An iconoclast. A controversial thinker. Not a good pastor, but a man whose thoughts and leadership did more for the common saints of England than perhaps any church leader in British history.
He’s part of my family, and I like him. He’s John Wyclif. Like most family members, I mostly like him, but am troubled by a few things about his life. Maybe I like him because he reminds me a bit of myself, and my own troubling weaknesses. Sometimes I think I am a direct product of Uncle John’s spiritual gene pool.
First, some of the rough stuff. He was part and parcel of a religious machine that he at once a) criticized openly, and b) benefited from handsomely. In those days, you could get assigned the oversight of a church in England, and not even have to be there – you were simply expected to get substitutes to cover your bases. Uncle John was awarded a rectorship when he was 31, and another one at 44…but never lived in the towns of the churches until he had to for political reasons, when he was 52 – 21 years! For all this time, he was paid by the church as an absentee rector, but stayed in Oxford, where he thought, and wrote.
What I love about Uncle John W. is his mind. He addressed many issues that today, with our post-Reformation perspective, seem somewhat obvious. But they weren’t then. They were shocking, “heretical”, and considered dangerous. Some examples:
* He believes all political rulers need to be godly, and that leaders who live blatantly sinful lives forfeit their right to govern. Not the “divine right” of kings, but the “divine responsibility” of kings.
* He believes the Bible is free from error, free from contradiction, and is God’s entire revelation – that there is no need for added teachings by the church, and that all theological thinking needs to be measured against the text of scripture.
* He believes that Jesus is present in the Lord’s Supper, but not in the way Thomas Aquinas described a century ago, saying Jesus is “transubtantiated” into the physical bread and wine. Uncle John W. thinks it is more mysterious than that.
* He believes that the office of the Roman papacy is man-made, not God-ordained. He also believes the pope should have no authority in secular government. Finally, he says an immoral pope – in fact the entire papacy – is “the antichrist” (and the popes were quite immoral those days!).
Interesting…the Roman church usually burned thinkers like Wyclif at the stake, right? How did he survive? The same way another one of our family members did – Martin Luther. Both of these men enjoyed enough political protection in their home countries to continue thinking and publishing. Sure, Uncle John’s ideas were repeatedly condemned by Rome, but no one was able to lay a hand on him…
Well, until after he died, He passed away on New Years Eve in 1384, after experiencing two strokes. But, just because he’s dead doesn’t mean he can’t be punished. 44 years after he was buried, they exhumed his bones, and burned them. I guess that showed him.
There are different kinds of people in our spiritual family. Some are great with people. Others are deep in prayer. There are those who are unusually active in service. And there is the occasional super-evangelist.
And then, there are people like Uncle John W. They see things. They get things. They uncover blind spots for others, which often isn’t received too well. They make logical connections from truth to truth which challenge the status quo. They aren’t particularly skilled at kneading his thoughts into the hearts of individual people – that’s what pastors do. But they get the important, game-changing thoughts out on the table, and those thoughts find their way to the right people who can, in turn, make a difference on the ground.
It seems I spend much of my time these days wrestling with what I think are important thoughts … then sharing them … then apologizing for the hurts they inflict on others. I mean no harm – in fact, I truly want my ideas to be redemptive. When people seem to be after my bones, Uncle John W. reminds me that I’m not alone … and, by the grace of God, it may well be worth it in the long run.