Correcting the Correction
Reformation Day 2005 (October 31)

For Sunday October 30, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Joshua 3:7–17 or Micah 3:5–12
           Psalm 107:1–7, 33–37 or Psalm 43
           1 Thessalonians 2:9–13
           Matthew 23:1–12

Martin Luther (1483-1546).
Martin Luther (1483-1546).

           When I was in high school thirty years ago coach Riddle hosted a weekly Bible study in his upstairs apartment across the street from our football field where "Friday night lights" gathered most people in our small town. I can't remember what we read in that Bible study, but I do remember that my friend Philip attended only about half the time because the other half of the time he was smoking dope in a small group of a different sort. When someone complained that Philip was a hypocrite a buddy suggested that it was better that he attended the Bible study and doping sessions rather than only his doping sessions.

           The readings from the prophet Micah and the evangelist Matthew for this week focus a glaring spotlight on religious hypocrisy, and the picture is not pretty. Rather, it is a picture of religion as manipulation, exploitation, authoritarian hierarchy, and abuse. Micah compares the religious leaders of his day to cannibals who devoured their flock. They distorted justice and preached for pecuniary motives. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus warned his listeners about clerics who "do not practice what they preach," who parade their religion to gain praise from people, and who covet honor and obsequious flattery. Self-indulgence, the absence of even the slightest degree of self-awareness, unenlightened zeal, obsession with trivial and peripheral concerns, pre-occupation with external appearances rather than genuine inward transformation, and sanctimonious pronouncements—these trademarks of religious hypocrisy provoked Jesus's ire: "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" (Matthew 23:33).

A 1552 copy of Luther's 95 Theses.
A 1552 copy of Luther's 95 Theses.
(Click image for a larger view.)

           Many Christians around the world will celebrate October 31 as Reformation Day, for it was on this day in 1517 that Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the castle church in Wittenberg and so instigated what we now call the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was many different and complex things, and every sector of European society was radically altered—culture, politics, economics, and governments, but at its root the Reformation was a protest about clerical corruption and church hypocrisy that had festered for more than a millennium. People had had enough of religious authoritarianism, exploitation and abuse. Purification of the church and restoration to its original integrity became the order of the day.

           The Reformation did much good, but barely 100 years after Luther put down his hammer what many Christians had hailed as a purification of hypocrisy was lamented by others as a recrudescence of compromise. Consider three examples.

           Violent forces were unleashed that perhaps nobody could have predicted or prevented. Estimates vary and are a matter of controversy, but the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) plunged central Europe into a downward spiral of disease, famine and war that brought early death to at least 15-20 percent of the population. Even when they battled to bloody exhaustion, Catholics and Protestants could not sit at the same table: "Such was the bitterness that when the combatants had fought themselves to a standstill, they could not bring themselves to negotiate together. Catholics and Protestants had to meet imperial representatives in two different Westphalian cities some thirty miles apart to create the Peace of Westphalia, which finally brought an official end to the carnage on October 24, 1648."1 For some people the Reformation is a reminder of savage days when Christians slaughtered each other over arcane theological doctrines.

Woodcarving by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) of the church at Wittenberg.
Woodcarving by Lucas Cranach the Elder
(1472-1553) of the church at Wittenberg

           Others decry the fragmentation of the faithful. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians had split in 1054, but then Luther ruptured western christendom and what remained of church unity even further. Sixteenth-century Catholics knew that encouraging individual believers to read the Bible for themselves, in their own vernacular, would undermine the authority of their hierarchy, which is why the Roman Index of 1596 prohibited translations of the Bible into everyday vernacular, and publically burned such Bibles as they could find. Catholics also rightly predicted that sectarian zeal devoted to privatistic Bible-reading would fragment the church into scattered shards. Today we have over 20,000 Protestant "denominations," every one of which justifies its existence to some degree by claiming that it alone "has the magic," or at least more of the magic in a purer form than less informed Christians.


John Calvin (1509-1564)
John Calvin (1509-1564).

           In addition to slaughtering each other and shredding the garment of church unity, before too long Protestants themselves had settled into their own ossified institutions that reflected and conformed to culture more than they transformed it. Perhaps no one has been as perceptive, as acerbic, and as brilliant in observing and denouncing "cultural Christianity" than Kierkegaard. His parodies exposed a Danish Lutheranism that had become "indistinguishable from the spiritlessly polite worldview of the bourgeoisie."2 About three years before he died Kierkegaard stopped attending church and taking communion.

           However brilliant his exposes, Kierkegaard's scorched earth strategy makes me nervous. Protests about religious hypocrisy always risk self-incrimination, not to mention sounding unctuous, harsh, and sanctimonious. Who among us can expose hypocrisy and fully rise above it in their own life? The longing for a radical revolution to purify the church of all its problems is understandable and commendable, but it founders on the rocks of naive idealism and the stubborn realities of human fallibility. In the early summer of 1987 I interviewed the French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) at his home in Bordeaux, and as we departed we stood at the end of his driveway where he confessed that the "greatest misjudgment" of his life was to think that after the end of World War II French political, social and economic institutions could be rebuilt free of all hypocrisy, exploitation, and abuse. That, Ellul admitted, was not to be.

The signing of the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, by Gerard Terborch (1617-1681).
The signing of the Peace of Westphalia, 1648,
by Gerard Terborch (1617-1681).

           As a Protestant I am thankful for the Reformation that we celebrate at this time of year. But I am also painfully aware of the carnage, the fragmentation, and the institutionalization of the Gospel that followed in its wake. Aware of my own faults and failures, the slow pace of my progress as a believer, and of how far short I fall of the Gospel ideal, I'm uneasy about obsessing about the hypocrisy of the church or of other Christians. Instead, my mind returns to an important dictum that emerged among Reformed communities: ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda, "the church reformed, but always needing to be reformed." The Baptist theologian A.J. Conyers called this "correcting the correction." The work of genuine reformation, whether of the institutional church as a whole or of an individual life, is never finished. Nor is the Spirit who fulfills that hope ever deaf to the prayers of those who long for it.

For further reflection:

* What has been your experience of church hypocrisy? Of genuine renewal?
* What relationships do you have with Christians outside of your tradition—Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Methodist, etc?
* Do you understand the Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox ruptures as a necessary correction or as an unfortunate separation?
* Recommended reading: Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, editors, Evangelicals and Catholics Together; Toward a Common Mission (1995), and Your Word is Truth; A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (2002).

[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Viking, 2004), p. 469.
[2] Joakim Garth, Soren Kierkegaard; A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 749.