Reform/Revival: Do we have a Pope Leo IX approach?

When Bruno, bishop of Toul was elected pope (Leo IX) on February 12, 1049, he was already on fire with a zeal for the reformation of the church. He set about immediately to eradicate simony (the practice of paying for ecclesiastical office) and to impose the monastic ideal of celibacy on all clergy. In his history The Story of Christianity, Justo Gonzalez explains the motives for this strategy.

“…in that feudal society the church was one of the few institutions in which there still existed a measure of social mobility…But this social mobility was threatened by the practice of simony, which would guarantee that only the rich would occupy the high offices of the church. If to this was added clerical marriage, those who held high office would seek to pass it on to their children, and thus the church would come to reflect exclusively the interests of the rich and the powerful.”

Leo’s program was followed by several successive reforming popes, but in the end it backfired.

“Indeed, the two pronged offensive against simony and clerical marriage was unwise, for it created an alliance between the powerful prelates who profited from ecclesiastical posts, and the many worthy members of the lower clergy who bemoaned simony, but who were married and refused to set their wives aside.”

This is a good illustration of why it doesn’t work when we try to fix problems in the church (or in people) by adding new rules.

In the Bible, there is no mystery when it comes to what sort of person is qualified to lead God’s people (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Basically, it is someone who is spiritually minded and has a whole lot of integrity—a person who is above reproach. The expectation in the New Testament is that godly leaders will train up and appoint more godly leaders according to these qualifications.

By the time of Leo IX, there was a long history of compromise and corruption in the church. Needless to say, it had strayed far from the New Testament pattern. Certainly it would have been an uphill battle, but shouldn’t reform have begun with a call to repentance and a return to Biblical qualifications for leadership? If the pope had the authority to impose celibacy and demand the abolition of simony, surely he could have used his influence to insist that clergy be held to a standard of godly character.

Fast forward to us.

When we become aware of neglect, decline, stagnation, abuses, stupidity, or compromise in the church, how do we respond?

Do we begin with personal repentance? Are we willing to let the Holy Spirit show us how we are a part of the problem or how we can change to be a part of the solution? Do we struggle in prayer for the body of Christ? Are we deeply committed to doing our part to promote health, integrity, and spirit-led community in the church? Do we endeavor to set our hearts and minds on God’s priorities and invite others to do the same?

Or do we try to protect the purity of the church by imposing extra-biblical rules and expectations concerning how people in the church ought to act and appear. Do we replace Biblical accountability with self-justifying outward standards and crippling policies and procedures? Do we try to fix spiritual apathy by promoting new methodologies and adopting popular leadership techniques? Do we attempt to gloss over a lack of passionate involvement in the body of Christ by keeping ourselves and others busy with activities and programs?

When we refuse to get to the heart of the matter in personal growth, in discipleship, or in the health of the church, all of our other strategies to correct problems will eventually backfire.  Indeed, we are still feeling the effects of the well-meaning attempts of Leo IX and his successors to reform the church a thousand years ago.

The standards of Christ are high enough.


We need only train ourselves and others to seek God and be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and to our conscience in the outworking of our obedience to the Word of God.

Skills, plans, strategies, disciplines, creativity, methods, and programs can all be great tools where there is Godly character and passion, but they amount to nothing without it.

Personally or corporately, true reform will only happen when there is a commitment to seek (and keep seeking) God, a readiness to repent of unbiblical assumptions, attitudes, and priorities, and a willingness to be held accountable to the word of God. I am convinced the Holy Spirit will take as much room as we give him.

That is what will change us. That is what will revolutionize the church. That is what will bless our world.


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