Lessons from the Reformation for Biblical Fundamentalists

Engraving. Martin Bucer at 53.

From Faith Pulpit, Fall 2014. Used by permission, all rights reserved.

One of the ironies of the Reformation is that though the Reformers had separated from the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers attacked other groups of the time for separating from them. The Reformers had solid reasons to justify breaking the unity of Christendom in sixteenth-century Europe, mainly their proclamation of salvation by grace through faith and not of works as opposed to the works-righteousness system of the Roman Church. However, the Reformers were not willing to allow that right of separation to a third group in the Reformation, a group I call the Sectarians.

I define the Sectarians as a conglomeration of various movements of the time. Some took the Bible (especially the New Testament) as their authority while others used the Bible but considered the leading of the Holy Spirit as revealed to them as the final authority. The groups were known as Anabaptists, Spiritualists, or by the name of their founder or leader. Some practiced believer baptism while others refused to practice any church ordinance. They do not easily fit into our predefined categories.1 Essentially, Sectarians were those who did not identify with the Roman Church or the Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin). The Sectarians were not a unified movement but rather a mixture of dissenting subgroups active both before and during the Reformation. The Sectarians and their contributions to the Reformation are often the most misunderstood aspect of the entire era because people frequently do not take time to look closely at each individual subgroup to analyze what it believed. In any case, it is certainly not correct to group them all together under one particular name, such as Anabaptist, like some writers are prone to do.

Contrasting views

The Reformers and Sectarians held contrasting views in two areas. First, the magisterial Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin defined churches as made up of those born in a given geographic location who were members by virtue of their infant baptisms. Many Sectarians considered the local church as comprised of professing baptized believers who voluntarily joined together for worship and admonition. Second, because of the differing views on the definition of a church, the Reformers joined their church reform efforts with local civil governments to varying degrees. The Sectarians resisted state control of churches and believed in church-controlled discipline (Matt. 18).

The Reformers’ churches were marked by the preaching of the Word and the practice of the sacraments,2 but the churches manifested a noticeable lack of personal purity. The Sectarians believed church discipline was an essential part of a true church because it protected its purity.3 Reformers were concerned about this lack of personal purity though they did not always accept responsibility. Martin Luther said:

Doctrine and life must be distinguished. Life is bad among us, as it is among the papists, but we don’t fight about life and condemn the papists on that account… . When the Word remains pure, then the life (even if there is something lacking in it) can be molded properly… . With this I have won, and I have won nothing else than that I teach aright.4

Calvin expressed similar discouragement when assessing the lives of his people.5 The Reformation in England evidenced comparable concerns.6

The role of Martin Bucer

Though Martin Bucer (1491–1551) was not one of the three major Reformers, he dealt head-on with many of these concerns because of the numerous Sectarian subgroups in his city of Strasbourg. He did so to a greater degree than most Reformers because of his firsthand observations and his envy of the holy lives of the Sectarian church members. He wanted that personal purity for his state church. He repeatedly petitioned the city government for permission to implement the “ban” (as church discipline was called)7 on unholy living and for control of discipline by the city churches.

However, like all civil governments in Europe, the Strasbourg city council was unwilling to grant control to the churches or even to pursue discipline of church members with any vigor.8 This unwillingness eventually led Bucer to rebel against the laws of the city council concerning the operation of the state church (which Bucer himself had helped to establish some years before). In the time just before his exile from the city, after two decades of ministry there, Bucer attempted to establish voluntary assemblies within the state church of Strasbourg. These gatherings met for mutual encouragement, accountability, and the practice of church discipline.9 This practice was illegal in the eyes of the council and no doubt was a contributing factor in their allowing Bucer to be exiled from the city in 1549.10

Aside from the legalities of the city council, there are several reasons why Bucer’s scheme to purify his church in Strasbourg failed. Essentially he was trying to pursue two different views of the church at the same time. The Sectarian churches were voluntary. Professing believers chose to join them, having first submitted to believer baptism. Believer baptism demonstrated to others not only the individual’s profession of salvation but also his/her desire to live as a disciple of Christ. In contrast, the state church model mandated everyone born in a given location be presented as infants for baptism, thus extending church membership to those infants. Infant baptism destroyed the vital element of personal decision in both salvation and church membership. Such a situation did not provide for a pure church.

Additionally, upon joining a Sectarian church, an individual was agreeing to the accountability of other members to guard the purity of his/her life. This mutual accountability followed examples of church discipline in the New Testament (1 Cor. 5) and was for the purpose of restoring the erring brother and protecting the body. Again in comparison, the Reformers themselves complained that in their churches known drunkards and fornicators could partake of the Lord’s Supper11 because of the continual reluctance of the local governments to prohibit them. Church discipline was in the hands of the civil governments. This state of affairs made purity of the churches impossible to maintain.

Bucer was unable to free church discipline from the control of the local government, and neither could any of the other magisterial Reformers in sixteenth-century Europe. But he tried more than most to reproduce elements of the Sectarian church model into his state church to try to maintain purity. Another Bucer scholar concluded:

The attempt to pursue two ecclesiologies at the same time, one comprehensive and the other selective, was probably self-defeating. The requirements of the former must undermine the latter.12

Unity versus purity

The question must be asked: Why did the Reformers in general, or Bucer in particular, not opt for a Sectarian model? This question is especially pertinent since those churches evidenced the fruit in believers’ lives that the Reformers sought so much to obtain.

The answer is tied into the issue of unity versus purity that will be applied in the next article. The Reformers wanted to reach as many people as possible with their understanding of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. However, they also tried to accomplish a lot more. They wanted to create a better Christendom13 within a cooperating church/state context than the Roman Church had done. The Reformers looked to accomplish this goal by using the civil government to implement their reforms. Within a Christendom context, the Reformers hoped that all the people in a given locality could be brought into the church through infant baptism, and (their hope was) they could be reached with the gospel at some later point in time.

The Reformers could ensure a presentation of the gospel to the masses by having the civil governments enforce their ecclesiastical regulations, such as mandatory church attendance like many of them required. They rejected the Sectarian model of the church because they would lose a great majority of their congregations if people only came if they wanted to. Thus the Reformers prioritized unity.

The problem many Sectarians saw in such a strategy was the decrease of the purity in the lives of the church members. If everyone in the area was a church member, what distinguished them from the world? In many instances, the Sectarians prioritized the purity of lives and doctrine in their churches as they looked to the New Testament, rather than to an idealized Christendom, as their model for the church. So the Sectarians prioritized purity.

The Reformers asserted that the church had two marks: the Word and the sacraments. While proclaiming the gospel, they allowed worldly elements into their churches by the way they practiced their sacraments. Infant baptism allowed unsaved people to be members of their churches, and they admitted to the Lord’s Supper people known to be living in gross sin. Church discipline would have helped purify their churches, but they could not implement it. Pure churches remained a distant dream for them.

(Next: Unity vs. purity in churches and ministries today)


1 George Huntson Williams and Angel Mergal, trans. and eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers: Documents Illustrative of the Radical Reformation, vol. XXV, in The Library of Christian Classics, gen. eds. John Baille, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. van Pausen (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), 19–38. This source provides an attempt to classify the Sectarians into three main categories: the Anabaptists proper, the Spiritualists, and the Evangelical Rationalists. Each main category had its own authority and emphases. The first two categories were further divided into three subcategories. The Anabaptists had evangelical, contemplative, and revolutionary varieties; and the Spiritualists had evangelical, rational, and revolutionary ones.

2 Protestant and Catholic churches see baptism and the Lord’s Supper as having a sacramental significance, which Baptist churches do not; thus Baptists refer to them as ordinances.

3 Kenneth R. Davis, “No Discipline, No Church: An Anabaptist Contribution to the Reformed Tradition,” Sixteenth Century Journal 13, no. 4 (Winter 1982): 43–58, especially 45–49.

4 Martin Luther, “The Central Issue Is Doctrine, Not Life,” 1533, Luther’s Works, vol. 54: Table Talk, eds. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 110. Henceforth, LW: Vol.#, page #. For development in Luther’s thinking on the role of the church with the state, see James M. Estes, “Luther on the Role of Secular Authority in the Reformation,” Lutheran Quarterly 17, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 199–225.

5 See the quotes listed from David F. Wright, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Perspectives on the Minority Church,” Scottish Journal of Theology 48, no. 4 (1995): 470–472. I have the sources from Calvin that Wright quotes (Calvin’s Farewell to the Ministers of Geneva and Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets at Zeph.1:1–3 and Hag. 1:2-4) and have verified each.

6 James C. Spalding, “The Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum of 1552 and the Furthering of Discipline in England,” Church History 39 (1970): 162–171, especially 162 and 169.

7 In Reformed-controlled areas, the “ban” often meant exile, or banishment, from their territories.

8 For detail, see Jean Rott, “The Strasbourg Kirchenpfleger and Parish Discipline: Theory and Practice,” in Martin Bucer: Reforming Church and Community, ed. D. F. Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 122–128.

9 Gottfried Hammonn, “Ecclesiological Motifs behind the Creation of the ‘Christlichen Gemeinschaften,’” in Martin Bucer: Reforming Church and Community, ed. D. F. Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 129–143.

10 As Holy Roman Emperor Charles V insisted, based upon his recent military victory over Protestant armies.

11 For instance, see Davis, “No Discipline, No Church,” p. 54. Note also Luther’s intriguing sermon preached to his own church: “[I]f you are going to go beyond this [self-control] and be a born pig and guzzle beer and wine, then, if this cannot be stopped by the rulers, you must know that you cannot be saved. For God will not admit such piggish drinkers into the kingdom of heaven,” from the sermon: “On Soberness and Moderation,” 1539 in LW 51:293. Though this context does not concern the Lord’s Supper, it does show the kind of members he had and his attitude toward their behavior.

12 David F. Wright, “Infant Baptism and the Christian Community in Bucer,” in Martin Bucer: Reforming Church and Community, ed. D. F. Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 102. See Wright’s discussion of Bucer’s lifelong struggle with “the competing inclusivist and exclusivist tendencies of his ecclesiology” in the context of infant baptism in “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Perspectives,” Scottish Journal of Theology 48, no. 4 (1995): 475.

13 This ideal is rooted in the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine decided to have the state support the church and united them in ways that would progressively increase as the centuries went by.

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Wayne Wilson's picture

This is a fascinating article, and I think touches on important distinctions between the Reformers and various aspects of what is often called "The radical Reformation."  I am wondering how the Belgic Confession (1561) fits into this thesis.  It not only defines the true church as practicing discipline, it describes true Christians as living a separated life.

29. Of the marks of the true Church, and wherein she differs from the false Church 

We believe, that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects, who call themselves the Church. The marks, by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin: in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto corrected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known from which no man has a right to separate himself. With respect to those, who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians: namely, by faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Saviour, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood, as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit, all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, “in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in him.” As for the false Church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in his Word, but adds to and takes from them, as she thinks proper; she relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those, who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry. These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other. 

Todd Wood's picture

I like better the word, "Radicals".

Look forward to the next post.

And just a sidenote - sometimes among all the sectarians, the declaration of "purity" is a masquerade.  In actuality, there is a spreading of impurity in doctrine.  But as a Baptist, I am thankful for some of the anabaptist martyrs in the 1500's.  This past Wednesday night in a church study, I was talking about one of them - Michael Sattler.

Todd Wood's picture

"The Sectarians and their contributions to the Reformation are often the most misunderstood aspect of the entire era because people frequently do not take time to look closely at each individual subgroup to analyze what it believed."

It was after my college and seminary days that I got to reading more about some of these radicals in the 1500's.  I heard about Michael Sattler in college, but for some reason I completely missed hearing anything about Balthasar Hubmaier.  Probably due to me sleeping somewhere in class.

I have enjoyed reading all stuff on Hubmaier.  But than there are others I read about like Hans Denck.  And I can see how doctrinal purity is threatened when great emphasis is placed upon individual "inner word" of the Spirit over church authority.

Bert Perry's picture

The more I learn of history, the gladder I am.  Was led to Christ in college by a history major (now teacher) and a linguist, and treasure what both taught me.  How vital to learn that we are more or less making the same mistakes, and having the same successes, as those who came before us.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Appreciate the comments. We've been posting a good bit of "historical stuff" lately and I'm encouraged to see there is some interest in it.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Todd Wood's picture

Actually, I have been neglecting my reading of "historical stuff" at SI.  I am glad I took the time to read this post today, brother.  I love historical theology. 

(1) This afternoon, I was telling a group of teenagers in an after-school Bible study about Hans Bret and his tongue screw.  I told them the reason behind tongue piercings in the 1500s.  They were astounded.

(2) Secondly, on another train of thought, this year I finished my Sunday morning series in the book of Revelation at Berean Baptist Church in Idaho Falls.  There is an intriguing account documented over the interrogation of the Belgian, Jacob de Roore, by the Franciscan inquisitor, Friar Cornelis, over equating the church of Rome with the whore of Babylon.  Fascinating exchange.  The learned Cornelis was in a cloud over the book of Revelation and completely exasperated by how the unlearned Jacob saw things in the book of Revelation, crystal clear, black and white.

(3) Reformed, covenant brothers sometimes connect baptist dispensational hermeneutic today with the Munster Rebellion.  But I believe that is an unfair charge as I analyze Melchior Hofmann and Jan Matthys, etc.  It's like 500 years from now in the history books connecting Berean Baptist Church with Westboro Baptist Church.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Really appreciated this.  Very good.

"The Midrash Detective"

Nord Zootman's picture

A very good read! I am looking forward to the next article!

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