Since that legendary day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door’s of the Wittenberg church building, the last 500 years have been filled with movements amongst God’s people that have brought change, reformation and transformation amidst churches, cities and nations never to be forgotten. It’s not that great stirrings never happened prior to the great Protestant Reformation. It’s just that, for the better part of half a millennium, following the breaking away from the state-institutional church of Rome, the church has been perpetually prompted towards reformation and transformation.
The unfortunate thing is that, when such movements of reformation have stirred over the past 500 years, at times, there has been an extreme amount of persecution against such groups. And much of it has been offered by religious folk within the ranks of the church. Perhaps that is part of the nature concerning persecution – the religious of the day will always persecute. Such was the reality as Jesus walked the dusty roads of Judea, Samaria and Galilee.
We have all probably heard of the stories of what happened to Luther following his 95 theses (at least through the movie). In the end, he was not murdered. However, suffice it to say that Rome and the local law would have looked the other way had his head turned up on a silver platter.
And how many other movements can we name that have endured some sense of persecution along the way? What about the Anabaptists who were quite adamant that the Scripture taught what theologians call credobaptism, or believer’s baptism. Some Anabaptists were killed by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, since the status quo of the day was paedobaptism, or baptism of infants.
I’m aware of not a few stories of ridicule and exclusion of those within Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Over the first 70-80 years of the 20th century, these folk were ostracised for the most part. They were the whackos, the theologically untrained, and perhaps even stuck with graver labels.
Or think of what happened when people like Copernicus and Galileo who, in the 16th century, challenged the prevailing geocentric view of the day, which said the Earth was at the centre of the universe. The church blushed at the idea of a heliocentric universe with the sun at its centre. For leaders of the day, this ‘new’ view challenged the quite clear teaching of Scripture and the church. And so persecution was heaped, I mean heaped, as these new-thinkers were labelled heretics. Today, we could not imagine such a reaction.
And this is what I have begun to notice in recent years: Whereas, at one point in time, a particular group or circle or denomination stood at the edge of a significant move of God, all the while receiving great ridicule and possible persecution for such, at some point down the line that group can quite easily move into the role of the persecutors themselves.
Think about it.
What of the Lutherans who were on the proverbial cutting edge some 450 years ago as the Protestant Reformation took its place in world history? How excited do they get over the idea of the charismata, believer’s baptism and women in leadership?
Or what about the Methodists who had such a fine man of God, John Wesley, as their initiator? A man truly used by the power and grace of God. The Methodists played a significant role in Christian evangelical piety over the latter 1700’s into the 1900’s. Who might they be shaking their heads at these days?
Or what about the Pentecostal and charismatic movement of the 20th century that brought about a renewed focus on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit, attested to in all the gifts God has given to his church? What do many of them think of the emerging church?
The list could go on and on. Each group and/or denomination was used significantly at some point in history. Some shorter, some longer. Still, again, all of these aforementioned groups, and more, were used to stir the church, cities and nations.
But now, some have lost a bit of their salt, the light has faded, and their potency zapped. Even more, worse things have come about for many who were once used in making known a little more of the rule of God on earth as it is in heaven.
My point is that, here we are more than a decade into the 21st century. Maybe not a super-special point in history by any means. Or maybe it is? But, no doubt things are always stirring, things are always moving forward. And here we find a new generation of Christians rethinking some things. Just as the Reformers, just as the Methodists, just as the Anabaptists, just as the Pentecostals, just as the charismatics. We sense that some things need to change.
Now, of course, it might be easy to write off much of what’s been going on the past decades – Christians valuing the environment, entertaining the idea that evolutionary biology might have something to offer us, believing in mutuality between men and women, aspects of emerging church and theology, and so forth.
Perhaps we write them off.
But I am certain Martin Luther and those around him had to painstakingly walk through some of the issues. And he found himself on the outside looking in. I suppose the Anabaptists had to think through whether persecution and death was worth changing their view on baptism. I suspect Pentecostals and charismatics know what it means to be regarded as but the lowest caste amongst Christians. Or those 16th century scientists who received heapings of criticism from what was actually faithful and true.
Where do we stand?
Were we once the persecuted, all the while standing on the front line of something special of God? Yet now we stand, about-face, afflicting those involved in something deemed as ‘new,’ mainly because it’s unworthy to fit within our prescribed paradigm.
My challenge is that we learn to create space – turning our chairs towards one another and actually both asking and listening to a certain group why they see, or re-see, things in the way they do. They need the respect and dignity, just as our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, needed the same.
And my challenge to any group engaging in a recent movement, as it re-evaluates their place within the long, storied drama of God’s activity amongst humanity, would be to stay connected to the church historic, and even be willing to consider the challenges put forth to us.
I do not write as one who has received persecution myself. Ah, a few jabs here and there with words. Still, for that matter, we rarely receive much persecution in the west.
In all, I simply challenge that, we, who were once persecuted, would not become the persecutors ourselves. It’s time to create a bit of space, to listen respectfully. Time will tell if we’ve really come onto something worth rethinking and re-evaluating.