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.