All those years ago Martin Luther tried to coax the church into reform by inviting a debate on several grievous and noxious areas of church life. One could imagine an alternate universe in which the Roman Catholic Church listened and reformed (at that time and not at Dort, after the cat was out of the bag as it were); but such is not the life of our world. The Church freaked out, Luther was expelled, and the world changed.
At his hearing one of Luther’s accusers stated his complaint that if the world listened to Luther there would not be one split but many, hundreds if not thousands. You could talk about the greatness and vitality of the Protestant experience (especially in America); but you would also have to cede the gentleman’s comment as accurate. We have been a rowdy, fractious bunch ready to fight or split at the drop of a theological hat or change of carpet (whichever came first). Nowhere has that been shown than in the last few years. One pastor wishes another adieu to the faith after the other published a work with which he did not agree. One minister holds a conference to report that some 500 million people may not be the Christians they say they are. Read any comments section at any theological blog for a week and the noxious odor of heresy hunters will stay in your nostrils for weeks.
To be fair there are heretics. There are those who deny essential doctrines of the faith and it should be pointed out that one cannot deny such things or made certain explanations and still be Christian. Yet to be heretical is to deny the Trinity; not say deny the opportunity to raise one hands in worship. There are essentials and there are non-essentials. About the essentials we stand in unity; about the the non-essentials we agree to disagree (amicably). To disagree on a non-essential is not the same. Yet more and more people in our modern American Evangelical world seem to be confusing these important categories.
If history is any indication, I would say that the future of the Christian faith in America will not be decided by the Jews, Muslims, and Atheists. It will be decided by us. Are we going to fracture over issues that though important are not important? Are our fellowship one to another to become shouting matches? Are our Bible readings to be exercises in eisegesis- lobbing verses at each other in accusation and acrimony? Or are we to follow the words of Christ to be one as He is one?
The question facing American Evangelicals on this Reformation Day is the same one faced by Martin all those years ago. Only in our iteration many of us now stand in the place of those Roman Catholic Bishops glaring down at some brazen youth questioning the wisdom of our heavily inculturated faith. Can we look at these young Martins and say, “let’s debate.” Or will we have our own expulsions threaten to rip the unity of Christ asunder?