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500 Candles

There’s a big birthday party on the horizon this month, and we are all invited. Mark your calendar and pick out your party outfit, because Sunday, October 31, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Five hundred years ago (October 31, 1517) a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings about several church doctrines, including grace, salvation, the sacraments, selling indulgences, the use of Latin in worship, and more.

Luther didn’t intend to start a new denomination. He simply wanted to reform his own. Nevertheless, the differences between Luther and his superiors were irreconcilable, and a new brand of Christianity—Lutheranism—was born as a result.

Schism didn’t stop with Luther. This breach launched a 400-year cavalcade of schisms. Early splits resulted from disputes over the sacraments. Later splits resulted from differences over church leadership and organizational structure.

Disputes about language have persisted: Latin or the vernacular, the Kings English or modern English, inclusive language or patriarchal language, and monolingual, bilingual or multilingual liturgies.

Today, the beefs are about ordination continue too. Can only celibate men serve as priests? Or can clergy marry? Can women, lesbians, gay men, and/or transgender persons serve?

Survey even one congregation today and you’ll uncover even more differences over the definition of good church music, whether and how much AV equipment to use in worship, and what type of seating to provide for congregants. 

Given all these differences, it’s no wonder that schisms continued for 400 years after Luther pounded his paper on the chapel door.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that a denomination—the United Church of Christ—and an ecumenical group—the World Council of Churches—were born as a result of agreements rather than disagreements.  

The history of Christianity hasn’t always been pretty. Much blood has been shed and many international boundaries have been altered as a result of church disputes. Perhaps the most important lesson Christians could learn from the past 500 years is that more progress is made—and the world is offered a better example of the Christian life—when we focus on our agreements rather than our disagreements.

I recommend we lean into this approach for the next 500. If we do, I trust that God will be glorified and the Church and the planet will not only survive, but thrive.

Pastor Arlene