Have you ever heard of a church that repented? Not individuals, but an entire church that collectively recognized its congregational transgressions and openly, genuinely repented, with biblical sorrow and brokenness.
Sadly, you probably have not.
For that matter, have you ever heard of a pastor who called his church to repent and threatened his congregation with divine judgment if they failed to do so?
It’s not likely. Pastors today seem to have a hard enough time calling individuals to repent, let alone calling the whole church to account for their corporate sins. In fact, if a pastor were so bold as to lead his own church to repent, he might not be the pastor for much longer. At minimum, he would face resistance and scorn from within the congregation. That inevitable backlash is likely strong enough to generate a kind of preemptive fear, keeping most church leaders from ever considering a call for corporate repentance.
On the other hand, if a pastor or church leader has the temerity to call for another church—rather than his own—to repent, he will almost certainly be accused of being critical, divisive, and overstepping his authority. He’ll face a chorus of voices telling him to mind his own business. Vilifying him, therefore, clears a path for the confronted church to sidestep his admonition altogether.
The fact is, churches rarely repent. Churches that start down a path of worldliness, disobedience, and apostasy typically move even further from orthodoxy over time. They almost never recover their original soundness. Rarely are they broken over their collective sins against the Lord. Rarely do they turn aside from corruption, immorality, and false doctrine. Rarely do they cry out from the depths of their hearts for forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration. Most never even consider it, because they have become comfortable with their condition.
In reality, calling the church to repent and reform can be very dangerous. Church history is replete with examples.
The Great Ejection
The name “Puritan” was devised as a term of derision and scorn. It was applied to a group of Anglican pastors in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who sought to purify the church of its remaining Roman Catholic influences and practices. These Puritan pastors repeatedly called for the churches of England to repent of their extensive carnality, heresy, and priestly corruption. But the Anglican Church would not repent. They could not deny the need for reformation, but they wanted a “middle way” rather than a thorough reformation.
Those who held the reins in the Anglican hierarchy remained impenitent—but not passive. They were determined to silence the voices calling them to repentance. For decades, the Puritans faced hostility and persecution from church leaders and political rulers alike. Many suffered and died for their faith, while many more endured imprisonment and torture for the sake of Christ. The persecution reached a crescendo in 1662, when the English Parliament issued the Act of Uniformity. The decree essentially outlawed anything other than strict Anglican doctrine and practice. That led to a monumental and tragic day in England’s spiritual history: August 24, 1662, commonly known as the Great Ejection. On that day, two thousand Puritan pastors were stripped of their ordination and permanently thrown out of their Anglican churches.
Those faithful Puritans understood that the Church of England had to repent and reform before the nation would ever turn to Christ. But rather than reject their wickedness and corruption, the impenitent leaders of the Church of England attempted to silence anyone calling for repentance and restoration.
Subsequent history reveals that the Great Ejection was no isolated event with temporary significance. The spiritual turmoil did not end once the Puritans were excommunicated and separated from their congregations. In fact, it’s safe to say that the Great Ejection was a spiritual disaster that serves as a clear and dark dividing line in England’s history, and which has implications to the present day.
One of those ejected ministers was Matthew Meade. Concerning the Great Ejection, he wrote, “This fatal day deserves to be written in black letters in England’s calendar.”  Matthew Meade, "Remedying the Sin of Ejecting God's Ministers," in C. Matthew Mcmahon, ed., Discovering the Wickedness of our Heart (Crossville, TN: Puritan Publications, 2016), 174. Iain Murray describes the spiritual fallout of that dark day:
After the silencing of the 2,000, we enter an age of rationalism, of coldness in the pulpit and indifference in the pew, an age in which scepticism and worldliness went far to reducing national religion to a mere parody of New Testament Christianity.  Iain Murray, ed., Sermons of the Great Ejection (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1962), 8.
J. B. Marsden saw the event as an invitation for the Lord’s judgment. He wrote,
If it be presumptuous to fix upon particular occurrences as proofs of God’s displeasure; yet none will deny that a long, unbroken, course of disasters indicates but too surely, whether to a nation or a church, that his favour is withdrawn. Within five years of the ejection of the two thousand nonconformists, London was twice laid waste.  John Buxton Marsden, The History of the Later Puritans: From the Opening of the Civil War in 1642, to the Ejection of the Non-Conforming Clergy in 1662 (London, UK: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1854), 469–70.
He wasn’t wrong. The Great Ejection occurred in the summer of 1662. In 1665, an epidemic of the bubonic plague struck London, killing more than 100,000 people, roughly one quarter of its population. The following year, a massive fire swept through London, incinerating more than 13,000 homes, nearly a hundred churches—including St. Paul’s Cathedral—and decimating most of the city. Many historians agreed with Marsden, viewing those disasters as divine retribution for England’s impenitence.
Still, those disasters don’t compare to the spiritual consequences of England’s apostasy. After citing the plague and the fire, Marsden continued, “Other calamities ensued, more lasting and far more terrible. Religion in the church of England was almost extinguished, and in many of her parishes the lamp of God went out.”  Marsden, The History of the Later Puritans, 480.
J. C. Ryle, who served as the bishop of Durham in the late 1800s, summed up the spiritual cost of the Anglican Church’s impenitence this way: “I believe [the Great Ejection] did an injury to the cause of true religion in England, which will probably never be repaired.”  J. C. Ryle, "Baxter and His Times," in Lectures Delivered Before the Young Men's Christian Association, vol. 8 (London, UK: James Nisbet and Co., 1853), 379. Indeed, over the centuries that followed, England has succumbed to a culture of liberalism, overrun with cold, dead churches and awash in apostasy and spiritual darkness.
And despite the centuries of foul fruit that sprang from the Act of Uniformity and the Great Ejection, the Church of England failed to achieve its primary goal. The Puritans were scattered, but not silenced. Many of the men who were ejected from their churches went on to have influence that continues to this day. Spiritual stalwarts such as Richard Baxter, John Flavel, Thomas Brooks, and Thomas Watson were among those who lost their pulpits in 1662 but faithfully carried on as outlaw preachers. Along with many others, they continued to expose the corruption of the Anglican Church, calling for its repentance.
The Puritans effectively carried on the legacy that began with the Reformers more than a century earlier. Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, and other key sixteenth-century Reformers participated in perhaps the greatest corporate call to repentance the world has ever seen. Their preaching and teaching transformed the medieval world, and their legacy continues into the present.
For that reason, we’ll take a closer look at the Protestant Reformation next time.
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