Anabaptism Then and Now: Critique and Reconstruction
The first Swiss reformers who later were called anabaptists envisioned a church composed only of believers. Consequently, they rejected pedobaptism, because baptism of children brought the entire population into the church, even if most never became genuine Christians. Ulrich Zwingli, who initially supported antipedobaptism, later reversed his position when he realized that the separation of church and state would be the inevitable result of ending pedobaptism. Bowing to political realities, he began to persecute the people who became known as anabaptists because they baptized ‘again’. These Swiss Brethren denied this was a second baptism, since pedobaptism was meaningless, unbiblical and even fraudulent.
The history of this diverse movement is too complex to explain here. Suffice it to say that the members of the antipedobaptist movement of the Reformation, known as the Radical Reformation, took positions ranging from military revolution to nonviolent nonresistance (not to be confused with nonviolent resistance or peace activism), from separation from the world to acceptance of government positions, from antinomianism to excommunication of persons who deviated only slightly from the positions of powerful pastors, from rejection of emotional displays to encouragement of wildly charismatic behaviors, from individualism to communal ownership of property. Most agreed on believer’s baptism, refusal of oaths, and freedom of conscience. Diversity of theological opinion was allowed. High theology was rejected in favor of a simple biblicism and commitment to the primacy of the New Testament . They were not credal, or more accurately they rarely could agree on detailed confessions. However, they also believed in church discipline, so the movement was and always has been plagued with frequent splitting as strong-willed leaders bumped heads with members who disagreed with their leaders .
Rejection of infant baptism in favor of a church composed entirely of voluntary believers was rejection of the state church, a goal which was truly subversive to the established political and social order. Intense persecution was the inevitable result. Waldensians and Bohemian Brethren, having felt the fires of persecution in their own histories, were in sympathy with anabaptists but saw no reason to endure more persecution for the sake of opposition to a meaningless ritual, so they avoided identification with anabaptists. This worked for awhile but eventually they also became targets once again.
Anabaptists were violently persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike. They were driven from place to place, enjoying respite for a few generations but learning that government protection never lasted in perpetuity. After all, if exceptions were made for anabaptists, the floodgates would open; anarchy was sure to follow.
Voluntary church membership and the separation of church and state are widely-accepted principles commonly regarded as resulting from the impact of Anabaptism on modern churches.
In the Baptist churches, the impact is even more obvious. The following acrostic, which largely overlaps anabaptist principles, is used by some to define Baptist distinctives:
B Biblical authority
A Autonomy of the local church
P Priesthood of the believer
T Two Ordinances: believer's baptism and the Lord's supper
I Individual Soul Liberty
S Saved church membership
T Two offices: pastor and deacon
S Separation of church and state
Despite this similarity, the direct lineal descent of modern Baptists from anabaptists has generally been refuted.
The churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and independent Christian churches also have similarities with anabaptists, though they also have not acknowledged a lineal descent. Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Disciples of Christ, opposed salaried pastors and creeds and asserted the primacy of the New Testament. He opposed participation in the United States Civil War. Each congregation was supposed to be independent and pedobaptism was vehemently opposed. Thousands of anabaptists converted to the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ and no doubt had a profound though unacknowledged impact on the development of those churches.
Despite some similarities, Baptist churches and churches of Christ differ from anabaptist principles in obvious ways. While claiming to support the separation of church and state, they join with other evangelical churches in lobbying for government to pursue Christian policies. Their members appear to pursue material wealth, ambition, social status, and excitement just as much as non-Christians. And their churches are just as likely to drift into authoritarianism as any other.
Contemporary anabaptist churches have evolved since the Radical Reformation. In some ways, particular groups have gone to extremes that seem to leap beyond scriptural support. These excesses include peace activism, pedobaptism, legalism, discipline, and withdrawal.
Since the times of persecution, European anabaptists became more mainstream and less separated. They came to hold important positions in industry, government and the military. In North America, old order Mennonites and Amish appear to adhere to rigid community rules while liberal Mennonite churches seem to have surrendered all anabaptist distinctives save one: pacifism. (See articles about Harold S. Bender and John Howard Yoder in GAMEO, cited below.) Even this is suspect because nonresistance clearly is opposed to peace activism. Peace activism is a type of resistance.
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39 King James Version)
Furthermore, anabaptists historically recognized that government was ordained to bear the sword. They could use violence because governments were not Christian. And Christians were grateful for it, because governments protected them from invaders and criminals. Peace activism is more appropriate for a follower of Gandhi than for a Christian.
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Romans 13:4 King James Version)
Children commonly are baptized in today's churches. They are not old enough to marry or to vote in elections, yet they are seen as able to believe, repent of their sins, and make a permanent commitment to Christ. This is pedobaptism. Since baptism of children is common, one could argue that none of the denominations tracing their roots to the anabaptist movement remains anabaptist.
Anabaptists have been accused of being legalistic, because they insist on obedience to the commands of Christ Jesus. If this is what is meant by legalism, then all good Christians are guilty as charged. However, when a church demands adherence to a detailed Ordnung that regulates most of daily life, then the scriptural support is questionable. Paul did advise us to live quiet lives, as we indeed should, but he also stressed our freedom in Christ.
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:5 King James Version)
From the early days of the Swiss Brethren, the Ban has been practiced (shunning and eventual excommunication of unrepentant sinners). Often, this practice became unduly strict. Menno Simons admitted at the end of his life that he wished he had not been so harsh.
The foundation of strict church discipline is Matthew 18:16-17. Some translations omit ‘against thee’ which opens the door to the application of church discipline for any sin, not just an offense against a wronged brother or sister.
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (Matthew 18:15-17 King James Version)
Church leaders have been puffed up by the power this gives them. The power to ban is social and psychological violence, and it appeals to those who see themselves as nonviolent defenders of the faith, but Jesus could see them for what they were.
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12 King James Version)
Jesus is a radical egalitarian. He teaches us that those who seek to lead should bend down and wash dirty feet. He has no patience with spiritual pride and ambition. We are all equal in the sight of God. And he who says he is without sin is a liar. No one is good but God.
We are instructed to avoid contamination and exposure to temptation.
And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. (2 Corinthians 6:16-18 King James Version)
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29-31 King James Version)
However, we also are supposed to help the truly needy and to support duly constituted authorities. In times of intense persecution, withdrawal to remote areas was consistent with the instruction to flee persecution. Absent those threats, Jesus might want us to show our lights to the world without becoming tempted or corrupted by it. Each person decides how best to accomplish this, but requiring all members of a community to withdraw from society is an extreme solution.
The Way Forward
The anabaptist movement has wandered and fragmented. However, scattered home worshippers independently adhere to anabaptist distinctives. For example, the Canadian Brethren in Christ church promotes home churches. Their teaching pastor, Bruxy Cavey, wrote that Christians should be actively engaged in intentional faith communities. Traditional churches are not necessary, from this perspective.
A modern independent believer with anabaptist leanings might say the following.
- The church is composed only of voluntary believers who sincerely try to obey the Lord’s commands, knowing they will fall short of perfection. The form and timing of baptism for a mature adult is not as critical as profession of faith and genuine repentance, which includes turning from the world to the kingdom.
- The believer seeks the inner peace that only Christ can offer. Peaceful relations with all other persons is an essential element of the peace of Christ.
- The world’s values are opposed to Christianity: coveting, power-seeking, elitism, hedonism and above all pridefulness. Each child of the world seeks to be a superstar and yearns for the spotlight of public acclaim. The believer rejects these values and separates to the extent practical so as to avoid temptation and corruption. We seek to live quiet, simple lives.
- True believers will avoid worshiping with those who turn away from Christ and toward worldliness, thus denying Christ and his kingdom.
The original anabaptists believed that only a remnant would be genuine Christians. Churches that do not reject worldly values are apostate and anti-christian. The first sign of this apostasy is found in the warnings of Matthew 23, in which Jesus harshly criticizes the Pharisees, meaning all church authorities who set themselves above others.
But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. (Matthew 23:8-10 King James Version)
We have no mediator but Christ.
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5 King James Version)
Church authorities that make their own rules about faith and practice then teach those human rules as if they are divinely ordained have strayed from the commands of Jesus.
But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. (Matthew 15:9 King James Version)
The history of the anabaptist movement has been bumpy. Renewal movements periodically emerge in reaction to the apostasy of the established churches. Each renewal movement eventually matures, develops hierarchy and rigid traditions, and turns into old wineskins. One could easily conclude as Roger Williams did in colonial America, that no valid denomination has existed since Constantine co-opted Christianity. Williams founded the first Baptist church in America but soon left it, preferring to be an unaffiliated witness for Christ. Kaspar Schwenckfeld, Sebastian Franck, and the collegians in Holland all concluded that home bible study and worship were the best way to live out Christianity. Today many independent home churches share the same vision.
Bender, Harold S., Robert Friedmann and Walter Klaassen. (1990). Anabaptism. GAMEO.org.
Cavey, Bruxy. The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus (2007). NavPress.
Dosker, Henry E. The Dutch Anabaptists. (1921).
Dyck, Cornelius J (1967), An Introduction to Mennonite History, Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, ISBN 0-8361-1955-X.
Gross, Leonard. (1990). Bender, Harold Stauffer (1897-1962). GAMEO.org.
Klassen, William and Peter C. Erb. (1989). Schwenckfeld, Caspar von (1489-1561). GAMEO.org.
Nation, Mark Thiessen. (September 2011). Yoder, John Howard (1927-1997). GAMEO.org.
Neff, Christian, Cornelius Krahn and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1956). Franck, Sebastian (1499-1543). GAMEO.org
Neff, Christian (1963). Ban. GAMEO.org.
Newman, Albert Henry. A History of Anti-Pedobaptism from the Rise of Pedobaptism to A. D. 1609.
Zijpp, Nanne van der. (1956). Collegiants. GAMEO.org.