The reformation anniversary confetti has all been swept up. Some of us have heard a lot lately about the reformers and how God used them to help move the church toward greater faithfulness in their day. But what will it look like to be a reformer today? Perhaps we can learn from Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli’s (1584—1531) advice to his contemporaries.1
- True Reformers Willingly Evaluate their Movement
Reforming churches must be able to objectively assess their faithfulness. This is how the reformation started. The reformers had the rare courage and fortitude to be self-critical of the only church they and generations of their ancestors had ever known.
Self-critical leaders will learn to ask important questions like “What are we doing well?
Where do we need improvement? Where should we go from here?” A willingness to answer these question frankly and constructively can produce an increased unity of purpose within any leadership team.
- True Reformers Keep the Gospel Central
Christians who are eager for change need to be careful not to supplant the gospel with whatever issue has captivated their zeal. “If you make Christianity begin…with giving up” of particular errors, “you will nullify rather than implant your teaching.” We don’t become Christians by changing bad habits. We change bad habits because Christ becomes precious to us. When change is demanded, God’s people must be taught to repent of their sin so that they will find God a “gentle father.” “When you have well taught the knowledge of God, man, and Christ, and the Lord has given the increase, all the…errors that had risen up…will fall away.” Zwingli might sound overly optimistic, but such confidence in the gospel is necessary for deep and lasting change.
- True Reformers Guard against Unnecessary Offence
Zwingli was convinced of these two realities: changes must come and unnecessary offence is sin. The church must always be reforming. It must never think it has already attained, or is already perfected; it must press on (Phil. 3:12). But we must be careful to avoid unnecessary offence in our pursuit of biblical excellence.
Zwingli defines “offence,” (per Matt. 18:6), as insulting or contemptible treatment of others. Some church members rashly make changes that offend more timid believers. Others are too easily offended; they seem to “always [want] special consideration.” The goal of reformation is to so grow as a congregation that God is not offended by our lack of growth and the weak are not hurt by reckless change.
- True Reformers Exercise Wisdom
Much potential reformation fails for a lack of wisdom. “The matter must be begun in such a way that we may bring the most fruit to the Lord…never begin with these things that spoil the whole case.” “Things that militate against [faith] need to be demolished with skill, lest they do harm in their downfall and bury the little that has been already built up.” Case in point: as many of Zwingli’s contemporaries began to believe that religious images were unhelpful in Christian worship some people attacked images with reckless violence. Zwingli offered different advice: the city council should hire carpenters to carefully and respectfully remove the images in a way that would best minimize opposition. That’s wise reformation. A ninety-one year old pastor recently told me that one of the most lacking characteristics in church leadership today is common sense. That needs to change for change to happen well.
- True Reformers Understand the Value of Relationships
Before Zwingli and Luther actually met they had engaged in a prolonged and heated war of words. They spoke the same language and were born and raised in comparable cultures but had never gotten to know each other. After they met and lived together for several days in 1529 in a German castle they made unexpected progress in forging a common solution to some of their deepest disagreements. Too often church members forget about the human component in reformation. For us to navigate the difficult waters of change we have to build up trust and appreciation for each other.
- True Reformers Prioritize and Exercise Patience
Overzealous reformers imagine that all matters are equally weighty. Not true. “The things… on which faith hinges should be brought out without delay…” Many other things can wait. In the beginning Paul fed the Corinthians with milk (1 Cor. 3:2). Jesus said to his disciples, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). Effective reformers are able to distinguish between critical and desirable progress.
- True Reformers Submit to the Church
Modern believers need to learn this lesson: “No one ought to pronounce judgment until the church does.” Submission to the biblical, spiritual wisdom of church leaders tends to the advantage of the church (Heb. 13:17). To maintain good order, we must resist the urge to make personal disciples of our peculiar views (for or against alcohol, or a particular diet, or a dress code, etc.). When church members take up personal crusades for various causes problems almost always follow.
- True Reformers Are Purely Motivated
The first motive for church reform must be love for God. A reformer in the church must do “all things for [God’s] sake, and nothing for his own… for when the glory of God alone is regarded all things go on well.”
The second great motivation is love for one’s neighbor. Do you want to reform something because you are puffed up by knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1) or because you love people and are concerned for their well-being? “Love edifies for it desires to extend as widely as possible the domain of him whom it loves.”
Such a reformer, in Zwingli’s words, will be “wholly absorbed in keeping peace with all men as far as is in us lies,” and “in bringing men’s consciences into the quiet haven of faith and love of God.” Who wouldn’t want that kind of modern reformation?