When I was a child, I looked forward to the combined CRC worship service that was held on the Sunday closest to October 31, Reformation Day. It was an opportunity to see friends and acquaintances who belonged to other churches—like an annual extended family reunion. Usually, we would sing the magnificent old hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” It was a time to reflect on and express thankfulness for the legacy of the Reformation.
We learned about some key figures of the Reformation: Martin Luther, who nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the church in Wittenberg; John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion has deeply shaped the Christian Reformed Church and many other Reformed denominations; Zwingli in Switzerland (he was a lesser-known Reformer, but one I remember since my grandmother commented to a younger brother of mine, “I always thought you looked a lot like Zwingli!”). Hearing about the Reformation gave me a warm glow of pride at being a spiritual descendant of those brave Reformers.
I am thankful for many aspects of the Reformation. Some powerful reminders came from the Reformation: sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), emphasizing the authority of the Bible; sola fide (through faith alone), arguing that we receive salvation by trusting in God; sola gratia (by grace alone), reminding us that salvation is a gift from God.
Despite the enduring legacy of the Reformation, I no longer have quite the same level of appreciation as I used to. Not all the reverberating impacts of the Reformation have been positive. For example, I felt betrayed by the Reformed tradition when I learned recently from Beth Allison Barr about the impact of the Reformation on women. In her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Barr describes how, in the 1500s, economic and political changes were supported by Reformation theology to “… women more securely under the household authority of their husbands. Marriage guaranteed women stability and significance, but their increasingly subordinate role confined them to low-status domestic work, increased their dependence on their husbands for economic survival, and curtailed their economic and social opportunities.” 1 That left women—and their children—extremely vulnerable in cases where a husband died or mistreated his family or abandoned his wife. The elevation of marriage as the “ideological touchstone of holiness” 2 left single women feeling like they didn’t quite measure up. Barr concludes that “Rather than Protestant reformers reviving a biblical model, they were simply mapping Scripture onto a preceding secular structure. Instead of Scripture transforming society, Paul’s writings were used to prop up the patriarchal practices already developing in the early modern world.” 3
“…church splits are deeply personal, and often motivated by matters of conscience. However, it seems clear that something has been lost in all the divisions.”
Another sad legacy of the Reformation is a church that is fractured by splits. The Catholic Church, with all its faults, was a single church, united if not unified. The Reformation birthed many strains of Protestantism from the start, each of which has divided and divided again, so that there is now a denomination to suit almost anyone—and if you can’t find one to suit you, you can start a new one.
As an undergrad, I attended a course at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut. In a presentation about Moravians, we learned the motto, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” What a wonderful philosophy, I remember thinking—if only we could agree on what are essentials! I know that church splits are deeply personal, and often motivated by matters of conscience. However, it seems clear that something has been lost in all the divisions.
Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda—the church reformed, always reforming—is another motto from the time of the Reformation. In what ways do we, the church in the 21st century, need to be reformed? Will we have the same kind of courage as the reformers of old, though facing different challenges? May the light of Christ illumine our hearts and minds, giving us eyes to see and ears to hear what His Spirit is saying to the church. This Reformation Day, I find myself praying for clarity.
“Thank God that He works through His church to achieve good things, despite our imperfections.”
I also pray for humility, realizing that our actions today, like those of the Reformers, may have unintended consequences. What will future generations say of the witness of the church in our day? Will they find much to applaud in the way we represented Christ? Will they be honest but gracious about the short-sightedness and unforeseen consequences of the stands we take?
The church has looked different through varied places and times. It has always gotten some things right and other things wrong. Thank God that He works through His church to achieve good things, despite our imperfections. And thanks be to God that we can learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. 4 This year, as Reformation Day approaches, I am thinking of the Reformation’s place in the context of two thousand years of Christ-followers. How can we learn from the many iterations of the church down through history (not just the church since the Reformation) and find a God-honoring way of being the church in our day?
Beth Allison Barr (2021), The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Chapter 4 (“The Cost of the Reformation for Evangelical Women”). P. 104, 105. ↩
Marilyn J. Westerkamp, quoted in Barr (2021) p. 103. ↩
Barr (2021) p. 123. ↩
“Glorifying the past because we like that story better isn’t history; it is propaganda.” Barr (2021) p. 107. ↩
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