Five hundred years ago this fall, a series of events in Europe produced the second great division in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic hurch of the West. By some counts the resulting Protestant movement has since produced 45,000
more divisions we call denominations.
This reality can feel uncomfortable
when we read the Apostle Paul urging
Christians to “make every effort to keep
the unity of the Spirit through the bond
of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope
when you were called; one Lord, one
faith, one baptism; one God and Father of
all, who is over all and through all and in
all” (Ephesians 4: 3–6).
We might conclude from Paul’s statement that divisions should cease, denominations should dissolve, and all
churches should reunite as one big family.
Certainly reconciliation efforts have
been and continue to be made. For example, Lutherans and Mennonites have
dialogued since 2002 about our differences, expressed forgiveness and pledged
to increase co-operation. Each admits the
other belongs to the extended Christian
family, even if we do not attend all the
same family gatherings.
Our differences have to do with beliefs,
practices, ethics, organization and traditions now 500 years in the making.
Some of those differences are illuminated in the conversion stories of leaders
of the Reformation.
Let’s consider what Martin Luther and
Menno Simons wrote about their conversions. Luther’s was in July 1519 (as he
noted in 1545) and Menno’s was in 1536
(he set down the story in 1554).
Luther’s conversion transformed his
life from tormented anguish of soul in
anger toward God, to a place of love for
God and the proclamation of God’s grace.
Simons’ conversion transformed his life
from sensuality, ease and popularity with
people, to a place fearing for his life and
the proclamation of obedience to God.
Don’t those differences remind you
how different our individual conversion
stories are today?
But there are also striking similarities.
Both were troubled ministers of God
before their conversion. Both identified a
moment of enlightenment when a new
understanding of God’s Word transformed
their minds. Both yielded themselves to
the grace of God after their conversions.
Both continued to serve God, resulting in
a renewal of worship, beliefs and morals
for generations of followers.
As we hear laments over disunity today
and think about the “one faith” Paul af-
firms, we can thankfully also understand
our differences in light of something Paul
goes on to say in that very same chapter.
He celebrates the importance of diversity
in the Body of Christ when he writes, “But
to each one of us grace has been given as
Christ apportioned it” (Ephesians 4: 7).
Paul similarly calls for unity in diversity
in another letter: “Now to each one the
manifestation of the Spirit is given for the
common good” (1 Corinthians 12: 7),
where the phrase “common good” can be
better translated as “to be an advantage to
What unifies the various legacies of the
Reformation, shaped in part by the vari-
ous Reformers, is that over 850 million
Christians today identify more fully with
the Body of Christ because we have learn-
ed to see God’s grace in different ways.
Five hundred years later let us celebrate
that we are Christian first, and only secondarily Lutherans or Mennonites or
members of some other tradition. /FT
Terry Hiebert of Steinbach, Man., is academic dean at
Steinbach Bible College.
HOW TWO REFORMATION LEADERS
MARTIN LUTHER MENNO SIMONS
University lecturer above
Parish priest playing cards
Miserable sinner, repented regularly People-pleasing sinner, but unrepentant
Doctrinal problem with God’s righteousness Moral problem with his sinful heart
Raging conscience hating the God of wrath Troubled soul disturbed by his own hypocrisy
Crisis that miserable sinners are born in sin,
condemned by God’s law, and hear a gospel
Crisis of belief in the traditional views of
the Lord’s Supper, infant baptism and the
violence of Christians
Scripture study in Romans 1 about the
righteousness of God
Scripture study about the Lord’s Supper and
Discovers God justifies by faith and feels like
he is born again.
Prays for grace and a clean heart, and
receives Christ’s forgiveness
Focuses on God’s objective work for us Focuses on God’s Spirit at work in us
Finds support for justification by faith in the
tradition of Augustine
Finds support for his new beliefs about the
sacraments in Scripture, but not in tradition
Experiences transformed love for God Experiences a call to service and suffering in
obedience to Christ