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-institutionalized church of Rome, God’s people have 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 leaders within the ranks of the church. Perhaps that is part of the nature concerning persecution – the establishment 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, 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 ostracized for the most part. They were the whackos, the theologically untrained, and perhaps 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 center of the universe. The church blushed at the idea of a heliocentric universe with the sun at its center. For leaders of the day, this “new” view challenged what seemed to be the clear teaching of Scripture and the church. And so persecution was heaped, I mean heaped, as these new-thinkers were labeled heretics. Today, we could not imagine such a reaction.
You see, this is what I have noticed 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 newly formed group easily finds themselves in the role of the persecutors.
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? What was their overall voice regarding those who couldn’t embrace the full Ausburg Confession, practiced the charismata gifts and offered believer’s baptism?
What about the Methodists who had such a great 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 part of the 1700’s, even into today. Who might they be shaking their heads at these days?
What about the Pentecostal and charismatic movement of the 20th century, which 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, say, 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.
But now, some have lost a bit of their salt, the light has faded, and their potency zapped.
My point is that, here we are almost two decades into the 21st century. Maybe not a special point in history by any means. Or maybe it is? Phyllis Tickle seemed to think we’ve entered a significant period, since the church tends to every 500 years.
Hence, we’re here as a new generation of Christians perhaps rethinking some points of the faith. 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, seeing evolutionary biology as having something to offer us, holding to shared mutual leadership between men and women, practices of what we might call the missional (or emerging) church, and so forth.
Perhaps we write them off.
But I am certain Martin Luther and friends had to painstakingly walk through this ostracization. Wesley and comrades were ignored or ridiculed by the Church of England. The Anabaptists had to consider whether persecution and death were worth it. Pentecostals and charismatics know what it means to be regarded as the lowest caste amongst Christians.
Where do we stand?
Were we once the persecuted, all the while standing on the cusp of something special from God? Yet now we stand, about-face, afflicting those involved in something fresh today, mainly because it doesn’t fit within our prescribed paradigm.
I’d ask us to turn our chairs toward one another, listening and learning one from another. They need respect and dignity, just as our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers.
And my challenge to any new movement, specifically as it re-evaluates its place within God’s storied drama, would be to stay connected to the church historic. We may even find the best thing is that we listen to those who have gone before us.
It’s time to create a bit of space for one another, to listen respectfully. It means we need to create space for new movements and expressions of the faith, all the while calling these folk to stay connected to the church historic. A good place to start may be the Apostle’s Creed.
For those in the midst of re-thinking points of the faith, time will tell if we’ve really come onto something. For those plowing forward with the historic faith, may we find ways to walk with those pioneers of the 21st century.