Top Ten Day: My favorite Christian sects
1. The Anabaptists. This group, which tried to create some kind of utopia in the German town of Münster in the 1530s, was notable because they believed that infant baptism was invalid and that only adults could receive it. Now, today this might not seem too radical, but back then, despite the Protestant Reformation sweeping Europe, that was crazy talk! In fact, a lot of Protestants persecuted the Anabaptists, because they learned quickly from the Catholics about oppressing people who thought differently than they did. A bunch of Anabaptists took over Münster and tried to create a theocracy, but German princes besieged the city and it turned into a horrific place. Their leader, John of Leiden, legalized polygamy and took 16 wives, and near the end, the townspeople turned to cannibalism. Or did they? Accounts vary. Anyway, this apocalyptic event drove Anabaptists underground, not surprisingly, but their traditions live on with the Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and, of course, Baptists. I just always thought the Münster rebellion was pretty cool.
2. The Cathars. One of the most depressing spectacles of medieval Europe is the Albigensian Crusade, launched by Pope Innocent III to destroy the Cathars of southern France in the early 13th century. The Languedoc, as the south of France is known, was influenced by Muslim Spain, and was a place of learning and (relative) tolerance, ruled over by the counts of Toulouse, who were often more interested in reading than ruling. Innocent (1198-1216) was flexing papal muscle in these years (he Interdicted England, for crying out loud!), and he didn't like the fact that the Cathars were so powerful in the Languedoc. The Crusade, the first launched specifically against Christians, destroyed the infrastructure of the region, brought it under the sway of the French (Catholic) king, and made Simon de Montfort, an obscure French count, a superstar (until he was killed in a siege). This Crusade also gives us the famous line by the papal legate when asked how to distinguish Cathars from Cathoics at the siege of Béziers: "Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own." Charming fellow. Anyway, Cathars themselves were influenced by gnostic teachings, believing that all matter was evil and that the divine spirit was trapped in a polluted world. Jesus himself was not a man, but a manifestation of the divine spirit. The Cathars believed that procreation, war, and capital punishment was wrong, which pissed off quite a lot of medieval Christians, who really enjoyed screwing and slaughtering! And, of course, the Cathars were supposed to have the treasure of the Templars, and they hid it from the filthy French! Ha, screw you, Frenchies! Cathars, by the way, have a web site. Check it out!
3. The Nestorians. Back in the fifth century, the archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, taught that Christ had two distinct natures - a divine one and a human one, and that they did not mingle. This led him to claim that the divine part of Christ did not suffer on the cross. Boy howdy, this pissed people off, you bet! The Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned Nestorius, but of course a lot of people still believed in that doctrine, and they went off to the East. It reached China still exists today in Iran, Iraq, and India. The Church's unofficial web site is here, and the Catholic Encyclopedia delves very deeply into Nestorianism here. I like the Nestorians because the heresy led, however mistakenly, to the legend of Prester John, which is a very cool story.
4. The Arians. Ah, Arianism. One of the most popular Christian heresies ever, and one that had an excellent chance to be the "orthodox" teaching throughout Europe. But alas! it failed, and has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Arius, the bishop of Alexandria, taught that the pre-incarnate Christ was created by God and did not exist prior to that. The Catholics, if you recall, believe that the parts of the Trinity are equal and have always existed. Splitting hairs, say you? Bite your tongue! Arius was condemned at a rather famous Council at Nicaea in 325 (whence comes the Nicene Creed), but his teachings lived on. Many Germanic tribes adopted Arianism, including the Visigoths, who ruled in Spain until the eighth century (but by then had become good Catholics). Arianism was very popular for centuries, but it eventually fell to the all-crushing Godness of Catholicism!
5. The Monophysites. The Monophysite position was completely antithetical to the Nestorian one - Monophysites argued that Christ had one nature, as opposed to two. This heresy was eventually rejected by the Catholic Church at the Council of Chalcedon of 451. Yes, it's hard to keep up.
6. The Copts. The Coptic Church, which is the dominant Christian sect in Egypt today, is actually monophysite. I guess that I should have distinguished between "heresies" and "sects," but what the hell. Copts don't recognize the Roman Pope, but the head of the their church is the Pope ... of Alexandria. I just find the Christians of Egypt interesting.
[Edit: A few commenters have pointed out that the Coptic Church is not really monophysite. Sorry about that. I knew I shouldn't trust the Internet! I wouldn't want to insult any Copts out there, so I'll just say I was wrong and move on.]
7. The Ethiopian Orthodox. Ethiopia, surprisingly enough, was one of the earliest countries to embrace Christianity (they say they're the oldest; the Armenians disagree). Because of this and the fact that Ethiopia is, to say the least, a bit isolated, means that their form of Christianity is archaic. Plus, the Ark of the Covenant is in a church in Addis Ababa, so they have that going for them.
8. The Mormons. What's so fascinating about the Mormons is they wouldn't be out of place in fourth- or fifth-century Asia, what with the whole origin of the sect and the fervor with which they practice and the persecution and intolerance they faced (and occasionally still face) and the way they quickly turn to oppression themselves when they get the chance. It's all very medieval, but the fact that it's such an American form of Christianity makes it oddly compelling.
9. The Catholics. Well, duh.
10. The Byzantine Orthodox. This refers to the Orthodox Church prior to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the Orthodox Church splintered. This is perhaps another no-brainer, as I've always dug the Byzantine Empire, and I just love that the schism between it and the Catholic Church came about from such tiny things, like the "filioque clause." For those of you who don't know Latin, "filioque" means "and the Son," which was inserted into the Nicene Creed, so that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This caused much consternation in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and helped lead to the break between the two Churches (there were, of course, other reasons, but I love that one). The Orthodox Church today, of course, celebrates Easter at a different time than the Catholic Church does, which I'm surprised hasn't led Benedict XVI promulgating a new crusade. He seems like that kind of guy.
So those are my favorite sects. Like I said, I guess some are technically heresies, but you get the idea. I like others, of course, but those are my favorites. As for the majority of Protestant sects ... boring! When they take over a German town, legalize polygamy, and turn to cannibalism, then come talk to me!