The Reformers and their Stepchildren ©2010 | free PDF
Since the proponents of the state/church needed the Old Testament to justify their view, it should come as no surprise that the Reformers would develop Covenant Theology, which sees no "old" and "new" Testament division as such. This allows the interpreter to choose any part of the laws of Israel for the church, since they are held to be one and the same.1 Thus the "type and shadow" was made equal to "the reality".2
But in spite of the outward piety of the laws of Israel, the "regional church" paradigm resulted in an averaging of morality to the lowest common denominator, which again is being seen today in the "seeker-sensitive" movement that invites the unsaved and unchanged to fill the churches. And in both scenarios, those who left/leave on grounds of either teaching or behavior were/are accused of seeking (or claiming for themselves) perfection, as in the popular cliché, "If you ever find the perfect church, don't join it, or it won't be perfect anymore". The Christian who stands on the principle of holiness is thereby painted as elitist and conceited.
This leads to the vital distinction between the believer who occasionally falls into sin, and the one who wallows in sin. If no such distinction is recognized, then no believer is able to "bring an accusation" against another, especially a leader.3 This is exactly what the "regional church" view needs to keep its leaders from scrutiny, especially by the "laity", and it renders holiness impossible to define. But salvation by faith alone is not mutually exclusive with a life of holiness; in fact, both are needed together. Yet the purpose of holiness is not to acquire salvation (as if a gift can be earned) but is simply the natural result of it, such that any who claim salvation yet live in sin bring such a claim into serious doubt.
It is most ironic that the way to tell a reformer from a "heretic" was by conduct; practically all it took to be convicted of "heresy" was to live a clean life. The Reformers could not deny the holiness and piety of the "heretics", so they began to accuse them of merely putting on a show in order to lure people into evil. Further, they smeared the "heretics" as guilty of more vile behavior than themselves, so as to appear holy in comparison. Truly, the reformers exemplified the incredulous question of Paul in Rom. 6:1, "What shall we say then, that we should go on sinning so that grace may increase?", and the warning of Isaiah 5:20, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter."
It is against this backdrop that the Reformed teaching, that God does tell us to do that which is impossible for us to do,4 takes on a much different light. The Reformers rightly noted that God demands holiness and clean behavior, but asserted that we are incapable of performing it. Yet, incredibly, they take this as God approving of such failure, since it shows how powerless we are! (Had they not read Rom. 6:1?) If everything happens only because God acts, then whatever happens must be what God wants, including the vile behavior of the Reformers. Yet it seemed to escape them that this means the "heretics" were also doing the will of God.
On the other extreme, the Reformers took the holiness of the "heretics" as proof that they were one and the same with the Manicheans who practiced extreme deprivation and harsh treatment of the body,5 yet Paul's point in that reference hardly argues for indulgence, as if any attempt to restrain oneself amounted to "an appearance of wisdom". These are the absurd lengths to which the Reformers were willing to go in order to both preserve coercion and excuse sin.
The congregation of the "heretics" was completely different. In it, any unfruitful branch was to be reluctantly cut off and thrown outside, since fallible humans cannot see into the heart as God does. We are not talking about judging anyone's eternal destination but only their right to fellowship in this life. The example of Paul with the Corinthians regarding the man living in sin6 should put to rest any excuse against performing this pruning, seeing that the people were having plenty of sin and maturity issues of their own yet were charged to carry it out. The fact that such actions were rare in the early church should be proof enough that not everyone in a given area was to be coerced into the Body of Christ.
But the "regional church" has no place to expel anyone in this life, hence the need to put people to death should the "church" decide to be rid of them. This renders Paul's instruction impossible to practice, as the dead person could never be taught a lesson or given the chance to repent. This explains, at least in part, the absence of church discipline in all of its history, thus also explaining its rampant apostasy, especially in modern times. In addition, it explains the penchant of church leadership to never concern itself with sin except that of questioning its authority or methods; this is abundantly true today. Most believers wish to excuse even the most vile behavior while viciously condemning the whistleblower. Sadly, even those who call out leaders for abuse will excuse "believers" for perversion as long as it "doesn't hurt anyone", in apparent disregard for the fact that it grieves the Holy Spirit. Regardless of the "standard", it is division or disagreement which cannot be tolerated.