He Obeyed God as Ruler Rather Than Men
“We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”
ALMOST 2,000 years ago, these bold words rang out across the Sanhedrin hall in Jerusalem. A group of first-century Christians were being questioned by the Jewish high priest. They had been arrested in the temple while they were teaching a crowd of people. Jehovah’s angel had commanded them to go there and preach God’s Word. The priests had told them not to. Whom would you obey in such a situation? The Christians had no doubt. They would obey God as ruler rather than men.—Acts 5:17-32.
In the many centuries that have passed since that time, others have followed their bold example when religious leaders, like those first-century Jewish priests, have refused to hear the truth themselves and have tried to prevent others from hearing it. (Matthew 23:13) At the beginning of the 15th century, John Husa (1371-1415) appealed to those same words when he was ordered not to preach in his native Bohemia (a part of modern Czechoslovakia). He recognized the supreme authority of God and His Word at a time when the pope and the church were considered supreme by almost everyone else. How did he come to take this stand?
Origins of Hus’ Bible Teaching
John Hus was brought up by his widowed peasant mother; so to get an education was a struggle. He often had to sing in churches to earn a living. Although he was not brilliant, he managed to gain an education at the University of Prague and finally rose to become the rector of the university.
At that time, there was much strife in the university between the Germans and the Czechs. Hus became a champion of the Czech cause, and his influence grew as he became a more powerful preacher. For some time, there had been unrest and discussion over many abuses involving the Roman Catholic Church, and this was intensified by the spread of the writings of the English reformer John Wycliffe. The Bohemian movement did not owe its origin to events in England; rather, it ran parallel with them. John Hus found himself attracted to the writings of Wycliffe, especially the work On Truth of Holy Scripture, which he obtained in 1407.
He was opposed, however, by Archbishop Zbynek of Prague, who took exception to Hus’ preaching and publicly burned many of Wycliffe’s writings in 1410. Zbynek followed this by prohibiting all preaching except in recognized churches, which excluded the Bethlehem Chapel where Hus presided. Hus refused to obey the archbishop’s prohibition, stating that he had to “obey God rather than men in things which are necessary for salvation.” He appealed to the pope, whereupon the archbishop excommunicated him. But Hus did not waver, finding that his greater understanding had sharpened his conscience and made it more sensitive to the teachings of the Bible. He stated clearly: “Man may lie, but God lies not,” echoing the apostle Paul’s words to the Romans. (Romans 3:4) King Wenceslas defended Hus’ reform movement, and ultimately Zbynek fled the country, dying soon after.
Opposition to Hus rose once more when he condemned a crusade against the king of Naples and exposed the sale of indulgences for it, thus spoiling the priests’ revenues. The indulgences allowed a person to get a remission of temporal punishment by a money payment. To avoid bringing problems on the city, Hus left Prague for temporary exile in the country. There, in 1413, he wrote the work On Simony, which exposed the clergy’s love of money and the support that was given them by the secular authorities. Again, Hus found his authority in God’s Word, saying: “Every faithful Christian should be so minded as not to hold anything contrary to the Holy Scriptures.”
Hus also wrote a treatise entitled De Ecclesia (On the Church). In it he set forth a number of propositions, one of which stated: “That Peter never was, and is not, the head of the Church.” He found that the key verses of Matthew 16:15-18 clearly established Jesus Christ as the foundation and head of the church, which was the entire body of called-out believers. So the law of Christ as found in God’s Word stood supreme and not that of the pope. Rather, the papacy had its origin in the power of imperial Rome.
Testimony Before the Council of Constance
The Catholic Church could no longer put up with Hus’ exposures and summoned him to answer for his views before the Council of Constance, held from 1414 to 1418 near Lake Constance.b He was tricked into attending by the king’s brother, Emperor Sigismund, with the promise of a safe-conduct, which quickly proved to be false. Soon after his arrival he was arrested, but he continued to resist the authority of both the pope and the council.
When the council called upon Hus to retract his ideas and teachings, he replied that he would gladly do so if he was proved wrong by Scripture, in accordance with 2 Timothy 3:14-16. Hus felt that his conscience would always reproach him if he made a retraction couched in ambiguous terms. He declared: “My wish always has been that better doctrine be proved to me out of Scripture, and then I would be most ready to recant.” Despite his challenge that the least member of the council show him his error from God’s Word itself, he was condemned as an obstinate heretic and sent back to prison without anything being discussed from the Bible.
On July 6, 1415, Hus was formally condemned in the cathedral of Constance. He was not allowed to reply as the charges against him were read. Then his priesthood was publicly stripped from him, while his writings were burned in the churchyard. He was led out to a field in the suburbs and there burned at the stake. His ashes were collected and thrown into the Rhine River to prevent anyone from keeping relics of this martyr. Because of the close links with John Wycliffe, the council also condemned that reformer—who was already dead—ordering his body to be exhumed and burned and his ashes flung into the river Swift in England. Later, Hus’ most prominent follower, Jerome of Prague, was also burned at the stake.
What Hus Achieved
In that age, Hus was one of the first men to dare to oppose the authority of both pope and council and to accept instead the supreme authority of the Scriptures. He thus set in motion the movement for the rights of the individual, for freedom of conscience and speech.
More than a hundred years later, Martin Luther in Germany was accused of renewing the errors of Wycliffe and Hus. Certainly, Luther had the same basic view as Hus when saying: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Perhaps that is why he said: “We are all Hussites without knowing it.”
Hus, Wycliffe, and Luther really did revive many of the teachings of the early Christians. Of course, they did not go along that road fully because it was not easy in those days to dispel the darkness of centuries. Yet, they all agreed on one important matter: God’s Word had to come first, no matter what the opinions of men. The first Christians held this same enlightened viewpoint because they had been taught by the Master, Jesus Christ, himself.—John 17:17; 18:37.
Today, Christians must take the same stand. We have many advantages over those earlier centuries. First, the Bible is freely available in most languages. Second, in these last days the holy spirit has guided responsive ones to a greater understanding of the Bible. Have you accepted this understanding? If so, you will have no hesitation in taking up the principle that John Hus so insistently echoed. Today, a larger number of people than ever before in history are living by those words of the apostles: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
a Sometimes spelled Huss.
b A council is a meeting of bishops and other leaders of the Catholic Church to consider and hand down decisions about doctrines, disciplines, and other matters. A number of such councils throughout history are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
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Czech Bibles, such as the 1579 edition shown above, are prized by collectors today. John Hus was burned at the stake because he valued what the Bible said above the word of man