The Reformation is about churching without compromise
Posted on 26 Oct 2020 by Wilson Teh
The Reformation through the lens of history & Sola Scriptura
When I think about the Reformation, I always think about it in the context of history. I personally have a deep sense of appreciation for history and love reading history, while knowing that it can be distorted by people and the difficulties of writing it well. Having recognised these challenges coming into church history, that’s how I came to know the Reformers. I began by asking: Why did they do what they did? What drove them to want to reform? What were their motivations?
Now, they all had various types of motivations, but the 16th century Reformation in particular was unique because most major reformations have always stemmed from Christian leaders, teachers, or priests coming to the realisation that Scripture should be authoritative in the life of the church.
To give some context, there were largely 3 major instances of reformation — the Swiss, German, and English reformations. The only one that arguably wasn’t Word-centred was probably the English Reformation since it was more about marriage and the institution of the church in light of that, but the German and Swiss reformations were based on Scripture, and a lot of it started because you had humanist scholars who went back to the original sources and looked into Scripture. Essentially, the Reformers were just vigorous Bible readers, and that is what drove them to bring about the Reformation.
The Reformation as the return to orthodox Christianity
Now once we say that the 16th century Reformation is about going back to the original sources and placing Scripture as authoritative above all, some say that the Reformation is an attempt to return to orthodox Christianity — so what does this mean? For some, orthodoxy is subjective. You could be orthodox from this branch of thought or that line of thinking, but the church Reformation shouldn’t teach us to think in a “because you’ve received this bit of information from this lineage, or from someone in particular, therefore it is true” way.
The spirit of the Reformation, as it pertains to going back to orthodoxy, really comes down to Scripture. How do you prove Christianity to be what it is from Scripture? How do you lay it all out? If you can work Christianity out from Scripture, that’s orthodoxy. You can consult the church fathers, definitely, and being Protestants as well, this is something we are generally weak in — we tend to read our Bibles in our time frame, from the lens of our 21st century minds. Returning to orthodoxy, then, can be seen in two parts:
- Firstly, recognising that Scripture should be authoritative — you study Scripture and you prove from Scripture that this is what Christianity is.
- Second is very much the church fathers — what have they thought about this particular doctrine or line of thinking?
This is how Christians can maintain orthodoxy, while never compromising the authority of Scripture. Orthodoxy doesn’t mean “old is gold”; just because it’s older doesn’t mean it’s more authentic. God has given us the Scriptures, and church history has always functioned as a support just in case you put too much contemporary thought into it. To give you an example, if after 2,000 years, you are the only person who can see a particular detail in the Bible that no one knows about, that should raise some red flags for you as well.
The Reformation as church without compromise and being the body of Christ
So if orthodoxy is about coming to Scripture and seeing it for what it is, and not compromising on what it has to say, that brings us to churching without compromise — something that Christ Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC) espouses. Following the same line of thought for Scripture, churching without compromise would work exactly the same way. What is the church? How do we exist as the church? We are a collective people who have recognised the gospel and are part of the body of Christ. How then do we keep ourselves one body and stay united, maintain our convictions as Christians and mature from there?
A church without compromise, then, is a church that doesn’t compromise on teaching, reading, and preaching God’s Word. The church without compromise is an embodiment of what Ephesians 4 teaches us about churching — it is how the Word equips its church members to be able to serve Jesus and to keep going until Christ returns.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
In light of this, this is what CERC prioritises in our ministry — the clear, uncompromising teaching, preaching, reading, and living out of God’s Word à la Ephesians 4. How would the Reformers or church fathers themselves have thought about being uncompromising in churching? Now when we think of church, we tend to think of church in a particular location and in one spot. However, the Reformers and even church fathers back then had to deal with politics and the church itself was spread out across many different geographic localities. Here is an interesting example — in the early days of the 1500s, if you were a British citizen, you were considered Christian. The head of the church was the head of state — the King or Queen themselves. So it became very murky and difficult to distinguish between a Christian and non-Christian because in their minds, was there even such a thing as a non-Christian British man? You were either British or a barbarian! So to come back to the question of where the Reformers got their attitude of not compromising on Scripture and how it pertained to the church, let’s take the examples of Luther or Calvin.
The Reformation attitude as the response to a painful reality
For them, it came down to the gravity of the situation. Now, they were all part of the Roman Catholic church and grew up with it, so in terms of their attitude, it wasn’t just a “I love the Word and it has to be that way” bullheadedness. It wasn’t an academic insistence, but a painstaking journey of looking at what Scripture had to say, and also seeing the destructive powers of the teachings of Rome and what the Roman Catholic church was doing to the faith at the time.
The attitude they had to take then was “I am a Christian, and I think this is what God mandates Christians to speak out on”, and it is with that mentality that they went on to bring about the Reformation.
They refused to compromise although in many instances, it took them a very long time to get to a place to say “well, if this is what Roman Catholicism insists on, then we will have to leave it”, which was very difficult. Now this certainly wasn’t the first time people attempted to talk about these issues within the Roman Catholic church, but they were not as Word-centred as the 16th century Reformation was. Thus the Reformation is very valuable for us Christians today, because it was a Reformation around Scripture with the recognition that it shouldn’t be compromised.
There were arguments, of course, between Reformers such as Luther and Erasmus for example, but what was the real point of their disagreement? At the end of the day, it was on what Scripture was saying and its authority. Erasmus proposed a more peaceful way of doing reform, to stay within the Roman Catholic church and work within the system to bring about change, and to not see the Roman Catholic problem as that big of a problem.
Luther had a different view, because he was at a stage where he saw the Roman Catholic church as being corrupt beyond repair. I don’t personally endorse all of the letters Luther wrote, some of them were plain rude. However, both the fact that they were negative in tone and knowing the context of the time Luther lived in, serves as a positive because it tells you about how much Luther cares about the truth. He strongly felt that they were truly hurting God’s church. So despite all the problems Luther had in his life, especially towards the end of his life, I will always appreciate him for what he did during the Reformation.
The Word of God as essential to the life of the Christian and the church
Now why was all this such a big deal? We might ask, was it really that bad? What were the consequences if they had compromised? What happens if the Word is not at the centre of the church today? To put it seriously, you risk not having a biblical, functioning body of Christ.
Certainly, it wasn’t as if there weren’t any Christians in the Roman Catholic church. I do believe that God is sovereign and certainly saves people in churches which aren’t that great. But what do you have as a result of a church like the 16th century Roman Catholic church? You have a church that allowed unbiblical practices in order to serve political and financial means, practices that were allowed to go on without consequence. Certainly you might be preaching the Word, but you are silent on some really important issues which have scriptural implications.
We don’t have to start talking about homosexuality or abortion to start thinking about questions like why we do certain things in church. This is about the Word as authority in church life and the lives of Christians in that church. An unhealthy church might actually gain false converts, but a church full of false converts is a problem, because it is not the church that God calls us to build, by His Spirit. Although there might be false converts in good churches too, we as Christians actually learn how to be disciples and be Christian through the Word of God, so a lack of respect for Scripture is basically a lack of recognition of what a Christian should be, and what the church should be.
God’s glory, His church and the gospel is at stake
Thus, the Reformation was not simply a concern for infighting and political corruption in the church, but rather a concern for the existence of the church itself. If you don’t have a body of Christ grounded and rooted in the Word, then you won’t be growing kingdom-building, God-serving disciples.
An unhealthy church means unhealthy disciples, which implicates real lives. So what you may end up with is just a gathering of people who share a certain kind of general view of the world or society, but you don’t really have Christians — people who are convicted of the gospel and actively discipling others. Ultimately, you risk God’s glory and the gospel itself, and that is a very serious matter.
Now imagine if you built a very large group of people who became Christians without a very good understanding of the gospel, and you have them preaching what they think they know to others. So now you have corrupted or even non-Christianity perpetuating throughout society, a misrepresentation of what the gospel is and its continued corruption — and this is essentially what happened with the Roman Catholic church. You get people disregarding Scripture as central to the church life, and then coming up with church practices as they saw fit. You end up with assertive people setting the pace and mandate of the church, and it is no longer about the Word and how God wants His church to be run.
The heresies of the past are the heresies of today; yet the natural tendency is to compromise
So why value the Reformation? As historians, we need to recognise the uglier side of the Reformation. But as Christians, we need to see that the Reformation was vital and left a positive legacy for the church.
In intention and spirit, the Reformation is something that needs to keep going. Not so much the chaos, but the mentality and thinking that we cannot compromise on the truth as revealed by the Word of God. The natural tendency is, in fact, to compromise — because we want a body that is united, to keep the peace perhaps, even at the expense of truth.
We need to know history to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes, but modern day historians will say that “those who study history are doomed to watch everyone else repeat it”. The Reformation has proven that for Christians who are thinking and watching out for the dangers and pitfalls in the church, a lot of the heresies we have today are just modern-day versions of the heresies we have seen in the past. The denial of the deity of Christ with Arianism, the denial of original sin with Pelagianism, these things were issues of the past but are also issues of the present. What happened in the 16th century could very well happen today. We may dumb down the issue and say indulgences don’t happen anymore, but what about for example, the Word of Faith movement and what it says about Christianity being the way to wealth and prosperity? Christianity today also risks being the means to an end rather than being about God and His glory.
The cost of reforming is the cost of being a Christian
Certainly, being uncompromising for the gospel isn’t going to be an easy task. The Reformers themselves were persecuted, chased down, and killed throughout history. We also cannot pretend to say that they didn’t fight back and take part in those wars. They were theologians, academics, but also fighters — Zwingli was one of the guys who died fighting. It could cost you your life, reputation, family, everything, but that is essentially what Christianity is — taking a different stance from society, and it will cost you. None of these guys probably wanted to be a reformer. Luther was the epitome of a reluctant reformer, he was a plain lawyer and despairing monk who ended up being thrown into the task of reforming the church. You could say that this is none other than God orchestrating history. We can see how the Reformers’ lives deteriorated after the Reformation, but as Christians, we don’t have to look at the Reformers to learn about the cost of reforming, we just have to look at our Lord Jesus and his disciples.
Christianity is about being a people who are uncompromising in the Word and then, living that out despite what the rest of the world does to you.
On better days, you would hope that people would be convicted of the gospel, but it is not always the case. If you read Paul’s letters themselves, it is easy to tell what happens with churches over time — leave a church for a while and a lot of things can go wrong! Our reality is no different.
What “church without compromise” is not and the dangers of compromising the truth
Some may take “church without compromise” to be an expression of intolerance or bigotry, and just with everything else pertaining to the truth, it starts with some level of knowing why truth is important and the need to uphold it. The difficulty comes from the postmodern argument that “you have your own perspective, and I have mine”, but this is not the attitude to take.
The whole idea about truth is that, fundamentally, truth is knowable. This is something we cannot easily disregard. We can say we don’t have the full picture or it might be distorted, but at the end of the day, we have to believe that truth is attainable and that for the Christian, truth is found in Scripture.
Christians will need to continuously dive into and work towards the truth, and be corrected by Scripture and people that you may be arguing with — from Scripture as well. It is about asking yourself — “does the truth matter”? For Malaysians, we know this. The truth about Najib Razak or corruption cases are important to us, because if they actually are true and it’s setting the nation on a path to destruction, you would have an opinion.
As a Christian, you have to recognise that if you are going to be a Christian, and if the church is to be built around the truth of the Word of God, then it is about being the church that God deserves and Jesus wants. God would want Christians who believe in the truth because it is who He proclaimed himself to be. He is the truth, the way, and the life. If we take the side of compromise, you might end up calling Jesus an intolerant bigot as well. It is not bigotry, therefore, to say “I don’t think what you teach is right” when our conscience is fully convicted by the Word of God, but the God-honouring thing to do.
Now at the end of the day, the church itself should not stand for intolerance or bigotry. The church should not be dividing without truth, without a basis in Scripture, or without due recognition and conversation about the reasons for division. It should not be gossiping or refusing to engage with fellow Christians or churches about the problems within the church, and falsely accusing each other of untrue things.
Even for the world at large, the church needs to grow not just in numbers but in terms of maturity. People are asking real questions which need real answers. The whole point about accepting or not accepting certain behaviours is not about being above a particular lifestyle, but who we are as human beings created by God, and how we ought to live. Would the church not welcome people who live in sin? For we are all sinful and live in ways that are rebellious towards God, and in many cases what comes to mind with ungodly behaviour is just one expression of sin.
Christians themselves can also be rebellious against God in our own way, which is why the Scriptures are extremely important to keep fighting against that. If not for the Reformation, and the gospel itself, we would continue thinking in a moralistic, holier-than-thou way, or on the flipside, behave in a way that would fit well with the culture of the times. Thus, Christianity has always been about the truth exposing who we are, and the call to repent after we are convicted about our sin against God.
The Reformation teaches us to persevere in the hope of God’s glory and never take gospel quality for granted
In light of all this and given where we are in our church life today, my exhortation would be for Christians in CERC and beyond to continue to support your ministers who are working very hard at studying Scripture. That cannot be understated. As a growth group leader, I realise that this is no part-time job. It takes time and effort to digest the materials, work it out, and think! And as small group leaders, we should be at the level of being able to pastor our small groups, but even more so we need to be at the level of making sure our churches can grow. This is why God appoints ministers, and for Paul it is natural for him to implore the churches to support its ministers as well.
Part of the Reformation mentality is that even though you don’t have the capacity or time to do what ministers do, you would continue to uphold gospel quality in itself so that your ministers would be held accountable, and held to an actual higher standard because you have a congregation that is not clueless and blind about what the Scriptures have to say.
Otherwise, you would be back to square one! In our churches today, the perennial question is always whether we need more money or more people, and I would always say people. Ministers are essential for handling the Word, and the church cannot grow without that, even if you have money. If you don’t have competent ministers, you cannot grow in the real sense, and you would not be building a real church.
I would probably also encourage you to consider reading Reformation history. Study these guys, what was in their minds, why they did what they did, and how they came to the conclusions they made.
We have very good church history books and writers these days. A favourite of mine is Michael Reeves on church history and the doctrine of the trinity. If you are new to this, definitely start with Michael Reeves.
The other imperative I would have for you is to consider getting serious with the Word, if you are not already.
Look at your pastors or fellow Christians who are serious about reading the Bible and start diving into it. Don’t just run meetups in a way where you share about how things are going, although they are good and you should keep up with fellow brothers and sisters who are tired with work and life. Consider what is truly going to help your brothers and sisters, to allow them to grow in their faith and trust in God, and to know what is more important than all these things they are frustrated with. It is their Christianity and their state before God, and God’s glory and how in so many ways we fail to glorify God as God. It is as Paul argues from Romans 1 — fundamentally it is not about whether we know God exists, but whether we think this God is worth glorifying. It is about whether we would exchange God’s glory for another.
If God is who He says He is in Scripture, then He deserves all of us; He is a God that deserves all praise and all glory. Picking up the cross may seem like a foreign idea to us 21st century Christians, but we cannot forget that it is fundamental to who we are — we are people who follow Jesus, who have the privilege of encountering God’s Word, knowing the truth, and taking it seriously.
So why does Christ Evangelical Reformed Church celebrate the Reformation and why are we proud to call ourselves Reformed? The Reformation is about church without compromise, and to be Christian is to never compromise the glory of God.