By Michael Dewey, Head of School
All good, enduring reformation begins with ourselves and takes its starting point in one's own heart and life. Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family
This past week marked the 505th anniversary of the official start of the Protestant Reformation. In recognition of Reformation Day 2022, I wanted to highlight two reformed leaders that exemplify what we are committed to instilling in our students.
The first is Luther himself. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Luther’s theses delineated what he believed were abuses and false teachings within the church. Leaders in Rome were outraged, his writings were quickly banned, and Luther was ordered to appear before the Emperor.
History records for us his words before what was undoubtedly an intimidating audience:
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.
Luther was branded a heretic, excommunicated from the Church and proclaimed an outlaw. In fact, the Emperor’s edict declared that anyone who killed Luther would not suffer legal consequences.
The second example comes from a modern American church leader who also stood in the reformed tradition, J. Gresham Machen.
To say Machen was a controversial figure in the 1920s would be an understatement. As a minister and New Testament scholar, Machen was troubled by those in his own denomination who were undermining the supernatural nature of Christianity and denying the inspiration of scripture. In addition to speaking against these views, he authored numerous books warning the church not to travel down the road of liberalism. For his efforts, he was labeled contentious and divisive. Ultimately, he left his denomination and teaching position at Princeton to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary.
In our Historical Theology course, we read a selection from his book Christianity and Liberalism, which I think sums up what drove him to speak out:
In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding. The really important things are the things about which men will fight.
Machen was convinced that denying the authority of scripture would strip the faith of its very essence, rendering it nothing more than a secular moral philosophy. To him, defending the truth of God’s word was of utmost importance.
What do these examples tell us? Some would call these men stubborn and argumentative, troublemakers bent on disrupting the cultural status quo. We call them heroes of the faith. Why?
Our society values, perhaps more than anything else, not offending others. On the surface that sounds good. Unfortunately, our society translates this sentiment into a false sense of tolerance that claims all views are equally true, and that all beliefs should be equally accepted. Unless you happen to be a Christian.
If you disagree or have the audacity to speak up for what you believe, you face social shaming – and with the prevalence of social media, shaming has reached epic proportions. Standing with conviction, pointing out falsehood and shoddy reasoning, has suddenly become a vice in our culture.
As a result, many Christians are afraid to speak out, not wanting to be considered intolerant or offensive. These believers have taken to living their faith in quiet seclusion. Even worse, some are walking the very path Machen warned about in the early 20th century, choosing instead to reinterpret the teachings of scripture to bring them in line with prevailing cultural mores.
What Luther and Machen have in common is that they were both willing to stand up and defend the truth of God’s word. They were willing to speak out regardless of the criticism and consequences they faced. To borrow Machen’s words, they were men willing to fight, willing to argue and defend what they knew to be true.
Isn’t this exactly the kind of leaders we need today?
It might seem counterintuitive that at a Christian school I’m commending Christian students to be women and men willing to fight. But this is exactly what our world needs today and it’s exactly what we as Christians are called to do.
In Jude, we are told to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). The Apostle Paul tells us to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). In the book of Acts we are told that Paul was so provoked by the prevalence of false idols, that he found himself in the marketplace every day, reasoning (arguing) with the Athenians about their ignorance concerning God and the resurrection (Acts 17:16-31). Not surprisingly, he was mocked by the crowd.
At ECS, the challenge to our students is simple: Don’t be afraid to fight for truth. Don’t let the voice of reason and faith be drowned out by critics and propagators of false tolerance.
Some of our students have already become master arguers, both in class and at home, as I’m sure parents and teachers can attest. However, we would be failing in our educational efforts if we didn’t point out that there is a right way and a wrong way to argue and fight.
First and foremost, we are commanded by scripture to love. This is one of the things that our society will throw in our faces whenever we try to speak out. You Christians really ought to be all about loving and accepting others – so be quiet and fall in line!
But we must remember that we are also commanded to tell the truth. Love must never be separated from truth. In fact, the most unloving thing that we can do to someone is to remain silent while they live in error, especially when their error has eternal consequences.
Speak the truth in love, says Paul in Ephesians 4:15. In Colossians 4:6, he says, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”
We want our students to be leaders willing to argue and fight but always with grace and love.
When they are ready to leave us and go off to college and out into the larger world, each of them will encounter the difficult choice of either walking on cultural eggshells, fearing any whiff of being labeled intolerant, or courageously, faithfully, and winsomely speaking out for truth, knowing that they may well be shamed and persecuted.
By God’s grace and through His word, we will prepare them to choose the latter. The world doesn’t need just any kind of leader. It needs leaders who stand for what is good and true. It needs a new generation of young people raised up to lead on behalf of Christ.