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.

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