By Jack Wilkie
We don’t talk about the Reformation too much in the churches of Christ, mainly because of our doctrinal disagreements with its leaders and the churches that resulted from their work. However, it’s hard to deny that the church we have today owes a great debt of gratitude to the reformers and their actions. Without their “back to the Bible” influence and their courageous stance both for public access to the Scriptures and against the Catholic church’s wildly false doctrines like indulgences (money paid for forgiveness of sins in purgatory), we wouldn’t be where we are today.
The Restoration movement of the 19th century would have been impossible without the reformers’ adamance that the Bible be made available to the common people. So, with October 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses that sparked the Reformation, it’s important that we recognize the road he and others paved for us to be where we are today.
In this article I want to focus in particular on the courage with which they defended their actions. They took on the Catholic church in a time when it was the dominant power in the Western hemisphere, the absolute monolith of the Bible-believing religious world. Many were killed for their opposition, including Tyndale, who was strangled and then burned at the stake for working to get the Bible into the hands of the people in their native tongue. Luther embodied that same spirit and really the spirit of the entire Reformation when called to recant His criticisms of the pope and the Catholic church. He made it clear that he stood with Peter’s words in Acts 5:29 – “We must obey God rather than men.”
“If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. God help me!”
Though we don’t align with them doctrinally, that attitude is needed just as much now as it ever has been. There are pressures from all sides to change who we are and what we believe, and many are going astray and conforming to the world. It’s our job to take a stand.
We have to stand up to our culture. God’s people have always faced external pressure from the world, telling us we should stop holding up God’s definition of sin. John the Baptist was imprisoned (an imprisonment that ultimately led to his beheading) for telling Herod it was immoral for the king to take his brother’s wife. Many of the prophets in the Old Testament faced horrible persecution for telling people that their actions were wrong. Today God’s people are constantly being told that we’re bigoted and hateful for holding up God’s boundaries on sex. Others mock us for our stance on substance abuse.
Sadly, many churchgoers today have succumbed to that pressure and find a way to say that sin isn’t really sin. “I’m a Christian, but it’s not my place to say what’s right for someone else,” they’ll claim. And I agree, it’s not their place. It’s God’s place to do so. And He’s given us crystal clear instructions as to what He wants. What He needs are not people who compromise for the world’s approval but those who will take a stand on what He said no matter who cares.
We have to stand up to those who would compromise the church. That same attitude of compromise and people-pleasing carries into the church far too often. Some of the church’s doctrines keep people away. Some of what the Bible says is unpopular. That didn’t stop Jesus from saying it, and He told us to expect it (John 15:18-20). In John 6, when the crowds began to follow Him and push for Him to be king after He fed them, the first thing He did was throw out a difficult teaching – “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He wanted to see if they were following Him for who He is, or if they were following Him for the person they wanted Him to be. Too many congregations do the opposite – keep giving the people exactly what they want and hide the parts of Jesus they might not like. If a congregation is brazenly doing what His word tells them not to do, they’re not His church. They’re a social club. It’s our job as the church to take a stand against those who would change us into the exact opposite of what God wants us to be.
We have to stand up to ourselves. Just as the early church and the Reformation were world-changing movements sparked by the courageous stand of a few, so widespread departure from God can be sparked by the downfall of a few. Sadly, it’s not too uncommon for churches to go astray on the basis of one person’s sin. I’ve seen churches “restudy” and then reverse course on issues like homosexuality or remarriage or women’s roles based on one person in the church going astray. I’ve also seen individuals take their entire families with them as they turned from the faith. If we’re going to make any kind of dent in the world, we must constantly be standing up to ourselves with the truth and refusing to move on it, even when it’s easy.
So often the head follows the heart. The heart decides what it wants, what is easy or comfortable and pleasurable, and the head finds a way to justify it. Taking an Acts 5:29 attitude sometimes includes standing up to ourselves in that “rather than men” part. When the heart leads us astray (as it often does, according to Jeremiah 17:9), the head has to ground us in a trust in God’s word (Proverbs 3:5-6).
In Matthew 26:39 Jesus showed that His heart did not want to go to the cross. The entirety of human history hinged on the decision He had to make there, and He stood up for what He knew was the right thing to do. Peter, James, Paul, and the rest carried on that same spirit in the early church as they kept on preaching despite the threat of imprisonment, torture, and death. People like Luther and Tyndale, despite their flaws, helped us get where we are today by standing up to the dominant power of their day and refusing to back down. In this pivotal moment in America’s history, we can either take the easy way out by compromising and backing off of the truth and in turn let down future generations, or we can take a stand on what we know is right and preserve the truth for those who come after us. Stand up, stand up for Jesus!