How Reformation challenges mirror today’s church issues
The issues before the church today feel original, but as the biblical book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
The 31st annual Reformation Day exhibition at Pitts Theology Library, at United Methodist Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia, brings 500-year-old documents into conversation with the Four Areas of Focus of The United Methodist Church and other contemporary questions.
“The ideas that are circulating in the church today,” shares Bo Adams, Director of Pitts Theology Library, “were also not foreign to the Reformers of the 16th century. So we can use those older conversations to think about how we might move forward with our contemporary conversations.”
October 31, 2018, commemorates the 501st anniversary of Martin Luther nailing “The 95 Theses” on the door of Wittenberg Castle church.
“Last year was a big anniversary year, 500 years since the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation,” states Armin Siedlecki, curator of this exhibit of the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection, the largest collection in North America of materials related to the Lutheran Reformation. “This year is the first year after the 500th year, so we tried to create an exhibit that would look forward.” The exhibit is called “Looking Back – Looking Forward.”
“We wanted to place these 16th century documents in conversation with modern concerns of the church,” he continues.
Topics include the United Methodist Four Areas of Focus, human sexuality and technology.
“Many of the issues that churches today are talking about were also topics of discussion in the 16th century,” Siedlecki teaches, “although sometimes the discussion was quite different.”
Four Areas of Focus
Engaging in ministry with the poor, a focus of 21st century United Methodism, was also important to the Reformers 500 years ago. A striking image from a 1536 emblem book illustrates the point.
“The image [is] of a child reaching to the sky but being held back by a rock” Siedlecki explains. “The rock is identified as poverty. Poverty is literally holding back the child from striving towards its goals.”
The United Methodist Church continues in ministry with the poor. Our efforts include partnering with those suffering in poverty and working to change systems that perpetuate it. Learn more.
Improving global health was a different conversation before the advent of modern medicine. “However,” Siedlecki teaches, “there was no question that Reformers as well as Catholic theologians thought that the church should be involved in one way or another in care for the sick.”
For example, “On Preparing for Death” was one of Martin Luther’s most popular sermons. “There was a strong pastoral element [of] trying to alleviate the fear of the believer,” Siedlecki shares, “but also trying to encourage the believer to reflect on his or her life in positive ways.”
Developing principled Christian leaders was important to the Reformers. A copy of Exam for Ordination Candidates by Philipp Melanchthon, a textbook used by students preparing to become clergy, illustrates that work. A 16th century inscription inside the front cover, indicates the text was used by a student studying the basics of theology.
Candler School of Theology at Emory University, is one of thirteen United Methodist theological schools that train clergy for service in the church today. Additionally, The United Methodist Church emphasizes the importance of church members’ leadership in convening small groups, teaching Bible studies, coordinating outreach ministries and serving important roles in the administration of the church. Learn more.
Creating new and renewed congregations was a driving force behind the entire Protestant Reformation. Luther and other Reformers’ critiques of the church were intended to help Christians grow in their spiritual journeys. In Debate between a Canon and a Cobbler by Hans Sachs, a layperson and a choirmaster converse about the nature of Christianity.
The United Methodist Church continues to find ways of renewing our churches to be places of Christian community that reach out to their neighbors in love and service. Our local congregations find creative ways to shower the love of Jesus upon their neighbors. Learn more.
Conversations about human sexuality were prevalent in the Protestant Reformation as they are in the church today. Siedlecki shares, “Priests, monks and nuns were required to live celibate lives and the Reformers all rejected this idea. They felt that celibacy was unnatural for human beings and counterproductive.”
A popular sermon by Martin Luther titled, “On Married Life,” asserts that sexuality is not only for procreation, but also physical enjoyment. Reformers like Luther and Andreas Karlstadt left the monastery and married. Luther’s wife was a former nun.
Learn more about the conversation in The United Methodist Church today.
Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press was a technological marvel. Suddenly, the average person could afford books and pamphlets, and flyers could be printed cheaply. Luther and the Reformers embraced this emerging technology.
In today’s vernacular, Luther’s “The 95 Theses” went viral. German translations of the Latin were distributed by several printers and within weeks were known throughout Europe. Luther and the Reformers continued to use the medium to share their ideas both in Latin, the language of the church and academy, and German, the language of the people.
Social media pages and blogs have created a similar environment today. We are able to communicate in ways unimaginable just decades ago.
What’s new is old
When reflecting theologically, United Methodists are reminded to consider the tradition of the church, including the work of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers. “Looking Back – Looking Forward” at Pitts Theology Library at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, offers us insight into today’s issues. The conversations may not be identical, but there is much to learn.
This story was published October 30, 2018.