As I look at 2000 years of church history one thing I note is that the church has regularly been called back from a place of compromise, apathy and lethargy to a place of greater faithfulness and vibrancy.
The “Desert Fathers” were a group of (mainly) men in the first few centuries of the Christian church who watched as professing Christians began to increasingly compromise with the world around them. At times it was doctrinal compromise, but more often it was moral compromise. Now, for these folk “moral” compromise wasn’t what we in our day tend to think of. It wasn’t that professing Christians were practicing full-on orgies or even the occasional “indiscretion.” It was that too many of them gave in to the greed and affluence of their day. Believing that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God these Desert Fathers abandoned all of their worldly possessions and moved out of that world and into the deserts. Literally. They generally took the clothes on their backs and a tablet on which to write and little else. No razors. No combs. No toothbrushes. No wardrobe. No cell phones. No iPods. No sentimental photo albums. Just themselves. It was a protest against the avarice of so many church people in their day. Yes, they were radicals. But this one thing is for sure: they did not give in to the greed and covetousness of their day and they lived lives that honored Jesus. They were even reluctantly evangelistic. I say reluctantly because many of them didn’t much care for contact with other humans, but they just couldn’t keep the curiosity-seekers from coming out to them asking them about the hope that was in them.
Nearly all of the church’s monastic orders grew out of reform movements. The Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Benedictines, the Augustinians, the Cistercians. These groups developed over the course of centuries responding in their days to the corruption and sin in the church around them. They were often like the Desert Fathers except that they didn’t move to the desert and settled for a “simple life” rather than an entirely separate life. But in each case the concern that brought them into being was corruption in the Christianity of their day. Like the Desert Fathers they were often protesting avarice. In other cases they saw the church full of pride, nepotism
, and simony
. They saw priests, bishops and popes who shamelessly and publicly fathered children in violation of their vows. By the time of the Protestant Reformation many people wondered out loud if the highest church officials were even Christians.
While a good number of historical reform movements in the church sought to bring the church back to faithful doctrine as many sought to bring the church back to faithful living. Some were a combination of the two.
The church in every age faces its own challenges to its measure of faithfulness. There are a number of movements even in our own day that seek to find an authentic faith combined with an authentic life. It is why some turn to the emergent movement or others similar to it. It is because people in our day continue to look around at the prevailing Christian church and see greed, an infatuation with money and the things money can buy, with covetousness, with rampant conflict – anger, bitterness, the works of the flesh, and other characteristics that seem very far from the sort of life Jesus lived and calls us to imitate.
Reform movements have almost always been unpopular with the “established” church. We don’t like our traditions threatened. But many can’t help but ask the questions. I mean, seriously, looking at the lives of many who populate the church today I think there are a lot of people who are walking away saying, “If that is what your Christianity looks like then I don’t want any part of your Christianity.” For those who cannot give up on the church as Christ’s bride many simply conclude that they would prefer a Christianity that looks like Jesus even if people on the internet think they are heretics rather than one that is firmly rooted in long traditions but that looks very little like Jesus in day-to-day life.
I suspect that as long as the church remains in the world there will be reform movements calling her to greater faithfulness. I’d have to agree with the Protestant Reformers who believed that that was a good thing. Not perfect. But good. Semper Reformanda. Always Reforming.
– Thank you Paul!]]]>