As you enter the room you are surprised to find women standing to “prophesy,” men speaking in tongues, others in trance-like states, and a general sense of frenzy which fills the room. Excitement! Experiences! Energy! Here are believers who claim to be “Spirit-filled” and to be receiving fresh revelations from the Spirit of God.
Where are you? You might answer that you have stumbled into a local charismatic center. Would you be surprised if I told you that you were in a local assembly at the end of the second century, probably in an area of Asia Minor called Phrygia?
In the second half of the second century, a Christian named Montanus, began to make some extraordinary claims for himself. At his baptism he spoke in tongues. He claimed that the age of the Paraclete or Spirit had arrived and that He had revealed to Montanus that the end was imminent. The New Jerusalem was about to descend (in Phrygia not Jerusalem) and that all should harken to his voice.
These new revelations were not contained in Scripture but were given to him to awaken the church.
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Montanus was soon joined by two women prophetesses, Maximilla and Prisca. Together, they claimed to be the last in a succession of prophets that included the four daughters of Philip in Acts 21. Humility was not one of the cardinal virtues of these prophets!
They joined together to issue more prophecies of coming events. They relied heavily on Johns Gospel to prove that this was the age of the Spirit. The age they were in was a time of spiritual gifts and prophecy.
They borrowed heavily from Johns writings in Revelation to substantiate their teaching on end times. But to these Scriptural references they added additional and new revelations. Most of these had to do with areas where the Scriptures were, in their eyes, insufficient to control everyday living.
The Montanists, as they became known, developed a sense of being the “spiritually elite” among believers. They were the ones who were living in the good of the Spirit during this new age. To this mind-set, they linked a life of asceticism and strict discipline. Fasting, spiritual healing, and celibacy (they did not have big Sunday Schools) were chief doctrines to which all followers were urged to adhere. They exalted martyrdom and even courted it, and forbad fleeing from persecution. The fires of persecution would serve to purify the church and make it fit to be the Bride of Christ at His return to the earth.
The movement spread widely from its base in Phrygia, extending into the other parts of Asia Minor and parts of the Mediterranean world. Its preachers and prophets, many of them itinerant and supported by gifts from other believers, spread their message of an imminent descent of the New Jerusalem.
In retrospect, the Montanist movement was in part a reaction against the condition of many believers and assemblies during the second century. The moral laxity which Gnosticism had fostered was upsetting to many true believers. Likewise, the formality and deadness which was being imposed upon assemblies by the increasing shadow of church “officialism” made the time opportune for a revolt against the established order. In many respects, the Montanist movement was a fore runner of the charismatic movement which has resurfaced at different times. The unique feature of our day is that it has cut across every religious division in Christendom to embrace birds of many different feathers.
But the Montanist movement was sharply criticized and rejected by believers. The objections to it came from different directions and sources. In one sense, the movement was self-defeating. Many of the prophecies which they made concerning wars and tumults did not come true. True believers were against the movement, and rightly so, because of the claim to extra -Biblical revelation. Those within the movement came to hold their revelations in higher regard than the Word of God.
Some of the writers of that day criticized the movement for its worldliness and its leader for his financial dealings. While followers were to be marked by strict moral discipline, one critic wrote about the leaders, “Does a prophet dye his hair, paint his eyelids, love adornment, play at gaming tables and dice, lend money at interest?” Questions arose about the financial dealings of the group as well.
Finally, the place of women as prophets and the confusion and lack of godly control which marked their gatherings sounded the death knell to the movement. It did not die easily but continued in small areas through many centuries.
The lessons for us are many and significant. Just as Marcion used the Gospel of Mark to defend his teaching, Montanus used Johns writings. Each was unbalanced, wresting Scripture to his own use. We must ever seek to be balanced in our handling of the Word of God. It seems obvious to us that the Spirit of God would never contradict Himself by revealing something unscriptural to someone. Finally, error often occurs as a reaction to a barren spiritual state. The maintenance of Scriptural conditions in Gods assembly demands spiritual men and women. Nothing is as dead and dangerous as a Scriptural pattern carried out by unspiritual people.