Anabaptism was a diverse, fluid but coherent movement. Various stimuli enabled it to develop in different places, resulting in regional variations and some sharp internal disagreements. It developed towards greater uniformity of belief and practice by mid-century. Most Anabaptists shared the following convictions:
Anabaptists agreed with the Reformers about the Bible’s authority but disagreed strongly about its interpretation and application. They focused on the New Testament and particularly the life and teachings of Jesus. This “Christocentrism” was a hallmark of Anabaptism that radically affected the way in which the Bible was approached. Balthasar Hübmaier (1481-1528), the leading Anabaptist theologian, (Snyder p55) explained: “all the Scriptures point us to the spirit, gospel, example, ordinance and usage of Christ.” Anabaptists started from Jesus and interpreted everything in the light of him – unlike the Reformers whom Anabaptists suspected of starting from doctrinal passages and trying to fit Jesus into these. Anabaptists refused to treat the Bible as a “flat” book, regarding it as an unfolding of God’s purposes, with the New Testament providing normative guidelines for ethics and church life. They challenged the Reformers’ use of Old Testament models and disagreed with them about such issues as baptism, war, tithing, church government and swearing oaths. In debates, Anabaptists complained that the Reformers used Old Testament passages illegitimately to set aside clear New Testament teaching.
The Reformers emphasised justification by faith and forgiveness of past sins. Anabaptists emphasised new birth and power to live as Jesus’ disciples. The Reformers feared Anabaptists were reverting to salvation by works; the Anabaptists accused the Reformers of failing to address moral issues and of tolerating unchristian behaviour in their churches. “Shame on you for the easy-going gospel,” chided Menno Simons (c1496-1561) .
Anabaptists stressed the work of the Spirit in believers and taught that Jesus was to be followed and obeyed as well as trusted. He was not only Saviour but also Captain, Leader and Lord. Dirk Philips (1504-1568) wrote: “Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our teacher, leader and guide. Him we must hear and follow.” Michael Sattler (c1490-1527), author of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), complained that, whereas Catholics appeared to advocate works without faith, the Reformers taught faith without works, but he wanted faith that expressed itself in works. Hans Denck (1495-1527) insisted that faith and discipleship were inter-connected: “no one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.”
Anabaptists formed churches of committed disciples, denying that all citizens should be regarded automatically as church members. They insisted on differentiating believers from unbelievers, so that church membership could be voluntary and meaningful. They acknowledged the role of the state in government but resisted state control of their churches. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, forcibly imposed on children and a hindrance to developing believers’ churches. They challenged the way the clergy dominated church life, lack of church discipline and coercion in matters of faith. Although greater formalism gradually developed, early gatherings were sometimes charismatic and unstructured, concentrating on Bible study. Some churches encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in contemporary church or society. They met wherever they could – in homes, woods, fields, even in boats. A Congregational Order (1527) conveys their serious informality: “when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it...when a brother sees his brother erring, he shall warn him according to the command of Christ, and shall admonish him in a Christian and brotherly way.”
The Reformers did not generally practise evangelism. Where they had state support, they relied on sanctions to coerce attendance (though there are examples of evangelism and church planting by Calvinists in Catholic France where Protestants could not coerce). They assumed within Protestant territories that church and society were indistinct, so their policy was to pastor people through the parish system, rather than evangelising them as unbelievers. The Anabaptists rejected this interpretation of church and society and refused to use coercion. They embarked on a spontaneous missionary venture to evangelise Europe. Evangelists like Hans Hut (1490-1527) travelled widely, preached in homes and fields, interrupted state church services, baptised converts and planted churches. Such evangelism, ignoring national and parish boundaries, by untrained men and women, was regarded as outrageous.
Anabaptists were socially deviant, challenging contemporary norms and living in anticipation of the Kingdom of God.
They questioned the validity of private property. The Hutterites lived in communities and held their possessions in common. Most Anabaptists retained personal ownership, but all taught that their possessions were not their own but were available to those in need. The 1527 Congregational Order urged: “Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.” When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.
They rejected the use of violence, refusing to defend themselves by force. Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) described his congregation: “Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.” They urged love for enemies and respect for human life. Anabaptists accepted that governments would use force but regarded this as inappropriate for Christians. Felix Mantz (c1498-1527) concluded: “no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.” They aimed to build an alternative community, changing society from the bottom up.
Many refused to swear oaths. Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe, encouraging truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority.
Anabaptists were not surprised by persecution. They knew they would be seen as revolutionaries, despite their commitment to non-violence; as heretics, despite their commitment to the Bible; and as disturbers of the status quo. They regarded suffering for obedience to Christ as unavoidable and biblical: suffering was a mark of the true church, as Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Their very persecution of Anabaptists showed that the reformers themselves were not building a biblical church.