I was on a website this morning that exists solely for the pupose of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It gives a brief history and tracks the development of Christianity in the US and it says this,
“This is the 500th year of the Christian Reformation and Christianity has become a fractured, incomplete and conflicted body of Christians. This half-millennial milestone marks an opportunity to consider where we are, how we have arrived there, and what can be done.”
I found that to be an interesting statement. What tripped me up in that statement, among plenty of other things on the website, were two things: the verb tensing was one. Christianity “has become a fractured, incomplete and conflicted body of Christians…” Has become? I think we’ll see that even when everyone was part of the one institution of the Catholic church things were far from free of conflict and division. The east/west schism is the obvious thing, but also the conflicts over who was pope, and even doctrinal conflicts within the Catholic church that still happen today!
The second problem with that statement was saying that the church is incomplete. That’s true in an eschatological sense. But, also, the church is simply Christ’s body. It is incomplete in as much as people still need to hear the good news and be adopted into the family called the church, but it is not incomplete because we have made clear our doctrinal positions. It’s not incomplete because we’ve held fast to the Gospel, even if it means factions have developed. Quite the opposite.
So, what is the church? Who decides what the church is? Where does authority come from?
These are the questions that get at the heart of why Protestantism exists. Often when we talk about the reformers, we talk about it like they broke with Rome, as though they walked out the door, when in reality, they were kicked out of the Roman Catholic church. Luther’s goal was always to reform the Catholic church from the inside.
But the Catholic church didn’t want to course correct. The problems that were brewing in the Catholic church had been brewing long before Luther came on the scene. One of the most basic problems was around the issue of authority.
Where does authority come from? From the pope? Which pope? There were three popes at one time! From the councils of men governing who becomes pope? Who controls the institution known as the church? Or does authority come from God’s Word? And if it does (as we believe it does), what does God’s word have to say about what the church really is? Is it simply an institution? Or is it something else? Is it God’s people? What kind of authority does God give to his people, the church?