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by Jacob Ninan
When many Christians across the world recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, several people pointed out that the reformation of the church was not yet complete. Since the time of the Reformation, further reformation has brought out better clarity and understanding on how the church ought to be and many revolutionary changes have come about in different parts of the universal church. At the same time, we have to acknowledge with shame that a lot of decline has also taken place in the church as a whole. So, reformation is something that should go on, and get deeper.
While ‘reformation’, as we have seen from Martin Luther onwards, focusses on doctrines and practices in the church – including its government and organisational setup – what is usually not addressed in the same context is the role of the individual believer in the church. Personal growth and development are usually addressed separately and not in the context of the reformation of the church. Many times, as a result, there is a ‘top down’ effect – the reformation in the church or its decline affecting the individual believers. But is it not also needed now to include a ‘bottom up’ approach towards reformation? The fact is that individuals now are better informed and equipped, compared to 500 years ago, and they enjoy more freedom of thought and expression. Perhaps we could look at a few specific areas where individuals can change, which will hopefully cause a further reformation eventually in the church itself.
Even though most people will acknowledge the existence of a universal church beyond the range of their local churches, it looks as if very few local churches look beyond themselves in actual practice. Doctrinal and denominational boundaries keep ‘us’ and ‘others’ separate. But every true believer in those ‘other’ churches is our brother or sister. Of course, they are different from us in many ways regarding the details of what we believe, the songs we sing, the way we worship, how we greet one another, our dress codes, the unwritten do’s and don’ts, etc. We cannot pretend there are no differences, or ignore the fact that some of those differences are serious in our eyes. But they are still our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ and we all have the same Father! Don’t we need to have an inclusive attitude towards them with which we can actually relate to them in practical ways as opportunities come our way? Aren’t there ways we can work together for the kingdom of God and the glory of the Father? There are many practical challenges, but is this not one major area where there is need for a personal reformation?
The church has come a long way since the Reformation. In the days of Martin Luther the situation was that the Bible was the monopoly of the priests and ordinary people had no way of knowing what it said. But many people now know better about doctrines and practices than Martin Luther himself! Access to Bibles in different languages and translations, commentaries and teachings is at a peak now, not only with the printed matter but more so with the electronic medium and the internet. Yet, it is a fact that no two believers can agree on everything! Why do we stand ‘loyal’ to our pastor or our local church so much that we block out everything that ‘others’ have to say? If we had but studied our Bibles better and been willing to listen to what others had to say and perhaps get corrected by them, would we not have progressed more towards oneness among the believers? This reformation also has to start with our mind before it can lead to changes in practice.
Most believers face some difficulty or another, whether it is in the area of money, health, relationship, work, spiritual growth, etc. Then it usually follows that people’s lives are like boats tied to the pier with a rope, not stationary but moving, but able to move only within what the length of the rope allows. They are always thinking about their problems, and their prayers are also about those. They are unable to make progress and they have no time or thought about reaching out to others. As a result, they miss the opportunity for carrying out the ministry God has planned for each one of them. Consequently, they also get slowed down in their own personal growth because it is through serving the others that much of our own development takes place. One area which needs reformation is in our sense of responsibility towards others which can be expressed in many different ways. Our responsibility does not end when we give money to the church, but it begins with concern for the need we see around us and goes on to praying for them and then doing what God strengthens us to do.
The discovery by Martin Luther that our salvation is not by works but ‘only by faith’ was a big game changer at that time. However, during the 500 years that followed, salvation by faith has slowly got replaced by ‘only faith’ meaning that if we have faith nothing more is required! Faithfulness is considered to be optional by many, and personal victory like a Ph.D. which very few saints pursue! Bible literacy has become rare among ‘Bible believing believers’, and so ‘nominal believers’ are increasing in number. People are content with church membership and assume that God’s grace will cover every lack in their lives. A radical reformation is necessary among believers in this area. If and when that takes place, it will force reformation to come in the churches themselves.
‘Sola scriptura’ was another war cry of the Reformation. This meant that for every matter concerning the church and spiritual issues, the Bible will be taken as the only final authority. That has changed with time, even though evangelicals still pay lip-service to this precept. What is happening in practice is that the opinions of scientists, psychologists, and other ‘experts’ are being accepted as being of a greater authority than the Bible. How can this be right if we still believe that the Bible is the word of God and that instructions given in it (understood rightly) are directions from God Himself to us? These are the days when, in many cases, church leadership is bowing down to politically correct positions, even when they are in direct opposition to the biblical stipulations. This is happening when the people in churches are letting it happen because they do not know which position to take themselves. A ‘bottom up’ reformation is required here as believers equip themselves to become aware of issues and relevant in the decision making process.
Too many times, the people in churches are subservient to their leaders, letting the leaders get away with wrong or careless teaching, manipulation of emotions to get the people to do what the leaders want, feeding themselves rather than feeding their flock, etc. They are cowed down before the leaders through fear of calamity that might happen if they dared to question the leaders. Since many people’s knowledge of spiritual truths is only second-hand from whatever their leaders have handed down, the leaders are not really accountable before the people for what they do. This needs reformation. Believers have to take responsibility for their own lives and not allow themselves to be under the absolute control of their leaders. Obviously, not everyone can handle this, and some will need constant hand-holding. But others need to wake up and realise where the current is taking them and make appropriate changes.
Another major decline that has happened is in the area of parenting. Parents are supposed to train their children in the ways of the Lord (Prov.22:6) and pass on to the next generation the values and truths they have learned from the Lord (Deut.31:10-13). Many parents seem to have relinquished this responsibility by assuming that it would be taken care of by Sunday schools and Christian schools. The result can be observed in the Bible literacy levels of youngsters who are not even sure whether David and Goliath were among the disciples of Jesus! These youngsters are the ones who take over worship services and youth ministries and progress towards leading churches. We can only shake with fear at the thought of where the church will be ten years from now at this rate, if nothing changes. What needs to change is the attitude towards parenting. The future reformation of the church is in the hands of the Christian parents today.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions” (Col.1:24). Paul realised very clearly that there was something that he had to do in order for the body of Christ to function properly. Otherwise, what Christ had suffered for would not be fully accomplished. Our personal reformation has to start from this point, hoping that in our small way we shall be able to contribute towards the reformation of the church.
-- Editorial in the Light of Life magazine, February 2018
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