I agree with theologian Robert McAfee Brown who said: “There has not been a moment in the church's life when it has not stood in need of reformation, redirection, and renewal at the hand of God” (The Spirit of Protestantism, p. 21).
That was true 495 years ago at dawn of what we call the “Protestant Reformation,” and it is true today. On All Hallow's Eve, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a monk and scripture scholar, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany.
Luther didn’t intend to start a revolution in the Roman Catholic Church; he wanted a debate about its condition. To his great surprise, and sometimes consternation, Luther quickly became the controversial leader of a breakaway church.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the spirit of reform had spread like wildfire across Europe. People found fresh courage to make free responses to God apart from the shackles of ossified traditionalism and the burdens of extreme corruption. “Protestantism” was born.
The Reformation recovered the central Christian claim that salvation is a gift of God's free grace which we receive by faith.
It rescued the Bible from human schemes of interpretation so that human beings could hear for themselves the voice of the Living Word, Jesus, in its pages.
It reclaimed the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, restoring to all of God's people their dignity and identity as God's responsible partners in the healing of creation and the spreading of the Good News of Christ.
I don’t have 95 Theses to nail to a wall (or to post on Facebook!), and I don’t have any illusions about being a reformer. But I ask mainstream Christians, especially my tribe, moderate Baptists in the South, to consider this single thesis: We need the arts of both protest and affirmation.
In his memoir, Man of the House, the late Tip O'Neil wrote about his colorful and distinguished career as a Democratic representative from Massachusetts. O'Neil was first elected to the Congress in the same year that Eisenhower was elected president. In that election, the Democrats lost both the White House and their majority in the House of Representatives. When O'Neil attended his first Democratic caucus meeting, he heard minority leader Sam Rayburn say, "We're in the minority now. But we're still going to be helpful and constructive. Remember, any jackass [that’s a donkey!] can kick over a barn door. It takes a carpenter to build one" (p. xiv).
Many Protestants, especially of the Baptist kind, need to learn again the value of protest. We don’t often enough subject the status-quo to careful scrutiny. It doesn’t occur to many of us to ask why the present order of things excludes the voices of the marginalized and oppressed, why it doesn’t make central, as Jesus did, the needs of the vulnerable and poor, and why it makes life harder for people who already struggle to stay out of poverty and despair.
Where the church itself is concerned, we acquiesce all-too-readily to the expectation that we will be unfailingly, merely, and superficially “nice” rather than honestly, tenaciously and lovingly compassionate (a way that requires, at times, saying difficult things about hard issues). We offer and expect what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” rather than reminding each other that the way of Jesus is a lot of things but easy isn’t one of them. Reformation may depend, in our time, on a reclaiming of the capacity and courage to protest the way things are in both the culture and the church.
But, protest isn’t simply for the purpose of “kicking down the barn door.” It is, to make room for new construction—for the fine arts of nurturing and affirming goodness, truth, beauty and grace.
God gives us what we need for such constructive and affirmative work. The church in every generation is built on an old foundation (the solid base of the good news and those traditions which are still vital) which has been cleared of inevitable debris and decay. We build with imaginations fired by the Spirit. We embrace fresh understandings of the gospel, explore and experiment with new methods and means, and engage the risk of pursuing dreams so big that failure is possible. We live adventurously and joyfully, trusting that God delights in partners who trust that God’s will and way are brighter, better, and gladder than the dreary and dull status-quo.