Solomon came to the conclusion toward the end of his life that there was “nothing new under the sun.” The French have a famous saying, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same.) In studying the history of the church, one cannot help but be struck by remarkable resemblances to the current crises that are being experienced by many Christians in their church. As we study the Protestant Reformation in particular, the events that led to it, the principle players, the framing of the principle issues and the way the conflict was handled by the church authorities of that day, we find that if we would just change the dates and names, we have a description of power struggles and biblical issues that abound in churches across our land today. Let us examine the dynamics of the Reformation in terms of its key elements and players with an eye toward modern day counterparts in our culture and our churches.
The first thing that strikes us in church conflict is that there should be no conflict. Church members in conflict not only have access to the same truth, the Word of God, but are commanded by God to be in harmonious unity on the basis of clear Bible teachings. (1 Co. 12:25, 14:33) When conflict does arise, God’s Word gives us a clear delineation of not only the spirit in which the matter should be addressed (1 Co. 13, Gal. 6:1 – “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted”), but the process as well, (Mt. 18:15-19). I have only seen this happen once in 30 years of church life.
During the Middle Ages, many churchgoers felt the Roman Catholic Church had established a monopoly on religion. These people protested the distorting of truth by the Catholic church and the limitations the church placed on its members. About 1170 Peter Waldo came to the position that Scripture should be the sole authority for Christians. He had the Bible translated into the common language of the people, giving them access to Scripture which had heretofore been the sole province of the church. “Trust us,” the church seemed to be saying. “We will tell you what the Bible says.”
John Wycliffe (1329-1384) continued in this vein, challenging the authority of the Roman church in 14th century England. He had the entire Bible translated into English. The Pope called in vain for his arrest. His books were banned by the pope and he was labeled and harassed for the rest of his life. The pope later declared that anyone who read the Bible in English could have his “land, cattle, life and goods.” taken from him. So vindictive and angry was the pope that in 1428 he commanded Wycliffe’s remains to be dug up and burned! Wycliffe is today called “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” True revival characterized the spiritual climate surrounding the life and ministry of John Wycliffe, proving God’s blessings on the man, his position and his work because his emphasis was clearly and entirely on the Bible.
Wycliffe’s battle was founded on Scripture. He remained ever-willing and perhaps truly hopeful that the church authority whom he was challenging would respond to his challenge to their authority on the basis of Scripture. Such was not to be the case. The position of the church was that they were the authority of the church and that any challenge to that authority was tantamount to heresy. They had in effect made themselves the equals of God. In their view, to disagree with their positions was to disagree with God, making themselves clearly the equivalent of God. Never did the pope come to John Wycliffe with an open Bible with the spirit of restoration commanded by Scripture and say, “Here, my brother, is where you are wrong; show me where you believe I have erred.”
Today, many churches, though denying it loudly in their church constitutions, still hold to that same papal belief. The proof is that in these churches, one cannot disagree with the established authority of the church without immediately evoking the very same spirit directed by the Roman popes to such men as John Wycliffe. The tactic toward church members whose positions, doctrine and authority are brought in question is to immediately label, vilify and condemn the critic or reformer, making it clear by the church’s actions that it is in fact impossible to disagree with the church hierarchy without disagreeing with God. What conclusion can be drawn by these methods other than to conclude that in the minds of such men, the two are one and the same: to disagree with them is to them to disagree with God himself.
The story of the Protestant Reformation is the story of individual, courageous and principled men who believed that the authority of the Bible was the only basis for thought and action in the Christian life. One man in particular stands out in this story; that man is Martin Luther. Luther was an educated man, eventually earning his doctorate at Wittenberg University. This was, then and today, enough to initiate the beginnings of suspicion in some religious circles, the Roman Church certainly being no exception. On October 31, 1517 Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Here he challenged the church formally, publicly and in writing. This bold and courageous act officially began the Protestant Reformation.
Luther did not intend to break with the church; he loved his church and only wanted reform on the basis of what he saw clearly presented in Scripture. Luther had said in a very clear way what many people had been thinking. This, above anything else, is what made him dangerous to the Church, proving that their principle goal was to retain authority over the church, not to debate truth on a scriptural basis. Rather than to accommodate Luther’s request, presented by the man in a Christian spirit, Pope Leo X immediately did what all leaders of his stripe do, he labeled Luther: he charged Luther with heresy and contempt of church authority without once facing the issues Luther raised. (Consider the tactic of an manipulative, cunning and adulterous husband when accused by his wife: “Honey, I can’t believe what you are saying! You have no idea how crushing it is to hear that you have suspicion in your heart toward me. Sweetheart, I would rather die than hurt you. You mean everything to me. You have obviously been listening to people who are out to hurt me and will stop at nothing. I am crushed and devastated by your willingness to doubt my love for you, etc., etc.,”, ad nauseum. Here this ingenious and lying man actually manages to portray himself as the victim and his wife as the perpetrator for crushing his feelings by her insensitive accusations. In fact, he places a label on her intended to bring her shame and guilt. Never does he defend himself against the charges, proving them false. This husband’s methods are the tactics of a guilty man. The innocent husband says: “Bring my accuser here immediately and let us turn lights up as bright as they will go.”
Martin Luther wrote a series of tracts, and thanks to the invention of moveable type by Gutenberg in 1440, these spread throughout Germany and Europe, adding great momentum to Luther’s challenge and making him a more dangerous enemy to the pope than ever before. Luther was only stating what the people knew to be obvious: 1) popes and churches are not infallible; 2)the church of Rome has no authority over other churches; 3) The Bible is the only authority for Christians. The church falsely blamed its problems on Luther. In fact, Luther twisted no one’s arm for support, but put into clear written form what had been obvious to many and had not been addressed by the church for centuries.
The pope called Luther “a wild boar, ” because as previous labels fail to condemn, their severity must increase. (I have been called “a church destroying demon”) The Pope condemned his writings and burned his books. Luther did the same to the pope’s writings. In 1521 the pope excommunicated Luther and tried to have him silenced by civil authorities. (A pastor once went to court to get a restraining order against me to prevent me from e-mailing him, saying that my e-mails had caused him “emotional distress!”) That same year Luther was officially declared a heretic. (The pastor who sought the restraining order against me was the one who labeled me “a church destroying demon.”) Luther’s biblical positions had still not been addressed! (Neither was mine.) The pope’s tactic was only to obscure Luther behind larger and more daunting labels, hoping to keep others from hearing the clear truths of Scripture he was presenting to anyone who would listen. Luther had lit a flame that would not be extinguished, making it clear both then and for the rest of Christian history that those who were opposing his views were in fact opposing the views of God, for the source of his doctrines were Scripture. The source of his opposition was church hierarchy and tradition.
People left the Catholic Church in droves. (The pastor who labelled me and called me “a church destroying demon” has seen his church go from 350 to 40.)
Rather than going after the lost sheep as shepherds are commanded (Mt. 18:12), the church labeled them all heretics, the penalty being torture and often death. The torture devices of the Inquisition included the “Iron maiden,” the “Breast Ripper,” “The Rack” and other devices of human suffering whose function and purpose make the gas chambers of Nazi Germany literally look humane. Most of the condemned considered themselves fortunate to be burned at the stake, the conventional sentence for “heretics,” rather than face torture at the hands of church inquisitors, the Jesuits, ordained by the “Holy Office” for that purpose under the authority of the popes from 1450 to 1789.
The church had a core following of loyalists called The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540. The goal of the Jesuits was complete, unquestioned loyalty to the pope. Loyola’s famous saying was, “If the church shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.” “The end justifies the means” became the hallmark of Jesuit philosophy. All this helped set the stage for the devastating wars of religion that were to plague Europe in the 17th century. A great wave of anti-Semitism ultimately sprang from this philosophy and saw many Jews exiled from Europe, which fostered notable economic decline in countries such as Spain.
In Stephen Arterburn’s and Jack Felton’s book Toxic Faith on unbalanced and unhealthy relationships with churches, they list the ten characteristics of a toxic faith system. Characteristic number ten is the inevitable and predictable element of “Labeling.” The following passage is taken from page 184 of their book:
Toxic Characteristic #10: The technique of labeling is used to discount a person who opposes the beliefs….
Labeling attempts to dehumanize persons so that dismissing them or their opinions is much easier. Choosing not to address someone individually who has doubted the toxic faith…places a blanket negative label on all who would agree with his or her personal habits. Rather than say that John Smith as made a negative statement, [they] proclaim that there are “detractors,” “traitors,” or “malcontents” who would destroy the ministry or organization. The labels become rallying points under which other followers can be moved to action to squelch a revolt. Once the label is in place, it becomes more difficult to see the person as a human with real needs and the potential for good judgement.”
Often, when a sincere church member expresses concern, or even worse, voices a disagreement with the established policy of the church’s leadership, that person is viewed as a clear threat by the pastor. The clear signal here is that they system cannot tolerate difference. The liberty to express that difference is squelched under a predictable assault on the motives of the dissenter. The lack of security on the part of leadership leads them to use this labeling technique to persuade others that the dissent could not possibly be legitimate, but stems rather from a devious and occasionally even a satanic motivation. The purpose of labeling is to separate and divide, not to mention to create a climate that everyone knows does not tolerate dissent and exacts a very high price for it.
In reading the history of the Reformation, we ask ourselves what was the motivation of Pope Leo X. Did he act as a man that saw himself as the shepherd of the Lord’s flock, or did he act as if his goal was to maintain his authority at any cost? Did he display respect for the liberty of Marin Luther or did he move to destroy Luther under a barrage of labels and accusations?
Questions that often need to be asked:
–Have we seen any resemblance in our church-going experiences as Bible-believing Christians between Pope Leo X and pastors we have known with whom well-meaning church members have disagreed?
–Have those dissenters been accorded the liberty to disagree? (II Co. 3:17)
–Have they been approached in the spirit of humility with the goal of restoration, or has the church policy been primarily one of “damage control” and self preservation at any cost?
–Has the Bible been the focal point of the discussion, or has it been “church policy?”
–Has the dissenter been forced out of the church by an inhospitable climate (An Inquisition)?
–Has the Matthew 18 principle been followed by the church, going to the dissenter Bible in hand with restoration as the goal?
–Has the “preservation of the ministry” been the goal over the pursuit of biblical righteousness?
–Are there a group of “loyalists” (Jesuits) who cannot see past their loyalty to church leadership and who can only view dissent as “an attack on the pastor?”
–Has history repeated itself in your church?
Jerry D. Kaifetz, Ph.D.