Chapter 3
The Church in the Wilderness

In the aftermath of the Council of Nicea, Emperor Constantine and his successors sought to stamp out all non-conforming brands of Christianity. Groups which refused to conform to the teachings and practices of the "established" church, which now called itself the Catholic (universal) Church of God, were viewed not merely as heretics, but as subversive enemies of the Roman state.

The true Church, symbolized by a woman in Revelation 12, was forced to flee into the wilderness for 1,260 "days." In Bible prophecy, a "day" often represents a year (Num. 14:34; Ezek. 4:6). Thus, the true Church would have to remain in hiding for 1,260 years following the Nicene Council. Historically, that is what happened. In this chapter of Church history, we are going to examine the story of God's people from the Late Antiquity period into the Middle Ages. Though these were truly dark ages, there was a light which continued to burn. Its flame sometimes flickered, but it was never extinguished.

Several problems confront any church scholar or historian who wishes to trace the wanderings of the true Church during this 1,260-year period. This is because the true Church's history is not about one continuous human organization. The preserved history of the Sabbath-keeping Church of God has been almost entirely written by its enemies who viewed it as heretical. We read of groups labeled by hostile outsiders with such names as Paulicians, Bogomils and Waldenses--of whom smaller or larger segments of these groups, at different times, appear to have been true Christians in the mold of the Jerusalem Church of God in the first century A.D. Another difficulty is that the teachings of each of these groups changed over a period of time, generally becoming more like those of their Catholic and Protestant neighbors.

Also we find that writers often lumped together various groups of "heretics," including the true Church, under the same name, not truly distinguishing the differences in their teachings. As Dean Blackwell succinctly put it in his 1973 thesis, A Handbook of Church History, "The big problem in church history is to find out when the church ceased being the true church and when God removed that church to another place, which we'll see that He did" (p. 7).

The Church Flees to the Wilderness

During the first three centuries of its existence, the Church of God faced intermittent periods of harsh persecution. However, during those times, they were not singled out, but were generally lumped in with the Jews and a wide range of Christ-professing sects. Those persecutions were of limited duration and local in scope. The Roman Emperor Diocletian, from 303 to 313 A.D., unleashed the worst of these pre-Council of Nicea persecutions. These are the "ten days" referred to in Revelation 2:10.

When Constantine consolidated his power in the Empire, things changed significantly. Gibbon tells us that Constantine's religious devotion was "peculiarly directed toward the genius of the Sun... and he was pleased to be represented with the symbols of the God of Light and Poetry. The unerring shafts of that deity, the brightness of his eyes... seem to point him out as the patron of a young hero. The altars of Apollo were crowned with the votive offerings of Constantine; and the credulous multitude were taught to believe that the emperor was permitted to behold with mortal eyes the visible majesty of their tutelar deity.... The Sun was universally celebrated as the invincible guide and protector of Constantine" (The Triumph of Christendom, p. 309).

Four years prior to the Council of Nicea, Constantine proclaimed a law for the Roman Empire that was to have far-reaching implications for God's people. "The earliest recognition of the observance of Sunday as a legal duty is a constitution of Constantine in 321 A.D., enacting that all courts of justice, inhabitants of towns, and workshops were to be at rest on Sunday (venerabili die solis, i.e., venerable day of the Sun).... This was the first of a long series of imperial constitutions, most of which are incorporated in the Code of Justinian." About forty years later, the Catholic Church followed up on this imperial edict in "canon [29] of the Council of Laodicea [363 A.D.], which forbids Christians from Judaizing and resting on the Sabbath day, and actually enjoins them to work on that day" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., "Sunday").

The very fact that, in the latter fourth century, the Roman Church felt the need to legislate against Sabbath observance shows that faithful remnants, particularly in Asia Minor, persevered in the Truth. This increasingly powerful church insisted that all must now accept the "Christianized" brand of Roman Sun worship. Those who refused were easily identified and could no longer function if they remained in the urban areas of the Roman Empire. Consequently, in the fourth century, those Christians labeled as Nazarenes disappeared from the populous areas of Asia Minor. For three centuries the remnants of the true Church had sojourned there, but with the enactment of this Sunday law by Constantine, they were forced to flee.

The "Paulicians" Appear in Armenia

In the fifth century, the Church appeared in remote areas of eastern Asia Minor near the Euphrates River and in the mountains of Armenia. These people were labeled by their contemporaries as "Paulicians." Who were they?

According to Armenian scholar Nina Garsoian in The Paulician Heresy, "It would, then, appear that the Paulicians are to be taken as the survival of the earlier form of Christianity in Armenia" (p. 227). The author also states that the Paulicians were "accused of being worse than other sects because of adding Judaism" (p. 213).

The accusation of "adding Judaism" has been a common charge against the remnants of God's true Church down through the centuries. As was detailed in the preceding chapter, this line of attack had its origins with the second century Catholic Church fathers, especially Ignatius, Barnabas of Alexandria and Justin Martyr. To this day, the world does not discern the genuine differences between "Judaism" and the religion practiced by the Jerusalem Church of God in the first century A.D. Their common practices in observing the Sabbath and Holy Days made them indistinguishable to most outside observers.

Christ's message to this third stage of God's Church (Paulicians) is characterized by the Church at Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17). The word Pergamos means "fortified," and the Church members of this era were noted for dwelling in remote, mountainous areas. In Revelation 2:13, Christ said of the Pergamos Church that they dwell where Satan's seat is. Pergamum was a center of the ancient Babylonian mystery religion. In 133 B.C., Attalus III, the last "god-king" of Pergamum, died and in his will bequeathed his kingdom and his title, Pontifex Maximus ("Supreme Bridge-builder" between man and God), to the Romans. The Roman rulers took the title and held it until Emperor Gratian bestowed it on Pope Damascus in 378 A.D. The Catholic popes continue to use that title to this day. Also, historically, the term "Satan's seat" alludes back to Nimrod's ancient kingdom which, in distant antiquity, included Armenia and the upper Euphrates (Gen. 10). The Pergamos Church--the Paulicians--geographically relocated to that same area after Constantine enforced Sunday keeping on the Roman Empire.

As far back as the fifth century, we find the Paulicians condemned as heretics in Catholic documents. However, the first prominent leader among them with whose name we are familiar is Constantine of Mananali (c. 620-681 A.D.). Constantine of Mananali was a well-educated man who was given a copy of the Scriptures. When he began to study them, he was amazed at what he found. About 654 A.D. he began to preach, helping to revitalize the Church. Prior to Constantine of Mananali's ministry, most of the Church membership consisted of descendants of Christians who had fled Greece and Asia Minor over two centuries earlier. They preserved the names of their original congregations and continued to refer to themselves as the "church of Ephesus" or the "church of Macedonia" though they were located hundreds of miles from the original sites.

Constantine of Mananali was executed by Byzantine (Eastern Roman) soldiers commanded by an officer known as Simeon in 681 A.D. Simeon was so overwhelmed by the example and teachings of Constantine that, in 684 A.D., he returned, not as a Roman soldier, but as a convert. Simeon became a zealous Paulician preacher and he, in turn, was martyred three years later in 687 A.D.

In 1828 the manuscript of an ancient book entitled The Key of Truth was discovered in Armenia. Portions of the book date to 800 A.D. and it provides us with the greatest detail of the teachings of the Paulicians. Translated into English by Fred Coneybeare around the beginning of this century, we learn from it that the Paulicians assailed the use of the cross in worship and religious art, calling it a cursed implement. They condemned warfare and observed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. The Paulicians rejected the claims of the Catholic Church to be the Church of God along with papal claims of "apostolic succession" and other pretensions. They regarded the Trinity, purgatory and intercession of the saints as unscriptural.

In the introduction that he wrote for the English translation of The Key of Truth, Dr. Coneybeare provides invaluable historical background on the practices of the early Paulicians. "We also know from a notice preserved in Ananias of Shirak that the Pauliani, who were the same people at an earlier date, were Quartodecimans, and kept Easter in the primitive manner at the Jewish date. John of Otzun's language perhaps implies that the old believers in Armenia during the seventh century were Quartodecimans, as we should expect them to be" (Coneybeare, intro., clii). Dr. Coneybeare further states, "The Sabbath was perhaps kept and there were no special Sunday observances" (p., cxiii). He goes on to say of the Paulicians that "they were probably the remnant of an old Judeo-Christian Church, which had spread up through Edessa into Siuniq and Albania" (p., clxii).

At some point in their history, however, many Paulicians succumbed to a fatal error. They reasoned that they could outwardly conform with many of the practices of the Catholic Church in order to avoid persecution as long as in their heart they knew better. This road of compromise led many to have their children christened and others to attend mass. Christ prophesied of this, admonishing the Church at Pergamos about those who held to pagan, immoral doctrines (Rev. 2:14-15). The result of their compromising was that Christ allowed severe persecution to come upon them. When persecution came, some of the beleaguered Paulicians decided that the solution to their trouble lay in entering into an alliance with the Moslem Arabs who were then making serious incursions into the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. Controversies among the Paulicians during these years created various splits in the group.

Prior to 800 A.D., a leading Church personality, a man named Baanes, came to the leadership of the Paulicians in Armenia and promulgated a doctrine of military retaliation. Shortly thereafter, another church minister named Sergius became prominent within the Paulicians. Because Sergius condemned warfare, disagreeing with the position taken by Baanes, he was accused of causing a schism within the group. But, in spite of difficulties, Sergius' ministry lasted over 30 years. After his death, however, most of his followers began to take part in warfare as well.

Rise of the Bogomils

In the eighth and ninth centuries, many Armenian Paulicians were forcibly resettled in the Balkans by Byzantine emperors. They were placed there as a bulwark against the invading Bulgar tribes. Relocated to the Balkans, the Paulicians came to be called 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,"... 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 [A.D.] to 968 [A.D.] [James Hastings, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 2, p. 784].

What did these Bogomils teach? "Baptism was only to be practiced on grown men and women... images and crosses were idols..." (Encyc. Britannica, 11th ed., "Bogomils"). They also taught that prayer should be done at home, not in separate buildings such as churches. They taught that the congregation consisted of the "elect" and that each individual should seek to attain the perfection of Christ. Their ministry is said to have gone about healing the sick and casting out demons.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries many Bogomils spread westward and settled in Serbia. Later, large numbers took refuge in Bosnia by the end of the twelfth century. These Bogomils were "only one version of a group of related heretical sects that flourished across Asia Minor and southern Europe during the Middle Ages under a variety of names, the best-known being the Patarenes, Cathars and Albigensians" (Encyc. Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 29, p. 1,098). They were condemned as heretics due to their belief that "the world is governed by two principles, good and evil, and human affairs are shaped by the conflict between them; the whole visible world is given over to Satan" (Encyc. Britannica, p. 1,098). From their Balkan base, the Bogomils' influence, initially fostered by a merchant's trading network, extended into Piedmont in Italy and also southern France.

What were these Bogomil "colonies" in the Piedmont and Lombard areas of Italy and southern France teaching? First, they thought that the law of Moses ought to be observed under the New Testament with the exception of sacrifices and accordingly, they practiced circumcision and believed they should abstain from the meats prohibited by Moses. They observed the Sabbath of the Jews and the like. Secondly, they corrupted [i.e. rejected] the doctrine of three persons in the divine nature (John von Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern, vol. 2, pp. 463-465, 477-478).

But the Bogomil position in Bosnia was tenuous due to their challenges to the authority of the established church. "Both Roman Catholic and Orthodox powers had conducted sustained campaigns of persecution against the Bogomils, and [Ottoman] Turkish promises of freedom found a responsive hearing among them.... Large numbers of Bogomils accepted Islam, however, and they were followed by a significant proportion of the aristocracy, who saw in conversion the opportunity to retain their lands and titles" (Encyc. Britannica, 15th ed., p. 1,100). In 1463 Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan, conquered Bosnia with the help of compromising Bogomils. One of the surprising facts of history is that some of the Bosnian Muslims under siege today in ex-Yugoslavia are the descendants of apostate Bogomils!

By the time the Ottoman Turks assumed power in Bosnia, the seeds of the Truth had spread to the Piedmont, Provencal and Alpine areas of Europe. When God's people next appear in history, they are labeled by outsiders as Cathars, Albigenses and Waldenses.

The Cathars and Waldenses

In the beginning of the twelfth century, there was a revitalization of the Truth with the raising up of the next phase of the Church under the leadership of Peter de Bruys in southeastern France. This stage in church history is characterized by the Church at Thyatira in Revelation 2. The Piedmont valleys of southeastern France were described by Pope Urban II, in 1096, as being "infested with heresy." It was from one of these valleys, the Valley Louise, that Peter de Bruys arose in 1104 and began to preach repentance. He gained many followers among the Cathars, initially, and later among the general public.

The Cathars (meaning "puritans"), among whom de Bruys originally preached, were remnants of earlier Bogomil settlements. However, by this time, most had accepted a variety of new and strange doctrines and were quite divided among themselves. His preaching, and that of his successors, brought about a revitalized Church during the first half of the twelfth century in the valleys of southeastern France. De Bruys professed to restore Christianity to its original purity. At the end of a ministry of about 20 years, he was burned at the stake. In rapid succession after him, there arose two other strong ministers, Arnold and Henri.

After the death of Henri in 1149, the Church languished and seemed to go into eclipse. A few years later a wealthy merchant in Lyons, Peter Waldo, was struck down by an unusual circumstance and began preaching the Gospel in 1161. After being shocked into contemplating the real meaning of life as a result of the sudden death of a close friend, Waldo obtained a copy of the Scriptures and began studying God's Word. He was soon shocked to find that the Scriptures taught the very opposite of much of what he had learned during his Catholic upbringing.

Historian Peter Allix, quoting from an old Waldensian document, The Noble Lesson, tells us: "The author upon supposal that the world was drawing to an end, exhorts his brethren to prayer, to watchfulness.... He repeats the several articles of the law, not forgetting that which respects idols" (Ecclesiastical History of Ancient Churches of Piedmont, pp. 231, 236-237).

Elsewhere Dr. Allix writes that the Waldensian leaders "declare themselves to be the apostles' successors, to have apostolic authority, and the keys of binding and loosing. They hold the church of Rome to be the whore of Babylon" (Ecclesiastical History, p. 175).

Peter Waldo made Lyons, France, the center of his preaching from 1161 until 1180. Then, because of persecution, he relocated to northern Italy. From about 1210 until his death seven years later, Waldo spent his time preaching in Bohemia and Germany. "Like St. Francis [of Assisi], Waldo adopted a life of poverty that he might be free to preach, but with this difference that the Waldenses preached the doctrine of Christ while the Franciscans preached the person of Christ" (Encyc. Britannica, 11th ed.).

What were some of the other doctrines taught by the Waldenses? Is there evidence that the early Waldenses were Sabbath-keepers? One of the names by which they were most anciently known was that of Sabbatati! In his 1873 work, History of the Sabbath, historian J. N. Andrews quotes from an earlier work by Swiss-Calvinist historian Goldastus written about 1600. Speaking of the Waldenses, Goldastus wrote, "Insabbatati [they were called] not because they were circumcised, but because they kept the Jewish Sabbath" (Andrews, p. 410). Dr. Andrews further refers to the testimony of Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656) who acknowledged "that many understood that they [the names Sabbatati or Insabbatati] were given to them [Waldenses] because they worshipped on the Jewish Sabbath" (p. 410). Clearly even noted Protestant scholars at the end of the Middle Ages were willing to acknowledge that many Waldenses had observed the seventh-day Sabbath.

In his 1845 work, The History of the Christian Church, William Jones wrote:

Investigators made a report to Louis XII [reigned 1498-1516], king of France, that they had visited all the parishes where the Waldenses dwelt. They had inspected all their places of worship... but they found no images, no sign of the ordinances belonging to the mass, nor any of the sacraments of the Roman church.... They kept the Sabbath day, they observed the ordinance of baptism according to the primitive church, instructed their children in the articles of the Christian faith and the commandments of God....

The Waldenses could say a great part of the Old and New Testaments by heart. They despise the sayings and expositions of holy men [Roman Catholic Church fathers], and they only plead for the test of Scripture.... The traditions of the [Roman] church are no better than the traditions of the Pharisees, and that greater stress is laid [by Rome] on the observance of human tradition than on the keeping of the law of God. They despise the Feast of Easter, and all other Roman festivals of Christ and the saints [A Handbook of Church History, pp. 234, 236-237].

Compromising Once More

There was, however, a serious problem that dogged most of the Waldensian groups through the latter Middle Ages just as it had dogged the Paulicians. This was the tendency of many to allow Catholic priests to christen their children as well as their willingness to attend mass. Knowing that such ceremonies were useless in gaining salvation, many felt that outward conformity with Rome would avoid persecution and allow them to privately practice the Truth. This tendency was prophesied of the Church in Thyatira in Revelation 2:20-24. From God's standpoint, what they were doing amounted to spiritual fornication and partaking of Catholic communion was "eating things sacrificed to idols."

What happened to the Waldenses? "Waldenses slowly disappeared from the chief centers of population and took refuge in the retired valleys of the Alps. There, in the recesses of Piedmont... a settlement of the Waldensians was made who gave their name to these valleys of Vaudois.... At times attempts were made to suppress the sect of the Vaudois, but the nature of the country which they inhabited, their obscurity and their isolation made the difficulties of their suppression greater than the advantages to be gained from it" (Encyc. Britannica, 11th ed., "Waldenses").

In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull calling for their extermination and a serious attack was made on their stronghold. A fog settling over and encircling the Catholic armies saved the Waldenses from total destruction. However, most were simply worn out and had lapsed into a spirit of compromise. When the Reformation began a few years later, the Waldensian leadership sent emissaries to the Lutheran church. "Thus," as the Encyclopaedia Britannica writes, "the Vaudois ceased to be relics of the past, and became absorbed in the general movement of Protestantism."

As total apostasy swallowed up most remnants of the Waldenses by the end of 1500s, God preserved a faithful remnant. Individuals who were the fruit of the last seven years of Waldo's ministry had been converted in Bohemia and Germany in the thirteenth century. In remote areas of the Carpathian Mountain area of central and eastern Europe, individuals and small groups survived--in fact a faithful remnant has survived in isolation in those areas down to modern times (cf. Rev. 2:24-25).

As the seventeenth century approached, the next era of God's Church was ready to emerge on the stage. Remnants of German Waldensians, sometimes labeled Lollards by outsiders, had penetrated into Holland and England as early as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, it was only in the final decades of the sixteenth century that the Church could begin to emerge openly in Germany and Britain. In the next chapter, we will examine these "Anabaptists" and see how Sabbath-keeping congregations emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, and spread across the Atlantic Ocean from England to Rhode Island.

What happened to the Church that Jesus built? It endured and it survived against incredible odds! The men and women who were the spiritual ancestors of God's people today exemplified faith and courage. Time after time through the centuries they had to relocate in order to remove themselves from either outside persecution or internal apostasy and compromise. At those times, when it seemed that the flame of God's Truth flickered most dimly, Christ always raised up another faithful leader to rally His people and revitalize the Work of God.

God's people during the Middle Ages, like the prophets of old, "wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth." They were among those of whom Christ testified that "the world was not worthy" (Heb. 11:38). They constitute part of that great cloud of faithful witnesses whose lives should encourage us to "run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1).