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Detail from Fishing Village of Staithes by Malcolm Coil, collage with tissue paper, newsprint, and acrylic inks and paints

The Church We Need Now

Why the Anabaptist vision matters

Peter Mommsen

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This year’s five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation comes just as Christianity is undergoing what may prove to be its biggest recalibration since the fourth century. Christendom, the system in which Christianity shaped Western laws and society as the majority religion, has been shaky since the Enlightenment. Now it’s in its death throes, felled by secularization, consumerism, and the sexual revolution. For better or worse, Christians must learn to be a minority. There’s no better time than now to recall Karl Barth’s admonition: “The church must always be reformed.” What is the reformed church we need now?

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther famously affixed his Ninety-Five Theses to a Wittenberg church door in a brazen challenge to the authority of the pope in Rome. His action ended up sparking a religious conflict that would plunge the continent into a century of war between Catholics and Protestants. Out of the bloodshed, so runs the story, modernity was born.

For the past twelve months, festivals, films, academic conferences, and a slew of books and articles have marked the anniversary – and not just in Germany, which is awash with Luther mugs, T-shirts, and dolls, even while clergy express contrition for Luther’s disastrous legacy of anti-Semitism. Pope Francis himself traveled to Sweden last year for an ecumenical service to mark the start of the Reformation 500 year. Astounding: the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics commemorating a man whose defiance shattered the unity of Catholic Europe.

The pope’s sympathy for the rebel Luther highlights the ambiguous meaning of the Reformation. On the one hand, the myriad divisions it brought are nothing to celebrate. In light of Jesus’ last prayer that his followers“may all be one” (John 17), Christian disunity is a tragedy and a scandal. On the other hand, the pope seems to appreciate Luther’s reforming zeal, especially his passion for a freer and humbler church.

Like the other reformers, both Protestant and Catholic, Luther took up the humanist battle cry of ad fontes – back to the sources! For Luther, that meant going back to the Bible and the early church. If we want reformation and unity today, we must go back to these same sources. It’s too bad that Luther himself didn’t go farther.

But during the Reformation, there was a group of radicals who did go farther, though hated by both sides. Amid the quincentennial hoopla, they have garnered little attention, but that neglect is unjust. If the Reformation was a battle for the soul of Europe, then they may have been its true winners. Yes, I mean the Anabaptists.

That the Anabaptists won the Reformation is of course a provocative claim, and needs some caveats. Their victory (we’ll stick with the chest-thumping language for now) was certainly not in terms of numbers. In the sixteenth century, vicious government persecution – enthusiastically endorsed by Luther, Calvin, and the pope, who agreed on this subject, if little else – nearly wiped out what was a grassroots movement; thousands were executed. Today, Anabaptists, who include Mennonites, the Amish, Hutterites, Church of the Brethren, and the Bruderhof, make up only about 0.1 percent of the 2.2 billion Christians worldwide.

Anabaptism is global and diverse – a surprise to Americans familiar only with its bonnet-and-buggy image. Two-thirds live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; India, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo each contain four times as many Anabaptists as does all of Europe.footnote Still, in the great worldwide community of Christians, Anabaptists are a demographic footnote.

Where the Anabaptists win is in the enduring impact of their ideas, once condemned as subversive. In keeping with the Reformers’ ad fontes credo, these insights were not innovative, but rather a recovery of early Christianity. I’ll examine three here: religious liberty, nonviolence, and community. Each of these is crucial to Christianity’s future survival, and essential to what a reformed church looks like today.

Detail from Fishing Village of Staithes by Malcolm Coil, collage with tissue paper, newsprint, and acrylic inks and paints

Fishing Village of Staithes by Malcolm Coil, collage with tissue paper, newsprint, and acrylic inks and paints.  View Full Image
Artwork © Malcolm Coils. Used by permission.

Detail from Fishing Village of Staithes by Malcolm Coil, collage with tissue paper, newsprint, and acrylic inks and paints

Religious Freedom

For its first three centuries, the church vigorously affirmed the freedom of the individual conscience. As Tertullian wrote: “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions… It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion – to which free will and not force should lead us.”footnote

By the Reformation era, however, Christianity had largely forgotten this. The medieval church, convinced that altar and throne must form an integral whole, handed dissenters over to the state for execution. It wasn’t until Vatican II that Catholicism fully embraced religious liberty, as George Weigel points out. Luther began his reform with a courageous stand for freedom of conscience – “Here I stand, I can do no other” – but was soon urging Christian princes to enforce his own version of orthodoxy, with the sword if necessary. In Geneva, Calvin had the polymath scholar Michael Servetus burned alive for questioning the Trinity.

Anabaptists, by contrast, abhorred coercion in matters of faith. In the words of an early Anabaptist teaching: “We do not put pressure on anyone who does not join [the church] of his own free will. We desire to persuade no one with smooth words. It is not a matter of human compulsion from without or within, for God wants voluntary service. Whoever cannot do this with joy and to the delight of his soul should therefore leave it alone.”footnote

Anabaptists’ signature practice of adult baptism is, among other things, a celebration of religious freedom: only those should be baptized who freely choose the Christian way on the basis of personal conviction, something infants are not capable of. Religious liberty is often regarded as something forced onto a reluctant Christianity by the Enlightenment and modern democracy. In reality, as the Anabaptists saw, the individual’ s free choice lies at the heart of the gospel. 

Nonviolence

The early church prohibited all killing, whether in war, self-defense, abortion, or euthanasia, based on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and his own example of nonresistance.footnote As with religious liberty, the church abandoned this teaching after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before this, church orders such as the Apostolic Tradition had prohibited Christians from enlisting as soldiers; just a few generations later, all soldiers were required to be Christian. The fruits of this shift have been bitter; mass killings, from the Crusades to the Native American genocides, have been perpetrated in Christ’s name.

In 1527, the Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler was charged in his heresy trial with abetting the Islamic invasion of Europe by refusing to fight – an accusation that sounds eerily contemporary. Sattler replied: “If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them. For it is written, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them.”footnote

If the Reformation was a battle for the soul of Europe, then the Anabaptists may have been its true winners.

As a result of these words, Sattler died at the stake. His was not the last death for the sake of nonviolence. In the United States one hundred years ago this November, two young Hutterites who refused to don a military uniform died as a result of months of abuse in the Alcatraz prison.footnote In our day, nonviolent Anabaptists in Nigeria have been the primary victims of Boko Haram terrorists.footnote

In recent decades, Catholics and Protestants have been rediscovering their nonviolent heritage, as represented by Christian pacifists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.

Almost all major churches support the right to conscientious objection, and popes and theologians have grown wary of justifying warfare in practice, even if Just War theory remains on the books. As Pope John XXIII wrote in Pacem in Terris, “It is contrary to reason to hold that war is any longer a suitable way to restore violated rights.”

Community

Early Christianity was not just a Sunday religion or a private affair. It meant belonging to the fellowship of disciples, whose way of life was countercultural to that of the surrounding pagan society. In practical terms, this meant participating in an “intense, mutual, disciplined community life,” in Rowan Williams’s words. Membership in the church involved accountability, daily rhythms of worship, and economic sharing.footnote

To both Catholics and Protestants of the Reformation era, for whom church and society almost completely overlapped, the suggestion that the church should be a countercultural community would have seemed nonsensical. Christianity was the culture, or at least very nearly. True, radical movements of renewal had repeatedly sprung up: monastics such as the Benedictines, itinerants such as the Franciscans, and lay movements such as the Beguines and Beghards. Yet unlike the early church, these movements were for celibates – a special calling for a spiritual vanguard, not the normal way of being Christian. Luther’s abolition of the monastic orders eliminated even this remnant of early Christian community from Protestant territories.

To the Anabaptists, the Apostolic Creed’s fellowship of believers was to be a practical everyday reality, not just a spiritual one. They drew inspiration from the first church in Jerusalem (Acts 2 and 4). As the Anabaptist Bernhard Rothmann wrote in 1534, “The living communion of saints has been restored, which provides the basis of community of goods among us… Everything which has served the purposes of self-seeking and private property, such as buying and selling, working for money, taking interest and practicing usury… or eating and drinking the sweat of the poor, and indeed everything which offends against love – all such things are abolished among us by the power of love and community.”footnote

Today, Christians of all traditions are realizing that we are again called, in the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, to form a creative minority. This means building “thick” communities in which disciples can be formed and the faith passed on to the next generation. Recent books by writers as diverse as Russell Moore, Rod Dreher, and Archbishop Charles Chaput are helping to point out the way. Pastors such as Jin Kim and Claudio Oliver are exploring how to practice communal Christianity in different contexts. The Anabaptists’ example proves that this is no mere pipe dream, but an actual possibility… and a necessity?

Certainly, the picture is incomplete unless we acknowledge Anabaptism’s weaknesses over the last five centuries, including a tendency to legalism and a bewildering number of schisms. Yet isn’t it remarkable that this ragtag movement, made up primarily of artisans and farmers, got so much right that Europe’s greatest minds got wrong? In the Anabaptists’ communities, the spirit of early Christianity came alive because they went ad fontes – back to the sources – and ad fontem – back to the Source. We should all do the same.

Footnotes

  1. Mennonite World Conference, World Directory, 2015. mwc-cmm.org/article/world-directory.
  2. Tertullian, To Scapula 2.
  3. Hutterian baptismal instruction, ca. 1580, in Taufbüchlein, ed. Johannes Waldner (ca. 1800).
  4. See Ron Sider, The Early Church on Killing (Baker, 2012).
  5. Michael Sattler, “Trial,” in George H. Williams and A. M. Mergal, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Westminster, 1957), 141.
  6. Duane Stoltzfus, “The Martyrs of Alcatraz,” Plough No. 1, Summer 2014.
  7. Peggy Gish, “Learning to Love Boko Haram,” Plough No. 6, Autumn 2015.
  8. See Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker, 2016).
  9. Bernhard Rothmann, “Restitution,” in Lowell H. Zuck, Christianity and Revolution (Temple, 1975), 100.
Contributed By Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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