How many times have I heard someone say or write there is nothing wrong with leaving the PCUSA “wasn’t that what the Reformation was about; leaving a corrupt church.” How many times have I heard people say “we shouldn’t leave the PCUSA until we are forced to leave; isn’t that the way it happened to Luther, Calvin and all of the other reformers?” History is never that simple. But those two positions in contradiction to each other are in some ways true and yet filled with so much other content that such arguments are meaningless.
Thinking historically on one side the corrupt church had been rather divided itself. After three Popes claimed to be Pope at the same time (1378-1417) a council was called (The Constantine Council called by Emperor Sigismund) to decide what to do. They called a different man to be Pope. And that was part of the division, between Pope and Council.
However, it was the same Council that declared that John Wycliffe’s teachings were heretical and burned John Hus at the stake.
But thinking biblically and looking at God’s side of historical events, the word of God was at work and it can never be thwarted. The word read, the word proclaimed, the word listened to, would do its work and it would not be stopped. So all of the events that transpired, that brought back authority to God’s word, that returned human hearts to justification by faith, that removed the sacraments from a magical ritual minus the word, must be blamed on the providence of God. As many were guided by the Holy Spirit to a clear understanding of the word of God, Jesus as Lord was once again lifted up. He once again became Lord.
As Timothy George writes:
What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the word is to be heard” he remarked. He also said, “If you were to ask a Christian what his task is and by what he is worthy of the name Christian, there could be no other response than hearing the Word of God, that is faith. Ears are the only organs of the Christian.” He listened to the word of God because it was his job to do so and because he had come to believe his soul’s salvation depended upon it. Luther did not become a reformer because he attacked indulgences. He attacked indulgences because the Word had already been deep in his heart. And so the acts of the reformers followed from the word of God. And their acts, their proclamation, brought down the wrath of unconverted sinners on the heads of the reformers and brought many to understand that Jesus forgives and justifies the sinner.
Most are familiar with Luther and his debate with John Eck as with his brave speech at Worms. Most know that Calvin was Catholic and French but ended up as the great Protestant Pastor of Geneva in Switzerland. Most know that Zwingli was a Swiss Pastor who died in battle with a double edged weapon (not the Bible) in his hand, but the details of the actions of the reformers are broad and deep. They show the vast and incomprehensible ways that God guides his church. And they also show the care that these individuals held for the authority of the word, the salvation of souls, the building up of the church and the need to always glorify God.
Luther’s attacks on indulgences, birthed from the biblical text that God’s salvation is a gift, hit at the very heart of a papacy and a system that was involved in buying favoritism and buildings with money given to earn forgiveness and salvation. Grace and charity meant nothing to his opponents. Money and buildings, position and cathedrals were all important.
Not only did Luther preach the word of God in his churches, not only did he dispute with the church hierarchy at least four times, defending all on the basis of the biblical text, when the text of his excommunication arrived, he burnt it. Worm was to follow and then the Pope declared him an ‘outlaw’ (vogelfreis).
While still a Catholic priest, Zwingli, because of the word of God, did several remarkable things. In 1519 he broke the tradition of using the lectionary (which leaves out some biblical texts) and instead began expository preaching starting with Matthew. Going further, as his faith grew, he renounced his priesthood and his papal pension. George writes:
By the early 1520’s, Zwingli could no longer retain his status as a priest in the Roman Church. Two events mark his break with Rome and his public adherence to the Protestant cause. In late 1520 he renounced the papal pension he had been receiving for several years. Two years later, on October 10, 1522, he resigned his office as “people’s priest” of Zurich, whereupon the city council promptly hired him as a preacher to the entire city. Zwingli was probably the most volatile of the Reformers, but always because of the word of God. Finding nothing in the Bible about not eating meat during lent, he fed some tired workers sausages and kraut and then defended them when they were arrested. One historian wag states, “The fat was in the fire, literally and figuratively.” 
John Calvin was part of an incident in Paris that caused him to flee, eventually to Switzerland:
Nicholas Cop, a friend of Calvin and Rector of the University of Paris, delivered a convocation address which shocked his hearers. Though not what we would call a hot gospel sermon, it had enough evangelical content to offend the defenders of Catholic orthodoxy. On All Saints Day, Cop did not praise the saints but rather proclaimed Christ as the only mediator with God. Cop was forced to flee for his life. Calvin was “implicated in the event.” He left the city. Later others posted placards around the city about the superstitions connected to the mass. The French evangelicals were persecuted; many fleeing from France including Calvin to Switzerland. 
All of these incidents came by way of the proclamation of the word; the Bible proclaimed and listened to by Christians. They had ears, and listened and followed where the Lord led by means of the word of God. Today in our denomination, some will go because God calls them to go. Some will stay because God calls them to stay. But all will be attentive to the word and only in that obedience will we find ourselves where God wills to work.
See, Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, (Nashville: Broadman Press 1988), 34
See William R. Estep, Renaissance, Reformation, for a good account of Luther’s debates and trial.
George, Theology of Reformer, 114.
William R. Estep, Renaissance, Reformation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 1986) 170.
George, Theology of Reformer, 175-176.