How Zwingli’s radicalism shaped Evangelical worship

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Portrait of Ulrich Zwingli

The radical gap between modern evangelical worship and traditional Christian worship is in large part the result of the influence of the sixteenth century Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and if Martin Luther wanted reform in the Church, Zwingli wanted to restore the Church from scratch. 

To illustrate just how radical have been the consequences of Zwingli’s teaching, let’s compare a typical evangelical worship service with a traditional Christian worship service.

Evangelical worship

You walk into a typical evangelical church — we’re not talking mega-churches here or even charismatic-inspired modern praise services — just your regular suburban family church. The church probably claims to be non-denominational. But you think they’re probably Baptists of some type. The walls are painted white, the pews are straight and hard. The windows are slightly frosted.

The floor gently slopes down toward the front. At the front is a step, with a raised stage area. At the centre of everyone’s gaze, in the middle of the stage, is a lectern. The focus of the room is on the lectern.

The service starts with some brief announcements, and then singing. When the locals refer to the worship, they’re mostly talking about the singing. The singing consists of a number of discrete hymns with unique and recognisable melodies.

After a time of singing, there is a prayer. When people pray, they close their eyes to shut out the world, perhaps feeling like their connection with God will be stronger if they focus inwards, or maybe upwards.

After the prayer, the preacher stands behind the lectern and delivers a sermon. He’ll preach from the Bible, reading through the Bible verse by verse expositing it. Most of the time in the service is spent listening to the preacher. A good preacher will apply it to everyday life. But even the most engaged audience members may not hear the life application because they’re very busy analysing the sermon for the preacher’s theology. A “good” sermon is one which expresses the theological conclusions of the listener; a “bad” sermon where the preacher teaches a different set of theological commitments.

Most weeks the Lord’s Supper is not served — that only happens in this typical Evangelical church four times a year. But this week it is happening. The mood of the serving is sombre, because the bread and the wine are present but the Lord is absent. The bread and the wine allow members to remember the death of the Lord.

The service concludes with another hymn. Another prayer. And everyone walks out past the preacher and shakes his hand.

Perhaps if you’re used to some sort of mega-church style worship this might feel quaintly out of date. If your experience is Anglican, Lutheran or Catholic, then this description won’t really fit your experience. But that’s okay, because Zwingli didn’t really influence Anglicans, Lutherans or Roman Catholics. He did strongly influence the Anabaptists and the later English Separatists who became New England’s Puritans. 

But if the style of service we’ve described is familiar to you, then you may very well be most surprised to discover traditional Christian worship.

Traditional Christian worship

You walk into a traditional Christian church and find yourself surrounded by pictures of saints painted on all the walls. At the back and the front of the room are sandboxes with candles planted in them. You’re encouraged to take your own candle, light it and plant it in the sandbox. For the faithful it’s an opportunity to pray, and the lighted candle is a reminder of the persistence of one’s prayer before God.

As you enter, you can hear that there is a choir. They are already singing, and they appear to be singing words that come from the Psalms. The congregation is also singing and contributing. They seem to know the words from memory.

Soon there is a declaration from the front, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.” The people all sing, “Amen.” 

The Deacon then says, “Let us pray to the Lord.” And then he prays for peace in our souls, peace for the world, for the holy house and everyone who enters it, for the Bishop, for the country and its head of state and political leaders, for the armed forces, for the cities and countrysides and everyone who lives in them, for the weather and an abundance of crops, and for peaceful times, for deliverance from all affliction and wrath and danger. The deacon then joins to the prayer the names of the ever-Virgin Mary and all the saints, together with the congregation, as if they’re all participating in this all-encompassing prayer.

At the conclusion of every line, the congregation echoes the sentiment, requesting that the “Lord, have mercy.” At the conclusion of the prayer, the congregation add their, “Amen,” which makes the prayer their own. Although the entire congregation is worshipful and respectful, you notice that everyone keeps their eyes open. Evidently, praying and closing one’s eyes appear not to be linked.

This interplay between the Deacon, and the Priest, and other worship leaders up front, with the congregation, continues through-out the service. The service moves smoothly from prayers to Psalms, to more prayers, the Beatitudes, more prayers, readings from Scripture. 

When the Gospel is read, everyone stands out of respect. 

Following the Gospel reading is a short sermon. It’s mostly focused on applying the Gospel reading to practical Christian living. And it is notable that it doesn’t focus on the preacher’s theological conclusions.

Following the sermon is more prayers. There seem to be prayers in-between every segment of the service, and we begin to realise what the Scriptures mean by, “My house will be called a house of prayer.” 

Just when you think the service might be concluding it rolls into a second phase. The assistants, Deacon and Priest begin a procession. Each of them holds something in their hands: a cross, a ‘spear’1 … and the priest holds a chalice. They walk around the congregation and arrive at the front of the room. They walk up a step and begin to pray.

As they’re praying, you notice that they’re praying in front of a door which is now open. Inside the door is an altar. On the altar are candles, the book from which the Gospel was read and a range of other things.

After a range of prayers, the singing of the Creed, recitation of the Lord’s prayer, the Priest invokes the Lord’s commands, “Take, eat, this is My Body, which is broken for you for the remission of sins” and “Drink of this, all of you; this is My Blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.” 

The people, led by all the children, soon line up in an area just in front of the altar and receive communion. You notice they’re pretty joyful, and there’s a distinct lack of sombreness that you experienced in the evangelical service. You ask someone in line why they’re so joyful, and they respond, “It’s great to be with the Lord.” Somehow, partaking of the bread and wine isn’t a memorial of an absent Lord, but a communing with the present One.

After some more prayers, the service draws to a close. The priest comes out and makes some announcements. Everyone lines up again and receives a personal blessing and some hold a brief conversation with him. And the service is now closed.

How Zwingli shaped Evangelical worship

Now that we’ve briefly walked through the two services we can talk about how Zwingli influenced evangelicalism.

Zwingli was an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church. He’d had several postings, but in 1919 was serving in Zurich, Switzerland. 

Zwingli was a brilliant scholar and had committed to memory the epistles of St. Paul in the Greek, and was intently following the latest intellectual fashion. The latest thinking was that there needed to be a return to the perspective of the ‘primitive man.’ The thought was that the highly philosophical Scholasticism had muddied the waters, and that the thoughts of ancient man were simpler and purer than the philosophical thoughts of the Scholastics.

His teacher had taught him using a new tool for studying scriptures which they called the ‘philological method.’ This meant that Zwingli paid a lot of attention to the words of Scripture: the definitions of words and exactly how they were used. 

He applied some special rules in the interpretation of Scripture. One of his rules, for example, is that it is impossible for the Lord to contradict Himself. On this basis, Zwingli’s interpretation of Scripture relied on the fact that any selection of statements from the Gospels could be compared with each other, regardless of the context. 

Here’s an example. John 6:63 records Jesus talking to his disciples. They had been grumbling about one of His teachings because it sounded so weird. So, Jesus said, 

“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh does not help. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

The “flesh” Jesus is talking about, of course, is His disciples’ human nature. In the context of this dialogue, Jesus is saying that His teachings are spirit and life, and the disciples must ignore their human instinct.

Zwingli, however, didn’t interpret the comment in the context of the dialogue. Instead he treated these statements “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh does not help” and “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” as axioms around which he shaped his understanding of Scripture. 

So, when he read in the Gospel of Matthew, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26) he decided that Jesus didn’t actually mean “this is my body,” because “the flesh does not help” and Jesus wouldn’t contradict Himself like that. Anyway, Jesus’ body couldn’t be here on earth because He had returned to heaven (Acts 1:9). Therefore, when Jesus said, “this is my body” He must have meant: “this [bread] represents my body.”

In 1529 there was a conference organised at Marburg between Luther and Zwingli in order to discuss this point. Luther was adamant that when Jesus said, “this is my body,” He meant it. Zwingli was adamant that Jesus cannot have meant exactly what He said, because Jesus would then be contradicting Himself. 

Luther and Zwingli strove for three days to convince each other about the rightness of their points of view. In the end, although they could agree on fourteen other points of the faith, they simply could not reach agreement on this point. At the end of the meeting, Luther was so incensed that Zwingli would not accept the plain words of scripture that he refused acknowledge him as a fellow Christian.

Both Luther and Zwingli came to the conference with an arrogance that they and only they could interpret Scripture correctly. Zwingli looked right past all the Church’s great teachers. He ignored St. Athanasius, St. Cyril, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St John Chrysostom, St. Simeon and so on and declared that the Gospel had not been taught clearly since the time of the Apostles until he began to teach it. So both Luther and Zwingli sat in judgment on each other, each declaring that he had “won” the conference.

This attitude of sitting in judgment fundamentally underpins all of Evangelicalism. Zwingli taught that each man must interpret Scripture for himself, and that the Scripture is plain. Therefore, if someone doesn’t agree with what you’re reading, either you’re wrong or they’re corrupt! 

That’s how there are thousands upon thousands of Evangelical denominations in the world today, because Christians are invited to judgment in every worship service. It’s an attitude that breaks fellowship and prevents Christians entering into the peace of Christ because they’re sitting in private judgment on the preacher. It’s an absolute tragedy.

Zwingli’s commitment to ‘the word’

Zwingli took the principle of “the word and spirit, not the flesh” and applied it everywhere. Zwingli demoted the central element of Christian worship — the Eucharist — from something that occurred every service to something that occurred only four times per year. 

Instead of focusing on partaking in Christ’s Presence, Zwingli focused the worship service on the preaching. Zwingli believed that hearing Scripture preached is what gave people faith in the Gospel. He believed that the physical creation — things, matter — did not help people spiritually. For him, only the spiritual matters.

That’s why Evangelicals close their eyes when they pray. They’re shutting out the “distractions” of the physical world, and instead focusing “inwards” or “upwards” on the Lord, who can only be communed with spiritually. 

For people influenced by Zwingli’s ideas, there is a huge disconnect between physical matter and the spiritual. This represents a radical rejection of traditional Christianity.

Within traditional, orthodox Christianity, the creation has been purified through Jesus’ Incarnation. The fact that the Lord took matter upon Himself in the Incarnation served to purify the matter, allowing it to communicate grace. That’s why the Gospels and Acts have all the stories about people being healed when they touch Jesus (Matthew 9:29; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:43-48), or touch the Apostles (Acts 3:7), or walk in their shadow (Acts 5:12-16), or even simply touch a handkerchief or garment that had been touched by an Apostle (Acts 19:12).

For Zwingli these are stories of “one off” miracles, never to be repeated. But for Orthodox Christians, these stories tell of the presence of the Kingdom of God. These stories tell us that God indeed entered His Creation, and that His Kingdom is here with us. When the Orthodox gather in front of the altar, we’re gathering around God’s throne. Christ is actually Present. His Presence is communicated through the reading of the Word and in the Eucharist and is taken inside of ourselves so that we may be transformed. There is a unity of spirit and matter, for all has been redeemed by Christ.

Zwingli’s dismantling of the Church

The Church has always been comprised of a triple ministry. Bishops, who serve in place of the Apostles, Priests and Deacons. For 1,500 years every Church in every place had Bishops, Priests and Deacons. But Zwingli not only refuted the Priesthood, but he completely rejected the traditional triple ministry of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon. 

Christ had breathed on His Apostles, telling them, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19) and, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). 

Zwingli taught that this did not mean the ability to absolve sins, but in fact meant preaching. He argued that there is no priestly grace communicated from the Apostles through the succession of Bishops to the Priests. Therefore in Zwinglian teaching there are no keys to the kingdom. Instead, the Kingdom of God is a future reality — something that is not present with us or within us — but is something in the future when Christ will return.

This teaching deprives many Christians of the peace of truly knowing their sins are forgiven. It deprives them of the knowledge that they are truly joined to the Body of Christ through taking His Body into their own and becoming One Flesh with Him. It deprives many Christians of the experience of Paradise — union with God — in the here and now. 

Evangelicalism’s continuing radicalism

As radical as Zwingli’s teachings were, Evangelicals today, who are his spiritual children, are far more radically disconnected from historic Christianity than even Zwingli was himself. 

For example, Zwingli never imagined a church service without a written liturgy. Zwingli radically changed the liturgy. He essentially chopped the liturgy in half, but he had a liturgy. And in Zwingli’s church, no one would dare to pray off-the-cuff. Every prayer was written.

Zwingli also continued to believe in the ever-Viriginity of Mary, which most evangelicals today would deny.

Once disconnected from Christian tradition, people tend towards more and more radical ideas. The continued and continual drift within Evangelical Christianity both in theology and practise is a result of Zwingli’s unmooring of the faith from Christian tradition and rooting it in a rationalistic interpretation of Scripture.

The on-going judgmentalism at the heart of Evangelicalism is rooted in Zwingli’s belief that every believer must judge for themselves what is true. This results in people constantly making judgments about doctrines and practises which have given rise to thousands of denominations all of which disagree with and disparage each other. 

This attitude misses the virtues of humility, peace and love which sit at the heart of the orthodox Christian piety.


A few years ago a man was in Zurich heading to Mt. Athos. He was there for a night and the morning, and decided to visit Zwingli’s Church. To him it looked like a library with no books on the shelves. There wasn't even a cross in the church. It was blank walls and pews. It had such a sparse feeling about it.

The feeling of the place had a message to it. A message of ugliness which binds you to the earth and makes you sad. A message that God doesn’t care about beauty. 

Yet Scriptures show that God loves beauty. The first reference to a person being filled with the Holy Spirit in the Bible is not St. Paul writing to the Ephesians when he says, “don't get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” No, the first reference to the Holy Spirit is when the Holy Spirit inspired an artisan named Bezalel to make the sacred hangings, sacred vessels, the censers, and the wall hangings of the Temple (Exodus 31:1-3). This shows you God's commitment to send His Holy Spirit to affect beauty. 

The Church is a beacon of light and beauty, of grace and peace. The Church is a community of people gathered around the Lord’s altar, in the Presence of Christ by the Power of Spirit to the glory of the Father. 

The majesty of this Presence suspends all human judgment, and instead Christians gaze in wide-eyed wonder at the breaking of the Bread, realising that they know Him as Christians have always known Him (Luke 24:35).

Next Article: How Calvin thought to reinvent God


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1Representing the spear which was thrust into Jesus’ side on the cross (John 19:34).