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The Church Universal: Reformation Review

Perhaps the most crucial debate of the Reformation Era was over the nature of the universal church. During the Reformation, the church had split into numerous separate bodies. But were each of these bodies truly “the church”? Was salvation only found through membership in the Catholic Church? Finally, how did one determine what church bodies were part of “the church” if there were some new criterion for establishing what counted as “the church”? Having found their origins prior to the Reformation and a spectrum of answers during the Reformation, these questions continue to be debated into our own time.

The Church Universal

The key to understanding the emerging doctrine of the church within the Reformation is to note a distinction in meanings for “apostolic continuity.” On the one hand, one could note a literal apostolic continuity in which the authority of the Apostles themselves was passed from one person to another. On the other hand, some argued that the authority of the church was found in continuity with apostolic doctrine, not with a literal continuity of passed-on authority (McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction 141ff, cited fully below).

The Protestants began to view church authority as a consequence of right doctrine. This view allowed them to divorce themselves from the Roman Catholic church (and thus potentially lose the literal passing down of authority from one to another from the apostles) while still maintaining that their own churches remained part of the church universal.

Yet this was not the only question facing those trying to distinguish which churches were “true” as opposed to “false” churches. Surely there ought to be some signs of a “true church” to distinguish it from those that had fallen away. Martin Bucer and Martin Luther offered ways forward on this: the marks of the church. Luther insisted that what made a true church was “right administration of the sacraments and true preaching of the Gospel” while Bucer held that there was a third mark: discipline (Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation, 181, cited below).

The Background to the Reformation Debate

Alister McGrath notes how important it is to note the origins of the reformation debate regarding the church here. Specifically, the debate can be traced back to the Donatist controversy in the earlier church (third century). Essentially, this controversy centered around the very nature of the true church. The Christian church had been persecuted, and many had renounced their faith in order to avoid persecution. The question was asked: should these persons be allowed back into the true church? Could they still administer the sacraments and interact with the true body of Christ?

The Donatists said that those who had lapsed had become apostate and could not be allowed back into the church. However this belief was eventually considered to be incorrect and detrimental to the unity of the Church. Augustine argued against the Donatists and pointed out how the church is a “mixed body” of sinners and saints (McGrath, 144ff).

The concept of a sinner-saint was utilized by Martin Luther and other Reformers to note that the church was a body in which the Holy Spirit was actively working sanctification. That is, God was working to make the Church holy, but that did not mean that each individual in the church was absolutely devoid of sin.

How did all of this fit into the Reformation discussions on the true church? Simply put, the Donatists were radically schismatic. They sought to divorce themselves from “sinners” within the church. The Donatists were condemned for their schismatism, and so the Reformers had  to deal with the fact that they themselves had either been forcibly removed from or split from the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the importance of apostolic authority through theological unity became central in understanding the continuity of the Church.

The Modern Debates

The notion that right doctrine delineates the true church as opposed to literal apostolic continuity has a number of interesting outcomes which are very relevant for today’s church bodies.

First, it introduces a great difficulty for many church bodies in determining with whom one can fellowship. If the authority of the church universal is based upon true teachings rather than a passing down of authority from one person to another, then where is the line for how much teaching must be correct in order to remain as the true church?

Different church bodies offer different answers. Some church bodies err on the side of openness and humility and allow many into their fold who hold radically differing views. People in these organizations may hold to different views on things like the ordination of women, the age of the earth, and the like. Other church bodies err on the side of unity in doctrine and restrict membership to those that affirm sound doctrine as taught by their own body. For these church groups, a certain creed or body of work is referenced as the authoritative teaching of the church. If one differs from these teachings, then one is not part of their church body. (For more on the notion of using creeds or bodies of teachings as authoritative interpretations, see my post on “Who Interprets Scripture? Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and the modern era.”)

To be frank, some Christians fail to recognize the diversity of these answers and simply assume that anyone who has a differing organizational structure is “liberal” or “conservative”–using the words in a derogatory manner. Such an attitude does not contribute to discussions on church organization. By failing to recognize the commendable attitude of humility in the churches that emphasize the unity of faith as opposed to the unity of individual doctrines, some unfairly label other church bodies as unbiblical or apostate. Similarly, by failing to recognize the commendable need for unity of belief in church bodies that emphasize right belief, some unfairly label these church bodies as schismatic or unchristian.

It also seems to me that both of these groups should learn from each other. Too many church groups vary too far one way or the other on these issues. Church bodies that emphasize humility in doctrine can often undermine their own church’s teachings. Similarly, church bodies that emphasize unity in doctrine can undermine their capacity for outreach and cooperation with other church bodies.

The Roman Catholic Church, following Vatican II, officially viewed non-Catholic churches as separated brethren–other bodies of true believers who were practicing independently. Such an affirmation ultimately undermines part of the debate that has raged since the Reformation: are Protestants saved, according to Roman Catholic teaching? This debate was hot during the Reformation and beyond, as the Roman Catholic church continued to deny salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Now, however, it is acknowledged that salvation can be found within Protestant circles as well.

Finally, the options Luther and Bucer offered to describe the “marks of the church” continue to be extremely important. Bucer’s emphasis on independent church discipline has–insofar as I can tell–largely fallen by the wayside, though it remains a point of interest in Anabaptist and other traditions. Although I would be hesitant to make a structured church discipline one of the marks of the true church, it would appear to be greatly important to have a system for disciplining those within the church who do not adhere to basic moral and/or doctrinal norms. However, this must be consistent with the notion that all believers are sinners being formed into saints through the process of sanctification. The modern church in the West perhaps does not have enough emphasis on the importance of church discipline, but caution should be taken so that a reform in this area does not lead the church back to a Donatist-like position.


So what makes a church a true church? The Reformers do still speak to us on this issue. Continuity with apostolic teaching is that which designates a true church. It is not easy to know where to draw the line between unity and humility, but over-emphasizing either leads to great difficulties for a church body. Of utmost importance, however, is the acknowledgement that though not all church bodies agree on every topic (there’s an understatement!), these church bodies are part of the saving body of Christ and therefore part of the salvific work of the Holy Spirit. Remembering this simple fact might help to spur on a bit of humility and unity among the Church Universal.


Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 


Alister E. McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Image: credit to Beatrice-


Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!



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