Reformation - 'the action or process of reforming an institution or practice'

  Wednesday 28th February, 2024
  Author: Phil Brown

During my recent visit to Geneva, Switzerland I was reminded of the lives of great church leaders who challenged and reformed the church.

Many believers today are unaware of the significant impact they made revolutionizing who we are as Christians and how the church looks today. As we engage in their story we are inspired to continue aspects of their historical legacy to see society and the church transformed.
This movement became known as the 16th century Church Reformation. By the 16th century in Europe, the Catholic church that also controlled the politics of the state had become very corrupt - such as selling indulgences to raise money for the Vatican. People were urged to pay high amounts of money for plenary indulgences (forgiving sins). These could get the souls of deceased family and themselves, free from the flames of purgatory.

The Reformers are remembered on a memorial wall in Geneva Switzerland with carvings and inscriptions that included Luther from Germany, Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland. Others included Beze, Farel and John Knox who took the reformation to Scotland. Many of these leaders started new churches in their countries of origin that we know today as Protestant denominations - Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian etc. Each denomination were trying to bring the church back closer to the Bible in areas that they felt had been neglected. During this period it was largely a reformation of theology that included salvation by grace and faith alone in Jesus, every believer being able to serve not just the ordained clergy (though in practice not a lot changed) and the ultimate authority of the Bible rather than church tradition.

The Reformers and their followers were instrumental in putting the Bible into the hands of ordinary believers following the invention of the printing press. These leaders focused believers on the importance of salvation though faith in Jesus, and the scripture as the final authority for belief and practice. They faced strong opposition from the state church and authorities and many paid a huge cost for their stand, including the loss of their lives.

Some groups known by some as the Radical Reformation are less well known. These include the Anabaptist’s who were persecuted heavily by both Catholics and Protestants. They were largely pacifist, apolitical and usually met in small groups in homes, barns and other secluded places. They were largely led by ordinary people, though there were some notable leaders who were soon killed. In many ways these were essentially house church movements.

Ordinary christians have continued to lead reformation in other social reform movements, both in church and society. Some key events include getting rid of slavery in the British empire - especially to the new world colonies which became the USA. It also influenced people like John Rogers, the pilgrim fathers and later the the adoption of freedom of religion and separation of church and state in the newly formed USA. William Booth, formed the Salvation Army to bring the gospel to the poor and address social problems caused by the industrial revolution, it started in England and spread to other countries. The civil rights movement in the USA addressed racial inequalities and was lead by Martin Luther King - a preacher.

House church and missional movements in many ways have a historical links or similarities to these brave people. Many ordinary people today are passionate about expressing faith and following Jesus in simpler ways. There is a yearning to see christian life and connecting with our family and friends more closely reflecting the New Testament. Many amongst us hunger for reformation of church structure which was not fully implanted in the 16th century reformation. There is an ongoing need for reformation of church structure that empowers the "priesthood" of ordinary believers and places the focus on Jesus, disciple making and reforming our society.
The Geneva Reformation wall visit, left me reflecting on how humbly we are part of that ongoing reformation with simple forms of church and helping people to be passionate followers of Jesus. It also challenged me to be more aware of what we believe and practise and to not accept unquestionably what we have inherited from the conventional church in our time.

We need to press on and be bold like these leaders were and to make a stand, be light bearers in our sphere of influence and keep the vision of being true to God and his ways alive in our time and place.