In my recent piece on revisionism, I argued for the need to understand church history in its socio-economic and political setting. I would like to give you an example of that today to show why it is so important to understanding not only the history but our own time as well.
A paragraph from Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages will be shocking to many in just how twisted medieval power structures could actually be, and how corruption grew in them:
Despite its emperors and popes and kings, tenth-century Europe had a patrimonial, nucleated society based on the domination by great aristocratic families over everything (even the church) within their own territorial domains. Bastard sons and younger brothers of the local lords [partly due to their system of primogeniture] became bishops or abbots of local churches and monasteries. Religion, as well as government and economy and law, was dominated by the great families. Everything belonged to the lords, who became more and more greedy and aggressive—particularly in their own estates—as the years went by. By 1000 they were depriving their peasants even of the right to keep pigs or hunt in the forest, which, like everything else, belonged to the lord. As far as we know, however, there was no dissent and no rebellion. Because they were either too content or too effectively repressed, tenth-century peasants did not protest; the lower classes of rural society were (and remained for a long time) politically inert.
That vast array of clerical adulteri and younger sons was the only literate class below the feudal lords which created them. While papal power grew, it came to serve as a vast army of bureaucrats shuffling titles, deeds, and wills. But meanwhile, the masses below were left in superstition and ignorance while their already-limited rights were slowly eroded further away.
This was a system in which “the 1%” really meant something.
It is no wonder, then, that the church had long come up with the need for icons, images, etc. Since the services themselves—chants, canticles, prayers, liturgy, etc.—were held almost exclusively in Latin, the only theological education a peasant would ever get from the church in their lifetime was through its visual creations.
This struck me years ago when I had the privilege of honey-mooning in Beaulieu sur Dordogne in southwestern France. The small town had an abbey church with a unique relief sculpture above the entrance. It was huge. It was unique in depicting the second coming of Christ, His reign, the resurrection, and the judgment of evil souls. It is depicted here.
It is hard to imagine that this was virtually the only theological knowledge which most Christian peasants of the era would receive. There was certainly no worldview training. Peasants and commoners would have no idea how the substance of the faith actually applied to their lives, let alone to the grand superstructures of power that held them in ignorance, superstition, and relative (or actual) poverty. And as Cantor says above, they were content with such circumstance, or else were repressed into it, by nothing else, their own ignorance.
Now, I am no expert on the Middle Ages. I do better understand that similar circumstances still prevailed as the Reformation approached. While there were certainly rising exceptions in many areas, rural peasants were still oppressed by greedy and aggressive lords and the ecclesiastical-lackey hierarchies they continued to produce, at least in part, to insulate their wealth and status. Except, this time, with growing understanding from the published word of God, the Peasants were not so content.
If you read through the “Twelve Articles of the Peasants” published in 1525 as demands against an alliance of feudal lords (among other authorities) to which they were beholden, you will see a new attitude—one based on knowledge of rights based in Scripture. Read those Articles, and see if they don’t at least make sense given the social setting that has been described. Indeed, consider if they don’t contain precursors to modern freedoms (even if the peasants also expressed proto-socialist views) which our forefathers themselves found worth fighting for and shedding blood. But given the civil and religious structures of tyranny of that age, these very mild requests were earth-shaking, revolutionary, and a frightening curse for rich nobles and their ecclesiastical bureaus who wished to insulate their positions.
There were some Reformers who viewed things through a conservative (for that period) lens and who took the side of the lords. They were on the payroll, too, of course, and they argued that peasants just weren’t ready to be free, so they should be herded and whipped like animals. One of these spokesmen was Luther’s right-hand man, the hugely influential Melanchthon. He justified his view by denigrating the people:
A wild, untamed people like the Germans should not have as much freedom as they presently enjoy. . . . Germans are such an undisciplined, wanton, bloodthirsty people that they should always be harshly governed. . . . As Eccl. 33[:25] teaches; “As food, whip, and load befit an ass, so food, discipline, and work are the lot of a servant.”
Others recognized that the peasants were not so wrong. Luther was, at first, willing to acknowledge that the peasants had a seriously good point. He wrote to the lords on the peasants’ side:
We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion, except you princes and lords, and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks, whose hearts are hardened, even to the present day. . . . You do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer. . . .
For you ought to know, dear lords, that God is doing this because this raging of yours cannot, will not, and ought not be endured for long. You must become different men and yield to God’s word. If you do not do this amicably and willingly, then you will be compelled to do it by force and destruction. . . . It is not the peasants, dear lords, who are resisting you; it is God himself, to visit your raging upon you.
The peasants have just published twelve articles, some of which are so fair and just as to take away your reputation in the eyes of God and the world.
It is evident that Luther saw the lords to blame and saw the peasants’ demands as “just.” Indeed, God was on the side of the peasants. Indeed, the peasants’ resistance was God’s Himself!
I wish I had time here to tell the whole story. I’ll have to save it. But Luther, unfortunately, abruptly switched sides when the lords refused the peasants’ demands, and the peasants in turn began to revolt. It could be argued Luther did so for acceptable reasons, but that is a story for another day, and which I’ve told at length elsewhere. Many at the time saw Luther as a sellout. The violent, revolutionary, self-proclaimed prophet Thomas Müntzer, for one, referred to Luther as “Brother Fatted Swine and Brother Soft Life.” But then again, he would. He saw Luther as a sellout who preferred the protection of the established nobles to the true radicalness of his message. The point is that the peasants were left to themselves and their violent leaders, and were eventually crushed by the establishments. By some estimates, 100,000 peasants lay dead after the rebellion.
My points so far would be two. First, you’ve probably never considered that all of this social background—and really much more—formed a backdrop to the Reformation. That great movement was not just a theological debate about indulgences nailed on a door, and an angry ecclesiastical establishment. There was an entire, society-wide questioning of fundamental roles, statuses, estates, taxes, land acquisitions, revolts, repressions, and more all in the mix. If we don’t understand this mix to some degree, we’ll fall prey to same ignorances as those medieval peasants who didn’t know better because they couldn’t—they couldn’t see outside the box of their own ignorance.
And that leads to my second point: the ignorant stay ignorant unless acted upon by an outside force. If we continue to read church history as a series of disputes over piety, over heart religion, we will miss the vast heritage of social, economic, and political applications appurtenant to the Kingdom of God. You will have a denuded message, and a self-imposed tyranny will follow.
In many ways, our situation is not much different than tenth century Europe, or sixteenth century Germany: our pulpits are involved in a silent, in some cases unconscious, grand conspiracy to keep the people ignorant of the full scope of the teachings of the Bible. We are just a blinded by our cultural setting that most Christians don’t even see it.
Except, our pulpits know better, and yet they remain silent. We have the full Bible in our hands, and yet we rarely apply it fully due to a range of fears. And we have pastors like Tullian Tchividjian now telling us on national television that the pulpit is no place for social issues! I can hear D. James Kennedy, the predecessor to, and founder of, that pulpit, rocking in his grave. Would that he would roll over so violently as to ripple an earthquake down North Federal Highway and wake a few people up at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church!
This nonsense is why real education is so important. We are as a culture largely ignorant of the full scope of what God would have us do, and a large reason for that is the failure of the establishment-pulpit complex that would prefer we stay that way. We are in a serious rut of ignorance, and fear based on ignorance based on fear—and it is all our own fault. God will judge these pulpits and their lords.
More on this to come. . . .
 Cantor, 22.
 Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 144.
 Martin Luther, “Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia,” Selected Writings of martin Luther: 1523–1526, ed. by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 319, 320, 322.
 “Sermon Before the Princes,” Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. Williams, George H. The Library of Christian Classics 25 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), 61.