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Who were the Nonconformists in church history?


The Bible instructs Christians to submit to civil authorities and church leaders (Romans 13:1–5; Hebrews 13:17). Yet biblical and post-biblical history reveals that God’s people have occasionally resisted unholy leadership when it has embraced unorthodox theology and demanded immoral practices (e.g., Exodus 1:15–21). A notable example occurred in the 17th century when certain Protestant Christians defied the Church of England after Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity in 1662, requiring that all churches use the Book of Common Prayer, an important text in the English church, in their worship services. In response to this legislation, the dissenters, called Nonconformists, refused to obey the state church, choosing instead to follow their own convictions regarding faith and practice. Notable Nonconformists include John Bunyan, Oliver Cromwell, George Fox, Isaac Watts, and the Pilgrims who emigrated to the New World.

Regarding the convictions of the Nonconformists in England, it is significant to note that the New Testament doesn’t endorse the concept of state churches. While it encourages Christians to respect governing authorities (e.g., Matthew 22:21; 1 Peter 2:13–17), the New Testament doesn’t advocate the merging of church and state. This stance marks a departure from certain eras of Old Testament history, when a union of politics and faith existed in Israel. However, the kingdom that Jesus Christ established is distinct from present-day civil authorities and political systems (John 6:15; 18:36).

Despite lacking a New Testament basis, state churches have significantly influenced Christian history. In AD 380, Roman Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making Christianity the state religion of the empire and establishing a precedent for unity between church and state. This tradition continued with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which, following its split from the Roman Catholic Church in AD 1054, gradually became the state church in several Eastern European and Byzantine countries. In the Protestant tradition, a notable development was the establishment of the Church of England as a state church in the 16th century under Henry VIII, following his separation from the Catholic Church. This set the stage for the Act of Uniformity, which gave rise to the Nonconformists in England.

Dissent from the Church of England emerged in the form of different non-conforming movements and denominations, including Baptists, Reformed churches (e.g., Presbyterian), Brethren, Methodists, and Quakers. These groups contended that state churches contradicted the Bible’s teaching and the fundamental Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, i.e., “Scripture alone” (1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Timothy 3:16–17).

Nonconformist traditions diverged from the Church of England in different ways and with different emphases. Today, the Baptist and Brethren traditions prioritize local congregation governance, with an emphasis on adult baptism and simple, unstructured worship, respectively. The Reformed traditions, with their system of elected elders and Calvinist theology, offer a distinct governance model and theological perspective. Methodists emphasize individual faith and outreach, a departure from the Church of England’s formal rituals, while Quakers reject formal sacraments and clergy, advocating for a direct, personal experience with God.

Non-conformity in the Protestant tradition expanded greatly in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Europe and America, such traditions advocated for the independence of denominations. Furthermore, many influential Protestant denominations, such as Baptists, stressed the independence of local churches. This growth persisted into the 20th century, aided by the emergence of Pentecostalism, which also valued local self-governance and a decentralized church structure.

Also in the 20th century, non-denominationalism within the Protestant tradition, especially prevalent in America, took the idea of non-conformity a step further. It not only rejected the notion of church-state unity, but it also moved away from denominational structures and authorities. Instead, it emphasized the independence of individual congregations.

The non-conformity tradition reflects the heart of the Protestant branch of the Christian faith, which is that genuine faith rests not in worldly authority but in a personal relationship with God.

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Who were the Nonconformists in church history?
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This page last updated: March 20, 2024