Did you know that John Knox – the champion of the Scottish Reformation, the fearless preacher, the uncompromising prophet – was once defeated by a church business meeting?
Knox’s legend began early. Converted under the preaching of the early Scottish Reformer George Wishart, he became his sword-bearer, carrying a claymore to Wishart’s preaching engagements. After Wishart’s martyrdom, Knox became a preacher himself and his plain, fiery preaching won the hearts of English and Scottish alike. Standing up to the royal authorities, he constantly called Protestant leaders to resist any compromise, even when faced with persecution or exile (both of which he experienced).
Knox the pastor
In the winter of 1553, with the accession of Queen Mary, Knox and his companions were exiled to the continent. By the autumn of 1554, he was invited to minister to the English-speaking church in Frankfurt am Main. With John Calvin’s encouragement, Knox accepted the position and began working to reform the church toward a more Reformed liturgy.
Up to that point, the church had been following the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, but there were many in the church, along with Knox, who wanted to remove any remnants of Roman Catholic practice and align it more closely with the Reformed church. However, there was a smaller group that was cautious about reform and wanted to preserve English distinctness and solidarity among the English exile churches. Though they were the minority within the congregation, they had the support of other congregations.
For the next several months, Knox would preach powerfully against the 1552 Prayer Book as ‘superstitious, impure, unclean, and unperfect’ and was tasked, with other church leaders, to revise the liturgy. However, among the leadership, there was disagreement and Thomas Lever came to represent the opposing view. Unable to reach a compromise, leaders made public charges against one another, particularly between Knox and Lever. Eventually, the matter had to be settled in a congregational meeting.
As Knox walked into the formal church meeting to discuss these issues he felt confident, given the clear majority who supported his views. However, Knox’s opponents had a plan: ‘Enough of them had engaged in the cut and thrust of cathedral chapters or college politics to know the group tactics of manipulating the agenda, stage-managing walkouts and block voting. In this company, Knox was a raw novice and he made a series of tactical errors’.1
A group of English exiles from Strasbourg, led by Richard Cox, had recently come to Frankfurt and applied for admission to the congregation. The first item to be debated was whether to admit them first or to discuss the charges. Knowing that the Strasbourg group was supportive of Lever and the 1552 Prayer Book, a motion was proposed to discuss the charges first, but this was rejected in favour of their normal practice, which was to deal with admissions first.
Another matter that was discussed was discipline for those who had recanted the Reformed faith back in England or participated in the Mass. At this, Lever’s supporters began making a noisy protest and staged a walkout, complaining that this was an insult to good Protestants.
It was in the midst of this deadlock that Knox made a serious mistake. Knowing that admitting the newcomers would create a majority for Lever, Knox remained confident that the charges that had been raised against Lever were so clear that he would win regardless.
But the eventual results weren’t surprising: ‘Over-confident about his own position, he was tactically naïve and an almost inevitable sequence followed. After the newcomers were admitted, the vote on the breach of agreement was rushed through and Lever was absolved. Then Cox promptly capitalised on his dominant position by discharging Knox from preaching, thereby depriving his opponents of one their best weapons… [this] action completely undermined Knox’s authority as a minister and implicitly denied the congregation’s call.’2
Though Knox would go on to champion the Reformation in Scotland, on this occasion, he was outmanoeuvred and defeated by church politics.
What can we learn from this occasion about church reform?
Only God’s word reforms the heart
Before reform is possible, the voting congregation of a church must be sitting under the preaching of the word because only God’s word can reform the heart. Knox had only been in Frankfurt for about four months, and the Strasbourg group had only heard Knox preach for a few weeks at the time of the vote. Unsurprisingly, rather than finding their unity in the gospel, they looked for it in their cultural identity and personal agendas.
A pastor must be patient before seeking to bring change. He must depend on God in prayer; he must seek to build a patient ministry by faith. Perhaps this was Knox’s downfall. Perhaps he had too much confidence in his own cause, too much faith in majority support, that he came to place the burden of reform on men rather than God.
When Knox’s opponents removed him from the pulpit, they shrewdly separated him from the central tool for reform, God’s word. Had Knox been able to patiently preserve the peace while continuing to preach, the outcome might have been very different.
Know your church’s constitution
Every church is ordered in some way. Beyond its statement of faith, almost every church will also have a document describing how they are to be governed. This might include how to take in new members, how leaders are recognised, how often the church holds business meetings, and so on.
If you’re working for reform in a church, you need to know these documents thoroughly. You need to know both what those documents require and what they don’t require. As the pastor, Knox had the freedom and opportunity to lead the congregation to a vote on the charges right away. But for the sake of former practice, that was rejected, and Knox didn’t press the issue.
Be willing to lose members
When the issue of church discipline came up for those who had recently recanted or participated in the Catholic Mass, a portion of the congregation threatened to leave. Though the majority of the congregation supported Knox, they and the leadership allowed themselves to be intimidated by this minority group. As a result, reform stalled.
As long as a church tries to move forward without ever losing anyone, reform according to God’s word will be effectively impossible. In almost every case, reform means losing some members. Here, church leaders need to have a vision for the long-term health of the church and for all those who will come in the future, rather than merely keeping everyone presently together.
Unite under biblical convictions
Knox’s biggest mistake was the admission of the Strasbourg party. Throughout their stay, they opposed reform. But they were admitted into the church – not because of their appreciation of the teaching or agreement with the leadership, but because they were fellow English exiles. Church reform is only possible if church members increasingly find themselves united around shared biblical convictions – not shared culture, ethnicity, or anything else. If a congregation isn’t committed first and foremost to God’s word, then any reform based on God’s word will likely fail.
For all those who are labouring to reform a church, we’re reminded of the Lord’s words: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16) Even as we preach the gospel with Knox-like boldness, we must shepherd and lead with Christ-like shrewdness and wisdom.
Geoff Chang is Associate Pastor at Hinson Baptist Church, Portland, Oregon.
This article, used with permission, was first published on HistoricalTheology.org
1. Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), p.101s
2. Ibid, p. 102