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