Date 21 March 2017

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

To many Christians this article may seem superfluous. After all, ‘church’ is the place where we go for hymns, sermons, Communion, and the occasional wedding or funeral. Right? The Reformers knew that the outworking of their theology, based squarely on the sufficiency and authority of the Scriptures, was a direct challenge to Rome and the papacy. It was therefore essential to say what constituted a true church and what did not. Article 19 is similar to that of Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and reflects a shared Protestant consensus that Rome’s teaching on the Church needed to be reformed.


a. Visible
The article assumes that the Church is to be a visible company of believers in Jesus Christ. This is the whole tenor of the New Testament: Offences should be told to the church (Matthew 18:17); the Church is like a light that cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14); many were added to the number of believers by the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:47). This is all inexplicable unless it refers to a visible society of Christians.

Article 26 explicitly states that, as in the parable of the wheat and the tares, in the visible church ‘the evil are ever mingled with the good’. Cranmer was well aware of this visible/invisible Church distinction, as is evident in the Thirteen Articles (1538), where we read that ‘true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head’ make up the invisible Church, and the visible Church comprises ‘all who are baptised in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated’.

b. Congregational
Cranmer was probably thinking of ‘congregation’ as more than just a single group of local believers, but as a larger, regional or even national body. This larger meaning is also suggested by the later mention of the ancient patriarchates (the Church of Jerusalem, the Church of Alexandria etc). The biblical doctrine of the Church is a corrective against an individualism which focuses narrowly on personal wishes and the end goal of self-satisfaction. The New Testament imagery of a body and building (1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 1:22-23, 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-10) emphasises this corporate dimension.

c. Faithful
‘Faithful’ has here to be seen as all those who profess and call themselves Christians. As Gerald Bray puts it, ‘We are not dealing here with a club full of dedicated supporters, but with a fellowship of those who share the same fundamental beliefs’. In the Church of England we are painfully aware that this is not always so. We must insist that right beliefs are placed before any fixation with buildings or any sort of institutional loyalty or unity.


a. Word
The Reformers were strong advocates for proper theological training for legally authorised ministers (Article 23), so they would actually know what the pure word of God is, and could also preach that message. Non-preaching ‘dumb’ ministers were a contradiction in terms. Today, we should consider carefully the difference between a five minute homily and consistent expositional preaching as means to spiritually nourish a congregation of God’s people. Is preaching and Bible study a priority, or just an optional extra which people tolerate, but do not value?

b. Sacrament
The two dominical sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper (Article 25) also have to be administered in a way which is both loyal to the Scriptures and avoids error. The Reformers therefore fought against abuses: private communion denied the corporate fellowship of Christ’s Church and encouraged superstition; denying the laity the cup was against the Lord’s command; indiscriminate baptism of infants downplayed the importance of personal faith and suggested automatic salvation on being baptised. If sacraments are not administered properly in the church, or dispensed with altogether (e.g. Quakers, Salvation Army), then the nature of the gospel is obscured and people’s eternal salvation could be at stake.

This article should make us consider the advice we give, for example, to students seeking a church during term-time, or a retired couple moving to a new area. Loyalty to a local parish church, social activities or style of music can never replace a proper use of word and sacrament as God’s appointed means of grace.

These key characteristics or ‘marks’ of the visible church also have a polemical function in excluding the necessity of accepting the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The Church of England, displaying these marks, must therefore be seen to be part of the true Church, despite rejecting papal authority under Henry VIII in 1534 and again under Elizabeth I in 1559. Article 19 needs to be understood in this anti-Roman way, although the definition does not make this intention explicit.

c. Discipline?
It should be noted in passing that many Protestants added a third ‘mark’ of the true Church, ecclesiastical discipline. Some see this as included in the sacraments being ‘duly ministered’, with the necessary requirements of due examination, excommunication etc. In addition to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), other Anglican formularies include ecclesiastical discipline as a mark, including the Homily for Whitsunday (1563), and Alexander Nowell’s Catechism (1570). Nowell makes the distinction between word and sacrament as ‘the chief and necessary marks of the church’ and discipline as a mark of a ‘well ordered’ church.


a. Every church can err
The Reformers insisted that Rome had indeed erred, although it should be remembered that papal infallibility was not officially established until the nineteenth century. The Papacy insisted that Rome had been preserved from error throughout history, in contrast to both the Eastern churches and the Protestants.

The purpose of Article 19 is illuminated when one examines the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (1552) the abortive attempt at reforming Canon Law in the English Church. It talks of ‘the insanity of those who think that the Roman church was founded on a rock of such a kind that it has neither erred nor can err’. The article is therefore very similar in its intention ‘to provide a definition of the Church that would refute the arguments of those who maintained that the visible Church had to be under the authority of the Church of Rome’ (Martin Davie).

The Article towards its close mentions the three historic patriarchates of the Eastern Church, ‘Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch’, powerful churches, which, though founded by apostles, had still fallen into error. The actual errors are not spelt out, but have generally been taken as doctrinal errors regarding Christology. Their examples should serve as a warning that no church, including Rome, is perfect. We must never presume that sound teaching will be either popular or inevitably preserved, especially under such intense pressure today of liberal teaching from within and an aggressively secular culture from without.

b. A necessary Reformation
In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation we should not be embarrassed to agree with the Reformers in their rejection of the errors that had crept into the medieval Church. The Church of England is a Protestant church, not some sort of via media (middle way) between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Article 19 is a useful reminder that the laudable quest for Church unity should never take precedence over true doctrine.

Although the Reformers held Rome to be in error, Rome was still generally considered to be part of the true Church - the Article does, after all, refer to ‘the Church of Rome’. Richard Hooker, in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (III.i.10), reacts strongly against the Puritan position of totally rejecting Rome: ‘we dare not communicate concerning sundry her gross and grievous abominations, yet touching those main parts of Christian truth wherein they consistently still persist, we gladly acknowledge them to be of the family of Jesus Christ’.