Thursday, October 20, 2011

Semper Reformanda

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about continuing reform of the Church:

Q:  Is Christian teaching something that is always developing and evolving or must it remain the same from age to age?

The most direct answer to this question is that Christian doctrine cannot and must not change.  Since God does not change (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17, etc.), the truth which He has established and His will for humanity are also without change. 

This is not to say that new generations of Christians do not face challenges unfamiliar to those who have gone before them, or that the Bible is not a valid guide in such matters.  Even though the truth can never change, it may be applied in new ways in response to new ethical questions. 

For example, topics like genetic engineering, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research are brand new issues for Christians today that were not faced by former generations, but the Scripture still informs Christian responses and actions as they address new questions.  While Christian doctrine never changes, it is constantly applied to new circumstances and ethical questions.

Likewise, the language and illustrations which Christians use adapts over time in order to best communicate the message of Jesus in present circumstances.  For example, the Apostles make use of a wide variety of language to describe the work accomplished by Jesus.  While that truth is singular, the Church has emphasized some of these descriptions more in some periods of history, and others in another period of history because it finds a greater resonance with the people of that culture. 

So, while the truth about Jesus remains the same from generation to generation, the Church may draw more or less from the various portions of Scripture to proclaim this truth in different generations, and it may apply this same truth to new questions while remaining in harmony with what has been taught before.

At the same time, we can look back at history and see where Christian teaching has gone astray and was in need of correction.  The events of the Reformation nearly 500 years ago are an example of this.  The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church had departed from truth, and men like Martin Luther and John Calvin called church leaders to correct these abuses while teaching the public the truth which had been obscured.

An important thing to note about this Reformation, though, is that it did not seek to teach anything new, but rather to return the Church to the truth that it had left behind.  This is the case with all valid reformations in the Church. 

It has been said that “The Church is always reforming” or “The Church is always in need of reformation.”  While this is true, it has often been misunderstood.  This saying does not mean that Christian doctrine develops and evolves over time, but rather that because the people and leaders of the Church are sinners, someone is constantly trying to adapt truth to match their opinion rather than conforming their opinion to the truth. 

As a result, reformers are constantly arising to call the Church back to what is true.  Today it is often being said that “God is doing a new thing,” or “The Spirit is moving us in a new direction,” or even “God is still speaking,” but these slogans are not examples of true reform if they contradict or abandon established truth.

Even the definition of the word “reform” itself indicates going back or returning what has gone before, and not progress toward something new, and so it is that Reformation is the continual calling of the Church to repent of its doctrinal innovations and return to the truth. 

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