The Early Reformation

Andy Sochor | Kentucky, USA

The four previous articles in this series focused on the apostasy that led to the development of the Roman Catholic Church. This was the product of the mindset that Paul warned the brethren in Thessalonica about:

Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together with Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).

Some in Thessalonica believed the Lord would return very soon, yet Paul explained that He would not return until after the great apostasy described in the passage above. Furthermore, the natural progression of apostasy is that it tends to get worse as the ones following after the false teachers and their errors move further and further away from the Lord and the standard found in His word. This is why Paul told Timothy, “But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).

However, as the “church” moved further away from the pattern found in the New Testament, more individuals and groups saw the problems in the dominant religious system and sought to fix them. Unfortunately, these were generally like the reforms of some of the kings of God’s people – Asa, Jehoshaphat, and others – who did good and may have eliminated certain erroneous practices, but “the high places were not taken away” where idolatrous worship was conducted (1 Kings 15:11-14; 22:42-43; 2 Kings 14:1-4; 15:1-4, 32-35). They made reforms but did not completely restore the practices that God gave in His Law. In the same way, many saw the problems in the Roman Catholic Church and endeavored to correct them, but they did not return to the New Testament pattern.

Erroneous Doctrines and Practices That Had Developed

Before discussing some of the individuals and groups who first attempted to institute change in the Roman Catholic Church, let us briefly notice some of the “strange doctrines” that developed after the first century that were contrary to the teachings of the New Testament:

  • Celibacy – The “clergy” were forbidden from marrying. Yet the New Testament taught that the overseers in the church (known as bishops, elders, or pastors) were to be married (1 Timothy 3:2). Even the apostle Peter, who the Catholics erroneously claim was the first pope, was married (Matthew 8:14), as were most of the other apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5).
  • Latin mass – Worship services were conducted in the Latin language, which was not the language spoken by the common man. Yet Paul taught that, even during the days of miraculous spiritual gifts and tongue-speaking, the assembly was to be conducted so that all could understand what was being said (1 Corinthians 14:23-25, 27-28, 19).
  • Penance – This is a self-inflicted punishment for sin as an outward sign of repentance. However, Paul told the brethren in Colossae that “self-abasement and severe treatment of the body…are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:23).
  • Indulgences – These were monetary gifts given to the church as a substitute for penance. Yet when Simon needed to repent, Peter told him to “repent of this wickedness…and pray” in order to “be forgiven” (Acts 8:22).
  • Confessing sins to the priest – We are to confess to God (1 John 1:19) and, in some instances, to one another (James 5:16). Yet the Catholic Church designated one man – the priest – as the one to whom all the people were to confess their sins in order to be forgiven.
  • Transubstantiation – This is the idea that in the Lord’s Supper (Catholics call this the “Eucharist”), the emblems are miraculously changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. However, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper before His death, He said, “This is My body,” and, “This is My blood,” clearly showing that they were symbols of His body and blood. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper today, we partake of the bread and fruit of the vine, which represent the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
  • Purgatory – This is an intermediary state after death for those who have not been sufficiently cleansed of their sins during their lifetime, so they need to endure suffering in order to be purified of sins before they can go to heaven. Yet Jesus taught that there are two possible outcomes after death – paradise and torment – and that no one can pass from one to the other (Luke 16:19-31). In other words, at death, our fate is sealed, and we look forward to either “a resurrection of life” or “a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29).

This is not an exhaustive list. However, they provide a sample of the doctrines and practices that developed among those who departed from the doctrines and practices of the first century church.

Tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church

In the previous article of this series, we discussed the development of papal power. However, this was not just in the political realm. As the Roman Catholic Church dominated the nations during the Dark Ages, it also wielded great power over the common man. Some of the “strange doctrines” we discussed helped keep the people enslaved to or dependent upon the Roman Catholic Church.

  • The Latin Mass kept the common people uninformed about what was being done religiously, hindering their ability to test what was being taught (cf. Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
  • The doctrine of Purgatory, in essence, enabled the “church” to hold people’s loved ones hostage after their death.
  • Having all sins confessed to the priest meant that the priest knew every secret and, if he was so inclined, could use that to manipulate or blackmail the people.

The development of these erroneous doctrines and practices may not have been motivated by a desire of the religious leaders to keep the people under their thumb. Yet some of these doctrines enabled them to do so.

Early Reformers

As the Roman Catholic Church became more corrupt, various individuals and groups saw the problems that existed and attempted to make some reforms. They faced severe persecution for their efforts, yet they would help prepare the way for those who would initiate the Reformation. Who were some of these early reformers?

  • The Albigenses (this movement was also called Catharism) – This group arose in Southern France in the late twelfth century. They opposed the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory and the practice of worshipping images. They were victims of the Albigensian Crusade launched by Pope Innocent III in the early part of the thirteenth century.
  • The Waldensians – Around the same time as the Albigenses, Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant, gave away his possessions and promoted the virtues of “apostolic poverty” and purity of life. His followers opposed the authority of the local bishops and were persecuted by the Catholic Church. They were driven out of France into Northern Italy.
  • John Wycliffe (1324-1384) – Wycliffe has been referred to as “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” Not only did he oppose the pope’s authority and various doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, but he also translated the Bible into English, which was an essential step in making the Scriptures accessible to the common man.
  • John Huss (1369-1415) – Huss was a Catholic priest from Bohemia, yet became a disciple of Wycliffe and embraced his ideas. He opposed the tyranny of the clergy and the sale of indulgences. He was tried as a heretic and burned to death in 1415.
  • John Wessel (1420-1498) – He did not have the notoriety of Wycliffe or Huss, but he opposed the Catholic Church and embraced many ideas that would later be promoted by Martin Luther.
  • Jerome Savonarola (1452-1498) – Savonarola was from Florence, Italy. He opposed the pope’s authority and condemned the immorality among the clergy. The pope tried to silence him by bribing him with the office of a cardinal. When this did not work, Savonarola was excommunicated. He was then arrested, tried, and burned to death in front of the church where he preached in Florence.


Over the centuries, the apostasy grew, and the Roman Catholic Church departed further and further from the teachings found in the New Testament. Eventually, there would be a widespread Reformation movement that would completely change the landscape of the religious world. Yet these early reformers helped pave the way for that. While we would not necessarily endorse every doctrine among them, we can admire their courage and appreciate their efforts in the face of severe persecution.

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