Sheep Among Wolves

On his visit to Prague in 1420 Petr Chelčický met the Hussite theologian, Jakoubek of Stříbro in a back room of the Bethlehem chapel. Their conversation, under Petr’s direction, turned quickly to the Sermon on the Mount. They discussed what Jesus taught on wealth, on speaking the truth (without swearing), and on returning good for evil.

Our faith compels us to bind wounds,” Petr explained, “not to make blood run.” With sharp but honest words, he rebuked the Hussites for using worldly power. He told them how war comes from a desire to own things, and how Christ sets us free from that desire.

Jakoubek did not accept Petr’s rebuke. Like John Wyclif and Jan Hus he defended the use of the sword, saying war is necessary and Christians must fight against Turks and infidels, “but with great love toward God and with nothing other in mind than that God would be glorified.” For this reason, he explained, Christian soldiers must “avoid all brutality, excessive greediness, and other irregularities.”

Petr had no time for such talk. “How your master Jakoubek would rage against someone for eating a blood sausage on Friday,” he wrote to the archbishop Rokycana in a letter soon afterward. “Yet he does not make the shedding of blood a matter of conscience!” Pointing to more inconsistencies he continued:

You would not allow an individual to chase others and kill them. But if a nobleman gathers a great army of peasants and makes of them warriors who can kill others with the power of an army, you do not consider them murderers. Neither is it held against their conscience, but they boast and think of themselves as heroes for murdering the godless! This is the poison poured out among Christians by learned men who do not follow our meek Lord Jesus, but the counsel of the Great Whore of Babylon. And for this reason our land is filled with abominations and blood!

I do not want to make light of the preaching and good works done by men like Jan Hus, Matěj, and Jakoubek, in the name of God. But I say that they too have drunk the wine of the Great Whore, with which she has besotted all nations and people. . . . They have written things that contradict God’s laws, especially where Master Hus has written about bearing the sword, swearing oaths, and venerating images.1

That the Hussite, Catholic and Taborite “Christians” of Bohemia had lost sight of Christ, Petr Chelčický did not doubt. On another occasion he wrote:

For over fifteen years one side has risen up against the other in wrath and savagery. What one side has proclaimed as truth, the other has condemned as error. And of them all, none has been able to put out the fires they have lit. Everywhere murder, destruction, and poverty have multiplied and great numbers have perished. Every town in the land has girded itself to battle. Every town has enclosed itself with walls and surrounded itself with moats. . . . Everyone, at home or in the field, in the forest or on the mountains, stands in danger of getting imprisoned, robbed, or killed. Nowhere can one hide from the other. In towns and castles every man must be ready for battle. Nowhere may one find rest and peace. Labouring people are stripped of everything, downtrodden, oppressed, beaten, and robbed, so that many are driven by want and hunger from their homes. Some pay taxes to castles or towns three or even four times, now to one side, now to the other. And what is not taken from them like that, is eaten up by armies that prey on the land. . . .

In the midst of this, can it be said that Christians are any more honest, any more disciplined or patient, than the world? Not at all. In fact, nothing is more clear than that Christians have abandoned God. They have gone out into the world and become one with it. Whatever the world considers praiseworthy—vanity, comfort, wealth, fancy notions, blasphemies—all Christians praise with one accord, openly and without conscience or shame. It has become virtually impossible to find one in a thousand that does not conform himself to the world. . . .2

The only way to escape the wicked world headed for destruction, Petr believed, is to follow Christ. “True God and true man, perfect and complete,” he wrote, “Christ taught us masterfully how to please God in everything. Not only did he give us a perfect example, he also makes it possible for us to follow it. We only sin when we go after the things Christ condemned, or when we turn our backs on his way of life. His whole life on earth was an example and a lesson for us.”

Using Christ’s imagery of a net cast into the sea, Petr described what happened when two dreadful sharks, the pope and the Roman emperor, slipped into the church. Thrashing about in the net, they gobbled up the good fish and burst it. From their adulterous union sprang evils without number—above all, the evil of force in Christ’s name—until only a few strands of the net (Christ’s true church) remained. “Since that time,” Petr wrote,

all live in hypocrisy, from the least to the greatest, figuring out how to be Christian while doing everything their flesh desires. Everyone seeks the honour of the world and flatters it with pleasant talk. Everyone wants peace with the world to avoid suffering its persecution in any way—so to compare today’s Christianity with that of the early church is like comparing night to day.

Christ and Power

The church, both Petr Chelčický and the Unity of Brothers believed, loses sight of Christ when it confuses the Old with the New Testament way. In one of its earliest statements the Unity declared:

The Jews did right to follow the law in their day, as it was given, but when Christ came he brought a higher and better law than “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth.” He brought the law of love that neither condemns to death nor forces anyone to obey its commandments. Rather, with loving patience, it calls for repentance, leaving the impenitent to the last judgement. Only false Christians cannot distinguish between these two revelations.3

Nowhere does the mixing of Moses’ law and Christ’s Gospel cause more confusion than in the use of power. “Civil authorities,” Petr Chelčický wrote, “may not direct the life of obedience to God because they rely on cruel compulsion.” For this he gave an example:

Not all tools can be used for every trade, and every trade has tools of its own. A blacksmith cannot hold a horseshoe in the fire with a spindle and a woman cannot spin with a blacksmith’s tongs. Therefore, just as tongs pertain to the blacksmith and a spindle to the woman, civil authority is suitable for some things and religious authority for others.

Christ’s rule is perfect. Therefore it is free of compulsion. The virtue he expects from every Christian springs from a free will. Everyone must choose for good or evil. Both these choices stand before men, the Lord Jesus calling us to the good, the devil and the world calling us to evil. Therefore choose joy or hell. The choice is in your hands.

Řehoř wrote about rulers and the sword:

God gave the kings of the earth a sword, but only to preserve order in the world according to his will, and to control those who would disturb the common good. . . . When, through the treachery of the priests, the rulers’ sword is turned against people on account of their faith, they no longer use it for God. No earthly ruler can put faith into people’s hearts without their assent, or bring them to faith by force.4

With this teaching alive in their hearts, the believers at Kunvald, like those of Chelčice, could not take part in civil government. They could not serve as masters of guilds, judges, or town councillors because they felt those positions belonged to the god of this world, not to the Kingdom of Heaven. Řehoř wrote:

Christ sent his messengers into the world to preach the good news without the help of civil powers, magistrates, hangmen, and soldiers. . . . True Christians, like sheep among wolves, suffer unto death before calling pagan authorities to their defence.5

Christ and Money

In his life on earth, the Lord Christ showed us how to use money and goods. Regarding this, Petr Chelčický wrote:

The true word of God says, “The earth and everything in it is the Lord’s, its mountains, its valleys, and its fields. God is the only rightful ruler of the earth. . . . Whoever does not belong to God has no right to possess or hold anything that belongs to him. If anyone claims ownership of earthly goods, he does so because he has taken possession of them illegally and through violence.

In disobedience to God’s law, our fathers bought and established illegal claims for us. . . . And this is what we have inherited from them: poverty, shame, death, and in the end, hell.

If you who are big, fat, and self-satisfied, say, “Our fathers bought these people and these manors for our inheritance,” then, indeed they engaged in evil business and made an expensive bargain! For who has the right to buy people, to enslave them, and to treat them with indignities as if they were cattle. . . . You prefer dogs to people whom you curse, despise, and beat—from whom you extort taxes and for whom you forge fetters, while you say to your dogs, “Here pup, come lie on this pillow!”

Petr Chelčický distrusted commerce in general, believing it “difficult to buy or sell without sin on account of excessive greed.” To take interest on money or to run a speculative business was for him the “mark of the beast,” and he counted the use of weights and measures, as well as boundary markers, a sign of the curse brought on man through Cain. He wrote:

The unbeliever fights to protect his rights and his property in court or on the battlefield. A Christian, on the other hand, conducts his life with love, patiently enduring injustice, for he knows his reward is eternal. He refuses involvement in commercial enterprises and with speculative business, for fear of harming his soul. But this is foolishness to the unbelieving world.

That only a few would find this narrow way to eternal life, Petr did not doubt. But even in that he saw proof that it was the right way:

Jesus is now very poor. He does not have multitudes following him. The few who stick with him are the outcast and unlearned, for the doctors of this age are too rich and too famous. They have engendered many servants of God with their swords—that is why all the world looks up to them.

When a people wise in this world see Christ—abandoned, dressed in the garb of poverty, and surrounded by danger—they turn away from him and follow after wealthy and popular men who serve God with great learning in cathedrals, in armies, with civil authority, with thumbscrews, city-halls, pillories and gallows. The whole wise world runs after them, but only “fools” dare follow Christ and suffer the ridicule of all.

Only fools perhaps, in the eyes of the world, but Czech believers saw the Lord’s table spread before them in the presence of their enemies. They saw the unspeakable riches of Christ and set their hope on living eternally with him in new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells. Petr Chelčický wrote:

Oh how small and barren is the dominion of earthly kings compared with the dominion of Christ! Earthly rulers heap burdens and suffering on their subjects instead of freedom and consolation. By way of contrast, the kingdom of Christ is so powerful and perfect that if the whole world accepted him it would have peace and all things would work together for good. There would be no need of temporal rulers anymore, for all would live by grace and truth.

At Kunvald, many believers—in an attempt to live like Christ—renounced all private possession. Like the Waldensian bonnes hommes and the Albigensian perfecti they lived from a common purse and shared their goods. Others, scattered in towns and on feudal estates through Czech lands, kept on living as independent households but with a strong sense of economic (as well as spiritual) commitment one to another.

Those who lived with no personal possessions were encouraged by the Unity of Brothers to put no pressure on the rest. Neither did the believers force new converts to give up possessions against their will: “If anyone wishes to keep something for a good reason, to give it into safe keeping, or to bequeath it to someone after death, it may be done,” states an old community statute.

Unity in Christ

Loving Christ and committed to following him together, believers from Kunvald, from Southern Bohemia, and from towns and villages throughout other Czech regions, gathered in a great meeting near Rýchnov nad Kněž in 1464. Forced to secrecy, they gathered in the mountains under the open sky. But the document they prepared did not remain a secret. Neither did they want it to. Having found green pastures, following their Good Shepherd, they could not wait to share it with hungry souls.

Among other things the Unity of Brothers agreed in the meeting near Rýchnov:

to maintain the bond of love among ourselves, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, and to set our hope in God. This we will demonstrate in what we say and how we help one another, in the spirit of love, to live honestly, humbly, quietly, meekly, soberly, and patiently. And through this—through our true love one for another—we will show to others what we believe and in whom we place our hope.

We agree to obey everything the Lord asks of us in Scripture. Along with this we agree to accept graciously the instructions, warnings, and reproof of our brothers and sisters. Doing this, we will keep the covenant we have made with God and his Holy Spirit through our Lord Jesus Christ.

We will confess our faults and shortcomings. We will humble ourselves and be subject one to another. We will keep the fear of God before our eyes when others reprove us, seeking to change our ways for the better and to confess our sins before God and man. If any one of us does not keep the rules we have made, and proves unfaithful to the our covenant with God and our Christian fellowship, we must declare—even though with deep regret—that we cannot assure him of salvation. It may even become necessary for us to exclude him from our church fellowship. And if anyone is excluded from our communion on account of some grievous transgression or glaring mistake in doctrine we cannot re-admit him until he has entirely cleared himself and amply proven that he has changed his ways.

We agree that all of us should faithfully keep the apostles’ instructions in all things. Our priests and teachers, in particular, should set a good example to others. They should walk humbly in word and deed, so that others may have no reason to accuse them. Those who give up personal estates for the church should keep to their decision and not reclaim estates, money, or property. Rather, they should follow the example of the first Christians, submitting with glad hearts to holding all things in common as it is written, “They had all things in common and distributed to everyone as needed.” This is a praiseworthy and reasonable example for us, especially for those who become messengers of the churches, so that they may learn to be content with simple food and clothing, leaving the rest to the Lord who cares for them. They ought to abstain from extravagance and content themselves with the support the stewards of the common fund are able to give them.

Along with this, our priests and teachers should be freed from all care regarding their earthly needs, so they may devote themselves to spiritual duties. They must bear patiently what God allows to come upon them: distress, hunger, cold, persecution, imprisonment, and death itself—after the example of the first Christians who consecrated themselves to God. They must surrender themselves to Christ’s rule, following him patiently, and forsaking the world.

Those of us who have of this world’s things should remember the poor and give freely to them, according to the word of God. At the same time we should work with our own hands what is good. Our trading should be only in heavenly goods and treasures, supplying our neighbours with the word of God, teaching them, and praying that the Lord would give them grace.

Our priests and teachers may, however, work around home if they have nothing else to do. Whatever they can spare, they should also share with the poor, but if they suffer need they should be supported, with the consent of all, from our general fund.

The same rule applies to brothers and sisters working in trades or hiring themselves out to earn a decent living. Whoever goes on errands or is employed to do a certain work, shall be paid fairly for his labour, unless he can and will do it for nothing to help the congregation.

Toward strangers and travellers we will show kind hospitality, in particular if they have left home to spread the Gospel. When we see any of our brothers or sisters in need we will follow the example of the apostles and those who have gone before us in the faith, sharing with them what the Lord in his mercy has given us.

If all Christians faithfully stood together in love, if everyone eagerly carried the other’s burden, all of Christ’s commandments would be fulfilled. Sympathising love is the perfection of Christian faith. It is what builds and keeps spirituality alive. It is the firmest and most enduring bond of human happiness. The one who does not love has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.

With brotherly kindness we will receive penitent souls, gladly helping those who turn from the world to God to know the truth. No matter who comes to us, he shall find among us a joyful reception. We will speak with him in good faith, give him the advice the instructions, and whatever warnings he needs, so that he may walk right and grow spiritually.

We will not change our place of residence unless it becomes clear that we would be of greater usefulness to the church of God in another place.

We will take special care of the orphans, the widows, and the poor, receiving them in the name of Christ. What we give them will be done in the spirit of love.

We consider it our duty to care for those who are persecuted or driven into exile for what they believe. We will ask about them and help as much as we can.

Whenever money is paid out of the congregation’s general fund to help the poor, the treasurer is to keep a faithful and correct account of it. He shall ask whoever gets the money for a receipt. This is to prevent any suspicion and false report, and to preserve harmony in the congregation.

We will seek our rest in the Lord and guard against the dazzling seductions of the world. The tempting exterior of worldly-mindedness, the subtlety and secret malice of its wicked spirit continually try to overcome Christian simplicity of heart. The world’s flattering delusions are dangerous rocks for the faithful. The world’s spirit is one of selfishness, the pursuit of temporary pleasures that are often unattainable anyway, and it does nothing more than deceive. From such a spirit, may the Lord in his mercy save us!

We consider it our responsibility to obey our earthly rulers in all humility, to show them loyalty in all things, and to pray to God for them.

We will seek peace in our congregations, and do all we can for common harmony and wellbeing. In this way our conscience will be at rest in God, and the grace of God will be with us at all times.6

A Little Flock

Celebrating the Lord’s supper in simple services throughout war-torn Bohemia and Moravia, the Unity of Brothers became a quiet but powerful movement. After the ordination of its leaders by Stefan, the Waldensian bishop, and the adoption of its own rules (like at the meeting near Rýchnov) it chose its own way. But those who belonged to the Unity never thought of themselves as the church of Christ in its entirety. In another general meeting, in 1486, the brothers decided:

No one church, however numerous, constitutes the universal church embracing all believers. But wherever there is true faith, as described in the Scriptures, there is a part of the holy Catholic church. . . . We should thank God for all who serve him, but no one should lightly leave his own communion and commitment to join another.

For many years, Christ’s little flock in Czech lands, with this belief and commitment, grew in the face of all opposition. But their peace in heavenly light would not last forever.

1 From a letter to Rokycana, written in the 1430s.

2 Netz des Glaubens (all citations from Petr Chelčický in this chapter, unless stated otherwise, are from this book)

3 From the Akty Jednoty bratrské, a collection of Unity documents from the fifteenth century.

4 From a letter to Vańek Valečovský, 1461.

5 Akty Jednoty bratrské

6 From the Confession of the Brothers of Christ’s Gospel, Bratři zákona Kristrova, 1464.