On Sunday, we will come to the 500th celebration of the Reformation. Like most celebrations or holy days in the church, Reformation Sunday is a time to reflect and understand our tradition and how the stories and understandings from the past hold true today. Moreover, we have to think about how the actions of those in the past shape and mold our future.
What many people do not know or realize was that the Reformation was as much a political action as it was a spiritual one, with people beginning to see and become frustrated with the Vatican’s abuse of power. While there were many abuses, one practice that exemplified the problems was the selling of indulgences, to essentially let people buy their way into heaven. As a result, part of the Reformation focused on the relationship between church and state. They realized from a study of history that when church and state are closely aligned, the ultimate result is tyranny and other injustices. There are many examples of this in both ancient and modern culture, both within the Christian and Non-Christian world.
It is important to note that the reformers were not anti-government nor anarchists; rather, they believed that the role of the church was to keep a check on governments, but not be the government. In the establishment of America, we know, based on the First Amendment, that there was a strong attempt to say that religion and government had to stay separate and that neither would control the other.
There are many things that are unique in American culture because of this law. First, we are one of the few countries that does not have a state religion. In fact, many European countries have laws of tolerance, but still have an officially recognized church. Interestingly, most European churches and many churches in other parts of the world are supported not by pledges and donations, but by tax allocations from the government.
Some Christian social scholars like Martin Marty suggest that is how the American church has been able to get so strong, as well maintain its membership, whereas the European churches regularly struggle for attendance. These scholars point to the spiritual act that happens when people give directly. By making a financial commitment, they make a spiritual one, thinking about how to give and support the broader ministry. Financial independence also allows the church to speak to the truth they see, even if they are not in agreement with the government.
In addition to the individual commitment fostered by the separation, the church also can hold government responsible and suspect. Whether the administration in power is conservative or liberal, the church's role in relation to the government is to hold it accountable for its actions and speak to the justice and well-being for the greater society. This is important, because it requires us to continually adjust to and understand the world.
Moreover, we are called to be active, not passive, in our lives and community. We live out our faith by building up both the church and society, in the way that we care for others and struggle for truth. For the reformers, this direct relationship was crucial, and a key to spiritual connectedness and faith development. For us today, the challenge is how we stay faithful in our giving and action to build up the message of God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen