the weblog of Alan Knox

Reformation period church meetings

Posted by on Oct 21, 2008 in church history, gathering | 12 comments

As part of my PhD studies, my PhD mentor, Dave Black, is guiding through the study of church meetings through various periods of church history. Last week, we looked at various aspects of church meetings during the Reformation period. One of the books that I found helpful was Owen Chadwick’s The Early Reformation on the Continent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

In his discussion of church meetings, Chadwick begins with some common beliefs of the early reformers:

Everyone agreed that services in church should be simpler, with less elaborate ritual; that they should be in the language which the people understood; and that they should contain nothing which was contrary to Scripture or could not be justified from Scripture. (181)

Most would agree with this today. However, he continues:

It was also agreed that the congregation should be a people that took part with the clergy and did not sit or stand silent while the clergy read the service or the choir sang. How this could be done was harder. (181)

Thus, according to Chadwick, the early reformers recognized that the whole congregation (not just “the clergy”) should take part in the church meeting. They were not content with a passive audience who simple listened to teaching, reading, or singing. Instead, they expected a church that took part in the meeting.

So, what happened? Well, according to Chadwick, the reformers could not determine how to have this type of meeting while ensuring that the meeting also stayed focused on teaching the Scriptures. He said that the early reformers emphasized teaching (and a certain style of teaching) to such an extent that it eclipsed their desire to have a participatory meeting.

Unfortunately, many of the people could not read, which meant they could not read the Scriptures. So, for many of the reformers (but not the radical reformers) education took center stage. Only the educated could read and understand the Scriptures, so only the educated should be allowed to take part in the church meeting:

There must be teaching. If parts of the service were regarded as a vehicle for information, even if the lesson was about the Bible, then it was not like a corporate act but like a schoolmaster talking to pupils. In the eyes of reformers the crime of the medieval liturgy was its clericalism. Without seeing the peril, they brought back a new form of clericalism and made the role of the pastor as bulky as that of the former priest. (199)

So, according to Chadwick, this new “clericalism” arose from a desire to teach the Bible and especially the gospel. Since so many of the people within the congregation could not read, they could not take part in the readings or teachings or hymns, unless something was memorized, and thus the growth of creeds during the Reformation. However, as Chadwick points out, the “solution” turned out to be another form of “clericalism” where the pastor assumes the role of the medieval priest.

The question, at least for me, is the following: Is there a mediating position? Teaching is important and understanding Scripture is important. Does Scripture give us the idea that only those who can read should be allowed to take part in the church meeting?

I believe the early reformers were very sincere in their desire to uphold the importance of teaching Scripture in the church meetings. But, I think they made a mistake when they placed the emphasis on education. Would you agree? If they should not have emphasized teaching by the educated, then what type of teaching should they have emphasized?


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  1. 10-21-2008


    I will obliquely give my answer to that last question by telling of an incident I observed:

    A young man aspiring to pastoral leadership preached a sermon to a congregation of which I was a part.

    After a long discourse, the service ended, and standing just outside the entrance to the building, I observed one of those very mature, elderly Christian men, who fulfilled all the Biblical requirements of an elder, including being able to teach.

    His name was Charley. Scratching his head, Charley walked towards me with a puzzled look on his face.

    “What’s wrong, Charley”, I questioned.

    Charley looked at me and said, “I heard him speak for a long time, but, I don’t know what he said”!

  2. 10-21-2008

    It’s interesting, Alan. Most of the “sermons” recorded in Scripture are rather short (Paul and the famous window scene as a noted exception). It seems that most of the teaching of Jesus was relational and almost caught more than taught.

    I wonder if the strong emphasis on “teaching” by the reformers was just a way to exercise control.

    – Scott Eaton

  3. 10-21-2008

    I have to list the questions to make sure I stay on point.

    1. Yes, I believe there is a mediating position and since all Followers are priest, then we all mediate on the behalf of the other, through prayer, accountability, admonishment, and exhortation all done relationally.

    2. I read somewhere that most of the Roman empire was illiterate in some sense. So reading the Old Testament would have been a challenge for some; however, the church increased in number due to the faithfulness of the believers of what the Apostles taught. Now, it is funny that most of the gifts lifted in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 have nothing to do with education and all to do with the Supernatural. You only needed to be able to speak and God could use you in mighty ways: Exhortation, Tongues, Prophecy and other such gifts seem to be gifts that may not have needed any level of education just a submitted heart to the Spirit.

    3. Yes and so do we. I was just telling a friend this morning that many of the “Bible” churches (in which I am a part of one) meet on the bible. The scriptures and the “right” interpretation of them is what unifies us, while the bible seems to say that love and a common faith is what unifies us. But we pass on our “one anothers” because of bible truth.

    4. I think I answered your last question earlier; however, as I read the gifts listed in scripture, I see most of these gifts having nothing to do with education and everything to do with a Supernatural move of God.

    I am not advocating biblical illiteracy because I believe the qualifications for leadership is one who can be faithful to what the word teaches (both expositorily but even more practically). However, I know some old saints that couldn’t read that well but were the most communal and sacrificial and wise individuals I have met. I know much more “bible” they live much more bible! So what you know means nothing if you don’t live it anyway. I believe education is too often the mark of maturity versus obeying what you do know.

  4. 10-21-2008

    It doesn’t seem like the Bible talks a whole lot about actual liturgy except that it should be orderly and that all the spiritual gifts are to be involved (I may have shown my ignorance there. If so, correct me). I don’t think that education would be a bad thing to include, but the kind of education they seem to be talking about should deffinitely come second to more Biblical things.

  5. 10-21-2008

    I agree with what many of you brought out. The emphasis on education missed the point. The church needs to hear from people who know the ways and wisdom of God. The ways and wisdom of God are best learned through life, not through education. Education is helpful, but it is not a substitute for discipleship and experience.


  6. 11-3-2008


    This looks like an interesting book I hope you don’t mind if I ask a few questions that maybe the book deals with.

    If the people could not read, did any of the reformers incorporate reading scripture aloud in the services and then discuss the verses being read?

    “They were not content with a passive audience who simply listened to teaching, reading, or singing.”

    Nowhere in this post do you mention prayer. Was there any concept during this period that congregational gatherings were not only for teaching but for corporate prayer?

    Even in a more formal liturgical style setting where the actual prayers are predetermined, prayer itself is never passive – each individual puts their own energy, attention and love into those preset prayers. Neither is hearing scripture read a passive activity, no more passive then reading scripture at home, especially when done with a prayerful, attentive disposition.

    “what type of teaching should they have emphasized?”

    I wonder if this is the wrong question? Maybe we should ask “What function should our formal meetings have in the the larger context of our life in Christ?” I see the problem not just then but today — not with what they were teaching, but the fact that teaching took an almost exclusive place in the coorportate assembly over prayer and that “the meeting” became overemphasized over personal discipling relatships such as Paul had with Timothy.

  7. 11-3-2008


    I have already returned the book to the library, so I don’t know the answers to your specific questions. I think the author concluded that the reformers stressed teaching above all other activities and giftedness. I don’t remember if prayer was specifically mentioned or not.


  8. 7-15-2011


    If I may add to your concerns here: I’ve been wondering if the seminary system–the means of being educated–has inherent weaknesses, in promoting Biblical teaching?

    In the secular university system, I’ve seen how the peer-review process can institutionalize falsehood. The peer-review process is used to determine who gets a PhD, funding, published, hired, and tenure. The peer-review process institutionalizes particular research methods and doctrines.

    In practice, the peer-review process creates a guild-system whose primary purpose becomes protecting and enhancing the careers of the guild members. The process censors those who reveal problems with the institutionalized methods and doctrines. For example, key aspects of Reformed theology are extremely speculative. I wonder if the Reformers’ speculative theology came about, in large part, via a peer-review process at seminaries in the UK and US, during the 18th and 19th centuries?

    Tying this into your concerns about being “educated”–there are inherent weaknesses in making the standards of education be a seminary degree–ultimately, the degree is just a credential from an institution, and further, an institution not explicitly found in scripture.


  9. 7-15-2011

    Maybe they should have taken the time to teach them to read. That’s a simple answer.

    I like Lionel’s points.

    I think teaching, today as well as then, is out of order, in the sense that way too much focus is put on it. Education just for the sake of knowledge accumulation is not profitable. Knowing the scriptures does not a christian make.

  10. 4-13-2012

    Was thinking about getting Chadwick’s book but the Kindle version is over $50. I will have to settle for excerpts.

  11. 4-13-2012

    man continues to under evaluate the presence, and power of His creator, did Adam & Eve know how to read?

  12. 4-13-2012

    Much of what we read in the scriptures about the life and practice of the early church seems to me to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. So, we have considerable freedom to discover ways of doing church and bring church that honours the important and essential ingredients…whilst being appropriate in out culture and context.

    If we’re going to have large gatherings, the potential for significant participation is necessarily reduced. Perhaps we need to allow for diversity…less participation (though that should not be ‘no’ participation) in the bigger meetings, and maximum participation in the smaller, discipleship groups.

    I think


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