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. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 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.