50 Theses for a Still-Reforming Church

I’m no Martin Luther. I’ll be the first to say that. But today, on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, I set a challenge for myself. Writing is my spiritual practice, so I decided to write my own set of theses. I didn’t go for 95 of them because, honestly, I didn’t have that much to say. Instead I chose 50, one for each decade of the Reformation.

Most of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses centered on reforming the church, so that’s where I focused my own ideas. This is simply a spiritual exercise for me but one that, in the spirit of Luther, I wanted to share with others. I’d love to hear what resonates with you, and what does not. And, I’d love to hear your own theses for a church that is still being reformed.

Here they are:

Basic affirmations on church:
1. That wherever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, he is present, and therefore Christ is present in the church.
2. That “the church” may refer to local churches, as in the case of congregations, to the “wider church, as in the case of denominations, or to the “universal church” as in the case of the entire body of Christian believers.
3. That the local church is at the heart of our faith. Without strong local churches, denominations and movements cannot hope to survive.
4. That the purpose of the local church is to equip those who would be Christ’s disciples to live out their faith through worship, formation, and encouragement.
5. That local churches possess the best understanding of their community and its needs.
On clergy:
 6. That pastors are called first and foremost to be “pastors and teachers”, capable of equipping others to understand and embody the faith.
7. That pastoral ministry is a calling that demands adequate preparation, including in-person intellectual and spiritual formation in a community of learning.
8. That pastors should be able to use wisdom from other disciplines, such as administration or marketing, but should be encouraged to develop theological and Biblical depth first.
9. That candidates for ministry should be given support, including financial support, in order that they may better prepare for their calling.
10. That seminaries should be upheld as the standard for ministerial formation, and should be invested in by local churches and the wider church.
11. That the local church deserves nothing less than well-trained ministers who are committed to serving as pastors.
12. That clergy should be the first to affirm that our calling does not make us special or unique, and that the calling of every Christian to discipleship, lay or ordained, is equally important and challenging.
On the need for the wider church:
13. That even churches with a strong congregational polity need the mutual support and fellowship of other congregations.
14. That covenantal relationships between congregations strengthen all involved, and provide a way for local churches to share resources and engage in impactful ministry and social witness.
15. That when the wider church is empowered to do ministry, in local judicatories or national denominations, the wider church exists to serve the local churches, and not vice versa.
On the administration of the wider church:
16. That wider church administrators at all levels are called to be servant leaders.
17. That these leaders should constantly discern the will of God and the spiritual needs of the people they serve.
18. That the wider church must be on guard against being so excessively influenced by corporate culture that it becomes something that is no longer church.
19. That when wider church bodies become divested from their concern about local churches, they have strayed from their mission.
20. That when the wider church experiences serious disconnection with local churches, attention must be made to repairing that relationship.
On the transparency and accountability of the wider church:
21. That given our covenantal relationships, it is fitting that wider church ministries should be financially supported primarily by local congregations.
22. That local churches should support the wider church generously.
23. That any setting of the wider church should be answerable to the congregations which support it.
24. That full transparency around financial and budgetary matters, or the stewardship of any other resources, should be considered normative.
25. That while confidentiality must and should be preserved around certain matters, a culture of secrecy must be avoided at all costs.
26. That when choosing leaders, the people of God should feel confident that a fair and transparent process was used, and that the discernment of God’s will was at the center of that process.
27. That the wider church may speak on behalf of local churches but must also be willing to listen to the will of those it represents.
On always being reformed:
28. That the “freedom of conscience” valued in Protestant traditions be upheld, along with the right of individual Christians to raise concerns or critiques.
29. That those who seek reform should be able to speak freely, without fear of intimidation or retribution.
30. That the unity of the church should be preserved, but that true unity requires space to be made for faithful dissent.
31. That debate and dialogue is not an affront to church unity, but rather a tool that may be used for communal spiritual discernment.
32. That no setting of the church should ever believe itself to be infallible, or beyond dysfunction.
33. That the spirit of continuing reformation should be nurtured, inconvenient though it may sometimes be, and be allowed to flourish in our life together.
On equipping disciples:
34. That education and formation are essential for the faithful continuation of any church tradition.
35. That a major priority of the wider church should be to support local churches as they form disciples.
36. That wider church settings should cherish the legacy of the Reformation and make available and accessible resources that will help Christians to understand their faith.
37. That the promotion of Christ’s love and grace should be more important to the wider church than the promotion of itself.
On the wider church’s mission in the world:
38: That Christ has called us to three great tasks: to love God, to love ourselves as God loves us, and to love our neighbors.
39. That this witness must be deeply rooted in our belief in Jesus Christ, and in his call to us to be disciples.
40: That the wider church is called to serve our neighbors through the generous sharing of resources.
41. That we must strive for the equality of all people without asking for assimilation.
42. That we must appreciate the beauty of diversity without appropriating what is not ours.
43. That we must be a witness for peace and justice both globally and in our own backyards.
44. That we must first mirror the justice we hope to see in the world within our own organizations.
On courage:
45: That the church is called into a future in which God is already waiting.
46. That true discipleship means that we who are the church must follow Christ into this future, and be willing to lose everything.
47. That unless we are willing to lose even our own life, the church can never hope to be reborn.
48. That if a church is truly the body of Christ, that body can live in the certain hope of resurrection.
49. That the church’s resurrection often comes in the form of reformation.
50. That God still has a use for the church, and that we are being re-formed today that we may endure for the next 500 years, and beyond.
If you’re interested in what it means to live our faith courageously, you might be interested in my next book. Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear, is available for pre-order now:
https://www.uccresources.com/products/courageous-faith-how-to-rise-and-resist-in-a-time-of-fear-heath

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