There’s No Reforming a Protestant Church

This last week I was talking with a friend who now attends my non-denominational church.  We have a lot in common because we are both pastor’s kids from the same denomination.  He “out-lived” my denominational experience by attending one of its’ private universities and was a youth pastor for a couple of years.  He recently finished seminary and has plans on becoming a pastor again someday.  I asked him if he still considered himself a part of that denomination.

He said “no” and told me a little bit about his reasons.  He went on to say that for awhile he thought of staying on the inside and trying to reform it, but ultimately decided that reform would be too difficult to achieve.

Our conversation moved on to other things, but it occurred to me that reformation rarely happens in Protestant churches.  It doesn’t happen because there are so many other choices. When someone becomes disaffected they just leave and find something that suits them better.  Even leaving and forming an entirely new organization is much easier than reformation.

As I teased out the idea it occurred to me that Christian churches as a whole are rarely reformed.  Ironically most of Luther’s reforms for the Catholic church were achieved.  But only after he and many others left and set up sizable competition.   I haven’t done any research on it, but other than that and the Worldwide Church of God, I can not think of a denomination that was changed by reformers.  There are plenty of examples of denominations moving from point A to point B, but this is usually the work of a long slide rather than a sudden reformation force. Those changes typically occur over a lifetime rather than a decade (or less).

I’m not even sure that reformation has very much success in any religion much less Protestantism. So to all you reformers out there. . . give up. 🙂

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11 thoughts on “There’s No Reforming a Protestant Church

  1. Well, I think since there are huge differences between the various Protestant churches, there is a glimmer of hope for reform-minded people – whilst it may be impossible to reform the whole system, initiating a reformation process in your community might be the way to go.

  2. Tim, it’s probably worth noting that there have been problems with the reformations in the Worldwide Church of God. See the comments made by members in the thread at Jessica’s blog.

    I agree that it’s sad that Protestant denominations never seem to reform themselves, however I have read arguments from sociologists saying that the splintering effect of Protestant Christianity is one of the main reasons that Pentecostalism has managed to grow from a couple hundred to 500 million (a quarter of the world’s total Christian population) in less than 150 years. Those “divisions” among us that seem to bother Latter-day Saints so much are actually one of our most powerful assets.

    I think that the reason denominations seldom reform is that often the top denominational leadership is held by stodgy octogenarians who grew up in the denomination and have been there for so long precisely because they like the way the denomination is run. I’m not saying the elderly can’t listen to the Spirit and change their ways, but let’s face it, it’s usually the young, upstart preachers we see with the fiery passion and conviction that change is needed. Luther himself was only 34 when he nailed the 95 theses to the door at the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

    Chris Carroll Smith made an on-point comment on this topic at Andrew’s blog a while ago:

    “It’s a function of the fact that self-appointed young lay leaders with a sense of divine calling are much better motivated [at carrying off revitalization movements] than old fogies who got ordained by an octogenarian relative.”

    And for the record, yes, I think some of these same problems account for why Mormonism’s growth numbers are in trouble.

  3. Tim — I’ve been trying to come up with a counterexample to prove you wrong, but I haven’t had much luck. It’s easy to point to minor reforms of all sorts (the 1978 priesthood revelation is an example in the LDS church) and reforms that have taken hold as an evolutionary process (e.g., the acceptance of gay clergy in some mainline denominations, a reform, or misreform depending on your point of view, that had its roots decades ago in a gradual shift over the understanding of scripture), often because of outside forces (such as an end to the de facto segregation in many Protestant denominations).

    One of the few examples of major reform that comes to mind is some major changes, such as acceptance of women in the priesthood, in the Community of Christ. But that reform came about only with division and a major loss of membership. Actually, the same can be said of the liberalizing changes in the mainline denominations; although they have been gradual, they, too, have been accompanied by division and membership loss.

    It isn’t hard to see changes in denominations over time. But seldom, it seems, do those changes come about because of a deliberate internal reform effort.

  4. I thought of another one. The Seventh-Day Adventist reformed a number of their heretical beliefs after prophecies of the second coming were unfulfilled. The Church of Christ, International also made some reforms at the turn of the century to remove some authoritarian practices but those changes were not necessarily fully embraced.

  5. I think since it is in the nature of mankind to rebel against God and the Truth, and to place the focus on him/herself. The Church (all Christian churches), with the help of the Holy Spirit, is constantly reforming itself to keep Christ at the center.

  6. When I read this post I thought of the great Christian revivals such as the Methodist revival with the Wesleys and Whitefield, the Great Awakenings, and the Welsh revival. According to Wikipedia the First Great Awakening did appear to include denominational reform:

    “It brought Christianity to the slaves and was an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between the old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and doctrine and the new revivalists. It had a major impact in reshaping the Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed denominations, and strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist denominations. It had little impact on Anglicans and Quakers. Unlike the Second Great Awakening that began about 1800 and which reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. It changed their rituals, their piety, and their self awareness.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_revival

  7. good quote Jessica. but I think most revivals are centered around new movements or they break off from existing denominations.

  8. Tim mentioned and distinguished them in the OP:

    As I teased out the idea it occurred to me that Christian churches as a whole are rarely reformed. Ironically most of Luther’s reforms for the Catholic church were achieved. But only after he and many others left and set up sizable competition. I haven’t done any research on it, but other than that and the Worldwide Church of God, I can not think of a denomination that was changed by reformers. There are plenty of examples of denominations moving from point A to point B, but this is usually the work of a long slide rather than a sudden reformation force. Those changes typically occur over a lifetime rather than a decade (or less).</blockquote

  9. Protestant denominations in the current day & age seem to be “infected” with various -Isms (as was true in the Catholic Church in Luther’s time). Many follow the dictates & principles of post-modernism, secular humanism, etc. The consequence of following systems of thought counter to Gods “system” – which there is no current agreement upon theologically – so most ppl opt for believing in the lie of “relativism” even though they dont have much of a real clue about what Relativism is or even that they are following its standards.

    Therefore, the “sicknesses” most denominations suffer from are largely invisible – at least to their own jaundiced eyes. Again, this is why Christ told the Pharisees: First, clean the inside of the cup…first remove the beam in He said “I AM the Way, the Truth, the Life…take up your Cross & follow Me.” He didnt say to follow egotism, post-modernism, relativism, gnosticism, sec humanism, liberalism, extremism, etc. but that is what humans do & then also add fuel to their own fires by refusing to repent or actively turn from their sin. The Church Reformed, Always Reforming cannot do so without examining itself in light of God’s Mind/Truth/Reality/Being via relationship w/Him – and cannot heal if it refuses to repent or break and turn itself completely over to Him.

    Such thoughts are depicted allegorically by the Church being illustrated as the Bride of Christ – meaning, both people in a marriage & all people in every denomination also need to realize they are the Bride and in the Bride position in relation to Christ/God/Holy Spirit – therefore they need to depend on Him – not on self, not upon -isms, not what you think, not what someone else says is Truth but “sola Christus.” via “sola fide”.

    Reformation of any Church is possible – Christs Way is the only Way of course He knows The Way since He created it. All we need to do is turn the spiritual homing beacons on and surrender our will to follow His Will. “Thy Will be done this day…” Seems easy enuf but its supremely difficult for people whose internal spiritual GPS units are busted or not functioning or for those who refuse to even turn theirs on in the first place.

    No homing beacon, no home to return to. They birds stay south & never return. Most ppl sway to the liberalism extreme or the absolutist extreme & act crazy as if there is no balance somewhere in the middle. They claim the “balance/middle” does not exist any more.

    Au Contraire, mes amis!

    The Center always exists & it is God & all things Godly – including the functional & Godly Church in any day & age & epoch.

    Reformation of the Protestant Church is not only possible, but is the Reality that only Remnant Believers believe & achieve – everyday!

    So to surmise in ones own wisdumb that “it isn’t possible” is a bunch of simpering simplistic baloney hooey. The True Bride of Christ IS Reformed and IS Always Reforming – it cannot be otherwise and that is the eternal “finished work” perspective & spiritual reality of the True Church – existent all thru History and into the Future.

    Question Is: Are you a Remnant Believer following God’s Way or are you a believer following some mish-mash of -isms that are not God’s Ways? To which Church (the True Bride, the Counterfeit Bride or the Harlot Bride?) do you truly belong – which one do you want to belong & relate with? Always Functional/Holy, Dysfunctional & Deceived, or Delusional & Evil Bride of Satan? Which one describes your current Church?

    “See Thru His Eyes – THEN You Will Know.”
    “My Sheep Hear Me & Know My Voice. They follow Me & do the Will of the Lord.”

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