Is the Church the really best it could have been … ?
Which early Christian groups were persecuted by the Church?
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This is where it gets interesting or frustrating, depending on your perspective. As I’ve said earlier, history tends to be written by the victors, by the powers-that-be, by the established authorities. In the case of the battles in the Church, any group that defied the various State Churches tended to be denounced as heretics and their written material burned. So it is difficult to find an impartial historical witness for any expression of Christianity other than the Greek-tainted party-line of official Christendom. A good place to start is to investigate the groups that were hunted, denounced, persecuted and tortured at the hands of the Inquisition or the early Crusades. If they came to the attention of the Popes, the chances were that they were promoting a “different Gospel” to the corrupted version that had been synthesised by the philosophers and theologians and fed to the masses. This made them worthy of investigation.
One such group was the Waldenses. Because of the venomous persecution it suffered at the hands of the established Church, there is a vagueness about its history, due to most of its writings being destroyed. There is even some revisionism, promoted by the Catholic Church, claiming that the group only appeared in the later Middle Ages, named after a certain Peter Waldo (as claims the Wikipedia entry), but the truth seems to be that its origins go much further back than that, probably right back to the apostolic times of the 1st Century, providing us with an unbroken link with the authentic Church of the first apostles.
If this is true, then this is exciting indeed, but there was a price to pay, as we shall soon see. This group lived in the valleys of the alpine regions of Northern Italy. They may have shared a country with the Roman Catholics, but they couldn’t have been more different. Unsullied by the Greek pagan virus, they had a high view of Holy Scripture, it was their rule of life, it was a living book for them. They firmly believed in preaching and were very good at it, even counting many Catholics among their converts. They also firmly believed that the Pope was not God’s representative on Earth and offered allegiance to Jesus Christ alone.
Isn’t it sad and telling that the Catholic Encyclopaedia chooses to describe the Waldenses as an heretical sect that appeared in the second half of the twelfth century – wrong on both counts! I chuckled at the observation, in the same article, that among the doctrinal errors which they propagated was the denial of purgatory and of indulgences and prayers for the dead. There’s not much you can say about that!
But it gets worse because the Pope and his advisors decided that the World wasn’t big enough for both of them, so one had to go. The Pope was Innocent III, the year was 1215 AD and the event was the Fourth Council of the Lateran. One of the outcomes of this official Catholic Church meeting was that the Waldenses were officially classed as heretics and suitable fodder for the inquisition. The next few centuries are a sorry story that parallels the fate of the Jews at the hands of the Catholic Church. It was a period of great persecutions, such as in Merindol, in France, where many hundreds were massacred in 1545.
Another unbroken link from the 1st Century were the Paulicians, who took their name from the Apostle Paul and first appeared in Antioch, where Barnabas and Paul preached and where believers were first called Christians and where many Jewish Christians migrated after being forced out of Jerusalem. These first Christians were able to migrate northwards to Armenia before the Greek pagan influences took hold. They were resolute in holding firm to the true faith and spoke up against what they saw as un-biblical practices, such as the veneration of relics, the worship of Mary and the saints and the excesses surrounding the Catholic Mass.
Naturally, the Catholics were not amused and the Catholic Encyclopaedia calls them a dualistic heretical sect, derived originally from Manichaeism. This is worrying because the Catholics are accusing the Paulicians of a very specific Gnostic heresy that has roots in the dualism of Plato, which, if it is true, would disqualify them as torch-bearers of the true unsullied faith. What we seem to have here is a touch of naughtiness on behalf of the Catholics of that time. In the words of historian, E. H. Broadbent:
“... the churches of believers who called themselves Christians, thus distinguishing themselves from others whom they called “Romans” (Catholics), had always been accused of being Manichaeans, although they declared they were not and complained of the injustice of attributing to them doctrines they did not hold. The frequency with which anything is repeated is no proof that it is true, and since such writings as remain of these Christians contain no trace of Manichaeism, it is only reasonable to believe that they did not hold it.” (The Pilgrim Church, E. H. Broadbent, Gospel Folio Press, 2009 p. 65)
Just playground insults really, delivered by grown-ups, but with deadly consequences because these Paulicians, who held to the true Biblical faith of the early apostles, were, like the Waldenses, mercilessly persecuted by the Catholic Church.