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Familism - The Love Syndrome

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Today, there is a clamour from many quarters to ‘love’. Everything reduces to ‘love’. And those who believe in election and predestination, and God’s provision of hell, are made out to be unloving and unchristian. Ever wondered where this fanatical call to ‘love’ came from? It arose much earlier than modern Charismatic heresy!

Family of Love: 16th Century

The ‘Family of Love’ (English for ‘Familia Caritatis’ or ‘Haus der Liebe’) or ‘familists’, was created by a rich merchant-preacher, Hendrik Niclaes (c1501-c1580: born at Münster). By 1533 he was known as a trouble-maker by the Roman Catholic church, who considered him to be an heretic, during a time of ferment by Anabaptists/Melchiorites, and was imprisoned. It is thought he gained much from the Anabaptist movement, which arose as a sect from within the Reformation movement.

They were led by John of Leiden, who began rebellion in 1534. He was another odd fellow, teaching, amongst other things, polygamy and communal life. He beheaded one of his wives for questioning his total authority over her. In 1536, he was captured, tortured and executed. After that, he and some friends were left to rot in iron cages hanging from the city walls. The bodies were not removed for fifty years… but the cages remain.

Niclaes moved from Amsterdam to Emden, a port city in northwest Germany, and main city of the East Frisia region. The town later became a hot-bed for Dutch Protestantism, but Niclaes began his own Protestant revolution there in 1540.

Like all other religious movements, Protestantism spawned many odd and even heretical sub-groups. Niclaes’ group, the Family of love, was one of them, supposedly based on the teachings of Paul. Interestingly, this is probably where George Fox (founder of Quakerism) got his own brand of teaching from. Niclaes believed Paul taught that there was a part of God in every man. This, of course, is incorrect, for Paul never taught it – it was a misconception or bad theology. However, even as a boy, Niclaes was ‘odd’ claiming to see visions.

The upshot of this belief was that Niclaes told his adherents that because they had so much of God’s spirit in them, they were a part of the Godhead. As often happens, oddball ideas seem to be swallowed by the better educated. They tended to remain in their own local churches, pretending to be orthodox but secretly believing they were God’s elite as part of the Godhead.

Cleverly, at a time when heresy took people to the stake, they managed to remain mainly unknown, because they only spoke about their beliefs to those of similar mind. Outwardly, they obeyed every social and church law.

In form, these people were similar to Anabaptists, and they rejected the existence of a Trinity and would not carry arms, preferring to speak against other groups of their time. An interesting collection of people were secret Familists: Piter Brueghel the Elder (artist), Christopher Platin, printer of Catholic documents for the Counter-Reformation, some of Queen Elizabeth’s Yeomen of the Guard, the Keeper of the lions in the Tower of London, for James 1st, and a large group in Balsham, just outside Cambridge, England. The leader of the Familists in England was Christopher Vitells. It is supposed that Quakers, Baptists and Unitarians founded some of their principles on Familism.

Vitells, who led the movement in England, was a joiner-cum-itinerant preacher, who translated Niclaes’ works into English; he and his fellow Familists were opposed strongly by Puritans, some of whom became ‘Familists Hunters’, often with government assistance. Queen Elizabeth finally condemned the movement. Other groups arose, such as the Family of the Mount, based in Yorkshire. Early Quaker converts came from these Familist groups, and probably influenced the movement. The Familists more or less died out as a movement in England, in the 18th century.

Today the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ, are the survivors of the Anabaptists.

Niclaes was not influenced only by the Anabaptists (some think his group was a branch of Anabaptism). He was also drawn to the works of a Medieval sect called the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’, and Rhenish mysticism.

Brethren of the Free Spirit were active in the 13th and 14th centuries. They were Antinomian and individualistic. By ‘Antinomian’ is meant the rejection of obedience to ethics and morality formed by religious groups. As is often the case, the movement misused Paul’s writings to support their lawlessness, contriving that ‘freedom in Christ’ meant they could do what they liked. The ‘Brethren’ were also Millenarian. They arose at a time of immense social and religious ferment, and broke away from Rome because the authorities provided no answers. Which is why the Inquisition targeted members and killed them.

Many Brethren of Free Spirit ideas were shared by others – such as the Lollards, Cathars and Waldensians. Their union was mainly about the corruption of the Roman ‘church’, which was itself legitimate, because it emphasised individual responsibility for one’s own salvation. Many ‘Brethren’ were absorbed into the secretive Friends of God group. Martin Luther had a copy of the Theologica Germanica, which came out of ‘Brethren’ theology, and he is said to have prized it highly, even though he and the other Reformers were very different from them. However, some later groups, such as Quakers and Ranters, esteemed them. The poet, William Blake, espoused ‘Brethren’ ideas and writings in his work.

The ‘Brethren’ were pantheistic in doctrine, believing God was in everything, a part of His own Creation. They divided history into three periods, to correspond with the Trinity. They taught that the Holy Spirit within a man means he cannot sin. Like so many sects and cults, the ‘Brethren’ were very sure of their bad interpretations of scripture to support their ideas.

The Familists believed love was greater than all else, and that the Spirit was more important than scripture. By striving for love alone, followers believed they could attain to salvation – not unlike so many modern church people (who I will not, in this text, refer to as ‘Christians’ because of their similarly flawed beliefs). Like current charismatics, Niclaes tended towards spiritualization and flowery terms that easily allowed for variant meanings for his writings.

He taught that God did not rule us direct, but this was done through ‘nature’. Because everything was from nature, everyone could have everything it produced, and this led to communal living. He also taught Antinomianism (a natural state of grace without sin in the believer). Like so many Charismatics, Niclaes said that the living the life of Christ brought people to salvation – not His death or resurrection. For this reason the Bible was seen merely as the “ABC to Christianity” – not dissimilar to the idea enshrined in the Alpha Course, that a person can be taught how to reach Christ.

Followers lived in conformity to the prevailing society, keeping their ‘faith’ secret. If questioned, they claimed to be whatever the surrounding religious ethos dictated and denied Familism. Because followers were required to read Niclaes’ books, they became more literate than most. Having said that, in England, some authorities suggest that their secrecy was not so adamant in England, and the reason the group was not hounded was simply that the English did not really care what their fellows were doing - they had their own problems and lives to live.

Whatever the truth of that, we can see that just about all things we now call modern heresies are usually founded on much earlier heresies. There is nothing new under the sun! Note, then, what the current insistence on ‘love-only’ really is, for it is certainly not scriptural.

© April 2009

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Bible Theology Ministries - PO Box 415, Swansea, SA5 8YH
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