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The Radicals

January 21, 2011 in Articles

The Radicals

Roger T Forster (from Trinity’s Headway Discipleship Series)

The history of God’s great work in the earth has left a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1,2), totally committed believers whose lives were sold out to God and who lived by faith in his promises. Because their eyes were fixed on Jesus they would continually say “What would Jesus do, say or feel?” and seek to apply that to themselves in their own circumstances. Such believers have invariably suffered for their faith and obedience to him. We call them ‘radicals’ because they keep returning to their roots (Latin: radices) and their stories are a reminder of what Paul says in 2 Tim 3:12, that “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” As you prepare for the next phase of your mission, let us introduce you to few of them.

The original first century radicals were of course the twelve disciples and their companions. They scattered across the known world proclaiming that Jesus of Nazareth had been declared Son of God with power, and that God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead (Rom 1:4). Paul then came and preached in Asia Minor and Europe, probably reaching Spain (Rom 15:28). He was martyred in Rome. Philip was a radical because he preached the good news to Samaritans whom his fellow Jews despised. Stephen argued for faith in Jesus so powerfully that he was arrested and stoned. Following Jesus, he died saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Thomas went eastwards and seems to have planted the church in India where he was martyred. James was killed by Herod (Acts 12:2) but Peter was miraculously released from prison at this time to die much later by crucifixion (John 21:18,19). Although John appears to have lived to old age he none the less was imprisoned and exiled (Rev 1:8). Through their death these believers defeated the work of the devil (Rev 12:11) and the church continued to grow.

The second century saw the continuation of the persecution of Christians by the Roman government. Consequently, thousands died — Ignatius, leader of the church at Antioch, torn apart by wild animals in the arena at Rome; Polycarp, a disciple of John the apostle, was burnt to death. Since he was in his late eighties, this venerable Christian leader was exhorted to ‘revile Christ’ and he would be saved. He replied, “Eighty-six years have I served him
and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blame my Saviour and King?” Justin Martyr, the Christian philosopher, also died in the mid-second century simply because he debated and defeated the philosophies of the pagans. Irenaeus waged an intellectual and spiritual battle against false teachings and gnosticism (a mixture of Christianity and astrology). In his city, an old bishop Pothinus in his nineties and a fourteen year old boy Pontius both died in the persecution, but the heroine was a slave girl, Blandina, whose physical frailty endured horrific tortures. As she died, “I am a Christian,” was her persistent reply “and there is no wickedness amongst us.”

The third century was a little better for the church. Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, and there were periods of rest and tolerance. However, around AD 202, Perpetua, a free-born matron who had just given birth died in the arena hand in hand with her slave girl, Felicitas. Their bravery, endurance and their disregard for class distinctions demonstrated their Christian faith so powerfully that their executioner was converted. The great Christian teacher Origen who published open letters to the emperor was tortured and later died for the truth under the persecution of the emperor Decius. Albus was the first known martyr in Britain. He sheltered a Christian preacher and seeing his devotion to Christ, gave himself to Jesus and then took the preacher’s place when the soldiers came to arrest him. He selflessly testified in the Christ-like action of dying for another and the town of St Albans takes its name from him.

The fourth century church entered into a period of peace. The emperor Constantine in AD 312 favoured the church and was baptised on his deathbed. Other problems arose which produced different heroes of the faith. One of the greatest problems concerned Arius, a priest (church leaders now had new, misleading titles, for all believers were really priests – 1 Pet 2:5, 9) who denied the deity of Christ. He wrote sea-shanties which ran, “There was a time when the Son was not.” His doctrine was similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teaching about Jesus. The church was rescued from this ‘Arian’ heresy by Athanasius and the orthodox teaching was formulated in the Nicene Creed. One of the saddest events of this period was the use for the first time of political power and violence by the strongest section of the church against those who disagreed with them. Jews, pagans and Christian heretics, as well as genuine orthodox believers, were persecuted and put to death. Novatians and Donatists were punished for wanting holier leaders, and Priscillian, a very successful orthodox bishop in Spain, was executed at the instigation of some of his envious fellow bishops. Those who were once the persecuted became the persecutors and found justification in ignoring Paul’s statement in 2 Tim 3:12 by a new theology, which a Bishop named Augustine of Hippo was introducing. He misused the phrase in Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:23 “Compel them to come in…” to justify the use of force. This abuse of scripture encouraged so-called followers of the Prince of Peace to murder, burn at the stake, imprison, torture and destroy homes and families for the next one and a half millennia. The only good thing that can be said is that this sort of church execution has produced thousands of heroic and true followers of Jesus – “Greater love has no man than this: that he lays down his life for his friend” (John 15:13).

The fifth century saw the Celtic church of northern France and Britain rise up with great missionary zeal. Patrick, who had been captured from Britain and taken as a slave to Ireland, escaped only to return later to preach the Gospel, turning a whole nation to Christ in his lifetime. The ‘apostle to Ireland’ heard a voice calling him: “Please, holy boy, come and walk among us again.” He received many dreams, visions, prophecies and even tongues and his writings were saturated with the scriptures. Later in the same century an Irish convert named Bridget founded a monastery at Kildare and taught both men and women. So profound was her influence, a visiting bishop used the prayer of consecration for a bishop over her, claiming he was moved by the Spirit and that he could not withhold the prayer. The Irish missionary movement began to spread the Gospel throughout central and northern Europe for the next few centuries. An Irish convert of the sixth century was called ‘Fox’ because of his character and temper, but after his repentance it was changed to ‘Columba‘ (Latin for ‘dove’). He founded a community on the island of Iona in Scotland and evangelised that nation by means of miracles, healings and apostolic perseverance (2 Cor 12:12). Brendan, another Irish Christian leader, so desirous to preach Christ and devote himself to pursuing God, sailed with seventeen other monks in a leather boat to America and back, taking seven years. He encountered a glass island (iceberg), was rained on by fire (volcanic Iceland), and was carried on the back of a fish. Ireland had never been conquered by the Roman Empire. The heroic, adventurous and sacrificial Christianity of the Irish was unhampered by the centralising of much Christianity at Rome and the bureaucratic restraint of Roman-style government inherited by the main section of the church.

The seventh century Scots had largely turned to Christ and the Northern Saxons of Northumberland were beginning to hear of Christianity from their Scottish neighbours. Oswaldwas a Saxon who was captured and taken to Scotland. There he learned Gaelic and Christianity. Later Aidan, a Scottish Christian, went to Northumbria and evangelised with Oswald (who was now their king) acting as the interpreter since Aidan only spoke Gaelic. They made quite an unusual team, king-interpreter and preacher. Hilda, baptised at the age of thirteen, founded an abbey at Whitby. As with Bridget in Ireland, Hilda’s ministry attracted both men and women, so renowned was her teaching and godliness. Caedmon was admitted to her brotherhood. He was completely untalented in poetry or song, but one night, leaving the merry-making of the party with its musical demands, he fell asleep and saw in a dream a man commanding him to sing. He said he couldn’t, but then he heard words of poetry about creation. When he awoke, he remembered and sang them henceforth as the story of Genesis, Exodus and the promised land, many biblical stories, and of course the gospel of our Lord Jesus. With his charismatic gift he evangelised and taught God’s truth. In Kibossa, Armenia, a certain Sylvanus (named Constantine before his conversion) laboured twenty seven years in preaching the Gospel before being stoned to death in AD 684. The emperor had issued a decree against his large movement of Christians known asPaulicans. These radicals baptised believers only and tried seriously to live the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). The people refused to throw their stones at the godly man, but his adopted son, Justus did, killing his father. Simone the executioner who had been sent by the emperor was so affected he converted becoming ‘Sylvanus’.

In the eighth century, Boniface left England to become ‘the apostle of Germany’. He had a power encounter with pagan gods when he cut down a sacred tree without fear of the threatened dire repercussions. The oak tree fell breaking into four pieces which were said to look like the cross. Many turned to Christ. Much later he was killed for his missionary activities. The Gospel had reached China by the seventh century through a Christian of the Nestorian denomination named Olupun, but it declined in impact until Kiho arrived and revival took place. A tablet was erected at this time containing words of Jesus and still remains today. These few names remind us of thousands of nameless Christians who by this century had carried the message of Jesus into China, India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Syria, Arabia, Iraq, Persia, to the Mongols, Turkestan and even among the Uigurs and Kazaks and without doubt many more ethnic linguistic groups. On the other hand, we have some names but not much more about Paulican evangelists of the ninth century. One was a man called Sembat, another Sergius. “For thirty four years”, (AD 800-834) he says, “I have run from east to west and from north to south preaching the gospel of Christ until my knees were weary.” He never took advantage of anyone nor did he act in an overbearing manner. He worked as a carpenter, loved the gospels and was axed in two by his pursuers. Many took on biblical names; also we know Bannes, Gesenios, Sergius. In northern Europe Anskar was outstanding in his devotion to reach the Danes and Swedes despite terrible pressures from the marauding Vikings. He became ‘the apostle to Sweden’ and did magnificent work to check the slave trade.

The tenth century saw a movement of simple believers, possibly Paulicans, into the Bulgarian area which had been evangelised in the previous century by Cyril and Methodius. These immigrants from Asia Minor made converts of the Christianised Bulgarians and were known as Bogomils, meaning “Friends/Loved of God.” Thousands of them died at the hands of the ‘official church’ because of their love and obedience to the scripture and their refusal to venerate images and idols. A radical in the eleventh century was a doctor calledBasil who continued to practise medicine to support himself in preaching and teaching for over forty years. On receiving a letter from the emperor Alexius saying he admired his character and would he come to the palace for a private interview, he went to find the emperor professing to be an anxious enquirer concerning his soul. Over a meal he explained salvation and doctrine only to find there was a hidden scribe writing down all he said to use at his trial. He was chained, imprisoned and condemned, taken to the arena for execution by fire. This brought much amusement to the Princess Anna who says he was “a lanky man with a sparse beard, tall and thin” and goes on to describe how, at the crackling of the fire, he turned his eyes to heaven and his limbs trembled. She mocked the low origin and uncouth appearance of the Bogomils, complaining that they bowed their heads and muttered. No doubt they lived in prayer as much as in persecution.

In the mid-twelfth century, Peter Waldo was moved to seek salvation because of the death of a friend. A successful businessman, he made provision for his family and then gave away his wealth and began street preaching. Normally, the ordinary people only heard the Gospel in the official church language, Latin. The response was terrific. Peter and his fellow preachers travelled all over Europe, and although attending any of the meetings of the Waldensians or sheltering and helping one of the “poor men of Lyons”, as they were called, meant death, nonetheless it was reckoned one in every three people attended a meeting in those days. Two other great unofficial preachers of this period in Europe were Pierre de Brueys and Henri the monk. Both were oppressed and pursued from town to town while their powerful preaching brought notorious criminals to repentance. Although Peter Waldo was excommunicated from the official church, the popular preacher Francis of Assisi, when he began doing the same thing in the thirteenth century, was accepted by the Pope. His sincerity, humility, joy and love endeared him to all he met. His merchant father took him to court for using his money to build a church. Francis threw off his clothes saying he wanted nothing from his father or anyone else and spoke the famous phrase, “Naked I follow a naked Christ.” Fortunately there was a coarse blanket to hand to throw around him, anda rope to tie around his middle. So began a huge movement of reform amongst the ordinary believers in medieval Christendom led by the Franciscan order of brothers. It has often been said that at this time only two people tried to convert the Muslims rather then fight them as they pushed further into Europe. One was Francis and the other Rayman Lull who was stoned to death outside a North African village where, strangely, centuries later a revival started, turning many to the love of God.

The most influential radical Christian of the fourteenth century was without doubt John Wycliffe in England. He was an Oxford professor who translated the scriptures into the everyday language and sent out preachers all over England. Their preaching of the Gospel was a challenge to the corruption of the church. They were called Lollards, perhaps because of the simple way they spoke, and one historian estimated that for a while one in every two English people was a Lollard follower. Wycliffe was condemned by the ecclesiastical courts but died before he could be executed. His bones were later dug up and burnt. His influence spread to Prague where Jan Huss began to preach the same reforms and huge areas of the Bohemian church separated from Rome. He was invited to Konstanz to theological discussions with the Papal delegate. He arrived trustingly, only to be thrown into prison and later executed. The lie inveigling him was justified by the saying “one may tell lies for the good of the truth.” As we arrive into the fifteenth century, Christendom was virtually confined to Europe, which was peppered with all sorts of houses, communities, guilds and movements where purer forms of Christianity were quietly and secretly seeking to conform to the scriptures. These were proscribed by the official church and governments. The printing press, invented at this time, began to turn out protests against the official church and also translations of the Bible, so that the message of salvation was being heard on a scale hardly known for centuries. Erasmus produced the Greek text of the New Testament, which began to spread through the universities and be translated into the vernacular. He came from a movement called the Brothers of the Common Life, which began as a protest some few centuries before, but now was severely restricted by Rome though still allowed to function. The influential book by Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ came from this community. Erasmus was called the Father of the Reformation since he influenced all the three main streams which arose in the next century. Then there was a godly peasant named Peter Cheltschizki whose movement became known as the Unified Brotherhood. These refused to use violence in any shape or form, shared their possessions and for a while practised believers’ baptism. They were terribly persecuted, but a seed was to arise from them and influence the whole of Protestantism in the 18th century.

The sixteenth century was the time of reformation and schism as there had been in the 11th century when the East (Orthodox) and West (Catholic) institutional ‘official’ state churches divided. Now in the Catholic West there arose three wings: the Protestant Reformation (Luther Zwingli Calvin), the Catholic Counter Reformation church (Council of Trent) and the Radical Reformation into which flooded many of the groups of believers we have referred to in our quick historical sketch. These ‘third wing’ believers consisted of those who wished to follow the scriptures only and refused to accept that the magistrates should enforce ‘beliefs’ on the citizens. Both Catholics and Protestants called such believersAnabaptists because they re-baptised believers who had been baptised either as babies or unbelievers. For this belief Eberli Bolt was burnt at the stake in Switzerland 1525, and in 1527 Felix Manz was drowned while his mother encouraged him to stand firm. The list of martyrs is vast: Michael Sattler and his wife from Strasbourg, George Blaurock,Hubmaier and his wife, Claus Felbinger to name but a few. One of the most revealing stories is that of the young Dutchman Dirk Willems who fled from officials who came to his home to arrest him for being a believer. He fled across frozen water to safety on the opposite bank but his pursuer’s weight broke the ice. Dirk turned back saving the man from certain death. Despite his Christ-like action, the pursuer arrested him and he was tried as a heretic and burnt at the stake. He cried, “Oh my Lord, oh my God” more than seventy times before his executioner took pity on him and put him out of his agony.

In England in the seventeenth century, John Bunyan was in prison for twelve years for his faith. He had been illiterate before his conversion, but in prison, with supernatural help and dreams he wrote the famous Pilgrim’s Progress which is an allegory of the Christian life. He wrote sixty books, which were best sellers through the country, and died at sixty years of age. In prison, he took a metal strut out of his chair and made a flute. He would play it until the jailer came in, when he would push it back into the chair. The jailer, perplexed and worried, thought the noise was made by goblins and foul friends. Bunyan wrote “He who would valiant be… No hob-goblins nor foul friends shall daunt his spirit, he knows he at the end shall life inherit!” George Fox preached fervently and began to see healings and miracles as he followed the Bible. He led a movement called the Quakers or ‘Friends’ because of their experience of the Spirit and love for each other (John 13:34).

By the eighteenth century, despite the cynicism in Europe and America, the life of the believers’ church abounds with wonderful stories. The Unified Brotherhood (mentioned in the 15th century section) was persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics, nearly to extermination, but a prophecy was given that the remaining remnant would rise again. It did, by travelling to safety on the estate of Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, a godly German count. There they were called Moravians and were joined by others seeking true Christianity. They were baptised in the Spirit on Wednesday 13th August 1727. Missionaries poured forth from the community led by Zinzendorf. Two offered to sell themselves as slaves to reach the black cotton pickers of the West Indies. A prayer meeting began and continued for a hundred years. John Wesley was led to living faith in Jesus by Peter Boehler, a Moravian. Wesley transformed the British Isles by preaching Christ throughout the land, riding a quarter of a million miles on horseback, which gave him the opportunity to lead even highwaymen to Jesus. Missionaries now poured out from the Wesleyan Methodist Movement to affect William Carey, the Baptist who became the ‘father of modern missions’. His American counterpart was Adoniram Judson who went to Burma while Carey went to India.

So, the nineteenth century became known as the great missionary century for Bible-believing Christians from all denominations. Although the main persecutions had now ceased, men and women still died spreading the Gospel. Salvation Army men and women inspired by William and Catherine Booth often met with violence and sometimes death, as did the Primitive Methodists. However, more martyrs were found on the missions front. Hudson Taylor went to China at the age of twenty one and led hundreds of recruits, including single women, into the middle of China with no visible means of support. George Muller also ‘lived by faith’, telling no one directly of his needs. He managed to keep two thousand orphan children alive with many wonder stories and answers to prayer. Once, they were giving thanks at breakfast when there was no food to be eaten, and by the time they had finished the prayer, the local baker was knocking on the door with free rolls for the children. Another time, they had no money for milk, but the milk cart broke down outside the orphan house and they had to give it away to the children before it turned sour (Matt 6:8). George Muller made his first missionary trip at the age of seventy. C.T. Studd was the captain of the England cricket team and preached Christ in China, India and Africa ignoring doctor’s orders. He said, “If Jesus Christ is God and died for me, no sacrifice I make is too great for him.” Mary Slessor, a missionary in Nigeria looked a lion in the face and told it to go home – and it did!

And what can be said of the twentieth century? There are so many great names in the biblical family of God, the church. Smith Wigglesworth, a pioneer in healing in Jesus’ name, and William Burton who helped plant 1600 churches in Central Africa. Watchman Nee planted 700 churches in ten years in China and was to spend many years in prison for his faith not knowing how many of his messages were put into books and sent around the earth. Sadhu Sundar Singh journeyed many times into Tibet and suffered much for Jesus, experiencing miracles of escape from prison and sharing Christ with love. Corrie ten Boom who sheltered Jews during the Nazi occupation was tortured in a concentration camp but learned to forgive her guard through Christ. Billy Graham preached to millions by satellite. The church has penetrated into the majority of the 12,000 ethnic linguistic groups, while there have been more martyrs for Christ in the 20th century than all the other centuries put together. There have always been and still are true believers in traditional mainline churches, and many such churches are discovering their roots. Thus we are one with all true believers in the world. However, our hearts still identify with this stream of believers – the Anabaptists and other radicals; when we read of them we feel we have come home! “And this good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the world and then the end shall come.”

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