The Reformation of a Sectarian Church

//The Reformation of a Sectarian Church

The Reformation of a Sectarian Church

John Calvin

John Calvin

In 1544 John Calvin wrote a letter to the Emperor Charles V to be presented at the Imperial Diet at Spires. In that letter he defended the work of Luther and the Reformation and identified a number of corruptions that necessitated reform “without delay.” This was a call for reform in both “doctrine and the Church.”

For Calvin it was not only the doctrines taught in Scripture that he cared about but also the government of the church. Rome had become “a species of foul and insufferable tyranny” led by one man, the pope, and located in one place, Rome. It was this centralisation of the “vaunted power of the Church” that Calvin said was “leading men like sheep to the slaughter.” The apostolic commission to take Christ freely to the nations was replaced by a “tyrant

[who] ever so monstrously abused the patience of his subjects as to insist that everything he proclaimed should be received as a message from heaven.” The gospel had lost its simplicity and the worship of God its universal application. The church was only recognised as it appeared in the external form prescribed by the leadership at Rome. Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church had ceased to be catholic.

Gene Osterhaven wrote:

The Reformation was needed and continues to be needed because of the lack of catholicity in the church. The Reformers’ work was necessary because the church had become too “Roman” in some areas, and too “Greek” in others. The church was no longer “catholic,” or universal, in its breadth, outlook, and teachings, but had become provincial and errant. The Reformers sought to restore it to true catholicity. (The Spirit of the Reformed Tradition, Eerdmans, 1971)

In his reform of the church Calvin was careful to retain the word Catholic and he was known as “the most catholic of the Fathers of the Church in the Reformation era.” The entire fourth book of his Institutes is a treatment “Of the Holy Catholic Church.” With the pure ministry of the Word and the true celebration of the sacraments Calvin concluded that “we may safely recognise a church in every society.”

For Calvin, Reformation meant more than theological exactness and purity of worship. To be truly “separated unto the gospel” Calvin and the Reformers realised that they had to step outside the box of cultural and sectarian traditions if the church was going to be recognised “in every society.”

This is an important little phrase—“in every society”—and I have to wonder if we have followed Calvin’s model for the New Testament church or have we returned to the provincialism condemned by our Reformed forebears. We speak today of churches from a particular country or culture—“black,” “Hispanic,” “Dutch,” etc., and we speak of denominations more in terms of little ecclesiastical subcultures. We get comfortable within our own cultural and sectarian mould and often make that the standard for all Christendom. The spirit of the Reformers was the spirit of catholicity, and the spirit of catholicity is the spirit of moderation and accommodation.

I recognise that today’s church is more complex than the church in 1544 and I am not saying we need to abandon denominationalism—that is a subject for another day. What we do need at the very least, however, is to consider the church outside of our own cultural traditions and personal inclinations. We need to hold the truth resolutely but with a love that will recognise, respect, and rejoice in the catholicity of the church. This is what Christ prayed for in John 17:23.


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  1. ilyston October 23, 2013 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on The Protestant Pulpit.

    • Aaron Dunlop October 24, 2013 at 12:55 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the reblog ilyston.

      • ilyston October 24, 2013 at 1:12 pm - Reply

        Aaron, it is my pleasure. Great to see your continual ministry for the Lord. May He use you mightily. One day I hope to come out to your neck of the woods and visit.

        Tim Williams

        • Aaron Dunlop October 24, 2013 at 1:42 pm - Reply

          Is this the Tim Williams I know…? You have so many aliases I couldn’t identify you. Come out our way anytime…and welcome.

          • ilyston October 24, 2013 at 2:00 pm

            LOL. I guess I do have too many aliases. Even winter would be nicer there than here, though you are even further north than we are in Chicago.

  2. waltsamp October 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    The Reformers lived at a time when one church had claimed in Europe too much authority. We live in a situation where no church has any significant authority. I think we need a reformation of American Christianity just as did the Europeans of the sixteenth century. Only we need a different one, one that places Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God at the center rather than creating new churches and theological systems. We have more than enough of those already.

    • Aaron Dunlop October 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the comment waltsamp. I think the words of Christ may be as well applied to the church as to the individual—”seek first the Kingdom of God.” We need to be careful not to suffocate the gospel in our particular form of Christianity—it is a very subtle danger like all of Satan’s devices.

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