There has probably never been a time when the cry for renewal of the church has not been in the air. Although the periods of genuine reformation have been few, the church has never lacked her Luthers and Calvins, even when few people were willing to listen to them. What of the present? We seem to have an increasing number of Christians concerned for the spiritual health of the church, and this is as it ought to be. Should there ever come a time when Christians are largely content with the way things are, then we shall have reason to worry. Complacency and self-satisfaction are deadly parasites in the life of the Body. We in the Reformed tradition are especially aware that the church must be semper reformanda — ever reforming. Reformation in accordance with the word of God is an ongoing task, and we ought never to lose sight of this.
At the same time, two words of caution are in order, one directed to the church as a whole and the other to those of us working for renewal. First, we need to keep in mind that renewalists are not a monolithic group. It is not possible to draw a straight line and write status quo at one end and renewal at the other. Different renewalists have different visions of where they believe the church should be, and these visions may not necessarily be compatible.
Nowadays the church seems constantly to be dragged in different directions by charismatics, social reformers, positive thinkers, pietists, traditionalists and others, all of whom are convinced that their way is best. How are we to judge amongst a plethora of renewal movements? Of course, we recognize that genuine reformation must always be in agreement with biblical revelation. Beyond that the concrete need to evaluate a particular renewal movement requires a great deal of spiritual discernment on the part of the Christian community.
A second caveat is directed to renewalists themselves (in which category I would want to be included). Those who would reform the church must take care not to fall into a false idealism. Even when our efforts are biblically-motivated, there is a real danger that we may become more attached to our vision of what we think the church ought to be than to the church itself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, sounds this warning in the course of his discussion of Christian community: “He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
The “visionary dreamer” comes to the church, and ultimately to God himself, with a list of demands to be fulfilled. He cherishes, not the body for which Christ died, but rather the ideal of perfected community as seen in his own mind’s eye. The idealist runs the risk of setting himself up as judge over the Christian community, which can never quite seem to measure up to his expectations. The result of this idealism is self-righteousness, lack of humility and an individualistic inability to see one’s own place in the Body.
There is a fine line between the genuine prophet and the idealist. What separates a Jeremiah from the “visionary dreamer” — the reformer from the schismatic? The fundamental difference lies in one’s attitude towards the church. If we claim to love Christ, then we must also love his body, despite her sinful disfigurations. The idealist may think she loves the body, but what she actually loves is something in her own head. The Old Testament prophets, even as they proclaimed God’s judgement on Judah and Israel, burned with a fierce love for God’s people and continually pleaded with him on their behalf. The apostle Paul exhorted the infant church, not because he wanted to shape them according to his own model, but because he loved them and wanted to see them grow in obedience to the will of God in Christ.
The church will always stand in need of reformation, and she will always need people ready to take up this challenge. Nevertheless, would-be renewalists must ask themselves two things: Do our efforts conform to the word of God? and Do they issue out of a deep and abiding love for the body of Christ of which we ourselves are part? Without an affirmative answer to these questions, the danger is that a renewal movement may degenerate into mere activism and sectarianism.
David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. This was originally published in The Banner, the periodical of the Christian Reformed Church, in the 16 September 1985 issue.