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Protest and Change in Voluntary Religious Communities

            Voluntary religious societies are especially vulnerable to discord, protest and demands for change. Reform can take the form of reform from within the community or secession from the community

A. Reform from within the Church

Historically, there have been two means of reform from within the Church-type organization.

            1. The Eccleisola in Ecclesia (little church within the Church). This type of reform grows from a small group that is concerned about the community’s “laxity” or carelessness with regard to doctrine, discipline or worship. The protestors do not want to secede from the larger community; they only want to devise a means of correcting its shortcomings.  This means of correction often took the form of small groups whose members were committed to study, worship and a disciplined way of life.  Examples of these groups include the Pietists and the Methodists.

            The Pietist movement was led by  Philipp Jacob Spener in the 17th century in an effort to correct what Spener perceived to be shortcomings within Lutheranism. The Methodist movement was led by John Wesley in the 18th century in an effort to correct what Wesley believed to be shortcomings within the Anglican church. Neither movement ever intended to separate from the larger group.  One can find similar approaches to reform in Hasidism in Judaism and Sufism in Islam.

            2. Monasticism:  This type of reform movement calls for a fundamental rejection of the world and a disciplined adherence to spiritual ideals.   Monastic movements are often legitimized by the larger community to provide a means for those who wish to pursue a more disciplined devotion. For example, the Benedictine rule which most Roman Catholic orders follow requires a far more demanding way of life than the average member of the larger community could follow. Rather than expect everyone to follow the Benedictine rule, the Church sanctioned the establishment of communities within the church. Examples of religious orders include the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Jesuits, and the Trappists.

      One of the best known monastic orders within the Catholic Church is the Franciscans. This order was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. Part of Francis' motivation seems to be what he perceived to be the Church's lack of regard for the poor and failure to follow the its teachings of Christ about serving those in need. In 1208 he heard a call telling him to go out into the world and, in obedience to Matthew 10:5-14, to possess nothing, but to do good everywhere. Francis eventually established a monastic order devoted to the poor, and in time, this order was accepted and sanctioned by the Pope. Thus, the monastic order corrected what was perceived to be a shortcoming of the church by reform from within rather than secession from the church. 

It should be noted that in the West, monastic communities often arose as an attempt at reform. In eastern traditions such as Buddhism, the monasticism was the primary way of living one's faith.  In other words, Theravada Buddhism expected people to join the sangha (monastic community) when one became a Buddhist.


B. Secession from the Church-type Community

            In some cases,  groups conclude that reform of the larger community is not an option and thus leaves the large commnity. A community usually leaves the original church for one of two reasons: (1)  it has discovered what it believes are the original teachings and beliefs that are now overlooked or denied by the larger Church or (2) it claims to have a new teaching or revelation that makes it impossible to continue to belong to the larger Church. Examples of secession are many: the Lutheran, Reformed and Anabaptists.  Some extreme examples of secession include the Church’s separation from Judaism, and Buddhism’s rejection of the fundamental doctrines of Hinduism.