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April 1972 · Vol. 1 No. 2 · pp. 42–46 

Retrospect and Prospect. Reformatio or Restitutio?

Abe J. Dueck

Christians who are faced with unfaithfulness in the Christian community may contemplate two alternative courses as means towards the recovery of faithfulness. One might be termed the path of reformatio, and the other that of restitutio; the first implies continuity with the past and the other discontinuity with it. While a precise definition of the terms “reformation” and “restitution” might not argue for the validity of making a radical distinction between the two, 1 they can be used as convenient labels for two different approaches to change in the Church. Change can be effected from within by the use of built-in and accepted methods and procedures, or it can be produced by stepping outside of existing structures and challenging their very raison d’étre. The underlying presupposition of the latter approach is that at an earlier time during the history of the Church there has been a “fall,” i.e. the Church then really ceased to be a true church. This does not necessarily imply that there are no longer any individual Christians in the Church.

Evidence of tension between these two approaches to change can be seen throughout the history of the people of God. Israel fell into unfaithfulness again and again, and various means had to be used to draw her back to her God. Sometimes it was possible to do this without a radical upheaval; at other times the challenge was more fundamental and posed a threat to the continuity of the institutions she had developed. While the prophetic office ideally was one which had an accepted place and function in the community, in practice this was not always so evident, and the prophet was often regarded (and regarded himself!) as one who stood outside the community and advocated a radical break with the past.

With respect to the era of the Christian Church, the example which most readily comes to mind is that of the Reformation. The Age of the Reformation was actually one which witnessed various approaches to the task of restoring faithfulness to the Church. The use of terms such as “Counter-Reformation,” “Catholic Reformation,” “Protestant Reformation,” and “Radical Reformation,” clearly illustrates that there are many points on the continuum between a strong assertion of the status quo and an absolute rejection of everything that prevails. Luther stood somewhere between the two extremes. He certainly did not plot or plan a revolt against the Catholic Church and it took him a long time to realize that there was no going-back. In reflecting on the early years of the Reformation, and his own call to the ministry, Luther once remarked, “Had I known it beforehand, he (God) would have had to take more pains to get me in.” 2

Luther was driven on like a blind man; he did not see where his action might lead him but only knew what faithfulness to God demanded of him from moment to moment. Luther’s role was one which was forced upon him, not one which he consciously and deliberately chose. Furthermore, he often protested against those who wanted to make a radical and immediate break with the past.

The Anabaptists and other dissenters went beyond Luther and {43} accepted a more radical approach to change. Luther was regarded by them as a “half-way reformer,” as one who was not willing to pay the high cost of complete faithfulness. The Anabaptists did not affirm that the Church had ever been perfect or would ever become perfect, but at least it should be committed to the restoration of the teachings of Christ and the apostles as clearly and fully as possible, and to a life which by the grace of God tried to give visibility to that teaching. A “fall,” then, had taken place in the history of the Church, 3 not simply because the Church had become more sinful but because it had institutionalized disobedience. The Anabaptists therefore made a more deliberate break with the Catholic Church than did Luther. Their parting with Zwingli and Luther was perhaps less deliberate and intentional, but their uncompromising position eventually made any real accommodation impossible.

In most cases, however, there appears to be no simple option between the two modes of change, or, at any rate one can seldom be sure in advance whether certain actions will lead to “reformation” or to “restitution.” In retrospect, it is often easier to see how events moved in a certain direction and at what cost a particular outcome could have been avoided. Often, as in Luther’s case, those who seek change in the Christian community, do so without the express intention of making a radical break with the past. They may quite suddenly become aware that it is no longer possible to go back—the return path may have become blocked by the action of others. The method of change then depends as much on the response of the community as it does on the intent of the individual(s) who promote(s) change.

The unprecedented fragmentation of the institutional church and the proliferation of denominations since the Reformation would seem to indicate that the schism which was, in a sense, the unwitting consequence of Luther’s action became a paradigm for change among Protestants in the succeeding centuries. Discontinuity became almost the only method of renewal; whenever unfaithfulness was suspected in others, the attempt was made to apply the restitution method—the golden age of the past, in whatever terms it was conceived, was to be recovered. Within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition this method has been all too much in evidence. The Mennonite Brethren Church itself is the result of the application of the restitution method, although this does not mean that the reformation method was not attempted. Furthermore, renewal has come again and again to our Church without the application of the restitution method.

The pattern of proliferation of sects and denominations which has been so characteristic of the last centuries seems virtually to have come to a halt. Indeed, the trend seems largely to have reversed itself in the present century. Quite a number of denominational mergers have been effected, and others are currently under discussion. Nevertheless, the topic of ecumenism too has receded into the background, and some of the optimism that prevailed regarding the ecumenical movement has dwindled.

Today, the attention of the Christian community is focused neither on the creation of more denominations nor on the merging of denominations. Rather, denominational and church patterns as they exist today are themselves being questioned. The criticism of the institutional church at the present time comes largely from the ranks of the young people—those who are directly or indirectly involved in the Jesus Movement as well as others whose approach to the problem might be quite different. The Church is {44} regarded by many as a dead institution. The Wilkerson brothers, in their recent book, The Untapped Generation, specify that the disillusionment with the Church among young people is a very serious problem. “Many recent converts from the college campus and out of the hippie lifestyle,” they assert, “have carried over their rebellion into the Christian life.” These young people feel that the Church “is part of the ‘system’ that needs to be changed, overthrown, and revolutionized.” 4 The institutional Church is no longer needed, because the Church is where they are. Theologically, these young people are usually quite conservative, but also very unsophisticated, for they care little about precise creedal formulations. They prefer to foster a type of religion which is as simple and spontaneous as possible because they regard it to be more authentic and less apt to fall into the trap into which the institutional Church has fallen. They also react against the materialism, racism, class-consciousness, and success orientation of the Church of our day. The ideal Christian life is a simple, uncluttered life which seeks to relate to the deep inner needs of people in a loveless and impersonal world.

The movement among young people today comes upon the heels of similar criticisms against the institutional Church from another segment of Christianity. Many of the more liberal theologians and church leaders have predicted the demise of the present form of the institutional Church for some time. They have advocated that Christian presence should be felt in the world in entirely different ways than in the past. 5 Especially popular has been the view that Christians should make their impact upon society by means of existing secular structures, or that they should create structures based on needs in society (e.g., urban renewal projects, employer-employee relations centers, coffee-shops, etc.). The creedal aspect has likewise been minimized, although for somewhat different reasons from those which have influenced present-day youth. Theologically, this trend has not been characterized by conservatism, but rather by a disregard for the elementary truths of the gospel and an adherence to broad and quasi-religious humanitarian concerns.

Since the criticism of the institutional Church has come from both the right and from the left, one might well question whether it is possible to continue much longer without basic changes. The Jesus Movement, although it is quite different from patterns of restitution movements in the past five centuries, is nevertheless a genuine restitution movement, perhaps even more so than others. It seeks to recapture what it regards as the essence of Christianity and to divest itself of all the needless accretions of the centuries. Sometimes the attack on the Church may be indirect, characterized more by disregard for the Church than by violent attacks upon or harsh criticism of it. The danger of alienation from the Church is nevertheless just as great as if there were a direct confrontation with it. How, then is this alienation to be avoided? What are some of the more specific criticisms of the Church and what can be done about them?

One of the basic criticisms of the Church today, which may be as applicable to the Mennonite Brethren Church as to other Churches, is that it is not adequately responsive to needs as they arise. The structure of our own Conference has become increasingly complex. There are many committees and agencies which are assigned various tasks—tasks which may be good in themselves, but which are very difficult to realize effectively. Instead of engaging directly in the work that needs to be done, committees meet again and again to decide the “what,” the “where,” the “when,” {45} and the “who.” In the meantime, opportunities slip by and new needs arise to which the Conference is again unable to respond quickly. The decision-making process is too long and complicated.

A related criticism is the lack of adequate involvement by a large portion of the membership. Many members feel that they do not really participate in the work of the Church and that it is difficult for them to change this aspect. The same people tend to serve on local church committees year after year, and Conference committees and agencies are constantly staffed by the same people. Sometimes it is alleged that Conference committees are not only self-perpetuating but consist of individuals who may have little understanding of the real needs of the majority. All too often, professional criteria rather than other criteria seem to qualify people for various offices. We may, therefore, need a new emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, a recognition that if the Church is to accomplish anything, it will have to be done, to a far greater extent, through the active participation of members on the local level of the congregation.

A further criticism of the Church is that it is committed to a preaching and teaching posture in its attempt to perform its mission in the world. Its adoption of the techniques of mass evangelism fails to search out the needy—it creates the impression of aloofness rather than of a deep personal interest, love, and concern for the neighbor as a person. Christianity needs to become an everyday thing, something which is shared on the streets and highways, on the campus, and everywhere, wherever people are found.

Finally, it is often stated that the Church has not established its priorities properly. The Church is deliberating and acting on issues that now matter very little, and leaving many important things undone. We have been building schools and churches, organizing clubs and planning programs, but have hardly begun penetrating society with the message of the gospel. We have Faith and Life Conferences and discuss sundry kinds of doctrinal issues, but these usually have very little significance for the ordinary life of the local congregation. We are so busy doing that we have lost sight of the real purpose of our activity. All our activity cannot hide the fact that we are accomplishing very little, and that programs have become a substitute for taking seriously our responsibility in the world.

The above-mentioned criticisms do not exhaust the list, but they are among the most frequently mentioned criticisms of the church. They may not all be valid—some may be gross exaggerations or over-simplifications but they cannot all be easily dismissed. Either we will regard them as serious enough to warrant a new beginning (restitutio) or we will feel that the present structure of the Church is basically capable of performing the assigned mission in the world and that only modifications are necessary (reformatio). By remaining in the Church, we indicate that we still consider the latter a possibility.

How can the Church reform itself? The question is at least partially redundant because it assumes that change can be brought about through the present institutional channels of the Church, i.e., that it can be programmed. The other alternative is that reform will simply have to happen, or at the very least, that it will have to begin where the Church is. Although the Church is certainly present at various levels, including the level of Conference committees, it is most distinctly present in the local community of believers which meets with regularity, day after day, or week after week. It is at this level, I believe, that the most meaningful changes can and ought to occur.


The Mennonite Brethren Church, in its brief history, has had considerable difficulty establishing a consistent and effective polity. We have been careful not to allow too much congregational autonomy, and this has created serious problems at times. It may be that the work of the Spirit has sometimes been stifled in this way. Much of the initiative and enthusiasm for the work of the Church is lost in the process of filtering through various channels. While it may be argued that a better use of resources is possible through effective organizations, the dimension of personal involvement is seriously curtailed. Perhaps we will have to admit, after all, that we have paid lip-service to the concept of the priesthood of all believers, but that we need once again to allow this truth to become a working reality.


  1. Hans J. Hillerbrand argues that there is no clear linguistic distinction between the two terms. See “Anabaptism and History,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XLV (1971), 113f. See also Franklin H. Littell, “In Response to Hans Hillerbrand,” MQR, XLV (1971), 378.
  2. Luther’s Works: Table Talk, edited and translated by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, 1967), LV, 113.
  3. For an exposition, see Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist, View of the Church (rev. ed., Boston, 1958), pp. 46-77; Franklin H. Littell, “The Anabaptist Doctrine of the Restitution of the True Church,” MQR, XVI (1950), 30-52.
  4. The Untapped Generation, by David and Don Wilkerson (Grand Rapids, 1971), p. 234.
  5. See, e.g., the study by Colin W. Williams, Where in the World? Changing forms of the Church’s Witness (New York, 1963).
Dr. Dueck is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at MBBC, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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