Sectarianism and the Trail of Blood

There was a time in my life when I sought the continuity of truth in ‘the trail of blood,’ the communities who defined themselves against the established church. As I began to study the history of the church, I became particularly concerned when I discovered that “the trail of blood” generally included the gnostics of the early church who denied the incarnation and the Catharists of the medieval era who denied the Trinity and practiced communal marriage.
When I turned away from a sectarian view of the church to embrace the whole church with all of its triumphs and failures, I sensed a belongingness to this vast community of people. I also experienced a connectedness to history that broke the arrogance of my sectarian attitude and created a humility that allowed me to be defined by the church as the worldwide community of people to which I belonged. This means that I am able to affirm the whole church in all the various paradigms of history.
– Robert Webber, Ancient Future Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999. p.73.

I read this book when it came out twelve years ago, at a time when my faith was at a formative stage. Reacting against fundamentalism and responding to postmodernism, I’d just started reading theology and I was malleable. I was inspired and influenced by Webber’s book. It was before I’d read Yoder and while I was living with my grandfather, an ecumenically minded evangelical Anglican minister, who probably would have liked Webber very much. Reading Webber I came closer than I ever have in my life to becoming an Anglican.

Reading parts of it again now, it still resonates. This passage stuck out as I read, as you might imagine it would. I’m much less sectarian and much less ‘against’ the mainstream church(es) than a few years ago, say when I aligned myself with the housechurch movement. Working for a denomination has helped me with that, as has preparing some lectures this year introducing theology. I tried to enter sympathetically into a variety of perspectives, and it made me broader.

But still, what am I to do with Webber’s words here? Is to be an Anabaptist to align oneself with the ‘trail of blood’?

And how do we take ‘trail of blood’? Blood spilt or blood shed? Being persecuted and killed for your beliefs (by the mainstream church?) is nothing to be ashamed of, if I read the gospels correctly. Spilling blood for your beliefs – now that is a problem.

Can I have a more nuanced position than the alternatives Webber gives us here? Not every community that defines itself against the established church, but some? The ones that have good reason for distinction?

With his new attitude, could Webber still embrace the sectarian churches? Or are they now excluded from the vast church in all its connectedness through history?

I think the ‘trail of blood’ theory of churches is related to a Landmark Baptist view of church history – that there is a succession of persecuted true Christians culminating in the Baptists. I’m sure it is tied to some terrible fundamentalist ideas. But in a mild form, of at least acknowleding the idea of renewal throughout church history, it has some merit.

I bring the quote from Webber to you because it at once appeals to me and makes me bristle. Yes! And No!

2 thoughts on “Sectarianism and the Trail of Blood

  1. Aligning oneself to the ‘trail of blood’ seems to me problematic and spiritually problematic, in part because of the reasons Webber raises (incidentally, I agree on the appeal of the book – I had a similar response when I read in college).

    I know Anabaptists have strong ‘trail of blood’ impulse as the significance of the whole Martyrs’ Mirror thing shows but this has also morphed into a seeking after death and the exaltation of it seems unhelpful (note this is more about how the living approach the trail of blood rather than the persecuted themselves).

    More than that, Christian killing Christian or in fact the murder of any person (Christian or otherwise) is never the will of God so the exaltation of Sin strikes me as somewhat perverse.

    I guess to summarise my thinking the heroism is not the trail of blood but the life of discipleship which will this side of eternity often manifest itself in blood-letting but not always. Should the life of Menno Simons be respected less than that of Manz since he died of natural causes?

    Sorry, I’ve rambled a bit. Tangentially, this is part of the reason I think the death of Jesus is important irrespective of the ‘trail of blood’:

  2. Thanks Casper, I agree with your thoughts. I guess the trail of blood can be a side product of discipleship rather than the focus.

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