A Short History of the Reformed Churches

About 2000 years ago, after Jesus ascended to heaven, eleven of the original twelve disciples were commissioned by Jesus to “make disciples” of the people on earth.  A “disciple” is one who learns from a teacher, and who follows a leader.  Their teacher and leader was Jesus Christ.

The disciple Peter was a leader among the original disciples (also known as apostles). Later, the apostle Paul was chosen by the ascended Jesus to bring the good news particularly to the non-Jewish, “Gentile” peoples. Both Peter and Paul ended up having a close connection to the city of Rome, the capital of the ancient Roman Empire.

By the time that Rome was overrun by “barbarian” people in the 4th and 5th centuries, the church established in that city had became a stronghold of the Christian faith.  And up to that time, the Roman church generally had been upholding the essential truths taught in the Bible.  By the 6th and 7th centuries, however, the Church of Rome became something Jesus never intended.  The overseeing bishop in Rome, for example, started to claim authority over the bishops in other cities. The Roman bishops took the title of “pope,” similar to “papa” in English, implying that they were the only spiritual “fathers” of the church.  With the pope’s headquarters in Rome, this church became known as the “Roman Church.” It also claimed to be the “Catholic Church” (“catholic” comes from the Greek “kata-holos,” meaning the “whole, worldwide” church).

We know that having power tends to corrupt people.  And, indeed, with practically unlimited power—religious, political, economic, military—the Roman popes became increasingly corrupt.  This sad history is well documented: popes claiming to be celibate, yet fathering children; popes commanding their servants to torture those who disagreed with them; some candidates for pope even murdering their rivals to win the papacy! The Roman Catholic popes also started making official proclamations which disagreed with many biblical teachings.

Examples of unbiblical teachings are many.  Various popes and Roman Catholic councils decided that Christians should pray to the Virgin Mary and to other special “saints,” and Christians were told it was wrong to pray directly to God the Father or to Jesus. Also, members of the Roman Catholic Church were compelled to verbally confess their sins to a priest before they were allowed to take Mass (the Lord’s Supper).  Even the Mass itself was explained wrongly: the bread or wafer was said to be transformed into Jesus’ physical body. (How can that be, when the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus’ body is now in heaven?)  Equally in error, priests taught that the Mass was a “re-doing” of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

Throughout the centuries some faithful preachers spoke out against the increasing corruption of the Roman papacy, and against their unbiblical teachings.  But more often than not, these preachers were condemned by various popes and were forced to take back their teachings.  If they refused, these preachers were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Some early “reforming preachers” included men like William Tyndale and John Wycliffe in England, and John Huss in what is today the Czech Republic.

Beginning in the 15th century, a movement now called “humanism” started to impact the universities of Europe.  Scholarly humanism emphasized returning to the ancient sources for learning. Scholars went back to the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek and as a result they understood Bible teaching more accurately.  At about the same time, regional rulers and princes in Europe were exerting their local authority.  That nationalism challenged the authority of Italian popes and distant emperors.  The “humanism” and “nationalism” of that day supported the preachers who sought to “reform” the church, reforming and improving that which had become largely “deformed.”  (Here you see the root of part of our church name, Covenant  “Reformed” Church.)

In that context a German monk named Martin Luther started to question some Roman Catholic abuses.  Luther later was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and was put under the death penalty.  He had no other option but to start new churches.  Luther and other pastors coming out of Roman Catholicism were known as protesters or “Protestants.”  These Protestant pastors encouraged translating the Bible into the local languages and they led worship services in those languages. In contrast, the Roman Catholic priests taught out of a Latin Bible and most of the worship was held in Latin.

Within twenty years of Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, men like John Calvin in Switzerland and John Knox in Scotland, and other lesser known men in England, France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Poland, etc. brought church “reformation” to their own lands. Churches arising from Martin Luther’s teachings eventually were called “Lutheran” churches; those closer to John Calvin became known as “Presbyterian” and “Reformed” churches.  The labels “Presbyterian” and “Reformed” essentially mean the same thing.  The word “Presbyterian” literally refers to the biblical system of church government where elders are chosen in each congregation (in the New Testament Greek language, “presbyter” means “elder”). The word “Reformed” is a more general term, referring to the “Reformation” of the church.  “Reformed” churches were established in Switzerland, Germany, Holland, France, Hungary, etc. while “Presbyterian” churches mostly were found in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

Here in Canada, a large number of British, Scottish, and Irish immigrants transplanted Presbyterian churches from their homelands. At the same time, the Dutch Reformed, Hungarian Reformed, and others, transplanted their churches.  Interestingly, some early communities in Quebec were populated by French-speaking Reformed Christians, known as the Huguenots. Presbyterianism in particular had a profound impact on Canada.  For example, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s more than 200 Presbyterian churches were located within today’s Toronto city limits.  In 1925 two-thirds of the Presbyterian congregations in Canada merged with Methodist and Congregational churches to form the “United Church of Canada.”

By God’s grace, we at the Covenant United Reformed Church stand in the line of historic Reformed and Presbyterian Protestantism.  Along with other Bible-believing Christians we affirm that the Bible is absolutely truthful and that Jesus is the only way of salvation.  We teach the seriousness of sin and the necessity of personal conversion to Christ.

In addition to being heirs of the 16th century Reformers, we at Covenant Reformed Church of Toronto continue to teach what Jesus’ disciples taught in the 1st century, as well as many things which “Roman” bishops like St. Augustine taught in the 4th century.  We honour the historic creeds of the ancient church, such as the Apostles’ Creed (arising in the 2nd century) and the Nicene Creed (written in the 4th century.)  In other words, we stand in continuity with faithful churches throughout the ages, going all the way back to the time of Jesus and the first apostles.

Where can you find churches like ours in Canada and in the world today?  Go to the page on our website entitled “Christian Links.” There you will find the names of churches and preachers, publications and organizations, which generally teach God’s Word as we do.  Beyond North America, faithful Reformed and Presbyterian churches are found in many African countries including Nigeria and Malawi; in several South American countries including Argentina and Brazil; and in some Asian countries such as South Korea and the Philippines.