Four Lessons on Church Revitalization from John Knox
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 THE PREACHER
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). 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 Queen and royal authorities, he constantly called Protestant leaders to resist any compromise, not even when faced with persecution or exile (both which he 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?
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 fall of 1554, he 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 toward 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, 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” (101) 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. 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 who 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 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 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? Four lessons:
1) Only God’s Word can reform 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.
2) Know your church’s constitution/by-laws/statement of practices.
Every church is ordered in some way. Beyond its statement of faith and church covenant, 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 recognized, 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.
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, 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 every 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.
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. 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 laboring to reform a church more closely to God’s Word, 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” (Mt. 10:16) Even as we preach the gospel with Knox-like boldness, we must shepherd and lead with Christ-like shrewdness and wisdom.
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A version of this article originally appeared on the Historical Theology website.
 All references are taken from Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).