What does it mean to be an Anabaptist?
Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God, sent to this world to live the perfect life, die on the cross, rise on the third day and ascend into heaven?
Do you believe the Bible is the word of God, inspired, truth, passed down to us through two millennia?
If you’re still with me, let’s keep going. We can learn in the New Testament how the first followers of Christ lived their faith and spread the good news. Their numbers grew rapidly, despite Roman persecution. We can use the word Catholic in reference to the first gatherings of believers (“Catholic” means “Universal”).
The Roman emperor Constantine (312AD) on the bank of the Tiber river, the night before the biggest battle of his life, saw a vision of a cross. Constantine won the battle the next day, and the following year he signed an edict that stopped persecution of Christians (1). History cannot say if Constantine was a shrewd politician, sensing the will of the people and aligning himself with the majority or if he was a repentant, regenerate Christ Follower. Regardless, overnight the association of the Catholic church and the Roman empire had begun. Twenty years into his reign as emperor Constantine facilitated the Council of Nicea, a gathering of 318 men who were the leaders of the church (2). Days of discussion lead to composition of the Nicene Creed, one of the earliest doctrinal statements. It would be worth your time to read the Nicene Creed and think about what it says.
Skip ahead to the Protestant Reformation- 1517 AD, the year that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door (3). For a thousand years, being a Christ follower meant being part of the Catholic church. But not all was well. Martin Luther was a catholic priest who made a pilgrimage to Rome. Luther was shocked by the poverty of the masses and the wealth of the priests. Luther railed against the sale of Indulgences, paying the church money in order to be forgiven from sin. You can see why “indulgences” were popular at the time – you could lie, steal, commit adultery, and then pay a few hundred dollars to your local priest and you would be once again perfect in God’s eyes and able to stand confidently on judgement day. The people loved it! The church also liked it as they were raising money in Rome to build Saint Peter’s Basilica. The 95 Theses of Martin Luther were a call to discussion and debate and ultimately a split from the Catholic church. Luther “Protested” against the Catholic church, hence the term “Protestant”
We can sum up the core of Luther’s Protestant Reformation in the following three points:
1. Solo Scriptura (Only Scripture) – Luther wanted every believer to be able to read the word themselves. Luther did NOT feel that the traditions of the church stood on equal ground with the inspired word of God.
2. Solo Fide (Only Faith) – We are saved by grace through faith, Ephesians 2:8. Good works follow salvation and are external evidence of internal change. Good works are NOT the mechanism by which we come into right relationship with God.
3. Priesthood of all believers – this one comes from 1 Peter 2:5. We do not need an earthly mediator. Luther took issue with confession of sins to a priest, veneration of saints, the authority ascribed to the pope.
Luther made dramatic statements to focus each believer on the word of God as the source of truth in personal and corporate worship. The Protestant Reformation that he started had ripple effects throughout western civilization. As the 1520’s began, Luther was reforming the church in Germany. Ulrich Zwingli was a priest leading a similar reformation of theology in Switzerland. Zwingli studied the Bible with a group of men who became the first Anabaptists.
The first Anabaptists documented at least three crucial points of distinction from Zwingli (and Luther):
1. Complete Separation of church and state – John 18:32-38 – Jesus states “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” This gives us the concept of two kingdoms, we become part of the kingdom of God.
2. Nonresistance – this teaching springs from the verse above and the Sermon on the Mount. If someone hits me on one cheek, I am to turn the other.
3. Believers Baptism – We read in the book of the Acts of the Apostles baptism of those who express belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Baptism is a symbol of dying with Christ and rising as a new creature (Regenerate). Infants are not able to understand and make this decision.
The third point above is the reason that this movement is called “Anabaptist” which means “Re-Baptized”. These reformers did not apply the term Anabaptist to themselves. They saw the adult baptism as the only valid baptism of believers.
January 21, 1525, a cold blustery evening. As darkness settled on Zurich, Switzerland a dozen men gathered in the home of Felix Mans (4). They had been forbidden from having such a meeting and knew they risked imprisonment or worse. Among the men sitting in the dim light were Felix Mans, George Blaurock and Conrad Grebel. After hours of focus on the Word, the group began to pray, seeking God’s will. George stood up and asked Felix to baptize him. Felix did, and George then proceeded to baptize the others in the room. I can only imagine the mix of excitement and fear filling their thoughts. Within 5 years all 3 of those men were dead – Grebel imprisoned, Blaurock and Mans martyred.
The Anabaptist movement began and continues with a relentless focus on a literal interpretation of the New Testament. The Old Testament is truth, however it is background, foundation for the new covenant. Our goal is to read the New Testament, study it, do it. Let me give you an example. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44b). We could talk about how these instructions are not practical - we need to protect our families, our way of life. We could point out that this isn’t fair - we are persecuted and our response is to pray for the aggressor. Are we to become the doormats of society? The doctrine of nonresistance flows from a simple and literal application of this text (and several others).
The Bible is incredibly available to us - the stories about Jesus, the words that He spoke, the growth of the early church, the writings of the Apostles. In this time and space, His Word is our primary tool to know and serve the risen Jesus. The goals of the original Anabaptists are relevant and valid today as a way to find, follow and reflect the light of Christ.
1. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/timeline_10.html, accessed 2/21/16
2. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11044a.htm, accessed 2/21/16
3. http://www.theopedia.com/protestant-reformation, accessed 2/21/16
4. http://www.anabaptists.org/history/anastory.html, accessed 2/21/16
5. http://www.baptisthistory.org/baptistorigins/baptistbeginnings.html, accessed 2/22/16