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