The Reformation’s Far-Reaching Implications

The most important reason to celebrate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary is its recovery of the doctrine that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by Scripture alone to the glory of God alone. Yet the Reformers recognized that bedrock doctrine had implications cutting across every facet of life. Their application of Scripture to life and culture continues to serve as a model for followers of Jesus. Amid your Reformation Day celebration, consider the following:

The Reformers modeled public courage. Luther famously refused to recant his writings before the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating at the risk of his life, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Though Luther managed to avoid martyrdom, others bravely defended Protestant doctrine to their death. The martyrs included men and women, pastors and laypeople, old and young who believed standing for Christ was more important than life.

The Reformers modeled love for the local church. They weren’t standing for theology in the abstract. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and company loved, served, and fought for people who filled the pews in specific local churches—warts and all. As such, the Reformers are a powerful example for Christians tempted to hop from one church to another in search of the perfect spiritual experience. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:2, the person who seeks a church with “perfect purity” must “necessarily in the end withdraw from all others, and look upon himself as the only saint in the world, or set up a peculiar sect in company with a few hypocrites.”

The Reformers modeled love for the family. Focused on biblical teaching, they rejected the Catholic Church’s requirement of clerical celibacy and re-elevated marriage and child rearing as noble tasks of the believer. Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora and Calvin’s to Idelette de Bure both stand among church history’s most tender unions. That’s why Calvin wrote upon Idelette’s death, “Mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life.”

The Reformers engaged the culture. Their Gospel had implications for the public square, and they were not afraid to state those implications. Calvin and Martin Bucer both explicitly condemned elective abortion while Luther extolled the dignity of unborn children and childbearing. Reformers additionally wrote on the role of government, public virtue, and education among other public square topics. Calvin dedicated much of his adult life to establishing a culture in Geneva that honored God’s standards.(Admittedly he and Zwingli did not embrace contemporary understandings of religious liberty; witness the execution of the non-Trinitarian Michael Sevetus in Geneva and the Anabaptist Felix Manz in Zurich.)

The Reformers recovered expository preaching. In 1519, Zwingli broke from the standard practice of preaching according to the church calendar and launched a six-year series of expository sermons through the entire New Testament. Calvin likewise preached through books of the Bible, covering most them over the course of his ministry. So committed to sequential exposition was Calvin that following a three-year exile from Geneva, he resumed preaching in 1541 from the exact point in the Psalms at which he left off.

The list could continue of ways the Reformers applied their doctrine to everyday life. The underlying point is that Reformation doctrine cannot be partitioned off as affecting only a narrow slice of existence. Luther and company recognized biblical truth has far-reaching implications—a vision the church desperately needs to embrace five centuries later.

Suffragists Play the Race Card

By Henry Blackwell’s calculation, there were three masses of illiterate voters in America in 1895—immigrants in the North, poor whites in the South, and the southern Negro. He compared them to monkeys casting ballots. The solution was clear to his hearers gathered for the Atlanta meeting of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association: Give women the vote. As he put it, “[I]n every State, save one, there are more educated women than all the illiterate voters, white and black, native and foreign.”[i]

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted voting rights to black males in 1870, but some states fought to reverse this through poll taxes, literacy tests, and property requirements.[ii] “In Louisiana, for instance, there were 130,334 registered Negro voters in 1896; in 1904, only 1,342.”[iii] But the long-term solution would be the constitutional guarantee of a new voting bloc essentially doubling the white vote. In the words of Southern suffragist Belle Kearney, it would “insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained.”[iv] She assured her northern sisters that they would one day be grateful as they faced their own invasion of racial and cultural undesirables.[v]

Surely suffragists in the North would run from this theme, but many found it acceptable. For one thing, they resented the fact that their husbands and sons had fought a Civil War to give the vote to black males while ignoring the disenfranchisement of their wives and mothers. Second, they were convinced that their vote would be an important corrective to cultural dilution of the voting pool, even benefiting blacks. Third, they were pragmatic.

In the late 1880s, the WCTU’s[vi] Francis Willard toured the South, offering “her ‘pity’ to white Southerners, saddled with the ‘immeasurable’ problem of ‘the colored race . . . multiply[ing] like the locusts of Egypt.’”[vii] Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton refused to endorse the 15th Amendment and readily joined forces with racist newspaper publisher George Train, whose motto was “Women first, and negro last.”[viii]

At one gathering, Anthony called Train’s support for her newspaper, The Revolution, “almost sent from God.” In the discussion that followed, abolitionist Frederick Douglass insisted that Stanton stop “characterizing blacks as ‘Sambo’ and ‘bootblacks.’” Anthony stood her ground, saying that “if the ‘entire people’ could not have suffrage . . . then it must go ‘to the most intelligent first.’” And when fellow suffragist Lucy Stone pled for relief from their campaign against the 15th Amendment, Stanton announced that she “did not believe in allowing ignorant negroes and foreigners to make laws for her to obey.”[ix]

In 1920, the suffragist movement succeeded; the 19th Amendment gave women the vote. Of course, this was a wonderful achievement, thoroughly consonant with the biblical teaching on the dignity and wisdom of women. Not so wonderful was the way in which many American suffragists played upon the racial prejudice of the populace. While Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony have been honored rightly on U.S. stamps and Anthony on U.S. coinage, their legacy is stained somewhat, because their crusade for the 19th Amendment stooped to unsavory measures. They should have known that ends do not justify immoral means.

 

Endnotes:

[i] Henry B. Blackwell, “Address to NAWSA Convention, Atlanta, Georgia, January 31-February 5, 1895,” in The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic Work of Stanton, Anthony, Gage, and Harper, eds. Mari Jo and Paul Buhle (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 337.

[ii] Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 254-255.

[iii] Ibid., 254-255.

[iv] Ibid., 255.

[v] Belle Kearney of Mississippi, speaking at the NAWSA convention in New Orleans, March, 1903. Quoted in Aileen S. Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890-1920 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), 202.

[vi] Women’s Christian Temperance Union

[vii] Douglas, 255.

[viii] Ibid., 256-258.

[ix] One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995), 69-70.

For Such a Time as This

12 When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, 13 he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Esther 4:12-14 (NIV)

A great many Bible events involve persons who act at a propitious moment—not as a matter of sheer chance, but under the sovereignty of God, the Lord of history. A range of biblical examples comes readily to mind: the young shepherd David, who began the day bringing food to his soldier brothers, but found himself facing Goliath in battle (1 Samuel 17); the boy whose lunch fed 5,000 through a miracle of Christ (John 6:1-14); the Pharisee Gamaliel whose intervention saved the apostles from a Sanhedrin death sentence (Acts 5:33-40). Of course, the prime example is Jesus, of whom John the Baptist declared, “The time has come . . . The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

The Greek word for “time” in John’s declaration is kairos, denoting a season or moment pregnant with promise, laden with significance, prophetically charged—a day to be seized lest the choice opportunity is lost. It stands distinct from the other Greek word for time, chronos, the “tick-tock” time of your watch or of chronology. Of course, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, but thanks to a team of scholars who began their work in the third century BC, a Greek version, the Septuagint, emerged over the next hundred years.

And it employed the word kairos to capture the role of Esther in delivering her people from destruction.

Living among exiles under Babylonia captivity, Esther was chosen as queen to King Xerxes, who did not know she was Jewish. But that would change. A wicked official named Haman so despised her uncle Mordecai that he managed to elicit a royal decree that all the Jews would be slaughtered on a particular late-winter day. Distraught, Mordecai urged Esther to approach the king on behalf of her people, thereby risking her life by entering his throne room uninvited and by revealing her ethnicity. He reasoned that she may have gained her own high position so that she would be in place to act effectually “for such a time [kairos] as this.” She assented, and the Lord blessed her efforts.

The case of Esther is instructive for Christians of every era: 1) She was available when called, sufficiently attuned to the heart and work of God to say yes when the path opened up before her; 2) She was willing to move outside her safety zone, telling Mordecai, once she’d made her choice, “If I perish, I perish” (Indeed, some, like the disciple Stephen in Acts 7, lost their lives at their kairos moment); 3) She undergirded her action with fresh consecration, in her case through a three-day fast (v. 16).

Meanwhile, God was acting providentially to maximize the impact of Esther’s deed. He softened Xerxes’ heart so that he might not lash out at Esther’s “impertinence.” (As it says in Proverbs 21:1, “In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him.”) And He gave the king a sleepless night, one in which he turned to old official records, where he discovered that Mordecai had once saved him from an assassination plot.

Of course, most Christians are not recognized for historic interventions, but the normal Christian life involves acts of eternal significance through, for instance, evangelism and discipleship. Indeed, a kairos moment may seem as negligible as a “chance” conversation or as momentous as a deciding vote in Congress. Both may prove crucial. For in God’s economy, great things may come from any and all who stand ready to serve Him sacrificially “for such a time as He may please.”

Marriage: Evangelistic Sustainer of Love

31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:31-32 (ESV)

“Your love is your own private possession,” wrote Christian martyr Dietriech Bonhoeffer to a young couple from his prison cell in 1943. “But marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. . . . It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”[i] What a stark contrast to the contemporary, sentimentalized view of marriage!

One of God’s purposes for marriage is to illustrate the relationship of Christ and the Church. Just as in the old covenant, Israel was Yahweh’s bride (e.g., Jer. 2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-2), so in the new covenant, the Church is Christ’s bride (Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19:6-9). This divine marriage encompasses all of time, from eternity past to eternity future. It is not as if Paul is casting around for an illustration of what it means to live a godly married life and thinks of Christ and the Church. Quite the reverse: marriage is the illustration. Christ and the Church are the ultimate reality.

Furthermore, while marriage is a creation ordinance (Eph. 5:31, quoting Gen. 2:24), the relationship of Christ and the Church is prior to creation. We were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4); and this is the mystery now revealed in the gospel. While human marriage is merely lifelong (Mark 12:25), the marriage of Christ and the Church will last for all eternity.

Just as marriage is public (“a man shall leave his father and mother”), intimate (“the two shall become one flesh”), exclusive, and lifelong (“[he shall] hold fast to his wife”), Christ’s relationship with the Church is public, intimate, exclusive, and lasting. The Lord Jesus is a faithful husband. His commitment to His bride is seen in that He laid down His life for her in order that she might belong to Him (Eph. 5:25-27). He did this even while she was an idolatrous sinner. His promise is that He will lose none of those the Father gives Him (John 6:39). His commitment to His bride sustains His love for her, even when she sometimes strays.

By taking a bold stand for lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage, pastors and their churches inoculate Christians against an overly sentimentalized view of marriage that pervades the culture. And by committing themselves to marriage as a covenantal institution, Christians reflect the commitment of Christ to His Church and, thereby, proclaim the gospel in their very unions—making marriage a blessed tool of evangelism.

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Endnote

[i] Dietriech Bonhoeffer, quoted in Richard John Neuhuas, “The Public Square,” First Things 113 (May 2001): 67-88, http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0105/public.html (accessed March 8, 2006).

How Christianity Conquered Rome

Famine and war had recently afflicted Caesarea, so when the plague hit in the early fourth century, the populace was already weakened and unable to withstand this additional blow. The populace began fleeing the city, one of the larger ones of the Roman Empire, for safety in the countryside.[i] However, in the midst of the fleeing inhabitants, at least one group was staying behind, the Christians. Bishop of the city and historian of the early church, Eusebius, recorded that during the plague, “All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”[ii]

Cities in the ancient world were even more overcrowded than the densest population centers today. With few sewers existing, cities were filthy beyond imagining and became a breeding ground for disease. Major catastrophes were not uncommon, including fires, plagues, conquests by armies, and frequent earthquakes.[iii] Even though the cities were unpleasant places to live, they were the population and intellectual centers of the empire, and they provided Christians with opportunities for numerical growth and cultural influence. Indeed, Christianity eventually dominated the empire by taking root in almost all the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, from Alexandria in North Africa to Cordova in Spain.[iv]

However, the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire came not by the sword, but by the preaching of the gospel joined with acts of compassion. Eusebius goes on to state that because of their compassion in the midst of the plague, the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians. Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent to God.”[v] A few decades after Eusebius, the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, recognized that the Christian practice of compassion was one cause behind the transformation of the faith from a small movement on the edge of the empire to cultural ascendancy. Writing to a pagan priest, he said, “[W]hen it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.”[vi] To another, he wrote, “[They] support not only their poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”[vii] In fact, Julian proposed that pagan priests imitate the Christians’ charity in order to bring about a revival of paganism in the empire.

Julian’s program failed because the polytheism of ancient Rome was unable to sustain the kind of self-sacrificial love and compassion that Eusebius observed in Caesarea. Christianity presented to the ancient world two theological truths that were not to be found in the pagan religions. The first is that the God of Jesus Christ is a God worth dying for, since He had first demonstrated His love for humanity by sending His Son. The second truth was a “new conception of humanity,” that is, the idea that all human beings have special dignity and should therefore be shown compassion.[viii] These two ideas slowly but surely transformed the culture of the Roman Empire. Today, as the West appears to be returning to paganism, the distinctiveness of the Christian doctrines of God and of man will once more stand in stark contrast to the surrounding culture by Christians demonstrating the love of Christ in acts of compassion.

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Endnotes

[i] Caesarea had a population of about 45,000. There were only thirty-one cities in the empire whose populations were greater than 30,000. See Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 35-36, 60.

[ii] Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Paul L. Meier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15. Eusebius records that the famine was so severe that a single measure of wheat was sold for 2,500 drachmas, one drachma being the daily wage of a skilled worker (292). Eusebius interprets the tragic events as divine punishment upon the city for its zeal in carrying out the government-sponsored persecution of the Christians initiated by Caesar Maximin. Shortly after these events Maximin died, Constantine became emperor, and Christianity was legalized throughout the empire.

[iii] Stark, Cities of God, 26-29.

[iv] See Stark, Cities of God, 35-59, for a brief overview of the Christian presence in each of the thirty-one largest cities of the empire.

[v] Eusebius, 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15.

[vi] Julian, “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 2, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: MacMillan, 1913), 337. Julian is not referring to the specific instance that Eusebius cites, but is referring to Christian charity more generally. Elsewhere, Julian stated regarding the Christians, “It is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism” (“To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 3, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923], 69). He went on to say that “I believe that we [i.e., the pagans] ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues.” Julian’s program of moral reform forbade priests from going to licentious theaters and to sacred games at which women were present. He also encouraged priests to demonstrate hospitality by establishing hostels for travelers and distributing money to the poor. As a former Christian, Julian knew the Christian ethic well. Echoing the words of Jesus about the greatest commandment, Julian summarized the requirements for appointment to the pagan priesthood as love for (the pagan) gods and love for man (“To Arsacius,” 69-71; cf. “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” 335-337).

[vii] Julian, “To Arsacius,” 71.

[viii] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 214.

The Quaint Pony Express Pledge

As Mark Twain remembered in his account of a stagecoach trip through the West,

Stamp_US_Pony_Express_25cHere he comes! Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so. In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling—weaving towards us, nearer and nearer—growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined—nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs come faintly to the ear—another instant, a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but not reply, a man and a horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm.[i]

It was a Pony Express rider, one of over 200 who carried mail on the 2,000-mile route between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California—men with names like Lafayette Bolwinkle and G. G. Sangiovanni, and with nicknames like “Irish Tom” and “Pony Bob.”[ii] Though it ran for little more than a year (trumped by the telegraph, which could deliver a message in seconds rather than days), it became a treasured item of American lore.

Less well known is the religious devotion of a partner in the parent firm—Alexander Majors—and his efforts to instill a high moral standard in his company.[iii] Consider the riders’ oath:

I . . . do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.[iv]

Furthermore, each rider and each way station was issued a special, calf-bound[v] edition of the Bible, supplied by the American Bible Society.[vi] Of course, riders were known to “backslide” from the pledge, the Bible was not typically at the forefront of their reading list, and enforcement was difficult in the sparsely populated wilderness,[vii] but Majors gave it his best, and it helped.

Prior to the Pony Express, Majors was a successful “freighter” in the West, with 100 wagons, 1,200 oxen, and 120 employees. Each worker had to pledge he would “treat animals in his care with kindness, use no profanity, stay sober at all times, and behave like a gentleman while in his employ.” Majors “rested his oxen and men from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, and held worship services for his men on Sunday.”[viii] He noted, “When they saw I was willing to pay them the same price as that paid for work including the Sabbath day, and let them rest on that day, it made them feel I was consistent in requiring them to conduct themselves as gentlemen.”[ix]

“Buffalo Bill” Cody, himself a rider, featured Pony Express reenactments in his “Wild West” show. Praising his former employer, Cody reported, “Every man, from wagon-boss and teamster down to rustler and messenger-boy, seemed anxious to gain the good will of Alexander Majors and to hold it, and to-day he has fewer foes than any one I know.”[x]

Of course, these quaint pledges and practices would run afoul of lawyers and stockholders today, but there are new enforced pieties in the land, legal codes normalizing homosexuality and requiring funds for abortifacients. And biblically-sensitive companies such as Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby (both of which, following Majors, honor the Lord’s Day) take a beating from the commissars of political correctness, whether the head of HHS or the mayor of Chicago. Majors may have made it tough for ruffians to get a job in his company, but now the government is making it tough for committed Christians to field a company in the first place.

 

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Endnotes

[i] Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872 (New York: Airmont Books, 1967), 39.

[ii] “Pony Express Riders,” Pony Express Museum Website, http://ponyexpress.org/pony-express-riders/ (accessed February 4, 2013).

[iii] “A Calvinist, Majors was a deeply religious man, a fundamentalist who read the Bible daily” [Christopher Corbett, Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 22].

[iv] “Pony Express Historical Timeline,” Pony Express Museum Website, http://ponyexpress.org/pony-express-historical-timeline/ (accessed February 4, 2013).

[v] Alexander Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier: Alexander Majors’ Memoirs of a Lifetime on the Border, ed. Colonel Prestiss Ingraham, with a Preface by “Buffalo Bill” (General W. F. Cody) (Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Company, 1893), Kindle edition, location 2732, 58%.

[vi] “Did ABS Print a Special Pony Express Bible?” Record Online: Digital Magazine of the American Bible Society, http://record.americanbible.org/content/bible-qa/did-abs-print-special-pony-express-bible (accessed February 4, 2013).

[vii] Corbett, Orphans Preferred, 101.

[viii] Anthony Godfrey, Historic Resource Study: Pony Express National Historic Trail (United States Department of the Interior/National Park Service, August 1994), 32.

[ix] Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier, Kindle edition, location 989, 21%.

[x] William Cody, Foreword to Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier. Kindle edition, location 89, 2%.