. And through it all, it’s okay. The Church that survived persecution, the Great Schism, the Holy Roman Empire, denominationalism, and two world wars will also survive globalization, virtual reality, social media, and capitalism.
The Church survives, and it survives not in spite of change, but through changing.
Historically, we’ve called those periods of time “Reformation.”
We’re living in the beginnings of a Second Reformation right now.