What Is Montanism?

Montanism is a sect which broke away from the church in the second century following the teachings of Montanus and his prophetess followers Priscilla and Maximilla. They claimed to have new prophetic revelation from God and drew a large number in the church to themselves. They spoke against the distinction between the clergy and the congregation because all Christians are equal to each other. Women were allowed to speak prophetically in church just as the men were. The Christian apologist Tertullian at first opposed them, but later became a Montanist himself.

Some of the followers of Montanus claimed that he was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. The church father Eusebius of Caesarea writes concerning them:

“For some persons, like venomous reptiles, crawled over Asia and Phrygia, boasting that Montanus was the Paraclete, and that the women that followed him, Priscilla and Maximilla, were prophetesses of Montanus” (Church History, 5.14).

Epiphanius gives us some of Montanus’ prophetic words as he claims to be speaking the words of God:

“Behold, man is like a lyre; and I flit about like a plectron; man sleeps, and I awaken him; behold it is the Lord who changes the hearts of men and gives man a heart” (Medicine 48.4.1).

“Neither angel nor envoy, but I the Lord God the Father have come” (Medicine 48.11.1).

“I am the Lord God, the Almighty dwelling in man” (Medicine 48.11.9).

Eusebius quotes Apolinarius of Hierapolis who describes these prophetic utterances as ecstatic in nature and lacking in self-control:

“There first, they say, when Gratus was proconsul of Asia, a recent convert, Montanus by name, through his unquenchable desire for leadership, gave the adversary opportunity against him. And he became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning. Some of those who heard his spurious utterances at that time were indignant, and they rebuked him as one that was possessed, and that was under the control of a demon, and was led by a deceitful spirit, and was distracting the multitude; and they forbade him to talk, remembering the distinction drawn by the Lord and his warning to guard watchfully against the coming of false prophets. . . . And he stirred up besides two women, and filled them with the false spirit, so that they talked wildly and unreasonably and strangely, like the person already mentioned. And the spirit pronounced them blessed as they rejoiced and gloried in him, and puffed them up by the magnitude of his promises” (Church History, 5.16).

They were all later excommunicated from the church:

“And the arrogant spirit taught them to revile the entire universal Church under heaven, because the spirit of false prophecy received neither honor from it nor entrance into it. For the faithful in Asia met often in many places throughout Asia to consider this matter, and examined the novel utterances and pronounced them profane, and rejected the heresy, and thus these persons were expelled from the Church and debarred from communion” (Church History, 5.16).

Maximilla was reported to have prophesied that war was shortly to break out which never came to pass:

“And has not this been shown clearly to be false? For it is today more than thirteen years since the woman died, and there has been neither a partial nor general war in the world; but rather, through the mercy of God, continued peace even to the Christians” (Church History, 5.16).

According to Epiphanius, she also claimed that she would be the last prophet before Christ comes: “After me there will no longer be a prophet but the end” (Medicine 48.2.4).

Apollonius, another writer not to be confused with Apolinarius, wrote that Montanus taught that the institution of marriage was now dissolved. The prophetesses abandoned their husbands in light of this belief:

“His actions and his teaching show who this new teacher is. This is he who taught the dissolution of marriage; who made laws for fasting; who named Pepuza and Tymion, small towns in Phrygia, Jerusalem, wishing to gather people to them from all directions; who appointed collectors of money; who contrived the receiving of gifts under the name of offerings; who provided salaries for those who preached his doctrine, that its teaching might prevail through gluttony. . . . We show that these first prophetesses themselves, as soon as they were filled with the Spirit, abandoned their husbands. How falsely therefore they speak who call Prisca a virgin” (Church History, 5.18).

According to Tertullian, Priscilla believed that abstaining from sex resulted in prophetic visions: “Purification produces harmony and they see visions” (Exhortation to Charity 10.5).

For serious offenses, they believed there could be no forgiveness from God. Tertullian, as a Montanist, quotes from one of their prophets claiming to be speaking by the Spirit: “The Church can pardon sin, but I will not do it, lest they also commit other offences” (On Modesty 21.7).

According to Epiphanius, they forbade Christians from marrying a second time after their spouse had died (Medicine 48.9.7).

Apollonius records that they accepted expensive gifts and were motivated by greed:

“Does not all Scripture seem to you to forbid a prophet to receive gifts and money? When therefore I see the prophetess receiving gold and silver and costly garments, how can I avoid reproving her? . . . . For we will show that those whom they call prophets and martyrs gather their gain not only from rich men, but also from the poor, and orphans, and widows” (Church History, 5.18).

From these testimonies, we can see several problems with this movement:

  1. The lack of self-control in their prophecies is contrary to Paul’s description of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:32: “And the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” A true prophet is in control of his own spirit describing the orderly nature of New Testament prophecy.
  1. Their desire for wealth and taking money from the poor parallels the greed of the Word of Faith movement today. The health and wealth gospel preys upon the poor and needy by giving them empty promises (2 Pet 2:3).
  1. The teaching that marriage is dissolved is contrary to Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 4:1-3. Forbidding others from marrying is a doctrine of demons.
  1. Not allowing Christians to marry after their spouse has died is contrary to 1 Corinthians 7:39.
  1. The abolition of the clergy goes against Paul’s instructions to the church in 1 Timothy 3 that each church is to have elders who instruct the people. This is similar to the later belief of the Quakers.
  1. Their imposed fasting and asceticism is legalistic and goes beyond the warrant of Scripture (1 Cor 4:6).
  1. They share in common with the charismatic movement that the gift of prophecy is still given in contrast to the rest of the church at that time which apparently did not have prophets of its own.
  1. Some of them gave false prophecies concerning the future (Deut 18:22).
  1. The egalitarianism of the movement is contrary to Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 concerning women in the church.
  1. Refusing to forgive some sinners is contrary to 2 Corinthians 2:10. God will forgive all who repent of their sins (1 John 1:7).

In other words, they were greedy legalistic egalitarian ecstatic charismatics who gave false prophecies. I can’t think of anyone like that today.


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