Since this issue of the Standard Bearer concerns itself with church reformers in the medieval church, it will be helpful to gather a bit of information about the period. The Middle Ages covers the period from Pope Gregory I (AD 590) to the Reformation (AD 1517). Let us recall the character of this age.
This era is often described as the dark ages due to the decline in education and culture. While it is true that education and the knowledge of the classics declined considerably, it is also true that the church maintained schools throughout this period. Universities also trace their beginning to the Middle Ages. Even so, only a small number in the general population received any schooling and ignorance was widespread, even, sad to say, among the clergy.
This was also an age of faith. The majority of the population in both the eastern branch of the empire (Byzantium) and the western branch (Rome) were members of the church. Parents normally submitted their children for baptism. They lived in fear of church discipline. They brought their tithes and offerings to the church, making possible the erection of huge, beautiful cathedrals and basilicas.
The Middle Ages witnessed monumental battles between the powers of the church (bishops and popes) and the powers of the kingdoms (kings and nobles). The almost unending struggles were over money and power.
In addition, this was a time of dreadful apostasy and astounding ecclesiastical corruption—so deep and pervasive that the only remedy was a re-forming of the church. The Middle Ages concluded when Christ called His people out of the vile and murderous whore that the church on earth had become, and led them to begin the church anew.
That history is ours, believers, as part of the church of Jesus Christ. It is a history recorded for our instruction and warning. What then ought we to learn from the history of the church in the Middle Ages? Of the many lessons, we select eight.
The Leaven of False Doctrine
At the dawn of the era, most of the church followed Augustine’s sound instruction on the doctrines of sovereign grace, rejecting Pelagius and his blatant denial of total depravity. However, some were inclined to a Semi-Pelagian notion that fallen man is spiritually sick, but not dead. Related to that, the church had some ascetic notions that extreme physical self-denial was spiritually profitable and even praiseworthy.
Over the next 1,000 years, those defects in theology developed into the heresies of the free will of fallen man, work-righteousness, and justification by faith and works. It spawned thousands of monasteries, where men imagined they were living on a higher moral plane than most and earning their way to heaven. The error destroyed assurance and produced the horrible doctrine of purgatory. It led to laws requiring clerical celibacy and the resulting cesspool of sexual sins. The false doctrine spread like a cancer that corrupted the entire body of truth, until the church completely denied Christ and taught the people doctrines of devils ().
Learn the lesson! False doctrine spreads and grows relentlessly. Error corrupts and destroys the foundations until the church crumbles to the ground.
From the medieval church we receive strong warnings against desecrating worship. This age reveals that man by nature desires worship that excites the senses. Spiritual worship is very difficult to maintain. In the Middle Ages, the church sought to please men. She included more and more that appealed to the senses—vestments, candles, glorious cathedrals, the mass (a one-man drama intended to depict the suffering of the Lord), and especially, the idols. The sermon, and Christ crucified, were lost. God will be worshiped as He determines, not as we like. Resist the temptation toward externalism in worship.
The one only God-appointed Head of the church is Jesus Christ. He cares for His church on earth through the offices of elder, minister, and deacon. The medieval church forgot this. She first elevated the clergy above the believers, and then the clergy raised up a complex hierarchy. This culminated in a man (the pope) boldly claiming that he was the vicar of Christ, and head of the church on this earth. Another denial of the Lord. We learn that Reformed (biblical) church polity is vital for the church.
Love of Money
If ever a history demonstrated the truth that the love of money is the root of all evil, it is this period. The Middle Ages saw the church become filthy rich. Wealthy men gave lands and property on which to build churches and monasteries. The lands produced more wealth, and the clergy enjoyed the fruit in lives of luxury. That in turn produced envy in evil men who sought the church offices for the sake of filthy lucre. Lucrative positions were sold to the highest bidder (simony). The peasants were taxed and pressed for money, even threatened with eternal destruction if they did not produce sufficiently, while the priests lacked nothing. This, in turn, led to lascivious and profligate lifestyles, too evil to describe.
Beware the love of money. Well does the Spirit warn the church against appointing to office men who are “greedy of filthy lucre.”
Some of the most grotesque “memories” of the Middle Ages are the crusades. The popes crisscrossed Europe exhorting, cajoling, and bribing (forgiving earthly debt and promising eternal blessing) the people to rescue the “holy lands” from the infidels. Fathers forsook their poverty-stricken families and left them to fend for themselves. Children streamed off to slavery, or death. Horrible atrocities were perpetrated against fellow Christians as well as Muslims. The crusades were about money and power— particularly, for the pope. Crusades were an abomination to the God of heaven and His Son.
We learn that the “holy lands” have no significance for the church in the new dispensation. And the cause of Christ is never, ever advanced by the sword. The crusades remain a deserved reproach on the church headed by the pope in Rome.
Separation of Church and State
The fiercest and most prolonged battle of the entire medieval age was between the church on the one hand and the rulers on the other. The investiture controversies involved the question of who may appoint the clergy at all levels. The pope insisted that only the church has this right. The rulers objected that these men are also rulers in the land. As part of the feudal system, bishops were often magistrates over a sizable portion of land. They made laws, collected taxes, raised armies, and administrated justice. The kings, with some justification, insisted that such men must be loyal to them, and thus kings must appoint the clergy. On the other side, popes thought they had authority from Christ over the earthly rulers. In addition, the church often refused to allow clergy to be tried in the courts of the land— only the church might try them.
Let us learn from this calamitous history. The church must do the spiritual work of the church of Christ and stay out of the affairs of government as much as possible.1 And she must not allow the government to intrude into her affairs.
Pictures of the Antichrist
The medieval church is a harbinger of the final kingdom of antichrist. That kingdom will have a political side that exists in perfect harmony with a religious side. The head of that coming kingdom will oppose and exalt “himself above all that is called God, or is to be worshipped; so that he as God [will sit] in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” ().
The pope of the Middle Ages was the prefiguration of that man. He made himself the head of the church. He claimed authority over all the world. In 1303, Pope Boniface VIII issued the Bull “Unam Sanctum” [i.e., One Holy (Church)] which concluded, “We declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”2
And that is not all. Judging from the history of the pope, we can see that the antichrist will be proud, vile, greedy, and bloody. The pope “fulfilled” the prophecies of the yet-to-come antichrist by making “war with the saints” (). Untold thousands of saints died a martyr’s death at the command or approval of the pope. Examine the medieval pope and his vile “kingdom” and you will see the harbinger of the final antichristian kingdom of man.
God is Faithful
Through it all, God preserved His church. Through false doctrine, idolatry, and unspeakable corruption, the remnant of His people was preserved. In spite of dishonest, greedy clergy that fleeced and oppressed the flock; in spite of persecution, and every opposition to the truth, the church of Jesus Christ endured. The only possible explanation for this is the sovereign grace of God—ironically, the very grace denied and virtually obscured by the church in the end of that era. God is faithful. He has promised that He will never leave or forsake His church (). He has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18). A faithful church will serve Him to the end of the world.
What a comfort for the church today! We stand near the end. The false church steadily becomes more powerful and more corrupt. The world powers inch toward political unity. The one worldwide kingdom of man will bring persecution such as the church has never experienced (). But God will preserve His church. When the Lord Jesus appears on the clouds of glory, those believers who “are alive and remain shall be caught up…to meet the Lord in the air” ( ). No matter what happens to me, to you, or to the church institute that we love, God will preserve a faithful remnant who will refuse to accept the mark of the beast.
Let the history of the medieval church, then, give confidence and comfort as it manifests above all the unfailing faithfulness of Jehovah God.
1 The Church Order of Dordt, Art. 30 reflects the experience of the church: “In these assemblies ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted and that in an ecclesiastical manner.”
2 Church and State Through the Centuries. Translated and edited by Ehler, Sidney E., and Morrall, John B. (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1954), 90.