Amish youth hitchin' up to Facebook - News

Amish FarmImage by BitHead via Flickr

Interesting article on the growth of facebook among Amish youth in Lancaster County. Mostly accessed through mobile phones.

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Fr. Richard Rohr: Life on the Edge: Understanding the Prophetic Position

Richard RohrImage via Wikipedia

I said at the outset of this blog that Third Stream Christianity often describes  those groups which are broadly evangelical, that exist outside of historic Protestant denominations and that combine a seeking of New Testament forms of church life with the best of the Catholic mystic tradition.

I've focused on some aspects of that definition more than others during the course of updating this blog. So here's a re-balancing contribution from some of  "the best of the [contemporary] Catholic mystic tradition."

A few quotes from Richard Rohr:

To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honor, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

To live on the edge of the inside is different than being an insider, a "company man" or a dues paying member. Yes, you have learned the rules and you understand and honor the system as far as it goes, but you do not need to protect it, defend it or promote it. It has served its initial and helpful function. You have learned the rules well enough to know how to "break the rules" without really breaking them at all. "Not to abolish the law but to complete it" as Jesus rightly puts it (Matthew 5:17).

There is a place and time for being outside, or you never really understand or appreciate the inside.

Jesus was into a process of transformation more than a belonging system.

People inside of belonging systems are very threatened by those who are not within that group.

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The American Spectator : Mennonite Takeover?

The American Spectator : Mennonite Takeover?

An interesting, if somewhat skeptical, summary of the main currents in the recent upsurge in ana-baptist life and belief in America.

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The Courage of the Lollards

Sir John Oldcastle being burnt for insurrectio...Image via Wikipedia
It's difficult when reading the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards not to be moved and impressed by their courage.

Although the document, which was presented to the English Parliament in the 1390's, is less comprehensive doctrinally than some of the later outpouring of the Reformation era, these radical medieval church reformers certainly possessed fortitude when confronting the abuses they saw in the church of their day.

When the death penalty was normative for "heresy", the cry of these third stream believers is hugely impressive. The image is of Sir John Oldcastle being executed in 1417 for "Lollard heresy and insurrection."

Consider some of the language used:

On the priesthood:

Our usual priesthood, the which began in Rome feigned of a power higher than angels, is not the priesthood the which Christ ordained to his Apostles.

In a thoroughly modern-sounding criticism of clerical celibacy:

That the law of continence annexed to priesthood, that in prejudice of women was first ordained, induces sodomy in Holy Church

On transubstantiation:

The service of Corpus Christi made by Friar Thomas is untrue and painted full of false miracles, and that is no wonder, for Friar Thomas that same time, holding with the Pope, would have made a miracle of a hen's egg

On pilgrimages

the pilgrimage, prayers, and offerings made to blind roods and deaf images of tree and stone be near kin to idolatry and far from alms deeds

In the era of carefully nuanced news-speak, the directness of the Lollard "Conclusions" hits the post -modern mind like a hurricane.

The full text of the twelve Conclusions can be read here.

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The Former Sword and the Ploughshare: Calvinism or Lollardism?

John CalvinImage via Wikipedia
The Former Sword and the Ploughshare: Calvinism or Lollardism?

Interesting post by Brad Littlejohn on some essential differences between Calvin's theology (especially his political and social theology) and that of the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians - both of whom vigorously claimed him as their own.

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Eller on Sects

Vernard Eller's theoretical introduction to the concept of Orthodox Protestant sects - which overlap considerably with the Third Stream groups described in this blog - is a helpful article for thinking about the differing aspects of the subject.

Eller - who died in 2007 and was a member of the Church of the Brethren - attempts to fuse the sociological insights on sectarianism of Ernst Troeltsch with the theological paradigm of Emil Brunner.

Eller's work is contained within chapter three of his Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship, here and includes his spectrum chart (left) of different understandngs of a sect.

Recommended reading.
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On Reformation Sects

German Anabaptist Adam Pastor (16th century); ...Image via Wikipedia
"[Anabaptist sectarianism] attacked the new theological dogmatism, the compulsory State Church, and the tendency to secularization [of the Reformation "churches"]....

The Anabaptists deliberately opposed the results of this compromise, and in so doing they opposed the whole idea of the Church, and of an ecclesiastical civilization.

This violent opposition, however, proves that in reality it had been caused by the Reformation itself...."

Soren Kierkegaard

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Martin Luther Rap

In the week that the Pope visits the UK, a new take on an old dispute.

Any artist who can incorporate the phrase "hypostatic union" into a rap song is worth a listen, in my opinion.

95 Theses Rap from 8BIT Network on Vimeo.


Give Me That Old Time Sectarian Religion

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch...Image via Wikipedia

Whatever of true Christianity is to be found in the course of the centuries must be found
in the sects and their like.

Søren Kierkegaard

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McConnell and Hurst on the Ohio Amish

My first direct encounter with the Amish was at Columbus bus station in the early hours of a winter morning in 1985.

I was a third year undergraduate student, based at the University of Sussex in England, but spending an academic year at the University of California at Santa Barbara. A fellow British student and I had been travelling by Greyhound Bus from west coast to east, calling at Houston, New Orleans, Montgomery (Al) and Atlanta before heading north east to the capital where we parted company, intending to meet up after Christmas in St Louis on the way back to California.

While on the early stage of the return leg, I found myself on one of those bleary-eyed stopovers that are characteristic of long haul bus journeys and it was there, in the sub zero night, that my eyes fell upon the Amish boy, with wide-brimmed black hat and collarless shirt, and the older man, with his white hair, dark clothes and - most memorably - carved dark wood smoking pipe.

American professors Charles Hurst and David McConnell have recently completed the world's first academic study of Ohio's Holmes County Amish - neighbouring Pennsylvania's communities having been extensively researched.

Hurst and McConnell's anthropological seven-year study is written up in their book An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World's Largest Amish Community and also summarised
here in Wooster Magazine (p. 12 onwards).

As the book's title suggests, attempts to describe modern Amish life in simple modern v traditional terms fail to appreciate the richness and diversity within the tradition and the complexities of adaptation and continuity.

Photo Akeg


Rumsfeld Preaches A Different Gospel

Former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered Bible verses to be placed on the front of top secret military intelligence documents prepared for cabinet and Presidential briefings during the Bush years.

The covers of these documents have now been made public and combine to paint a picture of a gospel of violence and nationalism.

The images, which can be viewed here, are a sober reminder of the dangers of misusing the word of God to support one's own agenda - in this case the Project for a New American Century , a right-wing think tank advocating the aggressive expansion of American diplomatic and military influence around the world, especially into the middle east. The Project was the first body to articulate the concept of a "regime change" in Iraq, several years before it was expressed as government policy by the Bush administration.

President Obama has ordered these Bible verses to be removed from future intelligence briefings under his administration - a move which may be criticised by some as evidence of the secular nature of the current administration but which, in my view, could be equally seen as the kind of action needed to purge a gospel of war from the corridors of power. Perhaps this act could be loosely compared with Hezekiah destroying the bronze serpent - an object that had been a means of grace but whose use had been perverted into a form of idolatry.

Historically, third stream Christian groups have included many pacifists or, as some would describe themselves, active peacemakers. Even those who have not been pacifists have been careful to avoid the trap of using Biblical proof texts to justify militarism, as Donald Rumsfeld has so crudely done.


Menno Simmons on Poverty and Piety

O preachers, dear preachers, where is the power of the Gospel you preach? . . . Shame on you for the easygoing gospel and barren bread-breaking, you who have in so many years been unable to effect enough with your gospel and sacraments so as to remove your needy and distressed members from the streets, even though the Scripture plainly teaches . . . [that] there shall be no beggars among you.

Menno Simons, “Reply to False Accusations” (1552), in Complete Writings, ed. J.C. Wenger.


Millennium Communists?

A group of "heretics" arrested near the city of Turin in 1030 are reported by their captors as claiming that "All our possessions we have in common with all men."

Three centuries later, by contrast, Pope John XXII died having amassed a fortune of 25,000,000 florins. Based on the current price of gold, and the fact that the medieval florin contained 3.5 g of gold, the Pope's personal fortune might be compared to a value of about £400m million in today's currency.


Light in the Dark Ages

The history of Third Stream Christian groups from Constantine to the Reformation is one that has attracted renewed interest in recent years.

There is increasing evidence that Europe during these centuries contained many such churches and that it is only the difficulty in accessing the original archive material that has contributed towards the view that there was little evangelical witness in the centuries before Luther.

The following samples give a hint of the depth of evangelical spiritual life that existed, not only among individuals but among whole congregations in the centuries traditionally known as the Dark Ages:
  • In his Sermons Against Heretics, Eckbert of Schonau condemns those "weavers...who say that the true service of Christ and the true faith are to be found nowhere but in their conventicles, which they hold in cellers and weaving establishments and similar subterranean places."
  • Pope Innocent III addressed a gathering of bishops in the city of Metz in 1199 when he related the following:
"Our brother the bishop of Metz tells us that in his diocese and in your city a great many lay-folk, both men and women,...have had French translations made of the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the Psalms...which they read together and preach from in their clandestine conventicles....resisting to their face the priests who would instruct them, arguing that they find in their books much better instruction."
  • Before and during the Reformation, the "Christian Brethren" held regular meetings to celebrate the Lord's Supper with a full meal in the weavers' guild house in Saint Gall, Switzerland.
  • In Brugge, in 1349, "a sect came up called the Cross-brothers....they did not adore the holy sacrament as it was raised aloft at the mass, nor did they show reverence to the priesthood....many were in the ban of the pope because of the Cross-brothers and the Lollards, persons who had fed them or had conversed with them."
  • In 1145, reports of what appears to be a fully functioning evangelical church emerge from the city of Liege:
"In this heresy...they say that in baptism sins are not remitted; they consider the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ to be foolishness; that by the imposition of the pontiff's hand nothing is conferred; that no-one receives the Holy Spirit unless good works are in evidence."
  • A century before the Reformation, the Dean of Notre Dame in Arras claimed that, "one third of Christendom if not more has attended illicit Waldensian conventicles and is at heart Waldensian."

All of the above are referenced in Leornard Verduin's illuminating work, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Dissent and Nonconformity)


Sexual Purity as Medieval Heresy

In his
Inquisition and Liberty, George Coulton reports a disturbing story of the English monk and inquisitor of "heretics" Ralph of Coggeshall (d. 1227). Coggeshall relates the story of an unnamed young woman accused of heresy because she resisted the sexual advances of a priest. The woman was burned as a heretic. Coggeshall tells the story (in Coulton p. 35) in a way that assumes his readers will side with the priest rather than the young woman.

The same source quotes Peter the Precentor speaking of "certain honest matrons, refusing to consent to the lasciviousness of the priests who have by such priests been written into the book of death, and accused as heretics and even condemned."

Such passages shed some light on the phenomenon of the medieval "heretic". In many cases, these women were none other than the victims of clerical immorality and injustice. It is possible that some were third stream believers who rejected not only the advances of the priests but also aspects of the doctrinal framework that underpinned much of this medieval oppression.


Michael Sattler - Anabaptist Martyr

Michael Sattler (c.1495-1527) was a Benedictine monk who left the Roman Catholic Church after studying the Scriptures and being influenced by Protestant theology. He emerged as a leading figure in the Anabaptist movement, alongside Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, working in Zurich, Rottenburg and Strasbourg.

Arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities in Horb, he was accused of heresy and burned to death on May 21st 1527. His wife Margaretha was put to death by drowning a few days later. The charges against Michael Sattler are outlined below:

Article or Charges Against Michael Sattler

  • First, that he and his adherents have acted contrary to the mandate of the Emperor
  • Secondly, he has taught, held and believed that the body and blood of Christ are not present in the sacrament
  • Thirdly, he has taught and believed that infant baptism does not conduce to salvation
  • Fourthly, they have rejected the sacrament of extreme unction
  • Fifthly, they have despised and condemned the mother of God and the saints
  • Sixthly, he has declared that men are not to swear before the authorities
  • Seventhly, he has commenced a new an unheard of custom in regard to the Lord's Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, and eating and drinking the same
  • Eighthly, he has left the order, and married a wife
  • Ninthly, he has said that if the Turks should invade the country, no resistance ought to be offered them; and if it were right to wage war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks; and it is certainly a great matter, to set the greatest enemies of our holy faith against us


Third Stream Christian Groups and Christmas

With the Catholic and Protestant Christmas celebrations at hand, it may be a timely occasion to consider the different responses to Christmas that third stream Christian groups have adopted over the centuries.

221 AD is the earliest proven year when we know that December 25th was widely advocated as marking Christ's birth, though it was not particularly an occasion for feasting or celebration. Tertullian (referred to elsewhere for his support of Montanism) makes no reference to it while Origen (hardly a third stream leader) denounced the idea, claiming that only sinners not saints celebrated birthdays.

During the Reformation, many Protestants avoided Christmas celebrations along with statues, incense and other Catholic rituals. Oliver Cromwell's government banned Christmas for 12 years, starting in 1647. A similar law existed in Boston from 1659 to 1681, though other colonies observed it freely in the period before American Independence.

The idea of a "church year" with certain special dates and celebrations was largely absent from Mennonite thought by the time it had transplanted to the United States, although some European Mennonites did pay more attention to the holidays of the church year. Christmas Day was rarely observed until the 20th century among such groups.

The Old Order Amish followed a somewhat different pattern. January 6th was their "Alt Christtag" (Old Christmas) marked in addition to 25 December. They celebrated this day with fasting, (i.e. omitting breakfast) but without church services, and followed by visiting relatives and friends.

The use of the Christmas trees in connection with the Christmas season was rejected by more conservative third stream groups. It was seen as a pagan symbol, out of place among Christians.

Most European Mennonites continued to observe Christmas with a church service and the following day (Boxing Day in Britain) as a holiday with a focus on family, friends and children.

As the practice of gift-giving at Christmas only became widespread in the mid-19th century following the publication of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, we ought not to be surprised to find it largely absent from third stream Christian groups before this period.

On a more contemporary note, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that some of the "new churches" that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK did not mark Christmas in any special way. Whatever their current practice, the Coign Church in Woking was one example of a new church that did not celebrate the event during its early years.

A Mennonite group from Canada has taken things a step further by inviting others to celebrate their buy nothing Christmas as an alternative to unrestrained commercialism.


Why Third Stream Groups are Short Lived

Third stream Christian groups tend to have short lives.

Two things typically happen to them. Either they are persecuted to the point of extinction. Or, they gradually become second stream movements. The latter trend can be seen in the history of the Baptist churches, the Quakers and, in the United States, the 19th century "restoration" movements such as the Church of Christ.

The extent to which the house church/new church movements of the 1970s and 80s have become second stream movements is an interesting one.


Donatist Beliefs

Although much of what he know of the Donatists comes from the writings of their opponents - a frequent problem associated with third stream Christian movements before the Reformation - we can piece together enough information to establish that the movement was overwhelmingly orthodox in its Trinitarian beliefs.

It was the Donatist vision of the church that set it apart from 4th century Catholicism. Their vision of the church included the following features:

  • a community of believers "inspired by the Holy Spirit and instructed by the Bible"
  • a rejection of monasticism
  • an emphasis on disciple-making among church members, with a particular emphasis on practical holiness and suffering
  • the practice of individual Biblical meditation
  • the agape meal - fellowship and breaking bread around a meal
  • holiness and character as essential qualities in church leaders
  • moral separation from the world
  • the rejection of force or coercion in religious matters
  • a commitment to mission and active evangelism
  • an expectation of the coming of Christ
  • social justice as a practical outworking of the life of God's Kingdom
  • re-baptizing of those previously baptized or in fellowship with churches or bishops who had betrayed Christians during times of persecution
Predictably, the Donatists were opposed and persecuted by the official state-aligned Roman Catholic Church. Augustine's justification for this ("Correction of the Donatists") can be viewed or downloaded here for those with a spare few hours to read it.

The Origins of Donatism

During the waves of state-sponsored persecution suffered by the churches during the reigns of Diocletian and Galerius in the late third and early fourth centuries, Christians in North Africa found themselves particular targets.

Following these persecutions, disputes arose within the North African Church about the status of those who had lapsed or denied their faith and who were now seeking restoration to fellowship within the church. Of particular concern was the position of those who had apparently betrayed other Christian believers while facing persecution themselves.

The appointment of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage (in modern day Tunisia) brought these controversies to a head. Regarded by many as a man of shallow moral character, the most damning allegation made against him was that he had been a betrayer of Christians during the time of persecution.

In 312, a council of African bishops declared the appointment of Caecillian invalid and appointed Majorinus as bishop in his place. This action inevitably resulted in conflict with the Catholic Church and the apparently-converted Constantine, Emperor of Rome, declared Caecillian the legitimate bishop.

When Majorinus died, his place was taken by Donatus, who refused to recognise the decision of the Emperor and who quickly found himself at the head of a movement that was in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church - an opposition that lasted several decades.

The so-called Donatists in fact came to be a reforming force with a distinct view of the nature of the church and are considered by many as a third-stream Christian movement.

Although an examination of their distinct beliefs will follow, an initial focus on some of the obvious issues produced by the Donatist controversy include:

  1. The difference between charismatic and institutional leadership. Much initial controversy focused around the claim that a duly-appointed bishop could confer grace by virtue of his office. Donatism rejected this, claiming that holding office alone was of no value without Christlike character.
  2. The relationship between the church and the state. Donatism saw the church as essentially separate from the world, not reliant on state support or patronage. Constantine's involvement in matters of church government was, therefore, seen as an unwelcome development.
  3. The importance of discipleship and holiness in the church - thus a rejection of the emerging monastic movement with its emphasis on different levels of holiness among Christians.


Understanding the Mennonites - 3

As well as generally embracing the substance of the historic Christian creeds, the C16 Anabaptist movement also emphasized Biblical themes sometimes understated or omitted by these same creeds.

Of particular importance was the emphasis on Christ's way of life as our example, characterized by suffering love.

The image (left) is of an Anabaptist about to be drowned, in a cruel parody of their practice of believers' baptism.

Two quotes from Menno Simmons illustrate this emphasis:

Inasmuch, then, as the Lamb and its chosen members, from the beginning, have been persecuted and slain by the malice of the creatures of the conquered serpent, and inasmuch (according to Scriptures) as this persecution will not cease so long as there are righteous and unrighteous people on earth; and as in our days, especially, the cross of Christ, on every hand (as it was in the days of our ancestors), is laid upon all God fearing children, who are inwardly born again from the powerful seed of the holy word; therefore I cannot neglect to admonish my beloved brethren and sisters, fellow believers and fellow sufferers with the word of the Lord, concerning the suffering, cross and persecution of the saints, which is abundantly related in the Scriptures, and was abundantly visited upon our fathers, both of the Old and New Testaments, and also upon many pious witnesses of our own days; that they may, according to the example of our fathers, fearlessly and valiantly continue the undertaken contest, in all constancy, patience, strength, courage and valor, through the power of their faith in Christ Jesus; and that they may thus receive the promised crown. For this purpose may the Father of every good and perfect gift, through his beloved Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, grant us the riches of his grace, in the power of his Holy Spirit, Amen.

in A Consoling Admonition is well known to many thousands of honest and reasonable people (as I suppose) that we seek nothing else upon earth but that we may in our weakness, willingly walk in the footsteps of Christ, in obedience to his word; that we may again light the extinguished lamp of truth, may call many unto righteousness, and that we may save our souls by the assistance and grace of the Lord, on which account we, poor ones everywhere, must endure so much tribulation, misery, anxiety, cross and persecution;

A Reply to a Publication of Gellius Faber, 1562


Lollards - Medieval Church Planters

The term "Lollard" may have meant "babbler" or "mumbler" and was probably a pejorative comment on the preaching of this third stream Medieval movement.

The Lollards were the English followers of the reformer and Bible translator John Wycliffe. By the end of the C14, due to extensive evangelism and teaching in the midlands and south of England, Lollards maintained a number of congregations and enjoyed considerable support among the artisan and middle classes.

In 1395 Lollards submitted a document to Parliament summarising some of their beliefs and complaints. In particular, they emphasised the centrality of personal faith in Christ, opposed hierarchy in the church and rejected transubstantiation, clerical celibacy and the church's temporal power. In addition, they rejected prayers for the dead, pilgrimages and images of the saints. They saw the primary duty of priests to preach and teach the word of God and wanted the Bible to be made available in the common tongue for all believers.

As an aside, there is debate over the extent to which Geoffrey Chaucer represented or even endorsed Lollard ideas in his Canterbury Tales. He was certainly familiar with the movement.

Although outlawed as a movement in 1401, and despite many leaders being burned or hanged, Lollardry continued to spread. When the Reformation got under way a century later, much preparatory work had already been done in England. Lollard ideas were already part of the English consciousness.

A season of revival in the C16 in London, East Anglia and the Chilterns added to the movement's strength and influence.


Separate and Different

One of the characteristics of most third stream groups is a recognition that they are called out of the world and called to a different type of life - a life devoted to God.

This awareness came into sharp focus at the time of the Reformation when those seeking an expression of local church made up of believers found themselves strongly opposed by the Protestant Reformers who were generally wedded to the concept of the state church.

In this latter type of church, the conduct of church members was often no different from that of the world around it. Practical holiness was often a mark of the groups seeking a New Testament style of church, comprising believers.

The following quotes are illustrative of the differences that existed at that time:

"I verily see more of moral improvement among them [Anabaptist groups] than with those who are Lutheran." (Philip of Hesse in a letter to his sister Elizabeth of Saxony)

"among us there is no betterment of life." (Martin Luther to Casper Schwenckfeld)

"The Anabaptists have the semblance of outward piety to a far greater degree than we and all the other churches which in union with us confess Christ; and they avoid the offensive sins that are very common among us." (statement before Bern City Council C16)

"The magistrates are rather coarse and carnal men and the preachers are very neglectful; many of them frequently get drunk. Since the lords and the council-men are that kind of people ... they drive the poor people away with their wild way of life. The plain man cannot bring himself to recognise the Church of Christ among such wild persons and to distinguish correctly between doctrine and life." (Martin Bucer)

All quoted in Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Dissent and Nonconformity)


Sticks not Swords

When the third stream Christian groups of the late medieval period were emerging alongside the Reformers, one issue that divided them was on the use of force or coercion in religious matters.

Many of the groups described as heretics by the Catholics and, later, by the Reformers themselves, were distinguished by their insistence that the church was a voluntary body and that the state had no role in forcing people to attend or join.

As a mark of this belief - which was fiercely denounced by many of the main Protestant Reformers - some of these "heretical" groups carried a badge or symbol - namely a simple wooden staff similar to that used by shepherds, in distinction to the sword carried by the magistrate.

So common was this practice that some of these Bible-believing groups of Christians became labelled as Stabler - literally "staff carriers".

At a hearing in 1590 held to investigate whether Anabaptist groups were meeting in a particular area, a witness gave evidence of such groups by recounting that "he had met them often enough when with their little staff they were on their way to their preachings or whatever it is they do."

The practice of staff-carrying was reported among the Waldensians and the Bohemian Brethren as a mark of the conviction that the sword is not a proper weapon in the hands of a follower of Christ. The practice is also recorded among Celtic Christians in Ireland whose gambutta was carried to differentiate them from the Catholic priests.

As early as the fourth century, the Donatists were known for carrying their Azael (meaning strength of God) to consciously contrast themselves with those who were embracing the policy of an official state church on the back of the Constantinian reforms.

The staff or stick symbolised one of the distinguishing features of third stream Christian groups. While some were pacifists, many were not. What they shared, however, was a common vision of the church comprising believers, rather than the church consisting of everyone in a geographical area - the Constantinian idea of the official state church.


Peter Chelcicky

"By the use of force no man is brought to faith in Christ, as little likely as that a man can learn Bohemian by studying German.

By means of the secular power Anti-Christ has pulled all power to himself under cover of the Christian faith. Since we believe that it was by meekness and humility unto the Cross that Christ delivered us from the power of Satan we cannot allow that the perfecting of our faith comes by worldly power; as if force is a greater benefit than is faith."

(Peter Chelcicky c.1390-1460) in Verduin

A short biography of Peter Chelciky and of his work Net of Faith is available for free to download at the primitive Christianity site here.



Bohemian Rhapsody

Originating in Prague in 1453-54, a new church was formed through the preaching of the local Archbishop Rokycana and his nephew Gregory. The church had historic links with an earlier group - the Chelic Brethren - which was started through the ministry of Peter Chelcicky (1390-1460), a reformer who was himself influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe. Chelcicky rejected monasticism, the secular power of the church and the use of force in religious affairs, affirming instead the local church as the Body of Christ comprising believers.

The Bohemian Brethren embraced much of this earlier foundation and emphasized the ethical teachings of Christ, rejecting the church's participation in the affairs of state, including military service. They maintained a belief in much core Catholic doctrine - including the seven sacraments and the celibacy of the priests - but emphasized the centrality of personal faith in Christ.

As the movement developed, it eventually outgrew its Catholic structures and established churches overseen by synods and bishops. A number of schools were also established in several communities.

Following a wave of persecution, the Brethren relocated to Moravia where the movement eventually merged with the local Moravian brethren and Calvinist churches.

In Bohemia itself, the movement eventually forged links with the Lutheran church and achieved state recognition. Following a Catholic-backed military campaign, Protestantism was virtually eradicated for 150 years in Bohemia at the Battle of the White Mountain. Some scattered groups eventually migrated to Saxony under the protection of Count Zinzendorf in the early C18.

Post Script: if for some reason you're not too familiar with geography of late mediaeval Central Europe, there are some great antique maps of Bohemia and the surrounding nations here.

The Waldensians Come to Rome

Having completed my post on the Waldenses, I stumbled upon an illuminating quotation a few days later. The quote is an aside in Rodney Stark's fascinating book The Rise of Christianity.

The year is 1179 and Walter Map (a Catholic writer) is in Rome. He witnesses the arrival in the City of a group of itinerant Waldensians, who for some reason had traveled from their Alpine homes to Rome. His observation was as follows:

"They go about two by two, barefoot, clad in woolen garments, owning nothing, holding all things in common like the Apostles ... If we admit them, we shall be driven out."


Reformed Before Calvin - an Overview of the Waldenses

Also known as the Waldensians and, confused by some writers with the medieval Albigenses (more on them elsewhere), the Waldenses have traditionally claimed to owe their origins to an unbroken line of apostolic Christianity without coming under the influence of Roman Catholicism. Members and churches survived in the remote Alpine regions of Switzerland and northern Italy throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval period.

Acknowledging the influence of leaders such as Peter Waldo and Arnold of Bresci, core values of these groups included an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, the necessity of Christ-like character in church leaders and a broadly evangelical doctrine of salvation/justification. In this sense, they were "reformed" before the Reformers, though as stated, their view was that their churches were not in need of doctrinal reform as they had not deviated from the apostolic tradition over the centuries. Having said that, they did make contact with the Reformed Church in Geneva in the C16 and adopted the Geneva Confession of faith in 1532.

With largely itinerant leaders, the Waldenses exerted an influence out of proportion to their numbers. Rejecting Catholic practices that they could not see clearly in the Bible, the groups were anti-hierarchal and rejected the use of images of the saints and the veneration of Mary.

Suffering repeated waves of persecution - the earliest recorded being the Crusade of 1210 - Waldenses regularly moved around within the countries to the south and east of the Alps, often retreating into more inaccessible valleys at times of intense persecution.

As an aside, a friend currently planting a church on the French-Italian boarder relates the local history of Waldensians fleeing persecution on the French side of the Alps (around current day Briancon) and coming up the valley where he now lives to what is now the resort and boarder town of Montgenevre. From there, they descended to the valley on the Italian side where they exercised an evangelistic ministry in the surrounding areas.

Only granted legal recognition in Italy in 1848, the Waldenses began the process of spreading into mainstream Italian culture where they remain one of the larger Protestant groupings. Waldensians were responsible for translating the Bible into modern Italian and provided moral and theological resistance to Mussolini's fascist government during the 1930s and 40s. Waves of Italian migration to Argentina in the early C20 included numbers of Waldensians. A theological college in that country is one evidence of their continued presence, as well as several schools, hospitals and orphanages in Italy, where the Waldensian Church maintains close links with the Italian Methodist movement.


Understanding the Mennonites - Part 2

At the radical end of the Protestant Reformation of the early C16, the Mennonites (so-called) were part of a wider movement seeking a return not only to a Biblical doctrine of salvation but were also prepared to look more closely at the implications of this salvation for an understanding of the nature of the church.

The idea of a local church as a community of saved believers is so widely accepted now that it is difficult to imagine how radical a concept this was in the context of C16 Europe.

While Luther was articulating a clear doctrine of justification through faith, and could see how clearly this truth challenged the Catholic concepts of the mass, the priesthood, indulgences, purgatory and the veneration of Mary and the saints, Luther remained firmly wedded to an institutional model of the church. When his followers were forced to separate from the Catholic structures, it was reluctantly and with the aim of establishing a purified state church, a mixture of saints and sinners.

Groups such as the Mennonites went much further than this. Seeing clearly that those who had been justified through faith comprised the people of God on the earth, called out and separate from the world, these Anabaptist groups began to understand the church as a community of believers committed to one another and to a life of discipleship.

Although numerically small, the influence of these groups continues to be felt today as modern evangelicalism now broadly accepts the concept of a church made up of believers. Whether contemporary evangelicalism takes as seriously the related call of a life of discipleship is another question.


Understanding the Mennonites - 1

In this, the first article of several on the history, beliefs and practices of the Mennonites, we will consider the origins of the movement, principally through the story of the leader whose name became synonymous with the churches he founded.

Menno Simmons, a Catholic priest, was converted to an evangelical Christian faith around 1525 as a result of reading the writings of Martin Luther.

Attracted to Anabaptism (though an opponent of its militant wing), his leadership and preaching gifts were recognized and he soon emerged as a leading figure in the Anabaptist movement in the Netherlands and North Germany. Within this region, he traveled extensively preaching the gospel, founding and establishing churches and writing numerous books, letters and pamphlets.

Menno stressed the idea of the local church as a community of believers committed to a new life of discipleship, sealed by believers'’ baptism and closely knit in fellowship and brotherly love.

Suspicious of dogmatic theology, Simmons was reluctant to use terms not clearly located in Scripture -– his avoidance of the word “Trinity” being one of the more controversial expressions of this approach. This should not be confused with his Trinitarian beliefs, which were in line with the historic creeds and confessions.

Frequently opposed by both Catholics and mainline Protestant reformers, Menno Simmons was often forced to move on from place to place in the course of discharging his ministry,– which was described by many of the churches he served as “apostolic”. He died in the town of Wustenfelde in 1561.


More on Montanists

following article by W.M. Calder provides the results of an early archeological expedition to Phrygia in search of the "New Jerusalem" of the Montanists.


Cult or Church? The Enigma of Montanism

In the late second century AD, a charismatic reform movement emerged in the Phrygian region of Asia Minor. Named by its critics after its leading figure, Montanus, the movement was to create controversy throughout the Empire and remains a subject of disagreement among church historians to the present day.

The facts as far as we can deduce them are limited in their scope. Montanus, about whose background we know next to nothing, was a Christian who attempted to reform and purify the churches by preaching a message of moral and spiritual purity, paying particular attention to practical holiness, prayer, fasting, resisting persecution and, more controversially, avoiding remarriage.

Believing that the Holy Spirit was still speaking to the church, the movement acquired a prophetic dimension, with two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, exercising the gift of prophecy along with other un-named individuals. This aspect of the group's life led to its preferred name - the new prophecy.

Tertullian (150 - 225 AD), bishop of Carthage in North Africa, eventually came to believe that the new prophecy represented an authentic spiritual movement and strongly defended it in his later writings. Unfortunately his work in defense of it, De ecstasi, has been lost, though was known and referred to by several ancient writers. Tertullian himself is perhaps better known for his works on the nature of God (he coined the term Trinity) and the person and work of Christ.

Other ancient church leaders were less sympathetic. Jerome wrote a letter at the end of the 4th century refuting the movement and it was declared heretical by the bishop of Rome.

Beyond these facts, a number of claims and counter claims have been made about Montanism. Bearing in mind the difficulty in reading church history through the texts of those who opposed the movement, it is hard to know what to make of these competing claims. They include:

  • the suggestion that Priscila and Maximilla described themselves as logos and paraclyte
  • the description by Montanus of a town on Phrygia as the site of the New Jerusalem
  • the claim that the movement were orthodox in their doctrine of the Trinity
  • that its leading figures were Sabellians (believers in modalistic monarchianism)
  • an expectation on the imminent return of Christ
One view of Montanism is that the personalities whose names survive to this day may indeed have been heretical in some regards but that this controversy masks a deeper movement of spiritual life and renewal that was indeed taking place at this time.

Current archaeological work lead by William Tabbernee at the site of the Montanist New Jerusalem in modern-day Turkey represents an exciting development in our understanding of this early Third Stream Christian movement. [See William TABBERNEE, Portals of the Montanist New Jerusalem: the discovery of Pepouza and Tymion, Journal of Early Christian Studies 11:1 (2003), pp. 87-93. ]-----------------------------

Reading Between the Lines - the Problem of Early Sources

When examining the history of third stream Christian movements before the Reformation, we have an immediate historical problem. Up to about the 15th Century, the primary sources that exist for many of these groups and movements originate with those who opposed them. Primarily, these sources are from the Catholic and/or state churches, though official documents also exist from courts and other government records, especially towards the latter part of the Middle Ages and, of course, during the Reformation itself.

This problem requires us to try and decode some of the sources. When, for instance, we read of an individual described in a historic source as a "heretic", there is every possibility that we are reading about a Bible-believing Christian with a saving faith and an evangelical doctrine. The term, in that sense, can be compared with the second century use of the word "superstition" or "atheism" by the Roman authorities to describe the emerging Christian movement.

The case of the Montanists is a classic case in point. To this day, Christian historians remain divided over whether to regard these fourth-century zealots as heralds of radical Biblical church reform or misguided fanatics with unorthodox views on core Christian doctrines.

More on them to follow.....


Early Moravians in America

Moravian women taking part in the sacrement of foot washing; engraving from David Cranz, Kurze, Zuverlässige Nachricht, von der, unter den Namen der Böhmisch-Mährischen Brüder Bekannt, Kirche Unitas fratrum, Halle: 1757

Common Features

Third stream Christian movements tend to have a number of similar features, emphasised in varying degrees and expressed in different ways. These include:

1. An evangelical theology of salvation

2. The best of the Catholic mystic tradition

3. A radical attempt to recapture New Testament expressions of church life

4. An emphasis on practical discipleship of members

5. A non-hierarchical leadership structure

The other striking feature of such movements is that, more often than not, they tend to be short-lived. One of three things tend to happen to them. Either they succumb to heresy and gradually lose their way doctrinally; or they are crushed under the force of external persecution; or, finally, such movements gradually change into second stream movements.


Introduction to Third Stream Christianity

Among students of church history, some have sought to identify three distinct expressions of church life over the centuries.

The first stream has grouped together Roman Catholicism, the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Coptic churches of the middle east and Asia.

Second stream Christianity refers to historic Protestantism, both "State" and "free" churches.

Third stream Christianity is an attempt to describe those forms of church life which have existed outside of the other two streams. Broadly speaking, they include those groups which have attempted to rediscover and live out "simple" forms of New Testament church life outside of the mainline historic denominations.

This blog will attempt to identify, describe and analyse such groups and movements, both in the past and the present. The approach will be both historic and theological and will include consideration of some of the ideas, beliefs and values of such groups, as well as some of the wider issues involved in their existence, survival, decline and transformation over time.

Please feel free to forward articles and links relevant to this blog. I will incorporate what I can.