Church History: Ecclesiology and the Reformation (Plus the Awesomeness of the Particular Baptists)

by John Ellis

(Originally written to be read/heard, this is the manuscript for the Sunday school class I taught this morning. I’ve edited it some to make it a little easier to read.)

Before diving into Ecclesiology and the Reformation, I’m going to start with a pop quiz. It’s a one question pop quiz, so it’s either pass or fail.

What important event happened in 1492? Be careful, it’s somewhat of a trick question.

No doubt, you likely answered Columbus sailed the ocean blue (or at least were going to until I warned you about it being a trick question). And while it is true that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, that’s not one of the two answers I’m looking for.

And the answers aren’t directly related to our topic, but they signal larger societal shifts that were taking place that give us a better scaffolding to understand what was happening within the Reformation.

So, the first answer: In January 1492, Granada, the final Muslim stronghold in Spain, fell before Ferdinand and Isabelle’s army. And the second answer: In 1492, Casimir IV, the king of the vast Polish Lithuanian empire died, leaving his empire split among his sons.

Those two events were the largest dominoes in geopolitical events in 1492. A year some historians nickname “the year the modern world began.”

For Ferdinand and Isabella, their now total control over Spain freed them to begin steering more and more resources into empire building. It was in April of that year that Columbus approached the Spanish crown about financing the voyage. In fact, he had intentionally waited until the issue of Granada had been resolved favorably in the King and Queen’s favor.

The death of Casimir IV was a boon for Russian interests. Ivan III – Ivan the Great – no longer had to worry about both his eastern and western flank. With Casimir’s sons squabbling and their attention on internal affairs, Ivan was able to focus attention on repelling Mongolian invaders from the east. Having already strategically taken the title of Czar – Caeser – and having married the niece of the final Byzantine emperor, he began working on his vision of having Russia take a dominant place on the world stage.

As the Reformation began, the world order was being upended. Longstanding hierarchies were crumbling. Definitions of nationalism and patriotism were being reworked. New economic systems were replacing once entrenched feudal systems.

Both eastern and western Europe were being remade. Traditions and philosophies were being questioned and overthrown. And this was all happening as the Roman Catholic Church was losing her moral authority. By 1500, even Spain’s Queen Isabella had begun calling for a reformation of the morally compromised Catholic Church.

I bring this up because it’s important to keep in the forefront of our mind that the Reformation didn’t happen in a theological vacuum.

For many of us, I’m afraid we reduce the Reformation to some dates, points of systematic theology, and a few famous names. In our mind, it exists almost separate from world history.

I’m not dismissing the dates, points of systematic theology, nor famous names, at all, but it’s important to understand that the Reformation took place in a time in history when a lot of moving parts were remaking the world. Some of those events had a positive impact on the Reformation. Some events, though, had a negative impact on the Reformation.

As the 15th century closed, the world was being remade. And it’s within that framework that the Reformation began, developed, and spread.

Like all the classes in this Church History series, we’re going to begin by looking at a section of Psalm 119. This week, we’re looking at verses 105-112.

Your word is a lamp to my feet
    and a light to my path.
106 I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
    to keep your righteous rules.
107 I am severely afflicted;
    give me life, O Lord, according to your word!
108 Accept my freewill offerings of praise, O Lord,
    and teach me your rules.
109 I hold my life in my hand continually,
    but I do not forget your law.
110 The wicked have laid a snare for me,
    but I do not stray from your precepts.
111 Your testimonies are my heritage forever,
    for they are the joy of my heart.
112 I incline my heart to perform your statutes
    forever, to the end.

Continuing the theme of pilgrim theology in these verses, the Psalmist again includes the motif of traveling and facing opposition. But what shines through the brightest is the emphasis on the centrality of God’s Word. Life comes from God’s Word – verse 7, “give me life, O Lord, according to your word!”

I went back and forth over which section of Psalm 119 to look at, getting excited about one section only to rethink it and then get excited about another section. I finally landed on verses 105-112 because, well, I was running out of time, but more importantly because of verse 111: “Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart.”

Throughout Scriptures, the word heritage is used in reference to inheritance, or more specifically heirs – being heirs. And so, I couldn’t help but think of Colossians 1:12, “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”

We’re qualified to receive the inheritance through our union with Christ, and God’s Word isn’t accidental to that union.

Often, I think we fall into the trap of viewing God’s Word as merely a means to an end. The testimony of the Psalmist pushes back against that. God reveals Himself through His word. The Holy Spirit works through God’s Word to provide life. The Psalmist confesses this.

I know in my own life I need a constant reformation that reclaims the centrality of God’s word in my heart.

Where are we finding joy? What delights us? Where do we receive life?

We have yet to come into our full inheritance, that’s true. Troubles dot our path. Persecutors lie in wait. But in the here and now, our Father has given us enough of our heritage (inheritance) in His Word (and in our union with Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit) to not only bring us safely home but that allows us to flourish in Christ as we make the journey home.   

And the Reformers, flawed though they were, joyfully looked to God’s Word to light their path, direct their steps, and bring them safely home.

With that, let’s turn to:

Charles V and His Diets

On March 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg. About 14 months later, in January 1519, Emperor Maximillian I died. This created a problem for Pope Leo X.

If the prince-electors (nobles in the Holy Roman Empire) elected either of the two most likely candidates – France’s King Francis or Charles I of Spain – the balance of power in Europe would be tilted heavily in favor of the new emperor and away from the Pope.

Because of this, Pope Leo threw his weight behind Frederick the Wise of Saxony. And Church History knows Frederick as Martin Luther’s protector.

Politics bent the Pope’s favor – albeit briefly – towards Martin Luther.

However, in June of 1519, Charles I, who was a very devout Catholic, unlike the Pope, was elected Holy Roman Emperor, becoming Charles V. This political turn of events is what led Pope Leo to issue his Papal Bull condemning Martin Luther and demanding he submit to Rome. When the bull reached Luther, he publicly burned it.

It was in this context that Henry V called the first Diet of Worms in 1521 in which Luther was asked, “Do you recant, or do you not?”

Martin Luther famously did not.

For Luther’s protection, Frederick had him “kidnapped” and spirited away to Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the Bible into German. Almost a year later, in 1522, Luther left the Wartburg Castle and Frederick’s protection to confront errors that were being taught in his name. He made it clear to Frederick that he understood the danger he was placing himself under and that he didn’t expect Frederick to be able to protect him. Confronting and correcting the aberrant theologies being taught in his name was worth the risk for Luther.

Again, though, politics played a role in protecting Luther from Charles V. Pope Leo died, and a series of disputes arose. King Francis prepared to march on Germany and around the same time, the Turks invaded Vienna.

Needing the support of the German princes and nobles as he faced down both threats, Charles V was forced to temporarily lay aside his disdain for Luther and his “heretical” theology.

In 1526, during the height of this geopolitical turmoil in Europe, the Diet of Spire officially withdrew the Edict of Worms condemning Luther that had been issued after the Diet of Worms. Combined with the previous Diet of Nuremberg in 1523 that allowed the German princes to choose the religion for their own territory (Charles V needed their money and troops, he wasn’t that devout), Martin Luther seemingly prevailed over Rome.

That didn’t last long.

Charles captured Francis and secured a peace treaty with the new Pope. And Vienna repelled the Turkish invaders. So, Charles called for the Second Diet of Spires in 1529 that denounced the First Diet of Spires and officially reinstated the Edict of Worms.

In response, the Lutheran princes issued a formal protest. And, fun fact, this is where the term protestants came from.

So, as a continued response to Charles V’s actions, those German princes convened the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 where the Lutheran Augsburg Confession was written. As more and more German princes signed their name to the confession, Charles V became angry and began organizing his armies in Spain, the Netherlands, and his various territories outside of Germany to march on the now ostensibly Lutheran nation of Germany that he was still emperor over. Germany was in rebellion against their ruler.

In order to solidify their unity, the German princes and nobles appealed to Martin Luther to put his stamp of approval on an armed revolt against the Emperor. For the first time, and somewhat reluctantly, Luther agreed that it was okay to take up arms against the authority of the State.

Luther’s initially desired separation of church and state was undermined.

It should be noted that Luther held to a Two Kingdom view. He taught that two kingdoms have been established by God: One a kingdom of law (the state) and the other a kingdom under the gospel (the church). It was an early version of the separation of church and state, which was pretty unique for the time period. In his view, the civil authorities were to follow the law and not the gospel. The church had no authority over the civil law. Likewise, the civil authorities had no power over how the church was governed.

However, events remade his political theology, and while Lutheranism under him never reached the level of syncretism as it did with Calvin and Zwingli (which we’ll look at below), his actions did create some theological confusion and helped create a conflation of church and state.

To see his somewhat confused (and self-serving) shift, prior to 1530, during the 1525 Peasant’s Revolt, Luther acknowledged the peasant’s complaints but was adamantly opposed to their taking up arms to defend themselves. Among a list of twelve demands, the peasants wanted serfdom abolished unless the princes could show from the Bible that it was justified. As stated, Luther agreed with the peasants’ complaints.

But at the time he didn’t believe that Christians had a right to revolt, so in a pamphlet titled “Against the Thievish and Murderous Hordes of Peasants” Luther encouraged the princes to “knock down strangle, and stab … and think nothing so venomous, pernicious, or Satanic as an insurgent.”

An estimated 100,000 peasants were killed during the revolt. Many of the survivors turned their backs on Luther believing he had betrayed them, some returning to the Catholic church and others embracing increasingly more radical articulations of the Reformation.

For his part, Luther benefited from his alliance with the German nobility brought about by his belief that Christians aren’t to revolt against the civil authorities during the Peasant’s Revolt. Except that, as we saw, he later changed his view and begin teaching that Christians do have a right to revolt against their civil authorities when the German princes sought his support against Charles V a few years later.

His connection to the German nobility and the benefits he received was the one constant.

However, one of the consequences was that after the events of the Diet of Augsburg, Lutheranism and the identity of being a German were married. Church and State were basically one, even though Luther tried to hold onto his view of the two kingdoms.

Which brings us to an important question:

What Is a Church?

Quoting Herman Bavinck, “It is people who have been regenerated and brought up to faith by the Holy Spirit, who as such, as new persons, constitute the essence of the church.”[1]

While that’s not a complete definition – and it wasn’t Bavinck’s complete definition, to be clear – it gets at the heart of what is a church. Or better, who is the church.

The Church is the Bride of Christ and is centered on Jesus. As his bride, our job is to participate in the expansion of the Kingdom by being faithful witnesses to the Resurrection and inviting others to join in our union with Christ by faith through the Holy Spirit.

Mark Dever offers the warning, “The church arises from the gospel. And a distorted church usually coincides with a distorted gospel.”[2]

Ecclesiology is not unimportant. And the Reformers knew this.

For the Roman Catholic Church, this question – what is a church? – is answered in external, visible attributes. The definition’s found in a specific articulation of an institution.

“Ubi papa, ibi ecclesia” – where the pope is, there is the church.

So, looking back to John Wycliffe and John Huss, we can see this question making waves almost a century and a half before the Reformation officially started. Both men rejected the Catholic Church’s claim that the true church was the pope and the visible hierarchy. In contrast, Wycliffe and Huss embraced the Augustinian doctrine of the invisible church.

Furthermore, according to Wycliffe, the ecclesiastical power of the Catholic Church – specifically the mediating priesthood and the sacrificial masses of the church – served as a barrier between God and man.

Adding to this attack on the Catholic Church’s visible hierarchy in the Reformation, Martin Luther’s rejection of five of the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments cut the legs out from under sacerdotalism and helped spark a return to an understanding of the priesthood of the believer. In the words of historian Bruce Shelley who explains Luther’s position as, “[The church] is a community of Christian believers in which all believers are priests called to offer spiritual sacrifice to God.”[3]

Luther played a major role in the tearing down of the Catholic church’s ecclesiastical barrier between God and man. And this wresting of ecclesiology from the Roman Catholic Church was happening in various places and in various ways – like in England.

Most people are aware that the Church of England – the Anglican Church – was established by Henry VIII. After that basic fact, the understanding can be a little muddier.

The common belief is that Henry petitioned the Pope for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.

That’s not exactly how it happened.

Henry had already petitioned for a divorce before he ever met Anne. His reason for wanting a divorce was political not lustful. He needed/wanted a male heir to help prevent bloodshed after his death. And the Pope didn’t refuse the divorce out of theological conviction. His reasons were political, too.

Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (which meant she was also the aunt of Charles V). The Pope was afraid of angering the mighty Spanish empire if he sanctioned the divorce. While it’s all a little more complicated than that, this is why the Church of England came into existence. What I’m driving towards is the Marian Persecution.

Henry’s male heir, Edward VI, sat on the throne for less than six years before he died. His half-sister, Mary – Bloody Mary – who was famously a Catholic took the throne after him.

During Edward’s brief reign, the English Reformation continued and developed. The Book of Common Prayer was published, creating a liturgy in the language of the people, for example.

During Mary’s even shorter reign, … well, y’all know her as Bloody Mary for a reason … she vigorously attempted to destroy the English Reformation.

There are many examples – much of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is about the Marian Persecution – but for the sake of time, we’re only going to look at one individual because he ties directly to our topic of Ecclesiology and the Reformation.

Nicholas Ridley, the Bishop of England, was arrested during Queen Mary’s attempted reversal of the English Reformation. During his trial, he was asked about his lack of allegiance to the “true church”, the Roman Catholic Church. I’m going to quote part of his response, recorded in The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues.

Ridley responds, “The marks whereby [the true] church is known unto men in this dark world, … are these: the sincere preaching of God’s holy word, the due administration of the sacraments, charity, and the faithful observing of ecclesiastical discipline, according to the word of God.”

The persecutor pushed back, saying, “That church which you have described unto me is invisible, but Christ’s church is visible and known.”

At that, Ridley countered pretty pointedly, “The church which I have described is visible, it hath members which may be seen; and also I have afore declared, by what marks and tokens it may be known.”[4]

Not long after, on October 16, 1555, Nicholas Ridley was burned at the stake.

The marks of a true church.

Bavinck is helpful here: “The true church really has only one mark: the Word of God, which is variously administered and confessed in preaching, instruction, confession, sacrament, and life.”[5]

For his part, Martin Luther had refuted the Roman Catholic’s claim that the Church had authority over the Bible because the Church determined which books are included in the Bible by pointing out that Jesus made both the Bible and the Church. Jesus, as the Word and revealed in the Word, is the final authority over the Church, not the other way around.

As the Reformation began fleshing out a more biblical ecclesiology, two different sides of the Reformation emerged: The magisterial Reformers and the Radical Reformation.

The Magisterial Reformers

The word magisterial means the authority of a magistrate.

In the 16th century, the prevailing belief was that a state – an earthly kingdom – needed to have a unified religion for its citizens. It was a belief obviously held by the Roman Catholic Church, and this belief was adopted by the magisterial reformers.

We’ve already looked at Luther, so we’re going to briefly look at Calvin and Zwingli.

Even though Zwingli precedes him chronologically, we’re going to start with John Calvin.

Calvin’s first stint as a pastor in Geneva ended poorly.

In his effort to reform the church, Calvin insisted on the exercise of church discipline and the church’s responsibility to excommunicate unrepentant sinners. The Council of Geneva felt this intruded on their authority.

Keep in mind, at the time, being baptized into the church also meant recognition in the polis at large. Being a citizen and a church member were basically one and the same thing.

So, the Council banished Calvin. And the next three years – 1538-1541 – he spent in Strasbourg.

In 1541, Geneva’s new council invited Calvin back.

Even with a new, more accommodating council, the ecclesiastical leadership, under Calvin’s influence and authority, frequently clashed with the city’s council. Many of the disputes revolved around Calvin’s desire to exercise authority over the daily lives of the citizens. The ecclesiastical leadership wanted to legally enforce what they saw as standards for holy living.

In 1553, some of Calvin’s most vocal opponents managed to gain control of the Council.

And then the infamous episode with Michael Servetus happened.

The two things that got Servetus arrested by the Catholic Inquisition in France and then again in Geneva are: 1. He taught that the marriage of church and state after Constantine was apostasy. 2. His rejection of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

Both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants viewed Servetus as a dangerous heretic.

However, in Geneva, some of Calvin’s opponents took Servetus’ side, claiming that as an enemy of the Catholic church, he should be considered an ally by protestants – the enemy of my enemy.

They likely didn’t mean it (their support of Servetus) but saw a political opportunity against Calvin. Unfortunately for them, the other protestant cantons (councils) and religious leaders in Switzerland sided with Calvin. Servetus was burned at the stake.

While Calvin didn’t want Servetus burned at the stake (he wanted a more humane execution), the incident solidified Calvin’s power in Geneva, and until he died in 1564 his authority went largely unquestioned from that point on. And he believed that the church was the authority over the civil government.

To look directly at what Calvin believed the role of the Civil Government should be, all we need to do is open his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He writes, “Civil government has as its appointed end, so long as we live to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility.”[6]

After listing off things the civil government is supposed to police – idolatry, sacrilege against God’s name, blasphemies against the truth, public offenses against religion, etc. – Calvin added that the civil government’s job was to “provide that a public manifestation of religion may exist among Christians.”[7]

For Calvin, the role of the civil government was to enforce the church’s doctrine in the public square. And he clearly said, “no government can be happily established unless piety is the first concern; and that those laws are preposterous which neglect God’s right and provide only for men.”[8] (the two tables of the law – he believed the civil authorities were to be concerned with enforcing both)

John Calvin’s definition of church included temporal concerns and he relegated any who disagreed with him outside the public square. While not technically a theocracy, Geneva was functionally a theocracy.

For his part, Zwingli added national pride to the mix.

Zwingli was a fiercely loyal Swiss patriot. Stephen Nichols points out that going back to his childhood in the Swiss Alps, “Zwingli developed one of his guiding principles: Patriotism and an unbounded love for his country. Zwingli was Swiss through and through.”[9]

Zwingli believed that the civil authorities should play a large role in the spiritual formation of the citizens. There was very little daylight for him between church and state.

In Zurich, the Council of Two Hundred, the legislative authority, had ecclesiastical authority, too. Zwingli viewed that Council as the chosen representatives of the church to the state, although the Council was the state. The authority of the state and the authority of the church were one.

The last time I taught (you can read that lesson by clicking here) I said that I believe one of the biggest, most consequential errors of the Church was allowing Constantine to marry her to cultural and political power. And one of the biggest, most consequential errors of the Reformation was the failure to initiate the divorce. And I stand by that.

But you can find defenses of Zwingli and Calvin that argue that they were men of their time. That in the 16th century, there was no such thing as a secular state. But “men of their time” arguments in history often ignore facts and are usually devoid of nuance. For example, we’ve already seen how Luther was initially pushing towards the separation of church and state. The concept of the separation of the church and state was already in the discussion (not to mention they had the same Bible we do). Furthermore, there was a group of Reformers who pushed even harder for the separation of church and state, starting in Zwingli’s Zurich.

The Radical Reformation

Opposition arose to the magisterial reformers. Called the Radical Reformation, it began in Zurich.

A group of believers in Zurich rejected infant baptism on the grounds that membership in the church requires a personal decision. They argued that infant baptism supports the false premise that someone is a Christian simply because they’re born into a Christian community.

They wanted the church to be made up of true believers, viewing, “the church as a voluntary community, totally distinct from the civil community.”[10]

This group, pejoratively tagged Anabaptists, were led by Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, two of Zwingli’s first supporters in his reformation efforts in Zurich.

One of the characteristics of Zwingli that differentiated him from Luther was his desire for biblical simplicity – he played a large role in what we call the regulative principle. While Luther allowed whatever the Bible did not prohibit (what we would call the normative principle), Zwingli rejected whatever the Bible did not prescribe.

So, as Zwingli’s disciples, Grebel and Manz poured a lot of energy into studying the Bible to see what the Bible said. One of their conclusions was that an important consequential difference between the New Testament church and their church was the understanding of the relationship between church and state.

The New Testament church was comprised of those who were willing to leave father and mother, take up their cross, and follow Jesus in communion with those united to Christ who they considered their true brothers and sisters in Christ. The early church was bereft of cultural influence much less political power, and the New Testament writers never urged the churches to desire, much less pursue, political and cultural power.

Owing to his lifelong patriotism, Zwingli rejected their teachings. And those teachings were put to the test when Grebel’s wife had a baby in the fall of 1524.

Standing fast to their conviction, the Grebels refused to allow their infant son to be baptized. Their courage inspired other likeminded parents to refuse baptism for their infants, too.

In response, on Jan. 17, 1525, the City Council demanded that all parents with unbaptized children comply with the law or be punished.

The first Anabaptist congregation was formed a few days later. Holding a baptismal service (of adult believers) in his house on Jan. 21, Felix Manz signaled to the authorities, including his mentor Zwingli, that they were not going to comply.

At first, the council sought to punish and change their minds via arrests. It didn’t work. Furthermore, owing to their proselytizing, the Anabaptist numbers grew.

Finally, in March of 1526, the council declared that anyone who was re-baptized would be executed by drowning. On January 5, 1527, Felix Manz was executed by drowning. His name has gone down in history as the first Anabaptist martyr.

As the persecution at the hands of Zurich’s council intensified, many of the Anabaptists fled, taking their message across newly drawn national borders.

Over the course of the Reformation, as many as 5,000 Anabaptists were executed. It wasn’t just their theology of baptism that got them in trouble. Their ecclesiology of separation of church and state was seen as a threat to civil order.

Look, I think it’s pretty obvious where my sympathies lie between the magisterial reformers and the Radical Reformation regarding the issue of church and state, but it needs to be said that the Radical Reformation got really weird really quickly. They developed some funky, heretical doctrines and views of earthly institutions.

The most well-known example of the Radical Reformation flying completely off any legitimate theological tracks is the Munster Rebellion.

A strange, charismatic Anabaptist named John of Leiden, whom we would now call a cult leader, managed to seize control of the town of Munster. Building on the teachings of the strange, apocalyptic Anabaptist evangelist Melchoir Huffman, John of Leiden sought to create the New Jerusalem in Munster, which in turn would cause Jesus to return, he believed.

Declaring himself King David, John of Leiden also began encouraging polygamy. By some estimates, he had as many as 16 wives. His reign as “King David” didn’t last long, though, because Munster’s Catholic bishop who had been forced out by “King David” raised an army and crushed the city within the year.

From that point on, the Radical Reformation became less radical, although still carrying some heresies forward, and the new generation of Anabaptists tended to follow the lead of Menno Simmons, the founder of the Mennonites.  

Returning for a second to Anabaptist theology, they were not only pacifists, meaning they refused to join armies, but their separation of church and state was so extreme that they believed that Christians shouldn’t be involved in the civil government at all. Christians shouldn’t hold public office, shouldn’t vote, etc.

What About Us?

This brings us to a part of Church History that took place towards the end of the Reformation, and that helps answer the question of application, what about us?

Orlando Grace Church is a credobaptist church. We practice believer’s baptism. But we’re not Anabaptists. As a community of Believers, we fellowship with the descendants of Luther, Calvin, Knox, Ridley, Zwingli, etc. (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, etc., all denominations that practice infant baptism) and not the descendants of Menno Simmons.

Why is that? Where did we come from?

Our denominational heritage and theological distinctives trace back to one of my favorite people in Church History – Pastor John Spilsbury, the pastor of the first Particular Baptist church and the main author of the First London Baptist Confession of Faith, written in 1644.

But we need to back up a bit.

The question, where did the Baptists come from has an answer: the separatist Puritans.

In 1582, separatist pastor Robert Browne published A Treatise of Reformation Without Tarrying Any. In the book, he laid out four central tenets: “Civil authorities had a right to rule and govern, but not within the church; government and state-sponsored churches had no right to compel people to belong or attend the established church; pastors, elders, and deacons of the church should be determined by the members of the local church; the church is a gathered body of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and not a vehicle for civil order.”[11]

His church ran afoul of the authorities, so they fled to Holland.

While many separatist Puritans fled to Holland (including the group we know as the Pilgrims), many remained in England. Included among those who stayed was the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey Church.

Having to worship in secret, with its members suffering persecution, “the congregation would prove to be the seedbed in the life of the English Particular Baptists.”[12]

Owing to the persecution, the JLJ Church had to keep its membership from growing too large. A large group of people makes it harder to avoid the gaze of the authorities (think house churches in China today). This created church plants, as we call them today.

One such church plant (an anachronism, I know) took place in 1633. A group of about twenty members of the JLJ Church were motivated by the need to keep the membership small and their belief in believers baptism (a position not held by the JLJ Church). Their pastor and leader was John Spilsbury.

That church still exists today. Its current name is Grace Church of Walthamstow, a suburb of London.

Michael Thompson, Spilsbury’s biographer wants us to know that “they were considered by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities to be completely illegal, heretical, and treasonous – any one of which was grounds for the members being persecuted to the point of arrest, torture, and even execution.”[13]

But they clung to the Reformed belief that Jesus is lord over his church and his Word is the governing authority. Thankfully, this fledgling congregation wasn’t alone for long. Six other Particular Baptist Churches were constituted, and the seven churches formed the first cooperative ecclesial relationship of its kind in England.

One of the problems the Particular Baptists faced was the mistaken belief that they were connected to the Anabaptists and other radical heretical sects.

The sharp distinction between them and the Radical Reformation was not only in terms of systematic theology regarding things like the Trinity. As opposed to the Anabaptists who were pacifists and refused to participate in the civil government, the Particular Baptists served in Cromwell’s army and didn’t shy away from civil service, even though they believed in the separation of church and state. Because of their belief in the separation of church and state, they adamantly opposed the Fifth Monarchist Movement and other apocalyptic sects that sought to overthrow the government and establish a Christian government in order to hasten the return of Jesus.

In order to highlight to the other Protestant denominations that they were more like them than different – that they, too, were part of the Reformed tradition – John Spilsbury wrote the First London Baptist Confession of Faith in 1644 that was later used to help write the Second LBC, which our church subscribes to.

There are many excellent and edifying things we could highlight about Spilsbury’s theology, but for the sake of time I’m going to limit it to his ecclesiology.   

The gathered church concept was at the core of his ecclesiology (and at the core of our ecclesiology, too).

Jesus is the head of the church. He gathers his church for his purposes. The gathered church under Jesus’ authority through His Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit needs no outside spiritual authority to put its stamp of approval on it. Thompson explains, “This concept of the gathered church would serve as historical Baptist distinctive from the seventeenth century to the present day – ideas such as freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, autonomy of the local church, and several others.”[14]

So, here at Orland Grace Church, we affirm and install our pastors and elders. No outside body appoints them. We don’t require a Bishop to approve our administering of the sacraments. We answer to Jesus, and Jesus alone, for how we conduct ourselves as his gathered people. So, it’s our responsibility to institute church discipline when needed and to guard the ministry of the Word.

But this understanding and belief in the gathered church concept also should give us humility.

Christ’s church – the invisible church – is centered on him, not our denominational distinctives. That’s not intended to undermine the importance of our distinctives (I’m a Baptist for reasons), but it should cause us to rejoice that Jesus is working in and through churches that disagree with us over things like baptism, polity, eschatology, music styles in worship, etc. The list is long.

Several years ago, while we were traveling over spring break, my family and I went with some family members to their large, seeker-sensitive church for worship on Easter.

Almost the entirety of my Christian life has been spent in churches that adhere to the regulative principle (think Zwingli). In fact, the church we were at prior to moving to Orlando was a hard-core regulative principle church.

Well, this church many Easters ago definitely did not adhere to the regulative principle. They had a full choir and a praise team, a full orchestra and a praise band. Multimedia presentations. All at a cacophony once. And they had interpretative dancers.

I remember standing there, silently scowling, smugly judging them, and thanking God that I was not like these seeker-sensitive worshippers and their normative principle. But while standing there, the Holy Spirit convicted me.

What right did I have to judge the worship of those whom Jesus has gathered?

Look, to be clear, I’m going to vote “no” every time the issue of interpretative dancers as part of the worship service comes up. Same thing with a full choir and orchestra (you can ask me about that later, if you’d like).

In that moment, though, on that Lord’s day, the Holy Spirit had brought me to the worship of my King. My response should have been one of worship, not of judgement. No heresy was being taught. No sin (that was apparent) except mine was being committed. My disagreement over appropriate forms of worship did not justify my violating Jesus’ call (command) to unity among his people.

Bavinck puts it strongly, “As Christians we cannot humble ourselves deeply enough over the schisms and discord that have existed all through the centuries in the church of Christ. It is a sin against God, in conflict with Christ’s [high priestly] prayer [for unity], and caused by the darkness of our minds and the lovelessness of our hearts.”[15]

We – all of us – need to be careful to not make the mistake of conflating our specific formulation of the visible church with the invisible church. That mistake leads to the same error committed by the Roman Catholic Church that helped lead to the Reformation. That mistake means that we’re defining the church by specific visible institutions and attributes.

Our Particular Baptist ancestors (assuming you’re a “reformed” Baptist) suffered to gather and worship in ways they best believed honored God. And they did so while seeking unity with those who were persecuting them because they knew that the church is centered on Jesus. Think about that: They sought unity with the people persecuting them. That’s a level of understanding of the gathered church and the unity we have in Christ that can only be given by the Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 ed. John Bolt trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 306.

[2] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), x.

[3] Bruce Shelley, Church History In Plain Language 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 253.

[4] The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues ed. Ian H. Murray (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth, 2021), 7-8.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 ed. John Bolt trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 275.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. John T. McNeill (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1487.

[7] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1488.

[8] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1495.

[9] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 40.

[10] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 2, 70.

[11] Michael A. Thompson, Outside the Camp: John Spilsbury, the Pioneer of English Particular Baptists (Kingwood, TX: Charis Publications, 2011), 33.

[12] Thompson, Outside the Camp, 41.

[13] Thompson, Outside the Camp, 46.

[14] Thompson, Outside the Camp, 84.

[15] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 4., 316.

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