December 3, 2017

Heirs of the Reformation

We aren’t herded into truth.

Bill Knott

If there is a downside to our otherwise praiseworthy celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reform-ation, it’s that they have given unintended cover to many partisans among us for behaviors the Word of God describes as unworthy of those who claim membership in the body of Christ.

In the heart of Protestantism—and thus Seventh-day Adventism—lies a conundrum rarely addressed but increasingly urgent. How do we strenuously critique the unbiblical “doctrines” and practices of institutions the Scriptures term collectively as “Babylon” while simultaneously building a community of faithful, humble believers whoare “kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (Rom. 12:10, NKJV)?1

The reforming zeal that animates a thousand self-styled modern Luthers allows each one to imagine every church potluck serving dairy or sugar as the Diet of Worms, and every congregational board meeting as the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. The language of denunciation abounds, and the very graces Scripture calls essential to a community built on Jesus are termed “weakness,” “compromise,” and “giving in.” Those who know neither their history nor their Bibles cast themselves as heroes who only know how to speak in declaratives: “Here I stand: I can do no other.”

“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17, NKJV). No reform that fails to produce such fruit can rightly be considered either godly or necessary for Christ’s church, however well-intentioned it may seem.

The goal of ongoing reform in the church of Jesus isn’t the perpetual shrinking of a remnant until it finally becomes the church of “me and mine,” but the gathering of a diverse company of faithful disciples who are best known through Jesus’ description: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, NKJV). Unless our commitment to reforming what we teach and how we behave is matched by a commitment to reform the way we treat each other, we will inevitably succumb to the Pharisaism that hounded Jesus all His ministry.

This is no imaginary threat just now. The Web sites, blogs, and social media posts of this Advent movement have increasingly become the bulletin boards of angry saints who overuse the exclamation mark and forget that many a well-written sentence still employs a comma. Spurred on by a vitriolic political culture in which the loudest voice is assumed to win, believers lose the low and mid-range voices better suited to addressing those who also love this truth.

Peaceable words and kindly deeds create the climate in which men and women truly listen, prayerfully reflect, and ultimately make the changes to which the Lord is calling them. We aren’t herded into truth: if we go there at all, it’s only because we have allowed ourselves to be led by those we love and trust.

So let’s hear it for a reformation—needed now—that produces a community of faith well known for its belief in grace and for behaving graciously; for a movement that embraces the forgiveness offered by Jesus, and embracing those who most need our forgiveness; for a rhetoric that invites, persuades, and shares, instead of castigating those who disagree.

In doing this, we show ourselves to be, as Jesus called us, “children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:45, NRSV).2

God of kindness, lead Your people
To the primacy of love;
Give us deep, connected living,
Mirroring Your courts above.
Let our words be full of caring;
Let our hands be full of peace;
May the gentleness of Jesus
In Your church each day increase.

  1. Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.