Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Petr Chelćickỳ

Practical Christianity

For the past two months my head has been occupied with number crunching to the point that there was little opportunity for wordsmithing. Income tax season officially ends tomorrow and I think I have finished anything pertaining to that for this year. Now I can try to capture and organize the thoughts that have been hiding in the corners of my mind.

Christian news media report that 26 million Americans stopped reading the Bible regularly during COVID19 and that thousands of pastors are nearing burnout. What has gone wrong? Is God letting us down?

I wonder if much of the problem might be an impractical view of how Christianity should work. Some 800 years ago Petr Chelćickỳ lamented that the collusion of emperor and pope had created a situation where there was no discernable difference between the people within the church and those without. How common is such a situation in our day?

Some years ago, a friend who was a pastor in one of Canada’s most liberal denominations told me he thought there were seven or eight real Christians in his congregation. He didn’t name them, but I thought a few of the older people in his church still had spiritual life. How does one pastor a church like that without burning out?

Whie visitng Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts thirty years ago, the man playing the role of Samuel Fuller told me. “The church hierarchy in England says that we are not a legitimate church, because we have no ministers. A church is made up of Christian people; they don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?” The Congregational churches of my New England forefathers soon declined to much the same state.

What would practical Christianity look like? Firstly, and most importantly, a church could not be a mixed multitude of saved and unsaved. The unsaved should feel welcome to attend. They should feel drawn to come and find out what this is all about, but to include them in the membership undermines the very foundation of the church.

Secondly, and as a corollary of the first point, the functioning of the church would not be totally dependent upon the ordained ministry. If all members are born-again Christians, then all share responsibility for the life of the church.

Thirdly, pastors are necessary. But what kind of pastors? A tentmaker like Paul is better than someone who views a costly lifestyle as evidence of his success. The biblical qualifications for the ministry are heavy on faithfulness in doctrine, in lifestyle, in family life and in hospitality. Such a pastor will no doubt face opposition and difficulties at times, but will also feel the love, respect and support of those he serves.

Does that sound like an impractical dream? I believe it is highly practical and to to attempt to do church in any other way is doomed to dissension, decline and eventual failure.

Seventeen hundred years ago

Seventeen hundred years ago, Christianity became a religion that conquered opponents by use of a literal sword rather than the sword of the Spirit.  The night of October 27, 312 AD, Constantine saw a cross of light in the sky, accompanied by the words, “by this sign, you shall conquer.”  Constantine immediately had the shields of his soldiers emblazoned with the Chi-Rho symbol, the first two letters of Christ in Greek.  The next day his troops won a great victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge and Christianity became the state religion of his empire.

From this point on, most historians only treat of the imperial form of Christianity born at Milvian Bridge and consider all other forms of Christianity as heresy.  Yet this Imperial Christianity represents a radical departure from the teachings of Jesus, and the apostles and faith and life of the primitive church.

Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, wrote: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”  But now the state church became the persecutor.

The primitive church believed that Jesus Christ was the only head of the church.  Jesus told his disciples: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.  But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;  And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.”  (Matthew 20:25-27).  This ideal of servant leadership was abandoned by the state churches, in favour of heaping honour, riches and power upon church leaders.

The state churches, Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox, all adopted the dogma held by pagan empires that allowing a diversity of religious faith in the realm would be subversive of social order.  All did their utmost to stamp out any remnants of the original, humble Christian faith.  What did they gain?  Wealth, pomp and power, and a church membership that was Christian in name only.

The Net of Faith, by Czech theologian Petr Chelčický, appeared about 570 years ago.  He wrote that the net of faith was cast into the sea of the world to gather in those who were truly Christians.  He wrote that the Pope and the Emperor were two great whales who had swum through the net, tearing great holes in it, so that now there was no difference between those inside the net and those outside.

A hundred or so years later, Menno Simons wrote: “O my faithful reader, ponder this.  As long as the world distributes splendid houses and such large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be there by droves.”

Menno believed that there were many true believers in the state churches, but accused the churches themselves of being worldly organizations whose nature and actions were contrary to true faith.  “Reader, understand what I mean.  We do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen ones of God, in the before-mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias; but our dispute is in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.”

I prefer to identify with this form of Christianity, which at first was taught by the apostles and believed and lived by the first Christians, rather than with the corrupted form introduced by Constantine.

English Christianity – Part 7

What is there to learn from this tracing of the tangled threads of church history? First, that God is able to work in wonderful and mysterious ways to bring the Gospel to people. This would accord with our Saviour’s statement in Luke 9:50 that “he that is not against us is for us”. Wherever the Gospel is preached and souls are saved, this is the work of God. Secondly, that often the work of God at a particular time and place lasts but one generation. This bears witness to Jesus’ statement in Luke 11:23 that “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.”  Often both verses could apply to the same individual. They are preaching the Gospel and souls are being saved, but at the same time they are not gathering believers together, but rather dividing them from one another.

Whenever a leader is not willing to subject himself to fellow believers, it divides the children of God. Whenever a group of believers unite on the basis of culture or social status rather than Gospel, it divides them from fellow believers. When ceremonies or outward forms become the basis of church affiliation, church members can only fellowship with one another on the basis of those practices, anything else would be subversive of their unity. When converted and unconverted are baptised alike, the true Christians are deprived of spiritual fellowship. When personal experiences give new light on the Scriptures, rather than allowing the Scriptures to shed light on the experiences, it divides believers from one another. God is not the author of confusion. The Spirit of God can be trusted to draw believers together, if they are willing to forsake all teachings and traditions of men.

One does not have to doubt the authenticity of various revival movements of the past and present. But it can be noted that these movements have little staying power. John Wesley’s followers came from the poorly educated and desperately poor working class of his day. The Gospel literally transformed their lives, and as they cast off the vices to which they had previously looked for solace in their misery, they began to prosper. Wesley looked at the results in alarm as he saw that their children, raised in a more prosperous setting than their parents, were more interested in the things of this world than in spiritual things.

Two individuals stand out in my mind in this whole happy and sad account. Petr Chelčický who told people to dig and search for the old foundation rather than taking some piece of rubble to be the foundation. And John Smyth who sometimes appeared to act rashly on the light he had, but always remained willing to obey when further light was revealed to him. This is the way that God can gather believers together.

Almost forty years ago my wife and I attended a series of revival meetings sponsored by all the evangelical churches in the medium sized city where we then lived. The messages that we heard night after night emphasized the need of personal cleansing. A Christian cannot prosper or effectively serve God if he neglects to deal with the sin in his own life. Our hearts were touched by the messages. But we looked around us and wondered what would happen to us and to others who were revived? I was acquainted with people from many of these churches and knew that every one had serious internal controversies and dissensions.  Not to mention the doctrinal differences between denominations.  At that time there were eleven different denominations in that city which could be classed as evangelical.  Today that number would stand closer to twenty.  Why didn’t the evangelists address the same message to the churches that they did to individuals?  How long will a revived Christian be able to stand in an unrevived church?  Was there any hope for a genuine revival in these churches?  Sadly I had to conclude that the answer was no. From their very beginning they had been founded on some piece of overgrowth, not on the true foundation.


Broadbent, Edmund Hamer. The Pilgrim Church. Glasgow, Scotland: Pickering & Inglis, 1931.

Coggins, James Robert. John Smyth’s Congregation. Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1991.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1958.

Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1963.

Powell, Sumner Chilton. Puritan Village. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1963.

The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Mennonite Publishing House, 1956. (Articles on England and John Smyth.)

Trevelyan, George Macaulay. England in the Age of Wycliffe. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 4th edition, 1909.

Van Braght, Thieleman J. The Martyrs Mirror. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press.

Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964.

Verduin, Leonard. The Anatomy of a Hybrid. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976.

Wagner, Murray L. Petr Chelčický. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1983.

Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945.

English Christianity – Part 2

The writings of John Wycliffe reached as far as Bohemia, where they were adopted, at least in part, by Jan Hus. Hus was appointed rector of the University of Prague in 1401 and chaplain of Bethlehem Chapel in Prague in 1402. Hus preached in the Czech language and strongly attacked the corruption of the Catholic church. In 1414 the German Emperor Sigismund called a church council at Constance to reform the church and settle the question of which of three competing popes should be recognized as the true pope. Hus was promised safe conduct by the emperor, but was captured by one of the popes, condemned for heresy and burned at the stake. Peter Payne, an English Lollard, turned up in Prague about the same time, after spending some time among the German Waldenses. Peter Payne became known as Petr Engliš and became the interpreter of Wyckliffe to the followers of Hus. Divisions soon developed among the Hussites on the point of how much they could accommodate themselves to Catholic teachings for the sake of peace, and all parties eventually got drawn into the use of arms to support or defend their particular views.

In the Bohemian countryside, in the town of Chelčice, lived another Petr, known to us as Petr Chelčický. This Petr was a freehold farmer with little formal education. It is quite probable that the two Petrs will have had discussions together. But one had moved from peaceable Lollardy to the more militant Hussite view. The other had dropped out of the Hussite movement to proclaim by his writings the old Waldensian doctrine of the peaceable and pure church of believers.

Petr Chelčický wrote that the Bohemians were like people who had come to a house that had burnt down many years ago and tried to find the foundations. The ruins had become overgrown with different sorts of growths and people took these for the foundation and proclaimed that this is the way that all should go. Another may perhaps take a different growth for the foundation. How much better it would be if all could see that the old foundation had become lost among the ruins and then would dig and search for it and build upon it. The “Net of Faith” is a metaphor for the Church of God, where the believers are separated from the other fish in the ocean by this net of faith. But two whales, the Pope and the Emperor, have forced their way into the net, tearing great holes in it and mangling it so that only a few threads of the original net are now visible. Now there is no difference between being inside the net or outside.

After the death of Chelčický several small communities of believers grouped together as the Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren), or Jednota Bratskrâ (Church of the Brotherhood) and sought ordination for their leaders from a Waldensian bishop in Austria. But with toleration came a trend to greater formality in worship and the acceptance of civil offices. By the 1500’s their enhanced position in society brought a renewal of persecution. After more than a century during which they sometimes had to hide or flee and sometimes experienced times of peace, they took up arms to defend themselves and were decisively defeated, effectively destroying the Bohemian Brethren.

Years later, in 1690, a small group of Moravian refugees gathered under the protection of Count Zinzendorf in Germany. They were organized as an independent body within the Lutheran church. Later, in more tolerant times, they became completely independent. From the first this new Moravian Brethren church had a strong missionary emphasis.

The Foundation of an Enduring Church

“Nothing else is sought in this book but that we, who come last, desire to see the first things and wish to return to them in so far as God enables us.  We are like people who have come to a house that has been burnt down and try to find the original foundations.  This is the more difficult in that the ruins are grown over with all sorts of growths, and many think that these growths are the foundation, and say, ‘This is the foundation’ and ‘This is the way in which all must go,’ and others repeat it after them.  So that in the novelties that have grown up they think to have found the foundation, whereas they have found something quite different from, and contrary to, the true foundation.  This makes the search more difficult, for if all said, ‘the old foundation has been lost among the ruins’, then many would begin to dig and search for it and really begin a true work of building upon it, as Nehemiah and Zerubbabel did after the destruction of the temple.  It is much more difficult now to restore the spiritual ruins, so long fallen down, and get back to the former state, for which no other foundation can be laid than Jesus Christ, from whom the many have turned away and turned to other gods and made foundations of them.”
-Petr Chelćickỳ, The Net of Faith, 1440 AD

“Reader, understand what I mean; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen ones of God, in the before mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias; but our dispute is, in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.”
-Menno Simons, Reply to Gellius Faber, 1554 AD

These writings are hundreds of years old, yet are very pertinent to the situation Christians find themselves in today.  What about the church that I am attending?  Is it built on the true foundation that will provide a safe spiritual home for me and my children?

In their writings, Petr Chelćickỳ and Menno Simons mentioned often that no other foundation than Jesus Christ will do for the church.  But what would such a church be like?  The following excerpt, also from Menno’s Reply to Gellius Faber, gives one part of the answer.

“The second sign is the right and Scriptural use of the sacraments of Christ, namely, the baptism of those who, by faith, are born of God, sincerely repent, who bury their sins in Christ’s death, and arise with him in newness of life; who circumcise the foreskin of their hearts with the circumcision of Christ, which is done without hands; who put on Christ, and have a clear conscience, Tit. 3:5; Rom. 5:4; Col. 3:11; 1 Pet. 3:21.  Again, the dispensing of the Lord’s Holy Supper to the penitent, who are flesh of Christ’s flesh, who seek grace, reconciliation and the remission of their sins in the merits of the death and blood of the Lord, who walk with their brethren in love, peace and unity, who are led by the Spirit of the Lord, into all truth and righteousness, and who prove, by their fruits, that they are the church and people of Christ.  Where baptism is practised without the command and word of Christ, as those do who not only baptize without faith, but also without reason and consciousness; where the power and representation of baptism, namely, dying unto sin, the new life, the circumcision of the heart, etc., are not only not upheld, but also quite hated by those of mature age; and where the bread and wine are dispensed to the avaricious, pompous and impenitent; where salvation is sought in mere elements, words and ceremonies, and where a life is led contrary to all love, there is the church of antichrist; this all intelligent persons must admit.  For it is manifest that they reject Christ, the Son of God, his word and ordinance, and place in its stead their own ordinance and works, and thus establish an abomination and idolatry.”

In other words, every member must have been born again and have a living relationship with Jesus Christ before being added to the church.  The church must be maintained in this condition, and it would be a mockery to observe the Lord’s Holy Supper unless this faith and love is alive among the members.  This is the kind of church that we must seek to find.

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