Dealing with Religious Violence During the Reformation
It is impossible to ignore the fact that during the sixteenth century, as in all centuries before and after, religious and irreligious people sometimes resorted to the use of force in promoting their ideas. Roman Catholic historians suggest that their church burned between 4,000 and 40,000 religious opponents between the years 1480 and 1800. In those years, the Roman church inflicted non-deadly punishments upon hundreds of thousands. Non-Catholics, too, sometimes used fear and force to suppress their critics.
Sadly, this was true in Ulrich Zwingli’s city of Zurich. Not only did the Zurich city council preside over several executions of people who disagreed with the reforming church, but Zwingli himself provided little space for religious disagreement. Baptists and Catholic monks and nuns were treated with inexcusable harshness by those who had adopted Reformation doctrine.
When a majority of people in a region decided for the Reformation, the Catholic minority was denied rights and sometimes forced to leave. Zwingli did not allow others the liberty of conscience which he valued so highly. Throughout history, the people of God have often forgotten about God’s gospel-means for enlarging his kingdom.
So how do we come to terms with the fact that some of our “heroes” wrongly used violence in an attempt to promote the cause of Christ?
First, we should try to understand—not defend—our heroes’ faults.
When we consider the heroes of the faith in Hebrews eleven, we are struck by this reality: our great cloud of witnesses includes those who struggled with drunkenness (Noah), anger (Moses), and sexual impurity (Samson). Our heroes have been polygamists (Abraham), deceivers (Jacob), and doubters (Sarah). Scripture is shockingly honest about believers’ sins in order that we might take heed lest we fall into the same sins (1 Cor. 10:13). To be a godly example, one need not be perfect, only sincere in following God in the face of challenges. Ulrich Zwingli was a sinner saved by grace. We need not, and we must not, defend his sins in order to be grateful for his life.
Second, God’s people are seduced by the sins of their age.
The patriarchs, for example, could hardly imagine what we now take for granted: godly marriages are made by the lifetime union of one man and one woman. The generation of Israelites who left Egypt were pressed hard by the temptation to complain against God. Many godly men of the nineteenth century held regrettable views regarding evolution and slavery. Generations from now, church historians will lament some of our current views and practices. In the sixteenth century, almost no one could conceive of the peaceful coexistence of people with strongly held opposing beliefs. Heresy, or serious doctrinal error, was considered by almost all sixteenth-century people to be an offense worthy of death. We should not be surprised that Ulrich Zwingli spoke harshly against his opponents and urged the use of harsh measures against them.
Third, godly people often believe better than they behave.
In this life, God’s people are both sinners and saints. We hold biblical principles but fail to see how they should be applied in every area. We teach truth but struggle to live truth, and we often fail to see the contradictions of our own lives. Zwingli was at his best when he stuck to one of his leading principles: change comes by clear teaching and principled decisions. Sadly, Zwingli tarnished the gospel when his zeal for the Reformation muddied his confidence that God’s kingdom advance not by human but by divine power worked through proper means. We should be honest about the faults of our heroes. We should grieve over them; we should learn from them. But insofar as they teach us to imitate Christ, we should not be discouraged from imitating those flawed believers who have gone before us (1 Cor. 11:1).