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the radical reformation

March 5th, 2004 by isaac · 2 Comments

When Martin Luther inaugurated those 16th century church reforms, he did not envision how far some reformers would go. The Radical Reformation (i.e. the so-called “Anabaptist” movement) took what Luther started and called the Protestants to further reforms based on their vision of the primitive church described in the New Testament. They took the Scriptures seriously enough to ask why their contemporary church looked so different than the Christians of the 1st century. Although the voices of the Radical Reformation are diverse, what is central is their commitment to discipleship in the way of Jesus over against the pagan influences of the surrounding culture.

In the Schleitheim Confession of Faith we find a statement of agreement among the varied Anabaptist communities. At the beginning of the confession those assembled at Schleitheim identify themselves as those “who have been and shall be separated from the world in everything, and completely at peace.” Essential to the character of their communities is a self-described separation from the rest of the world. But it is not simply separation for the sake of separation. Rather, the Anabaptists felt their own faithfulness to the call of Christ required a sharp schism between their lives together and those who live according to the way of the world. They understood their identity as sons and daughters of God over against the fallenness of the rest of humanity. In the confession they write, “For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who have come out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other.” Since the world in its unbelief will be judged by God, all those who desire to live faithfully must “withdraw from Babylon and the earthly Egypt.”

The use of violence embodies all that is “devilish” about the way of the world. The Anabaptists at Schleitheim affirmed a separation from the state’s use of violence and committed themselves to nonviolence. Although the sword may be used to punish the wicked, its use does not belong to those who testify to the reign of Christ: “The sword is ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ.” Thus those who live in the way of Jesus must not use violence to defend themselves or to punish the wicked. In their rejection of the sword, the Anabaptists set themselves apart from the mainline Reformers and Catholics who used violence to punish heretics. Conrad Grebel and the Zurich Anabaptists reinforced their commitment to non-violence in their letter to Thomas Muntzer. They maintained that anyone who does not “amend and believe…shall not be killed, but regarded as a heathen and publican and let alone.” A decision to walk in the way of Christ must not be coerced.

Linked to this conviction about the use of violence, the Anabaptists believed they could not serve as magistrates who tended to the ends of the state through the use of violence. In the Schleitheim Confession they framed their withdrawal from the position of a magistrate in terms of their commitment to the way of Jesus: “They wished to make Christ king, but He fled and did not view it as the arrangement of His father. Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness.” Contrary to those who dismiss disciples of the way of Jesus’ nonviolence as merely proof-texting, the Radical Reformation tradition base their commitment on the shape of Jesus Christ’s ministry, not on isolated texts. John Yoder picks up on this aspect of his tradition, “the human career of the Master is an interpretation of and in fact the foundation of, His teaching…. The Gospel writers could soberly record the accounts which we have, including the moral teachings which they record from the lips of Jesus, only because it was incontrovertible that He had lived and died just that way.” Furthermore, the sword may not be used because it is a tool for those who are citizens of this world. Those who claim to follow Christ pledge their allegiance to a different kingdom. The citizens of this world use carnal weapons of war “against the flesh only, but the Christians’ weapons are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil.”

An important mark of the Anabaptist’s distinct Christian identity was the practice of a believer’s baptism. Infant baptism was the norm for the Anabaptist’s contemporaries. This made sense for a Reformation and Catholic church which “accepted the notion that church and state must live side by side, supporting each other, and both refraining from any interpretation of the gospel that would make it a threat to the established social order” (Justo Gonzales). Thus the Anabaptists faced a situation where the church was indistinguishable from society at large. The Anabaptists responded by considering infant baptism null and void because it did not require a commitment to the way of Jesus. Based on their reading of the New Testament, Conrad Grebel and the Zurich Anabaptists described baptism as the event where a person “changes his mind, and believes before and after; that it signifies that a man is dead and ought to be dead to sin and walks in newness of life.” The adult, believer’s baptism must be withheld until one is ready to commit to repent of their sins and begin their walk in the newness of life—the way of Jesus.

In 16th century Europe, when civil authority is inextricably united to the authority of the church (whether Protestant or Catholic), a believer’s church established on the practice of adult baptism threatened the power structure of European society. For the Anabaptists, commitment to the church no longer meant a commitment to the social order. In a time when the Lutherans and the Catholics couldn’t agree about anything, they could agree about killing these subversive radicals who threatened the social fabric. The trial of Augustin Wurzlburger gives a concrete example of how the established church decided to deal with the “re-baptizers.” Augustin was condemned as an “evil heretic” and “sentenced to death according to imperial law” for being “rebaptized” and “rebaptizing others, nine persons in all.”

Soon the very identity of the Anabaptists was tied to suffering death nonviolently. But even this aspect of their identity was located in their commitment to the way of Jesus. While in prison awaiting her execution, a Dutch Anabaptist named Elizabeth wrote a letter to her daughter about what it means to follow Christ. She writes, “If they have persecuted the Lord, they will also persecute us; if they have hated Him, they will also hate us; and this they do because they have not known my Father, nor me, says the Almighty Lord.” Persecution and suffering is part and parcel of what it means to commit to following Jesus. A commitment to Christ is a commitment to suffering and to suffer nonviolently like Christ. Elizabeth goes on to encourage her daughter to follow in this way of suffering and persecution for the sake of faithful discipleship. She writes, “Follow me and your father, and be not ashamed to confess us before the world, for we were not ashamed to confess our faith before the world, and this adulterous generation.”

The Anabaptists considered their discipleship in the way of Jesus as the constitutive factor that determined their lives in the world. They saw the contemporary established church as participating in the abominations of this world and decidedly separated themselves from God’s imminent judgment. They offered a different way to follow Jesus that they considered more faithful to the church described in the New Testament. In a world where comfort is king, we have much to learn from the testimony of their nonviolent suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

Tags: theology

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 ruthio // Feb 17, 2006 at 10:50 am

    fantastic websight, it really helped with my history homework which involved the anbaptist beliefs. thanks!

  • 2 isaac // Feb 20, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    thanks for checking out the site. And I am glad that it helped out with yout studies. I have to admit, this post came very early in my learning of anabaptist life and thought. If you want to check out a more recent exploration of anabaptist christianity, check out this post I wrote about an 16th century hymn: an early trinitarian anabaptist hymn