One of the great losses of the post-Reformation was the loss of the relevance and importance of the church. As time went on, faith revolved around the individual to the point where the church was optional, hardly essential, and almost an impediment to the real religion of a relationship with Jesus. It is this that Michael Glodo hit upon in a brief article.
1. “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.”
2. “Away from [the church] one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation.”
For the average evangelical Christian the first statement may lack some balance, but the second sounds downright Romish. If this describes your reaction, then your ecclesiology is closer to the author of the first, Lenny Bruce, than to the author of the second, John Calvin (Institutes 4.1.1). Bruce, satirist of organized religion and nemesis to hypocrisy, a comedian notorious for his vulgarity and impiety, nevertheless expressed a common contemporary assessment of organized religion, while Calvin’s statement seemed to betray his role as one of the primary catalysts of the Protestant Reformation.
The truth is the church is on the defensive and the Reformation has almost become an anti-institutional movement against the church in the minds of so many folks today. While most would not go so far as to claim the church as an enemy of the faith and would suggest that the church does aid the faith of those in the pew, most would insist that forgiveness of sins and salvation do not require the church. We have see parachurch and home church movements subtly and not so subtly affirm the idea that the church is mostly dead, filled with conflict over issues of money and turf, and a stumbling block to those outside the church. Evangelistic and teaching "ministries" have lived in competition with the church and endorsed by churches to the point where it is oft assumed that these non-church agencies do a better job than the church itself. The classic Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone has become the antithesis of church membership. At the end of the day, few would suggest that the church is intrinsic to the Gospel. But this is not at all the perspective of a Martin Luther or even a John Calvin.
The Gospel, in the understanding of many, lives outside the church. It is a good news that bestows its gifts to those who hear and accept it. Typically this means “receiving Jesus in his heart” or “accepting Christ as his personal savior.” It is not essentially tied to baptism or to the Kingdom of God but to a personal relationship with God that may include church but certainly does not require church. Repentance is seen usually as an individual work, a prelude to the reward for such repentance in the forgiveness of sins and bestowal of eternal life. Even these have become secondary to the desire of God to help the saved achieve his or her goals for her life and to know a fully, richer, more abundant life now.
The sad truth is that many of those who claim to be heirs of the Reformation have great disdain for the church and are not afraid to say it to the world. The modern evangelical church and even many mainline Protestant churches market themselves as an ecclesial version of the Uncola; they are not your grandfather's church, they are “unchurches” or new churches unlike any church the seeker has known before. Billboards claim this outside perspective and insist that “Jesus hated church, too.” So they refuse to be churches but insist upon being fellowships. Architecturally they choose to build like the mall and to decorate the interiors with the cultural icons of coffeehouse and hip gathering space instead of altar, pulpit, font, or crucifix. A biblical view of the Church and its primacy within the Christian life with God is completely foreign to these non-churches.
Even among Lutherans there has been push back against the idea that the Great Commission was about establishing congregations instead of merely preaching hope and presenting Jesus so that the people may decide to have a personal relationship with him. Luther would not know of such antagonism to the church, of a piety rooted other than the Word and Sacrament, of a life not established and nurtured in the means of grace, of a community of faith and not simply isolated saints, of a visible place where the whole is present though not fully visible around the Word and Table of the Lord, of a ministry set apart and ordained to represent Christ to this church so that the baptized may represent Christ to the world, and of a catechesis of catechism and Word (not in opposition to each other).
Part of what the Reformation must recover anew is the centrality of the church to the life of the Christian. For unless we renew this teaching, we have little really to offer a world in darkness and to speak to sinners under sentence of death for their sins other than a fragile and lonely faith that leaves nearly everything up to them, to be defined by their needs and to be experienced by their feelings. This is not what Luther fought for. This is no faithful fruit of the Reformation at all.