Corruption and Reform in the Christian Church could be a title of a work on church history. There has been no age that has not seen this phenomenon occur and reoccur.
One of the best examples of reform is that which occurred at Cluny in the tenth century in southern France following the darkest times of the Western church after the fall of Rome (see Nick Needham’s article above for more on the Cluniac revival). It brought a visible seriousness of spiritual discipline that lasted for more than two centuries. The acknowledged founder, Berno of Baume (d. 927), was followed by long-serving, effective leaders. The order reached its height under Hugh (d. 1109) with well over one thousand houses affiliated with the mother monastery of Cluny.
As Cluny gained power, influence, and wealth, this reform itself needed reform. It too became corrupt, but fortunately it was replaced by the Cistercian reform movement led by the incomparable Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153).
It is undeniable that the monastic institution and religious orders were instruments in the reform of church corruption over many centuries and that papal authority protected them from lay intrusions. Yet by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the monasteries and papacy were both in dire need of reform.
The picture of the papacy from 1470 until 1530 drawn by Barbara Tuchman in The March of Folly discloses an almost unbelievable degree of immorality, worldliness, corruption, and vice. This led the great Renaissance historian Jacob Burckhardt to say that “Luther saved the papacy.” Martin Luther’s exposure of papal corruption and the resulting Protestant rebellion led the Roman Catholic Church to the reforms of the Council of Trent, which was forced upon a reluctant papacy by the Holy Roman emperor.
In spite of its failure to deal adequately with Protestant doctrine, Trent established educational standards for clergy, maintained discipline for monasteries and orders, and recovered something of the spiritual role of the papacy that had been lost in its preoccupation with becoming equal with the many competing and warring Italian city-states. An obvious lesson is that at certain times monasteries, lay leadership, the papacy, and religious orders provided positive reform and beneficial roles, but at different times each has shown itself corruptible and in need of reform.
What, then, is the lesson for today, when the churches are tragically divided and the Christian message is being corrupted by scandals and accommodations to an increasingly corrupt society? Even worse than the scandals is the fact that very rarely in Christian history has the church’s neglect of doctrine been so blatant.
The Anglican Communion is desperately trying to recover its unity by seeking “bonds of affection” (“The Windsor Report”) rather than bonds of faith. The Roman Catholic influence in Quebec, Ireland, Spain, and Italy is being replaced by secular assumptions and morals. In 1960, fifty percent of the U.S. population belonged to one of the major Protestant denominations. Today only five percent does. The African American mega-churches have been justly accused by Thabiti Anyabwile of departing from biblical teaching in the paths of such classical heresies as Arianism (in The Decline of African American Theology).
The recent conference at Beeson Divinity School, “The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed,” was a most valuable step in the direction of reform of present corruption in biblical teachings. The confessional movements in the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, as well as Pope Benedict’s criticism of worldliness, are encouraging developments.
Many of the pervasive non-Christian beliefs are reactions not to the Christian faith but to misrepresentation of that faith (heresies). The reluctance to even speak of heresy must be overcome with graceful forbearance (not a weak “tolerance”) and confident proclamation of the good news that is orthodox Christian faith.
Corruption in morals of both clergy and laity needs to be faced honestly. Traditional prayers have properly addressed both life and doctrine. One’s life follows one’s heart. What the heart desires and believes the will will choose and the mind will justify. Hence, starting at behavior is not as effective as starting with the gospel story, the teaching, and the doctrine that speaks to the heart.
Therefore, the present need for reform is along the lines of corrupt doctrine. Ask an unbeliever what he doesn’t believe and most often you could say, “I don’t believe that either.” Our fallen nature seeks to bend the gospel away from “God so loved the [tangible] world,” thus avoiding the vulnerability of incarnate love. Self-righteousness merely seeks to ask, What would Jesus do? But Jesus is not a mere example. He is God’s reconciling act.
Our task in being faithful is never to repeat the coercion and compulsion that has given orthodoxy a bad name but to proclaim the gospel that lifts the heavy burden of justifying ourselves and produces joyous love in following the divine vulnerability of Jesus Christ.