Church History and Modern Worship - Wycliffe
I’ve come to believe that a reformer is not so much a person who renews as much as one who remembers. A reformer looks back to remember how a movement or religion began in its purest form, and does everything in his or her power to return it to its original glory. When thinking of the Protestant Reformation, the names Martin Luther or John Calvin ring a bell for many, but oftentimes the contribution of John Wycliffe is overlooked. Wycliffe was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation and one who, no doubt, had a conviction to restore the life and doctrines of the Church to their original intention – a true reformer.
In Church History And Modern Worship - Constantine, we looked at the life of Constantine and how, it seems, that we are currently in a Constantinian Age of worship. We discussed how the Church has departed from the priesthood of believers and has moved towards the aristocratic leadership of the “elite” worship leaders and pastors. In part 2 of this series, I would like to study the life of Wycliffe, his contribution, and what our modern worship could gain in listening to his voice.
Give Us a King!
In 1 Samuel 8, we find a scene in which the Israelites confront the prophet Samuel, asking (or rather demanding) for a king to take rule over their nation. Samuel, displeased, takes this request to God and in verse 7, God replies saying: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
After this, Samuel confronts Israel with a harsh warning, but still the people reply in verse 19:
“’No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we be like all other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’”
It seems we, as God’s people, have always had a difficult time accepting our identity as a community of priests under the leadership of God Himself. Just as the Israelites desired to be like the “surrounding nations” and were consumed with the idea of a king, we are far too easily wooed by the flash and glam of ministry celebrities.
A Kingdom of Priests
Malcolm du Plessis, a friend and mentor of mine, has stated that “one of the great accomplishments of the redemptive work of the cross was the ordination of every single believer into the priesthood; each of their certificates of appointment sealed with the blood of Jesus.” Therefore, whenever a gathering took place in the early Church, everyone was expected to bring something to the table (no pun intended). They truly were a kingdom of priests. Unfortunately, as we discussed in part 1, with the rise of Constantine and the Imperial Church came the decline of the congregation’s role in worship. However, at the end of the dark ages the pendulum began to swing back and men like John Wycliffe started to speak up.
Wycliffe, an Englishman, lived from 1329-1384. He was a student and professor of Oxford for the greater part of his life. Early on, he spoke out against immoral clergymen and the Church leadership’s ownership of property (which he felt was a root of corruption). But it wasn’t until the year 1379 that Wycliffe began to share his most radical ideas. Keeping with the fashion of a true reformer who remembers rather than renews, Wycliffe believed the Church should model itself after the pattern of the New Testament. It grieved Wycliffe as he witnessed a Church marked by elitism versus a common priesthood of believers. For example, the Church worship gatherings Wycliffe would have attended usually focused around one man singing in a language (Latin) that the common people couldn’t understand. It became an impossibility for the Church to function as a collective priesthood.
Disgusted with the Babylonian Captivity (1309-1377) and the Great Schism (1378-1417), Wycliffe began to speak out against the very dogma of the Roman Church. He attacked the authority of the pope, insisting that Christ alone was the head of the Church. For Wycliffe, the true Church wasn’t just the pope and his visible hierarchy, but rather the entire body of true believers. Also, Wycliffe believed Scripture was the possession of the Church and therefore only the true Church could interpret it correctly. In light of this, the Bible should be translated into the language of the people, so that all could contribute towards its interpretation; not just the pope and his visible hierarchy. In order to support his beliefs, Wycliffe worked to make the Bible available to people in their own tongue, and by 1382 he had translated the New Testament into English. Up until this point, Latin was the language of instruction.
Listening and Learning from Wycliffe’s Voice
It seems throughout history the pendulum has swung back and forth – from worship gatherings marked by collaborative communities to those marked by aristocratic forms of leadership. Sadly, in the past 50 years, I fear that the pendulum has once again swung in favor of the elite leadership. The “revolution” of the rock star worship leader, the seamless and polished worship set, the “slick” worship band, and the professionally produced worship services have all contributed to us looking more like the “surrounding nations” than the kingdom of priests modeled in the New Testament. With services programmed down to the second, the hope of the ordinary believer participating in any other way than being a part of the audience has diminished. I believe we should listen intently to Wycliffe’s voice; to once again return to the table as a collaborative community of believers, where every son and daughter participates, bringing their unique gifts as an act of worship. It’s time for the larger body of believers to not just serve as consumers and spectators in our worship gatherings, but also as participators.
Resources used in the completion of this blog:
The lectures of Dr. Sam Hamstra, Affiliate Professor of Church History and Worship at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2nd Edition, August 10, 2010.
Tucker, Ruth A. Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011.
Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Throughout The Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan; 3rd Edition, 1954, 1981, 1996.