Our Reformed Heritage
There is a Time to Speak Out (Psalm 24:1)
Lesson 8: The example of John Wycliffe
by Bob Burridge ©2019
God gave us humans a high position in creation. We’re here to manage all he made as responsible children. Genesis 1:26 is often called the “Cultural Mandate”. There it says, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'”
As caretakers of God’s earth we have both authority and responsibility from God. But human power can easily become corrupted. In our fallen condition we humans are tempted to either neglect our responsibilities, or to go beyond the authority God gave us.
Fallen souls try to control others for selfish and ungodly reasons. They use threats, violence, or social pressure to manipulate them. Power hungry people don’t manage what they have for God’s glory. Some even dare to question God’s own right to be what he is. Those who crave power for personal gain are like the original power hungry one: Satan. They try to intimidate others to get them to do what they want them to do.
Abuse of authority has been a problem in every level of the society. It’s turned some homes into battle grounds and broken up marriages. It’s caused tension in the work place. It’s created brutal dictatorships and abusive empires. It even found its way into the church in its earliest decades.
Abused power has no real God-given right to control another person’s soul or conscience. Before we let ourselves be controlled by wrong authority, we need to remember the words of Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, The world and those who dwell therein.”
Every property you own, every dollar you earn, every object you make, every plant you grow, belongs first and completely to God your Creator. These things are yours as an entrustment to be cared for in ways that please God, in ways that fit in with the principles he gives you in his word.
Before you abuse your own dominion, before you get jealous of what God gave somebody else, before you get overly possessive of any earthly thing, keep this in mind — with earthly ownership comes a spiritual responsibility.
The world brags about its possessions and gains, but it misses the value of all it has. By defying God who gives all things, we forfeit the blessings attached to them.
The Morning Star of the Reformation
Psalm 24:1 was important when the Morning Star of the Reformation started to shine. That’s what they came to call John Wycliffe.
After the time of the Apostles the church started to drift away from what the Bible taught. Some turned the ministry into a way to become rich and powerful. They had no respect for the teachings of Christ and the Scriptures. Communion became a magical transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s physical body. Salvation was turned into a commodity the church sold for profit. Fear became a way of manipulating the people. The Bible was misused to support fanciful teachings. The people were easily mislead because it wasn’t available in their language. Pagan myths and holidays became mixed into the church teachings and practices. They became strong traditions that were hard to correct.
The power struggle in the church made some abandon the form of government described in the Bible. God’s word tells us that the church was to be overseen by local ordained Elders (Presbyters). Instead, Bishops became powerful. Soon there were Bishops over the Bishops. Eventually the idea of one Great Bishop over all the church produced the first Popes.
The 1300’s were years of growing corruption in the church. The Pope made alliances with kings and rivals nations to get more power and wealth. There were rebellions of the common people who were over taxed and denied basic freedoms. There was a time when there were several Popes each claiming to be the true Pope.
The world was ripe for real reform. John Wycliffe became convinced that the Bible, not human councils, should be our rule for life. He was a good speaker, a very detailed scholar, and an effective writer.
To him, Psalm 24:1 meant that everything belongs to God. If a person with authority abused what God entrusted to him, he lost his right to manage it. Churches that became oppressors were not true churches. It wasn’t the right of the church to amass worldly power, take land from people, and collect taxes. He said that Christ is the only true head of the Church, and God’s word limits the power of ordained church leaders. Those who abuse church offices, forfeit their authority.
This obviously appealed to Kings and Nobles who wanted to break free from the Pope’s control. Soon Wycliffe was being quoted in the debates against the Pope’s power. In 1377 he was called before the Bishop of London to be put on trial. Pope Gregory XI then ordered John’s arrest. But the nobles and landowners who didn’t want the church taking their land protected Wycliffe. His influence and writings continued.
In the last years of his life, from 1382-1384 he translated the Bible into English for the first time. He had the help of others, and had to use the Latin Vulgate translation since he didn’t know the Bible’s original languages of Hebrew or Greek. But his translation had an amazing effect. It gave God’s word to the people.
He sent men out two by two to distribute the Bible and to teach the people. They were called the poor ministers content to live in poverty, going barefoot, and wearing long robes. They carried a staff to represent their work as shepherds to God’s people. Though it was similar to an order of priests, these men were reformers. They were governed by God’s word, not by any permanent vows. His enemies called them the Lollards. This was a derogatory term, but there are different theories about what it meant.
Wycliffe promoted what the Bible taught and exposed false teachings. He questioned abused authority, taught against the Roman Mass, gave the Bible to the people, and was blamed for the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381.
All this caused the Archbishop of Canterbury to again condemn him in 1382. 24 of his teachings were condemned, and he lost his position of lecturer at Oxford.
Years after his death in 1384 from repeated strokes, his influence grew. The corrupted church hated him so much that his bones were dug up to disgrace his burial. In 1482 they were burned by the Bishop of Lincoln and the ashes scattered on the River Swift. It’s said that his ashes would have been carried out along the rivers to the ocean, ironically representing how his influence continued to spread world wide, even after his death.
Taking a Bold Stand
Since all things belong first to God, and we are here to live for his glory, we need to be ready to take a bold stand when his truth is clearly challenged. When it comes to civil law, property rights, taxation, all the economic debates of today, the Bible’s principles differ from both classic Liberalism and and from secular Conservatism.
In Biblical sociology and economics, all things belong to God and are merely our entrustment. Therefore the aim isn’t to gain more wealth or power. It’s to bring all earthly things into agreement with God’s ways to the extent that you can as you carry out your responsibilities and provide for your needs.
Use your abilities, resources, talents, and authority responsibly so that in your homes, businesses, churches, and communities God’s truth and glory are promoted above everything else.
Knowing God’s Word
We can also learn from Wycliffe the importance of knowing God’s word. Today we have it in many versions and forms in our own language which we can read and compare. We dare not neglect this gift of God. Only by knowing what it says is right and true, can we really avoid being manipulated and controlled by fears and threats to our eternal souls.
There is still a lot of misinformation and confusion out there. People are convinced to give God’s tithe and their own provisions to thieves who pretend to offer God’s blessings. Don’t be taken in by abusers of God’s riches. They give false hope in mystical visions and seeming powers that are not from Christ.
Reformation is when we re-form our beliefs and practices back to the form God gave us in his word.
It takes the kind of courage and determination that isn’t found in hearts eager for power. It comes quietly to the most simple of us, to those who humbly rest in God’s promises through Christ. It doesn’t come to those who expect the greatest reward in amassing as much as the can for themselves. It comes to those who understand the creation mandate, that it’s their duty in all things to promote God’s glory in all he entrusts to them.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)
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