October 31st is Halloween to most people, but it has another meaning to part of the church of Jesus Christ. This is the date when Dr. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses of protest on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. While Luther expected that the pope would approve of his theses of protest against abuses in the Catholic Church, as it turned out, October 31, 1517 marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
The Methodist churches did not come out of the Reformation itself since Methodism was an evangelical movement within the Church of England more than 200 years after the Reformation. In some ways. Methodism was more interested in the Primitive Christianity of the first 300 years than in the Reformation. Yet Methodist churches stand upon the foundation of the major tenets of the Reformation like the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and other Protestant churches.
In observance of the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I want to share a few insights from the late Reformed theologian, Dr. John Leith, a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school in Richmond, Virginia. Leith often wrote about how we may learn from the Reformation to be the church of Jesus Christ today.
The subtitle of his book The Reformed Imperative (Westminster, 1988) says it all: What the Church Has to Say that No One Else Can Say. He believed that the church knows a unique message which relates to the whole of life, personal and public, and that the church is the only place where we can hear something which cannot be heard anywhere else. That message is the gospel of Jesus Christ which has been revealed in the life of Jesus and the witness of the apostles by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
Leith lamented that the church often fails to say what only the church can say. Many sermons, he said, are "moral exhortations, which can be heard delivered with greater skill at the Rotary or Kiwanis Club," or "political and economic judgments on society, which have been presented with greater wisdom and passion at political conventions," or "personal therapies, which can be better provided by well-trained psychiatrists." Leith asked, "Why should anyone come to church for what can be better found somewhere else?" The problem is that the church often forgets its own unique message, and, as a result, the church is not up to its task of confronting a society "that gives no support to being Christian." A few generations ago, "the organized church could survive even if it neglected its unique message" because "the message and symbols of the faith were alive in the social structures and memory." This is not true anymore, and the church will have to learn anew that "the only skill" the church has "which is not found with greater excellence somewhere else is theology, in particular the skill to interpret and apply the Word of God in sermon, teaching, and pastoral care."
Leith learned this insight about the unique message of the church from the Protestant Reformation. As he said, "Martin Luther and John Calvin, after him, were fully convinced that the basic human problem was not political, economic, or social but theological," and they "sought to explicate the gospel in preaching ,teaching, and pastoral care." When Luther nailed his list of theses on the church door, I think the key one was #62, "The true treasure of the Church is the sacrosanct Gospel of the glory and grace of God."
As the church begins to adapt to the change in its relationship to society, we put our trust in organizational techniques or liturgical rennovations. While these may be necessary, they cannot equip the church for its life and mission over the long term. Also, pietistic sentiments are no substitute for what the church needs now. Only a theological orientation sustained by the church's concentration on the meaning and contemporary implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ will, over the long term, make the church strong internally and influential in society.
As Leith said in From Generation to Generation (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), "The great task of the church is to preach and to teach the faith in a secular and pluralistic society, to hand it on in the Christian community. If the church does not do this, no one else in a secular and pluralistic society will do so."