Four Lessons from John Knox on Local Church Reform

John Knox, champion of the Scottish Reformation, fearless preacher, uncompromising prophet… 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 (29).[1] After Wishart’s martyrdom, Knox became a preacher himself and his plain, fiery preaching with “ruide boldness… unto your faces” (59) won the hearts of both English and Scottish alike. Standing up to the Queen and royal authorities, he constantly called Protestant leaders to resist any compromise, not even when faced with persecution or exile (both which he himself experienced).

Soon after becoming a preacher, Knox was captured by French Catholic forces and enslaved in French galleys for 19 months. One story captures Knox’s spirit: 

On a Saturday evening in the galleys during the singing of the Salve Regina, the anthem to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Scots donned their caps instead of respectfully removing them and then pulled the caps over their ears to block the sound. This ostentatious refusal to participate was taken a stage further when a beautifully painted image of the Virgin was brought round the decks so that each member of the crew might kiss it. A Scot, probably Knox himself, told the ship’s officer he did not want to handle the image because to him ‘such an idol is accursed.’ After the painting had been thrust into his face and forcibly placed in his hands, ‘advisedly looking about, he cast it into the river and said, “Let our Lady now save herself: she is light enough; let her learn to swim.”’ These acts of defiance convinced the galley officers it was not worth trying to enforce Catholic observance among the Scots. (56-57)

But for all of Knox’s boldness and preaching, how was he as a local church reformer?

In the winter of 1553, with the accession of Queen Mary, Knox and his companions were exiled to the continent. By the fall of 1554, Knox was invited to minister to the English-speaking church in Frankfurt on the Main. With John Calvin’s encouragement, Knox accepted the position and began working to reform the church towards a more Reformed liturgy (92-93). 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, that 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” (101) and was tasked with other church leaders in revising the liturgy. However, among the leadership, there was disagreement and Thomas Lever came to represent the opposing view. Unable to reach a compromise, public charges began to be made among the leaders against one another, particularly between Knox and Lever. Eventually, the matter had to be settled in a congregational meeting. In the Frankfurt church, “the lay leaders had introduced a strong element of congregational participation for the management of the church that bore little resemblance to the organization of the Church of England” (93).

As Knox walked into the formal church meeting to discuss these issues, he felt confident given the clear majority which supported his views. However, Knox’ 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” (101).

A group of English exiles from the Strasbourg 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 made to discuss the charges first, but this was rejected in favor 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 at the insult of this to “good Protestants” (102).

It was at this deadlock that Knox made a serious mistake. Knowing that admitting the newcomers would create a majority for Lever, Knox was still confident that the charges that had been raised against Lever were so clear that he would still win regardless. The results were not 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 capitalized 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. (102)

Though Knox would go on to champion the Reformation in Scotland, on this occasion, he was outmaneuvered and defeated by church politics.

What can we learn from this occasion about church reform? Three lessons:

1) Only God’s Word can reform the heart

Before reform is possible, the voting congregation of the 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.

Therefore, a pastor must be patient before seeking to bring change, depending on God in prayer and faithful ministry. Perhaps this was Knox’s downfall. In his confidence in his own cause and the majority support, he came to place his trust in man rather than in God, for reform. And when Knox’s opponents removed him from the pulpit, they very wisely removed the central tool for reform, namely God’s Word. Had Knox been able to patiently and shrewdly preserve the peace, while continuing to preach, the outcome might have been very different.

2) Know your church constitution/by-laws/statement of practices

Every church is ordered in some way. Beyond their Statement of Faith and Church Covenant, almost every church will also have a document describing how they are to be governed (usually called the Church Constitution or By-Laws or Statement of Practices). This might include how to take in new members, how leaders are recognized, the frequency of church meetings, how disputes are settled, and so on. If you are 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 towards a discussion of the charges to a vote right away. Yet for the sake of former practice, that was rejected and Knox did not press the issue.

3) Be willing to lose members for the sake of long-term health and reform

When the issue of church discipline came up for those who had recently recanted or participated in the Catholic Mass back in England, a portion of the congregation threatened to leave. Though the majority of the congregation was in support of Knox, they and the leadership allowed themselves to be intimidated by this minority group. As a result, reform was unable to move forward. As long as a church tries to move forward without every losing anyone, they will not be able to reform according to God’s Word. In almost every case, reforming the church will mean 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.

4) Unite the membership under the authority of God’s Word

Knox’s biggest mistake was the admission of the Strasbourg party. Here was a group that had only recently arrived in Frankfurt and throughout their stay, they were in opposition to the reforms that the leaders were trying to bring. However, they were admitted into the church, not because of their understanding of the teaching or agreement with the leadership, but because they were fellow English exiles. Church reform is only possible if the membership is increasingly finding itself united around biblical conviction, not 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 laboring to reform the church more closely to God’s Word, we are 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.” (Mt. 10:16) Even as we preach the gospel with Knox-like boldness, may we shepherd and lead with Christ-like shrewdness and wisdom.

[1] All references are taken from Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

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