The Issues Change But the Disputes Remain

Some of my friends embrace what I call "Reformation romanticism." This notion generally colors everything they see and do in the modern world. In this romantic spirit the modern is generally bad, while things from the sixteenth and seventeenth century are mostly good! A little reading and a great deal more honesty would help to cure most of this nonsense.

On April 6 Dr. Raymond Mentzer helped me to see more of it through a public address presented as the Meeter Center Biennial Lecture (Calvin College, Grand Rapids). The lecture had the arcane title, "No Benches Are Reserved: Seating Disputes in the French Reformation Church." Dr. Mentzer’s lecture actually focused on sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant France. He showed that during this pristine time period benches and chairs first became part of the physical provision of Christian churches in France.

The choice to bring seating into the churches actually came from the emphasis of John Calvin on preaching. In order to support the Reformed style of worship church buildings in France were built, or renovated, to include a pulpit surrounded by pews and chairs. Though seating, in theory at least, was open and unassigned, in reality it was segregated according to age, sex and social status. Benches and chairs were built by church members and thus became coveted and disputed possessions. Consistories (elders and deacons) had to regularly deal with church disputes and divisions that resulted over this new seating.

In one instance an inheritance dispute over a pew was resolved when the consistory locked the contested bench in the church bell tower! Both parties, demonstrating real piety and grace, quit attending the church as a result. Dr. Mentzer argued that these disputes were very often severe and continued for over a century.

So, there you have it. An effort by the earliest Reformed Protestants to renew the church ended in division and strife. Mentzer argued that "something as mundane as seating actually caused more division in the community of believers than attempts to control dogma and theology." Some things never change!

I see issues in our day that parallel these bench disputes much more than really important theology. (I have Reformed friends who have bene run off from jobs and pastorates for being too modern in their approach to music, worship and related issues, as just one example!) Our big theological disputes really look and sound more like "bench disputes" than really necessary ones for renewal. A little reading and preaching of James 2:1-13 might help us here a great deal. I pray Reformation romantics will soon see the silliness of their near worship of the early Protestant era as pristine and driven only by important theology. I also pray that they, and all the rest of us, might seek the greater good of the church without falling into more modern "bench disputes." What a tragedy such history reveals. May God open all our eyes.

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