30: The Montanists

Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me.

Mark 9:39

From the earliest times the Church was one body, not only in spirit but in visible unity also. This one visible body was known as the Catholic Church or the universal body of Christ, and was quite distinct from the body which would arise centuries later that would became known as the Roman Catholic Church.

This visible body was ruptured by a movement known as the Montanists who emerged during the closing years of the Second Century.

Montanism, named after the founder Montanus, emerged in the region occupied by the cities of Laodeceia, Thyatira and Colossae. He and the female prophetesses who accompanied him, claimed special spiritual gifts, which were not unlike modern day Pentecostalism. The rather extreme and excessive behaviours of the Montanists led to a number of bishops declaring them to be heretics.

The judgement of history is much more favourable. Over time the Montanist movement grew, receiving adherents in places far from its original base like North Africa, Rome and France. Their great advocate was Tertullian through whose writings we obtain our greatest insight of their thinking and theology. The Montanists were orthodox in theology espousing Trinitarianism long before the Nicene Creed was produced. Their key points of difference with the wider Church was their insistence that the gifts of Spirit associated with the Apostolic age were not finished. They believed in a millennial reign, teaching that the return of Christ was imminent. This may well have led to the movement’s demise, like others who have attempted to fix a time on the second advent. They were zealous and devout to the point of being excessive in their fastings especially. Their zeal, like one named Apollos, was at times without knowledge.

The Montanists give us our first sight of the development of what we know call denominations within the Church of Christ. They were no doubt a reaction to what they perceived to be a growing coldness within the body of the Church as the Apostles became more distant over the passage of time. As a result they swung the pendulum too far back in another direction towards emotionalism, experience and extra revelations. They weren’t the first to move in this direction and they won’t be the last. Yet still they remain our brothers and sisters in Christ with all of their flaws.

From sorrow, toil, and pain, 
And sin, we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

John Fawcett

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