Only 500 years ago it would have been absolutely inconceivable to think of any individual Christian simply going out and creating their own church. Christ had already founded a Church on, and through, His apostles. This Church was called by His name – Christian – and it was known as the Church Catholic, i.e. the Christian Church universal.
A church created by someone else 1,500 years after Christ, naming itself not after Christ, but instead naming itself Lutheran after it’s founder Martin Luther (or Calvinist after John Calvin, etc.)? Inconceivable! Churches who define themselves not by their universality, but rather by their protest against the Church universal? Inconceivable! Churches who take their name and define themselves by a very singular aspect of their theology (Adventist, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, Evangelical, etc.)? Inconceivable!
500 years ago it would have been absolutely inconceivable to think of any Christian church who would teach that baptism was not the normative means of salvation. Martin Luther himself wrote in his large Catechism that, “Baptism is no human plaything but is instituted by God himself. Moreover, it is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved. We are not to regard it as an indifferent matter, then, like putting on a new red coat. It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted.”1 Baptism was universally seen by Christians as in some sense necessary for salvation, until Ulrich Zwingli in the 16th century denied its necessity.2 Now there are literally thousands of Christian denominations (and non-denominations) which teach that baptism is optional, unnecessary, or merely symbolic. Inconceivable!
500 years ago it would’ve been absolutely inconceivable to think of any Christian church who would teach that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was only symbolic. In fact, with the exception of Ulrich Zwingli, all of the Protestant reformers believed in some way that Christ was really present in the communion elements; that His presence was not merely symbolic, metaphorical, or by His activity alone. Zwingli challenged this notion asserting that communion was only symbolic, and countless Protestant churches and denominations have followed suit.
The celebration of the Eucharist has always been at the center of the Mass – reflected in the Scriptures as the reason for the gathering of the early Christians, and pronounced by the Church as the, “source and summit of the faith.” Now merely a metaphor, the Eucharist has been removed from the altar, the central focus of the nave, and regulated to the sides or backs of the auditoriums where many Christians meet; partaken of infrequently if at all. Most Protestant churches are bereft of crucifix, altar, tabernacle, candles, and religious images and statues of any kind. It is the preacher’s podium which has become the central aspect of the church service rather than the real presence of Christ. Inconceivable!
500 years ago it would’ve been absolutely inconceivable to think of any Christian church who would allow for divorce and then permit remarriage. Based on the teachings of Christ in the Scriptures, Christians have always believed that divorce was only permissible in the case of adultery, and if a divorce was granted, both partners were directed to remain celibate so long as their former spouse was alive. But then King Henry VIII came along. The king demanded a divorce and was willing to declare himself Supreme Head of the church (1534) in order to justify his continued divorces and new marriages. What’s good for the king is thus good for the people, and virtually every Protestant church has since followed suit, allowing for both divorce and remarriage by it’s members. Inconceivable!
Less than 100 years ago it would have been absolutely inconceivable to think of any Christian church who would teach that contraception was permissible for married Christians. In issuing Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI relied on the Minority Papal Commission Report of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. The Minority report argued that: “One can find no period of history, no document of the church, no theological school, scarcely one Catholic theologian, who ever denied that contraception was always seriously evil. The teaching of the Church in this matter is absolutely constant. Until the present century this teaching was peacefully possessed by all other Christians, whether Orthodox or Anglican or Protestant. The Orthodox retain this as common teaching today.”
As a point of historical fact, all of the major reformers shared the view that contraception was a grave moral wrong. It is not until the 1930 Lambeth Conference that the Anglican church first gave approval for birth control in some circumstances. At the 1958 Lambeth Conference it was stated that the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children was laid by God upon the consciences of parents “in such ways as are acceptable to husband and wife.” Virtually every Protestant church has since followed suit permitting it’s members to use contraception as they see fit. Inconceivable!
Less than 50 years ago it would have been absolutely inconceivable to think of any Christian church who would teach that directly causing an abortion was permissible. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger comments, “It is really remarkable how uniform and how pronounced was the early Christian opposition to abortion.”3 Likewise, Protestant reformer John Calvin followed both the Scriptures and the historical position of the church when he affirmed, “The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is a most monstrous crime to rob it of the life, which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.”4
Within the last few decades, however, it has become popular for certain theologians, ministers, and Christian denominations to be pro-abortion. The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights has, for instance, adopted the motto, “Prayerfully Pro-choice,” and pro-choice advocates point to it as proof that conscientious Christians can be pro-choice. Several mainline Christian denominations have followed suit including the Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Inconceivable!
Less than 50 years ago it would have been absolutely inconceivable to think of any Christian church who would teach that homosexual acts were permissible, much less ordain homosexual clergy or perform homosexual marriages. Historically, Christian churches have regarded homosexual acts as sinful, based on the Catholic understanding of the natural law and a traditional interpretation of certain passages in the Bible.
Recently however, many Christian churches and denominations have interpreted these biblical passages differently and argue that the practice of homosexuality can now be seen as morally acceptable. This approach has been taken by a large number of denominations in the US, notably the United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church, the Anglican Episcopal church, Friends General Conference, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and others. Relatively large denominations have also taken this approach in Europe including United, Reformed and Lutheran Churches, the Anglican Church, the Evangelical Church in Germany, Church of Sweden, Church of Norway, Church of Denmark, Protestant Church of the Netherlands, Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, Methodist Church of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, and others.
In 1989 The Evangelical Network was formed with LGBT Evangelical Christians. It is a network of churches, ministries and Christian workers. A new denomination, the Metropolitan Community Church, has also come into existence specifically to serve the Christian LGBT community. Inconceivable!
What will the next decades and centuries bring in the continuing dissolution of the Christian faith? An even more radical departure from historic and orthodox Christian teaching and practice?
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
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Large Catechism 4:6, Martin Luther ↩
Cross, Frank Leslie; Elizabeth A. Livingstone (2005). “Baptism”. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 151–154. ISBN 0-19-280290-9. OCLC 58998735 ↩
Michael Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 9. ↩
John Calvin, Commentary on Pentateuch, cited in Crisis Pregnancy Center Volunteer Training Manual (Washington, D.C., Christian Action Council, 1984), p. 7 ↩