The reformational nature of the Church

Throughout church history, there’s been a reformational element within orthodoxy that seeks to return to the New Testament expression of the church: toward the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and away from institutional religion.

This is because the body of Christ, the “church,” is not an institution, it’s a living organism. 

I often get accused by atheists of committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy whenever I talk about these things, but that’s because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the body of Christ. I also believe some of this pushback is because they don’t like their straw man caricature of Christianity challenged (which is usually pointing to the worst aspects of religious fundamentalism).

We’re not saying that there are no true Christians, we’re simply comparing what’s currently popular with the clear teachings of Christ as our standard. We should also realize that, from Genesis forward, God has had His faithful, even humankind itself, on this trajectory toward Christlikeness, which is what it looks like to be fully human.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the church is “Jesus Christ existing in community.” And, like any living thing, it grows and needs pruning from time to time.

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. (John 15:1-4 NKJV)

So, the very nature of the living church is one that is constantly pruning back to Love, and this pruning usually comes about through the radical reformers. The Protestant Reformation was one such shift in the body of Christ, but even that did not go far enough as John Howard Yoder points out:

“The whole concern of reformation theology was to justify restructuring the organized church without shaking its foundations.”

But, Swiss reformer, Emil Brunner, said that the church is not institutional in nature:

“The New Testament Ecclesia, the fellowship of Jesus Christ, is a pure communion of persons and has nothing to do with the character of an institution about it. It is therefore misleading to identify any single one of the historically developed churches, which are all marked by an institutional character, with the true Christian communion.”

Anglican theologian and pioneer of the evangelical movement, John Stott, said the church is always in need of periodic readjustment:

“The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.”

What was “traditional” was not necessarily bad, but what was cutting-edge or fixed a problem 500 years ago may be the problem today. This is why every generation must take a fresh look at the faith and make it work in their day. This has nothing to do with the core of Christianity. It’s the natural process of a growing organic community. I wrote about this pruning process back in 2014 in a post titled, “Pruning causes Kingdom growth.” And, as I’ve said many times in the past, the Church of Jesus Christ is currently going through such a pruning process in our day.

But during these times of transition there’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, along with shouts of “heresy!” from the status quo. The Anabaptists were radical reformers during the Protestant Reformation, rejecting infant baptism among other things. This picture depicts the burning of a 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist, Anneken Hendriks, who was charged by the Spanish Inquisition with heresy.

So, again, we find ourselves in a time of transition. There are many leaving the institutional church, but many of those people aren’t leaving Christ. Historically speaking, this has happened before, and will happen again. The face of Christianity will change today, and 100 years from now it may need to change again. But “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb.13:8).

Here’s a video interview with best-selling author, Frank Viola (Pagan Christianity), talking about his latest work, Insurgence: Reclaiming The Gospel of the Kingdom. The following is from the description of his book:

“In today’s politically charged era, Christians on the progressive left as well as the conservative right both equate their particular viewpoints with the kingdom of God. Viola challenges and dismantles these perspectives, offering a fresh and revolutionary look at the gospel of the kingdom.”

Viola’s book is just one articulation of the radical reformation taking place today. The interview below with Vince Coakly is worth the listen.

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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6 Responses to The reformational nature of the Church

  1. tildeb says:

    The charge of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy is related directly to avoiding the moral and ethical responsibility of supporting the fundamental tenets of Christianity when these are used to justify harming real people in real life. What you are accused of doing is avoiding any and all association with any versions of actions undertaken in the name of Christianity by people who claim to be real Christians that cause harm while embracing any and all association with any versions of actions undertaken in the name of Christianity by people who claim to be real Christians that produces benefit. The complaint is that you try to have it both ways always. Hence the accusation.

    • Mel Wild says:

      I understand what you’re trying to say, Tildeb, but it’s not quite what my point has been. I totally get and readily admit that a whole lot of harm and even morally evil things have been done by people who are Christians, whether they were real believers or just culturally religious adherents. They are culpable for what they did, regardless. My point is that when someone does these things they are doing so in direct contradiction to Christ’s teachings, not because of them. They are not inspired by Christ to act out in this way, they are acting out of their own issues, and it doesn’t matter if they’re claiming to be Christian, they are not behaving in such a way that would warrant associating that with actually following Christ. Some of this historical disconnect are culturally embedded ideas about Christianity rather than how Jesus Himself defined it (claiming anti-Semitism, racism, slavery, violence, etc. as “Christian”) Actually following Christ is doing what He says, not just saying you’re a Christian. That is a religious perversion of what it means to follow Christ.

      But I do object to historical figures, like Hitler and what he did, associated with following Christ because he clearly was not. It doesn’t matter what he said in his political propaganda statements. As Jesus said, we can judge a tree by the fruit it produces. His was nothing but evil.

  2. I like this way of phrasing.
    “We’re not saying that there are no true Christians, we’re simply comparing what’s currently popular with the clear teachings of Christ as our standard. We should also realize that, from Genesis forward, God has had His faithful, even humankind itself, on this trajectory toward Christlikeness, which is what it looks like to be fully human.” I also like your accuracy of naming theologians like Stott as Anglican. We typically loose those idenifiables when we make an evangelical point, but they are important.

  3. Cool post, Mel. “The church” is alive and well, thriving in the midst of a whole lot of shaking going on, pruning and refining. It doesn’t always “feel” so good, but this is really what needs to happen. “The church” is a living thing, and not stagnant water at all.Wring it out, hang it up, or it’s going to just get all stinky. 🙂

    One of the hardest things for me right now is how entwined everything is with politics. Left, right, or just plain crazy, you can really tell when people begin to try to, “equate their particular viewpoints with the kingdom of God.” A bit funny, because I call that “credentialing.” Like, you have to listen to me, not on the merits of my argument, but because I have a phd. Sometimes God can become like the “phd,” the ultimate form of “credentialing.”

    • Mel Wild says:

      Good points, IB. Especially on the politically entwined thing. Listen people. God is NOT a Republican or a Democrat! He’s not an American either. Get that straight first. 🙂 I heard a speaker several years ago give a rather sharp prophetic word to the American Church. We need to repent of our political idolatry and give up the illusion that politics will save us. And he wasn’t saying that people shouldn’t care about politics or be in politics, but that we shouldn’t think God is automatically on the same page of their party. And this is true, left or right. The problem is that it’s gotten so polarized that the ideologues and demagogues have sucked all the oxygen out of the room in the public forum.

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