I’ve read several blog posts and comments (some on my blog and some on other blogs) recently which have encouraged me to look closer into that group of historical figures known as Anabaptists. I realize that there are many groups today who claim descent (either direct or indirect) from the Anabaptists and Radical Reformers of the early 16th century, and many even use the name “Anabaptist”, but my interest is directed primarily toward the early Anabaptists. In spite of my classes and studies in church history and even baptist history, I admit that I know very little about these men and women.
So, in order to learn more, I’ve picked up a few books. Primarily, I was looking for source material – that is, essays and books written by the Anabaptists themselves. I’ve also picked up a few books that summarize the writings and describe the lives of the early Anabaptists. What I’ve read so far has been very interesting, and has encouraged me to continue my study – if I only had more time!
First, I’ve learned that the Anabaptists did not define themselves by baptism. Instead, the name Anabaptist (“re-baptizer”) came from their Protestant opponents. The Anabaptists themselves defined themselves by their ecclesiology – a topic in which I’m very interested, of course. Consider the following quote from The Anabaptist View of the Church by Franklin Hamlin Littell:
The dominant theme in the thinking of the main-line Anabaptists was the recovery of the life and virtue of the Early Church. The ordinances which had characterized the True Church (die rechte Kirche) in that Heroic Age were to be made a program for thoroughgoing reformation. The Reformers were not willing to make so radical a break from the past, but those whose key concept was restitutio rather than reformatio were determined to erase what they considered the shame of centuries and to recapitulate the purified church life of the Golden Age of faith. (pg 79)
Thus, the Anabaptists desired to become the church as described in Scripture; they did not desire to modify existing structures – which they called the “fallen church”. According to the Anabaptists, the church is gathered together, led together, unified, controlled, ordered, and kept by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. These were not merely ideological concepts, but instead they were practical differences that led them to live differently. Peter Ridemann (1506-1556) expressed this very clearly:
Therefore, such a people, community, assembly, or church is gathered and led together by the Holy Spirit, which from this point forward rules, controls and orders everything in them…
The children of God… become his children through the unifying Spirit. Thus, it is evident that the church is gathered together by the Holy Spirit: also that they have their existence and are kept in existence by him, and that there is no other church apart from that which the Holy Spirit builds and gathers.
But, there is another interesting aspect of Anabaptist ecclesiology. They did not consider the church to only be gathered by the Holy Spirit; they also considered the church to be sent by the Holy Spirit. In fact, many of them understood baptism as both a symbol of the entry into the church, and as “ordaining” them to life-long service and evangelism. Everyone who followed Christ in baptism became both a “full-time minister” and a “full-time missionary”. As Littell further explains:
Not only was a new historical significance given to the Great Commission, but its application was made relevant to the life of the ordinary layman. The missionary mandate was no longer the prerogative of special orders or selected professionals. The layman was no longer limited to remaining obediently in his appointed place and status. The Commission applied to the most simple believer and claimed him as an evangelist. (pg 113)
In the first few years of the Radical Reformation, this desire to obey the Great Commission led to many hundreds joining into small bands of believers (conventicles or congregations), in spite of the threat and presence of persecution and suffering at the hands of the Catholic, Protestant, and Reformed Churches.
So, what happened? Why did the evangelical fervor of those early Anabaptists lessen over time? Littell suggests two reasons: 1) They forgot that the Holy Spirit has separated them from the world, or 2) They forgot that the Holy Spirit had sent them into the world. Some groups seemed to lose their desire to follow the “life and virtue of the Early Church”, while others desired to completely isolate themselves from unbelievers and lost their “missionary mandate”.
I think it is easy for believers today to fall into one of these same extremes. How do we protect ourselves from these errors? We must remember that we are both the gathered (out of the world) and the sent (back into the world). The work of the Holy Spirit includes gathering and sending. If we do not recognize both in our lives, then we know that we are failing to follow him.