While we can celebrate half a millennium of existence as Anabaptists, it is sobering to think that we are also commemorating what we would now call a church split. We Anabaptists typically look fondly on the courage of the Reformers, but how should our understanding of Christian unity influence our perspective of the Reformation?
I was talking recently with another EMC pastor about the nature of unity. At first we talked about the damage that is done in churches when people sew seeds of discord and disunity. One comment made was that, “Disunity is always evil!” After those words were spoken, we began to question: Is disunity always evil?
As we continued to discuss this, the first example that came to mind was Babel, where God, in fact, caused a fracture in the unity of the people, spoiling their plans. It seemed to us that God’s ways involve uniting good and fracturing the power of evil. On the other hand, the path of darkness unifies evil and fractures the good.
We often talk about unity as an end unto itself, yet it seems that unity is only good insofar as the object of that unity is good. To be united in rebellion against God surely is not good, as happened at Babel. To be united in corruption, greed, and a hunger for power surely isn’t good, as was happening in the Church leading up to the Reformation.
So what is it that should unite us as Christians? All those around the world who are disciples of Jesus, regardless of denominational affiliation, live in this strange reality: while we may do our best to distance ourselves from certain types of other believers, we are still somehow united with them as part of the Body of Christ. Thus the most profound thing that unites us is not a “thing” at all, but rather a “who.” It is Jesus that unites us, the head over his body.
So what do we make of the Reformation? There are several observations I think are important. First, there were problems in the Church leading up to the Reformation that Christians did and should stand against. Corruption, greed, and false teaching are not things for Christians to be united in. Second, the Reformers did sincerely try to reform the existing Church, as they were also aware of the importance of unity.
Third, while the Reformation did do a great deal of good, it also led to countless other church splits, many of them not worth the disunity and scandal that they caused. And fourth, while there is most definitely a kind of unity that was broken by the Reformation, that brokenness does not negate the mysterious way that we are still bound together with other believers through Jesus.
As we reflect on the Reformation, whether we commemorate it as the death of an era for the Church or celebrate it as the birth of new streams of faith, it is helpful for all believers to remember that we are ultimately united not through a statement or philosophy, but through the very person of Jesus. We are part of the same body. May we learn to better act like it!