“Farewell to those who want an entirely pure and purified church. This is plainly wanting no church at all.” —Martin Luther
“We teach, seek, and desire such a Supper as Christ Jesus Himself has instituted and administered (Matt. 26:19; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19), namely, to the church which is outwardly without spot and blemish, that is, without any evident transgression and wickedness, for the church can only judge as to the visible things.”—Menno Simons, Why I do not Cease Teaching and Writing
Reflections by Michelle Curtis, CHI intern and seminary student
Polarizing viewpoints are not new in our era. The Reformation was full of polarization. Luther reacted to the impossible ideals of medieval piety and declared we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, with absolutely no works involved. The Anabaptists observed that this could lead to an “anything goes” attitude, and said, “Something’s wrong here—God’s grace ought to bring transformation.” They believed that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, leading to discipleship. Luther said: Do not even try for an entirely purified church—that’s impossible. Menno responded: How can we fail to strive for purity when Jesus ordained a church “without spot or blemish” (Eph. 5:27)?
Sounds familiar. Today I hear some claiming the church needs to include everyone. After all, we all sin: why exclude some people for specific sins and pretend the rest of us are righteous? Jesus himself said, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick; I haven’t come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Others claim that grace is getting out of hand when we neglect to talk about sin or forsake Jesus’ teaching: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Menno followed Paul in arguing that grace does not mean anything goes or that God does not care how we live (Rom. 6). And yet, I think Luther had a point: wanting a perfect church is plainly wanting no church at all. After all, if you find a perfect church, you should not join it because then it will no longer be perfect.
An 1871 printing of a translation of Menno Simon’s apology for his persistence in Christian teaching.
As a Mennonite, I find Luther’s words refreshing. Sometimes Mennonites can become so fixated on the good work of discipleship and on maintaining a spotless outward appearance that we can lose sight of God’s grace, which is the only thing that makes this possible.
Though Luther and Menno sharply disagreed with one another in their day, I believe their descendants have a lot to learn from one another. The more I learn about and come to appreciate my own Mennonite tradition, the more I find myself able to understand and appreciate how other traditions differ and what I can learn from them. This is what gave me the ability to say to a Lutheran friend of my sister’s whom I met recently, “Oh, I like Lutherans—you believe in grace!” I hope that as we look back on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we can also look around at what we can learn from other descendants of the Reformation today.
(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)
For more on the Anabaptists, see “From Turmoil to Peace” in CH #120 and “A Fire that Spread” in CH #118. We have an entire issue on the Anabaptists that is out of print, but you can read it online at our website (CH #5).