Not every Christian is celebrating the Reformation’s anniversary this year. It’s not just Catholics who have reservations; many Protestants do as well. Our enthusiasm for the Reformation’s emphasis on Scripture as the highest and final authority does not mean we can ignore how Scripture repeatedly decries division in the church.
Paul, for example, rebuked the Corinthians, “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:12–13). It sounds an awful lot like the eight different congregations on Main Street.
Paul noted four factions in the Corinthian church. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity counts 45,000 denominations around the world, with an average of 2.4 new ones forming every day. The center has an admittedly broad definition of denomination, but even a dramatically lower count will be absurdly high in light of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that we all might be one. It makes some wonder about the Reformation. As one theologian lamented, “Isn’t this the movement that drove the church into the churches?” Should we wholeheartedly celebrate the Reformation when one of its main legacies seems to be so much division?
Rethinking that Memorable Story
The problem seems to have surfaced early on. No other theological matter of the Reformation has provoked more dispute than the Eucharist, and no other historical event has more reinforced the idea that Protestantism is divisive by nature than the Marburg Colloquy.
Perhaps you have heard the story: Martin Luther, the leader of the Wittenberg reformers, met with Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Swiss reformers, in October 1529 at Marburg Castle. The two early Reformation leaders had been exchanging their theological views in letters, and now they met face to face for the first time. Over the course of those few days, theological division proved insurmountable.
The most well-known moment cited to illustrate Protestant fragmentation is when Luther pulled out his knife in the heat of dispute and carved into a wooden table Jesus’ words from the Last Supper, “This is my body.” Luther’s actions have come to represent a permanently divided legacy between Protestant Christians that continues to this day.
That story is dramatic, memorable, and persistent. But it didn’t quite happen that way. Marburg was a significant event, but not for the reasons so often believed. Rethinking that moment can help us better understand Protestant divisions.
Luther and Zwingli’s first face-to-face encounter was by no means an easy one, particularly given their contentious exchange in print before the meeting. It didn’t help that colloquy members spoke different dialects of German. Eyewitness reports of the meeting attest to personality clashes as well as cultural and linguistic misunderstandings.
The theological crux was indeed the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. What is most often misunderstood, however, is that neither party questioned whether Christ was present during the Eucharist but how Christ was present. They only differed as to whether he was present spiritually or physically. Although uniformity over this doctrine prevented political alliance, it did not, in fact, obstruct Protestant theological fellowship at Marburg.
As Martin E. Lehmann (translator of the seven colloquy reports) notes, overall “the colloquy was conducted with courtesy and in an amicable spirit.” According to the most reliable report (Caspar Hedio’s eyewitness account), when disagreement over Christ’s presence reached an impasse, Zwingli declared, “The early fathers, even if they disagreed, nevertheless did not condemn one another.” In turn, Luther declared to Zwingli, “Let us look to the future! If we cannot agree on everything, we can still enter into fellowship.”
At the close of their conversations, Luther thanked Zwingli, asked forgiveness for his sometimes sharp words, and reiterated his desire “that their common cause unite them mutually.” Zwingli responded “almost weeping” to express how deeply he desired “his friendship and seeks it even now.”
These overlooked exchanges indicate how the desire for friendship prevailed over the meeting as Reformation leaders agreed to stop their “vehement and sharp polemics against one another” and to keep seeking the Holy Spirit in prayer for right understanding.
The colloquy in fact produced a theological statement written by Luther and signed by Zwingli and his Reformed constituencies. They grounded their extensive agreement first and foremost in the essential beliefs of “the entire Christian church throughout the world”—that is, in the earliest councils’ doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity. Having stressed their commonality with Western Christian theology and shared Protestant theology, they stressed charity in their disagreements. “At this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily in the bread and wine,” Luther said. “Nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side.”
Marburg shows us that if part of the legacy of the Reformation is the existence of tens of thousands of denominations, then the ability to remain in communion, share core theological affirmations, and interact in friendship and mission is just as much a part of that legacy. Evangelicalism—a movement made up of Christians from a variety of denominations—is evidence of that legacy today. We may disagree over many matters that require separate fellowships and teams, but we can pray and work together in Christ’s name nonetheless.
And yet we are undeniably faced with a multiplicity of denominations the likes of which Luther, Zwingli, and the Reformers almost certainly could not have imagined. What is the reason for Protestant denominations?
The Variety of Church Divisions
The explosion of Protestant denominations is mostly due to lay believers gaining greater access to Scripture, which ushered in an era of “interpretive pluralism” that in turn led to a multiplicity of church structure. And yet other forces, which have little to do with Protestantism as such, also shaped the emerging Protestant church: local politics, the rise of the vernacular, and the doctrine of Christian freedom.
From the start, Protestant traditions diverged as they became regionally focused. This was due more to political alliances than to theology. Reformers overwhelmingly aligned themselves with the ruling governments—city councils, nobles, and monarchs—out of the conviction that the state was also given a calling to ensure the reform of the church. For example, when it became clear that Pope Leo X had no intention of calling a reforming council, Luther empowered the German nobility to encourage church reform through his affirmation of the “priesthood of all believers.” Soon most Protestant reform efforts became closely tied to particular regions and their political authorities. Consequently, the Reformation developed differently in different contexts. (After the Reformation, of course, Protestantism continued to work with the state in ways that made it difficult to distinguish the culture’s idea of a good citizen from the church’s idea of a good Protestant.)
At the same time, Protestant unity often transcended political divisions. In some cases, Protestants extended camaraderie to any seeking refuge from hostile governments. Fleeing the reign of Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary,” a moniker she earned for persecuting Protestants), Scottish Reformer John Knox found safe haven in Protestant strongholds like Frankfurt and Geneva. This kept movement figures and reform efforts connected across regions.
Meanwhile, for the radical wing of Protestantism that included Anabaptists, escaping persecution became a way of life. They found safe haven under more tolerant governments such as those in Strasbourg and Moravia (for a time). Nonetheless, dogged persecution (yes, admittedly by other Protestants—not a happy part of our legacy) led many Anabaptists to emphasize Christians’ separation from the world. That emphasis in turn insulated and isolated certain Protestant groups, which furthered denominational distinctives.
A rising emphasis on the vernacular—the language or dialect spoken by ordinary people—played another key role in multiplying churches and church families. At the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, Luther elevated the authority of Scripture above the papacy and church councils. A year later he followed this with an affirmation of the “priesthood of all believers.” Such insights reinforced the importance of all people having access to the gospel message in their tongue. As access to Bibles in many common languages dramatically increased and Christians translated, interpreted, and debated key biblical ideas, the number of denominations increased, too.
Finally, there is the doctrine of Christian freedom. When Luther declared at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that his “conscience was captive to the Word of God,” he set in motion a principle that allowed for conscientious objection to church structure and belief according to personal convictions grounded in Scripture. For some, this alone is the root cause of Protestant interpretative pluralism.
Yet many forget that Protestant Reformers stressed that Scripture provided readers and listeners with a sufficient knowledge of God to ensure human salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit. They distinguished between sufficient knowledge and complete knowledge, allowing them to affirm that some theological matters were essential and others were not. This did not lead to uniformity, but it helped Protestants recognize that not every interpretive difference based on conscience had the same impact on Protestant fellowship. This is exactly why we can still talk about Protestant denominations as Protestant and not each another major branch of Christendom. Matters of conscience can both unite and divide.
Denominationalism is not merely a product of Protestantism. But this does not mean that Protestant division is never a scandal. Those who have lived through a church divorce know what grief, hardship, and disillusionment it entails. Some churches never recover from the severing of relationships, the loss of trust, and the damaging of Christian witness.
While we cannot sweep away the presence of sin in the church, and while we deeply regret many church splits, there are times when division is clearly the more faithful way. When the church turns its back on the authority of Scripture, when church leaders commit crimes that devastate the church’s ministry and witness, when the church no longer proclaims Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection—these are moments when the church has truly lost its way. Reform sometimes entails starting afresh.
Yet there is one more point to consider: Luther never encountered a united church.
Protestantism’s Challenging Dynamic
Medieval church practice and theology before and during Luther’s time was far more diverse than is often assumed. Looking beyond the West, we need to also recognize that there are four main branches of the worldwide Christian church. While the Great Schism of 1054 between the East and the West is often mentioned here, in fact, the challenge of ensuring worldwide Christian unity was a struggle from the earliest Christians on, and it continues to be a struggle for all the branches of Christianity today whether in the West or the East. Recent controversies with the Antiochian Orthodox churches attest to that reoccuring struggle.
With a worldwide Christian perspective, the predominate reason for difference among Christian groups comes to light: The earthly church is always contextual in nature. It must function in a particular time, space, nation, culture, and language. At the same time, it is called by God to proclaim a divinely revealed message that attests to the person and work of Jesus Christ for all time, space, nations, cultures, and languages.
This challenging dynamic binds the Protestant tradition as much as any other Christian tradition. The persistence of the church’s many branches illustrates the power with which it has gone forth into all the nations: Christianity has never looked exactly the same in every time and space. Nor has one hierarchy governed it.
Contextualizing the church is not a scandal or a weakness. On the contrary, the ability to adapt to context has been one of Christianity’s greatest strengths. The engrafting of the Gentiles into the promises of God through Jesus Christ was the start of embracing the diversity of God’s children. From that point on, Christianity’s spread throughout the world into different cultures, contexts, and people groups became a global story.
This global story is as much the story of Western Protestants and Catholics as it is the story of the Eastern Orthodox and the Christians of the Southern hemisphere. All of these stories are enmeshed and intertwined as well as distinctly contextual. How could they not be when Scripture tells us that God’s intention through his Son, Jesus Christ, was to provide the way for all who believe in him “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)? We are not just members of our local church but members of Christ’s global church that spans both time and space. The true scandal would be failing to recognize this truth.
Jennifer Powell McNutt is associate professor of theology and the history of Christianity at Wheaton College, and author of Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685–1798 (Routledge).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.