Most of those who study Anabaptist history are struck with the zeal of early Anabaptism. People who were converted to Anabaptism changed almost overnight. They learned to read, they laid aside filthy habits, they stopped swearing, and they became zealous evangelists. Ordained or not, they preached the gospel wherever they went. They shared their goods with anyone who needed them worse than they did.
Another thing that strikes most students of Anabaptist history is how far we have drifted from what they stood for. Some of you reading this treatise may resist that, and perhaps in the ways that we often think of, we haven’t drifted that far. In some ways we have probably even improved. But I’m not talking about our practice of nonconformity and our strong church structures. No, I’m talking about the inner heart of Anabaptism – the radical discipleship that turned the world upside down, and led thousands of people to become martyrs for Christ.
We don’t have martyrs today. One reason perhaps is that we live in a more benevolent setting. But a bigger reason is that we have lost the radical discipleship that marked early Anabaptism. Theologically, we are superior to them, probably. But as a result we have become dogmatic about our interpretations of prophecy and Biblical principles. We cannot handle anyone who thinks outside the box we have set up for ourselves. When it comes to spontaneous spirituality, we are paupers.
This has even flavored our Bible reading. The early Anabaptists, on the other hand, read the Bible to find Christ. They were too busy following Christ—evangelizing the world and dying for Him—to spend much time with the nuances of theology. Today, we preach sermons and write articles and books about discipleship. We talk about it in Sunday school. The Anabaptists simply went out and put it to practice. And thousands were saved.
We wonder why God doesn’t prosper our witness in our communities. Why would He? We have lost what it takes.
Where Did It Go? And When? And Why?
When we talk about apostasy, we mostly think about clothing. Furthermore, we only go back about fifty years. Our forefathers left the drifting Mennonite conference system in 1960, and our memory of that is so fresh we tend to think everything hinges on this.
However, I’m sure the Mennonite church lost the inner heart of Anabaptism long before the 1950’s. The men who started the conservative Mennonite movements had a good goal in mind, and a genuine concern for truth. But they were too shortsighted. They thought that if they could regain the standard of practice from half a century earlier, they would be returning to a standard of truth. But the inspiration of Anabaptism had vanished long before that.
Once in a while we hear about the changes made in the Mennonite church at Garden City, Missouri, in 1921. Or we read in awe of John S. Coffman and A. D. Wenger and their revival successes in the 1890’s. These efforts did a lot of good, but they didn’t come close to returning the Mennonite church to the true genius of Anabaptism. Nor did the Hoch and Oberholtzer divisions in the mid 1800’s.
The fact is, the Mennonite church was basically a fallen church when it arrived in North America. I am not saying that none of the Mennonite pioneers were Christians. But the inspiration that had made Anabaptism such a powerful force was lost before the Mennonite Church left Europe. Years before, in fact.
The Anabaptists were obsessed with following Jesus. They lived to be like Him. Even when they read their Bibles, they read them to learn more about Jesus. They interpreted everything they read in light of Jesus’ teachings and His personal example. Because of this they rejected any interpretation of the Scriptures that seemed to run counter to these.1 After all, Jesus was the living Word of God. The written Word had to agree with Him, or it made no sense.
This led another one of the driving forces behind Anabaptism — evangelism. Jesus’ final challenge to His disciples was to teach the whole world to follow Him. Whether that meant helping the neighbor next door, or visiting a seeking soul a month’s journey distant, the Anabaptists, took up the challenge Jesus had left them. (They were, as I said earlier, radical disciples.) It is true that in the process, they did some things that we would call improper. But the Spirit of God walked with those men, even with those that we are almost embarrassed to call Anabaptists. Some of them were individualists. Some were chiliastic in their teaching. Some had other weaknesses. But God used them and people found Christ by the hundreds and thousands. And these converts went out in turn and emulated those who had led them to truth.
It is true that many of these converted peasants could not have won a theological argument. But they didn’t worry about that. They just followed Christ, read their Bibles, and taught everyone who would listen what God led them to. And more were saved under their teaching.
But the devil worked desperately to stop up the fountain of living waters. And he finally succeeded.
What Did He Do?
First of all the devil used persecution—horrible persecution.2 Read the account of Michael Sattler, for instance. When they took him to be executed, they cut out his tongue. They forged him fast to a cart with red hot shackles. Five times on his way to be executed they tore flesh from his body with red hot pliers. They tied him to a stake, and burned him to death.3 And he was only one of thousands who paid the ultimate price for their faith.
For a while these scenes brought more into the fold. But gradually the pressures started to choke out the inner heart of Anabaptism. The evangelism grew less important as the Anabaptists fled into the mountains with their families, hoping to find a place of safety where they could raise their families in peace. Gradually the devil started to smile again. He was winning. By the time the Mennonites arrived in North America they pretty well lost their fathers’ zeal. The inspiration of early Anabaptism pretty well received its death blow when the Mennonites received their free farms and discovered that the Quaker Pennsylvania government considered them model citizens, rather than the off-scouring of the land.
Oh, they kept their form and that made them feel good. They were still conservatives. They conserved a Biblical life style and theology and that made them fell good. But the genius was gone. That was at the root of many of the problems in the church later on.
The second trick the devil used was more complex. He crowded out Christ by interesting the Church in theology.
Now the devil hates it with a passion when people read their Bibles because they want to know more about God (that’s what the word theology is actually supposed to mean). When people read the Bible honestly, from a heart full of adoration for Christ, wonderful things happen. The early Anabaptists read in their Bibles that they should go and preach the gospel to the entire world, so they did that. They read that they were not to resist evil, so they refused to carry swords. They read that where two or three gathered together, God would be with them, so they did that whenever and wherever they could. And they prospered as long as they read their Bibles like this.
Now the devil knew that he would never be able to stop them from reading their Bibles, so he diverted their attention. He persuaded them to argue about the meanings of what they read. For instance, when they read about baptism, he diverted their attention away from what it represented and got them arguing about the mode of baptism. (The first time a congregation divided because of this, I’m sure he danced with glee!)
There were many other teachings in the Bible that could be diffused this way, and the devil became a master theologian overnight (apparently). He soon found dozens of ways to divide brethren from brethren, and he is still doing this.
The Dutch Anabaptists were more legalistic than the Swiss Brethren, and the devil used this weakness to splinter their congregations into many segments, each holding firmly to their particular interpretation of some “important” teaching that no one else understood properly.
This weakness followed the Mennonite church to North America. Even here in the new “promised land” Mennonites went to Mennonite churches and Amish went to Amish churches. And by now there are old order and new order, conservative and liberal, eastern and western, southwestern and northwestern fellowships of each.
The third trick was more subtle, but just as real. The devil tricked the descendants of the Anabaptists to worship the church rather than Christ. Now it is true that the Bible teaches the importance of the church, and that we ignore those scriptures at our peril. But somewhere along the line, the Mennonites started to place more emphasis on the church than on Christ. Members worried more about pleasing the church than about pleasing Christ. When they reached this point, it was easy for the devil to quench most of the spontaneous zeal that threatened to break out periodically.4
What Can We Do About It?
So much for what happened. I think you can follow what I’m saying. But what can we do about it? How can we get back to our foundation? Not just to our Anabaptist roots, good as they were, but to the foundation found in the Bible.
First, we must lay aside our theology and find Jesus again. If we read our Bibles to find Jesus, rather than to justify man-made systems of thought, we will find ourselves becoming more like Him. We will return to the radical discipleship portrayed by the book of Acts. We must somehow get back to the place that conversion really converts people. And that conversion has to mean so much to us and our children that we are willing to be the off scouring of the earth, to be made a gazing stock, and to DIE for Christ. How can you live for Christ if you are not willing to DIE for Him?
Nothing less than radical discipleship can fill the bill.
And secondly, we must stop playing Bible theology games. God didn’t consider the mode of baptism important enough to make it clear in the Bible which mode is right. So let’s stop dividing churches and creating fellowship lines over it. The Bible hasn’t made it clear what pattern of dress or covering style is best for Christians, so why do we fight over it?
The Bible has made many things very clear, but our arguments have muddied the waters so much that we often don’t notice those. The Bible hasn’t given us a pattern of dress, like I said. But it has given us teaching on dress. We are not to dress in costly clothing, or immodest clothing. The Bible hasn’t designated a covering style for our sisters, but it has said that they should be covered. The Bible hasn’t designated a mode of baptism, but it has made it clear to us that baptism is to be the answer of a good conscience toward God.
We need to get back to the place where we pay attention to such requirements. We are weak in all of these areas, along with dozens more.
Let’s pray for a genuine revival in our times. But let’s remember the implications of that statement. Revival always brings new power to God’s people. However, it also brings persecution and misunderstanding. If you are not ready to be thought a fool for Christ, even by those who claim to be His people, don’t pray for revival. If you are not ready to be a pauper for Christ, don’t pray for revival. If you are not ready to DIE for Him, don’t pray for revival. Because along with the power that revival brings, there is always blood, sweat, and tears.
If you are like me, these things scare you. But maybe we should take first things first. First pray for revival, and expect God to answer your prayers. Trust Him for power and grace to face the repercussions.
“Lord send a revival, and let it begin in me,” the song writer said. Are you ready to pray that with him?
For more Anabaptist / Mennonite resources
go to: www.anabaptistfaith.com