Radical 16th-century Separatists: Church is a community

Radical 16th-century Separatists: Church is a community

Barbara Brown Zikmund


A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

Late 16th-century England was filled with controversy about the best way to reform the church. Those who had been influenced by Swiss Protestant reforms in Calvin's Geneva considered the Church of England too "Roman" and too hierarchical. Many of them wanted to "purify" the church, writing long theological tracts arguing for political and ecclesiastical change. Known as "Puritans," they believed that it was possible to reform the church and the government from within.

More radical church leaders disagreed. To them the authority of bishops and the rule of government over the church were unbiblical. Their solution was to "separate" from the corrupt church and form congregations of believers grounded in "covenant and fellowship." By the 1580s small groups of "Separatists" began going into exile in the Netherlands, rather than obey the rules of the Church of England.

Robert Browne (c1550-1633) was living in the Netherlands when he published "A Treatise of Reformation without Tarying for Anie" in 1582. He was the first English church leader to set forth the idea of the church as a covenantal community, although it is not clear that that idea had any direct impact on later Congregationalism. However, his argument for action without waiting was significant.

Browne began by trying to af- firm the theoretical legitimacy of the monarch and the Parliament as civil authorities. However, he was quick to state that in practice the "magistrates" were "worse than beasts," because they "pull down the head Christ Jesus to set up the hand of the Magistrate." In Browne's thinking civil authorities had absolutely no power over the church or its pastors, because the church was ruled by Christ. Therefore, since the magistrate had no authority over the church, clergy did not need to wait for the government to institute reforms. Browne was impatient with moderate Puritan reformers, who argued for tolerance in the face of difficulties. "How then dare these men teach us, that any evil thing is tolerable in the church?" when, for Browne, right church government could remedy everything, immediately.

Although Browne himself actually went back to the Church of England later in his life, his argument that reforms are the responsibility of the people and not dependent upon political or ecclesiastical authorities was revolutionary. Then and now, he challenges all Christians who see the need for change to embrace reform without "tarrying." If Jesus Christ is the head of the church, there is never a time when the people under Christ are prohibited from acting.

Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.

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