Robert Barnes On the Two Churches [1]
A. D. 1531

True Church Contrasted with False

The name of the holy church have those men of long time usurped presumptuously and without all shame they were the greatest enemies that holy church could have on earth.[2] For they did no more agree to the manners of holy church than darkness and light; than God and the devil. For where holy church heard no man but Christ only, they would hear all manner of men, without respect to Christ, and never hear Him, except it were to their profit of glory.

 Whereas holy church was ruled in this world, they would rule all the world; and whereas holy church would be holy by Christ only, they would be holy by their own help.

 And whereas holy church was always despised and persecuted of the world, they would be honored of the world and persecutors of all men.[3]

 And whereas holy church was inwardly adorned with spiritual virtues, they would be outwardly shining in spiritual array. And whereas holy church would be chaste in spirit, they would with their mouths vow chastity, and spend all their lives in whoredom.

 And whereas holy church did always show meekness in the world, they would be so proud it is impossible the heart could devise any more.

 In brief summation, whatsoever thing that was agreeable with [marks] of the [true] church, of that [the false church] had never a crumb, but always by violence usurped the name of holy church. So that if a man [wore] a crown,[4] or a long gown with a white smock over it, then was there no other conclusion to be drawn, but this man must be of the church; yea, and holy church herself. So that if a Barber had made a Bull a crown, and a Tailor brought an Ass forth in a long gown and white rochet, then no man would doubt that in these [dumb animals] were holy church, causing all men to fall down to receive remission of sin and its accompanying guilt, for by these [dumb animals] are the successors of Peter and Paul. As such, these [dumb animals dressed in religious garments] have the authority to dispense the cleansing effects of Christ’s blood, the merits of the holy saints, and the intercessory prayers of holy church to distribute, as well as the keys of heaven and hell. Who can deny but this is truth?[5]

 These truths are all too obvious, not requiring further critical examination, for we see them daily before our eyes. So then if a man will compare our Christ, who is the very Head of holy church, with the Prelates who call themselves His Vicars, they will find little agreement between the person of Christ and the Vicar. Consider what Saints Peter and Paul and all the apostles would think if they were to compare the two. What else could they think, but that either they themselves had no part in holy church, or those who call themselves Prelates have no part, for they agree in nothing!......

 So, in short, tell me how the devil himself disguised as a Prelate could be more contrary to Christ and his apostles then those men who call themselves the holy church? Yea, take away the name of the church and in its place put the name of the devil, it would be impossible to discern a Bishop from a devil, for their works are one and the same. And yet these wicked Bishops would have themselves the head of Christ’s church; yea, even the holy church herself!

Distinguishing Marks of the True Church

 In order that the blessed spouse of Christ may be distinguished from the openly manifest and abominable whores and harlots, I will, by God’s grace, set out a description of holy Church whereby men shall know her.

 The word, Ecclesia, both in the New Testament and the Old is taken oftentimes for the whole congregation and the whole multitude of people, both good and bad, as it is in the book of Numbers, Why have you brought the congregation, meaning ‘Church of God,’ into the wilderness?[6]……………In this place and many more is it manifest that this Greek word, Ecclesia, is taken for the whole congregation, both of good and bad. Wherefore this is not the church of which we now speak. For in this [visible, professing] church are Jews and Saracens, Murderers, Thieves, Whores and Harlots, though we know them not [as true Christian brothers and sisters].

 But there is another holy Church of the which St. Paul speaks, You men love your wives as Christ hath loved the Church, and hath given himself for her, that he might sanctify her and cleanse her in the fountain of water through the word of life, to make her to himself a glorious Church without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that she might be holy and without blame.[7] In this we have [described] the very true Church of Christ, that is so pure and so clean, without spot.

 But by what means is she so pure and clean? Not by her own merits, nor by her own might; not by exterior array, not by gold or silver, nor yet by precious stones; neither by miters or cross staves…..So how then? By Christ only, who hath given Himself for the purpose of making her clean. Therefore, saith St. Paul, He gave himself that he might sanctify her, that he might cleanse her, and make her to himself a glorious Church.

 We also find in another place, you are washed, you are sanctified, you are justified in the name of Jesus Christ, and in the spirit of God.[8] See my Lords,[9] how the Church is washed by Christ and His Holy Spirit, and not by your blessings, not by your spiritual ornaments, nor by your spiritual holy water. For these things cannot help the holy Church because she is holy in spirit, not in outward hypocrisy. She is also cleansed by Christ’s blessed blood, not by outward disguisings.

 This [truth] doth St. Augustine well prove, saying, “By Christ is the Church made fair. At first she was filthy in sins, afterward, by pardon and by grace, was she made fair, etc.”[10] Here doth St. Augustine saith that Christ hath made His Church fair, and that by His grace and His pardon – not by your pardons, nor by your grace.

The True Church Elected by Christ – Not by Man

 For this Church standeth by Christ’s election and not by yours. And if Christ has not washed and chosen you, then you are not of this Church, though you ride with a thousand spiritual horses and have all the [visible] spiritual tokens of earth. For, and if, the Son of God hath delivered you, then are you truly delivered. If you cannot make, by all your power and holiness, ale and wine sold at taverns which is always of excellent quality, how much less can you make the [true] Church of God to follow you, despite all your spiritual signs and tokens. Nor can you declare where the Church of God shall infallibly be found. Nay, nay, my Lords, it cannot be so. For only they that believe that Christ hath washed them from their sins, holding fast to His merits, and to the promise made to them in Him only, only they are the Church of God, so pure and so clean that it shall not be lawful, not even for Peter, to say that they be unclean. But whether they be Jew or Greek, king or subject, carter[11] or Cardinal, butcher or Bishop…free or bond, friar or fiddler, monk or miller, if they believe in Christ’s word, holding fast to His blessed promises, and trust only in the merits of His blessed blood, are they then the holy Church of God; yea, and the very true Church before God. And you [Prelates] with all your spiritual tokens, and with all your exterior cleanliness, remain in your filthiness of sin which you your blessings, all your pardons, all your spirituality, all your holiness, cannot cleanse you, nor bring you into this Church. Boast, crake,[12] blast, bless, curse till your holy eyes start out of your head, it will not help you, for Christ chooseth His Church at His judgment and not at yours. The Holy Ghost is free and bloweth where He will. He will neither be bound to Pope nor Cardinal, Archbishop nor Bishop, Abbot nor Prior, Deacon nor Archdeacon, Parson nor Vicar, Nun nor Friar.

 In brief summation, I challenge all of you rabble to come together – those who call yourselves holy Church, excluding all others – yea, and I challenge you to take the sun, moon and stars to help you, as well as all the friends you have in heaven and earth. Do this and yet you will still not be of holy Church unless you have the Spirit of Christ and be washed in His blessed blood. For the holy Church of Christ is nothing else than that congregation that is sanctified in Spirit, redeemed with Christ’s blood, and holds fast and sure to the promises that be made therein.

The True Church is Invisible

 So then, the Church is a spiritual thing, not an exterior thing, but invisible from carnal eyes as faith is invisible. (I say not that they are invisible who are of the Church, but that holy Church in herself is invisible). Her purity and cleanliness is before Christ only, not before the world. For the world hath no judgment nor knowledge of her. All her honor and cleanliness is before Christ, sure and fast. And if any of her goodness is visible to the world, of that she [the Church] maketh no reckoning, nor think herself any better if the world judgeth well of her, for all her trust is in Christ only. She [the true Church] suffereth the world to rage and blaspheme both against her and Christ, her Maker. She standeth fast and believeth steadfastly that those [blasphemers] shall have a shameful end, with everlasting damnation as their reward.

 In brief summary, her meditations and thoughts are heavenly, and all that she does is spiritual. For she cannot err, she cleaveth so fast to the word of God that is truth.

 And for this cause St. Paul calleth her the pillar and ground of truth, not that she trusts in her own strength, but that she holds fast to the living God, and to His blessed word. That is the very true Church which is scattered through all the world, neither being bound to any particular person by reason of his dignity, nor bound to any place by reason of feigned holiness, because she is a free thing throughout all the world.

The True Church Places Faith in Christ Alone

 Here have you plainly [the truth] that the holy Church is the congregation of faithful men, wheresoever they be in the world. And neither the Pope, nor his Cardinals be more this Church, or of this Church, than the poorest man in earth. For this Church standeth only in the spiritual faith of Christ Jesus, and not in dignities and honors of the world, as Lyra[13] doth declare with these words, “The Church doth not stand in men by reason of spiritual power, or secular dignities. For many princes and Popes, as well as inferior persons, have swerved from the faith. Wherefore the Church doth stand in those persons in whom is the true knowledge and confession of faith, and of truth, etc.”

 O, my Lord, what will you say to Lyra? I have great marvel that you burned him not. It is high time to condemn him as a heretic, for he speaks against your law! For your Gloss[14] declares that God suffereth not the Church of Rome to err. And Lyra saith plainly that many popes have erred, and also that the Church standeth not in dignities, but in confession of Christ and of His blessed truth.

Where is There a Church Without Spot or Wrinkle?

 But now here will be objected, by the Catholic logicians, that it is in my imagination only that such a [pure] church [exists].

“Where,” they ask, “shall a man find a Church that is so pure and so clean that it hath neither spot nor wrinkle in her, and that is without all sin, since all men must truly say, ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ And if any man say (be he never so righteous) that hath no sin, then is he a liar, and there is no truth in him.”

To this I answer that this holy Church hath sin in her, yet is she pure and clean. Mark St. Paul’s words: Christ hath given himself for her, that he might make her glorious. So that the cleanliness of this holy Church is the mercy of God toward her through Christ, for whose sake He layeth nothing to her charge. Yea, and if any other person would [try], he is ready to give her His purity, letting her, by faith, to claim the right of His pureness for her own. For between them all is common, as between man and wife. So then, if the Church look on her own merits and her own works, she is full of sin, and must say, ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ This she need not say if she had none.

 But if she refer herself to the merits of her blessed husband Christ Jesus, and to the purity she has in His blood, then is she without spot. For by holding fast to her husband Christ Jesus by faith, abiding in confession of her sins, requiring mercy for them, then is there nothing laid to her charge, all things forgiven her. And therefore, saith St. Paul, there is no damnation for them that be in Christ Jesus….

Exterior Religion Cannot Save

 And it is plain that all your exterior signs with all your holy ornaments, as your holy miters, your holy cross staves, your holy red gloves, your holy rings, your holy anointed fingers, your holy vestments, your holy chalices…..with all the holy boots of holy monks, and all these together cannot make one crumb of holiness in you, nor help you one prick forward that you may be within this church. For if these things could help, then were it no mastery to make an Ass to be of the Church of God.

 But our holy mother the Church hath another holiness that cometh from God the Father through the blessed blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, in whom is all her confidence and trust; unto to whom she holds steadfast by faith alone; by whose pureness she is also pure as she confesses her uncleanness. For she believeth steadfastly that she has an advocate, for her sins, with the Father of heaven, which is Christ Jesus, who is the satisfaction of her sins. If He of his mercy, and not of her merits, hath chosen her to be His, and because she is His, therefore must she be clean so long as she abideth in Him……

Church of Rome Thieves and Murderers Whose Councils Err

 Now my Lords, gather together all the laws that you can make, and all the holiness that you can devise. Then cry, ‘the Church, the Church, and the Councils, the Councils that were lawfully gathered in the power of the Holy Ghost (all this may you say and yet lie), and if you have not, indeed, the Holy Ghost within you, and if you do hear any other voice besides Christ’s, then you are not of the Church, but of the devil, being thieves and murderers as Christ saith. For you come into the fold of Christ without Him. You bring not His voice, but come with your own voice, with your own statutes, with your own word, and your own commandments, precepts and excommunications.

 These be the voices of murderers and thieves, and not of Christ. Therefore, you cannot [help] but err, for you be not taught of God. You have not the holy ointment. You have not the word of God in you. You hear not the voice of the true showbread, therefore must you err in all your councils…..

 To say that the council cannot err because Christ prays for His Church that her faith should not fail, I answer: Though the general councils represent the whole universal Church, nevertheless, in fact, there was not the true universal Church present, only represented. For the universal Church standeth in the election of all faithful men, and all faithful men of the world make that universal Church, whose head and spouse is Christ Jesus…..This is the Church that cannot err.

The True Church is Few, Elected By God Alone

 In brief summary, though Christ’s flock is always the smallest number in this world, yet it remains the best. Not that the smallness of number is that which makes Christ’s flock, Rather, it is because Christ’s Church standeth neither by the greatest number, nor by the smallest, nor by the judgment or numbering of man, but by the calling and election of God…..

The Tokens of the True Church Expounded

 Now have I declared unto you what is holy Church, which is that congregation of faithful men throughout all the world. Her holiness is from Christ’s holiness, by Christ’s blood. The reason she cannot err is due to her keeping herself holding to the word of God steadfast, which is a perfect and true rule.

 Now must we declare by what signs and tokens whereby we may know, in this place or that, there be certain members of this holy Church. For though she is spiritual, not perfectly to be known by our exterior senses, nevertheless we may have certain tokens of her spiritual presence whereby we may reckon that in this place or that, there be certain of her members. If I may, let me use an analogy from the natural world. Though the soul of man be spiritual and invisible, yet do we still have evidence of its presence, such as hearing, moving, speaking, smelling, etc. So likewise, when the word of God is perfectly preached without the damnable dreams of men, and where it is well received of its hearers, and where we also see good works that do openly agree with the doctrine of the Gospel, these be good and sure tokens whereby we may judge there be some men of holy Church.

 As to the first [token], whereas the Gospel is truly preached, it must needs land in some men’s hearts, as the prophet witnesseth, my word shall not return again to me frustrated, but it shall do all things that I will, and it shall prosper in those things unto the which I did send it.

 Also, St. Paul saith, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing cometh by the word of God. Therefore, it is manifest in holy Scripture that when Peter spake the words of God, the Holy Ghost fell down on them all. Wherefore it is manifest that God’s word can never be preached in vain, but some men must needs receive it, and thereby be made of holy Church, though it is true that men may not know [the Elect members] by name, or recognize them by face, for this word is received into their hearts.

 The second token is that the receivers of the word do work well thereafter, as St. Paul do declareth of his hearers, When you received of us the word wherewith God was preached, you received it not as the word of men, but even (as it was in deed) the word of God, which worketh in you that believe. So then, if men do work after the [teaching of the] word of God, it is a good token that there be men of the Church. Though it is true that we may be oftentimes deceived by these outward works (hypocrisy is so subtle and secret), nevertheless, charity judgeth well of all things that have a good outward show, and be not openly against the word of God. And it is no jeopardy if charity be deceived, for faith is never deceived.

Persecution Another Token of the True Church

Persecuting a Token of the False Church

 The [true] Church suffereth persecutions, (for as St. Paul saith, They that live devoutly in Christ must suffer persecution), and you[15] withstand all things and suffer nothing. You oppress every man and will be oppressed of no man. You persecute every man and no man may speak a word against you, not even if it be ever so true. You cast every man in prison and no man may touch you without being cursed by you. You compel every man to say[16] as you say, and you will not once say as Christ saith. And as for your holiness, all the world knoweth what it is; for it standeth in clothing and ornamentation, in watching[17] and sleeping, in eating and drinking this meat or that, this drink or that, in mumbling these psalms or those without devotion.

 All your holiness is in books, Bells, Candles, Chalices, oil cream, water, horses, hounds, palaces, and all that mighty and glorious in the world. In these do you depend. In these do you glory. In these do you shout. In these do you boast. Upon these do you build. But are these of what the Church consists? Is this holiness? Of whom have you learned these customs? You cannot deny the truth of my accusations. If you would deny it, all the world is witness against you - as do your own actions. Of whom have you learned this holiness? Not of Christ, and not of His holy Church. But you have learned it of the Arians who were the servants of the devil….

Even St. Bernard Witnesses Against the Hypocrites in the Church of Rome

 But let us see what St. Bernard saith on you: “They call themselves the ministers of Christ, but they serve Antichrist. They go gorgeously arrayed in our Lord’s goods, unto whom they gave no honor. And of these goods cometh the harlots’ ornamentation which you see daily; the game players’ disguisings and kings’ apparel. From this [worldliness] cometh gold in their bridles, saddles and spurs, so that their spurs be brighter than their altars. From this [worldliness] cometh their abundant wine presses and full wine cellars; their tons of sweet wines; of this be their bags so filled. For such [rewards] as these are men [desirous to be] rulers of the church, as Deacons, Archdeacons, Bishops and Archbishops, etc.”




[1] Whole Workes of Doctour Barnes, (London: 1573). Excerpts from Treatise, What the Church is: and who bee thereof: and whereby men may know her; pp.242-251. [The few, slight alterations in text by this editor are for clarity purposes only.]

[2] Marginal note in text: “The Pope and his church agreeth no more with the manners of holy Church than darkness and light.”

[3] Marginal note in text: “The Pope is a persecutor of holy Church.”

[4] Crown: Barnes is speaking of the tonsure (shaved hairline) worn by monks.

[5] Marginal note in text: “The foul and great abuse of the Pope in taking upon him that he and his [priests] were the holy church.”

[6] Numbers 20:4.

[7] Ephesian 5:25-27.

[8] 1 Cor. 6:11.

[9] Barnes is writing this Treatise to the Church hierarchy, as well as the laity.

[10] Marginal note in text: “The faithful believers in Christ’s merits are the right holy Church of God.”

[11] One who drives a cart.

[12] To cry out harshly and loudly as does a crow.

[13] Nicholas Lyra, Roman Catholic theologian who rose to prominence in the Middle Ages.

[14] Authoritative Catholic commentaries on Scripture and Canon Law.

[15] Speaking of the Church of Rome.

[16] I.e., ‘confess.’

[17] I.e., vigils.