Holding Back the Reformation

Mandating blind conformity of thought makes Reformation impossible.

On Reformation Sunday, Midway Presbyterian Church Senior Pastor David Hall brought a sermon titled “Reformation, Then and Now”. In it, he surveyed the state of the Reformed Faith and expounded upon past failures and successes. He rightly identified the need for continued Reformation for every generation. To illustrate this point, he referenced the English theologian G.K. Chesterton and his analogy about a white fencepost. While not quoted in the sermon, Chesterton’s words on this point were:

“But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old.”

The Eternal Revolution – G.K. Chesterton

This beautiful imagery befits a time when secularism appears to be on the ascendency and the church is in collective retreat. At a time of year when reflection on the Protestant Reformation is appropriate, Protestants everywhere reflect on the bold stands of leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, and Peter Vermigli against theological error pervasive in the domineering church of their times.

These men and others like them are remembered for their boldness for the cause of Christ and the faithful application of His Word. One of the Biblical principles of the Reformation was “Semper Reformanda” – which in plain English means that the church must always be in an active state of self-examination and reformation in order to maintain purity of doctrine and practice. This phrase is particularly Presbyterian as “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” is the motto of the French Presbyterian Church.  

The church in modern times needs this continued reformation. But there are active threats to continual reformation. The church must guard against attitudes that suppress disagreement or seek to paint dissenters as divisive. It also must avoid political action that seeks to make continual reformation impossible.

Unfortunately, while extolling the merits of the Reformed tradition that is the progenitor of its belief system, Midway Presbyterian Church’s Session has taken the first step in making continual Reformation impossible by outlawing dissent among officers as a matter of policy.

Unity by Fear and Force

In September of 2020, Midway Presbyterian Church’s Session passed what may have been the most dangerous motion in the church’s long history. The motion threatened to apply church discipline to church officers who express disagreement with Session actions. Much has been written of this motion and how it binds the conscience of the officer’s of Christ’s church, how it is unconstitutional, and how it has been used as the basis for charges against 4 Ruling Elders at the church. Others have documented how this motion gags the private judgment of church officers and encourages ignorance by forbidding men to think for themselves.

Consider that many of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation were also in church leadership. In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), ministers have vowed to be “zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise” unto them on that account (BCO 21-5). The words of the Session motion include the following statements:

“public dissent of Midway officers to matters decided by the Session of Midway Church has resulted in disunity”

“the words, “subjection to the brethren” in Vow #5 means that each ordained officer will respect, obey and prayerfully seek to find agreement and personal contentment with all decisions of the Session”

“should a church officer in good conscience find either heresy or constitutional violation in any decision or action of the Session, it is his duty to make complaint to the Session under BCO Chapter 43 and pursue same as he deems in the best interest of the Body of Christ solely within the procedures set forth in BCO Chapter 43.  Further, following Officer Vows #5 and #6, the officer should not publicly comment upon the issues presented in the Complaint, as same are solely within the purview of the church courts.  To expose the congregation to such issues can only serve to bring disunity and conflict.”

“Should a church officer feel compelled to communicate publicly his dissatisfaction with or any opposition to a decision or action of the Session, he should first resign his office”

“Transgression of the foregoing by any ordained active officer of Midway may be deemed a violation of ordination vows and, unless seasonably and publicly repented of, could result in dissolution of the official relationship between the officer and the church pursuant to the provisions of the Book of Church Order.”  

“Any church officer who has transgressed the preceding interpretation of Vows #5 and #6 is called upon to repent of such conduct”

While this motion makes a provision for officers to call out heresy and violations of the PCA Book of Church Order, this has not stopped the Session from using this motion justify disciplinary action against officers who exercise their right of complaint under the church’s constitution. Others have written about how this motion also creates a new category of offenses – which are not provable from Scripture or the Westminster Standards under which the church operates.

Do the words of the Session’s September 2020 motion make continual reformation harder or easier? Does it create an avenue for ordained men to challenge error and call the church back to purity of doctrine and practice or does it strangle the consciences of good men who might sincerely disagree with their brothers in the church?

Senior Pastor David Hall called on Midway to look to the next 50 years and to carry on the Reformation so that a faithful generation can look back in 2071 and see how it unfolded. This is not possible if the men elected as elders by their congregation are restrained from expressing free thought, exposing error wherever it be found, calling one another to repentance, and using their God-given intellect to judge matters righty according the Scriptures. If officers are driven by the fear and force that the Session motion represents, the Martin Luthers of the next generation will be severely hindered or may not step up at all.

Unity in the church is important, but not if it is the false unity typical of the suppression of church leaders’ ability to continually reform Christ’s church for His glory.

“Decet Romanum Pontificem”

Considering the Session’s motion in the spirit of the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude in Martin Luther’s day is a worthy study. In 1521, Pope Leo X issued “Exsurge Domine” – a series of declarations in response to the teachings of Martin Luther and threatened excommunication if he did not recant his teachings which alleged a lack of purity in the doctrine and practices of the church. One part of the declaration states:

“With the advice and consent of these our venerable brothers, with mature deliberation on each and every one of the above theses, and by the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected . . . We restrain all in the virtue of holy obedience and under the penalty of an automatic major excommunication….”

Exsurge Domine – Pope Leo X, 1520

This statement threatens church discipline on Martin Luther, a priest of the church, for dissent against the majority. Of course Martin Luther did not recant and Pope Leo X summarily excommunicated him issuing “Decet Romanum Pontificem” which declared in one section:

“We would make known to all the small store that Martin, his followers and the other rebels have set on God and his Church by their obstinate and shameless temerity. We would protect the herd from one infectious animal, lest its infection spread to the healthy ones. Hence we lay the following injunction on each and every patriarch, archbishop, bishop, on the prelates of patriarchal, metropolitan, cathedral and collegiate churches, and on the religious of every Order—even the mendicants—privileged or unprivileged, wherever they may be stationed: that in the strength of their vow of obedience and on pain of the sentence of excommunication, they shall, if so required in the execution of these presents, publicly announce and cause to be announced by others in their churches, that this same Martin and the rest are excommunicate, accursed, condemned, heretics, hardened, interdicted, deprived of possessions and incapable of owning them, and so listed in the enforcement of these presents.”

Decet Romanum Pontificem – Pope Leo X, 1521

After this Martin Luther famously refused to recant at the Diet of Worms.

So what? Is the Session’s motion of September 2020 equated to the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of Martin Luther in content? Not at all. The comparison does however serve to demonstrate the danger and scale to which the binding of conscience and the demanding submission to church governments can be. When said submission is not required by Scripture it easily becomes a pathway to immanent division, and in Martin Luther’s case, continent-wide war and conflict. Such attempts to suppress dissent in church governments are rooted in a desire for control. Demands for unity of thought are one way to maintain that control and issue a chilling effect on others who might be inclined to speak their conscience in opposition to an entrenched majority.

Senior Pastor David Hall called on Midway to remember that it is the glory of Christ and not self that must be the focus of the Christian. A commitment to continual reformation in Christ’s church is to His glory and the raising up of leaders to condemn falsehood is one such way that God accomplishes this in His church.

“God Give us Leaders…”

Reformed icon RC Sproul often spoke and wrote of the importance of the intellect and how the Christian is not called to surrender their intellect to the emotional or authoritarian whims of men. If leaders in the church self-censor and never voice their objections because they fear discipline and the inevitable damaged reputation that follows – how can the continual reformation of Christ’s church ensure that Midway Presbyterian Church or any church lasts till 2071? Where will the reformation come from if church leaders neglectfully subject their opinions, their vote, and their conscience to the whims of an undiscerning majority that embraces might over right?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King prayed at a rally in 1956 saying:

“God give us leaders…Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill. Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy. Leaders who possess opinions and a will. Leaders who will not lie. Leaders who can stand before the demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking. Tall leaders, sun-crowned, who live above the fog in public duty and in private thinking.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King – Desegregation and the Future, 1956

Midway Presbyterian Church and the church in America are in desperate need of such leaders. God, by His mercy, raises them up from time to time to challenge error, restore His church, and oversee the blessed continual reformation (Semper Reformanda). These are the ones who will continue to paint the post of the church to keep it white and pure. Woe unto those who stand in the way of such pure reformation and kick up the mud of misapplied church discipline and thus stain the white fencepost with spiritual pride.