In the 16th Century, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and others began what we today call the Protestant Reformation. They were protesting the practices of the Roman Catholic Church in their day. These revolutionaries preached the importance of faith in Christ, the supremely important truth which they felt the church had severely neglected. The reformers also professed that the Scriptures held greater authority than any church official – including the pope. For these beliefs, Protestants of that day were widely persecuted. Nonetheless, they held their ground; and we today still benefit from the stand that they took. Unfortunately, they did not continue on the course they had started.
The reformers had rejected Rome as the center of God’s power, but ended up creating a thousand Romes in its place. Every church denomination they started had some form of human government, subject to the same temptations as any pope. Whether a church is led by a pope, a pastor, a chairman, a superintendent, an elder, a bishop, or any other human office, it is thereby a humanly-led and not a divinely-led organization. If you’ve ever been involved in church leadership you know that a church’s business meetings can be so different from its worship services that you sometimes wonder if it’s the same people involved. Neither are you surprised that denominations and churches still split today.
It’s not as though Luther and the others could have done better by sticking with the pope and avoiding the splintering, for the Roman church itself was the church of the west that had been split from the church of the east (which we today call the Eastern Orthodox Church) hundreds of years before. If God had wanted an earthly city as headquarters for His church it wouldn’t have been Rome or Constantinople – it would have been Jerusalem, “the city of the great King.” But the headquarters of the kingdom of God is not on earth – it’s in heaven.
What then should the reformers, and the generation that followed them, have done? They should have continued on with their battle cries of “Christ Alone” for salvation and “Scripture Alone” for authority! Had they done so, they wouldn’t have merely reduced the number of sacraments – they would have eliminated them altogether in favor of living life as a sacrament to Him (see Life Is a Sacrament.) Had they done so, they wouldn’t have replaced one pope with many popes – they would have made Christ Himself the only leader (see Church Is Not the Answer).
Like the Hebrew slaves, who were delivered from bondage in Egypt, Protestant denominations subsequently found themselves going around in circles in the desert. They could not enter “the promised land” of the kingdom of God because they had lost sight of the God who had led them out of slavery. They stopped looking at Him who is unseen and started focusing on what their physical eyes could see. They departed from faith in order to walk by sight. (See Walking in the Spirit and Not in the Flesh .) The promised land is not a reformed or repaired church, it is the kingdom of God.
We truly honor the heroes of the Reformation if we walk by faith and not by sight. They stood up for truth in their generation, and we have the opportunity to do the same in our own. God is everywhere, all the time. If we acknowledge His presence and live as an honor to Him, we can make our fathers in the faith proud. And we can finish what they started.
Here’s the way it starts for us: resolve to live for your Maker today and forevermore, acknowledging in your heart that He is always present…whether anyone else you know does so or not. (For help in doing this, see Practicing the Presence of Christ.)