The Protestant Reformation, which happened in the 1500s, has been praised by many in today’s churches as a momentous occasion where Christians took a stand against the false doctrines and abuses instituted under the Roman Catholic Church by leaving the church. Seminarians and church members of the various denominations often speak of the eloquence, courage, and sound theology of reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox.
However, a closer look at history paints a more honest picture of such men by revealing not only their positives, but their negatives also. These men did not emerge unscathed and completely pure from the Roman Catholic system that they were born into and grew up in. In some instances, they were just as deceived and corrupt as their Roman Catholic counterparts. Here are a few areas where they lacked godly knowledge:
1. Infant baptism: Even after exiting the Roman Catholic church, some Protestants such as John Calvin held to the false doctrine that an infant receives salvation through baptism. There are also Protestants today who see nothing wrong with baptizing babies even if they understand that this baptism does not bring salvation. The Bible states that baptism is reserved for those who have faith to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord and who understand that baptism is the answer of a good conscience toward God [Acts 8:35-38; 1 Peter 3:21]. Infants don’t have this capacity and don’t have the capability to repent, confess, or believe in Christ. If an infant or young child were to die without being baptized, God would receive them into heaven since they cannot understand what sin is or that they are in need of salvation from it. Therefore, God is gracious enough not to sentence them to hell for dying in their sinful state.
2. Dominion theology: This is the belief that Christ will reign over the whole Earth through the church, making it necessary for every citizen in the whole world to become a Christian, even by force. In some instances, dominionists believe Christ can only return to rule the Earth after everyone on Earth becomes a Christian. Embracing this theology stems from the denial that all true believers will one day be caught up to meet Christ before God punishes the earth with his indignation and also leads church members to be preoccupied with earthly things when Christ commanded us to store up our treasures in heaven. The apostle Paul also stated that Christians should focus on the things that are above, in heaven [Colossians 3:2], because the earthly things we see are temporary while the spiritual things we don’t see are eternal [2 Corinthians 4:17-18]. Dominion theology leads to the next false belief–
3. Church and state should be married to each other: Although the reformers of the 1500s decried the abuses heaped on the citizenry by Roman Catholic rulers, Luther and other reformers were in favor of expanding powers of Protestant politicians and rulers to meddle in church affairs when they chose Protestants to run their governments. Protestant rulers often abused their political authority in the same way the Roman Catholics did, with the blessing of their church leaders. By using the State to further their goals, Protestant reformers sought to make the kingdom of Christ an earthly kingdom, when Christ himself told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world. They were often strongly encouraged and sometimes shamed into choosing only rulers that were satisfactory to church leaders. This has continued even up to today when it is implied that Christians are displeasing to God if they don’t vote for candidates who most closely match Christian beliefs. Yes, Christians should desire godly leadership in government to help preserve morals to strengthen society, but we should not completely rely on the government to do the things that we are commanded to do such as look after the less fortunate (the poor, widows, elderly, and foreigners) in our midst or educate our children or help us spread the gospel.
What is often overlooked in arguing for only voting for “Christian” candidates is that God can also use unbelievers to fulfill his purposes. Whether a government ruler is Christian or not, we are given the freedom to make them accountable for their actions when necessary.
4. Church leaders placed on pedestals: Roman Catholicism created a priestly class to rule over their church and when Protestant reformers left Catholicism or were excommunicated from it, they continued this tradition. Creating a priestly class to rule over believers was an adoption of the gnostic doctrine of Nicolaitanism. It is the idea that those who have attended a religious school (seminary) are endued by God with special knowledge, giving them the sole right and authority to rule over the laity and to share the knowledge they have acquired as they see fit. This special knowledge with its authority are accompanied by special titles like Reverend, Pastor, Bishop, Elder, Deacon, Apostle, etc. Reformers like John Calvin were known to argue vehemently against a person if they even hinted that church leaders were not above the common people of the church.
Such reformers overlooked what Christ and his apostles said to his followers, such as shunning religious titles [Matthew 23:8-10], rejecting the exercise of lordship over fellow believers [Mark 10:42-44], and setting a godly example for the flock as a leader but not lording over it [1 Peter 5:2-3].
5. A distorted view of the Lord’s Supper: Martin Luther was quick to deny the teaching that during communion the priest has the power to turn the bread into the physical flesh of Christ and the wine into the physical blood of Christ (transubstantiation), but he embraced a similar doctrine, believing that Christ’s actual body and blood accompanied the bread and wine during communion (consubstantiation). The apostle Paul states in the Bible that Jesus told his disciples to take communion in remembrance of him [1 Corinthians 11:24-25]. In other words, it is a sacred symbolic memorial and nothing more. Jesus’ physical body and blood appear nowhere in the communion since it would be like crucifying the Lord over again. It was only necessary for Jesus to die once for all mankind [Hebrews 10:10]. Claiming that Christ in any way needs to be crucified over and over again is to diminish his sacrifice as being the same as the Old Testament sacrifices, which denies the power of his lordship.
6. Anti-Jewish sentiments: Martin Luther stated some of the most vile, vitriolic words against the Jews. When he left the Catholic church, he held onto their anti-Semitic doctrines, teaching that the Jews were worthy of hatred because they were responsible for crucifying Christ. He also believed God would have no more dealings whatsoever with the Jews. They were forever rejected and the Israel in the New Testament only referred to Gentile believers. This type of hatred ignores the fact that Christ himself was a Jew, that his 12 disciples were Jews, and that most of the Bible was written by Jews. When Christ suffered at the hand of the Jews, he asked God to forgive them. Although Paul suffered at the hand of his fellow Jews for accepting Christ, he still had love for them and desired their salvation [Romans 10:1]. Luther’s anti-Jewish leanings have been passed down for centuries to some modern-day congregations who believe that Israel’s rejection of the Messiah has sealed their fate and that God has rejected them forever.
These false doctrines that the reformers clung to that they learned from Catholicism shows they were not as reformed as they thought. Their doctrines have been passed down from generation to generation of the various Protestant churches and have only served to weaken the church, leaving the door open for more false doctrines to creep into churches and seminaries. All too often, today’s churches have looked to them and their traditions for guidance instead of leaning on the revelation of the Holy Spirit to teach them. This is why it has been rather easy for ecumenism to sweep through so many churches and why so many prominent evangelicals are caught up in the Evangelical and Catholics Together movement.
But he [Jesus] answered and said unto them [the Pharisees], Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? … ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Matthew 15:3, 6
Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2001.
Hunt, Dave. What Love is This? Loyal Publishing, 2002.
Vella, John M. Matters of church and state, Book review of Owen Chadwick’s The Early Reformation on the Continent, Modern Age, June 22, 2005.