THE ANABAPTIST VIEW OF THE CHURCH
© T D Williams, 2010
II. Definitions and Distinctions
III. Historical Review
- IV. Basic Anabaptist Distinctives
- A. Restitution of the Church
- B. Voluntarism and Commitment
- C. Visibility of the Church
- 1. Constitution of the Church
- 2. Purpose of the Church
- V. Marks of the Fallen Church
- A. Union of Church and State
- B. War
- C. Dead Formalism
- VI. Marks of the True Church
- A. Pure Doctrine
- B. Proper Use of Christ's Ordinances
- 1. Baptism
- 2. The Lord's Supper
- C. Spiritual Government
- D. Community and Brotherly Love
- E. Separation from the World
- F. Persecution and Martyrdom
It is the thesis of Franklin Hamlin Littell in The Anabaptist View of the Church: A Study in the Origins of Sectarian Protestantism that the crucial issue which animates Anabaptist beliefs and makes them distinctive from that of the Reformers is their concept of the church. And certainly that is a central distinction. Each of the specific issues which catch one's attention as being an Anabaptist distinctive ties in closely with the vision of what the church is, who makes it up, how it should be run, and what its purpose is. Believer's baptism, separation of church and state, communal living, the ban, missions, and martyrdom--all of these are spokes of a wheel whose center is the church. They project out from that central understanding both giving form to and deriving direction from the central core of belief about the church. It is the purpose of this paper to detail the Anabaptist understanding of the church as well as to follow out the implications of that understanding as they took form within the context of some of the above mentioned distinctives.
The term "Anabaptist" has been used to describe a wide spectrum of beliefs. Thus, it is imperative to make certain distinctions in order to delineate the scope of this paper in terms of whose beliefs are being examined.
II. Definitions and Distinctions
George H. Williams has differentiated between Anabaptists and Spiritualists. The chief differentiation between Anabaptists and Spiritualists is the direction in which their vision was focused. AnabaptistsBut this is not the only division necessary. Anabaptism itself requires further differentiation. Those who looked back to the New Testament for their model of the church were divided in their approach to implementation of that New Testament church model. Thus, Anabaptists can be further divided into three main groups with diverging emphases: revolutionary Anabaptists, contemplative Anabaptists, and evangelical Anabaptists.2
looked steadily into the past, finding their own image and ecclesiastical, blueprints in the Bible and the martyr church of antiquity. The Spiritualists gazed mostly into the future. Convinced that the true church was not yet re-established in their midst, either they sought revolutionary relief in their impatience or, suspending all human effort, they solaced themselves with the fellowship of the invisible church of the Spirit, while quiescently awaiting God's action.1
Revolutionary Anabaptists looked to the Old Testament as well as to the New Testament for their model. In its extreme manifestation at Münster from 1534-35, it took up polygamy as well as renouncing pacifism and suffering for a forcible implementation of the kingdom of God on the Old Testament model.3
If the revolutionary Anabaptists had a vision of specific implementation of the scriptural model in societal as well as ecclesiastical terms, the contemplative Anabaptists denied the ultimate value of specificity even in ecclesiastical terms. John Denck, who falls in the category of contemplative Anabaptists, has been described in the following terms:
While he followed the example of the historic Jesus in submitting to (re)baptism as an adult, administered the rite to fresh converts, and accepted Jesus' instruction concerning the ban, he felt most deeply the claim of the inner Christ. He identified this inward Christ with the inner Word common to all mankind wherever, as though a spark blown upon by the spirit, it bursts into the flame of conscience.4
However, it is the evangelical Anabaptists who are the main concern of this paper. (Henceforth the term "Anabaptist" will be used to designate evangelical Anabaptists as distinct from revolutionary or contemplative Anabaptists.) They focused on the New Testament church pattern as normative and the Old Testament as allegory or typology (thus differing from the revolutionary Anabaptists) and the specifics of the New Testament pattern as necessary to the Christian life (thus differing from the contemplative Anabaptists). This focus on the New Testament is a clear distinctive.5
III. Historical Review
In order to understand Anabaptist beliefs it is helpful to review the historical context of the Anabaptist movement at its beginnings.
Anabaptist beginnings date from the Zurich Reformation. Ulrich Zwingli drew to him various intense, young humanists. Among these disciples was Conrad Grebel who came under Zwingli's influence in 1521. By 1523 tensions were developing between Zwingli and some of his followers who felt that he was compromising on New Testament principles.6
The 1523 dispute centered on the issues of inappropriate observance of the mass and use of images in worship. Grebel and Simon Stumpf argued for a more scriptural basis of worship. The city council of Zurich decided against them. Various other disputes regarding purgatory and the role of the city council in determining scriptural matters kept the atmosphere in Zurich unsettled until 1525. In January of 1525 the differences crystallized around the issue of baptism. On January 21, 1525 Grebel, Felix Manz, and George (Cajacob) Blaurock participated in the first adult (re)baptism in Manz's house. Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him and thus became the first official Anabaptist.7
The scene has been described as follows:
They [Grebel Manz, and Blaurock as well as others of like mind] came to one mind in these things, and in the pure fear of God they recognized that a person must learn from the divine Word and preaching a true faith which manifests itself in love, and receive the true Christian baptism on the basis of the recognized and confessed faith, in the union with God of a good conscience, (prepared) henceforth to serve God in a holy Christian life with all godliness, also to be steadfast to the end in tribulation. And it came to pass that they were together until fear (angst) began to come over them, yea they were pressed (gedrungen) in their hearts. Thereupon, they began to bow their knees to the Most High God in heaven and called upon him as the Knower of hearts, implored him to enable them to do his divine will and to manifest his mercy toward them, since they well knew what they would have to bear and suffer on account of it. After the prayer, George Cajacob arose and asked Conrad to baptize him, for the sake of God, with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with that request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no ordained deacon (diener) to perform such work. After that was done the others similarly desired George to baptize them, which he also did upon their request. Thus they together gave themselves to the name of the Lord in the high fear of God. Each confirmed (bestätet) the other in the service of the gospel, and they began to teach and keep the faith. Therewith began the separation from the world and its evil works.8
In the same year Balthasar Hübmaier, a Roman Catholic priest, was baptized by one of the Zurich Anabaptists, Wilhelm Reublin, who had been forced out of Zurich. Hübmaier came to Zurich in December of 1525. He was arrested twice and tortured on the rack during the second imprisonment. This drew forth a recantation which he subsequently repented. Hübmaier grieved over his recantation:The relationship between the Zurich Reformers and the Anabaptists had hardened from dispute to enmity.10
"I may err--I am a man--but a heretic I cannot be, because I ask constantly for instruction in the word of God. But never has any one come to me and pointed out a single word, but one single man and his followers--against his own previous preaching, word and print, whose name I spare for the sake of God's word--who against common justice and appeal in behalf of his own government, the confederacy, and also the Emperor, by capture, imprisonment, sufferings and the hangman, tried to teach me the faith. But faith is a work of God and not of the heretic's tower, in which one sees neither sun nor moon, and lives on nothing but water and bread. . . . O God, pardon me my weakness. It is good for me (as David says) that thou hast humbled me."9
The Anabaptists began preaching openly in Zurich. When imprisonment and torture failed to quell their evangelistic zeal, the Zurich council passed a law which allowed for the death penalty to be administered for rebaptism and attending Anabaptist preaching. The law, passed on November 19, 1526, was first administered on January 5, 1527, when Felix Manz was executed by drowning.11
However, such persecution did not stop the Anabaptist movement. It spread from Switzerland into Germany via Hans Denck, Wilhelm Reublin, and Michael Sattler.12
Michael Sattler wrote the text of the Schleitheim Confession which was approved by a conference of Anabaptists meeting at Schleitheim on February 24, 1527. It gave doctrinal and organizational direction to the budding Anabaptist movement in Switzerland and Germany. Sattler was arrested at the Schleitheim meetings by Catholic authorities and tortured and killed in a particularly barbaric manner.
"The torture, a prelude to the execution, began at the market place where a piece was cut from Sattler's tongue. Pieces of flesh were torn from his body twice with red-hot tongs. He was then forged to a cart. On the way to the scene of the execution the tongs were applied five times again. In the market place and at the site of the execution, still able to speak, the unshakable Sattler prayed for his persecutors. After being bound to a ladder with ropes and pushed into the fire, he admonished the people, the judges, and the mayor to repent and be converted. Then he prayed, 'Almighty, eternal God, Thou art the way and the truth: because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with thy help to this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.'
"As soon as the ropes on his wrists were burned, Sattler raised the two forefingers of his hands giving the promised signal to the brethren that a martyr's death was bearable. Then the assembled crowd heard coming from his seared lips, 'Father, I commend my spirit into Thy hands.'"13
Sattler's steadfastness under such treatment inspired the Anabaptist movement to continued commitment and courage in the face of extreme persecution and sent a shudder through the ranks of his persecutors.14
The Anabaptists gained a short-lived peace and toleration in Moravia, where Jacob Hutter began his work of introducing a successful form of communal life to the Anahaptists in August of 1533. However, in 1535 persecution began there also in a systematic manner at the incitement of the Austrian King Ferdinand. In November of 1535 Hutter and his pregnant wife were captured. Hutter refused to recant under torture and was burned at the stake on February 25, 1536. The persecution of the Hutterites continued until 1553. For the next 40 years there was comparative peace which allowed development of the Hutterite communities.15
The spread of Anabaptism in the Netherlands was spearheaded by Melchior Hofmann, Dirk and Obbe Phillips, and Menno Simons. Simons, an ex-priest in the Roman Catholic Church, was baptized into the Anabaptist fellowship c. 1535-1536 and gave the Dutch Anabaptists needed leadership from c. 1538 to his death in 1561.16
IV. Basic Anabaptist Distinctives
A. Restitution of the Church
The intense enmity of the Reformers for the Anabaptists stemmed in large measure from their differing views of the church. Anabaptists and Reformers pinpointed different causes for the decline of the church.
The Reformers saw their task as one of reforming the church. They believed that the Catholic Church had departed from the true faith in various essential matters. John Calvin saw a departure in three areas: doctrine, discipline, and sacraments.17
The Anabaptists saw more than a departure. They saw the absolute corruption of the true church, and they felt they were not just reforming the church but reinstituting the true church--the apostolic church. The Anabaptists viewed the fall of the church as complete; the Reformers viewed the fall as only partial.18
The Anabaptists dated the fall of the church with the uniting of church and state under Constantine. They saw this as introducing two perversions: infant baptism and the use of force to compel belief. In both cases a crucial mark of the church was obliterated: voluntary membership.19
The central and animating Anabaptist vision of the church was that of the apostolic church. They did not see themselves as starting a new church, but as implementing the intended one. Thus, they took their orders not from tradition or reason but from scripture. They tried to approximate as closely as possible the New Testament church. This can be seen both on major doctrinal and practical distinctions as well as in more subtle areas.
For example, the evangelistic fervor of the Anabaptists is striking. Despite extreme dislocating and decimating persecutions, they continued to send out missionaries at a phenomenal rate and at great cost. It is estimated that 80% of the Hutterite missionaries died martyrs.20 While the Reformers were building their churches on a territorial model, the Anabaptists were seeking to implement Christ's command of Matthew 25:19-20a: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you". The Reformers considered that this command was given to the apostles and was met by them, and thus it was not applicable to the later church. But, precisely because the Anabaptists saw their churches as apostolic churches, they took the command to heart as a command to themselves as those carrying on the apostolic church.21
On a more subtle level, the Anabaptists showed real concern regarding the issue of apostolic ordination. This can be seen in those cases where those who were formerly Catholic priests (e.g., Menno Simons) renounced their Catholic ordination to receive what they felt was a truly apostolic commissioning. Several Reformers (e.g., Zwingli), on the other hand, refused reordination after becoming Protestants. The Anabaptists showed a real concern for apostolic succession, but to them it was a spiritual succession not a formalistic succession.22
Because the Anabaptists saw their task as one of restitution of the apostolic church, they consistently went back to the New Testament to find their marching orders. Their continuing criticism of the Reformers was based on their view that the Reformers did not fully implement the scriptures in either their church structure, practices or in their lives. The Anabaptists criticized the Reformers for refusing to recognize the necessity of voluntary rather than territorial church association and for refusal to recognize the necessity of a visible, pure church.
B. Voluntarism and Commitment
At the heart of the Anabaptist criticism of the Reformers and Roman Catholics was the idea of the necessity of voluntary commitment in the Christian life and in the church. They saw the New Testament method of evangelizing as being based on a choice given through preaching and letter writing not as being enforced through societal or state power.23 Joining the church must be both voluntary and a real step of commitment for the individual. The territorial church and infant baptism violated both of these standards. For the infant baptized into the church, the joining could be neither voluntary (because the infant had not made the decision rather it has been made for him by others) nor a step of commitment (because the infant did not understand what was happening). In a witty response to Martin Luther regarding the necessity of faith for baptism, Menno Simons replied:
"I know that Luther teaches that faith is present in infants, just as in a believing, sleeping man. To this I reply, first, that if there were such a sleeping faith in little unconscious infants (which however is nothing but human sophistry), it would notwithstanding be improper to baptize such children so long as they would not verbally confess it and show the required fruits. For the holy apostles did not baptize any believers while they were asleep, as we have shown in our former writings."24
Likewise the territorial church by its very structure includes all the people of an area almost automatically. There is no stress on either voluntarism or commitment. Rather joining is assumed as the natural course of events. For the Anabaptist this denied the crucial idea of counting the cost of discipleship which was essential to the Christian life and Christian church community.
Further, and even more damning, the territorial churches used the power of the state to compel belief. Faith is central to Christianity, and for Anabaptists faith was something which cannot be compelled or induced by force. To use force to compel right relief is both useless and against Christ's command.
Faith is a gift of God, therefore, it cannot be forced upon any one by worldly authorities or by the sword; alone through the pure doctrine of the holy Word and with humble ardent prayer it must be obtained of the Holy Ghost as a gift of grace. Moreover it is not the will of the Master of the house that the tares should be rooted up as long as the day of reaping is not at hand, as the Scriptural parable teaches and shows with great clearness.25
C. Visibility of the Church
In line with this emphasis on voluntary commitment is the Anabaptist vision of the church and its purpose.
The Anabaptists denied the importance of the idea of the invisible church in setting up a visible church. However, they did not deny the fact of it. Menno Simons writes:To the Anabaptists, the Reformers' denial of the importance of a visible, pure church was an attempt to escape from the "spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances, and life" Christ commanded for the Christian.
That God should not have His elect among . . . [the persecuting state churches], concerning this we do not dispute, but shall in humility leave this both now and forever to the gracious judgment of God; . . . but the question under dispute is with what spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life Christ has commanded to gather unto Him an abiding church and maintain it in His ways.26
1. Constitution of the Church
The Anabaptists saw the church as a body of regenerated believers committed to following Christ in community. If those who are not truly regenerated (as can be seen by their lack of confession of faith in the case of infants) or truly committed (as can be seen by their refusal to live an outwardly Christian life) are allowed in, the community becomes a mixed, ineffective body. Unity of spirit essential for a true church.27
Christ's church consists of the chosen of God, His saints and beloved who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, who are born of God and led by Christ's Spirit, who are in Christ and Christ in them, who hear and believe His word, live in their weakness according to His commandments and in patience and meekness follow in His footsteps, who hate evil and love the good, earnestly desiring to apprehend Christ as they are apprehended of Him. For all who are in Christ are new creatures, flesh of His flesh, bone of His bone and members of His body.28
It is important to notice that there is an emphasis on salvation, regeneration, and living in accord with Christ's commandments, although such living is in the context of weakness. Thus, the demand for pure living was softened by the understanding that it is in weakness that Christ's commands are followed. There is not a severe perfectionism here.
2. Purpose of the Church
The purpose of the church is to be a true messenger of the gospel. The church is to teach the message Christ entrusted to her regarding repentance and the peace that comes through the gospel of Christ. Thus, the church is a witness of Christ and His gospel.29 As such her mission is to preach the gospel to all men that all might be saved.This preaching is done even at great cost. It is both a preaching in word and a preaching in blood. Prison, torture, and death are considered part of the task. Preaching endures in spite of and through them.
To this end we preach as much as opportunity and possibility affords, both in daytime and by night, in houses and in fields, in forests and wildernesses, in this land and abroad, in prison and bonds, in water, fire and the scaffold, on the gallows, and upon the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writing at the risk of possessions and life, as we have done these many years without ceasing.
We seek and desire only that we might point the whole world (which lieth in wickedness) to the true way, and that many souls may by the Word of the Lord, through His help and power, be won from the dominion of Satan and brought to Christ.30
However, the church is more than just a body of service, preaching the gospel of Christ and teaching His commandments. It is also an instrument for the perfecting of salvation. That perfection cannot occur in isolation. Thus, the Anabaptists rejected the Reformers' individualistic approach to salvation. The Anabaptist emphasis was on communal salvation, at least as it applied to the church. For salvation was not only a lack of damnation, but it was also a transformational living out of the life of Christ. Brotherhood is necessary for the restoration of the divine image in man (which is love). Thus, love is not just a command but is the living out of the meaning of redemption.31
In this context, one can understand their rejection of the mixed churches of the Reformers. If brotherly love was essential to the living out of the Christian life, then a mixed body would hinder, if not destroy, the interpersonal and community commitment necessary to the Christian life. The churches of the Reformers were severely criticized because they did not manifest this brotherly love toward their own members in need. Menno Simons draws a stinging contrast between Reform churches and Anabaptist churches:
This love, charity and community we teach and practice, and have for seventeen years taught and practiced in such a manner that although we have to a great extent been robbed of our property and are yet robbed, and many a pious, Godfearing father and mother has been put to death by the fire, water, or the sword, and we have no secure place of abode, as is manifest, and besides there are dear times, yet thanks be to God, none of the pious, nor any of their children who have been committed to us, have been found to beg.
They boast of following the word of God, and of being the true Christian church, and never realize that they have entirely lost the evidence of true Christianity. For although they have plenty of everything and many of their own people fare sumptuously and live in voluptuousness, in superfluous expense, going about in silk and velvet, gold and silver and all kinds of pomp and pride and furnish their houses with all manner of costly ornaments, and have their coffers well filled, yet they suffer many of their poor afflicted members, although they are their fellow believers, have received one baptism and partaken of the same bread with them, to go begging, some of them suffering from the bitterest want, hunger, and need, and so many of their aged, sick, lame, blind members are compelled to beg their bread at their doors.32
It is on the basis of these criticisms and the belief that a visible community of committed Christians is necessary for the Christian life that the Anabaptists rejected the Reformers' territorial churches.
V. Marks of the Fallen Church
A. Union of Church and State
Anabaptists criticized the Reformers for their identification of church and state. First of all such a relationship introduced the corruption of compulsion. The voluntary commitment crucial to Christianity was eliminated by the employment of the government's sword. Second, the state's role in governing the church was an interference with the Lordship of Christ which was manifested through congregational rule. Third, the state's use of the sword was contrary to Christian teaching. The Christian's sword is the Word of God, and the only force used is moral force via the ban for those who have already committed themselves to Christ, His church, and its discipline and brotherhood.33
Again our fortress is Christ, our defence is patience, our sword is the Word of God, and our victory is the sincere, firm, unfeigned, faith in Jesus Christ. Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine's blood of well nigh equal value.34
The Anabaptists considered the willingness of the Reformers' to participate in war a mark of their corruption and an indication of the fall of the church. For, as Menno Simons pointed out, when Christians go to war they do not discriminate in their killing between Christian and non-Christian.
They do not consider that they use the sword of war, which they wield, contrary to all evangelical Scripture, against their own brethren, namely those of like faith with them who have received the same baptism and have broken the same bread with them and are thus members of the same body.35
Rather the Christian is called to love his brother and to do good to his enemy. There is an understandable tone of bitterness on this point. The Anabaptists felt the sword of both the Catholics and the Reformers. Thus, Michael Sattler, when replying to charges leveled against him considers the Turks superior to the Catholics on this point. The Turks kill because they know nothing about Christian commands. The Christians kill in spite of Christ's commands and thereby show themselves to be worse than the Turks, for they are Turks by choice and spirit and not merely by flesh.
But that I said that, if warring were right, I would rather take the field against so-called Christians who persecute, capture, and kill pious Christians than against the Turks was for the following reason. The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith, and is a Turk after the flesh. But you who would be Christians and who make your boast of Christ persecute the pious witnesses of Christ and are Turks after the spirit!36
C. Dead Formalism
Without free association the churches are mere formalistic gatherings. There is no assurance of true belief or unity in belief, and there is a defiance of proper church organization and practice as set down in the New Testament.37
One of the tell-tale marks of dead formalism is the lack of fruit of righteousness in the lives of those in the fallen churches. This divergence between claim and fact became even more pronounced during times of persecution. A graphic account by a Moravian Anabaptist pinpoints the heart of the Anabaptist critique:
It was stated above that the year 1621 began with much tribulation. . . . I cannot tell what awful devilish things were perpetrated on many good, pious and honorable sisters . . ., yea, on children, both boys and girls. Women with child and mothers on their deathbed as well as virgins were most outrageously attacked. The men were burned with glowing irons and red-hot pans; their feet were held in the fire until their toes were burned off; wounds were cut into which powder was poured and then set afire; . . . eyes forced out by inhuman torture; men were hung up by the neck like thieves. . . . Such things were openly practiced by the imperial soldiery who believed themselves to be the best of Christians. . . . One would suppose that the devil himself would have been more fearful of the might, power, glory and majesty of God than these shameless men. May God lead them to realize it, to whom and to whose righteous judgment we commit everything.38
VI. Marks of the True Church
The Anabaptists did more than critique the faults of the Reform and Catholic churches. They set about implementing their vision of the New Testament church. There were various lists of marks of the true church drawn up. Menno Simons listed six:
- 1. The unadulterated pure doctrine.
- 2. The Scriptural use of the ordinances.
- 3. Obedience to the Word.
- 4. Unfeigned brotherly love.
- 5. Candid confession of God and Christ.
- 6. Bearing oppression and hatred for the sake of the Word of the Lord.39
Dietrich Philips writing c. 1560 lists seven ordinances:
- 1. pure doctrine and correct ministry
- 2. scriptural use of baptism and the Lord's Supper
- 3. foot washing
- 4. evangelical separation
- 5. following Christ's command to love
- 6. keeping all Christ's commandments
- 7. suffering and martyrdom40
The Schleitheim Confession (1527) lists seven areas of agreement among Anabaptists:
- 1. believer's baptism
- 2. use of the ban (excommunication)
- 3. proper observance of the Lord's Supper
- 4. separation from the wicked
- 5. position and duties of pastors
- 6. renunciation of the sword
- 7. no oath taking41
The Dordrecht Confession (1632) contains the following description of the true church:
- We believe in and confess a visible Church of God, consisting of those, who, as before remarked, have truly repented, and rightly believed; who are rightly baptized, united with God in heaven, and incorporated into the communion of the saints on earth. (I Cor. 12:13)
- . . .
- This church of the living God, which He has purchased and redeemed through His own precious blood . . . may be known by her evangelical faith, doctrine, love, and godly conversation; also by her pure walk and practice, and her observance of the true ordinances of Christ, which He has strictly enjoined on His followers. (Matt. .7:25; 16:18; 28:20; II Cor. 6:16)42
From this it is clear that in the Dordrecht Confession the true church is:
2. based on repentance, right belief, and right baptism
3. a community of saints
4. living out love and a pure life
Putting all four of these Anabaptist sources together a picture of the Anabaptist vision of the church and her necessary characteristics emerges.
A. Pure Doctrine
Correct teaching and preaching is a central tenet for the Anabaptists as for the Reformers. However, the Anabaptists criticized the Reformers for not teaching a pure enough and scriptural enough doctrine. For the Anabaptists the sole source of ecclesiastical authority is scripture. Thus, in Zurich, Grebel and Stumpf criticized Zwingli and the Zurich city council for not adhering to the scriptural injunctions.
That the Anabaptists were very serious about the centrality of scripture is apparent from their writings and documents. There is continual use of scripture to support their beliefs. And a hallmark of their defenses at trials was the statement that they had not been convinced from the scripture that their beliefs were wrong.
Menno Simons is a good example of an Anabaptist who relies on scripture to support his teaching. Time after time he cites and exposits scripture and to cement his points uses such phrases as "and the Scriptures clearly show", "if you take to heart these cited Scriptures, and diligently reflect upon them", "where do the Holy Scriptures teach that in Christ's kingdom and church, conscience and faith . . are to be regulated and ruled by violence", "we teach with all Scripture a life that shows the fruits of penitence", and "Christ's Word alone is sufficient for me".
In Simons' exposition on infant baptism he includes a section relating his view of the authority of scripture as against the authority of tradition or the church fathers. It is a telling statement of the Anabaptist view of scripture.
Lastly, they appeal to Origen and Augustine and say that these assert that they have obtained infant baptism from the apostles. To this we reply and inquire whether Origen and Augustine have proved it from Scripture. If they have done so, we desire to hear it. But if not, we must hear and believe Christ and His apostles, and not Augustine and Origen.
Again, if the infant baptists assert that infant baptism is not forbidden and that therefore it is right, I reply that it is not expressly forbidden in the Holy Scriptures to bless, as they call it, holy water, candles, palms, goblets, and robes, to hold mass and other ceremonies, yet we say rightly that it is wrong, first because people put their trust in these things, secondly because it is done without the commandment of God, for He has commanded us not a word thereof, and never should any commandment be observed which is not contained or implied in His holy Word, either in letter or spirit.43
For Anabaptists pure doctrine can only be based on scripture itself. Doctrine must be either directly explicit in scripture or at the least implied by scripture. Further, there is a denial that anything outside scripture is genuinely apostolic. Thus, for the Anabaptists who were attempting to reinstitute the apostolic church, the scripture is the only source of instruction and authority.
B. Proper Use of Christ's Ordinances
In Anabaptism the role of baptism is almost paradoxical. It is given a prominence all out of proportion to its real position in Anabaptist theology merely in the name "Anabaptist", as though rebaptizing were the central focus. That disproportion is not helped by the fact that the break of the Anabaptists with the Reformers was sealed by the (re)baptism of George Blaurock.
Despite all of this, the Anabaptists denied an important spiritual role to baptism. It is not an instrument of regeneration. "We are not regenerated because we have been baptized, . . but we are baptized because we have been regenerated by faith and the Word of God (I Pet. 1:23)."44 Far from being central to the Christian life, Menno Simons describes baptism as the least of Christ's commandments. It is the least because it is an outward work and the real Christian life is an inner work.
This the very least of all the commandments which He has given. It is a much greater commandment to love your enemies, to do good to those who do evil to you, to pray in spirit and in truth for those who persecute you, to subjugate the flesh under God's word, to tread under your feet all pride, covetousness, impurity, hate, envy, and intemperance, to serve your neighbor with gold, silver, with house and possessions, with your hard labor, with counsel and deed, with life and death, nay to be free from all evil desire, unbecoming words and evil works, to love God and His righteousness, will and commandments with all your heart, and to bear the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ with a joyous heart. Can the commandment of baptism be compared with any of these? I say again, it is the least of all the commandments that were given us, for it is not more than a little outward work, namely the application of a handful of water.45 (Menno Simons)
The importance and purpose of baptism does not lie in what it accomplishes spiritually but in what it signifies.
First, it is to be practiced because, as Menno Simons points out, though it is the least commandment, it is still a command of Christ.
Second, it is a visible symbol to confirm an inward event. Christ ordained baptism to remind the Christian that
he himself baptizes within and in grace accepts sinners, forgives them all their sins, cleanses them with his blood (Matt. 3:11; John 3:5), bestows upon them all his righteousness and the fulfilling of the law, and sanctifies them with his Spirit (Rev. 1:5; I Cor. 3:23).46 (Dietrich Philips)
Thus, baptism confirms Christ's inward work and admonishes the believer to a godly walk.
Third, baptism is the initiation rite into the visible Christian community. It signifies the believer's repentance and regeneration as well as his voluntary commitment to live a godly life under the encouragement and discipline of the Christian community.47
It is in this context that the adamant insistence on believer's baptism and denial of the validity of infant baptism can be understood. The Anabaptists did not view their believer's baptism as a rebaptism, for they denied that their former baptism was a baptism at all. They rejected their former baptism because it neither signified a true repentance and inner baptism nor entrance into and submission to the community of Christian believers.
Anabaptists differentiated between three kinds of baptism. There was a baptism by the Holy Spirit by which the Christian received salvation, regeneration, and power to live the new life. There was a baptism by water signifying the inner baptism of the Spirit and giving entrance to the visible church. Third, there was to be a baptism of blood and fire in which there would be final cleansing from sin.48
2. The Lord's Supper
The breaking of bread or Lord's Supper is a remembrance of Christ's sufferings and death. By it those who partake are reminded of the redemption and eternal salvation Christ gives through His sacrifice. Further, it is a reminder of the love Christ had for the believer and an encouragement for the believer to love his neighbor as Christ has loved him. Therefore, it is a particularly apt observance for the church since it promotes communion with God and with the church body.
So is the observance of this sacrifice also to remind us of the benefit of the said death and sufferings of Christ, namely, the redemption and eternal salvation which he purchased thereby, and the great love thus shown to sinful man; whereby we are earnestly exhorted also to love one another--to love our neighbor--to forgive and absolve him--even as Christ has done unto us--and also to endeavor to maintain and keep alive the union and communion which we have with God, and amongst one another; which is thus shown and represented to us by the aforesaid breaking of bread (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19,20; Acts 2:42, 46; I Cor. 10:16; 11 :23-26)49 (Dordrecht Confession)
As baptism gives entrance into the church community, the Lord's Supper is a continual binding together of that community in love to God and to each member within the community through remembrance of Christ' s loving sacrifice.
The taking of bread and wine is thus not important because it is Christ's body and blood. But it is important because it is a taking together. It is truly a remembrance, but in that act the church shows its unity. This unity is crucial and is a unity of spirit as well as of commemoration. Therefore, it is necessary to cleanse the church body from those who are not truly living in accord with Christ's commandments. The Anabaptists firmly asserted the necessity of applying church discipline (the ban) before the breaking of bread. To eat with those who are in visible, outward violation of Christ's commandments is to negate the very essence of the ordinance. It is a denial of unity with Christ since His commands are openly transgressed without rebuke, and it is a denial of unity with each other since one cannot truly love a brother and not seek to turn him from sin.
We teach, seek, and desire that supper which Christ Jesus Himself has instituted and administered, to be observed in a church which is outwardly without spot or blemish, that is, without any known transgression and wickedness . . . .50 (Menno Simons)
But this [the ban] shall be done according to the regulation of the Spirit (Matt. 5) before the breaking of break, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup. 51 (Schleitheim Confession)
C. Spiritual Government
There are two main emphases regarding spiritual government: proper selection and ordination of leaders and church discipline.
Dietrich Philips includes as part of the first ordinance of the true church the necessity of a correct ministry along with the necessity of pure doctrine of scripture. By correct ministry is meant the proper calling, choosing, and ordaining of ministers. This is seen as a twofold process unified in a common action. First, the minister must be called and chosen by God and ordained by the Holy Spirit. But this process is given visible manifestation in selection and ordination by the church congregation. Thus, there is a partnership of action of the Holy Spirit and the congregation.52
The Dordrecht Confession is a bit more ambiguous. It states that the apostles sent out brethren as leaders of the churches who were to "appoint faithful men as elders"53 but also mentions that deacons are to be "fit persons, and chosen and ordained . . . [to their position] by the church".54 Though there is this lack of clarity about proper mode of selection, it is clear that church officers include bishops, pastors, and leaders including elders, deaconesses, and deacons.55
For Anabaptists there was no distinction between lay and priestly functions even though various leadership positions were recognized as necessary. Likewise there was no distinction between religious and secular work. For the church was viewed as a community of saints in which there was equality because of unity of the Spirit.56 However, teaching was a main emphasis, and the pastor or teacher of scripture was given more time and better quarters in Anabaptist communes.57
The necessity of discipline for spiritual government of the church was heavily emphasized by the Anabaptists. They denied the validity of the use of force in compelling belief or action, and yet they were adamant about the need for discipline within the church. They criticized the Reform churches for using force but also for not administering proper church discipline. What they saw the Reformers as doing was compelling outward assent to Reform belief patterns but showing no concern for true spiritual life as reflected in personal lifestyle. There was an understandable bitterness against the Reformers who persecuted the Anabaptists who lived godly lives and yet left the ungodly untouched.
Yea, it has come to this (may God make it better) that where four or five, ten or twenty, have met in the name of the Lord and to do His work, in whose midst Christ is, who fear God with all their heart and lead a pious, unblamable life before all the world, that if they are caught at a meeting or if accusation is brought against them, they must be delivered up to be burned at the stake, or drowned in water. But those who met in the name of Belial . . . in public houses of ill fame and the accursed drunken taverns, who live in open disgrace and act wickedly against God' word, such live in all freedom and peace.58 (Menno Simons)
But discipline was not a mere tool of justice for the Anabaptists. It was the agent to purify the church and, in love, induce repentance among those who were hardening in sin perhaps to perish if uncorrected. Thus, the ban, which was the chief means of discipline, was seen as a loving action as much as a purifying action.
The ban was regarded as an apostolic injunction to purify the church and thus protect her from deception and evil.
It is evident that a congregation or church can not continue in the salutary doctrine and in a blameless and pious life without the proper practice of discipline. Even as a city without a wall and gates, or a field without an inclosure or fence, or a house without walls and doors, so is also a church without the true apostolic exclusion or ban. For it would be open to all deceiving spirits, all godless scorners and haughty despisers, all idolatrous and insolent transgressors, yet to all lewd debauchers and, adulterers, as is the case with all the great sects of the world which style themselves, although improperly, churches of Christ.59 (Menno Simons)
The ban also served as a warning to all against continuing in sin. But a major emphasis was placed upon its loving purpose. Its purpose was to convince to repentance; its purpose was not to destroy the sinner but to heal him.
We also believe in and acknowledge the ban, or excommunication, a separation or spiritual correction by the church, for the amendment, and not for the destruction, of offenders . . . that such an one . . . cannot remain in the "congregation of the righteous"; but must, as an offensive member and open sinner, be excluded from the church, "rebuked before all," and "purged out as a leaven," and thus remain until his amendment, as an example and warning to others, and also that the church may be kept pure from such "spots" and "blemishes"; so that not for the want of this, the name of the Lord be blasphemed, the church dishonored, and a stumblingblock thrown in the way of those "without," and finally that the offender may be convinced of the error of his ways, and brought to repentance and amendment of life. (Isa. 59:2; I Cor. 5:5, 6, 12; I Tim. 5:20; II Cor. 13:10)60 (Dordrecht Confession)
The practical outworking of the ban was that church members so excluded were to be "shunned and avoided by all the members of the church . . . whether it be in eating or drinking, or other such social matters."61
However, such avoidance was not carried to the extreme. If a brother under the ban was in real need, assistance was to be given him. Thus, the excluded brother was not to be treated as an enemy, but as one loved and cared for who had been disciplined that he "may again become reconciled to God and the church, and be received and admitted into the same".62
The Anabaptists were extremely serious about the use of the ban. They considered it a command of God and not mere counsel. The issue was pressed as far as to the question of whether husband or wife should shun the other if one were under the ban. Some said yes; some said no. Menno Simons reflects some of the painful struggles involved in the issue in his advice on the question:
Therefore beware that in this matter of matrimony you press no one farther than he is taught of God in his heart and that he in his conscience can bear, lest you boil the kid while it is still sucking its mother's milk (cf. Deut. 14:21). On every hand the scriptures teach that we should bear with the weak. Brethren it is a delicate matter. I know too well what has been the result of pressing this matter too far by some in my time. Therefore I advise you to point all to the sure and certain ground. And those consciences that are, through the Scripture and the Holy Spirit, free and unencumbered will freely, without the interference of anyone, by the unction of the Holy Spirit and not by human encouragement, do that which he advises, teaches, and commands in the Holy Scripture, if it should be that one's spouse should be banned.63
In both the ordination of leaders and the ban, the underlying principle of congregational government can be seen. The Anabaptists believed that the Holy Spirit guided the congregation in its decisions, and thus congregational government was divine government.64
D. Community and Brotherly Love
For the Anabaptists another mark of the true church was brotherly love expressed in the community of believers. The discussion above has indicated how brotherly love was to be exercised in the ban. But such love did not have just a negative side. There was also a positive side, and it took the form of various degrees of sharing of material goods.
However, the distinction between the ban as a negative form of love and sharing as a positive form was not a distinction made by the Anabaptists. If anything, they saw the ban as the primary form of love because it was concerned with the brother's soul whereas sharing was concerned with the body.
But this is true brotherly love, that our chief desire is one another's salvation, by our fervent prayers to God, by Scriptural instruction, admonition, and rebuke, that thereby we may instruct him who is overtaken in a fault, in order to win his soul. . . .
Then again brotherly love is shown in this, that among ourselves we serve one another by benevolently reaching out our hand, not only with spiritual, but also with temporal, gifts, which we have received from God, that we take it upon ourselves to give richly according to our ability because of the needs of the saints (Rom. 12:13) . . . .65 (Dietrich Philips)
The Anabaptists saw sharing as both a Christian and a reasonable form of living. It is Christian because Christ said that the evidence to the World of Christian discipleship is love of Christians for one another (John 13:35). It is reasonable because Christians have been baptized into one body and "it has not been heard of that an intelligent person clothes and cares for one part of his body and leaves the rest destitute and naked. O no, it is but natural to care for all the members."66
The Anabaptists thought it a telling comparison to describe the way they treated each other and the way the Reformers and Roman Catholics treated their fellow believers, for brotherly love was to the Anabaptists a true evidence of Christianity.
From this it may be easily understood how widely those differ from the upright faith and Christianity who do not love one another, who do not prove their love toward one another by their works, but allow their poor to suffer want and openly beg for bread, against the command of the Lord (Deut. 15:4; Rom. 12:13; II Cor. 8:14; Gal. 6:8), contrary to all Christian nature and contrary to brotherly love and fidelity. And, what is worse, they trespass upon, hate, envy, backbite, defame, scold, blaspheme, persecute, throttle, and kill one another, as is seen before our eyes and as their deeds amply show; and although they do this, nevertheless they want to be called Christians and the congregation of God. But if they do not repent, they will find out, on that day when they appear before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ, what fine Christians they have been.67 (Dietrich Philips)
There were various degrees of sharing of material goods. The Hutterites were the only group to fully implement communal living. But, the other Anabaptists stressed the need of selfless sharing though not taking it as far as the Hutterites.68 ". . . [S]ome of them charge and assert that we have our property in common. We reply that this charge is false and altogether without foundation."69 But,
all who are born of God . . . and are called into one body of love, according to the Scriptures, are ready by such love to serve their neighbors, not only with money and goods, but also, according to the example of their Lord and Head, Jesus Christ, in an evangelical manner, with life and blood.70 (Menno Simons)
E. Separation from the World
The necessity of separating from the world and from false brethren is perhaps the element in Anabaptist beliefs which made them most offensive to the Reform and Roman Catholic churches. The Anabaptist action of separation was an implicit, continuing, and visible judgment on the Reformers and Catholics. By it the Anabaptists condemned the doctrine, life, and worship of those in the other churches. However, they felt that such separation was both scriptural and necessary.
Since the church always was and must be a separated people, as has been heard, and it is clear as the meridian sun that for many centuries no difference has been observable between the church and the world, but all people have been blended together in baptism, supper, life and worship without any separation, a condition which is so clearly contrary to all Scripture, therefore we are constrained by the Spirit and word of God . . . to gather not to us but to the Lord, a pious, penitent assembly or church . . . not by force of arms or uproar (as is the custom of the popular sects), a church which is separated from the world, as the Scriptures teach.71 (Menno Simons)
Such separation included more than just belonging to a different church.
The separation was to be made in social and organizational as well as religious terms. To be shunned and avoided were "all popish and antipopish works and church services, meetings and church attendance, drinking houses, civic affairs, the commitments [made in] unbelief and other things of that kind".72 Along with this kind of separation was to come a more personalized separation in which the Christian was to refuse to use force in accordance with Christ's command not to resist evildoers.73
The Christian's separation was to affect his values. Christians were not to seek wealth, luxury, or position, but to "fear God from their hearts, walk in His ways and in true humility of heart serve their neighbors with their riches."74
For the Anabaptist, the difference between true Christians and false Christians should be apparent in their living habits and values. Thus, the difference should be as stark as between night and day, and under persecution it sometimes was.
. . . I seek neither earthly possessions nor a life of ease, but only the praise of my Lord, my salvation and the salvation of many souls. For this I, my poor, feeble wife and little children have for nearly eighteen years endured extreme anxiety, oppression, affliction, homelessness and persecution and must at all times be in danger of life and great peril. Yea when the ministers of the national churches repose on easy beds and downy pillows, we generally have to hide in secluded corners. When they at weddings and baptismal dinners [held when the rite of baptism was observed] are unbecomingly entertained with pipe and tambour and lute, we must stand in apprehension when the dogs bark, that the catchpolls are at hand.
Whilst they are saluted as doctors, preachers and masters by everyone, we must hear that we are Anabaptists, hedge preachers, seducers and heretics and must be saluted in the devil's name. In short, whilst they are richly rewarded for their service with large incomes and easy times, our recompense and portion must be fire, the sword, and death. 75 (Menno Simons)
F. Persecution and Martyrdom
Certainly the persecution of the Anabaptists strengthened the vision they had of the persecuted church being the true church. Nevertheless, the idea was implicit in the idea of separation from the world. They expected to stand out from the world and were not surprised at the fact that they must suffer as a consequence the wrath and condemnation of the world. But the necessity of persecution and martyrdom had even deeper and more substantial roots in the Anabaptist vision of reinstitution of the apostolic church.
The apostolic church was a church marked by persecution and martyrdom. For such treatment was suffered by Christ and prophesied by Him for His followers.
. . . [A]ll Christians must suffer and be persecuted, as Christ has promised them and said thus (Matt. 24:9): Ye shall be hated by everyone for my name's sake; again (John 16:2): The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. . . . (II Tim 2:12; 3:12): All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. . . . In short, the entire Holy Scripture testifies that the righteous must suffer and possess his soul through suffering (Luke 21:19).76 (Dietrich Philips)
Thus, suffering and martyrdom were to be expected and were the mark of Christian discipleship and the true church. In this suffering the contrast between the true church and the world was to become apparent. The church would be persecuted but would not in turn persecute. In this context the Anabaptist commitment to endure the sword and yet reject and despise its use can be understood.
Thus must the true Christians here be persecuted for the sake of truth and righteousness, but the Christians persecute no one on account of his faith. For Christ sends his disciples as sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt. 10:16); but the sheep does not devour the wolf, but the wolf the sheep.77 (Dietrich Philips)
The Anabaptist view of the church has various strong, compelling thrusts. In the first place, their adamant stress on voluntary commitment was badly needed.
They were right to deny both the validity and utility of force in provoking belief. Belief that does not flow from voluntary assent is no belief at all. In this context the Anabaptists proved to be the needed corrective to 1100 years of misapprehension in Christendom about the relationship of Christianity and force beginning with Constantine and Augustine. Of all the mistakes and false turnings in Christendom none is so wrenching or piercing as the vision of Christian as torturer and persecutor. And most horrifying of all, it seems to be a congenital defect arising out of the very nature of intense commitment and belief (cf. Luke 9:51-56). It is at this point that the Anabaptists seem to have made their most profound contribution.
The Anabaptists combined fiery commitment and intense belief with a peacefulness and love naturally alien to zeal. That they were right is, if not proved, at least supported by the reversal of attitude in Christendom about the appropriateness of force. There is presently almost unanimous acceptance of the necessity of toleration and peaceful, moral persuasion as intrinsic to the Christian mission.
It seems that somehow the Anabaptists reached a high point in the particular synthesis of zeal and peace. It seems that much of what presently passes for peace and tolerance is not based on a strong commitment to truth but rather a washing out of truth and in effect denying that differences are important. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, endured banishment, imprisonment, torture, and death precisely because they believed that differences do matter. They seemed both to realize the importance of their mission, and yet realize of what spirit they were. They did not do it perfectly (as their separatist actions show), but it seems to me they have done it best.
Second, they had a high view of the role of the church in Christendom. The church community mattered to them as community not as mere structure to disseminate teaching or administer sacraments. In that context they seemed to grasp at a significant level something of what the imagery of the "body of Christ" in the New Testament is meant to convey. They stressed the body aspect in the spiritual and material care of each member for the other. In this they saw an important internal mission for the church such as that in Heb. 3:13, 10:24-25. They also saw that in order to accomplish this care there was a need for unity of commitment and vision in the church that was lacking in the territorial churches by the very fact of their inclusive structure.
The Anabaptists did not limit the church's mission to an internal manifestation. They also saw the necessity of the external mission of the church and thus took the Great Commission very seriously. Their sacrificial missionary effort gives eloquent testimony to their dedication to serving Christ outside the Christian community as well as within.
Thus, one of the most striking aspects of the Anabaptist view of the church was the utter seriousness with which they viewed the church and its mission. The church was essential to their vision of Christianity. That vision was an activist vision in which the church was leaven and salt affecting the world because she was both seeking internal purity and committed totally to Jesus Christ. The Anabaptists both believed in this vision and to a great extent modeled it with a seriousness rarely found in the history of Christendom.
Third, the Anabaptists showed a personal commitment to their beliefs and vision of the church that is very compelling. They were committed to knowing and following the truth. They were committed to a pure and righteous personal and community life. Their courage in living out that commitment is beautiful, magnetic, and stunning. The commitment and courage of the Anabaptists as epitomized in Michael Sattler is almost unanswerable. Weeping seems the only appropriate response.
And yet there are weaknesses and gaps in their vision of the church that demand a critical response.
One weakness seems to be the lack of hesitancy to pass judgment on others. Though there is a physical tolerance of others, there seems to be little willingness to truly listen to others as when Menno Simons coolly dismisses Origen and Augustine as unscriptural. This, of course, is in the context of affirming the position of scripture as the only authority for belief and practice. And yet the tone is as important as the affirmation, for there seems to be a genuine lack of respect for and gratitude to those who have gone before and made a real contribution to Christendom. Somehow the assertion that the church fell at the time of Constantine allows the Anabaptists a wholesale write-off of 1100 years of Christendom.
A second weakness flows from the lack of hesitancy to judge. The Anabaptists majored on those scriptures that called for separation without taking into account those which leaned against judging. For example, one wonders if Jesus would have been reprimanded, if not excluded, for socializing with gluttons and wine drinkers (Mt. 11:19; Mk. 2:15-17). There is a very real pharisaical spirit among the Anabaptists. Again, there is no attempt to deal with the element of growth in the Christian life. In the Corinthian church there were a multitude of problems, and yet the one case of exclusion involved only an outrageous, public sin (I Cor. 5). The Corinthian church seemed to have more of an admixture than the Anabaptists were willing to tolerate in their churches.
Third, there seems to be no attempt to interact with the concept of Christian liberty and the variety of valid lifestyles that can be lived before God in good conscience (Rom. 14). This reflects a serious inability or refusal to develop an in depth theology. The Anabaptists emphasized some portions of scripture without acknowledging the complexity introduced by other portions of scripture.
Finally, and perhaps most troublesome, is the idea of reinstitution of the church. The very expression implies a weakness in the foundation laid by Jesus and the apostles. If that foundation failed for 1100 years, what new and different power or direction did the Anabaptists have that had been withdrawn or withheld during all that time? Certainly not the scriptures since they were always present. And if it was the presence and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, there is no new Pentecost the Anabaptists point to. In actuality the Anabaptists seem to accept the concept uncritically. The reinstitution of the church seems to be at best a non-scriptural construct (if not anti-scriptural) based on the Anabaptist reading of history.
Despite these weaknesses, the Anabaptists brought needed insight on the necessity of willing commitment and rejection of force in Christendom as well as the importance of the visible church, her purity, and internal as well as external ministry.