The legitimacy of modern knightly orders from a theological perspective

An early 14th-century German manuscript depicting a knight and his lady.

An early 14th-century German manuscript depicting a knight and his lady.

Remembering the past is an important theme in both the Old (e.g. Hebrews 13:2-3) and New Testament (e.g. John 14:26). I am working on a research project that will have a historical focus. In particular, I would like to focus on the history of a specific Christian knightly order from a practical theological (therefore empirical) perspective and examine to what extent its Christian traditions have survived the course of time. These religiously-based Catholic societies, originally established during the medieval crusades and mostly made up of confraternities of knights, were formed to protect the Christians against foreign aggression and persecution, especially against the Islamic conquests and Baltic Paganism in Easter Europe. The original features of these societies consisted of a combination of religious and military actions. Some of the Christian knightly order, in particular the Knights Hospitaller, also cared for the sick and poor.

Since 2007, I am working on a study that focuses on the legitimacy of modern Christian knightly orders. Such orders were originally characterized as orders, confraternities or societies of knights, often founded during or in inspiration of the original Roman Catholic military orders of the medieval crusades (circa 1099-1291). They were inspired by medieval notions of chivalry, being an ethos in which martial, aristocratic and Christian elements were fused together (Stair Sainty 2006; Keen: 2005). In modern days similar (mimic) orders have been established by monarchs (or their descendants) and governments with the purpose of bestowing honors on deserving individuals. Examples of ancient knightly orders that survived in modern times are the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George and the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.

The legitimacy of Christian knightly orders is discussed heavily on the internet and in literature (Stair Sainty’s book of about 2000 pages focusses on the issue). The current study is inspired by a PhD thesis of Hoegen Dijkhof (2006), addressing the legitimacy of a number of knightly orders from a historical and legal perspective. In my study I will address the issue of legitimacy from a Christian perspective. A major and often overlooked problem is the definition of both the terms legitimate and knightly order. This aspect of the problem has been raised by Velde (1996).

Activities of modern knightly orders

Modern knightly orders have abandoned their original military mission and focus on spiritual and charity activities. Normally knightly orders demand of its members that the are living their lives as Christians and remain mindful of their obligations to undertake hospitaller assistance, as well as charitable and other good works. The Spanish Constantinian Order for example stresses that it is important for members to lead a life as “perfect” Christians:

Members of the Order are expected to live their lives as perfect Christians and contribute to the increase of religious principles both by action and example. They must be faithful to the traditional teachings of the Church and regularly participate in the solemn celebration of the Liturgy according to the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms and, when appropriate, the particular local forms (notably the Ambrosian, Latin-Byzantine or Mozarabic Rites).

Henri d'Orléans, aujourd'hui comte de Paris, duc de France et actuel chef de la maison royale de France, pose pour le photographe, le 10 juin 2002 au Sénat à Paris, avant un discours officiel qu'il doit donner au Sénat à l'occasion de la présentation de son livre : "La France à bout de bras". AFP PHOTO MEDHI FEDOUACH

The French branch of the Order of Saint Lazarus enjoys its official Temporal Protection from the Royal House of France. AFP PHOTO MEDHI FEDOUACH. Other branches of the Order enjoy the protection of the Duke de Borbon Parma and the Duke of Sevilla.

The hospitaller mission is also considered of great importance. The biggest and most effective knightly order (the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta or SMOM) has developed numerous projects in 120 countries of the world. The order organizes medical, social and humanitarian projects. The SMOM has 13,500 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers and qualified staff of 25,000 professionals, mostly medical personnel and paramedics (SMOM website, 2016). The SMOM’s relief organisation in South Africa, the Brotherhood of the Blessed Gerard, focusses on AIDS patients (mostly children) and runs a hospice in KwaZulu-Natal.

The historical foundations of the knightly orders and their current activities show that the Christian inspiration is one of the most important aspects and characteristic of Christian knightly orders. This inspiration is manifested by the hospitaller activities that Christian knightly orders promote. It is unthinkable that a modern Christian knightly order lacks Christ-inspired hospitaller activities.

The case study in my research will focus on the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem, also known as Order of Saint Lazarus. The legitimacy of this Order has been heavily disputed by Stair Sainty (2006). Stair Sainty states:

The Order of Saint Lazarus, although it is to be complimented for its considerable charitable efforts (notably in Germany), need not pretend to an historical continuity to which its claims, at the very least, are unsubstantiated. Were it to assume the character of a private association, founded in 1910, to emulate the traditions of the ancient crusader Order, it could deflect much of the hostility it has attracted from those bodies which can be more properly characterized as Orders of Knighthood, founded by Papal Bull or Sovereign act or charter. Without such authority behind it, it is difficult to find any justification for this body’s claim to be considered an Order of Chivalry. Private individuals do not have the authority to form Orders, at least none that will be generally recognized.

It therefore serves as an interesting case study for the legitimacy of a knightly order from a Christian perspective.

Research questions

  • What is the background of the Order of Saint Lazarus and how did its history develop?
  • Which kind of goals are selected by the most well-known Christian knightly orders to help and support people who are in distress and which goals are specified amd implemented by the Order of Saint Lazarus?
  • Can the goals of the Order of Saint Lazarus and their implementations be considered effective?
  • To what extent is the Order of Saint Lazarus’ smart-strategy and its implementation of this strategy, Bible-based and therefore legitimate from a Christian perspective?

Literature Review

Adams, J.E. (1986). A Theology of Christian Counseling, More Than Redemption, Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Anderson, R.S. (2003). Spiritual Caregiving as Secular Sacrament, A Practical Theology for Professional Caregivers, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Baljon, J.M.S. (1900). Commentaar op het Evangelie van Mattheus. Groningen: J.B. Wolters

Bruggen, J. van (1993), Lucas. Het evangelie als voorgeschiedenis. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.

Bruggen, J. van (2004), Matteüs, Het evangelie voor Israël, Kampen: Kok.

Brotherhood of the Blessed Gerard (2008). Retrieved 15 January 2008 from http://bbg.org.za/index.htm.

Grossheide, F.W. (1954). Het heilig evangelie volgens Mattheus. Kampen:   Uitgeversmaatschappij J.H. Kok

Hampton Keathley III, J. (1996), One Another’ commands of Scripture. Biblical Studies Press. Retrieved from http://www.bible.org/series.php?series_id=71 .

Heitink, G. (1993). Praktische theologie, geschiedenis, theorie, handelingsvelden. Kok: Kampen

Hoegen Dijkhof, H.J., The legitimacy of Orders of St. John : a historical and legal analysis and case study of a para-religious phenomenon, 2006 Doctoral thesis, Leiden University.

Keen, M.H., Chivalry, Yale University Press, 2005

Klein, H. (2006), Das Lukasevangelium, übersetzt und erklärt, Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 2006

Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (2016a) website retrieved 10 July 2016 http://www.saintjohn.org/who/Chivalry

Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (2016b) website retrieved 10 July 2016 http://www.stjohn.org.za/About-Us/What-We-Do

Stair Sainty, G., World Orders of Knighthood and Merit, 2006 Burkes Peerage.

Velde. F., Legitimacy and Orders of Knighthood, (retrieved 14 July 2016) http://www.heraldica.org/topics/orders/legitim.htm

Watke, E. (1992). “Biblical Couseling Seminar Material”. Retreived on 21 July 2008 from http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Biblical%20Counseling.pdf

Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, website https://www.orderofmalta.int/humanitarian-medical-works/ 2016)

Wierzbicka, A. (2001). What did Jesus Mean? Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.