Should Christians Repent for the Reformation?

Few remember the realities of the Reformation that Martin Luther sparked 500 years ago, and despite this milestone anniversary most people will probably continue to overlook it. However, for many Christians this is a time to reflect and celebrate what came out of the Reformation period. It began the process of elevating the status of God and lowering the status of man. The Bible was opened for the first time for many people and did not require the interpretation from one person. It sparked a revolution of religion and a reformation of lives. Threatening man’s authority, the Reformation sparked deep divisions curated by loyalty and manifested by activity.
While much of the world’s attention was looking towards the impending inauguration of President Donald Trump, many missed The Guardian’s call to repentance by Christians. To be fair, it was not really their call, but the call of the two bishops they were profiling, but The Guardian aided the promotion of that call through the publication of the story. Furthermore, the article begins with a long list of atrocities, only at the end of the article does it mention the possibility of any good that came out of this period. And in mentioning that possibility, in no way do they go on to list details like they did of the atrocious activities. With certainty, we know that it was a story meant to show religion, specifically Christianity, as a negative thing, but that’s not even the most interesting part of the article.
The heart of the story feature the two most prominent archbishops of the Church of England, (The Archbishops of York and Canterbury) and their call on Christians to repent for the reformation, specifically for the divisions, persecutions, and death. Their statement laments the destruction of the unity of the church. However, reading the article causes us to question, are the archbishops right in their call for repentance?
Christian Command
The determination of whether or not their call is valid requires that we understand several aspects of what is being presented to us. According to the bishops this call comes forth because of “the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love.” To be honest, I am uncertain as to which command they are referring to. We do understand two points from Scripture. First, the Lord Jesus Christ has indeed called upon us to love God and love others (Matthew 22:34-40). This call has become the most oft repeated indictment against Christians for supposedly failing to live it out. We also know that Scripture does call for unity and harmony (i.e. Romans 15:6; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 2:2; 1 Peter 3:8).
There are many references to unity, and taking the time to expound upon them is not feasible here. However, there are some general aspects that we must understand here. Indeed, the Bible does call for unity, however these passages are directed towards unity between believers. These statements however are not directly from Christ and in fact, a look at Christ’s example will show that he was very divisive against the ‘established religious officials.’ For those who claimed to proclaim the truth but stood in stark contrast to it, Christ was confrontational. Think about the episode with the money changers. In no way is this a call then for us to intentionally cause division, to incite riotous attitudes, or to be intentionally confrontational. The point is simply this: we are called to proclaim the Word of God, which by itself will confront and divide. In many ways we need to be cognizant in how we present this truth, because doing so wrongly can decimate the testimony of Jesus Christ and His followers. But how we present it does not impact the truth of it. We don’t change the message and should expect that a negative response.
Christian Church
Our understanding of Christ’s command brings forth another aspect that we must understand. If there is a call for unity between believers, or within the context of the church, who makes up the church? Despite the many theories of church function and vision that are out there, the New Testament presents the church as existing for believers. Even the very word for church, ekklesia, refers to ‘those who are called out.’ The church then consists of “the community of those who have been called out by God from their slavery to sin through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 5:10)” (1). The church then is comprised of true believers, often referred to as Christians.
Unfortunately Christian has become a general term to simply label a person. However, the significance of the title Christian is profound. Literally the word means “little Christ” which conveys that those who claim to be a Christian have conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Scripture teaches us though, no man can do this apart from the work of God (Romans 3:23, 5:8, 6:23). They must be justified, which is not simply a matter of avoiding hell or gaining entrance into heaven, despite the author’s claim. To be justified by God refers to being restored to a state of righteousness by God which only happens by the reception of the gospel of God: Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (interestingly enough this comprises three of the five solas which came forth out of the Reformation.
Christian Contrition
Finally, the call by the archbishops is one of repentance, therefore we must clearly understand what repentance is. Repentance is a confession of sin and turning from it. True understanding of the word conveys the notion of saying the same thing about our sin that God would say about it. Thus it means adopting God’s attitude of hatred towards sin. That deep hatred develops a deep sorrow over sin and compels one to confession of his or her own sin and a recognition of the need for a savior. The result? An orientation towards God and away from the sin.
Christian Counteraction
As we dissect the statement made by the Archbishops of York and Centerbury, it seems that they are calling for Christians to repent for the divisions of the Reformation and the continuation of those divisions through today because it is a violation of the command to love and unity. However, we must disagree with their call to repentance on the following grounds:
  • To issue a call is extremely one-sided because it fails to take into account church history. The supposed divisions referenced commenced alongside the beginning of the church because after all, truth is divisive. Think of John’s defense of truth against Gnosticism or Athanasius’ defense of Jesus Christ, or look at the split of the Catholic church around A.D. 1000. Must we then apologize for all such divisions since the beginning of the church’s creation?
  • Repentance refers to the confession of one’s own sins. We cannot repent for the sins of others (although some clearly say that we should/can upon their death) and thus it is inconceivable that we could repent for the Reformation and the ‘divisions perpetuated by it.’
  • The men are suggesting that proclaiming and standing for truth is contrary to the action of love, however, we see that it is actually love that motivates such an action because it demonstrates care for one’s soul.
  • The men are accusing Christians of not acting in an attitude of unity, however, the references to unity are in the context of the fellow believers. As we have seen, unless one is saved by the gospel of God, they do not fall into that context and therefore, Christians have not violated this claim either (at least according to the statement of the archbishops).
Not only do I think these archbishops are wrong in their call, but this is a clear indication of how important theology is. The call for repentance here is predicated upon a wrong theology thus making their call for repentance wrong.
Certainly many of us today are guilty of wrongly perpetuating division and for that we should repent. Certainly we have sometimes wrongly handled situations, wrongly handled God’s word, and wrongly handled God’s people and in those instances we again should repent. However, from what I can understand of the statement from Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu, they are calling for the repentance of something distinctive that is not doctrinally feasible.
The reality is this: until their is unity in the gospel, there is never really unity. Therefore, we continue to preach the entirety of the gospel.
To read The Guardian article referenced here, click the following link: C of E archbishops call on Christians to repent for reformation split.
(1) John MacArthur & Richard Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), Location 19985.
Photo “Martin Luther, Painted Portrait” courtesy of user Thierry Ehrmann and Flickr.