Last month, Pope Francis visited a Waldensian church, where he asked forgiveness for the sins the Church had committed against the Waldensians. Most people have never heard of the Waldensians, nor their founder, Peter Waldo (French: Pierre Valdès, Latin: Petrus Valdes). While often regarded as a heretic by the Roman Catholics and a hero by Protestants, he certainly influenced the course of history for the global church.
The Waldensians are often seen as the “First Evangelicals,” even as the article in the first link indicates. As such, Waldo has become an inspiration of Evangelicals, especially in contemporary historical analyses of the Reformation. Waldo can’t be mentioned without briefly talking about Baptist Successionism, which is the belief that Baptists have had a continual succession of theological ancestors in existence since the 1st century church. The followers of Waldo are often placed in this line of theological succession, along with Anabaptists, and also including the potentially heretical group called the Montanists. Did the Waldensians influence the Baptists indirectly? It is probable—but I struggle with the assertion that there was a consistent flow of shadow-apostolic succession happening through these various groups. It’s an interesting theory, but I’m not sure we have enough evidence to identify it as anything other than a theory.
Let’s talk about Waldo’s background. Waldo (born 1140 CE) was a wealthy merchant from Lyon in modern France who developed a radical conviction of following Jesus. He began to sell his possessions and used his wealth for two primary purposes: (1) caring for the poor and (2) developing a translation of the Bible (New Testament) in a localized variant of French for the common person. Waldo’s work in both areas became considerable crimes in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church because he was doing his ministry outside the bounds of ordination.
Very little is known about Waldo, but he took seriously the idea that all people were called to ministry and that meant working to help people understand Scripture, rather than just relying on priests. His views led to a trial before the pope and several other church leaders. His views were found to be in opposition with the Church. He was excommunicated several years later in 1184 CE. As time went on, his followers would face significant persecution and flee to the Alps, in modern Italy, France, and Switzerland. Some historians believe that the Waldensians would influence and create fertile soil for the Reformation.
One of the most significant ideas that Waldo brought back to the Christian church was the universal priesthood—the idea that all people are invited into ministry and not just an elite class of priests. The Reformers wrestled with and embraced this idea in many ways as they worked to reconcile Roman Catholic theology with what they found in Scripture. One of the strongest passages of Scripture indicating this view is found from the words of the Apostle Peter:
“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” — I Peter 2:5 NRSV (emphasis added)
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” — I Peter 2:9, NRSV (emphasis added)
While these words aren’t directly from Jesus in the Gospels, they are from one of Jesus’ closest disciples and often regarded as the first Bishop of Rome. Peter’s words are important and not to be taken lightly. They were a reflection on the words of Moses in Exodus 19:6. These words from the Apostle Peter likely influenced Peter Waldo to embrace this view of a universal priesthood.
If there is one major takeaway we can find from the life of Waldo, it’s that all people are called to ministry. The question we have to ask is: “How do we do this well?” I believe that a significant starting place is helping people to find their gifts, strengths, and passions. What things have you found helpful to encourage people to embrace a calling to ministry?