Radical Christians: Friends of God Movement
By Glenn E. Myers, Ph.D.
-- Radically committed to living in intimate relationship with the Lord, the Friends of God encompassed laymen and laywomen, Beguines, nuns and traveling preachers. Referred to in German as the Gottesfreunde, this loose association of committed Christians was one of the most inclusive renewal movements of church history. Their title came from John 15:15 where Jesus calls his disciples "friends," as well as from passages referring to Abraham and others as "friends of God."
Living in the fourteenth century, these believers endured war, famine and the Bubonic Plague, and grew spiritually by the various trials they faced.Through it all they relentlessly pursued a deeper life in Christ, knowing that the testing of their faith would develop perseveranceand make them "mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4).
Rather than establish a new order in the church, the Gottesfreunde formed small informal gatherings of serious believers from city to city, especially in Basel, Strasbourg, Cologne and other cities along the Rhine River. In fact, so many revivals took place in this region from 1200 to 1600, that the Rhine became known as "the spiritual artery of the German peoples."
Arguably the most significant leader of the movement was the great preacher, Johannes Tauler (1300-1360). A traveling friar in the Dominican Order, Tauler offered church services and spiritual direction to convents of nuns and Beguines, as well as preaching to groups of townspeople. He continually invited his listeners into a deep, experiential walk of faith as genuine followers of Christ.
A contemporary of Tauler and fellow Dominican, Heinrich Suso (1295-1366) likewise circulated among various convents, preaching and providing spiritual direction. He called his listeners to endure trials and persecution, and to live a transformed life. His devotional book,The Clock of Wisdom, spread across Europe as one of the most-read works on spiritual formation in the Middle Ages.
A forerunner to the Friends of God Movement, Meister Eckhart (1260-1329) emphasized detachment from material possessions so that one can be filled with God. He taught the birth of Christ in every believing soul and encouraged all to surrender to God's will and embrace whatever trials God allowed. Eckhart's teaching was adapted and passed on by Suso and Tauler.
Rulmann Merswin was a Strasbourg banker who led the Friends of God in that city after Tauler died. As well as writing various books on the spiritual life, Merswin sought to organize the movement. He and his wife, Gertrude, purchased a small island in the Rhine, Green Isle, and established it as a retreat center andsemi-monasticcommunity.
The Friends of God stressed personal Bible reading. By the fourteenth century, copies of God's Word were becoming accessible so that people with some means could purchase their own copy. In addition, Scripture was being translated into the common language. Therefore, the Gottesfreunde encouraged people to read the Bible on their own.
They also emphasized practical obedience to God's Word. Reading does little good if we do not obey. Therefore, the Friends of God highlighted daily discipleship and cultivation of Christ-like character—especially humility, gentlenessand patience (Colossians 3:12).
Priesthood of All Believers
Living out the priesthood of all believers, the Friends of God affirmed that laypeople could serve God in their vocations as well as those who dedicated their lives to God in a convent. Valuing everyone's gifts and calling, Tauler declared, "One person can spin and another can make shoes. Some work well with their hands and are employed in doing so . . . . It is all God's grace, though, and God's Spirit working in us." In fact, continued Tauler, "I know one of the most-advanced friends of God who has been a farmer his whole life, more than forty years."(1)
The Friends of God asserted that we do not need to join a monastery to become spiritually mature. Rather, God uses the challenges and trials of ordinary life to perfect us, as James 1:2-4 states. In down-to-earth language Tauler preached, "There are many poor peasants in the village who shovel manure to earn a bit of bread through hard, bitter work. Yet they are moving forward spiritually a hundred times better than you [in monasteries and full-time ministry] because they are following the call of God in a simple manner!"(2)
Friendship with Each Other
Friendship with God is intimately linked to friendship with other believers. Recognizing this fact, theGottesfreunde cultivated close relationships with like-minded Christians. They established small groups of committed nuns within a convent, praying with each other and exhorting one another to press on in the Lord. They nurtured friendship among laypeople, Beguines, and traveling preachers.
The Gottesfreunde also built relationship over the miles via letters. In fact, the very first personal correspondence that we have in the German language is between a pastor, Heinrich of Nördlingen, and a nun, Margareta Ebner. From their letters we read how they encouraged each other in their walk with God. Although they met in person only a few times, their correspondence lasted nearly twenty years.
In addition to their friendship with each other, both Heinrich and Margareta were friends of Johannes Tauler. Heinrich introduced both Margareta and Tauler to Mechthild of Magdeburg's work, Flowing Light of the Godhead, which Heinrich translated from Low German into High German. Christina Ebner and Adelheid Langmann—both members of the convent in nearby Engelthal—also joined the matrix of correspondence that wove together this friendship of men and women pursuing Jesus.
Devotional Book for Everyone
Another unnamed Friend of God was a member of the Teutonic Order in Frankfort, who wrote a book entitled, Theologia Germanica. This was not a systematic theology but rather a devotional work engendering spiritual formation. Written in German, its 56 brief chapters helped many common people grow in their relationship with Christ. In the early sixteenth century, Martin Luther published it twice. Since then nearly 200 editions have been published.
The Theologia Germanica called people to detach from the created things to which they were clinging in order to make room for God. Building on John 12:24-26, it challenged believers to die to self-focus and self-will. "May we abandon our selfish ways," prayed the author,"and die away from our own will and live only to God and His will." Then you will be so God-formed that "you are to God what your hand is to you."(3)
Spiritual Friendship Today
Not only did the Gottesfreunde of the fourteenth century guide people into relationship with Christ in their own day, they summon serious believers today to a transformed life. Their example of Scripture study beckons us to soak in God's Word, which is readily available to us today. Their embrace of incredible trials and tribulations offers us hope in our daily struggles.
The Friends of God remind us that we can please the Lord right where we are—we do not need to join a monastery or go into full-time ministry to grow spiritually. Above all, this renewal movement invites us to cultivate a deep and abiding friendship with God, as well as to build supporting relationships with like-minded believers who are radically committed to Christ.
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(1) Johannes Tauler Predigten: Vollständige Ausgabe, edited by Georg Hofmann (Freiburg: Herder, 1961), 361, 364. The translation is my own.
(2) Ibid., 505.
(3) The Theologia Germanica of Martin Luther, translated by Bengt Hoffman (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 149.
Glenn E. Myers is author of Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011), welcoming believers to pursue a deeper walk with Christ. He is also a contributor to Zondervan’s Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2011). Glenn’s passion is helping contemporary Christians grow spiritually by introducing them to the rich heritage of the past two thousand years of the church. Offering fresh spiritual water to thirsty saints today, he authors a blog: deepwellswithglennmyers.blogspot.com.
In 1995-1996, he and his wife Sharon ministered with CBN in Kiev. Receiving an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in church history from Boston University, Dr. Myers has served as pastor, missionary and professor. Currently he is a professor of Church History at Crown College with a specialization in the history of Christian Spirituality. Glenn also serves on the board at Restoration Ministries, Inc., offering retreats and provides spiritual direction.
© Glenn E. Myers. Used with permission.
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