July 24, 2017

The Domesticated and The Disappeared

As I stated in my last post, the early monastic communities demonstrated the spiritual, relational and missional rhythms of the early church. In the book of Acts, we read of how the early church enacted its common life, echoing the patterns Jesus had taught the twelve. They early was organized in a manner intended to respond to the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This rhythm, this community design is succinctly displayed at the end of the second chapter of Acts:
"They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.

Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.

They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved."
(The Message)
Regarding this passage in Acts Jaroslav Pelikan writes that it maintains a "continuity with [Jesus] and his apostles in this communion of saints. But theologically, it is prescriptive, as an itemized list of criteria by which the church in any age would preserve and and manifest its continuity with the apostles." They ruminated on the Scriptures, prayed and worshiped together. They broke bread together. They cared for each other. They were effective evangelists, particularly among the marginalized to which they extended inclusion. Like the monastic communities discussed in my last post, what we will find throughout history in missional communities is not a naive effort to recreate the early church experience. Rather, they seek to respond to their context in as faithful a manner as the early disciples did. As Pelikan offers, these characteristics ought to be our guide to a faithful devotion to the Christian tradition.

Two leaders in particular carried such a desire into the feudal system of medieval time period. Peter Waldo and Francis of Assisi.


Born into the emerging mercantile class both were born into an economically shifting culture. The divide between the urban rich and the rural poor was growing. Cultural changes were afoot in the Church as well. Pope Gregory VII dramatically limited the role of the laity and took away the power of congregations to elect their leaders.

These two contextual aspects: the economic and ecclesiastical shifts should be paid close attention to here in this historical moment and throughout Church history. When we see Christians resist religious and economic domination throughout the history of the Church, it is these Christian movements that have nudged the Church towards renewal, revival and faithfulness to God and neighbor. While they may at the moment seem as if they are fringe groups and heretics they are often a litmus test for the broader Church.

Waldo and Francis read the Gospels and saw a commitment to the poor and a shared ministry between leader and disciple. They gave away their wealth and sought to emulate what they saw demonstrated by Jesus and the twelve. They held public events that targeted the most economically marginalized populations of their region. Their followers began to shape communities whose gatherings had a simple rhythm: they shared a meal, celebrated communion, prayed and studied the Bible.

It's important to pause here, once again, to point out a trait of these communities. Unless terribly persecuted missional communities throughout history have almost always had a strategic, intentional and evangelistic public component of their ministry. What I have tended to pay closest attention to were the small groups where deep discipleship happened. These are important. Critical. But these are the meals at Mary and Martha's to Jesus's feeding of the five thousand. The praying in the upper room to Peter's Pentecost sermon. The architects of authentic missional movements throughout Church history have always been able to see the relationship between the intimate and the public and designed communities around these. This is what distinguishes these communities from others. There is not an intention to retreat from society or become exclusive. As John Driver writes:
"The Franciscans and the Waldensians shared a desire to incarnate the gospel within contemporary society. Both maintained contact with an increasingly urbanized society, while seeking to cultivate an intimate and direct relationship with God within their faith communities. Both movements protested the oppressive structures of the feudal system, and the alienating, materialistic values of new urban structures."
Waldo posed a threat to the religious establishment. Records from the inquisition of Waldo and Waldensians document the astonishment of authorities that these Christians took Jesus at his words, attempting to model their lives after his ministry. This, too, is another marker of a potentially missional movement; when Christian elites deride an emerging Christian group for their desire to live faithfully to Scripture. They will often be scoffed as naive; as if they are unaware of how complicated contemporary context ismaking faithfulness unrealistic. Whether it be the inefficiency of small batches of Christians gathering, the audacity of a community existing without paid or ordained leadership, the unsophisticated nature of a community that is convinced the marginalized should be fully included or the naivety of the endorsement of violence as unfaithful. Anytime such scoffing has occurred throughout history, the possibility exists that the influence of these communities on the broader Church might out last that of their detractors. Augustine and Calvin as possible exceptions.

Waldo and the Waldensians were persecuted and those few communities that sustained were absorbed into others during the Reformation. Francis and Waldo had a similar imagination for Christian community and the movements that arose around these charismatic leaders had many similar traits.

With one exception.

Assisi insisted on working within the system. He was emphatic about his commitment to the wider Church. Centuries later, John Wesley would hold a similar fervent devotion. It's important to notice that missional movements can, and have, existed in and out of the religious establishment. In each case, they have always encouraged the Church to become a more faithful institution. Those that have worked within the boundaries of the Church have often found themselves "domesticated" as the years, decades and centuries role by; losing their prophetic "edge." On the other hand, those that have railed against the institution and insisted on working outside of the confines of the religious establishment have frequently disappeared in the memory of most Christians. It's important to remember the Waldensians. The burden they bore may have influenced Francis and it may have certainly influenced the decision makers who decided to tolerate Francis, unaware of how deep and long his impact on us would be. If they had known, one would hope they would have continued to nurture this astounding man but chances are equally as good that they would have shut him down just as they did Peter Waldo. In any case, this pattern of two paths over the long term: domestication or disappearance would continue for many such movements throughout history.

Next time, we'll explore other examples.