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In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.

Catharism was the inner core in a “nesting egg” of heresy. Catharism was nested into Manichean belief, nested into Dualism, nested into Gnosticism (Lutheran Spokesman July 2020). It is no wonder that it was named the “Great Heresy.”

What we know about the Cathars comes predominantly from what the Catholic church in medieval times wrote against them. Cathar, a name given by the church, is derived from the Greek word meaning “clean/pure” (katharos).

The Cathars believed in a “good god” and a “bad god” (dualism). The bad god was god of all material things. This included the human body in which he imprisoned souls. Abstaining from all earthly temptations and leading a life of fasting and self-denial kept the bad god at bay.

The good god was the god of all immaterial things such as light and souls. Salvation was accomplished by shedding the material body and achieving perfection—a salvation that would ultimately include all human beings. The road to salvation might require several reincarnations.

The church first responded to the Cathar errors with preaching and public debates. However, when uneducated common laborers defending Catharism won debates against leading theologians, the spread of Catharism was not slowed.

The church kept trying new ways to slow Catharism’s spread. Preaching hadn’t worked. Debates hadn’t worked. Propaganda didn’t work. What was next? A crusade.

In 1208, a papal representative to the Cathars was murdered and that was the spark that started the crusading fire—an inferno that would rage for decades. The pope offered forgiveness of sins and a place in heaven to those who would battle the Cathars.

Crusaders sacked the city of Béziers in France in 1209. As they were storming the walls they asked how they could tell good Christians from the heretics. The papal representative responded, “Kill them all. God will know His own.”

As the church’s pressure increased, the Cathars went “underground” and became a secret society. The next step in the church’s eradication plan was begun by Pope Gregory IX in 1227. Gregory sent inquisitors into the districts to find heretics. Cathars were threatened and intimidated to denounce Catharism and give information about other Cathars.

The Cathars’ last big stand was at the fortress of Montsegur in 1244. The Crusaders constructed a massive pyre at the base of the rock. The Cathars who renounced their sin and accepted absolution would go free, but two hundred refused and sang hymns as they walked into the flames. The crusade and inquisition left southern France devastated, and more than 500,000 people dead. By 1325, Catharism had truly disappeared from Western Europe.

The history of Catharism is quite sad. It tells of a group of people who identified many things that were wrong in the external church and reacted against them, but they didn’t pursue the truth of God’s Word. So they railed against the church with the dull sword of heresy instead of the living, active, and sharp Sword of the Spirit (Hebrews 4:12, Ephesians 6:17).

On the other hand, the church of the day reacted to the heresy, not with the Sword of the Spirit, but with swords of steel.

The most significant echo from Catharism is rebounding from the past in words of warning and encouragement. The echoes warn against the wrong ways of combating Satan’s efforts. They encourage us to use the Gospel for winning souls who are lost in the maze of unbelief.

It is the still small voice (1 Kings 19:12) wielding the mighty Sword of the Spirit that will prevail. “Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17)

Wayne Eichstadt is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, Washington.