Until a few weeks ago, the Rev. Gail Sowell was pastor at two Lutheran churches in the small Wisconsin town of Edgar. That was before members of both congregations jumped headfirst into the simmering debate over gay clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
"It was pretty gruesome," Sowell said, recalling shouting matches inside the sanctuary; the mass resignation of one church's council, save one member; even whispers around town that she was a lesbian. "For the record, I'm not," she said.
That article, which highlights the mind-set of, and tensions within, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which is the “liberal” wing of the Lutheran Church, and all too many other mainline churches within the institutional Church, prompts me to reprint an article I wrote a few years ago entitled, A Church For The 21st Century:
“And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mark 3:25)
Particularly in the last several years we have seen the Church increasingly fractured by polarization attendant upon such variables as differences in biblical interpretation, degree of inclusivity allowed
of its members, gender roles in the Church, and mandatory celibacy of Roman Catholic clergy. The relatively simplistic conclusion is that there is a bifurcation of the Church between “liberals” (those
who seek to keep up with changes in society) and “conservatives” (those who strictly adhere to traditional biblical interpretation in regard to a variety of social issues).
Actually, I think the polarization is far more fundamental than that mere distinction! I think the polarization is primarily based on the degree of tenderness of the hearts of those who claim to
comprise the Church. We are to ask such questions as: “Is our biblical interpretation more important than God?” “Does the Bible advocate the exclusion of some people called by God to join
Him at His Table?” “Do many traditional biblical interpretations stand up to biblical scholarship?” “Do many biblical interpretations stand up to God’s call for those who belong to Him and call on His
name to seek justice, love and not judge others?” “Are Christians to stand with the oppressed or with the oppressors?” “Does God seek to exclude women from any phase of ministry to which they
are called?” “Do we take Jesus seriously when He says we make void the Word of God by man made traditions (Matthew 15:3)?”
Currently we are a divided House! Indeed, there are many divisions within this House! We can see such divisions within virtually every mainstream denomination; we can see such divisions in the
plethora of denominations comprising the Church, many of which feel they have a corner on the Truth.
These divisions, this divided House, which seems to be a current liability to the Church and to its members, may actually be God’s design in allowing the Church to reach a critical mass that is
designed by God to create and re-create spiritual sensibilities that existed in the early Church, and that were temporarily reintroduced by the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Indeed, these
divisions may actually be a positive development in the Church and in the lives of many of its members in that it may well usher in a new conception and structure of God’s Church that He
intended from the foundation of the world.
We may well be at the crossroads that ushers in a New Reformation of the Church that is no less healthy than the Reformation in the sixteenth century for which such luminaries as Martin Luther and
John Calvin were the catalysts, and of which God was the Architect. It seems to me that just as the two angels asked the women who went to the empty tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, Jesus Himself asks
each of us, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? “ (Luke 24:5) Many of us have ceased to look for the living and vibrant Christian life of faith in increasingly moribund structures “manned”
by those who extol as virtues hierarchy, patriarchy, selective exclusion, legalistic biblical interpretation, and authoritarianism.
Many quickly forget Jesus’ call for humility, in spite of the fact that He says such things as: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4) “For all
who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Also, we read in the Psalms, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and
contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) Humility and brokenness seem to be in short supply in the current state of the Church and much of its leadership who seem to be much
more concerned with man-made traditions, the politics of exclusion, doctrines, creeds, and dogmas, than with the inculcation of tender hearts that come from the nurturing of the Holy Spirit Who
indwells each person who has yielded him/herself to Christ !
It must be acknowledged that doctrines, dogmas, and creeds certainly have their place, and they were very much needed by the early, fledgling Church, to defend itself from the many heresies with
which it had to contend. We still need a framework, an anchor, to not only defend the Church from heresies, but to help insulate each one of us from “…every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by
their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14) However, we are not to use this framework, this anchor, to define our relationship with God, or use it as the focus of our worship, which is the sin
of idolatry. Rather, we are to worship God by looking to Him and His call on our lives to fulfill the ministries He has ordained for us, and to love other people regardless of how loveable we think they
The New Reformation, like the previous one that occurred in the sixteenth century, is not so much comprised of anything new as it is comprised of recapturing the biblical and Godly mandate to focus
on God as our Object of worship, and not let the false gospel of legalism and perfectionism continue to trump the Gospel of grace that Jesus embodies and which the Apostle Paul so beautifully
elucidated. We are to allow no institution or mere human being falsely espousing doctrinal and prejudicial conditions to come between the grace that God has bestowed on us, and our reception
of this free, unconditional, gift that enables us to live a truly liberated, free, and abundant life!
Martin Luther said he was married to the Book of Galatians, and I can certainly understand why! Hear Paul, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? ...Did you receive the Spirit by doing
the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was
for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by you doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? Just as Abraham ‘believed God,
and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the
gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’ For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.” (Galatians 3:1-9)
The need for a New Reformation can’t be made clearer! We as Christians are to hearken back to the biblical truth that God is a God of grace that we appropriate through our abiding trust, or faith, in
Him, and that faith will yield the outworking by the Holy Spirit Who indwells all those who trust Him to show love, mercy, and compassion to others. There is no room for exclusion, patriarchy,
authoritarianism, man-made tradition, and the false gospel of legalism and perfectionism here!
No! The New Reformation has been, and will continue to be, enacted by those who heed God’s call to be His agents of mercy and grace, unencumbered by fealty to hierarchical and authoritarian structures and those who seek to exalt themselves by adhering to the status quo that frequently handsomely rewards them positionally, psychologically, materially, socially, politically, and cognitively by artificially reinforcing their one dimensional view of our multidimensional world.
Sooner or later, all of God’s children, those called out by God from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), will stop seeking the living among the dead. When any of us make that spiritually necessary leap of faith, we have partaken in the New Reformation designed by God!