Can Christianity Be Reformed?

By Martin Accad

Pope Francis was recently asked about his process of reforming the Roman Curia. He “explained that often renewal is understood as making small changes here or there, or even making changes out of the necessity of adapting to the times. But this isn’t true renewal, he said, noting that while there are people every day who say that he needs to renew the Vatican Bank or the Curia, ‘It’s strange (that) no one speaks of the reform of the heart.’ ‘They don’t understand anything of what the renewal of the heart means: which is holiness, renewing one’s (own) heart…’”

Three important ideas emerge from the Pope’s understanding of reform and renewal:

  • Renewal is not about “making small changes here or there”
  • It is not about “making changes out of the necessity of adapting to the times”
  • And most importantly perhaps, reform and renewal have little to do with institutional reform

What we can understand from Pope Francis’ affirmations is that the church institution, with its priesthood, infrastructure and money, despite its importance, is not itself The Church; it is not Christianity. The same too could apply to the myriad evangelical churches, institutions and organizations in existence. The true substance of the Church is its human component, the women and men, children, youth and elderly in every era who make up the body of Christ. Based on this understanding, true reform is about the continual renewal of the hearts of the persons that make up the body of Christ.

In his wonderful little book, The Prophetic Imagination, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls followers of Jesus to embrace the prophetic function as a way of being in the church. The prophet is called to embrace his/her tradition from within and to engage in the dual function of criticism and energizing. Criticism poses a constant challenge to the institution of the Church, preventing it from aligning with the “dominant royal consciousness” that always seeks to permeate it and only cares about serving its own interests in order to maintain its own continuity. The “royal consciousness” seeks to enslave and bring into its own service those whom God calls into his freedom. It is a constant affront to the God who sits with the poor, the weak and the oppressed in the margins.

In his sermon to the top leaders of the Catholic Church on December 24, 2014, entitled “You are not ‘lords of the manor’,” Pope Francis engages in powerful prophetic criticism by identifying 15 diseases which, he affirms, are plaguing the church’s leadership. There would be much benefit in reviewing them here, but I do not want to prolong. His words are certainly worth meditating upon and preaching in our own churches and to our own leaders. What makes the power of his words redemptive and prophetic rather than destructive is the fact that, as the recognized head of the Catholic Church, he is engaged in self-criticism rather than pointing the finger at others.

But Pope Francis does not stop at verbal criticism. Who does not remember his shunning of the Papal limousine on the day of his election, or of the traditional papal quarters at the Vatican due to his discomfort with their pompousness? Has anyone forgotten his washing of the feet of a Muslim woman prisoner last Easter, or his embrace of the disfigured man with a terrible skin disease?

Combined with his prophetic critical orations, these prophetic acts are meant to dismantle the prevalent “royal consciousness” attached to the Papal office. These acts also project a powerfully “energizing” and prophetic “alternative reality” for those in the margins. Pope Francis is aligned with the teaching of his Master, who affirms in the Gospel according to Matthew:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

But do Evangelicals need reform too? Judging from a recent post by pastor/blogger John Pavlovitz, it would appear that we do. Under the title “Dear church, this is why people are leaving you,” Pavlovitz incisively critiques that (1) our “Sunday productions have worn thin,” that (2) we “speak in a foreign tongue,” (3) that our “vision can’t see past [our] building,” (4) we “choose lousy battles,” and (5) that our “love doesn’t look like love.” Pavlovitz’ words may not be pleasing to the current middle-aged mainstream leadership of the Evangelical church globally, but his voice certainly reflects the frustration of this emerging generation. And it sure sounds like he is mounting an assault against a deeply-rooted “royal consciousness” within the church.

In our embrace of the “prophetic imagination,” God calls us not only to practice criticism, but we are also called to practice our second function in parallel: that of energizing. The “prophetic consciousness” is able to challenge the “dominant consciousness” by projecting the vision of an “alternative reality,” the reality of God’s freedom. The “prophetic imagination” calls people out of bondage to themselves and to the “royal consciousness,” and into the freedom to live radically in line with the teaching of Jesus. In these days when Islam is often viewed in Evangelical circles as the cause of all of our problems and the recipient of all our fears, the “prophetic consciousness” would call us to embrace an “alternative vision.” As the majority of Muslims around the world groan under the burden of fanatics perpetrating horrors in its name, the prophetic voice may well be calling us to love the enemy self-sacrificially and redemptively precisely at the moment when we could deliver them a harmful blow.

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