One of the misconceptions that people have regarding the Reformation is that the Reformers went on an anti-church campaign in the sixteenth century. It is important to note that the Reformers did not endorse the privatization of religion nor did they minimize the value of the institutional church. Rather, they went against the corrupt leadership and practices that characterized the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, was not his “farewell letter” to the church but was his attempt to lead it back to the truth. Dr. Joshua Bruce states, “Luther did not start as a Protestant Reformer but as a faithful member of the church who confronted the corrupt practices of the church.” In other words, Luther did not want to leave the Roman Catholic Church, he wanted to reform it. However, the negative response of Pope Leo X left him no other choice but to stand on God’s word. James Payton notes, “The Protestant Reformers did not set about to establish other churches. They did not unfurl banners and march victoriously out of the Roman communion; they were expelled from it by a corrupt leadership.” As the Reformers were excommunicated for their beliefs, it became clear to them that the Roman Catholic Church did not represent the true church of Christ.
Consequently, this led them to ask a pertinent question in relation to ecclesiology: what are the marks that define a true church? It wouldn’t be a surprise to know that the Reformers got their answers from the Scriptures itself. John Woodbridge and Frank James III state, “Luther became convinced that the true church was not necessarily identified with the Roman Catholic Church, and he said so in a provocative volume. According to Luther, the true church is the person who listens to God’s word.” Church history reveals the consequences of not heeding the word of God in this regard. It is no wonder that the Roman Catholics and radical protestants engaged in unbiblical practices that harmed many people. Dr. Bruce rightly states, “Those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat them.” Indeed, the church today can avoid the same mistakes by studying the past and by learning from the Reformers who based their ecclesiology on the authority of Scripture.
In this article, I would like to present the marks of a true church as defined by the Reformers. They believed that a true church is known for its biblical leadership, biblical preaching, and biblical worship. Furthermore, I would like to show how the contemporary church can reappropriate the Reformers’ view of the church in the twenty-first-century context.
The Medieval Period was a dark time for the papacy since it was characterized by hypocrisy and deception. Payton describes its leadership crisis with these words:
“Already in the thirteenth century, the highest point of the Middle Ages, the papacy began to come under some suspicion. Whereas earlier popes had been respected as dispensers of divine justice, the popes of the thirteenth century seemed to many to have become protagonists in the pursuit of justice, seeking to secure certain states of affairs which would serve the interests of the church and papacy.”
Because of the corrupt practices of the papacy, the Reformers understood that biblical leadership should be a priority in church reform. Looking to the Scriptures for guidance, the Reformers saw the dominant mark that should characterize church leaders: godly character. The qualifications that Paul enumerated in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 reveal that godly character is the main criteria in assessing those who seek to serve as leaders in the church since leaders are given as gifts by God to the church that they might serve as godly examples. Allison notes, “. . . John Calvin underscored the fact that God could have chosen to rule directly over the church. Yet God opted to govern the church through ministers in order to foster humility, godliness, obedience, teachability, mutual love, and unity.” In regard to church polity, Allison adds, “John Calvin broke with the three-tiered episcopalian government of the Catholic Church. According to Calvin’s concept, the presbyters rule the church; thus, his system is called the presbyterian government.” Michael Horton observes, “Although some significant Reformed churches were episcopal (such as the Hungarian Reformed church and the Church of England) or congregational (such as the independents in England and New England), most are presbyterian.” It is important to note that having a plurality of elders not only protects each leader from moral or doctrinal compromise but it allows him to share the burden of pastoral care and church discipline.
On church discipline, Matthew Tuininga states that “Calvin viewed it as a necessary extension of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament. While he did not identify it as a mark of the church, he did insist that discipline is essential to the spiritual health of a church, without which a church cannot long endure.” Hence, a true church practices excommunication when a church member refuses to repent and is guilty of repudiating the truth either through his words or actions. John Calvin reveals the seriousness of the matter:
“From this, it follows that separation from the church is denial of God and Christ. Hence, we must even more avoid so wicked a separation. For when with all our might we are attempting the overthrow of God’s truth, we deserve to have him hurl the whole thunderbolt of his wrath to crush us. No more atrocious crime can be conceived than for us by sacrilegious disloyalty to violate the marriage that the only-begotten Son of God deigned to covenant with us.”
In light of the qualifications of biblical leadership and the responsibilities attached to it, church leaders and members must revisit their church polity to see if it measures up to the standard of Scripture. This is a much-needed exercise because many churches today suffer from abusive leaders who do not surround themselves with godly elders for accountability. This is one of the reasons why some pastors have been charged with malversation of church funds, bullying, and sexual immorality. Indeed, church history reveals the terrible consequences of giving a person the sole authority of leading the church. The papacy is an example of how a man can use his position of authority to serve his interests. But when a church has biblical leadership, members are cared for and the church becomes mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13). Moreover, as church leaders fulfill their duties, church members must also learn to joyfully submit to them. The author of Hebrews gives an important command that must be heeded by every believer today: “Obey your leaders and submit to them. . . . Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17 ESV). Church members must understand that one of the benefits of being part of a true church is that they are cared for by godly leaders who keep watch over them as those who must give an account (Heb 13:17).
The Reformers placed a high premium on biblical preaching. Woodbridge and James III note how John Calvin valued biblical preaching:
“For Calvin, the pulpit was a sacred place. By nature, different, Calvin came alive in the pulpit and poured out his heart in preaching. . . . For Calvin, preaching had a kind of sacramental quality in which the Holy Spirit – the hidden energy – is actively present and communicating grace to the people.”
Calvin highlights the importance of biblical preaching with these words: “. . . God often commended the dignity of the ministry by all possible marks of approval in order that it might be held among us in highest honor and esteem, even as the most excellent of all things” Martin Luther’s law and gospel model, on the other hand, set a pattern for Lutheran sermons. Luther wrote, "Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Payton explained why Luther valued this form of preaching: “For Luther, law and gospel were found in every passage of Scripture; one might dominate, but either implied the other as its correlate. Interpreting the Scripture by this law-gospel dynamic enabled the church to serve God appropriately as the kingdom of his right hand.” Luther was intentional in this regard because he believed that Christians had to be reminded of the gospel every time they attend a worship service. Payton writes:
“The Protestant Reformers enabled their generation to recognize again the main point of the Christian faith and hear the gospel anew. Shaped by their legacy and indebted to them for their insights, their followers in intervening centuries have revered the Protestant Reformers as new heralds of the ancient message, heralds who made the gospel clear again in their day, whose teachings, reverberates down through intervening times to our own.”
Indeed, the church today must follow the example of the Reformers in this regard. I have observed that many churches (e.g., seeker-sensitive church) have moved away from biblical preaching and have focused on “feel good” messages that are devoid of biblical truth. This kind of preaching harms the church in many ways; it can either lead to legalism or antinomianism and cause believers to miss the essence of biblical Christianity. But when a church engages in biblical preaching, members grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18)and become dispensers of truth.
The Reformers valued corporate worship; the Lord’s Day was a priority to them, in fact, the Consistory of Geneva, composed of pastors and elders, assessed members who neglected church attendance. Moreover, the Reformers understood that corporate worship played a foundational role in the life of the church. Martin Luther, for example, saw the value of congregational singing and Christ-centered hymns. A skilled composer, Luther, wrote a number of songs that are still being sung today. He penned the lyrics of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, a hymn that expresses his passion for God-exalting hymns. Luther made sure that Christian hymns reflected the truths found in Scripture and exalted Christ as God and Savior. Unfortunately, many churches today assess songs by their popularity and not by their theological precision and theological clarity. If the song has a nice tune that captures the emotions of people, it is then included in the church’s list of songs. For a church to grow spiritually, worship pastors must carefully select songs that rightly convey the attributes of God and the redemptive work of Christ.
Furthermore, the church can learn from men like John Calvin who understood the significance of the sacraments in a worship service. Interestingly, Calvin considered the proper administration of the sacraments (i.e., Lord’s Supper and Baptism) an essential mark of a true church. Calvin notes, “From this, the face of the church comes forth and becomes visible to our eyes. Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” While the Reformers had different views on the Lord’s Supper, they believed that it serves as a visible marker that identifies those who belong to God’s family. When the sacraments are administered and understood biblically—and when congregational worship magnifies Christ as King and Savior, the church is edified and nourished spiritually. Hence, churches must revisit the Reformers’ view in this regard to see if the structure of their worship service presents the gospel in a clear and precise manner.
The spiritual benefits derived from biblical leadership, biblical preaching, and biblical worship must foster a greater commitment among Christians to be part of a local church. Unfortunately, some Christians have adopted the “Jesus and Me” approach that simply focuses on one’s relationship with God to the neglect of the church. Those who are guilty of this must remember that their union with Christ implies a connection to his body. Horton shows the essence of Reformed ecclesiology with these words:
“In Reformed ecclesiology, it is not just the message—the doctrine—that endures, but the practices that convey it. This is why we confess the faith together in local and wider ecclesial connections, through the ecumenical creeds, confessions, and catechisms. It is why, when we gather for public worship, we sing a common faith across the generations, especially the Psalms; pray together with the whole church; and support the church’s mission in the world and each other’s spiritual and material welfare.”
Moreover, the doctrine of the church is something that needs to be carefully studied especially during this pandemic. I have observed that online services have given many Christians the impression that they can simply “do church” in the comforts of their home. While we are grateful for the gift of technology that allows pastors to broadcast their sermons, this must never be seen as the “new normal” in the evangelical church. Christians must realize how essential the church is not only to their personal growth but to the church’s witness—which is why God expects his people to gather on the Lord’s Day. Indeed, only a gathered church can manifest the marks of a true church. Furthermore, by considering the Reformers’ view of the church, the contemporary church can reappropriate a Reformed ecclesiology that is able to produce godly leaders, spiritually mature members, God-exalting worship services, and Christ-centered communities that impact the world for the glory of God. Payton reminds the contemporary church of this sacred duty that the Reformers took seriously: “The Protestant Reformers sought to wake the church out of its spiritual torpor by making clear again what Christianity was all about — the unmerited favor of God in Christ graciously bestowed on the undeserving, the assurance of divine love to sinful humanity.” When a church is able to respond to this biblical mandate with the kind of zeal that the Reformers possessed, the impact of the gospel will be felt far and wide. But when a church is shaped by unbiblical teachings and unbiblical practices, it inevitably produces ungodly leaders and immature members that only serve as a stumbling block to the Christian mission. It is for this reason that the twenty-first-century church needs to learn from the Reformers. It’s about time that church leaders reappropriate and rediscover the Reformers’ view of the church for the sake of the gospel and the good of their members.
Allison, Gregg. Historical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Kindle.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Horton, Michael. Pilgrim Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Digital.
Luther, Martin. Dr. Martin Luther’s Sämmtliche Schriften. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1887.
Payton, James. Getting the Reformation Wrong. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Kindle.
Tuininga, Matthew. 9Marks, “Why Calvin Thought Church Discipline is Essential to the Health of the Church.” January 9, 2018. https://www.9marks.org/article/why-calvin-thought-church-discipline-is-essential-to-the-health-of-the-church/.
Woodbridge, John and James III, Frank. Church History: Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Kindle.
 Joshua Bruce, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL, Lesson 5, February 25, 2021.
 James Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 251, Digital.
 John Woodbridge and Frank James III, Church History: Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 120, Digital.
 Joshua Bruce, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL, Lesson 24, February 19, 2021.
 James Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 30, Digital.
 Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 400, Digital.
 Matthew Tuininga, “Why Calvin Thought Church Discipline is Essential to the Health of the Church,” 9marks, January 9, 2018, https://www.9marks.org/article/why-calvin-thought-church-discipline-is-essential-to-the-health-of-the-church/.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.1.10.
 John Woodbridge and Frank A. James III, Church History: Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 166, Digital.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.3.3.
 Joshua Bruce, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL, Lesson 7, February 25, 2021.
 Martin Luther, Dr. Martin Luther’s Sämmtliche Schriften vol. 9 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House), col. 802.
 James Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 95, Digital.
 Joshua Bruce, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL, Lesson 7, February 25, 2021.
 James Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 249, Digital.
 Gregg Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 603, Digital.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.1.9.
 Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 399, Digital.
 James Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 248, Digital.