The History of the Church of God

(A Connecting Link)

Part 5


WE PICK up the story of the people of God in Armenia in Asia Minor. By the ninth century persecuted commandment-keeping Christians and other sectarians-called in history Paulicians could no longer safely remain in the remote regions of Armenia. The rise to power of Islam in the Middle East and the power of the Byzantine church in Asia Minor virtually formed a pincer.

Faithful believers were forced to seek shelter in another region far to the west, in the Balkans. More specifically Bulgaria.

Before we pick up their trail in Bulgaria, where they became known as Bogomils, we need to look at some of the important religious and political events that shaped the world during much of the first millennium after the time of Jesus.

Decline of the Roman Empire

As the fifth century of the modern era began, all was not well In the Roman Empire. Years of decline led to the ultimate collapse of the greatest political empire in the history of the world to that time.

Outside forces-Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Heruli, Vandals and others-overpowered the Romans. The western capital of the great empire fell in A.D. 476.

However, the power of the Christian church remained strong. Earlier that century the bishop at Rome, Leo I, met the conquering Attila and convinced him not to sack the city. Rome was spared. The bishop's strength did not go unnoticed.

The church at Rome was poised to become one of the most important forces in world affairs.

In A.D. 554, with the official recognition of the church at Rome, the eastern Roman emperor, Justinian, completed the formal restoration of the empire in the West. The church and the state would work hand in hand.

Many would speak out against the system. About 1,000 years later real and alleged abuses would cause a great split in the official Christian world in the West. Martin Luther would begin a protest or reform movement that would reshape the religious scene. We'll see what happened in a later chapter.

A Religious Philosophy Emerges

Another important incident in the latter half of the fourth century was the conversion to Christianity of a brilliant young orator named Augustine.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica emphasizes his historic importance to the Church:

"No single name has ever exercised such power over the Christian Church, and no one mind ever made so deep an impression upon Christian thought.... The judgment of Catholics still proclaims the ideas of Augustine as the only sound basis of philosophy" (11th edition, volume II, page 910).

Augustine was born in North Africa, the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother. Young Augustine was educated at the University of Carthage. nHis first impression of the Bible was that it was full of contradictions.

While at Carthage a woman he took as his mistress bore him a son. He began to struggle against the sexual temptations surrounding him. Life and its meaning became confusing.

Augustine moved to Italy to continue his studies. There he met Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who was instrumental in his conversion.

As Augustine struggled to find the meaning of life, he came upon two passages of Scripture that were to change his direction.

The first recorded Christ's words to the rich ruler: "Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me" (Mark 10:21, New King James; see also Luke 18:22).

The second scripture encouraged Christians to be found "not in revelry and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and lewdness, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts" (Romans 13:13-14).

Augustine's discoveries led to his conversion to Christianity. He thereafter formulated his dominant theological positions-to live in austerity and celibacy.

These philosophies would become an important part of Catholic theology, leading to the establishment of monastic orders and priestly celibacy. Augustine was not the first to expound these principles, but he was a dominant force in establishing them.

Augustine came to believe that sex, other than for procreation, was sin. This teaching is still controversial in religious circles.

The masterpiece of Augustine's written works was The City of God, in which he combated the belief of the pagans that Rome was destroyed because the people gave up paganism for Christianity.

Augustine's thesis was that the church on earth is both the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of heaven.

An application of this concept has been at least partly responsible for the Crusades waged on behalf of the church. Later it would have a major effect on Christianity in Europe.

The Church in Bulgaria

Now let us return to those small groups of scattered Christians who fled from Armenia to south-eastern Europe to teach what they knew of God's truth.

In history these (and other) people are often called Bogomils. Different theories exist as to the origin of this name.

James Hastings, in his Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, says of the Bogomils:

"The origin of the name has been usually found in the frequent use by them of the two Slavic words Bog milui, `Lord, have mercy.' A more likely explanation derives it from Bogumil, `Beloved of God,' in which case it may be taken to denote the idea of a pious community analogous to the (later) `Friends of God' in Germany.

"But not less probable is its derivation from a personal name. Two early Bulgarian MSS [manuscripts] have been discovered which are confirmatory of each other in the common point that a `pope' [leader] Bogomile was the first to promulgate the `heresy' in the vulgar [common] tongue under Bulgarian Tsar Peter, who ruled from 927 to 968. This would seem to afford a surer clue to the name, and (if correct) puts back the active emergence of the movement to the middle of the 10th century" (volume 2, page 784).

Accurate Information Is Scarce

It is difficult to accurately trace the history of these small and often persecuted groups, as explained in an Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Bogomils:

"It is a complicated task to determine the true character and the tenets of any ancient sect, considering that almost all the information that has reached us has come from the opponents" (volume IV, page 119).

In the depths of
the Middle Ages,
learning was
suppressed and
books like the
Bible were rare.

To further emphasize that point, historian V. Raymond Edman writes in The Light in Dark Ages:

"The history of the Bogomils, the `Friends of God,' in Thrace, Bulgaria and Bosnia, and elsewhere in Europe, is even more difficult to trace than is that of their antecedents, the Paulicians. They kept few records, and these were almost entirely obliterated by their inveterate foes [the Orthodox Church]. They later wrote their own invidious interpretation of these simple and devout disciples of the Paulicians in the Balkans whose manner of life was a rebuke to their contemporaries" (page 296).

With that in mind, the Britannica says of these fascinating people:

"The Bogomils were without doubt the connecting link between the so-called heretical [in the eyes of their persecutors] sects of the East and those of the West. They were, moreover, the most active agents in disseminating such teachings in Russia and among all the nations of Europe. They may have found in some places a soil already prepared by more ancient tenets which had been preserved in spite of the persecution of the official Church" (volume IV, page 119).

When the Bogomils arrived in various regions, they may have found later generations of peoples taught by the original apostles of Jesus. The biblical record does not preserve the works of most of the apostles. But we do know they were commissioned to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ even to the world beyond the Greco-Roman cultural area.

These little-known Christians in Europe before the time of the Bogomils could have been remnants of faithful believers who were converted during and after the ministry of Paul. Prophecy shows Christians who kept God's commandments and believed in the gospel of the kingdom of God would be found in the wilderness for 1,260 years (Revelation 12:6).

The Bogomils developed various forms of the following beliefs:

1) They were the direct successors of the apostles and rejected contact with mainstream Christianity.

2) No baptism of infants.

3) Denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that in the communion the bread and wine literally become, by divine miracle, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. (This doctrine has been a source of difference for centuries.)

They contended (as do many sectarian Christians) that the body and blood of Christ are symbolized by the bread and wine.

4) No need existed for having church buildings in which to worship.

5) No prayers to and adoration of Mary and other saints.

In his Handbook of Church History, Samuel G. Green states these were "praying people, who had in various ways attempted to solve the mystery of evil, and to counteract the temptations of the flesh by ascetic methods, without the aid of recognized religious methods and institutions. The Bogomils worshipped in private houses and in the open air."

Additional doctrinal beliefs were these: That Satan, the firstborn son of God in the angelic realm, went astray, and that Satan created the nature of Adam and Eve. Later, God made Jesus, who overcame Satan and qualified to rule.

Bogomils used primarily the Psalms, the Prophets and the New Testament.

What we know of the Bogomils' teachings comes from what their enemies wrote about them-not from their own works.

Isolated as they were, it is certain they did not understand some points of biblical truth we are privileged to understand today. The world was in a period when learning was suppressed and books like the Bible were rare.

Even more surprising is that they could understand as much as they did. Faithful in spite of the odds against them, their zeal remains an inspiration to this day.

An Inspiring Example

One of the most inspiring examples of zeal and dedication from this period is the story of a Bogomil minister named Basil.

He was so active that the emperor, Alexius Comnenus, decided to handle matters personally regarding him. Apparently the growing work of Basil and his coworkers troubled the Eastern emperor.

Following the example of the early Church, Basil had 12 fellow ministers with him.

The emperor contrived to entrap Basil. First he arrested one of the Bogomil leaders, who confessed Basil was the head of the movement.

Pretending he wanted to learn more of Basil's teachings, the emperor brought the Bogomil leader to his palace with great flattery. A fine meal was prepared and Basil was asked to discuss his many beliefs.

For a long time the emperor listened attentively while Basil expounded the mysteries of God's word.

It was all a plot. The emperor flung open a curtain to reveal a scribe who had recorded every word. Basil had told nothing but the truth as he perceived it, though it was in various ways contrary to official beliefs. By his own words he was condemned.

Alexius then ordered all Bogomils who would not recant be burned alive. Among those was Basil-one of many faithful believers willing to give their lives for the way of life they professed.

could not
stamp out the
people of
God-in that or
any other age.

Persecution could not stamp out the people of God-not in that or any other age. Still hiding in the wilderness, they moved steadily westward, where they found various groups-labelled as heretics in history books.

The Church That Would Not Die

The name changes. Sometimes called by the name of a leading personality, other times by a doctrine and at other times by a region where they lived, the small and persecuted Church that kept the commandments struggled to survive.

In the westward expansion, various groups of Christians and sectarians were called Albigenses (after the name of the French town of Albi), Cathars, Bulgarians, Paterenes, Passagi, Publicani and various other names.

It would be incorrect to conclude that all these isolated and differing groups represented faithful descendants of the original Church-certainly not the Albigenses. But among these persecuted groups, true beliefs survived.

Of the Bogomils, the 11 th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

"The popes in Rome whilst leading the Crusade against the Albigenses [about A.D. 1100] did not forget their counterpart in the Balkans and recommended the annihilation of the heretics.

"The Bogomils spread westward, and settled first in Servia [now Yugoslavia]; but at the end of the 12th century, Stephen Nemanya, king of Servia, persecuted them and expelled them from the country. Large numbers took refuge in Bosnia, where they were known under the name of Paterenes or Patareni" (volume IV, page 120).

V. Raymond Edman describes these times:

"Because of persecution and also because of missionary zeal to propagate their faith the Bogomils began to settle elsewhere in Europe, or to travel as merchants or artisans in Italy, France and Germany.... Some remained in the mountain fastnesses of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia, and during the centuries of Turkish rule received more consideration than had been their lot under Byzantium....

"Over the long centuries of medieval darkness and bloodshed they had some light from the Word, albeit with much error. They were Bogomil candles in the spiritual blackness of the Balkans much as the earlier Paulicians in Armenia and Syria had been bearers of the lamp of Life" (The Light in Dark Ages, pages 296-297).

The times the Bogomils struggled in to preserve the word of God were the darkest of the Middle Ages. However, an even greater light was about to shine in the wilderness

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