the weblog of Alan Knox

The Gathered and the Sent

Posted by on Jun 20, 2008 in church history, gathering, missional | 12 comments

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.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 6-20-2008

    It is so funny that you post this today. When I was writing my summary of the Viola and Barna interview I took out this line, “I feel like a Luther in a world of Anabaptists.” I took it out because I figured no one would get it. Maybe you would have got it though 🙂

  2. 6-20-2008

    I´m excited that you begin to explore anabaptism. I have been brought up within swedish baptism/pentecostalism, but came across anabaptism some five years ago (through the writings of Yoder) and have spent a lot of time studying this movement, which actually has changed my life. I encourage you to also look into those trying to bring early anabaptist values into todays world, like Yoder, Anabaptist Network, Thomas Finger and others.
    /Jonas Lundström

  3. 6-20-2008


    You asked, “How do we protect ourselves from these errors?”

    I don’t think there is any pragmatic (I keep using that word today) way to protect ourselves from this error. The simple, and most often used answer in Christian circles would be, “Write a confession of Faith” or “Write a doctrinal statement.” I think the only true way to protect ourselves from these errors is to continue to rely on God, to continue to disciple others as He has directed us, and to continue to follow the example of those who are already doing these things.

    God’s Glory,

    The Pursuit Online Store

  4. 6-20-2008

    Alan. Regarding your question, I think we need a vibrant anticipation of the coming kingdom of God. The remaining anabaptist groups has often tended to collapse the kingdom into the church, so to speak. (They retained, despite lack of biblical support, the vision of “going to heaven”, and tended so see God´s kingdom as the same thing as the church.)I think we need to live our church life in a way that points forward to God´s kingdom on earth. This might keep us on more open and on the move and protect us from falling back into sterile conservatism and a sectarian attitude.

    As I see it, later anabaptist history has tended to be divided into conservatives (amish) and “liberals”/modernizers (mennonites). We need to move beyond that. A better example of an anabaptist movement that has kept the church-as-alternative-focus, alongside mission, is the Bruderhof movement (from 1920-).

  5. 6-20-2008


    Here in Montana there are many Hutterite Colonies. Occasionaly I will see them around town selling fresh vegetables. In the summer I have seen dozens of Hutterite women picking apples all around town. While traveling to visit family in Northern Montana we have stopped at a colony to purchase fresh vegetables. I don’t know much about them but you have inspired me to do a little research. With what I’ve read so far (internet) I am very impressed with their way of life. They appear to be modeling their lives very close to what I read in Acts. This summer I hope to engage them more often and maybe sit down for some fellowship to learn more about them. In the little experience I’ve had meeting them, I do know that they are extremely pleasant to talk to and are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Thank you.


  6. 6-20-2008


    I was particularly struck by the statement that the church was not only called to gather but to go forth. The church that I pastored prior to moving to Tennesse had a sign that hung in the hallway for people to see as they left “Now entring the mission field”. I think we need to be reminded of that every time we leave a worship service.

  7. 6-20-2008

    I think this post helps illustrate some of the problems within some circles of “organic” / house church movements. Some seem so concerned to change how we worship together, that there is little conversation about how we reach out.

    It is kind of odd almost..

    Emergent is almost completely consumed with reaching culture

    Organic (for lack of a better term) is almost completely consumed with internal relationships.

    I cold be wrong, but this is just off the top of my head, but it is something I am starting to think about.

  8. 6-20-2008


    Well, I’m not sure I get it… what does it mean to “feel like a Luther in a world of Anabaptists”?


    I was hoping you would comment. Thank you for pointint to some of the modern day Anabaptists. Its good to see that some are still attempting to live as the gathered and the sent.


    I agree… it means walking the narrow way – which includes both being gathered and being sent. If we leave out one or the other, we’ve strayed away from the way of Christ.


    I hope you write about your time with the Hutterites.


    Yes, we’re all “full time ministers” and “full time missionaries”.


  9. 6-20-2008

    I knew it was too obscure to make sense. Luther wanted to reform the RC church, but did still believed in the institution. The Anabaptists threw out everything.

    I, similar to Luther, do not find the traditional church to be evil and feel it can be reformed. However, I respect many of those who flow in the Anabaptist steam (I think folks like you Alan) who are more “radical” in their dream of reformation.

  10. 6-20-2008


    Thank you for the explanation. You might be surprised about me. I am a pastor of a group of believers whose meeting is a hybrid between the traditional meeting and a more organic meeting. I’m only concerned about the structure and organization when it gets in the way of the people being and living as the church.


  11. 6-20-2008

    Ah, thanks for making that clear. I had not understood that from reading your site (although I did appreciate your series on Elders and probably should have figured that out). Our goals are definitely in sync.

  12. 6-21-2008

    Jeffrey. It would be interesting to hear more about your future contacts with the hutterites. I am very impressed with the historic origins of their movement and they have affected me a lot. (I recommend, for example, Peter Walpot´s one hundred and something thesis about community of goods/private property (Can be found in Liechty´s Anabaptist Spirituality) and Peter Riedemanns “Confessions”.

    I have had some contact with them through email, and they still are very interesting, although somewhat stuck in 16th century theology/traditions. The Bruderhof movement, which I mentioned above, have been in fellowship with the hutterites for some periods, although they were excommunicated in the 1990´s.