Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Radical Reformation: A Short Historical Write-Up

The Reformation seems to have been, at least in part, about authority. Whereas Rome insisted on a kind of spiritual authoritarianism, with priests over laypeople and so on up the hierarchy, with authority residing in the offices and institutional structure itself, the Reformers saw spiritual authority as resting to some extent more with the individual directly under God (every believer is a priest, even if not called to administer the Word and sacrament). And rather than tradition working with and interpreting Scripture, the Reformers tended to see Scripture alone as the authority, with each individual having the potential requisite authority to interpret it for themselves.
The Radical Reformation, in a way, takes this emergent subversion of traditional authority and hierarchies and runs with it. The Spiritualists, for instance, completely unshackle authority from the confines of institution and tradition and put it squarely in the active work of the Spirit. Authority, here, comes not from some office or church structure but rather belongs to the Spirit and is communicated through visions, prophecies, spiritual experiences, and other charismatic gifts and signs. Spontaneity and the leading of the present Spirit and the internal word communicated through that selfsame Spirit take preeminence alongside or even in place of structure and the external word or church doctrine. The teaching of one like Luther who lacks the dramatic signs and gifts of the Holy Spirit is inherently suspect since it is hard to say therefore that it is the derived from the Spirit, from which authority flows.
Such a movement provides a kind of precursor for the at-times anti-intellectual, anti-preparation or structure (and sometimes even anti-theology) charismatic movements of the past century. But it also provides the precursor for some of the many various cults which have and still do crop up in the twentieth and twentieth-first century today, which are given to unquestioning following a charismatic leadership who appear to the followers to be possessed of an intense kind of spiritual communion and experience with God or the Holy Spirit. Given that the leaders speak the very internal words given by God and that such words are delivered supposedly as a result of a charismatic, miraculous gifting rather than merely through some kind of rigorous academic sifting and training, the followers are encouraged to listen to what the Spirit or God now says through the leaders rather than spending time sifting or thinking for themselves. Words of authority are derived through the Spirit, not through critical thinking or searching of the Scriptures unaided by dramatic spiritual intervention.
The foregoing describes many sorts of cults, but it also describes what in fact happened with some Spiritualist groups during the Reformation period. When leaders’ prophecies did not come true, it did not necessarily at first faze anyone or make anyone doubt the giftings or callings of the leadership, who seemed to be speaking the very words of God given to them through the activity of the Holy Spirit at work in their persons. This led to some violent groups, led by their leaders and seemingly hence by God, attempting to establish the kingdom of God on earth by the sword – groups who were quickly crushed and many of whose remaining followers became quickly disillusioned and left to join more pacifistic groups belonging to the Radical Reformation.
This shows us something about the dangers and opportunities facing our churches even today. If the opposite of a Spiritualist view of authority can be deadening, lifeless, or soul-destroying – devoted to doctrine or external things over real spiritual experience or any sort of dynamic relationship with God, too rigid, resistant to change, spontaneity, the Spirit, or official recognition of the giftings of individuals for the body of Christ – then Spiritualism itself has its own opposite dangers – devoted to experience searching for the next high over any real honoring of God with the mind, too chaotic, resistant to order or the wisdom of planning ahead, and so on. Ironically, in its rejection of a traditional authoritarianism, some of these Spiritualists swung all the way back around to the same place again and put themselves under a different kind of authoritarian leadership but still an authoritarian leadership nonetheless. Putting things back into an emphasis on the individual directly in communion with or under God rather than being under the authority of the institutional church and those higher up in the hierarchy ironically led for some to once again be under the authority of a different sort of hierarchy, one founded on charisma rather than something else.
For churches today, the lesson is to try to avoid the dangers associated with the extremes. The more a church leans towards the institutionalized, traditional sort of setup, the more it needs to be careful lest it stifle or straight-jacket the spiritual process going on in the community or in its members. And the more a church leans towards the “Spirit-led”, contemporary sort of setup, the more it needs to be careful lest it stifle or straight-jacket clear thinking or wise planning. And both need to avoid the dangers of abuse of authority inherent along this entire continuum of ways of doing church. Though views and models of authority differ, the same danger attends each one, though perhaps in different guises.

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