Some Thoughts About Reforming the Church

This is in response to a discussion on “A Platform for MCUSA”.
I got to thinking about something there and it got so long, I decided to post it seperately.

I suppose pretty much everyone on this forum is interested in reforming the church. Perhaps we don’t all agree at exactly what this reform looks like, but we agree that it must be done. There is a lot of talk here, but little action. It is time to make some changes.

But what is the most effective agent for change? What is the catalyst that will bring about the necessary reform? Let’s look at some of the reforms of the past and see how it happens:

-We could begin with one small group of reformers and live radical lifestyles. Of course, by the next generation (or possibly even before that) the radical lifestyle will be compromised to such a degree as to be un-radical. And besides, people will just exalt us as “special” or “a saint” and so separate themselves from the change they need to have. (Francis of Assisi)

-We could train the poor the truth of living radically for Jesus and let them preach openly. We just need to hope that they don’t start a war. (John Wycliffe- Lombards; Peter Waldo- Waldensians)

-We could begin a really successful writing campaign that stirs the hearts of angry young men and women until they cause an upheaval in churches around the world. Of course, we had better not get politically involved or else we might find ourselves on one side of a battle. (Martin Luther)

-We could go from congregation to congregation, teaching a single, unified message that becomes an underground movement (John Wesley; missionary movement)

-We could have a top-down decision to make some radical Jesus changes. (Vatican II, Desmond Tutu in South Africa)

-We could take to the streets, to show mass support of our important cause (MLK Jr.)

-We could teach a message that is threatening to the powers that be and have them kill us, which will plant the seed for a future generation to make the changes necessary. (Jesus, Anabaptist reformers)

There are so many ways for it to be done successfully. We don’t want to hang our hopes on just one. Reform is multifaceted and powerful and it can be done in many ways.

However, there is one component that is necessary for reform to happen. We need to have a mass of people–not a majority, mind you, but a good amount–knowing that change is necessary and is ready to make sacrifices for the change. Every reform happens in seasons of discontent and usually oppression.

How can we have reform amidst complacency? How can we have reform amidst people who feel that writing on a blog is their contribution to real change? How can we have reform when cable, DVDs, and preachers keep us entertained and satisfied with our lives? Yes, oppression happens, and our answer to it is to “click here”, and so we feel that we’ve done our part.

There is slavery in the world, the oppression of the poor, AIDS is an epidemic, the U.S. is continuing to stir up war to solve their economic woes–and the only thing we can get stirred up about is medical insurance? Just to give you a hint–the people on the street don’t care about medical insurance. They want a safe place to sleep where they won’t be bothered by the police. The people in Darfur aren’t concerned about medical insurance so much as having their family members survive. And Jesus himself is less concerned about medical insurance as he is about equity between the wealthy and the poor–which the Mennonite church seems to have forgotten about. As well as the Methodists, the Waldensians, the Unitarians and whoever else.

There’s plenty to reform. But it won’t happen until we FEEL the anger. God Himself is yelling at the world leaders, saying, “How long will you judge unjustly And show partiality to the wicked? Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked….You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High. Nevertheless you will die like men And fall like any one of the princes.” And the psalmists reply is:”Arise, O God, judge the earth!”

But we, the wealthy of the world are too caught up in our economic slowdown and the latest events on American Idol to feel the anger of God. We Mennonites are so fearful of experiencing that anger, of facing conflict, that we would rather take medication or slave-harvested chocolate to calm us down instead of changing the world as it should be changed.

This is why reform won’t happen. Not because of a wrong method. But because we lack empathy for the poor. And, as much work as I do for the poor, I have to admit that I am part of the problem myself. I need to be more radical. And I need to join more radical people, filled with the anger of God and ready to act, in order to make the change happen.

Comments (11)

  1. Amy

    I am a little amused that you put the Anabaptists in the same category with Jesus, as though Anabaptists are the only who have died for the faith, and are presumably most Christ-like. ;P

    But that aside, there is much worth reflecting on in this post. I know there are individuals who are doing exactly what you talk about, imagine if the whole church would do the same?!

  2. SteveK (Post author)

    I can see why that would be amusing. I suppose it indicates my theological bias. But I would say that the martyrs of the 3rd and 4th centuries are in the same category. And, of course, I wouldn’t put any anabaptists today in that category, although the Christian Peacemakers Teams come close (they aren’t sacrificing themselves for that reform, but for their “enemies”– an equally noble, but different subject).

    No, few want to live the lives of martyrdom anymore, which is what Jesus was literally talking about when he said “Take up my cross and follow me”

    Now that comment is going to draw some attention, I bet.

  3. jc

    I find this very interesting, but it seems a bit vague to me. What, exactly, would being more radical look like? And how will it contribute to making the change happen.

    I’m plenty angry and have been outraged for years, but that in and of itself doesn’t seem to change much except my own personal blood pressure.

  4. vera

    A nice list, Steve! Much to think about.

    My first question is… which church do you mean? MCUSA or the Anabaptist Way (wherever its pilgrims may be found)?

    My second question is… is MCUSA (the organization) part of the Kingdom of God or part of Babylon?

    I have this fantasy. Grebel and buddies are sitting around, wondering about a good name for their group. How about Brethren Church SWITZERLAND?, someone suggests. Oooh, wait, someone else jumps in. Listen to this: Brethren Church HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE! Quite a powerful ring to it, eh?

    As if. ;-)

    Regarding Anabaptist Way, I don’t see it needing reform. All it needs for each new generation, each new pilgrim, to restoke the fire, make it blaze!

    And yes, I do join in asking, what radical changes do you want?

  5. vera

    Modern Anabaptists, this rant is for you.

    Recently, I read that in MCUSA some kids get baptized at 14. And the more I think about it the angrier I get. The early believers died horrible deaths so that they could baptize in adulthood, in order to create a committed community. But their descendants just, oh well, tossed it by the wayside. Who the heck made such decisions? Why did people tolerate it? Did they just say to themselves, oh, those early zealots, they are just an embarrassment to us progressive people. Adult baptism no longer matters in the modern world. SAY WHAT?! It’s like trampling those early martyrs in the dust. If anything mattered to them, that did. And they followed Christ’s example. If you throw THIS overboard as dead weight, why should ANYTHING matter?

    This is so painful to me. I have been thinking that I have discovered in the Anabaptist way a group of kindred humans who actually followed the Christian path with honesty and dedication, LIVING rather than drowning in theological disputations or other nonsense. Instead, I see a large group of people who — in my understanding — have no right to call themselves Anabaptists. If you just want to go to church on Sundays to feel good about yourself, if you want to be a lukewarm do-gooder serving in the soup kitchens of Babylon, why pick this church? Inertia?

    You scorn and ridicule the Old Orders who in fact are still living the way. They may be wrong about some of what they do, and their leadership may be too heavy handed sometimes. They may dwell on details that make little sense to the rational people of today. But they have one big thing going for them. They LIVE what they believe. They still walk the path blazed by their Anabaptist forebears, and walk it with great dedication. You have instead placed your bet on modernity, and guess what? Modernity has turned out to be a cruel joke. The world it created is cracking at the seams. Where the heck are you headed? Have you looked about you lately?!

  6. TimN


    I agree with you completely that Mennonites could do well to learn more from the early Anabaptists. I just recently finished Marpeck: A Life of Dissent and Conformity and I hope to post a review here soon. It gives a fascinating insight into the first 50 years of Anabaptism in Europe. I learned a lot about what the Anabaptist way was from this book.

    Too often, Mennonites view the early Anabaptists as a quaint historical figures rather then a group that has relevance to our lives today.

    I’d be interested to hear more about what specifically you’ve drawn from your study of the early Anabaptists that you think Mennonites today could learn from. You’ve outlined your views that the age of baptism is too young. What else do you see in the early Anabaptists that we could learn from?

  7. vera

    There is little I don’t like. Here are some of my favorites:

    * their “just do it” attitude; once they understood about baptism of adults and a community of committed believers, already having understood “priesthood of all believers” — they said, let’s do it, this evening, now!
    * the Bible has to be interpreted in community, and the understanding tested by the measure of Christ (way cool!)
    * taking seriously the separation from powers that be in the world; the Catholics married power in the 4th century, the Protestants (save for a few flutters) remained married to it, but the Anabaptist rebels saw it for what it is, and firmly said no; this is why Anabaptism still has relevance IMHO
    * their understanding that salvation is a gift of God, but that if it’s not lived, the gift has not yet been received (by their fruits ye shall know them)
    * baptism ought to be the recognition of one’s rebirth, after the fruits become apparent
    * practice is far more important that abstract theology
    * the focus not on building institutions, but on building community

    And you?

  8. SteveK (Post author)

    Vera and jc both asked me what ideas I had about being more radical with the anger God gives us. And so I, in typical fashion, wrote another post and was going to post it seperately again, and I decided that a. My long writing is just becoming oppressive and b. I don’t even know if what I wrote answered the question proposes. So, look, if you want to see my answer, such as it is, then go here:

    That way YAR can rest for a moment from my rantings.
    Steve K

  9. TimN

    Vera, thanks for your list of Anabaptist inspiration. I’m sorry I haven’t responded to you “And you?” yet. I fully intend to do so when I get my review of the Marpeck book written.

    In short, I agree with most of your points, although our interpretation on some of the details of what those points mean for us today might be a bit different. More later.

  10. vera

    Looking forward to it, Tim.

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