I have thoroughly enjoyed studying some of the “heretical” groups of the middle ages, that is, groups of Christians who sprung up from place to place before Luther and the Reformation. Many of these groups bear striking resemblance to later Reformation-era groups, especially the Anabaptists and other “radical reformers.”
For example, in England, there was a group called “Lollards” who followed the “pre-reformer” John Wycliffe. (By the way, if you’re not familiar with Wycliffe, I’d encourage you to investigate him and the “Lollards.”) These groups of believers opposed the Catholic Church in several areas, specifically in regards to the clergy and transubstantiation. (In fact, their Catholic opponents often asked suspected Lollards if the bread was actually the body of Christ, to which the Lollards would reply that it was just a piece of bread, thus condemning them.)
In many ways, the religious leaders of the day did not know what to do about the Lollards, because they did not make sense to them. They didn’t know what to call the simple meetings that these believers held in homes and public places. They couldn’t understand why these “Lollards” kept quoting Scripture (in English, though, which was always suspect). Although there were a few “leaders” (from an outward perspective), the groups continued to thrive after the leaders were, um, removed.
Speaking to this last point, consider this passage in The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History by Anne Hudson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988):
If there were few ‘prophets’, in the mould of Swinderby, Thorpe, or Wyche, in the later period, there was a host of lesser figures, men and women, who in the course of their everyday activities proselytized, encouraged and upbraided the wavering, and fostered the faithful. It seems clear that the dominating figures were not to be found in Lollardy of the last sixty years before Lutheranism. In part this is doubtless the effect of the continued persecution, and most notably of Arundel’s Constitutions; conventional wisdom would add the effect of Oldcastle’s rebellion in removing lay support for the heretics amongst the aristocracy and gentry. But it is worth examining whether in part it is not also the result of the success of the Lollard educational programme. For it is clear that the communities themselves had effectively taken over from the individual preachers as teachers and maintainers of heresy. (449-50)
In a theology course, a seminary professor once told me that if the seminaries were doing their job correctly and the church was doing its job correctly, then the seminaries would not need to exist. So, considering the quote above, it seems that the fact that seminaries continue to exist is a demonstration of the failure of that educational program.
On the other hand, those who persecuted the Lollards for their “heresy” found that their “educational programme” was vastly successful. And, what was that educational program? “The communities themselves had effectively taken over from the individual preachers as teachers and maintainers of heresy” (with “heresy” referring to the beliefs and practices of the Lollards).
What would happen if communities of believers today took over from “the individual preachers as teachers and maintainers” of the way of Christ? Would we see a similar success to that “educational programme”?