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Welcome to the inauguaral issue of Anabaptism Today,the magazine of a recently formed Anabaptist Network in the UK! For a number of years a small study group has met in London to explore Anabaptism and its contemporary significance. Drawn from several denominational backgrounds, members of this group have become convinced that the Anabaptist legacy is attractive and has much to teach Christians today. In December 1991 we wrote to eighty people asking whether they would welcome the formation of an Anabaptist Network and the production of a magazine. By autumn 1992, more than two hundred people had asked to join the Network, and most endorsed the idea of a magazine.

Steps toward a new magazine

Because of this level of interest, an ad hoc committee of people involved in the original study group met to make plans for a new magazine. The committee asked the following individuals to serve as an editorial board for the publication:

Eleanor and Alan Kreider – Mennonite authors who live in Manchester, where they are Theologians in Residence” at Northern Baptist College.

Nigel Wright – A Baptist minister, author, and tutor in theology at Spurgeon’s College in London. He chairs the Baptist Mainstream group.

Judith Gardiner – A Mennonite specialist in church history who lives in East London and teaches at London Bible College.

Noel Moules – The Director of Workshop, a discipleship and leadership training programme. He lives in Clapham in South London.

Trisha Dale – A free-lance editor and National Secretary of Men Women and God. She is Baptist and lives in Surrey.

David Nussbaum – A director of a packaging company who holds two degrees in theology. He is from Bucks and is a non-executive director of Traidcraft.

The committee asked the following to serve as editors:

Stuart Murray, former church planter in the East End of London and member of Team Spirit (a House Church network). He recently completed a doctorate in Anabaptist hermeneutics and is now Oasis Director of Evangelism and Church Planting at Spurgeon’s College in London.

Nelson Kraybill, a Mennonite minister from the United States who recently completed a doctorate in biblical studies. In 1991 he moved to London to become Programme Director of the London Mennonite Centre.

Many people in the traditions to which the editorial board belong recognize in Anabaptism a source of inspiration and instruction. For Mennonites, this means rediscovering their own historical roots. For Baptists, this means acknowledging the influence of Anabaptist ideas even if the historical connection between Anabaptism and early Baptists is unclear. For House Church people, this means discovering significant parallels with Anabaptism and learning from an earlier restoration movement.

The Anabaptist Network is already broader than these three traditions, however, and our intention is that it be as ecumenical as possible. Some people in other traditions are interested in Anabaptism as a historical movement; others are concerned about its contemporary relevance. Some are attracted by Anabaptist emphases on community, consensus and economic sharing; others value the commitment to nonviolence and enemy-loving. Some find the Anabaptist approach to Scripture refreshing; others find challenge in a radical Jesus-centred tradition. Our aim is to reflect this range of interests in magazine articles, and to draw on insights of members of the network.

A way of being church and following Jesus

We struggled over terminology for the network and the magazine. We considered “Radical Reformation” or ‘believers’ church”, but decided in the end to stay with “Anabaptist”. Of course this label was originally an insult, and Anabaptist (“re-baptizer”) is an inaccurate term: Anabaptists regarded infant baptism as invalid, and thus insisted they were baptizing believers, not re-baptizing. Although using the term “Anabaptist” today could suggest our interest is mainly in a sixteenth-century movement, we have found it to be the most recognizable and helpful label. We are interested in the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, but see them as representatives of a way of being church and following Jesus that has had other expressions throughout history. We want to draw on this broader tradition and to explore what it means to follow Jesus at the end of the twentieth century.

This first issue of Anabaptism Today introduces themes that the magazine will address regularly: “The Search for Roots” locates Anabaptism in a broad “alternative church history” tradition; later issues will explore other groups from this stream of church history. “Zurich: Seedbed of Radical Change” introduces the Swiss Anabaptists; subsequent issues will contain similar articles on other sixteenth-century expressions of the Radical Reformation. “Catching the Bell Rope” considers ways in which the contemporary church is rediscovering and endorsing convictions held by Anabaptists; future articles will explore other contemporary topics. Other regular features will be book reviews and samplings of original Anabaptist documents or illustrations. We welcome letters and offers to write articles.

A stimulus to action and reflection

In addition to the magazine, the Anabaptist Network includes study groups in several parts of the UK. Already there are groups meeting in London and Sheffield, and during the winter more groups may begin. Details of these groups appear in this issue. Anabaptism Today will act as a resource for these study groups, together with other material we will suggest.

Further ahead lies development of an Anabaptist Institute to enable research into topics dealt with in this magazine. Whilst there is no facility for this at present in the UK, there is growing interest in such research. We are eager to provide resources, facilities and supervision for those who want to undertake study on Anabaptist topics. As a step towards this, we hope to set up resource centres in several parts of the UK, with books and other materials available for those who want to explore Anabaptism. At present the main resource is the London Mennonite Centre with its Metanoia Book Service, library and Cross-Currents seminars. The Anabaptist Network is independent of the Mennonite Centre but is working closely with it.

Sixteenth-century Anabaptism was largely a movement of the poor, powerless and uneducated; it was not a scholarly elite. Anabaptists had their heart in discipleship and mission rather than in doctrinal discussion or historical research. Whilst we recognize the need today for research to rediscover this legacy, we want the network to be earthed in local church life, mission and practical social concern. We hope this magazine will be a stimulus to reflection as well as action.

There are moments in history that contain an element of mystery, a sense that something innovative, creative and arguably divine is being forged. Karl Barth’s rediscovery of the Bible and his consequent “Copernican revolution” in theology is one such moment. By his own confession, Barth “stumbled into the strange world of the Bible”. He felt himself to be like one who climbed a bell tower, inadvertently caught hold of the bell rope and caused all around to hear the ringing of the bell.

Barth’s “accidental” rediscovery of the power of the Word of God has had a prolonged impact upon the theological world. It came about during the First World War, during a period of intense political pressure and social dislocation. Barth’s personal experience proved significant far beyond his own life because it came at a particular time into a world which, whether it knew it or not, was ready for it.

The English Civil War of the seventeenth century was a similar moment of innovation and creativity. In the midst of that huge social, military, economic and religious clash, new ideas came to birth. Creativity found political and institutional expression in ways which marked have the western world ever since. English society crossed thresholds in its conceptions of what is politically right and good, and could not go back. People who at other times and places merely would have gone their way in obscurity actually incarnated these changes in their lives. Revolutionary times made revolutionaries of the most unlikely people.

The days and weeks of Christ’s resurrection appearances rank supreme in a Christian view of history. Here something radically new took place, difficult though it is to fathom within categories of secular history. New ideas, new language and new experiences came to birth in the white heat of that event. Followers of Jesus came to understand the world in radically new ways.

I am tempted to describe each of these moments as “revelatory”. For the theologically fastidious, however, I shall reserve this language for the resurrection alone and speak of other historical events as “illuminatory”. In the events cited, and others not listed, illumination took place in ways beyond ignoring. It is possible to see in each event a conjunction of revolutionary historical circumstances, human longing and activity of the Spirit of God. These were breakthroughs leading to paradigm shifts in the way a significant number of people viewed reality.

Anabaptism as a threshold moment

Both by its role in history and its impact on my own life, Anabaptism is such a paradigm shift. The more I read about it, the more I sense that the emergence of Anabaptism was yet another “magic” moment, a breaking in of illumination through the hard crust of resistant humanity.

As far as I am concerned, the pivotal event in the emergence of Anabaptism took place at Zürich on January 21, 1525.1 The political and religious landscape of Europe was in a period of tumultuous change. A growing dissident group of Zwingli’s followers had come under censure from the town council and had now met secretly at the home of Felix Mantz. Conrad Grebel and a fiery newcomer to town, Georg Blaurock, were among those present.

Suddenly the breakthrough came. Georg Blaurock requested Conrad Grebel to baptize him with true Christian baptism. Grebel did so, after which Blaurock baptized those present in the room by pouring water. This was a threshold moment. No one had dared do this since the time of the Donatists over a thousand years before. It was a proscribed act since it was regarded as re-baptism, a breach of church discipline. The church was backed by the power of the state, and could exercise discipline with real force. Re-baptism was a simple act, yet it had immense implications.

Discipleship embracing responsibility

Re-baptism had implications for the nature of the church. To baptize upon profession of faith was to imply that up till this time these people had not been true Christians. Simply being baptized as a baby into a “Christian” society was not enough. Something more was necessary for the fashioning of a true Christian, some act of discipleship that embraced responsibility. The church had to be a committed fellowship of those who freely believed and in so doing set themselves, in matters of faith, beyond the dictate of monarch or town council.

The Anabaptist view of discipleship and church also had implications for society. Anabaptists saw society in a radically different way from their contemporaries. Theirs was a protest movement operating under extreme conditions, and they did not usually produce carefully honed or systematic theology. Yet their theology did emerge through a ragged series of insights and encounters. It amounted to a rejection of the sacral state, a rejection of both the ideological use of religion by the state and the oppressive use of secular power by the church. This understanding of church and state anticipated freedoms which later became the heritage of western nations. Although it may not be possible to draw a straight line from Anabaptism to religious tolerance and freedom, it is possible to draw some sort of line.

The emergence of Anabaptism shed light upon western religious and political structures, and enabled improvement. Anabaptism marked both a return to the sources of faith in Jesus Christ and a belief in the possibility of progress in society. The first of these predominated for the Anabaptists. But the movement is evidence that where people take Jesus Christ seriously and adhere to him, their witness has power beyond expectation and imagining.

A source of renewal for church and mission

Anabaptism still has power to illuminate, and this conviction undergirds my interest in the movement. The illumination continues to concern the way of being the church and the consequences of this for Christian witness to society. Anabaptism may act, therefore, as a source of renewal for the church and its mission.

In the present era, the whole church must come to terms with the fact that its existence is a sectarian one. It does not occupy the dominating, central ground in society. It no longer provides a canopy embracing the whole of reality for substantial masses of humanity. It must come to terms with this existence as a dissenting minority which nonetheless has immense transformative potential. It is here that a return to the paradigms of Anabaptism has ecumenical significance. There is something here for the whole church to learn.

My interests lie particularly in the area of mission and the ways in which renewal of the church offers potential for renewing the wider community. Anabaptists wanted to restore the true church on biblical and supremely on christological foundations. The consequent missionary impetus manifested by the movement was in stark contrast to other Reformation traditions.

If various traditions of Christianity need to heed the Anabaptist witness, they do not need to cease being what they are. Rather, the church ecumenical might benefit from the leaven of Anabaptist thought as it relates to responsible discipleship, the believers’ church, and freedom of the church from dominance by state and culture. The outcome of this is beyond immediate prediction, but not beyond creative imagination. The motive for renewed interest in

Anabaptism is not narrow sectarianism, but ecumenism in the belief that illumination is here for us all.

Fruitful impact as voluntary minority

Along the way we need to revise the language of “church” and “sect” which often predominates in these discussions. When Ernst Troeltsch developed his typology along these lines he was using the language in precise terms. However, it is too easy to use the word “sect” pejoratively. What the church needs to recognize is that a sectarian reality now confronts us all. Increasingly the church’s existence will be as a voluntary minority which does not hold the centre ground in our cultures.

We may either lament this status as a fall from past glory or embrace it as the way it should have been all along, as a return to the normative mode for existence of the church. To recognize our marginalisation is not to capitulate to paganism, or to abdicate social and political responsibility, or to accommodate to the privatisation of religion – although all of these temptations lie to hand. It is rather a return to the mode of existence in which the church makes its most fruitful impact as it actively waits and prays for the kingdoms of this world to become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

On a more personal level, it is impossible to read of the Anabaptists without admiring both their heroism and their Christian character in adversity. As a British Baptist, I am aware of the suffering endured by my own forebears. But the tally of martyrs produced by the Anabaptists exceeds anything in my own tradition.

Some years ago I stood by the River Limmat in Zürich, not far from Zwingli’s church, at the place where Felix Mantz was bound before being carried off to the middle of the river to endure the “third baptism” of martyrdom. Mantz was the first Anabaptist to die at the hands of fellow Protestants, and he did so testifying cheerfully. His mother and brothers in Christ urged him to be faithful to the last. While being bound he sang with a loud voice: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (“Into your hands I commit my spirit, O Lord”). Mantz was consciously echoing Stephen, the first martyr for Christ, the shedding of whose blood furthered the Christian mission no less than his life. In such a testimony there is more than intellectual force, but a quality of commitment which exemplifies the offering of the whole of life in discipleship. I felt myself to be at a place of breakthrough, and that instinct has not lessened.

Anabaptism Today? This may sound somewhat immodest. Anabaptism, in its generative and expansive form at least, was crushed over four centuries ago. The established churches, often for understandable reasons of responsibility and institutional survival, rejected its insights. Its leaders were killed or cowed into quiescence. Its writings remained unpublished and unread. The very word “Anabaptism” became a byword for fanaticism and tumult.

Beginning about a century ago, however, and gaining momentum in the past twenty years, there has been a growing readiness on the part of many Christians to listen to the Anabaptists. There is new interest in listening not only to the Anabaptists, but also to marginal Christians from other times and places who had parallel insights. At a time when Christianity manifestly is in trouble, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, a growing number of Christians are turning to unexpected sources for ways forward.

Christians are turning to the past, not out of nostalgia, but to reawaken subversive memories. Things have been and can be other than they are. There is no God-given inevitability about forms of Christian witness and church life that past generations have bequeathed to us. God’s Spirit, who reminds us of everything Jesus taught (John 14:26), also reminds us of undomesticated forms of Christian living. Though crushed and marginalized in the past, in our time these can address us with new possibilities for thought, action and common life. Anabaptism’s new influence today is an expression of this. It indicates the transforming potential of a repressed memory brought back into consciousness.

This article examines three ways Anabaptism is important: for its intrinsic significance, for its representative function as part of an alternative strand of Christianity, and for the invitation it presents to rediscover Christian origins.

Intrinsic significance

In a burst of creativity in the 1520s and 1530s, individuals and groups sprang up across western and central Europe to challenge received notions of what it means to be Christian. There were many dimensions to this challenge. After a millenium in which most Europeans were compelled to belong to locally established churches because they had been born in a “Christian” country, the Anabaptists pioneered a voluntarist model of Christianity. Christians should be those who, having counted the cost, had chosen to follow Jesus. Baptism should be given, not to everyone who was born, but to those who had experienced rebirth and were committed to the Christian way.

Faith, the Anabaptists believed, could not be compelled. They sensed that linking church to state polluted the mission of the church without strengthening the state. Theirs was a nonconformist vision of Christianity, and adherents of Anabaptism lived in alternative ways, by different standards from the bulk of the populace. For support in this, Anabaptists developed a variety of communitarian lifestyles. As communities of faith they shared their worship and their possessions, their lives and their sufferings.

The generative core of Anabaptism was its Christocentric understanding. Jesus, whom Christians worship, must also be listened to and obeyed. “Why should God manifest his will”, Michael Sattler reasoned shortly before his execution in 1527, “if he did not desire that it be done?”1 Possibly Sattler’s contemporaries did not heed the teachings of Jesus because it was inconvenient, when Christian Europe was being threatened by Turkish invaders, to espouse nonviolent enemy-love. Possibly because, if people were obedient to Jesus’ injunction to comprehensive truth-telling and prohibition of swearing oaths, civil courts might cease to function. Possibly because, if people insisted on sharing their possessions with the needy, the economic foundations of European society might be shaken.

These reasons for obedience to God, Anabaptists felt, were not enough. Instead, there were persuasive reasons why communities of faith should test and experiment with the teachings of Jesus and demonstrate their applicability to wider society. Jesus, the Anabaptists were convinced, is God’s authoritative Word. He is the key to the rest of the scriptures. He is the source of hope for a humanity experiencing violence, oppression and despair.

Voluntarist, nonconformist, communitarian, Christocentric: these themes emerge from Anabaptist writings and court records that scholars have uncovered in recent decades. The Anabaptists, whose memory was persecuted by powerful people who write histories, now for the first time in over four centuries have been able to speak for themselves. Their voices have given new impetus and self-respect to the groups with uninterrupted Anabaptist lineage: Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, Amish and Hutterites.

Beyond these groups, however, people in other traditions are also listening to Anabaptist voices. Some, in hot disagreement, will point out “That’s an Anabaptist argument!” But this put-down doesn’t work as well as it used to. Less and less can people categorize an alternative point of view as Anabaptist and think that they have thereby dismissed it. An increasing number of Christians, finding that traditional Christian formulations and folkways no longer fit the world in which they live, are discovering intriguing relevance in the Anabaptists’ word and way.

Alternative strands of Christianity

People who warm to Anabaptist insights quickly discover that Anabaptism is not an isolated phenomenon. Instead, it stands in a tradition of radical alternatives to conventional Christianity. Outside the dominant Christian traditions are medieval Waldensians, Lollards, the Czech Brethren, early Baptists, Quakers, Moravians, early Methodists, Christian Brethren, Pentecostals and African Independent Churches. Within the great traditions themselves (often uncomfortably) are monks and friars, missionary orders and societies, the Confessing Church and a variety of communities including Base Ecclesial Communities.

Among Catholic and establishment Protestant groups a lineal descent is often traceable. Some writers have sought to trace a similar genealogy, a kind of alternative apostolic succession, among the nonconformist groups. These attempts have not convinced most scholars; direct connections between them usually are untraceable.

Yet repeatedly the four Anabaptist themes noted above recur in these groups. They appear in differing forms and combinations, to be sure, and especially are evident in the first generation or two of a movement. In their voluntarism these groups have tended to empower the weak and (at least initially) to give new room for women to offer their gifts. In their nonconformity these groups have explored ways of living simply, and often have rejected oath-swearing and life­taking (including war and capital punishment).

Alternative approaches to life issues led many of these groups to explore new ways of being communitarian. All of these are expressions of a Christocentrism that is sometimes sophisticated and sometimes naive, but that always points to the perpetual freshness of Jesus’ undomesticable teachings.

Why have these diverse movements, so widely scattered in space and time, come to similar conclusions? Perhaps it is because God’s Spirit keeps reminding people of the teachings of Jesus. These people, often in groups that are unrespectable and on the edges of their societies, are ideally placed to say, “Why not? What would happen if … ?” Then they proceed to give social expression to another sample of Jesus’ gracious imprudence.

Anabaptism, by and large, was not genetically connected with these intriguingly similar groups. As some scholars have recently suggested, Anabaptism itself may have been partly a product of an early sixteenth-century monastic renewal movement. It may also have had considerable influence on the early Baptist movement as it developed in the Netherlands and England.

But genes are not the point. Anabaptism has proved significant, not as a link to other groups, but as a symbol of an alternative strand of church history and as a means of providing coherence for it. Two terms derived from Anabaptist study have been especially useful as organizational categories: “Radical Reformation” (Williams; Yoder) and “Believers’ Church” (Weber; Durnbaugh).2 The Anabaptists, therefore, do not stand alone. They are representatives of a tendency that is durable and recurrent.

An invitation to rediscover origins

The third importance of Anabaptism is its invitation to rediscover origins. As one recent writer put it, Anabaptism “has provided a unique point of identification for many from an evangelical heritage who are taking the call of discipleship seriously in our time”. The Anabaptists would have been bemused by this sentence. Their concern was not to be a model for anyone, but to participate with others in a rediscovery of the genius of early Christianity.

Most groups mentioned above had the same concern. According to Elizabethan divine Richard Hooker, so did the Church of England: “The first state of things was best, that in the prime of Christian religion faith was soundest, the Scriptures of God were then best understood by all [people], all parts of godliness did then most abound”.3

There is life in the roots. Almost any Christian tradition can experience renewal by rediscovering insights and energies that first brought it into existence. So it is not surprising when modern Methodists in search of renewal appeal to the evangelistic zeal and communitarian instincts of early Wesleyans; or when contemporary Quakers seek to rediscover the earth-shaking understandings and spiritual dynamics of George Fox and his circle of Friends; or when religious orders, following the impetus of Vatican II, seek to rediscover “the spirit of the founder” of each order;4 or when Mennonites seek a “recovery of the Anabaptist vision”.5

The sixteenth-century Anabaptists’ ultimate concern, similar to that of the early Quakers, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren and Anglo-Catholics, was to rediscover a pattern of faithfulness to Christ according to the pattern of the Early Church. Therefore, valuable though Anabaptist or Anglican or Pentecostal roots may be to the renewal of these traditions today, these roots especially are valuable insofar as they lead to roots that go deeper still, roots embedded in the memory of Christians of the earliest centuries.

Life-givingly dangerous memory

An indication of the power of this memory comes from a statement by the US Roman Catholic bishops: “It is clear today, perhaps more than in previous generations, that convinced Christians are a minority in nearly every country of the world … As believers we can identify rather easily with the early Church as a company of witnesses engaged in a difficult mission. To be disciples of Jesus requires that we continually go beyond where we now are … One must take a resolute stand against many commonly accepted axioms of the world.”6 This statement, which the Anabaptists would have been astounded to applaud, indicates the substance of agreement that is currently emerging between Christians of many traditions.

Of course, the early church is not our ultimate place of meeting final authority; that we find in the generative events described in the New Testament. Most crucially we find our authority in the person, the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus whom we worship and follow as Messiah. It is Jesus whose memory is the most life-givingly dangerous of all memories. But the early church, across three centuries, continued in boldness and “foolishness” to live the way of Jesus. It was, according to German Catholic exegete Gerhard Lohfink, a “contrast society” which continued the “foundational reception of Jesus’ praxis of the reign of God”.7 Or, to use other language, it was the first nonconformist church.

The church, of course, later changed course. It adapted its structures and assumptions to the maintenance of dominance in a unitary Christian society, in alliance with the State. According to Anglican biblical theologian Christopher Rowland, it engaged in a “process of neutralization of the subversive ideas which threatened the status quo”8 Precisely for this reason the monks and Anabaptists, along with other renewal groups, arose to make their witness.

Something surprising may happen

The coming years are likely to be difficult for the human family. The current global instability is unlikely to diminish, rooted as it is in a lethal mixture of firepower and nationalism, economic immiseration of the southern hemisphere, and ecological crisis of increasing severity. Domestically Britain and the western world are experiencing a disruption of the social landscape and an unsettling normlessness.

This situation is our fault: important causes of our malaise, both global and local, are phenomena familiar to us and distinctive to the West. Particularly evident is our compulsive obeisance to Mammon (in Wendell Berry’s words, our commitment to “limitless economic process based upon boundless dissatisfaction”).9 A related symptom is our individualism, which expresses itself in what sometimes feels like a comprehensive absence of community. In this kind of world, Christians often seem as confused and complicit as anyone else. Even our acts of warship and witness can be unwitting expressions of corrosive Western cultural norms. Meanwhile, the dechristianization of our societies, unchallenged by any real alternatives, hurtles heedlessly ahead. Do we Christians have anything distinctive to contribute?

Insofar as we have something to contribute, it will not be because we are Protestant or Catholic, Anglican or “New Church”. Nor will it be because we are well-informed or sophisticated in our social analysis. Rather, it will be because we have begun to orient our lives around the love and will of God as expressed in the prophetic Jesus of the gospels. Jesus, in turn, will give us a vocabulary, a life-giving narrative and a point of view that “are not of this world” (John 18:36).

None of this will be easy, theologically or spiritually, intellectually or practically. Intrinsic difficulties will be compounded by experiences or feelings of apparent irrelevance. As Jesuit spiritual writer Gerard Hughes states matter-of-factly, ‘Whoever lives the gospel is marginalized”.10 To people who find “public truth”11 in Jesus’ teaching and way, the cross will be a familiar contemporary reality. But God’s Spirit – restless, creative, recreative – will not only provide untold reserves of idea and energy for faithful discipleship; the Spirit will also create community. Will we have the courage to choose as our primary identity membership in the community of believers who “critically disassociate [ourselves], in virtue of free personal decision in every case, from the current opinions and feelings of [our] social environment”?12 What memories, which heroes and heroines, will we choose to nourish us?

In the critical period we are entering, by God’s grace something surprising may well happen. The Anabaptists, after centuries of neglect, may find a voice. Along with their radical brothers and sisters in many traditions from the Early Church onwards, they may well be role models in clarifying the way forward. If that turns out to be the case, Anabaptism Today will not seem an immodest title; it will be soberly descriptive.


1 Michael Sattler, “On the Satisfaction of Christ”, in John H. Yoder, ed., The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1973), 113.

2. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962); John H. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom (South Bend, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1984),105; Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958), 144-35; Donald F. Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism (New York- Macmillan, 1968).

3. Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, III, i, 10; IV, ii, 1.

4. Walter M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican Il (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), 463.

5. Guy F. Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1957).

6. The Challenge of Peace (London: Catholic Truth Society/SPCK, 1983), 78-79.

7. Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith (London: SPCK, 1985), 149.

8. Christopher Rowland, Radical Christianity: A Reading of Recovery (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), 155.

9. Wendell Berry, Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 145.

10. Gerard Hughes, personal communication, 11 June 1992.

11. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1989), 50.

12. Karl Rahner, The Shape of the Church to Come (London: SPCK, 1974), 23.

Looking for inspiration among sixteenth-century Anabaptists is a bit like exploring your family tree: along with heroes and saints you are certain to find some dubious characters you would rather not claim as relatives. Dubious characters, in fact, often play a prominent role when modern historians explain the place of Anabaptism in the Reformation. We hear of so-called Anabaptist revolutionaries who agitated mobs in the 1525 Peasants’ War in Germany, l or millenialist visionaries at the city of Munster who practised polygamy and sought to inaugurate the “New Jerusalem” by force (1534-35). Contemporary opponents of such enthusiasts condemned them as “Anabaptists”, and for centuries that was a term of opprobrium no self-respecting religious group wanted to own.

Rehabilitating the Anabaptist label

In the twentieth century a variety of scholars and church leaders have sought to rehabilitate the word “Anabaptism”, insisting it is a useful term to describe a creative nonconformist branch of the Reformation.2 Modern efforts to reclaim Anabaptism as a valid tradition often highlight two early milestones of the movement: the first re-baptism of believers by radical reformers associated with Ulrich Zwingli at Zürich in 1525 and the Schleitheim Articles of 1527 (a brief Anabaptist statement of ecclesiological distinctives that helped shape the tradition for generations). Eager to find the good in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, some modern scholars point to these two expressions as normative for the early movement. The same interpreters dismiss millenarian or violent expressions of Anabaptism as aberrations.3

An accurate picture of early Anabaptism must reflect complexities and abiguities of the movement. Recent interpreters of the Reformation era tend to emphasize that Anabaptism sprang from multiple roots and exhibited a wide variety of expressions.4 Instead of pointing to only one fountainhead of “authentic” early Anabaptism, historians now are likely to identify a range of radical reformers as belonging to a broad movement. The wider scope of Anabaptist studies now encompasses both pacifists and violent revolutionaries,5 free church and territorial church advocates.6 Historians now note that some early Anabaptists (especially the rebels at Munster) centred their faith and practice on Old Testament models, while others (such as the Zürich circle) were strongly Christocentric.

With such a broad spectrum of theological species early in the movement, it is impossible to state the Anabaptist view on almost any topic. Nor is it possible to tell the Anabaptist story. Because the early movement was often illegal and operated on a grassroots level, it did not develop a stable institutional or geographic base. In the heat of persecution, or in the fever of apocalyptic expectation, early leaders did not develop a comprehensive or systematic theology. Rather than finding one “original” expression of Anabaptism in the sixteenth century, the historian finds a plethora of radical movements that opponents all lumped together under the label “Anabaptist”. However, like a genealogist investigating hundreds of ancestors, we can identify those parts of the movement that exhibited healthy genes and produced succeeding generations of a vital Christian movement. We can examine individuals or theological streams that might inspire and instruct us today, without claiming every individual in the story as a hero or role model.

A change in the concept of church

By either measure – inspiration value or enduring legacy – the group of Anabaptists that emerged at Zürich in 1525 deserves careful attention. Frustrated with the slow pace and limited scope of Protestant reform at Zürich, these radical reformers parted ways with their mentor Zwingli, leader of Protestant reform in the city. Baptism was the issue that “broke the camel’s back”. When the radicals at Zürich re-baptized each other they broke not only with Zwingli, but with a concept and definition of church that had dominated Europe for centuries.

In addition to being a reformer and priest at the Zürich cathedral (Grossmunster), Zwingli was a classics scholar and articulate theologian. Around him gathered a circle of young intellectuals and students with whom he read classical literature, discussed theology and studied the New Testament. Among this circle were Conrad Grebel (theology student from an upper class Zürich family)7 and Felix Mantz (Hebrew scholar and illegitimate son of a chief canon of the Zürich cathedral).

Zwingli and his followers began to question whether there was a biblical basis for certain long-standing practices of the Christian church in Europe. Practices in question included celibacy for clergy, indulgences, use of images and fasting during Lent. Zwingli persuaded the Zürich City Council to authorize significant reform in several of these areas, but would not make changes in the church without Council approval. Like all major Catholic and Protestant leaders of his day, Zwingli believed the welfare of society depended on church and state working together in close harmony (a model of church-state relations that goes hack to the fourth century and the Roman Emperor Constantine). At a series of public disputations, Zwingli and his followers presented the case for radical change in the church. Much as Luther emphasized sola scriptura in his reform at Wittenberg, Zwingli and his followers argued from the Bible in pressing for change at Zürich

Faced with a choice

In 1524 differences regarding baptism arose between Zwingli and some of his followers. Despite his earlier reservations about it, Zwingli held to the centuries-old tradition of baptizing infants; Grebel, Mantz and others declared the New Testament taught that only believers should receive baptism upon profession of faith. Zürich city council held a public disputation on the question in January of 1525. In the end, the city council decreed infant baptism was mandatory for all children in Zürich. Such a decision was understandable for people who accepted the Constantinian model of a Christian society. Allowing members of society to make their own decisions about faith might significantly have weakened the social and political influence of a state-sponsored church.

Zwingli’s radical associates now faced a choice: should they accept the decision of city council and keep their reform effort legal, or should they follow what they understood to be scriptural teaching on believer’s baptism? More was at stake than just baptism; these reformers were on the verge of restoring a voluntary church, free from government control. Apart from sporadic or marginal movements,8 such a free church had not existed in Europe for more than a thousand years.

When the city council decided in favour of infant baptism, they also prohibited Zwingli’s radical followers from meeting again to discuss the matter further. On the very day the council issued that decree, however, a group of them met in Zürich at the home of Felix Mantz. After earnest conversation and prayer, a former priest named George Blaurock knelt and requested baptism. With no “appointed servant of the Word” present to administer the rite, Conrad Grebel stepped forward and poured water. All present received believers’ baptism before the evening was over, making that meeting in a private home the first believers’ church gathering of the modern era.9

Participants in this circle (soon known as the “Swiss Brethren”) were now outlaws, and scattered to the countryside. Near Zürich the first Anabaptist congregation came into being when virtually all the inhabitants of the village of Zollikon received believer’s baptism. Radical priests at the villages of Zollikon and Witikon had been in contact with the Zürich circle earlier, and already in 1524 had ceased to baptize infants. Following in the wake of Zollikon and Witikon, Anabaptist congregations sprang up in many Swiss villages and rural areas.

Rapid spread of a grassroots movement

Anabaptism spread quickly throughout central and northern Europe, fueled by the fervour of its proponents and by a combination of theological and sociological tensions. Grebel and certain other Anabaptists denounced payment of the hefty church tithes, an idea attractive to the impoverished peasantry. Some rural districts of Switzerland were eager to escape heavy-handed political control from urban areas, and Anabaptism provided theological justification.

Anticlericalism was already widespread, preparing the way for an Anabaptist concept of the “priesthood of all believers”. In Germany, quite independently of the Zürich circle, the discontent of peasants erupted into full-fledged revolt. Thomas Muntzer, with his “Anabaptist” theology, fanned the fires of insurrection. Catholics and Protestants alike responded to the widespread discontent by imprisoning or executing thousands of Anabaptists of many persuasions, including pacifists from the Swiss Brethren circles. Zwingli himself gave approval for the drowning of Felix Mantz in 1527.

In our pluralistic Western society it seems strange that the simple act of rebaptism was once a capital offence. The authorities were correct, however, that Anabaptism (including the nonviolent strain) was a revolution that turned medieval society on its head. By gathering in a private home to baptize each other, Zürich Anabaptists signaled their conviction that New Testament teaching takes precedence over the demands of any ecclesiastical or civil authorities. By making baptism an adult choice, Anabaptists redefined church and reshaped the congregation on a New Testament model. Radicals at Zürich thus challenged the dominant idea that every individual in a given geographic area should join, at infancy, the religious faith of the ruler. Harbingers of the modern idea of religious freedom, Zürich Anabaptists set out to found a “believers’ church” made entirely of individuals who voluntarily acknowledge Jesus as Lord and request baptism.

Schleitheim and the enduring legacy

Christian groups today that trace their spiritual heritage back to the Swiss Brethren at Zürich include Hutterian Brethren, Amish and Mennonites. An early document that had an impact on all three movements is the Schleitheim Confession (1527). This brief statement of Anabaptist distinctives describes a church in which believers experience conversion and voluntarily join a disciplined faith community. It envisages a church of individuals committed to nonviolent love (even of enemies) and mutual aid. It calls on church members to be accountable to each other under the Holy Spirit and the Bible. The Swiss Brethren (and generations of followers in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, America and elsewhere) believed Christians can and should follow the example of Jesus, living out practical directives of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

These classic elements of Swiss Anabaptism – conversion, imitation of Christ, nonviolence and community – constitute the core of an Anabaptist movement that has endured for centuries. Because Christians from many traditions seek to be faithful in these areas, insights and experience of early Swiss Anabaptism provide fertile ground for study and ecumenical dialogue.


1. The most famous being Thomas Muntzer. Though technically not an Anabaptist (he never re-baptized anyone), opponents of sixteenth-century radical reform movements used Muntzer’s s reputation to besmirch the entire Anabaptist movement.

2. See, e.g., Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (London, 1909), 369. Cited by Mennonite historian Harold S. Bender in his presidential address to the American Society of Church History in 1943. Church History in (1944:3-14) and Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1944:67-88). Bender’s address (and related scholarship) was seminal to a generation of Anabaptist research.

3. See, for example, Fritz Blanke, “Anabaptism and the Reformation,” in Guy F. Hershberger,

ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1957), 57­68.

4. For a recent treatment of diversity among early Anabaptists, see J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist.- The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987), and James M. Stayer et al, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (1975:83-12 1).

5. See James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1972).

6. For discussion of the territorial church strain of Anabaptism, see Charles Nienkirchen, “Reviewing the Case for a Non-Separatist Ecclesiology in Early Swiss Anabaptism,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 56 (1982:2274 1), and Arnold Snyder, “Me Monastic Origins of Swiss Anabaptist Sectarianism”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 57 (1983:5-26).

7. Grebel’s extant letters provide vivid insight into development of the Anabaptist enclave at Zürich. See Leland Harder, ed., The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1985).

8. Two prominent examples are the Waldenses and Hussites.

9. For an early account of this gathering, see The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren (Robertsbridge: Plough Publishing House, 1987), vol. l, 43-47.

In the wake of emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity in the fourth century, practices and theology developed to support a close relationship between church and state. Patterns of behaviour and belief that grew out of the Constantinian epoch became embedded in the fabric of Western society, and some are still with us today.

These practices may seem little more than anachronistic irrelevances, harmless or romantic relics of a former age. Yet proposals to change such practices, or to do away with them, provoke vigorous objections. Could it be that we have not yet freed ourselves from the Constantinian mould? Perhaps it is time for the church to say that it no longer wants the state to support any ecclesiastical privilege.

Vestiges of Christendom are most obvious in established churches, but often appear in other denominations as well. These vestiges include:

1. Too much in a name

Constantinian assumptions stand behind familiar names such as “The Church of England”, “The Church in Wales”, or “The Church of Scotland”. All western countries now have many denominations. Today most Anglicans, for example, would accept that their church in fact is a church of England, one of many.

2. Loss of prophetic voice

An established church’s role is often seen (at least by the establishment) to be one of providing stability and continuity, rather than challenging accepted practices or charting new directions. Keeping pax is more important than making shalom. An established church which accepts such a limitation can be reduced to providing religious sanction for the social consensus. This can muzzle prophetic ministry in the church, and can lead to Bible interpretation that questions but does not really challenge the status quo. This orientation also may characterize denominations other than established churches. Indeed, in recent years some members of established churches have been more outspoken than most free church members in challenging prevailing attitudes, values and practices.

3. Comfortable wealth

According to some estimates, the Anglican Church in England is the second largest landowner in the country, next to the monarch. Its economic interests thus are aligned with the preservation of the capital value of land and the maximisation of rents from property. At least in rural areas, church buildings dominate the horizon, symbolizing power, stability and social position – as well as the importance of worship to our ancestors. The maintenance and restoration of church buildings by appeal to public support can imply that these buildings essentially belong to the national heritage rather than to the people of God.

4. The parish system

A parish system allocates every person in a given area to a particular denomination, taking little account of other churches functioning in the same territory. At one level such a system is a sensible geographical arrangement. Yet it reinforces the notion of the church, not as a pilgrim people, but as a settled structure responsible for every member of society.

5. Infant baptism theology

Widespread infant baptism makes church and society practically coterminous. Theology associated with baptism of infants sometimes has sought involuntary incorporation of all members of society into the church. Indeed, a service of baptism for those no longer infants was only added to the Anglican Prayer Book in 1662. The preface to that edition states:

. . . it was thought convenient, that [there] should be added … an Office for the Baptism of such as are of Riper Years: which, although not so necessary when the former Book was compiled, yet by the growth of Anabaptism, through the licentiousness of the late times crept in amongst us, is now become necessary, and may be always useful for the baptizing of Natives in our Plantations, and others converted to the Faith.

Theology underlying this text is an ideal in which society and church are coterminous. Are “our Plantations” those of the church or of the nation? Theological arguments for infant baptism may be different in today’s debate, but earlier ideals have been allowed to stand in the background and may continue to infuse assumptions and preferences.

6. Lack of church discipline

Few churches today understand or practice church discipline. This failure in the face of New Testament teaching to the contrary is, in part, the fruit of a Constantinian mindset. As the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer (in “A Commination”) said, “in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline … [but] until the said discipline may be restored again (which is much to be wished,) …” Few contemporary church publications include material for use in relation to church discipline. The wishes of the 1662 authors remain, it would seem, largely unfulfilled.

7. Triumphalism

Persecution of dissenters, either by the church or by the state, is a feature of Constantinianism. There is a long history of established churches persecuting those outside them. Only rarely has a former persecuting church publicly disassociated itself from this part of its history and from the theology that allowed persecution.

In the present more liberal climate most established churches quietly lay aside the theology of persecution. It is striking how some of the newer churches have slipped into a triumphalist mentality. Reconstructionism is a recent example of a theory of the role of the church which has a discernable persecuting mentality. Use and abuse of the Old Testament by proponents of such theories is all too familiar to those who know the history of established churches.

8. “Moral majority” thinking

It is encouraging to see many churches in the UK discovering or recovering interest in social affairs. But it is a mark of Constantinianism to seek special treatment for the church or for Christianity. People making such an appeal may point to the “Christian heritage” of the nation, or to the universal applicability of God’s norms for humanity, or to polls which ascribe belief in “God” to over seventy percent of the population. Seeking privilege or patronage for Christians and their faith does not accord with the role of the church envisaged by Jesus.

9. Limits on evangelism

Some people today regard evangelism amongst adherents of other faiths as racism or imperialism. Others, notably certain evangelicals, support dis­advantaging religious traditions other than Christianity. They may do this, for example, by objecting to non-Christian religions such as Islam being taught in state schools. This tendency to identify race or nationality with religious affiliation is infected with Constantinianism. Being a Christian need have nothing to do with racial or national identity.

10. A skewed church history

Already in 1956 Gunter Jacob, a Lutheran church leader in Germany, said, “Aware spirits characterize the situation of Christianity in contemporary Europe by the fact that the end of the Constantinian epoch has arrived.”1 Yet in much popular and even scholarly material, Constantinianism is accepted as normal, and those who through the ages objected to it still receive pejorative treatment from historians. What does church history look like from the underside, from the viewpoint of those who took no patronage or privilege from the state?

11. Church appointments by the state

At least officially, the state often appoints leaders of established churches. This contrasts sharply with the injunction in 1 Corinthians 6 not to involve state authorities in church affairs. Of course if the state too is “Christian”, and in some sense within the church, the problem seems not to arise – but that only illustrates the Constantinian reality that remains. For example, in England the Prime Minister has a critical role in appointing the the most senior bishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

12. Lack of alternative models for church and state

If churches today truly are moving away from Constantinianism, rather than merely going along with its decline, they should develop new teaching on the relationship between church and state. Lack of coherent alternative models indicates we are not yet in a fully post-Constantinian epoch.

Interim conclusion

Difficulties confront us as we reflect on these vestiges of Constantinianism in the life of church and society. Alternative models for the church-state relationship, such as those developed by Anabaptists, often emerged from a very different and non-democratic context. To what extent are these relevant to our society? One modern Mennonite declares

It is at best questionable whether a definition of the separation of church and state worked out under an autocratic system of government can be made normative for a democratic system in which, theoretically at least, the government is the people and thus inevitably includes every Christian citizen.2

Many free churches are, in a sense, accidentally non-established. They did not become free by choice, and lack a coherent and radical critique of church-state relationships.

This article focused on vestiges of Constantinianism within the church. Part two of the series, Vestiges in Society examines vestiges left in the thinking and practices of larger society, and will make some modest proposals for a way forward.


1. Cited by Franklin Hamlin Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church: A Study in the Origins of Sectarian Protestantism, second edition (Boston: Starr King Press, 1958), 56.

2. Erland Waltner, “The Anabaptist Concept of the Church”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (1951: 5-16), 15

Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 2, February 1993Noel Moules is Programme Director of Workshop, a Christian Discipleship and Leadership Training programme in which more than sixteen hundred people from many denominations have participated He is a member of the Editorial Board for Anabaptism Today and in this interview he reflects on his commitments to shalom (A Hebrew word often translated “peace”).

You always answer the telephone by saying “Shalom, this is Noel ” What response do you get to that greeting?

Quite often there’s a kind of pause, but most people are too polite to say anything. I suppose some think, “Oh no, it’s Noel’s gone native! Now he’s got some sort of Hebrew greeting!” I use shalom as a greeting because it is a declaration of the Kingdom of God. In Luke 10:5-6 Jesus tells his disciples to proclaim the greeting of peace in their travel and witness; where the greeting of peace is received by people of peace, there peace remains.

What does shalom mean to you?

There’s a wonderful rabbinic story that says when God had created all the blessings for humankind he looked around for a pot or vessel in which to put them. When he couldn’t find a vessel, he created shalom. We often use “peace” to translate “shalom”, but the word “wholeness” is much better. The trouble with “peace” is that it sounds passive. That’s why I won’t call myself a pacifist. What I do call myself is a shalom activist. Shalom is packed with dynamism; it’s not simply everything in quiet harmony. Shalom is the overarching biblical vision. It isn’t on God’s agenda, it is God’s agenda, and the New Testament emphasizes this by saying we shall “proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). I’m amazed that a peace message is completely absent among many Christians.

Did particular life experiences make you reflect on peace and violence?

My father was a missionary, but also a major in the British army. Before joining up in the second World War he prayed and fasted for three days and nights. France fell, dad knew he would be called up, and felt an obligation to defend his country. Dad gave his life to God, fought in the North African desert, and God saved him. He was not militaristic, but had a “good Christian” attitude about the military and doing your duty. Yet I had growing questions about whether this is how Christians should act. In college my friends said “yes, we’d all like to be peaceful, but of course it doesn’t really work.”

After years of struggle, the event that really sealed my peace conviction was the Malvinas/Falklands war. I knew there were thousands of my Christian brothers and sisters in Argentina, yet we were at war with them. As a believer I am one body even with people that are in the Argentinian army. Two scriptures were key for me: “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20) and “my kingdom is not of this world, if it were, my servants would fight” (John 18:36).

When I was in college in the mid-1960s I did a research project on the biblical idea of the kingdom of God. I remember pondering the warning of Jesus that we should beware of people who say “Look! Here is the Messiah!” (Matt. 24:23). Jesus was saying “be careful, you can be deluded.” I believe shalom is the essential quality by which we can recognize the Messiah and the Kingdom. Shalom is the overarching value of the kingdom, out of which spring justice, peace, righteousness, joy, love, grace, forgiveness.

Does your peace conviction require you to make selective use of scripture? What about all the passages that seem to endorse violence?

Of course you can make the Bible say anything you want. But the Bible is a written record of God’s revelation, God’s word. The most clear manifestation of his word is the person of Jesus, and I believe the Bible only makes full sense when you read it in the light of the person and words of Jesus. “Blessed are the peacemakers, they are called children of God.” In the Hebrew scriptures we see that God gave his people the land of Israel. Yet Israel was still simply one nation among others, and in that role she fought. Israel was trying to establish a political kingdom. The church, although it makes an impact on politics, is universal. You cannot make a parallel between Israel and the church. God has a special role for us, and we act in a totally different way.

How does a commitment to peace affect evangelism?

Many people seem to have a negative motivation for evangelism, and primarily talk about sin, rebellion and judgement. Of course these are all valid dimensions of the truth. But to me the primary motivation for evangelism is that it is good news. In the gospels we see Jesus clustered about on all sides by prostitutes, tax collectors, people who’d given up on religion, and the ne’er-do-wells of society. There was something about Jesus’ presence that attracted people. I’m

sure that a prostitute in the presence of Jesus was in no doubt about her sin. Yet there was something about the wholeness of Jesus which attracted her. The same was true for tax collectors, who led duplicitous lives. But the first response of Zacchaeus, when he had a meal with Jesus, was to start giving his money away. Jesus didn’t take him on a guilt trip. Zacchaeus knew his need, and Jesus brought a joyful message of truth and hope. When repentance happened, it was evident in the fruit of a changed life. The message of shalom, the gospel of peace, comes in this very positive way. We shine a light in the darkness to reveal it for what it is, rather than shouting into the darkness about darkness.

Why do you identify yourself as an Anabaptist?

Anabaptists had a central focus on Jesus. Being a Christian was seen in terms of being a disciple of Jesus; Jesus was the model of how God wants us to be. The important thing for most Christians is that Jesus died and rose from the dead so that when I die I also will rise from the dead if I believe in him. But what about the incarnation? In Jesus God has become a human being, showing us what being human actually is. God is saying that through Jesus’ death and resur- rection, and through the events of Pentecost, you can live like this too.

How has the modern church come to separate peace from the gospel?

Since the Reformation there has been too much focus on conversion meaning simply that you believe the right things. Leaders of the mainstream Reformation put emphasis primarily on doctrine, propositional truth and spiritual transaction. They talked about people having their ultimate destiny in heaven, and peace became personalized or spiritualized. The Anabaptists, in contrast, had a central focus on the life and teaching of Jesus.

Even as we speak, Allied bombs are dropping on Iraq again. In practical terms, what does a peacemaking Christian do?

There are no simple answers, and a conflict like Iraq makes us realize there is much work to be done. For all that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless and cruel man, and his people would be better off with a more righteous leader, the West has acted in arrogance. We sold him the armaments and technology, with no thought of the consequences. Then when he stepped out of line we used our weapons of mass destruction to destroy his. We’ve sown seeds for all sorts of bitterness.

In terms of practical strategy, let me go back to the Malvinas/Falklands conflict. If the British government and the Argentinian government both knew that they could not count on a single person who named themselves Christian to give any support to a foreign policy that employed militarism, surely they would think twice about how they handled international conflict. If it was known that Christians don’t fight, that Christians are people opposed to violence, we could have a very big impact on a grass roots level. The present conflict in the Balkans is another case where there are Christians on both sides. Couldn’t their churches – who obviously have some impact on government – become a major vehicle for dialogue and reconciliation? Couldn’t Christians in this country be supporting them to do so?

Some Christians argue that we should avoid politics and concentrate on the essential spiritual message of the gospel.

If you do that you are trying to fragment life, and you have the classic dualism between the spiritual and the political. The whole thing about shalom is that it’s all-embracing. Politics is to do with people, and people are those whom God is concerned about. There can be no shalom where there is no justice and righteousness. I identify in common cause with many people in the “secular” peace movement, and abolition of nuclear weapons I believe is something close to the heart of God. But I know that ultimately their dream can only be fulfilled in Jesus.

What kind of response to your peace testimony do you get from other Christians?

A lot of Christians – evangelical, charismatic, mainline – think I’m an oddball, or just quaint. I get the warmest response from younger Christians, people who have lots of fragments of teaching from church, who are trying to get a handle on it all and bring it together. Suddenly they see shalom, and it integrates everything. Older Christians are more likely to say peace might be a part of the gospel, but it’s not the whole.

What does shalom mean for the structure of the church and the use of power within the faith community?

There are a number of possible church structures within the New Testament, not just one model. To me the absolutes are a vision of the kingdom of God and values that reflect that vision. Local church should be a spontaneous expression of the people and gifts that are there at that time. Obviously there’s a need for leadership, but it should be plural and winsome. It should reflect the qualities of evangelism, teaching, caring, mission, church planting, and prophecy. All these should flow both through recognized leaders and through the body as a whole.

What is the relationship between salvation and peace?

I believe God’s ultimate destiny for all things is to embrace and saturate with shalom, to unite all things. What is happening in Jesus is that God is breaking into this age ahead of time, bringing the shalom of the age to come into the present and the now. Jesus calls us to become messianic people through the power of the Holy Spirit. We live out in practical terms the reality of the age to come. To me, Christian ethics doesn’t make sense without eschatology, without a clear focus on where God is taking the world and humanity. You can only live out the Sermon on the Mount, for example, if you have the power of God and you know where you’re going.

Conversion means coming under God’s rule. We realize that our rebellion and its consequences have been dealt with through Jesus’ death, and that our destiny is to be part of a cosmic wholeness. It’s a tragedy that we’ve spiritualized our destiny, when it should be an integration of the spiritual and physical. Jesus himself was the shalom person, the physical and the divine integrated into one. He models what the new heaven and new earth are going to be. All creation is groaning, it will be set free, and Jesus calls us to be heralds of that truth.

Stripping away church traditions, sixteenth-century Anabaptists looked to the Bible for both content and pattern in worship. The article that follows is the first in a series that will examine how Anabaptists understood and practiced four worship rites: 7he Lord’s supper, baptism, foot washing, and the ban. Many Christians today share with Anabaptists the conviction that Jesus and the scriptures provide authority, inspiration and models for worship.

When early Anabaptist communities observed the Lord’s Supper worship was informal. Written texts were not necessary. But a rite by Balthasar Hubmaier, a reformer active in South Germany and Moravia, is an interesting exception. Shortly before his trial and execution at Vienna in 1528, Hubmaier wrote “A Form for the Supper of Christ”.1 Besides giving simple instructions for administering the service, Hubmaier stressed worthy partaking, made exhortations to love and unity, and offered a meditation for personal examination. His final emphasis was on “bearing fruit worthy of baptism and the Supper of Christ”.

Hubmaier’s’ Order of Service

Preparation. Choose “a suitable time and place … so that one does not come early and another late”, said Hubmaier, so everyone will be present to hear the “evangelical teaching”. Prepare a table laid with ordinary bread and wine, using “cups of silver, wood or pewter – it makes no difference”. Participants should be “respectably dressed” and “sit together in an orderly way without light talk and contention”.

Confession of sin. All, leader included, should fall on their knees to beg God’s mercy with the words, “Father, we have sinned against heaven and against you. We are not worthy to be called your children” (Luke 15:21). “Speak a word of consolation and our souls will be made whole. God be gracious to us sinners.” At this point Hubmaier alluded to the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19.

Sermon. Next the “servant of the Word” was to “sit down with the people and open his mouth, explaining the scriptures concerning Christ”. (Was this to contrast preaching from a pulpit, or to indicate that everyone got up from their knees and sat together?) Hubmaier suggested the Emmaus story as a pattern for explaining Jesus and his mission. He concluded with a beautiful prayer:

Stay with us, O Christ! It is toward evening and the day is now far spent. Abide with us, O Jesus, abide with us. For where you are not, there everything is darkness, night, and shadow. But you are the true Sun, light, and shining brightness (John 8:12). Those for whom you light the way, they cannot go astray.

Hubmaier suggested further appropriate texts and themes for a homily, including a passage from the apocryphal book of Sirach. The preacher should have great freedom to choose the texts, but the purpose was “that the death of Christ … is proclaimed”.

Response. Following the sermon members should have the “opportunity and authority” to ask questions; not “unprofitable or argumentative chatter … but concerning proper, necessary items having to do with Christian faith and brotherly love”. On the authority of 1 Corinthians 14, anyone “to whom something is revealed should teach” and others should listen.

Self-examination. Hubmaier next suggested a four-point self-examination based on numerous Bible texts. They all point to “the-true fellowship of saints”, “fraternal love”, and to the worthiness of believers who have conformed inwardly to the love of God. This love, however, must be “fulfilled in deeds, as Scripture everywhere teaches us”. Hubmaier summed up: “God requires of us the will, the word, and the works of love, and he will not let himself be paid off or dismissed with words”.

Silence. A period of common silence was to follow, to allow for meditation on the suffering of Christ. Then all were to say the Lord’s Prayer “publicly, reverently, with hearts desirous of grace”.

Pledge of Love. The leader then invited people to stand and repeat “with heart and mouth” the Pledge of Love. This was a necessary prelude to sharing bread and wine at the Lord’s Table:

Brothers and sisters, if you will to love God before, in, and above all things, in the power of his holy and living Word, serve him alone, Deut. 5; 6; Exod. 20, honour and adore him and henceforth sanctify his name, subject your carnal and sinful will to his divine will which he has worked in you by his living Word, in life and death, then let each say individually: “I will”.

If you will love your neighbour and serve him with deeds of brotherly love, Matt 25; Eph 6; Col 3; Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13f., lay down and shed for him your life and blood, be obedient to father, mother and all authorities according to the will of God, and this in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down and shed his flesh and blood for us, then let each say individually: “I will”.

If you will practise fraternal admonition toward your brethren and sisters, Matt 18:15ff.; Luke 6; Matt 5:44; Rom 12:10, make peace and unity among them, and reconcile yourselves with all those whom you have offended, abandon all envy, hate, and evil will toward everyone, willingly cease all action and behaviour which causes harm, disadvantage, or offense to your neighbour, if you will also love your enemies and do good to them, and exclude according to the Rule of Christ, Matt 18, all those who refuse to do so, then let each say individually: “I will”.

If you desire publicly to confirm before the church this pledge of love which you have now made, through the Lord’s Supper of Christ, by eating bread and drinking wine, and to testify to it in the power of the living memorial of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ our Lord, then let each say individually: “I desire it in the power of God”.

So eat and drink with one another in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. May God himself accord to all of us the power and the strength that we may worthily carry it out and bring it to its saving conclusion according to his divine will. May the Lord impart his grace. Amen.

Thanksgiving and distribution. The prayer of thanksgiving was short and simple, filled with biblical allusions. The leader was to take, break, and serve the bread at the same time as saying the words of institution from 1 Corinthians 11. After the bread, he took the cup, said the further words of institution, and served it around. After all had finished, he was to say “As often as you eat the bread and drink … you proclaim the death of the Lord …” People remained standing throughout.

Conclusion. Finally, the people sat down to hear the leader’s summary of the entire service. The congregation ate and drank at the Lord’s Table, he said, to remember Christ’s suffering and death, to receive forgiveness of sins, to have fellowship with one another, to acknowledge unity in Christ’s body, to “become properly conformed to our Head” and to follow after him. The leader enjoined them “to love one another, do good, give counsel, be helpful to one another, each offering up his flesh and blood for the other”. They were to live honourably, giving no provocation to anyone so that no one outside the church might have reason to blaspheme Christ or the church.

Characteristic Anabaptist emphases in Hubmaier’s “form”

Hubmaier wanted to renew worship strictly along biblical lines. He particularly looked to scripture for direction for the practical arrangements and domestic ethos of this service. He asked for a simple table laid with ordinary plates and cups, with ordinary food. He, did not draw on the idea of festiveness at a Passover meal, but chose instead to counter the display of silver vessels and ceremonial complication as celebrated in medieval Catholic Mass.

The whole congregation must be present to do honour to Christ. To straggle in to the meeting, missing both word and fellowship, was worse than mere bad form. In this Hubmaier countered the degraded practice in contemporary Catholic church, in which folk (when they did attend Mass) often came late and left early. Anabaptists in worship were not an audience at a spectacle. The whole congregation together celebrated the Supper. The service could proceed only when all had arrived.

Mention of Zacchaeus in the opening prayer of confession signified the interdependence of receiving forgiveness and forgiving others. By making reparation, forgiving actual debt, and so receiving forgiveness himself, Zacchaeus dramatised what Jesus so often taught.

The leader’s words of comfort (“May … God have mercy … and forgive us”) are inclusive and plural. He did not say “May God have mercy and forgive you”. An Anabaptist leader approached God’s mercy and forgiveness from within the congregation, along with the people. He did not pronounce absolution from a higher status. Presumably the leader continued kneeling with the people during this entire opening section.

To fall on the knees for an opening prayer, as Hubmaier suggested, was a distinctive practice. It is not clear why Anabaptists did this. From early centuries, most Christian worshippers had stood to pray. In the Middle Ages, Catholic Christians were supposed to pay attention when the “sanctus bell” rang, to look up and adore as the priest raised the consecrated bread. But by the sixteenth century Catholics knelt during consecration of the bread and wine, precisely so they could not look at such holy and mysterious things. Priestly genuflections during the Mass had recently been introduced. By kneeling, Catholics expressed increasing awe and reverence for the sacramental elements. Were the Anabaptists, by kneeling at the start of their services, dedicating their entire observance of the Lord’s Supper to God?

Kneeling was not the only innovative posture for worship. So also was sitting. The Anabaptists, who mostly met in homes to worship, sat around a room together. Since medieval church buildings had no pews, people stood throughout most of the Mass, though some carried short crutches like modern shooting-sticks to lean on. When the priest got to the most solemn parts, everybody knelt down on the floor. Anabaptists, meeting domestically and face to face, developed their own body language for worship. In Hubmaier’s “Form” they knelt for opening prayers, and stood for communion itself.

The domestic informality and openness to group participation of Hubmaier’s suggested sermon and discussion apparently was patterned on 1 Corinthians 14. Various people, inspired by the Spirit, spoke their insights. The “servant of the Word” chose texts and initially explained their meanings, but others were free to query, correct, and augment.

The liturgy of self-examination involved extensive reading of Bible texts and thorough reflection on one’s inner motivation. This inner movement was paired with the later Pledge of Love, which emphasized the serious commitment to active, responsible, love within the church. These two movements – examination of the inner self and loving commitment to the church – bracketed a solemn period of silent meditation on Jesus’ own self-giving love. The Lord’s Prayer then served to give a succinct summary of Jesus’ message, together with his invitation to familial relationship with Abba, and the reverent receiving of gifts that sustain human life – food and forgiveness alike.

The Pledge of Love was a formal rite in which all who wished to partake of the bread and wine were invited to stand and give formal promises of love toward God, neighbour, enemy, and members of the church. Each of three questions was answered individually with the words, “I will”. After this response each person was asked to confirm their desire to prove the Pledge by eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table.

Following Thanksgiving and simple distribution of bread and wine, Hubmaier’s congregation sat down again to hear an exhortation to holy discipleship. Remembering Christ’s suffering, receiving forgiveness of sins, enjoying fellowship and unity with one another, the people were now to become conformed to Christ in life. They were to live worthy of their baptismal vows. To follow Christ in life – this is a most characteristic Anabaptist emphasis, and surely appropriate as a conclusion to the communion service. The leader spoke:

  • I pray and exhort you, as table companions of Christ Jesus,
  • that you lead a Christian walk before God and before all [people].
  • Remember your baptismal commitment and your Pledge of Love.
  • Bear fruit worthy of your baptism and of the Supper of Christ.
  • I commend you to God.
  • May each of you say, “Praise, praise, praise to the Lord eternally!”
  • Arise and go forth in the peace of Christ Jesus.
  • The grace of God be with us all. Amen.

Hubmaier’s form can challenge us: 1) to consider a domestic setting for communion by remembering Jesus at table; 2) to include justice-making reparation as an element of confession; 3) to support the sermon by members’ Spirit-inspired responses, and 4) to embody a Pledge of Love in corporate life.


1. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, eds., Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism. (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1989), 393-408.

“Papists”, wrote English Protestant Nicholas Lesse in 1550, “although they were right nought for the soul, yet were they good and profitable for the body for civil commonwealths, for the maintenance of civil justice, and all good politic orders. But as for these [Anabaptists] they are neither good for the body nor for the soul: yea, they are most mortal enemies and cruel murderers to both.”‘

Lesse spoke for a good many. It was almost as if he, a “magisterial” Protestant supporting a compulsory state church, found Roman Catholics (the supposed arch-enemy) a good deal less frightening than Anabaptists, whom he called a “corrupt sort of heretics”. Lesse is perfectly frank that the reasons for his preference are political. Both Catholicism and Protestantism maintained “civil commonwealths” and sound political order. Anabaptism led to disorder.

In 1553 Lesse’s reformation was cut short by the death of Edward VI and the accession of Edward’s Catholic sister Mary. But in 1558 she too died, and by 1561 Jean Veron—a French reformer who had come to England in Edward’s time, gone into exile during Mary’s reign and returned under Elizabeth—published three tracts on a similar theme. He depicted radicals such as John Champneys, against whom he specifically was writing, as typically lower class: “these men sitting upon their ale benches”, distributing their pernicious books “in hugger mugger”.

Anabaptist influence hard to define

It is not at all easy to prove how much actual Anabaptism, in the full-blown continental sense, influenced English radicals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A majority of those who fell into the hands of the authorities for Anabaptism were foreigners, often Dutch. Most of the few native-born English who were consciously committed Anabaptists pass as shadows across the historian’s field of vision.

This difficulty has not prevented many historians from claiming to discern precise features of an Anabaptist presence in these shadows. To be sure, the epithet “anabaptist” was freely bandied about to describe Protestant radicals generally. The term, however, was intended as an insult. It was shot through with suggestions of the fanaticism at Münster, that German city which in 1534 had been taken over as a New Jerusalem by Jan Matthijs and Jan van Leiden. The episode ended in horror and disaster, and surviving leaders were tortured to death publicly by vengeful forces of the Catholic Bishop.

It is safe to say that Münster often was at the forefront of the mind of any conservative who used the expression “anabaptist” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The term implied that the persons so described had placed themselves outside the company of reasonable people. Often it applied to anyone who was more radical than the person speaking happened to like.

Vague and polemical language

Presumably it was this polemical and theologically imprecise use of language that caused John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester in the reign of Edward VI, to claim that Kent and Essex were “troubled with the frenzy of the anabaptists more than any other part of the kingdom”.3 Earlier he wrote that “anabaptists” flocked to his preaching and “give me much trouble”.4 Lord Riche also used the term loosely when he mentioned a certain “loan of Kent and the Anabaptists”,5 despite Joan Bocher’s apparent silence on baptismal questions. The fact that the term “Anabaptist” was used in such a vague way to denote radicalism generally should evoke caution about taking such descriptions as accurate theological definitions. Any and every radical opinion could be labeled “anabaptist”, and every radical was anxious to deny the charge.

Roman Catholics argued that Protestantism would lead to anabaptist anarchy, principally because vernacular Bibles in the hands of ordinary people would result in endless private interpretations. This prediction, in the long term, was accurate. In the short term, however, Protestant reformers were anxious to disprove such allegations and to keep the spectre of Münster at bay by taking a firm line with Anabaptists. They argued that Catholics, not Protestants, had affinities with Anabaptism since both denied the power of civil government. Catholics appeared to do so by locating authority for church affairs in the Bishop of Rome rather than in the national government of a country. Anabaptists seemed to deny the power of civil government by declaring that religion could not be enforced at all. Both positions were treasonous to the king and in contravention of Romans 13, which commands obedience to the governing authorities in all things.

On guard against heresy

In retrospect, the governing authorities never appeared to lose control of the situation. That, however, did not stop a number of them panicking at the time. In 1550 Martin Micron, a Dutch founder of the foreigners’ church in London, wrote that “it is a matter of the first importance that the word of God should be preached here in German [a term which then included Dutch], to guard against the heresies which are introduced by our countrymen. There are Arians, Marcionists, Libertines, Danists and the like monstrosities, in great numbers. A few days since, namely, on the 2nd of May, a certain woman was burnt alive for denying the incarnation of Christ.”6

The “certain woman” was Joan Bocher, also known as Joan of Kent, and the offence for which she was burnt was her adherence to a controversial doctrine concerning the person of Christ. She had been active amongst the Lollards (followers of the fourteenth-century reformer John Wycliffe) since at least the late 1520s, when she recanted after being prosecuted. Later she moved to Kent, and was arrested again in the early 1540s for breaking traditional fast rules during Lent. On that occasion some officials within the hierarchy in Canterbury, probably with the connivance of Archbishop Cranmer, managed to get her released. But in 1549 she was arrested again on the more serious charge of teaching that Christ did not take flesh of the Virgin Mary, but brought his humanity with him from heaven.

Her enemies, with some exaggeration, said this doctrine amounted to denial of the incarnation. The doctrine had been popularised amongst Dutch Anabaptists by Melchior Hofmann, and for this reason is often referred to as Melchiorite Christology.7 Although isolated instances of this belief existed in England and Holland before the Reformation, growth of Dutch Anabaptism made it commonplace. Even Menno Simons, the great Anabaptist leader from whom Mennonites take their name, held the doctrine for which Joan Bocher was condemned.8

Refugees with “damnable opinions”

In the wake of the Münster fiasco, increasingly vicious persecution of Anabaptists of all types in the Netherlands caused many of them to flee to England from the mid-1530s onwards. About twenty were arrested in London, of whom perhaps a dozen were burned in 1535. Not long before, in 1532, six Englishmen and two Flemish Anabaptists, who met at the house of one John Raulinges in London, were discovered importing and distributing “books of the Anabaptists’ confession”.9 At least one Englishman and one Fleming in this group were found to hold “strange” and “damnable opinions concerning Christ’s humanity”. This was almost certainly Melchiorite Christology.

In November of 1532 three Dutch Anabaptists were burned at Colchester, including the twenty-two year old Peter Franke, whose life and steadfast death inspired the conversion of a number of citizens. Significantly, he believed that “Christ and God took not manhood of the Virgin Mary”.10 By the time Joan Bocher was arrested for the same opinion in 1549, Bishop Hooper was worrying that “this ungodly opinion is gotten into the hearts of many in England”.11 His fears did not stop refugees infiltrating into England; two years later Sir Thomas Chamberlain lamented concerning the Anabaptists of Ghent that “too many run into England”.12 Michael Thombe, a butcher of Dutch descent, was arrested at the same time as Joan Bocher for his belief that “Christ took no flesh of our lady”, and also for holding that “baptism of infants is unprofitable because it goeth without faith”. 13

Sparse Evidence of “English Anabaptism”

Whatever fright the dreaded Anabaptism may have caused in England, it was never able to gain a firm foothold amongst the indigenous population. Later English Separatists, and English Baptists of the seventeenth century, were not descendants of continental Anabaptism. The genuine English fellow-travellers of the Dutch and German movements appeared in the sixteenth century and they, sadly, were persecuted virtually out of existence.

Some scholars would wish to qualify this judgement, or even reject it. Irvin B. Horst appears to have persuaded many that Anabaptism was indeed a fairly widespread movement in England.l14 This is unfortunate, since the overwhelming majority of Horst’s “anabaptists” were only such in the sixteenth-century pejorative sense of being a little too radical for somebody’s taste. Many were foreigners (mostly Dutch) living in England. The rest were isolated individuals whose activities indicate close links with those foreigners, or whose beliefs otherwise suggest possible genuine Anabaptism.

James Coggins recently has highlighted the links between early seventeenth-century General Baptists and Dutch Waterlander Mennonites.15 Such links and influences are undeniable, and were admittedly extensive. Nevertheless, the English group was an outgrowth of earlier Separatism, which in turn was an outgrowth of the Elizabethan Puritan movement. Although the English General Baptists had much in common with the Mennonites, to the point of trying to negotiate unity with them, those discussions broke down over key issues on which the English differed from their Dutch counterparts. The Baptists were not committed to pacifism, and differed from the Mennonites in being willing to take oaths and serve as magistrates. Indeed, General Baptists were to play a significant part in the parliamentarian armies of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s and 1650s.

It one is to speak meaningfully of “English Anabaptism” in the sixteenth century, one must produce evidence of actual congregations of English people who practised believer’s baptism and separation from the world, and who believed in the separation of church and state in religious toleration. Alas, no English groups can be shown to meet these criteria. Robert Cooche, an isolated and eccentric courtier of the 1540s to 1570s, held Anabaptist views, but he was a singer in the royal chapel! An English carpenter whose name has come down to us only as “S. B.” was imprisoned in 1575 for his Anabaptist views. Yet he was a hanger-on of a Dutch group in London, and even he referred to the Anabaptists as “they” rather than “we”!16 These are the most conclusive examples of indigenous Anabaptism that we have!

In seeking for the English counterparts of the Mennonites, Hutterites, or Swiss Brethren, the historian is reduced to examining isolated groups and individuals. In most cases evidence for the careers and ideas of these is fragmentary. As with Joan Bocher, much of the evidence is in the form of court records and articles against those who were caught. Most of those who evaded the persecutors have eluded us as well! Where Anabaptism was present in strength, as in Flanders, Holland, southern Germany, Switzerland and Moravia, there is no lack of evidence for the fact. Scanty evidence concerning Anabaptism in England does not allow us to make up imaginary movements where these cannot be shown to have existed.

Whatever influence continental Anabaptism may have had on English radicals, it does not seem to have extended to the actual practice of believer’s baptism itself. John Bale, the Edwardian Bishop of Ossory, noted that “I never heard it, that ever any man within the realm, went about the reiteration of baptism actually, at any time. What though I heard of rnany, which were of the same seditious opinion, and of some strangers [i.e., foreigners] which were also executed there for it.”17

Only those historians who succeed in unearthing activities that eluded the notice of such contemporaries can hope to overturn this judgement and speak in any meaningful sense of “English Anabaptism”. Bale noted, perhaps with unconscious irony, that anyone known to have received such a baptism could not have escaped death “under king Henry, nor yet under king Edward, for they both hated that sect.”18

Established, compulsory religion, whether Protestant or Catholic, had been a mainstay of social order in Europe for a millennium. The autonomy of the individual and the voluntary nature of Anabaptism were generally considered fatal to royal or hierarchic power. If people could choose their religion for themselves, then the very code by which they lived was not amenable to government control. For almost everyone in the early modern period this was tantamount to preaching anarchy. Bale’s comment that Henry VIII and Edward VI “hated that sect” that preached such doctrines is equivalent to an observation that two particular farmyard turkeys are not, on the whole, admirers of the institution of Christmas!


1. From the preface to Augustine, A worke of the predestination of saints, trans. Nicholas Less (London, I550), AiiiV-Aiiiir.

2. J. Veron, An Apolog ye or defence of the doctryne of Predestination (London, 1561), BviiiV.

3. Hooper later was burned as a Protestant under Queen Mary. This quote comes from his letter to Heinrich Bullinger, the reformer of Zurich. H. Robinson, ed., Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1846-47), 65.

4. 0riginal Letters, vol. 1, 87.

5. J. Philpot, Examinations and Writings (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1842), 55.

6. Original Letters, vol. 2, 560.

7. The other term applied to this doctrine is “monophysite”, since it amounts to teaching that Christ had only one, divine “phusis” (nature) and did not share in human nature.

8. Martin Micron debated the subject with Menno Simons in 1554 at Wismar Germany. See “Reply to Martin Micron” in John C. Wenger, ed., The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1956), 835-913.

9. J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, and R. H. Brodie, eds., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, vol. 18 (Vaduz, 1965), Addenda 1, 281.

10. J. Bale, A Mysterye of inyquyte (Geneva, 1545), Hviv – Hviir.

11. J. Hooper, A Lesson of the Incarnation of Christe (London, 1549), Aijv. 12Calendar of State Papers, Foreign, vol. 1 (London, 1861-1950), 122.

13. Register Cranmer, fol. 74r.

14. Irvin B. Horst, The Radical Brethren: Anabaptism and the English Reformation to 1558 (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1972).

15. James Coggins,John Smyth’s Congregation: English Separatism, Mennonite Influence and the Elect Nation (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1991).

16. The Second Parte of a Register, vol. 1, 546.

17. J. Bale, A Declaration of Edmonde Boners articles (London, 1561), Sir.

18. Ibid.

In the wake of Constantine’s embrace of Christianity in the fourth century, practices and theology developed to support a close relationship between church and state. In the Clearing Away the Vestiges (February 1993) David Nussbaum examined vestiges of this ancient relationship that still linger in the church today. In this article he explores Constantinian vestiges that persist in wider society.

Significant shifts are taking place in the world-view of the contemporary church in Britain and in the church-view of contemporary society. By some estimations, ours is rapidly becoming a secular culture. We could applaud these trends as allowing a more authentic biblical Christianity. Alternatively, we could bewail the loss of Christendom as a movement away from a Christian ethos which society should preserve.

Many nonchristians oppose any disestablishment of the church. They prefer the church to retain its historic position as a bastion of the status quo: having a chaplaincy function in society, giving out pious platitudes and providing a religious flavour to Christmas. Absence of such a church, some fear, might destabilize society. Other nonchristians welcome the trend toward secularisation as a route which ultimately will see the church become irrelevant.

Yet the existence of a considerable residue of Constantinian thinking and practice indicates that rumours of the death of Christendom may be somewhat premature. The Constantinian residue in wider society presents the church with an opportunity to take the initiative and do the unexpected, by seeming to campaign against its own interests. It may be unlikely that society will push quickly ahead on its own; perhaps the church will need to clear away these remains of Christendom rather than clinging to them for (false) security in a time of change. Vestiges of Christendom in British society include:

1. Bishops in the House of Lords

This part of the legislature reserves places for senior representatives of one particular church. If the state wants religious groups to participate in the government, perhaps representatives from many faiths and other world views could be included in a “second chamber” rather than restricting religious representation to one church.

2. Prayers in the House of Commons

Daily proceedings in the House of Commons begin with prayers. Does this suggest that all its proceedings have divine sanction or inspiration? Maybe not, since these prayers are not televised like the rest of the proceedings. It is appropriate to pray about politics, but should prayers of one religious group be part of the legislature’s procedure?

3. Chaplains in the armed forces

The state often is anxious to gain religious sanction for its coercive activities. Christians working amongst members of the armed forces is one thing; having Christians work in an official religious capacity as ranked members of the armed forces is another. This allows the state to give privileged access only on its own terms. There are few examples of chaplains to the armed forces advising members of the military not to participate in actions they were told to take because such actions were wrong.

4. Inscriptions on coins

Money goes to, or perhaps comes from, the heart of the state–and the state may claim divine sanction for its finances. In the USA, where church and state are supposedly separate, coins bear the slogan “In God we trust”. Every coin in England bears at least the letters “D. G. REG. F. D.”, which some older coins spell out more fully: “Dei Gratia Regina [Rex] Fidei Defensor” (“By the Grace of God Queen [King] Defender of the Faith”). The inscription implies that the monarch has divine sanction and defends the (correct) religious faith. Which faith is not clear: the pope gave the title “Defender of the Faith” to Henry VIII before the schism which created “the” Church of England.

5. The national anthem

The British national anthem begins, “God save our gracious Queen . . .” There is no need for a national anthem to invoke deity at all. Still less is it necessary for the invocation of deity to be directed towards the salvation, longevity and supremacy of the monarch. A now less familiar verse invokes deity in a notably bellicose fashion:

  • O Lord our God, arise,
  • Scatter our enemies,
  • And make them fall;
  • Confourd their plitics,
  • Frustrute their knavish tricks;
  • On Thee our hopes we fix;
  • God save us all.

6. The coronation service

In England, the accession of a monarch takes place in a church building, with the most senior bishop of the established church officiating. Why should this be? There is even a special liturgy “for use in all churches and chapels within this realm, every year, upon the anniversary of the day of the accession of the reigning sovereign”.

7. Use of the oath

Since it often is impossible to know whether witnesses are telling the truth in court, it is attractive to the state to instill fear that God somehow will “get” those who lie. There is a strange irony here. The court asks witnesses to place their hand on the Bible–in which it is written, “do not swear” (Matt. 5:34-37)–and then to say, “I swear . . .” Jesus told his followers simply to tell the truth. The state can impress upon witnesses the seriousness of their testimony without invoking the threat of the Almighty, even supposing he was minded to help the state.

8. Blasphemy laws

In Britain laws against blasphemy protect the Christian religion, but not other religions or nonreligious world views. Perhaps this is a reciprocal arrangement: the law protects the God of the Christians against things being said against him, and in return God punishes those who commit perjury in the state’s courts.

9. Compulsory Christianity in state schools

Until the introduction of the national curriculum recently, the only compulsory subject in state schools was religious education. This focused particularly on the Christian religion. Some sort of communal worship still is required. Why should the state protect especially the Christian faith? Sometimes the effect seems to be like a vaccination: just enough of a sanitised version to protect the child against ever catching the real thing.

10. Charitable status

Church property benefits from tax exemptions. The most advantageous of these arise from having charitable status, which exempts from tax any income derived from church property and any gain when it is sold. Specially reduced rates of local taxation also support ecclesiastical privilege. While it maybe appropriate for churches to enjoy the benefits of charitable status, there is no need for religious activities as such to be regarded as charitable.

11. Remembrance Day

A nation can remember and even honour those who died in wars, without doing so in the form of a Christian or even religious ceremony. There can be something disturbing about a Christian event which marks the deaths of many who died in the course of killing other Christians. For Christians, loyalty to the body of Christ is primary, coming before loyalty to nation. Perhaps the church could organize an alternative event which remembers especially all those killed by Christians, particularly those who were themselves Christians.

12. Sunday

It is convenient for the church that the state has imposed on society special laws for the day on which Christians usually want to worship. Other days of the week might merit special consideration: Saturday has biblical backing as a day of rest, and Friday might suit Muslims. The church could make it clear that if it advocates Sunday as a special day, this is merely for pragmatic reasons, not because Christians believe there is any reason society should treat Sunday as special.

13. Christmas and Easter

The state fixes general holidays around certain Christian festivals. This is convenient for the church, since it focuses public attention on Christian stories. But Would Christians object if the state changed bank holidays from Christian dates to dates of nationally notable events? When I was a boy, those of us who wished to were allowed to miss school in order to attend church on Ascension Day (a Thursday). It seemed a fine excuse! Should Christians be reluctant to work on Good Friday?

Some modest proposals

In working with the ecclesiastical vestiges of Christendom, which are usually internal, the church itself can make changes. If vestiges persist, theology which supported them will be preserved. If the church is to present an authentic witness to society, it must detach itself from those parts of its life whose source is in society rather than in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Addressing the residue of Christendom in wider society might be more difficult. What impact would it have on the church’s witness if it campaigned against use of the oath? Against blasphemy laws which protect only Christianity? Against privileged place for Christianity in state schools? If the church wants to promote a general day of rest each week, why not Saturday?

Are Christendom and persecution the only alternatives for the relationship between church and state? What other models should we pursue? How much toleration should a truly Christian church expect? How do we promote people’s freedom to choose, whilst encouraging them to accept the Christian message’? Rather than seeking to maintain the privileges afforded to Christianity in society, the church should promote the free status of all religions and non-religions. We could do so because we are confident that the message of Jesus will flourish: not by legal might, nor by the power of the state, but through the activity of the Holy Spirit of God.

“We dont’ whack people on the head with Bibles,” David Hibbs chuckled as he poured a second round of coffee and pondered the Hutterian concept of mission. “But we do want to he a city on a hill rather than a village in the valley. It’s people seeking God who end up coming to us. Our mission is to care for the whole person, in community.”

A “village in the valley” is quite literally what you find if you visit the Darvell Bruderhof (Hutterian) community at Robertsbridge in East Sussex. Some three hundred men, women and children constitute this largest group of Anabaptists in the UK. Stuart Murray and I spent a day there in September 1993, and enjoyed coffee in the home of David and Fiona Hibbs after a tour of the grounds. Whilst many members of the Darvell community trace their roots back through North or South America to Germany, the Hibbs are English and joined the Bruderhof four years ago.

“We found something really worth following”, Fiona said. “We wanted to live with people who were obedient to Jesus.” Having participated in several conventional and charismatic churches, with mixed experience, David and Fiona first visited the Bruderhof when they saw the sign while passing through Robertsbridge. They were impressed by the warm hospitality they experienced and the deep commitment of community members. After several periods of residence as guests, they asked to move into the community with their two children on a more permanent basis.

A life-long commitment to community

Quite against the counsel of Bruderhof members, the Hibbs sold their house to make a clean break with their past life. It is understood, of course, that Hutterians relinquish personal possessions and share all goods in common. But membership in the community is a life-long, total commitment – and sometimes newcomers, in a burst of enthusiasm, want to join prematurely. “They were right about us not selling the house so quickly,” David Hibbs said ruefully. “Nine weeks after we arrived here we had to leave! We were still too concerned with materialism and power.” Eventually the Hibbs returned, found their place in this deferential community, and now interpret the Bruderhof to others through hospitality and public relations.

There’s a lot to interpret. Why would three hundred Christians live in what looks like monastic isolation in the quiet countryside? Why the uniformity of dress (men: beards, braces and black trousers; women: conservative, dark dresses and polkadot head scarves)? Why do they educate their own children until the age of fourteen? Why do they eat most meals en masse, and how do family units function when all money and possessions are shared in common? How do women feel about living in a community where men hold virtually all key positions of spiritual and administrative leadership’?

David Johnson, one of four ministers (“servants of the Word”) for the community, fielded our questions with the soft-spoken conviction of a man who has thought things through. “The Bible is the centre of everything we believe”, he explained, “and church happens whenever Christ is present among people who are willing to obey.” David Johnson took us into the community meeting room, a spacious and simple hall with several hundred chairs in concentric circles. A table on one side marks where leaders and their wives sit. Above the table hangs an oil lamp that burns continuously as a reminder of God’s presence. “The Holy Spirit is the ‘wild card’ in our worship and group decision-making,” David Johnson explained. “We like to go into worship or meetings with some plans, but we always want to be flexible so we can respond to what God might be saying.”

To follow Jesus “unconditionally”

It was this sort of openness to Spirit-led group process that inspired formation of a Bruderhof (“Society of Brothers”) in Germany in 1920. Three young Christians (Eberhard Arnold, Emmy von Hollander (later Amold), and Else von Hollander) founded an independent community with the intention of following Jesus “unconditionally”. Only later, after the group expanded, did they make common cause with centuries-old Hutterian communities that had emigrated to the United States from Russia in the nineteenth century. Thus there came to be “old Hutterian” communities in America that trace their lineage back to the Anabaptist Jacob Hutter (died 1536), and “new Hutterian” groups with twentieth-century roots in Germany.

The Darvell community belongs in the “new” category, but its members identity with the saga of Hutterian witness and suffering that goes back to the sixteenth century. A long time-line wraps around a classroom in their well-ordered primary school at Robertsbridge. Pre-Reformation heroes of nonconformist witness appear first on the sweep of history, including Waldo, Wyclif, and Huss. The chart becomes dense with data starting at the

Reformation. A prominent figure, of course, is Hutter, who took up leadership of a persecuted Anabaptist group in the Tyrol in 1529 and urged his flock to follow literally the communitarian model of church found in Acts 2 and 4.

A sampling at almost any point along the time line reflects the long sojourn that ensued:

  • 1640s: Only 1000 Hutterites left (persecution and hardship)
  • 1700: Severe persecution; Last Bruderhof gives up community of goods
  • 1750: Increased persecution. Book raids, children taken, houses sealed
  • 1820s: Internal conflicts/divisions led to steady decline of community life
  • 1860: Renewal and re-establishment of community of goods
  • World War 1: Communities move from United States to Canada
  • 1990s: Community founded in Nigeria

The modern sojourn of “new” Hutterites

The struggle for identity and survival that pervades much of Hutterian history also is characteristic of new Hutterites in twentieth-century Europe. The Bruderhof in Germany, with its peace witness and radical commitment to Jesus, was bound to come into conflict with a Nazi government. Ousted from Germany in 1937, the group moved to southern England. When war broke out, however, social and political pressures militated against the German-speaking community. After a period of hardship and struggle in an isolated region of Paraguay, the Bruderhof eventually settled in the United States. Today there are nine communities of new Hutterites (six in the United States and one each in England, Germany and Nigeria). The Darvell community at Robertsbridge was founded in 1971, when a group of Hutterians moved to England and purchased a manor house and adjacent buildings that had served as a tuberculosis hospital. Today the group owns eighty acres of pasture and fields.

Darvell has a living arrangement that is typical of most Bruderhof communities: nuclear families each have private living space in which they eat daily breakfast and two evening meals a week; each home also has its own family time in the middle the day and before the evening meal. Beyond these designated family times most of daily life is communal. Small children receive care in the “baby house”; children to the age of fourteen attend the Bruderhof school where teachers come from within the community. Older children attend local secondary schools, after which most go on to some further education. The group does not baptize children, and usually not adolescents. Membership is an adult decision to be made after the candidate has had opportunity to leave the Bruderhof and experience life elsewhere.

Each Bruderhof is financially self-sufficient, and members of all ages have daily tasks. At Darvell the economic engine is a medium-sized industry producing wooden toys and equipment for the handicapped. There is no hesitation about using modern technology: a craftsman in the shop deftly entered instructions into a computerized router that produces intricate wooden parts with speed and precision.

Community life is difficult

“Touch only your own pot!” warns a sign in the children’s pottery shop at the Bruderhof school, a reminder that communal life has its hazards. As David Johnson took us on a walking tour of the scenic grounds, we came across an abandoned bicycle lying in wet grass. “This is the problem with living in community,” he said. “If it’s not mine, why take care of it? We have to work on stewardship.”

Tranquility and peace are genuine at Darvell, and the community appears to function smoothly. Members insist, however, that such harmony comes through a lot of effort and conflict. “Communities in general have a very short half-life,” David Johnson observed. Fifty years is a long time for any community to survive, he said, and many Christian communities disperse after just a few years. Fiona Hihbs agreed that relationships require constant attention: “Imagine the conflict that happens just in one family. We are three hundred people trying to live like a family!” She noted that usually it is not underlying theological or doctrinal issues that lead to conflict; it is trivial disagreements, personality differences, or debates over little privileges that can destroy communal life.

To prevent any individual or small group from dominating the Bruderhof, there is a strong emphasis on mutual accountability and group process. On the morning Stuart and I arrived at the community, an elderly member told us “the brotherhood” was deciding that day whether he and his wife should go to assist a Bruderhof in America. This is not a decision the couple could or would have made by themselves, even though they were free to express their preference. By noon “the brotherhood” had decided, and our friends were leaving for America the next day. They seemed happy with the decision.

It is this measure of submission to group process that startles a visitor. Members do what the group decides, whether that involves a work assignment, living arrangements or role in the community. The demeanour of members is one of deference and cheerful self-depreciation. David Hibbs smiled as he borrowed an image from the wood shop to describe Bruderhof members: “We’re the offcuts of society, the little bits that are left over”. Those “offcuts” now function as an organic whole, with worship and Bible teaching at the centre. There is no frenetic activity, but the place is busy and everybody has a task. Children hike to a hillside at mid-afternoon, sickles in hand, to cut weeds; women prepare the noon meal and men wash up afterwards; the wood shop is efficiently organized with ideas borrowed from the Japanese.

Mealtime nourishes both body and mind. Members gather quietly in the spacious dining hall and sit together in family or household units. Announcements, a welcome to visitors, and blessing on the food come by way of public address system. Serving dishes arrive at each table from the kitchen (hearty potatoes and meat on this occasion). This was the week Israel signed a treaty with the PLO, and a professor from Hebrew University in Israel was visiting. The noon reading that day was a ten-minute survey of the history of the city of Jerusalem (from king David to the present), and all ages listened attentively as we ate.

Working down on the ladder

“Our whole life is church”, explained one member. “We’re all brothers. There is a ladder of power here, but you work down on it. We must become powerless, so God can use us.” God’s presence usually is felt in group silence or in the process of discussion and discernment; “charismatic” gifts of prophecy, tongues and instant healing normally play no part in Bruderhof life. Such gifts can lead to spiritual pride or individualism, and may distract members from more difficult and urgent matters of discipleship and obedience.

Ask members of the Bruderhof if they are “saved”, and they likely will change the terminology to say “I try to follow Jesus”. Among Hutterians there is a gentle disdain for theological discussion that is academic or theoretical. “We don’t even want to do Bible study unless there’s a commitment to act on what we learn”, a leader explained. This straightforward determination to do what the Bible says explains why women wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11), why only men hold positions of leadership in the church (1 Cor. 14), why members wear unique attire as a symbol of submission to the community and nonconformity to the world (Rom. 12).

Other Christians favour a more nuanced interpretation of scripture that might, for example, encourage women to preach because certain bible passages infer that women taught and took leadership in the early church. This strikes Hutterians as little more than fancy footwork to avoid the plain message of the Bible. Bruderhof members are quick to emphasize that there are true Christians in many churches outside their own, but they also have a conviction that apostasy is rampant in the larger church.

A living model of Kingdom values

How do Hutterites do mission when the entire “saltshaker” is at one spot? That is a slightly sensitive question, and members have heard it before. “A few weeks ago we had an Open Day here,” David Johnson said, “and seven hundred people came and visited. That’s mission.” In addition to such structured contacts with the immediate neighbourhood, hundreds of people visit the community each year from far and wide. Very few are able or willing to make the life-long commitment that membership requires. But sometimes visitors end up becoming members, and the Bruderhof serves as a living model of people who seriously intend to embody Kingdom values.

In the centre of the Darvell community rests a large container being tilled with clothes, equipment, food and medicine for a new Hutterian community taking shape in Nigeria. Several years ago an indigenous group of Nigerians began to live in community with all things in common. Thinking at first they alone had rediscovered a New Testament model of church, they eventually made contact with Hutterians in the America and England. Now several Bruderhof communities have pooled resources to help the Nigerian group build and plan, and people from Darvell are in Africa today. This new focus for ministry has energised the Bruderhof and brought a new cross-cultural dimension to their identity.

Stuart Murray and I left Robertsbridge on separate trains, symbolic perhaps of the more individualistic lives we lead. The rails took us from a quiet, rural community to the chaotic maze of London, where members of our churches scatter far and wide each week. We carried with us the warmth of love and hospitality that members of the Bruderhof had extended all day.

The Anabaptist congregation to which I belong has different ways of putting into practice our convictions about property, male-female roles, and accountability. But sisters and brothers at the Bruderhof inspired me to take discipleship more seriously and to think anew of practical ways to make community an integral part of church. Their radical economic sharing is a reminder that material goods belong to God and the Kingdom rather than to me. Their humility reminded me that Jesus’ way of powerlessness is a far cry from the status-seeking of a world that is too much with us. Above all, their holistic ministry highlighted the importance of bringing every area of personal and corporate life under the gracious Lordship of Jesus Christ.

To find out more about the Hutterites, the Hutterian Brethren, and the Bruderhof communities, see the Amish, Hutterites, and Conservative Groups page in our Anabaptist links.

Imagine a sixteenth-century Anabaptist visiting one of our churches today. She might agree with many of our views and practices—but perhaps would notice a tendency toward one voice, or very few voices, dominating worship. Would she observe expectant, active listening for the Spirit’s word to the congregation? Would she see that the church in a disciplined and concerted manner “proves all things” so that love and maturity flourish? Might she ask in what ways the congregation and preacher interact in understanding a text and its effect on our lives?

Early Anabaptists understood worship and teaching in the congregation to be a multi-voiced and dialogical activity. We see this perspective clearly in an untitled and unattributed tract of about forty pages, probably written in Switzerland in the 1530s.1 In tones both defensive and aggressive, the anonymous Anabaptist author answered a question commonly put to the radical reformers: Why don’t you Anabaptists attend the (state) churches?

Freedom to exercise spiritual gifts

The Anabaptist’s first reason for abandoning worship in the Reformed churches is that they do not observe “the Christian order as taught in the word of God in 1 Cor 14.” According to that text, if something for edifying is revealed to believers during worship, Christian love compels “that they should and may speak of it”-after which they should again he silent. The author of the tract underlines Paul’s emphasis upon the desirability of the spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of prophecy, for the building up of the church.

In the Zurich state church, the tract argues, preachers “presume they need yield to no one … and especially (yield) not to us”. In keeping with a tradition over a thousand years old, preachers kept a tight hold on their pulpits and allowed no informal contributions from the congregations. But the apostle Paul had commanded that no one should forbid speaking in tongues which serves to edify the congregation (1 Corinthians 14.39). “How much less authority”, our Anabaptist argues, “has anyone to forbid prophesying, teaching, interpreting or admonishing?”

The author passionately clinches his argument:

“When someone comes to church and constantly hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent, neither speaking nor prophesying, who can … regard it to be a spiritual congregation? Or confess according to 1 Corinthians 14 that God is dwelling in them through his Holy Spirit with his gifts, impelling them one after the other to speak and prophesy?”

All sixteenth-century Reformers insisted that, in keeping with their motto of sola scriptura, they were returning to scripture alone for the renewal of worship forms. But to Anabaptists, 1 Corinthians 14 spoke of a different kind of worship than they found in the Reformers’ churches. In their assemblies they longed to emulate Paul’s vision of a Spirit-gifted congregation praying and worshipping in a manner that was free but orderly.

Our tract emphasises that participation in worship must be open to all members as they are inspired by the Spirit. The “congregation is a temple of the Holy Spirit, where the gifts of inner operation of the Spirit in each one (note, in each one) serve the common good… Everyone of you (note, every one) has a psalm, a doctrine, a revelation, an interpretation.” This, with all its attendant risks, was a long way from worship in the Reformed church, where the Spirit was only allowed to speak through the mouth of one person.

Hazards of single-voice worship

The author of the tract pursues a serious implication for worship which is dominated by one human voice. “All judgement is bound to the preacher and to his teaching, whether it he good or evil.” The state church preachers “at first taught that they do not wish to set any judge over God’s word … and that there is no authority over the word but God alone”. But to our author it was clear that the preachers were not openly accountable for their teaching. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14 required that “an error of the minister must he treated openly before the congregation which has heard it, and not privately with the preacher”. With single-voice worship, “the congregation is deprived of all right of judgment concerning matters of the soul, bound exclusively to the preachers and their understanding.”

Some state church preachers taught that the true meaning of “everyone has a psalm, doctrine, etc” and “you may all prophesy, one by one” empowered the elected ministers, and not members of the congregation, to speak. But surely, our author contends, if Paul meant only specified prophets to prophesy, he would have said so. In fact, Paul said “you may all prophesy.” All the members of Christ, the whole congregation, should be ready to speak when the Spirit inspires.

To sum up, our author’s first reason of the nine outlined in this tract2 for refusing to worship in the state church comprises a double critique. Worship dominated by one voice blocks the Spirit’s freedom to edify the church through the variety of gifts. In addition, the powerful single voice is beyond the discernment and correction within the congregation. Our author concludes, “The church of Christ should together `prove all things and hold fast to that which is good’. 1 Thess 5.”

Multi-gifted worship today

The sixteenth-century Anabaptist critique of single-voice worship raises questions of how Christians today can be most faithful to a New Testament model of corporate life. Congregational worship dominated “from the front” is to be found both in churches led by a single pastor and in those led by music/worship groups. Both types must address the question of balancing responsibilities of designated leadership with the necessities of developing the gifts of all the members.

Some churches with a single pastor allow or expect that one person to do all the up-front ministry, to “take the service”. What is the biblical or theological rationale for this pattern? There is no evidence in the earliest Christian communities of formal, single-voiced, up-front worship leading. Theologically, this practice tuns head-on into the Pauline doctrine of the body of Christ; practically, it contradicts what we know of the reality of worship in the Corinthian church. Paul needed to encourage order there, it is true, but he assumes an active, multi-gifted worshipping congregation.

Following Paul’s example with the Corinthian church, leaders in our churches will continually seek out, train, enable, and make space for the Spirit gifts to emerge in worship. Mature leaders can take their own place in worship leading and at the same time train up others to assist. They can deliberately allow open places in the worship service for members to contribute ex tempore. Congregations can make clear to their leaders that they expect this approach. If the same voice dominates week after week, the congregation is either renouncing its responsibility or its gifts are being stifled.

Surprisingly, even churches with multiple worship leadership can suffer a sense of being boxed in or dominated from the front. One particular problem is with music groups, often called “worship groups”. A narrow and simplistic equation of singing songs and “worship” can result. Slickness and professionalization of worship music sometimes sidelines and discourages the very ones who should be included and encouraged. Love is the measure, and that means encouraging every member’s growth, including young musicians—as well as the poets, dramatists, visual artists, pray-ers and readers among us. Openness, inclusiveness, as well as seriousness of purpose and discipline should characterise worship groups. Otherwise they will become what Paul deplores in I Corinthians 13: noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

Another well-intentioned approach is to operate on “democratic” principles: let everyone have a go at everything; put up a rota for people to sign; everyone should do their share of the jobs. This approach, however, denies what every congregation intuitively recognizes-that some members are gifted by the Spirit in particular ways. It is not difficult to spot people in the congregation who are gifted at leading prayers, teaching the Word with clarity, or sensing the movement of the Spirit in worship with intuitive humility. The congregation should affirm and call out these Spirit-gifts, not just pass around a rota of work to he done.

“Prove all things” together

Our early Anabaptist author objected to the word of preachers from high pulpits descending upon people who have no chance to respond. The author contended later in the document that the very teaching the state preachers used to give in the first days of their reforming activities they later repudiated, and practised the opposite. Where was their forum for accountability?

This is no dated problem. Historians of preaching show that the long rhetorical sermon from a pulpit is a relatively late development. Early Christian assemblies interacted with their preachers, commented and asked questions. Even as late as the fifth century, sermons of the famous Augustine were dialogical.3 Those early preachers had to he able to explain further, to illustrate, to apply the word to their life on the basis of people’s questions.

Some will object that this kind of interactive discernment of the word between preachers and people is impossible in big church buildings. Acoustics and seating arrangements in many modern churches, as well as habits of etiquette, militate against easy interchange about meanings and applications. These are indeed impediments, as is the assumption that successful churches will he large ones. There is nothing more “Constantinian” in the life of our churches than the assumption that big is beautiful.

Our churches would do well to listen to the warnings of our sixteenth-century Anabaptist. There is undoubtedly a place for carefully crafted addresses on theology or biblical exposition. But is the typical Sunday assembly really that place? Our preachers (and why shouldn’t we have several per congregation?) have the opportunity to present the story of God and God’s people in ways that invite, convince, and inspire us to live courageously the way of Jesus. They can do this spiritual task in vigourous interaction with us, the members of the church, and our everyday life concerns. There is an exciting hope in this vision which can unite us with our anonymous Anabaptist author in the pursuit of a church which is truly “a temple of the Holy Spirit”.

Eleanor Kreider is a Mennonite author and lecturer, and was serving as a Theologian-in-Residence at Northern Baptist College in Manchester when she wrote this article. Her, first article in the Anabaptist Worship Series was on the Lords Supper (February 1993).


1. See Shem Peachey and Paul Peachey, eds., “Answer of Some Who Are Called (Ana)baptists Why They Do Not attend the Churches: A Swiss Brethren Tract”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 45 (1971:5-32). In 1560, Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor as leader of the Zurich reformation, published a major work against the Swiss Anabaptists entitled Der Widertoeufferen ursprung (Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1560). Bullinger published the Anabaptist tract in order to refute it.

2. Additional reasons include: the preachers have forsaken their own earlier teachings (whereas the Anabaptists are faithful to the Reformers,’ early insights); the preachers are colluding in violent suppression of dissenters; the preachers employ the sword of the state to compel faith and to protect their own interests; the Reformers’ state church is not a disciplined church, but is a place of lovelessness, untruthful slander, infant baptism, and a general imperviousness to the work of the Holy Spirit.

3. G. Wright Doyle, “Augustine’s Sermonic Method”, Westminster Theological Journal 39 (1976-1977), 236.

We who identify with Anabaptist theology are committed to the concept of church as a voluntary association of believers. Few of us, perhaps, have grappled fully with how children fit into this understanding. Many of our congregations continue the tradition of Sunday School, even if it is disguised under a variety of more attractive names.

The problem with Sunday School is that it often is not a voluntary association of believers! There are at least four categories of children who attend: 1) those who believe and want to he there, 2) those who believe but do not want to be there, 3) those who do not believe but want to be there, 4) those who do not believe and do not want to be there. Many preachers would struggle to address these four different audiences at the same time in the worship service. Yet week after week, we expect our children’s workers to cope with this scenario.

Children who want to be part of the church

A few years ago, after a move of the Holy Spirit upon our primary school age children, they refused to go out to Sunday School on communion Sundays: they wanted to be part of the church! There was nothing particularly attractive for the kids in our traditional Baptist communion service; I can’t imagine a sip of blackcurrant juice and a tiny cube of bread being sufficient to entice them to remain. I believe there was a spiritual desire within them; something was telling them they are part of the body of Christ.

Some house churches have jettisoned separate Sunday children’s classes, and insist on all being together for “family worship”. This rarely works, and I have visited only one church where children, teens, and adults flowed together comfortably in worship. It is more common for the meeting to be disrupted by screaming babies, distracted by uncontrolled toddlers, and disturbed by negative vibes emanating from switched-out teens.

Should we force children to attend church at all? We cannot avoid the biblical expectation that parents are responsible for disciplining and discipling their children (Eph. 6:4); success in this is a requirement for church leadership (1 Tim. 3:4-5,12; Tit: l:6). But can we apply to church a mandate that addresses family without succumbing to the spirit behind the Conventicle Act of 1664 (which fined those who refused to attend state-controlled worship)?

I am not arguing for a division of children into “saved” and “unsaved”, since that can place tremendous emotional pressure on them. It also can leave those who grow gradually into faith with a feeling of rejection because they have not experienced a “crisis conversion”. Whatever the exact meaning of a believer’s children being “holy” (1 Cor. 7:14), at least it gives biblical warrant for accepting children into the church family (without needing to go all the way down the road of covenant theology and ending up with infant baptism).

Room for children to grow and learn

I see need in the church for voluntary meetings of both children and teens where they can learn radical discipleship. In my experience, we have experimented with children in house groups in addition to a traditional Sunday School programme and evangelistic meetings. Teaching discipleship works well when all the children present are motivated to learn and want to grow spiritually. Parents who simply “send” their kids along to such meetings will kill the effort.

Instead of constantly pressing children for a “decision”, we need to teach those who clearly are committed what it means to follow Jesus in today’s world – including the concept of laying down one’s life for others, sharing our faith and material resources. When God speaks to a church on a given issue – giving, evangelism, or anything else – then it often is essential to communicate that concern to the believing children. We may need to find a time and place when we can adapt the message to their age and experience, but we can pass on the essence of the challenge.

Faith is something caught, not taught. Are we nurturing our children so they know God and trust him? Do they live in expectation of his provision and intervention in their lives? If not, is it any wonder that many children in our churches, who genuinely profess conversion, appear to be bored with being Christians after a few months? Could it just be that we have expected nothing of them?

Children ministering to a congregation

In the Revival of 1859 in Scotland, a three year-old girl in Eyemouth gave her mother assurance of salvation by quoting the text she heard the minister preach on the preceding day. An eight year-old boy preached in Findochty, when “more were convicted and converted than on any other occasion”. A ten year-old boy prayed publicly in Hopeman for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and revival broke out. In Portessie an elder of the Scot’s Free Kirk was horrified one night to arrive home and find his fourteen year-old daughter preaching to a house full of people listening intently. Even C. H. Spurgeon (no friend of the Anabaptists, methinks!) concluded, “We have never developed the capabilities of youth as we should have done.”

Successful growth in any area of life depends on the right combination of intake and output. Constant eating with no exercise is a recipe for disaster. If all we do is spoon feed teaching into our young people and provide no outlet for service, let us not be surprised if they die off spiritually. After the 1989 Lausanne Congress in Manila, Phil Bogosian believed God was saying to him, “Since you do not teach your young people to give their lives to reach the world, they will be taken from you by the world. They will be useless to me and a great grief to you.” Let us who seek to be on the forefront of the radical tradition today beware lest we fail to pass on our heritage to the next generation.

Harry Sprange was a Baptist minister in Edinburgh and a children’s pastor in Leith. When he wrote this article he was director of Kingdom Kids Scotland. He is the author of Children in the Revival: 300 Years of God’s Work in Scotland.

Editors’ note: We invite readers to respond to Harry Sprange’s concerns about children in an Anabaptist church in the the Children and Anabaptism forum. What have you found works for children in your congregation?

Late in the winter of 1569, Dirk Willems of Holland was discovered as an Anabaptist, and a thief catcher came to arrest him at the village of Asperen. Running for his life, Dirk came to a body of water still coated with ice. After making his way across in great peril, he realised his pursuer had fallen through into the freezing water.1

Turning back, Dirk ran to the struggling man and dragged him safely to shore. The thief catcher wanted to release Dirk, but a burgomaster – having appeared on the scene – reminded the man he was under oath to deliver criminals to justice. Dirk was bound off to prison, interrogated, and tortured in an unsuccessful effort to make him renounce his faith. He was tried and found guilty of having been rebaptised, of holding secret meetings in his home, and of allowing baptism there – all of which he freely confessed.

“Persisting obstinately in his opinion”, Dirk was sentenced to execution by fire. On the day of execution, a strong east wind blew the flames away from his upper body so that death was long delayed. The same wind carried his voice to the next town, where people heard him cry more than seventy times, “O my Lord; my God”. The judge present was “finally filled with sorrow and regret”. Wheeling his horse around so he saw no more, he ordered the executioner, “Dispatch the man with a quick death.”

A child’s perception of injustice

When I first encountered this story more than thirty years ago as a child, my attention was riveted on what happened to Dirk. For his great goodness he received in return imprisonment, torture, and death. That he should suffer such a fate violated my childish sense of justice and fair play. My notion of how the world worked was undone, and I needed to find a new understanding.

Trying to understand Dirk’s story as an adult, I have come to make some strong claims about its significance. I believe that in the Martyrs’ Mirror, a book filled with heroic examples of Christian obedience to Christ, the story of Dirk’s simple action is the embodiment of some of the great strengths of Anabaptism. I also believe Dirk transcended and healed some great weaknesses of Anabaptism. In this action he obeyed Jesus’ commandment to be perfect as his heavenly father is perfect – that is, to love fully and indiscriminately.

What would I do if … ?

1569 was a bad year to be an Anabaptist. The Martyrs’ Mirror lists a number of martyrs that year, some of whom lived close enough to Dirk’s home that he would surely have known of their deaths. I imagine the prospect of death was constantly with him, a steady part of his inner life. I imagine he frequently asked himself, “What would I do if …?” or, more likely in his circumstances, “What will I do when …?” His ruminations must have been shaped to a great extent by the teaching of the little Anabaptist fellowships, one of which met in his home. With arrest and death ever-present dangers, Anabaptists spent considerable time preparing one another to meet them.

One source of instruction was letters from prison. A young purse-maker and minister of the word named Hendrick Alewijns, after his arrest in 1568, wrote many letters to his wife, three small children, and fellow Anabaptists. “There is no fear in love,” he wrote, but “fearless ones run through patience … not out of, but into the conflict that is set before us, and look not at the dreadful tyranny, but unto Jesus, the Captain, the Author and Finisher of our faith.” Alewijns and other Anabaptists did not mean they sought persecution, nor did they deny themselves the right to flee from it. But even so, this fearlessness was a difficult expectation. I imagine that when Dirk considered haw he might respond to capture, he conjured up an array of options, ranging from fleeing at one extreme to calm acceptance of arrest at the other.

I try to imagine what thoughts filled Dirk’s mind as he ran, followed closely by the thief catcher. Did fear and danger dull his mind or make it keen? In either case his thoughts must have been dominated by the effort to save his own life. In at least some small corner of his consciousness, he must have been considering what he had done in fleeing and what he might do if caught. Would he be able to brave torture? Would he renounce his faith? Such tormenting thoughts must have reduced him to so great a fear that, when he came to a body of water, he ran across the thin ice. He risked immediate death by drowning rather than submitting to the prospect of capture, imprisonment, torture, and death. But having saved his own life, Dirk turned back across the ice to save his drowning pursuer.

As a child, my attention seized first on Dirk’s sad reward of death for virtue. But my focus soon turned to an earlier point, less dramatic but more mysterious, when Dirk turned back across the ice. It is this action I can hardly comprehend, that I return to time and again. I am surprised that Dirk even noticed his pursuer had fallen through the ice. I would have expected his desire to live was great enough to drive him forward, ears closed and eyes fixed ahead. Even if he heard cracking ice or a cry for help, I would have expected the desire to live to send him fleeing. Why did he turn back?

Intuitive response to evil

I believe that turning back was not a rational ethical decision, but an intuitive response. The properties of thin ice may almost have dictated intuitive action by leaving him little time to respond. Even if the thief catcher somehow caught hold of a piece of solid ice, and Dirk had a few moments to consider, I still believe his decision was more intuitive than rational. No combination of mental calculations was likely to take him back across the ice.

Perhaps Christianity, with its teaching on loving the enemy, comes closer than any other religious or ethical system to requiring Dirk to do what he did. But where would the command “love your enemies” have led Dirk? He had no reason to believe he could save the thief catcher. The more likely conclusion would have been two deaths, and loving the enemy does not demand futile suicide. In those places where Jesus discusses loving the enemy, none of his examples comes close to requiring that one die for the enemy. If in fact there were others at the scene, the thief catcher’s compatriots, who could condemn Dirk if he had seen the man in distress as their business?

Perhaps chief among the considerations in Dirk’s mind would have been the doctrine of two kingdoms, a basic Anabaptist motif. “There were from the beginning of the world two classes of people, a people of God and a people of the devil,” wrote one Anabaptist martyr. The children of God “have always been persecuted and dispersed, so that they have always been in a minority, and sometimes very few in number, so that they had to hide themselves in caves and dens … but the ungodly have always been powerful, and have prevailed.”

When Dirk looked back on the thief catcher in the water, he saw not just a man near death, but a devouring ravening wolf. He saw not just an individual, but a manifestation of the kingdom of darkness, an agent of the devil himself. Anabaptists also frequently took an image from the book of Revelation. Martyrs, slain for the word of God, wait under the altar in heaven, crying to God, “how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev. 6:10) When Dirk looked back, he might have seen an answer to the martyrs’ question – God delivering justice here and now. Or, he could have drawn on the image of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian captivity: his crossing of the ice was the Red Sea parted; the floundering thief catcher was horse and rider thrown into the sea.

Dirk had available to him sound biblical images to justify his running on and leaving the thief catcher to his fate. With the time he had gained, capture was far from inevitable. His crime in the Netherlands was not crime everywhere; he could have fled to other territories and reasonably hoped for a long and peaceful life.

Other examples of sacrificial love

Examining the usual range of sacrificial actions can take us some distance in explaining Dirk’s decision to rescue his pursuer. There are many examples of parents sacrificing for children. I recall the story of an American soldier in Vietnam who threw his body on a grenade, saving the lives of his comrades. Less frequent are accounts of people who gave their lives for someone unknown to them. One example is Father Maximilian Kolb, who chose to die in place of another innocent man in a Nazi concentration camp. Examples of people risking their lives for enemies are scarce indeed. A few years ago the South African bishop Desmond Tutu risked his life to save a suspected police informer from an angry mob. That is remarkable, but it is still a case of the powerful acting to save the weak, and that is a long way from what Dirk did.

We may understand better how radical was Dirk’s action if we transpose the Tutu and Vietnam stories into parallels of Dirk’s situation. In the Tutu story, we would have to imagine that the informer, having almost reached safety, turned back to save one of his pursuers. We must imagine that the American soldier, fleeing what he expected to be torture in a POW camp, risked his life to save a Viet Cong soldier. These transpositions are difficult to imagine.

I am convinced that the only force strong enough to take Dirk back across the ice was an extraordinary outpouring of love. The only kind of love I know that extends to enemies is the love taught and lived by Jesus. When Jesus’ earliest followers struggled to understand the mystery of his death, they found themselves extending the definition of love: Jesus had died for them “when we were God’s enemies”. We must allow that precisely this definition of love – a love that reaches so far as to die for enemies – had shaped Dirk’s character to such an extent that in circumstances of gravest personal danger he was able to express his love in an intuitive response.

Did the Anabaptists love their enemies? We may be sure they taught it; they were never ones to shirk Jesus’ hard sayings. They also had the example of Jesus in the way of the cross, which the Anabaptists generally understood as requiring the willing, nonviolent acceptance of suffering. Their frequently cited experience of having been loved by God before they loved him must have reinforced the teaching and example of Jesus. At very least they had thrown away their swords, so they could not respond to their enemies in the conventional ways.

The enemy as wolf and lost lamb

Like a nation at war, Anabaptists needed to maintain identity and bind themselves together in unity through the stresses of conflict. To this end they had positive means: community, discipleship and pacifism. But the Anabaptists also had negative ways of maintaining group cohesion. Like civilians uniting behind a war effort, Anabaptists were inclined to dehumanise their enemies by identifying them as entirely evil. They did this with the doctrine of two kingdoms: they were children of light, their enemies children of darkness; they were lambs, their enemies wolves. Today, when dualistic thinking is condemned as the root of many evils, the doctrine of two kingdoms has neglected merits. I would argue that without some form of a two kingdoms doctrine we are unlikely to understand fully Jesus’ teachings or the demands of discipleship.

Yet the two kingdoms doctrine on its own makes a sorely deficient world view. Christians in the Anabaptist’s position are called to do the nearly impossible: to see their persecutors as both wolves and lost lambs, as both servants of evil and confused neighbours. The contempt for enemies inherent in two kingdom thinking, coupled with bitter experience, must have stained the Anabaptists’ souls.

It must have seemed to Anabaptists that terms of life were being dictated to them, and they must simply respond as well and faithfully as they could. The battle could hardly have been less equal as the Anabaptists struggled against the combined forces of Church and State with nothing more than spiritual weapons. When the weak attempt to love their powerful enemies, the results must be primarily passive and internal. Always hunted and sometimes on the run, they had no leisure to ask themselves, what can we do to express enemy-love in a positive way? If they could simply resist the spirit-deforming influence of hatred, they had accomplished much.

In these circumstances, the moment when Dirk stood poised between running on and turning back held a more than personal significance. The opportunity before him was a rare one, and he was choosing for all the Anabaptists who never had a choice either to run to freedom or to act on love for their enemies. The path Dirk took would be the testimony for a whole community of how deeply they had been penetrated by the love for enemies inherent in the cross they had chosen to bear.

In the next moment, when Dirk chose to turn back, he stood on holy ground, where things we normally hold apart were bound together. Dirk had accomplished the almost impossible: he had seen the thief catcher as both an agent of the devil and a helpless human brother. Only then was he free to fulfil the call to love his enemy – after all, lambs do not save wolves. He had acted on his own, and yet, perhaps, for his Anabaptist brothers and sisters as well. I expect that if we could ask Dirk why he turned to save the enemy, we would hear “Not I, but Christ in me”. Yet if Dirk was simply obeying what could not be disobeyed, his act has little meaning. In my imagination I can only resolve it thus: as Dirk walked across the ice, he was sustained but not compelled by the hand of God.

When I search the scriptures to help me understand what Dirk did, I go where I have always gone -to the hard sayings of Jesus and to the cross. I search for other passages as well, ones that speak of extravagant praise. The gospel of Mark records the story of a woman who poured a jar of costly ointment over Jesus’ head. The disciples were indignant at this appalling waste, but Jesus rebuked them, saying, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me … And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Like this woman, Dirk Willerns has done a beautiful thing for Jesus. Wherever the gospel is preached, it is goad that what he has done should be told in memory of him.

Joseph Liechty has worked in Ireland for Mennonite Board of Missions since 1980. When this article was written he was lecturing in the history department of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and at the Irish School of Ecumenics. His teaching and writing centre on issues of sectarianism in Irish history and society.


1. The story of Dirk Willems is from a 1660 Anabaptist martyrology compiled by Thieleman J. van Bracht, translated as Martyrs Mirror (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1950), 741-42. A longer version of Joseph Liechty’s article on Willems appeared in Mennonite Life 45, no. 3 (1990:18-23).

First in a series that continued with The Powers and God’s Providential Rule: Church and State and Respectful and Subversive: Church and State

If you go to the bible for guidance on how God’s people should relate to the state, you find a range of possible strategies – some of which seem to he in tension with others. At the time of Ahab and Jezebel, for instance, Elijah came into conflict with a state in rebellion against God. Elijah was part of a faithful remnant which would not obey a corrupt government and bow the knee to Baal. Yet at the same time Obadiah, also faithful to Yahweh, was a top official in the civil service of the apostate king and queen. Obadiah used his position to protect a hundred prophets of Yahweh. Authors of this biblical story regarded both moral stances as acceptable: Elijah speaking from outside the system and Obadiah acting on the inside.

This paradoxical response of God’s people to corrupt government reflects some of the ambiguity with which people of the Old Testament regarded the state. The early history of Israel tells of God liberating his people from oppression in Egypt, yet liberation was not an end in itself. The people were set free for the service of God in the Promised Land, and were to come under his direct rule. They were to be distinguished from the nations by their covenant relationship with Yahweh. So Israel in this early period was not a state; nor was she without social institutions or occasional charismatic leaders in the form of judges.

The state as concession to human sin

From these early experiences came the notion that the state is something God’s people should suspect. Yahweh’s kingship excluded rather than included human kingship! God understood Israel’s later request for a king to be a rejection of himself as king (1 Sam. 8:7), even though he eventually gave Israel a king. Indeed, the period of the monarchy overall must he regarded as a period of judgement, throughout which faults of the system became glaringly obvious. Identification of the people of God with a state was never wholly comfortable, and there are hints of conscious distinction between the two. The spirit and accomplishment of Solomon was a reversal of Sinai. The institutional state, like certain other human conditions such as divorce and slavery, was a concession to human “hardness of heart”. The prophets reinforced this, accepting the state as God-given but denying it the right to take the place of God.

Israel came to a new stage of relationship with the state during exile. It is significant that this period of Israel’s history, in which Israel no longer existed as a separate state, was one of great spiritual fertility. Exiles in Babylon had to come to terms with living as a religious minority within a pagan state. Jeremiah told them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” in which they were exiled (Jer. 29:7). The book of Daniel is a fascinating analysis of the extreme dangers and unique opportunities of serving an imperial state. God’s people were to witness to the living God in the midst of an idolatrous state.

The exiles were aware of the “beastly” character of empire, and yet chose both to serve and to challenge it in the name of the Lord. They were able to influence the state’s policies and to benefit the people of God by their secular career positions. All the same, there was at this stage of Israel’s history a deliberate debunking and mockery of Babylon’s imperial gods, as evidenced by Isaiah 46 and 47. It is perhaps this period of Israel’s history more than any other that has a direct correlation with our own position as those who are “in the world but not of the world”.

Jesus and the apostolic church

The central fact of New Testament attitudes toward government is that Jesus Christ was crucified by the state. The creedal clause which affirms that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate” must be a continual cautionary note about too optimistic a view of the state. Once more we find in the New Testament that the saving purposes of God are happening outside and in spite of the power structures of the state. Luke 3:1-3 is a striking example: the word of the Lord bypasses the strong and the mighty, and comes instead to John the Baptist. Once more the idea of a people being formed on the basis of their allegiance to God comes to the fore. God advances his purpose through the faith community which responds to his word.

We can draw insight from a number of New Testament passages:

Luke 4:5-8. Jesus faces a strong temptation to fulfil his messianic ambition through worldly power as politician or revolutionary. The devil claims that the authority and splendour of the world’s kingdoms “has been given” to him – without mentioning who gave it. Jesus does not contest or confirm the devil’s claim.

John 18:36. Here is a confrontation between two different kinds of kingdom and power. Pilate represents worldly power, Jesus the reign of God. Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world”, not because it is reserved to an otherworldly, spiritual sphere, but because it does not use methods of this world (revolution or coercive violence).

Mark 12:13-17. People often quote this as a proof-text to validate the state: God has his realm, Caesar has his, and both make their legitimate demands. Yet Jesus’ reply is not so straightforward. He exposes the degree to which Israel has bought into Roman rule: Pharisees and Herodians possess coins which bear Caesar’s idolatrous imprint. Israel has become a nation like the other nations, with “no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).

Romans 13:1-7. Many Christians regard this as a pivotal passage for debates on the role of the state, and use it to legitimise government. God ordained the state to punish evildoers, and Christians should obey. Yet the context in which Paul set this teaching is that of following the way of love in relation to one’s enemies. The Roman state, which persecutes the church, is one of those enemies. Christians, however, should not rebel but should imitate Christ in relation to the state. There is a kind of legitimation of the state here, in the sense that God permits the powers and overrules them. Yet God’s highest will for humanity is his own reign; the state is an expression of human inability to bear God’s reign.

Revelation 13. This chapter acts as the counterpoint to Romans 13. The author refers to Rome in its persecution of the saints, and reveals the beastly character of human power systems. In accordance with the nature of apocalyptic literature, the author describes here the potential nature of all human power. All governments have it within them to be idolatrous and to oppose the good; Rome just happened to be the dominant power at that time.

This brief biblical survey leads me to conclude that we cannot simply regard the state as one more part of God’s created order. Rather, we must see the state as a configuration of powers under the conditions of fall and sin. The Bible almost universally sees the state in negative and threatening terms, although particular rulers may be regarded in a warmer light. A biblical theology of the state must be a “minimalist” doctrine, ascribing to the state a necessary but limited role – and only ambiguous legitimation.

Diverse perspectives in the early church

What have Christians throughout history made of the relation of church and state in the light of the biblical material? Broad traditions emerged early in church history, and we can associate them with names of prominent early churchmen:

1) The option of Eusebius

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265-c.339) was the church historian who chronicled legalisation of Christianity within the Roman Empire. He acted as political theorist of the new relationship between church and state following the “conversion” of emperor Constantine and the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313. Constantine became the champion of Christians, and subsequent emperors systematically persecuted dissenters.

This “Constantinian shift” appeared to represent the triumph of Christianity. Eusebius’ task was to give expression to this imperial theology and to legitimise the rule of the emperor as God’s chosen. Eusebius called Constantine the “thirteenth apostle” and spoke of him in almost messianic terms. Christianisation of the empire brought with it the principle of territoriality: the empire was Christian, and all that lay beyond its boundaries was barbarian. To fight for the empire was to fight for Christ. Christ was thus reduced to the status of a tribal god, and propagation of the gospel came to be identified with imperial conquests of empire.

The Eusebian option continued through the centuries, perhaps most clearly in Byzantine religion. It also appears in the Protestant notion of the godly prince, and in the idea of the divine right of kings familiar in English history. This is full-blooded Constantinianism – the identification of God’s cause with particular nations or dynasties. It is the political philosophy which lay behind the Crusades and the imperial extension of so-called Christian nations. Problems with this option, though, are obvious. It reverses Christ’s saying that his kingdom is not of this world. We can ask whether Constantine represented the victory of Christianity over the world or of the world over Christianity. Christianity became the religion of the status quo, justifying the power of the powerful, cutting out dissent and nonconformity.

2) The option of Augustine

Augustine (354-430) was Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and an outstanding theologian. In A.D. 410 Alaric the Hun sacked Rome, inciting some pagans to say this was judgement of the gods for Rome having embraced Christianity. Augustine sought to refute this argument by saying that what really mattered was the heavenly city. There are two cities, he said, distinguished by radically different loves: love of the world and love of God. Augustine characterised the earthly city in negative terms: the state was a band of robbers, not the noble enterprise Eusebius described. Nevertheless Augustine justified the mixed church of his day, stressing universality at the expense of purity. A negative view of the state did not prevent him from calling upon its aid in confronting the Donatists, an African dissident group that broke relations with the Roman Catholic church and advocated rigorous church discipline. He justified the use of state coercion as a form of church discipline; dissidents were to be compelled to come into the Catholic church. Subsequent theology found it possible to develop Augustine’s thought in different directions, and I suggest at least three sub-options of his position:

2a. The Lutheran view. This is a “two-kingdom” doctrine: the church and state are two different spheres, one characterised by grace and the other by law. Both are necessary in the struggle against evil. The Christian may share in good conscience in either sphere, and operates in each according to appropriate standards. For instance, as a private person vengeance is forbidden. As a magistrate, however, the same person must exact vengeance. Both actions, though different in their spheres, are loving actions. The church persuades with the Word, the state coerces with the sword.

2b. The Puritan view. Characteristic of Calvin and his followers, this position is unwilling to divide too sharply between the worldly and the churchly spheres. Christ is Lord of all and his authority applies in both realms. The church dues right when it seeks to use powers of the state to further righteousness. The magistrate should act to ensure conformity in matters of religion, and to cut out dissent. This is the historical position of Zwingli s Zurich, Calvin’s Geneva, the Church of Scotland, the Church of England, and – perhaps surprisingly – the bulk of English Separatists.

2c. The Free Church view. This is an outgrowth of Puritanism, which adopts the above basic attitude to the state as a power ordained by God for preservation of order. The Christian may serve in government in good conscience, with one significant exception: the area of conscience and religious conviction is beyond the authority of the state. The state is to confine itself to earthly, worldly matters and is not to meddle in areas of conscience. The classic Free Church view rejects any kind of established religion. The state is rightly a secular entity whose task is to hold open freedoms which enable people to make up their own mind in matters of religion. This is the viewpoint pioneered by Baptists in England and is at the basis of the American Constitution, the first article of which guarantees separation of church and state.

3) The option of Tertullian

Tertullian (c. 160-c.215) was a brilliant advocate of Christian faith in North Africa, who late in life joined the charismatic movement called Montanism. Tertullian saw the church as a counterculture, and Christians were to separate themselves. Christ had rejected an earthly kingdom, and Tertullian saw secular powers as not merely alien, but hostile to God. Nonviolence was essential to Christian discipleship, and the church stood as a challenge to politics. The church had withdrawn from politics in order to be a community of love without compromise with power.

Tertullian represents what is called “sectarianism” in sociological terms. Christians are not to desire or compromise with worldly power. Their value to the world consists in being different from it. Sometimes this approach is described as “withdrawal”, but it may he better to call it “detachment”. We see this tradition both in monastic movements and in some mediaeval renewal movements, which were attempts at radical faithfulness to the way of Christ. Above all we find Tertullian’s way of detachment in the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. A new appreciation of the radical way of Jesus led to a deeper perception of the gulf between the way of Christ and worldly power.

Making hard choices and embracing paradox

While the Anabaptists were aware of the fallenness of the state and distanced themselves from it, they also recognised that the state is necessary. A sinful world requires the use of force; rulers are “God’s servants”. Cyrus, the pagan king, was even described once in Scripture as God’s “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1). Anabaptists knew the nonviolent way of Jesus cannot he applied directly to unregenerate society. What we have in the Anabaptists, therefore, is an ambiguous legitimation of the state. The state is necessary because humans rejected God. God permits and providentially orders the state, and we should accept its necessity. That does not mean disciples of Christ settle for second best: they should live as those who have not rejected God, conscious that this sets them apart from the world.

Most of us will have difficulty accepting the more negative view of the state contained in the work of Tertullian. Nonetheless, I want to develop this basic position in my second article. I believe Tertullian’s radical stance is the position closest to the biblical witness (especially to the witness of Jesus), and it gives us a highly realistic basis on which to view the political realm. That said, perhaps we need to recognise that over this issue, as in other areas of Christian belief, it is impossible to state the truth without a degree of paradox. A realistic theology of the state, therefore, may need to incorporate elements of the Augustinian tradition.

Nigel Wright is a Baptist minister and a tutor in theology at Spurgeon’s College in London. He is the author of several books, including The Fair Face of Evil and The Radical Kingdom.

What would sixteenth-century Anabaptists have made of the “Toronto Blessing” that has impacted many churches in Great Britain in recent months? How did the Radical Reformers respond to such spiritual phenomena’? The charismatic aspect of Anabaptism has not received much attention from historians, but evidence of spiritual phenomena in early Anabaptist groups is substantial. Some welcomed manifestations of the Holy Spirit, while others were wary and attempted to regulate or discourage such expressions. Basic to the Anabaptist view of charismatic gifts, however, was a belief that a transformed life was the true measure and sign of Holy Spirit presence.

A charismatic view of discipleship

A sixteenth-century Anabaptist named Leonhard Schiemer wrote that believers receive “a power about which they have to say that things that were once impossible are now possible”. Christians lacking such a change, he argued, “are not yet horn again of water and spirit, even the Holy Spirit”.1 Schiemer’s quote indicates two distinctive emphases in Radical Reformation theology: a preference for the term “horn again” rather than “justification by faith”, and a focus on the experience of new life. In contrast to other Reformers, Anabaptists spoke of power to live differently rather than mere freedom from guilt and assurance of forgiveness.

Anabaptists accepted the notion of “justification by faith”, but did not find this term adequate to describe their experience of Christ and his Spirit. Through the death of Christ their sinful past had been forgiven, and now they wanted to live a Christ-centred life in the power of the Spirit. Common Anabaptist terms for salvation were related to the work of the Spirit and the expectation of a changed life. Words that frequently occur are: new birth, conversion, illumination, enlightenment, the new creature, and regeneration2

Inner light for a life of righteousness

For Dirk Philips, the Spirit had a vital role as agent of regeneration. The Spirit writes the new convenant on the hearts of believers and enables them to participate in the divine nature. The Spirit is the earthly presence of Jesus, empowering ministers called by God and helping believers interpret the Scripture. Anabaptists equated “baptism in the Spirit” with conversion, but expected more to happen experientially than did the Reformers. The radicals were not satisfied with forensic ideas of grace, typified by the legal terminology of “justification by faith”. Rather, they saw grace as “the inner light that directed a life of righteousness “.3

Hans Hut, the must successful evangelist of first generation Anabaptism, often relied on prophetic dreams and visions, Melchior Huffmann, who introduced Anabaptism to the Netherlands, encouraged the exercise of charismatic gifts and valued the prophetic ministries of both male and female colleagues. Later Dutch leaders, such as Menno Simons and Dirk Phillips, were more wary of reliance on visions. Perhaps this was because “revelations” played a significant part in the Munster catastrophe (1534-35), when an Anabaptist faction gained control of a city government in Germany and inaugurated practices such as polygamy and holy war. But even the later Dutch leaders accepted charismatic gifts to the extent that they were authenticated by Scripture.

Jacob Hutter (from whom the Hutterite movement takes its name) claimed a miraculous dimension to his ministry as authentication of his calling. The Hutterite Chronicle contains several accounts of miraculous events. Among other Anabaptist examples of charismatic expression were the “prophetic processions” (at Zurich in 1525, at Munster in 1534 and at Amsterdam in 1535).4 The Martyrs’ Mirror mentions a martyr named Martin whom authorities led across a bridge to execution in 1531 He prophesied, “this once yet the pious are led over this bridge, but no more hereafter.” lust “a short time afterwards such a violent storm and flood came that the bridge was demolished”.5 In Germany some Anabaptists, “excited by mass hysteria, experienced healings, glossolalia, contortions and other manifestations of a camp-meeting revival”.6

Pilgram Marpeck rejected the belief that miracles were restricted to the early church, and assured readers miracles still were occurring. He referred to several Anabaptists who had gone joyfully to martyrdom “through the abundant comfort and power of the Holy Spirit”. He makes the astonishing statement that “moreover, one also marvels when one sees how the faithful God (who, after all, overflows with goodness) raises from the dead several such brothers and sisters of Christ after they were hanged, drowned or killed in other ways… Even today, they are found alive and we can hear their own testimony.” Marpeck said these things occurred “among those who are powerfully moved and driven by the living Word of God and the Spirit of Christ”.7

Bible interpretation guided by the Holy Spirit

Experience of the Spirit, Anabaptists said, would enable believers to interpret Scripture reliably and faithfully. Martin Luther, in his early years, ascribed a significant rule to the Spirit in reading the text. The Bible “cannot he mastered by study or talent,” he said; “you must rely solely on the influx of the Spirit.’ Luther later reacted against those within his own camp and elsewhere with whom he disagreed. Increasingly he stressed the letter of Scripture, and said only those who were qualified and accredited should undertake interpretation.

Anabaptists felt Reformers quenched the Spirit, and said this disqualified them as trustworthy interpreters of Scripture. Pilgram Marpeck complained that “dull teachers have lost the sharpness of the Word, and the sword of the Spirit has been stolen from them and given over to human power. Thus the discipline of the Spirit, the sharpness of the Word, has been discontinued and blasphemed.”8 Anabaptists felt that relying on the Spirit would result in more faithful application of the Scripture than that produced by relying on tradition, learning, or human reason. They saw no necessary conflict between Spirit and (written) Word. As a charismatic and biblical movement, they were committed to a “pneumatic exegesis” of Scripture.

It was not only leaders who emphasised work of the Spirit. Ordinary Anabaptists, under interrogation, frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the Reformers` forensic emphasis and testified to a more spiritual and life-transforming conversion. Heinz Kautz and Hans Peissher criticised the Reformer Philip Melanchthon’s formulation of Justification by faith as lacking integrity. In their view, “if there was no evidence of the new man in Christ living a different kind of life from what he had lived before, if there was no moral change, then there could have been no forgiveness of sins.”9

It is clear from the way Anabaptists spoke about their experience of the Spirit that their focus was on ethical change and power for holy living rather than on spiritual phenomena. Anabaptists were distinguished from the Spiritualists, not only by the greater attention they paid to the written Word, but also by their understanding of the Spirit’s work as primarily ethical. Their use of terms such as “enlightenment” and “illumination” must he understood in this context.

In congregational life, too, Anabaptists welcomed activity of the Holy Spirit. An early Swiss Brethren tract complained about the exclusion of the Spirit from meetings in the state churches.10 Entfelder, a Moravian Anabaptist leader, defined a church as “a chosen, saved, purified, sanctified group in whom God dwells, upon whom the Holy Spirit has poured out his gifts, and with whom Christ the Lord shares his offices and his mission”.11 There was general agreement from the movement’s earliest years that church leadership was charismatic in nature and depended on the Spirit’s anointing rather than institutional recognition or academic training.

What about the “Toronto Blessing”?

Early Anabaptists certainly were acquainted with phenomena like the “Toronto Blessing”. Indeed, there are reports from some sixteenth-century radical groups of practices as bizarre as anything reported in recent months – including adults playing with toys as a sign that they were “becoming as children”, nude processions, and bodily contortions.

Reactions among Anabaptists probably would have been as divided in the sixteenth century as modern responses seem to he. Perhaps the questions their more discerning leaders asked in relation to contemporary phenomena are still helpful: What are the ethical results of spiritual experiences? How is the authority of the written Word maintained alongside activity of the Spirit?

It was the focus on ethical renewal, including a commitment to nonviolence, costly economic sharing, and truth-telling that prevented the Anabaptists from getting hung up on spiritual phenomena for their own sake. Pilgram Marpeck insisted, “Christ bids us to recognise prophets not by miraculous signs but by their fruits.”12 And it was the ability of leaders like Menno Simons and Pilgram Marpeck to hold in creative tension the Word and the Spirit that ensured their churches were built on secure foundations as well as being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Not all Anabaptist groups managed to maintain this tension: some slipped into spiritualism, many more into a wooden literalism where the work of the Spirit was quenched. Similar dangers continue to confront the church 450 years later.

Stuart Murray wrote his doctoral thesis an Anabaptist hermeneutics. He teaches evangelism and church planting at Spurgeon’s College in South London.


1. Leonhard Schiemer, “A Letter to the Church at Rattenberg” (1527), in Walter Klaassen, editor, Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981), 75.

2. Alan Kreider, “The Servant is not Greater than his Master: Anabaptists mid the Suffering Church” (Mennonite Quarterly Review 55:12).

3. Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), 138.

4. See Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant (Waterloo, Ontario: Conrad Press, 1973), 63.

5. Martyrs’ Mirror (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1950), 440.

6. George Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 443.

7. William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1978), 49-51.

9. Klassen and Klaassen, Marpeck, 299.

9. Friedmann, Theology, 163.

10. Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline, 127.

11. Williams, Radical, 267.

12. Klassen and Klaassen, Marpeck, 5 I.

This is the second in a series that began with The Church and “God’s Servant” the State and ended with Respectful and Subversive: Church and State, Part 3

In the first of three articles on church and state, we looked at evidence from both the Bible and the early church. I argued that the state essentially is a concession to human sin, that it is necessary, and that the radical way of Jesus should lead Christians to a certain level of detachment from the ways of worldly power.

We now have the more difficult task of developing a constructive theology of church and state. Colin Gunton once wrote that the church, through the centuries, has made some wrong choices in its relationship to the state. “The church – though it never lacked voices urging otherwise – has acquiesced in crusade and inquisition which deny the values for which Jesus died: fighting the battles of God in the way his mode of victory forbids… We still live in the aftermath of that historical disaster, as in a land polluted long ago by some nuclear accident.”

A departure from authentic Christianity

The disaster of which Gunton speaks is the Constantinian reversal in the fortunes of the church, that watershed in the fourth century when emperor Constantine and the Roman imperial government embraced Christianity as a state religion. I take the view that Constantine represents a huge departure from authentic Christianity. From that time on Christianity was pressed into service to provide a religious justification for the exercise of power. By speaking of a “land polluted”, Gunton means the church we have received is profoundly defective, polluted by Constantinianism, and stands in need of extensive reform. Gunton goes on to argue that we will not understand correctly the nature of the church unless we first develop a satisfactory theology of the church.

Anabaptists represent a movement of church renewal and restoration. The idea of the true church, of course, is familiar to all branches of Christianity – and often has been used to excommunicate others. Roman Catholics locate the true church around the bishop who is in communion with Rome; Protestants find it where Word and sacrament are rightly preached and administered; radicals find it where two or three come together in the name of Christ.

Traditionally radicals have argued that there is a New Testament pattern of the church we are called to imitate. I don’t dissent from that, but do wish to argue at a deeper level. The church must be rooted in the trinitarian God; it must be an agent of God’s mission to the world, and it must pursue that mission in continuity with and in imitation of the messianic activity of Jesus Christ now continued among us by the Holy Spirit.

The church is rooted in the being of God because God himself is communion. Through the Son and by the Spirit, believers are drawn into the communion of God’s own being and become partakers of the divine nature. God comes to us in the word which is preached, offering participation in his being through faith. The church, therefore, is communion or fellowship. It is made up of those who have been gathered into communion, not of those embraced by an ecclesiastical system or by rituals alone.

God is dynamic, ever moving outwards to embrace the world. To he gathered into God’s being is to become part of this mission. The church is a messianic community, sharing the earthly mission of the Messiah. How Christ – the incarnation of God – went about his mission is how we go about ours: “As the Father sent me, so t send you”. Jesus pursued his mission by mercy, compassion, identification with outcasts, preaching, healing, liberating, and nonviolence. He incarnated the Word and gathered a community of friends in order to extend the mission through them. His mission came to fullest expression in the self-sacrifice of the cross. When we imitate Christ, fulfilling his mission in his way, we become the messianic community. Only in this way can the church he the agent of God’s redemption. The tragedy of Constantine is that, at this point, the church forsook this vocation for another.

Redemption through the church, not the state

Traditional theology has located the state within the “order of preservation” – a temporary expedient which God ordains or allows because of sin; the state is a means of restraining chaos while the world waits to be redeemed. This is a doctrine of a limited state: the state dues not belong to the “order of redemption”. It cannot he the means of redemption, which instead is focused in God’s activity through the church.

Jesus was crucified by the state. Crucifixion, in the first century, was the form of execution reserved for political offenders and insurrectionists–and this is how the state perceived Jesus. No faith which has the cross at its heart can take a naive attitude towards political authorities. Just as all human sin is revealed at the cross, so the idolatry of human social and political structures also is revealed. The Christian faith is an eschatological faith: it envisages a future that questions the present. This element of future hope makes the Christian faith profoundly revolutionary because it calls the present order into question in the light of a better order which is to come. The Christian faith is a religion of transcendence: it locates the meaning of the world in a God who both embraces the world and lives apart from it. All human realities are relativised in the light of the transcendent Lord, and ultimate reality is due only to him. In the view of these convictions, I argue six propositions about the state:

1. The state is a secular entity. By this I mean that it belongs to this world and to this age. To be secular is not the same as being pagan. I use “secular” to mean “without any pretensions to divinity or ultimate importance”. The gospel itself is a secularising power, since it unmasks as a lie the idolatrous pretence of created things. Paul said rulers are “God’s servants to do you good” – not objects of ultimate devotion as in totalitarian systems. We today are used to the idea of “civil service”, but when Paul spoke of the state as a servant it was unheard of – except perhaps in the history of Israel. What Paul is doing is secularising the state, robbing it of its pretensions to divinity and self-importance. He shows the state as the limited and functional earthly entity that it is.

2. The state is permitted rather than ordained. The best government is direct rule from God, as experienced by Cain when there was a perfect balance of justice and compassion. The best government is what God willed for Israel before they desired to be like the nations and have a king rule over them. God gave king Saul to the people because they were unwilling or unable to accept what God really wanted them to have. Kingship – which intrinsically involved domination and exploitation – was God’s permissive ordinance, and it remained a flawed instrument (see 1 Samuel 8:11-22). After Constantine, the church read Romans 13 as legitimising the authority of the government. Yet this was not Paul’s original intention (though he is giving the state some kind of legitimation). Rather, he is counselling believers against revolution on the grounds that the powers come under God’s providential rule. As in the case of king Saul, however, this is an ambiguous legitimation which questions at the same time that it permits.

3. Each state is a unique configuration. Any actual state is rooted in the human capacity for organisation, and takes form under the conditions of sin and fall from such potential. States may vary in form and are capable of reconfiguration. Because sub-structures that give rise to the state are created entities, they are capable of redemption and reconciliation. But the particular configurations we call states will cease to exist when the kingdom of God comes in its fulness and we enjoy the direct rule of God.

4. Despite their God-given role, all systems of human government are flawed. All systems of government, however stable and peaceful in the present, have their origin in violence and the lust for power – and ultimately are maintained by violence. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” Jesus said, “… But you are not to he like that. Instead, the greatest among you should he like the youngest, and the one who rules like one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). At party conference time, the agenda is always masked in moral rhetoric; underneath is the naked struggle for power and dominance. The contrast between the way of the world and the way of Christ becomes clear in Jesus’ words, “you are not to he like that”. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, argued that human societies are always less moral than the people who compose them. There is a multiplication of fallenness when it comes to structures as opposed to persons. But in Christ the powers are to be redeemed, restored to their rightful place, and integrated into the communion of all things with their Creator. Here, then, is the paradox: To stress the createdness of the powers at the expense of their fallenness might lead us to fall prey to them. To stress their fallenness at the expense of their createdness might lead us to negate the good they can do. It is only in maintaining the paradox that we judge with sound judgement.

5. The limited, temporal role of the state involves the maintenance of ,justice, peace and freedom. The state needs to he reminded of the role assigned to it by God: to reward the good and punish the evil-doer. God orders the state to provide the structure within which humans may live out their lives peacefully, freely and fairly. However, because it is a fallen structure itself, it will only ever deliver a kind of justice, peace, and freedom. Only God can bring about the full reality.

6. In matters of religion the state is called to be impartial. A referee at a football match is impartial as regards to the sides, but not neutral as regards the rules. The role of the state regarding religion is to provide the framework within which religious faiths might argue and persuade. The duty of the state before God is to maintain religious liberty. Faith in Christ cannot he coerced; it comes though personal response to the gospel. Constantinianism created a hybrid of Christianity and coercive power which denied the freedom of God and the freedom of humanity. Breaking out of the shackles of this inheritance is something we have yet to complete, To argue for state impartiality towards religion is not the same as arguing for indifference. Religious traditions and living faiths play a hugely important rule in any society, shaping lives and fostering personal and civic virtues.

Nigel Wright is a Baptist minister and a tutor in theology at Spurgeon’s College in London. He is the author of several hooks, including The Fair Face of Evil and The Radical Kingdom.

From the moment of my call to discipleship I have had to grapple with Anabaptist theology and its implications for faith. My childhood roots were in North American Lutheran pietism, and as a young adult I had a dramatic conversion experience which brought me into personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was baptised as an adult believer encountered charismatic Christianity, and became a convinced Christian pacifist. Four years after baptism my wife and I first worshipped in a small Anabaptist congregation, and there we found our spiritual family. I served as minister in a congregation that grew from forty to two hundred participants, studied at a Mennonite seminary, and eventually moved to England for evangelism and mission work here.

My sojourn has allowed me reflection on witness and radical discipleship in two different cultures – American and British. It is out of that sojourn that I share preliminary insights about evangelism I have gained thus far:

1. Evangelism is more a congregational matter and less an individual issue than we evangelicals traditionally have assumed.

The Christian congregation is to be a community of invitation. Perhaps this is a pastoral issue a much as anything, since it has to do with the ethos or spirit of the congregation. What makes one congregation hesitant to welcome those who are beginning the journey of faith, and another eager to do so? It is the task of leaders to shape the character and ethos of a faith community. They need to create an environment of security that makes it possible to integrate people coming to faith.

One of the main obstacles to such an ethos is legalism. This can come in different forms, but it always contains at its core a sense that “We’ve got it right; therefore, anyone who wants to join must learn our way rather than discover with us what it means to follow Jesus faithfully.” It is difficult to be both legalistic and evangelistic – unless you want to send all your new believers to some other congregation after you lead them to Christ! Legalism is the clearest indication that a congregation has ceased to be evangelistic in character. Congregational leaders need to guard against such an attitude.

Closely related to legalism is the matter of becoming isolationist. In other words, do members of the congregation have meaningful relationships with unbelievers? Sometimes new believers need to break off unhealthy relationships with past acquaintances in order to stand in their faith. But when this practice becomes the norm and all members of the church confine close relationships to like-minded Christians, the church loses its ability to share the gospel. Such isolationism needs to be guarded against. Congregations need to plan for mature believers to involve themselves with new Christians in their old friendship networks. New believers have found a life that is meant to be shared! If they don’t share their faith within a few months, the potential for positive witness largely is over. Some Christians isolate themselves from unbelievers because they aren’t sure their own faith is strong enough to keep them from being shaped by a sinful society. They fear that if God isn’t powerful enough to keep them, how could he help someone who is deeply affected by a fallen world? Seeing people come to faith has the effect of strengthening the faith of committed Christians and re-opening them to witness.

Traditional evangelicalism has tended to assume that evangelism essentially is a one-to-one conversation between a believer and an unbeliever about the matter of faith in Christ. This, however, leaves out the importance of the community of faith. We cannot make a congregation evangelistic just by having evangelistic messages or by inviting evangelists to hold special meetings. Nor is it enough to hold evangelism training courses. The real issue for evangelism is the character of a congregation. Many people need to experience acceptance, love and compassion – and to see the life of Jesus in others – before they are ready to hear about faith.

2. We need to re-evaluate the traditional evangelical gospel presentation.

After attending a number of evangelism training courses, I can give you the classic elements of an evangelical gospel presentation: I ) God is holy, 2) people are sinful, 3) a gulf separates people from God, 4) the cross of Jesus is a bridge that brings God and people together, 5) believing in Jesus is the ticket to heaven.

The primary Anabaptist critique of such a message is that its goal is heaven. The goal of evangelism in Anabaptist thought is discipleship – following Christ in life – with the assurance that believers will enjoy eternal fellowship with God. The early Anabaptist mystic Hans Denck wrote a sentence that modern Anabaptists often quote, “no one can know Christ truly unless they follow him in life.” To an Anabaptist Christian, the evangelical presentation leaves out the critical step of discipleship and thereby distorts the message. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that the kingdom of God would come to earth, not that the church would be taken up to heaven from earth.

It is possible, of course, for people to be committed to certain kingdom values and never know Christ is a personal way. Yet an ethical commitment, such as nonviolence, is no substitute for a spiritual encounter with Christ. Mennonites sometimes have experienced just such an outcome at times in our history. We have forgotten the second half of Hans Denck’s sentence…… and no one can truly follow [Christ] unless they first have known him.”

We need a holistic gospel message, one which includes both knowing and following. As Anabaptist Christians we need to think through that challenge and produce a clear, simple summary of the gospel that can be shared with unbelievers, and that contains the full sense of what we believe. Until Anabaptists do this, it is appropriate for a critic to say regarding traditional evangelism, “Although it is imperfect, I like what I am doing better than what you are not doing.”

3. Our understanding of sin affects our approach to evangelism.

An additional critique of the traditional gospel message is its understanding of sin. The traditional evangelical explanation of the gospel understands sin as volitional (related to one’s will or intentions). Sin is that which I have done (or not done) that is contrary to the will of God. The evangelical response is that an individual should feel guilty about such sin and repent (say “sorry” to God).

Such an individualised understanding of sin, however, is only one side of the coin. What we are learning from family systems psychology, for example, is that sin is progressive and intergenerational in its effects. Children of a violent or alcoholic father will be shaped by the sin committed against them. The children may grow up to repeat the same destructive pattern. Their adult behaviour is their own responsibility, but without healing for the sin that set them up, lasting change is exceptionally difficult.

How can I feel guilty for what was done to me, and how can I say “sorry” to God for it? We create emotionally damaging distortions if we try to force this kind of sin into the mould of repentance. We also do violence to the victim if we only focus on their attitudes toward the perpetrator of the sin. Which is more intolerable to God – that a twelve-year-old girl was violated by her father, or that, as an adult, she hates him for it? We evangelicals have tended to focus on her hatred and say “you need to repent.”

Anabaptists knew from their history the devastating effects of the sins of others. They were victims of persecution for their faith – not from pagans, but from those who called themselves Christian. Their descendants know intuitively that the church’s traditional message usually doesn’t speak to the victim. 1n response, many modern Anabaptists have opted out of evangelism and have given themselves instead to voluntary service. Yet Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have much to say to those who have been sinned against. Jesus was an innocent victim of the sins of others. He bore our grief and carried our sorrows (not just our guilt). He was despised and rejected.

We must include in our gospel presentation not just the truth of sins forgiven, but something of the power of God to set free those who are trapped in the pain and suffering of sin of which they are victims. It is not enough to call people to confession of faith and to assure them of forgiveness. We may need to take a page or two out of the “twelve step” groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) and examine on that basis the level of support and acceptance we offer within the faith community. For when we involve ourselves in a gospel of healing, we will rediscover a need for the faith community.

4. Our understanding of baptism influences our evangelistic efforts.

Becoming a Christian is a matter of responding to the love of God in Christ. How we respond to God has to do with the nature of love itself. There was nothing I could do to earn my wife’s love for me. If I were able to make her indebted to me and she had to repay me by showing affection, it would destroy the very character of love. Love must be freely given or it is destroyed. But if I simply accepted my wife’s love as a fact, and did not change my behaviour towards her, there would be no relationship. My response to her love and commitment was my love and commitment.

It is a distortion of the gospel to invite people to know Christ without cost, but inviting people to a cause without knowing Christ is equally incomplete. If there is a greater danger in our day, it is that much of contemporary evangelical Christianity focuses on a cheap passage to eternity with God. The doctrine of those of us who were brought up in Reformed Christianity is “salvation is a gift”. Yet there is a major difference between teaching that justification cannot be earned and implying thereby that discipleship is not required.

Evangelical Christianity puts emphasis on the conversion experience: “Have you been born again?” Baptism becomes the public symbol of that experience, and we practise baptism because Jesus commanded us to. But such a view of baptism essentially is backward-looking, pointing back to the moment of accepting Christ. Anabaptist Christianity, in contrast, views baptism as a pledge to follow Christ in life. Anabaptist Christians have a tradition of “baptismal vows”, in which baptism is forward-looking, expecting a walk of discipleship in the present and future. It is not the experience which sustains the commitment; it is the commitment which sustains the relationship.

5. Cross-pollination may release us to a Joyful experience of evangelism.

Can we once again bring together the two streams of knowing Jesus and following him in life? Can we invite people to all fe-giving experience and a life­long commitment? To invite others to an assurance that them sins are forgiven outside of the context of a desire to follow Christ as Lord, is to wrench the jewel of conversion from its true setting. To offer assurance of heaven without the need to be a disciple and work for the kingdom on this earth is to distort the nature of divine citizenship that Jesus offers. To call people to follow Christ without leading them to know his grace and forgiving love is to ask people to start a journey they can never complete. And to call people into solidarity with the kingdom of God without introducing them to the healing love of its king is to reduce divine fellowship to an ethical standard. The time has come to cross­pollinate, and to bring together the insights of Anabaptism and the evangelistic fire of evangelicals.

Walfred Fahrer is pastoral elder of the Cholmelev Evangelical Church in North London. He is the author of a book on Anabaptist ecclesiology entitled Building on the Rock (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1995).

This is the third in a series that began with The Church and “God’s Servant” the State and continued with The Powers and God’s Providential Rule: Church and State

What is the proper relationship between church and state? In two previous articles1 we looked at the biblical understanding of the state as a concession to human sin. We noted that governments are permitted by God to function, but invariably are flawed and have a limited role in God’s design. How then are people of God’s kingdom to relate to earthly powers?

Even the language of “church and state” betrays assumptions that we need to question about the “holy tandem” that long has existed between these two institutions. In the age of Christendom2 there were fundamentally only two institutions in society: the church and the ruler. This itself was an advance on the days when there had been only one institution – the ruler who also was regarded as a god or priest. From the beginning Christianity has insisted that there be a dialogue between church and ruler, and this has been a stimulus towards a more open society. But we fool ourselves if we think that church and state are the only social realities with which we have to do. Church and state are two among many actors that make up modern society. One problem of the modern church is that it is a minority which still sometimes acts as though it were a majority. To understand the role of church within society I suggest the following:

1. We need to recover the distinction between the church and the world. I say “recover” because the church of Christendom assumed all people in a given territory were Christians, and wished to obscure the distinction between church and world. The church tried to co-opt the world, leveling out the demands of the faith so that Christianity became accessible to all regardless of whether or not they believed. Radical expectations of the gospel were siphoned off and kept alive in monasteries by those who had a special vocation. Yet Christian faith properly understood looks for a people to be formed upon earth who are not shaped by the world but by a coming reality which already is present: the reign of God incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. The people of God walk to the beat of a different drum. The church which truly follows Jesus will find itself being, whether it wants to or not, a revolutionary and subversive presence.

2. The first duty of the church is to concern itself with the God revealed in Jesus the Messiah. We do not change the world by trying to change the world! The danger is that the church will allow the world to set the agenda for us, to spell out the terms in which we may be significant. Our task, instead, is to seek first God’s kingdom. Humans always have a tendency towards idolatry and self-aggrandisement. The church performs a profoundly important political service when it affirms the demand of God to relate all things to him.

3. The church should recognise that the cause of Christ will never be advanced by means of worldly power. This was the error of emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and it stands in direct contrast to the way of cross and resurrection embraced by Jesus. Power is attractive, and in each generation we need to face and resist its temptations anew. We are tempted to seek worldly power in order to do godly things. Yet those who seek to bend earthly powers to their will eventually find themselves being bent. In this sense Christians are “anarchists”; we are suspicious of power and do not believe God’s purposes are achieved by entering into the domination system and using it for supposedly good ends. In keeping with the mission of Jesus, the church is to remain detached from partisan power struggles, and to concern itself with truth rather than propaganda.

4. The church, as the church, should reject any form of alignment with political and governmental authorities. This is traditionally known as the “separation of church and state”, and is a fundamental free church axiom. Its rationale lies in the fact that because the powers are fallen, any form of alignment of the church with them is bound to be corrupting. The powers of state inevitably seek to use religion for narrow political ends, to legitimate their own status or policies. Equally the church is tempted to pursue its ends by the illegitimate means of power, privilege and coercion. This is an unholy alliance and a wrong understanding of mission. In its own way it is a form of sectarianism, since it identifies the church with national, localised entities. The gospel, in contrast, calls into being a new humanity which transcends all earthly loyalties. Because it has faith in the crucified One and looks for the coming kingdom of God to replace the kingdoms of this world, Christianity makes an inherently unstable state religion. It is constantly calling the powers that be into question, fostering revolution in a way which does the opposite of what state religions are supposed to do.

5. Separation of church and state does not imply the separation of church from society. Christians follow the example of our Lord when we choose to engage society and live in it. We confess the lordship of Christ over all things. We are concerned to witness to the meaning of Christ for the public square and to see public affairs shaped, as much as possible, by Christian perspectives. Yet Christian influence upon the state must seek to ensure that the state remain properly secular (i.e., avoiding idolatry) and impartial in matters of religious confession (while respecting and safeguarding the place of religious faith among citizens). Christians will call the state to be committed to justice, peace and freedom. However, the state is a human enterprise not built upon faith in God. The state is an accommodation by God to human unbelief. 1n the political realm even Christians will be bound to argue for solutions and remedies which operate with what is humanly possible for a largely unbelieving society. Although shaped by their faith, Christian politicians will not necessarily have distinctively “Christian” policies to offer. There is no more a precise Christian politics than there is a Christian car maintenance. But there are Christian values and concerns which shape the way people are to relate to each other.

6. Despite its detached stance, the church seeks improvement in the social order. The church recognises the fallenness and limitations of all political powers. In this way we guard against false propaganda, delusion and false hope. We refuse to believe that final hope for humanity is found within any. human ideology or political system. Rather, hope is found in Christ. Our basic position of detachment, however, frees us to distinguish between bad and worse, between the less good and the better. These relative judgments are not to be despised. The fact that the powers are rooted in created reality and will be redeemed allows the possibility of improvement in the social order. It is the duty of all Christians to seek such improvement While the church as the church maintains a critical distance from government, this does not exclude the participation of Christian individuals in the legitimate spheres of government.

7. The church can be a major source of inspiration, values and innovation in the humanising process. Because we draw upon divine resources of faith, hope and love, Christians incarnate something new in the world. The justice, peace and freedom which are the responsibility of the state receive definition, in part, through the witness of the church. From within its own life the church is able to offer ways of relating in social organisms which may be translated to the wider community. Historically it is possible to point to the growth of free and democratic institutions in the wake of free church movements. Christians must pay attention to the fostering of their own messianic communities – not only to give glory to God, but also for the sake of their innovative potential for all humanity.

8. The political sphere is important, but no more important than any other sphere of life. The paradoxical view of the state we have developed takes seriously political affairs even while being fully aware of the fallen nature of the powers. While affirming that Christians may have a vocation in politics, we wish to resist the notion that human life can be defined by politics or that the political sphere is more significant than any of the other spheres of human life. Much political endeavour proves incapable of achieving the desired end. Christians may have a greater and longer term impact for good in many

other vocations. We resist the notion, therefore, that it is of particular importance for Christians to enter political life. We believe the purposes of God’s kingdom may often be advanced more effectively in other ways.

9. In any sphere of life it is our duty to obey God when con-fronted with demands at variance with faithful discipleship. Within a fallen world system in which God is ignored, it is inevitable that certain actions are deemed necessary for preservation of the system. Christians may come under pressure to lie, conceal, misrepresent, or even to kill. Living in the world means that no Christian can avoid relative judgments or ambiguity. We live in the assurance of forgiveness and justification by. faith. However, because we live by faith in the God of resurrection and infinite possibility, no Christian is bound by the false logic of fallen systems. We need to have courage to trust God. This sometimes will lead to conscientious objection through which the Christian exercises his or her witness.

10. It is the duty of Christians to work for the reduction of all forms of violence and coercion. Christians are followers of a Messiah who rejected the use of violence in pursuit of his cause, and chose the way of the cross rather than return evil for evil. The command “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21) must be taken as foundational to the ministry of Jesus and of all Christians. This creates a considerable tension between the Christian and a world in which violence is regarded as necessary and even on occasion praiseworthy. Utopia will elude us, but it is realistic to work of the minimising of all violence wherever possible, including the use of force by governments.

Until this summer Nigel Wright was a tutor in theology at Spurgeon’s College in London. In his recent doctoral thesis he compared and contrasted the theologies of Jurgen Moltmann and John Howard Yoder. He recently moved to Manchester to be senior pastor at Altrincham Baptist Church.


1. See Anabaptism Today 6 (October 1994:9-14) and 7 (February 1995:16-20).

2. By “Christendom” I mean the era of European history beginning with Constantine in the fourth century, during which time church and state worked closely together to make all subjects in a given territory “Christian”. Vestiges of Christendom still shape European society today.

The “discipling” of new believers, leading them into a deeper personal relationship with Christ, has long been a practice within the Christian church. But the perception that discipleship is something that touches relationships, reconciliation, ethics and justice has not been so obvious. Christians often have tended to view discipleship more as an individual, spiritual affair – a matter of personal piety rather than corporate lifestyle or social commitment.

Discipleship central to the gospel narratives

Some form of the word “disciple” occurs hundreds of times in the gospel narratives. Alongside their intention to introduce Jesus and to clarify his significance, all the gospel writers were deeply concerned to communicate the meaning and implications of discipleship.

Jesus called all people to repentance and faith in light of the dawning of God’s kingdom (Mark 1:14-15). He sought positive response to his message and a personal allegiance to himself as bearer of that message from all his hearers. But within this general summons, Jesus called certain individuals to a more exacting commitment of discipleship that involved leaving family and home to follow Jesus physically on his journeys around the countryside proclaiming the kingdom.

This means that Jesus had two main kinds of supporters: local sympathisers, who embraced his message but did not join him on his itinerant ministry, and disciples or followers, who accompanied him on his travels and who were personally authorised to minister on his behalf. The mutual sharing and fellowship of this group of men and women compensated for the loss they suffered as ones who left all to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28-30).

The inner circle of this group comprised twelve disciples or apostles specially appointed by Jesus in Mark 3:13-14. “The Twelve” were distinguished from the wider body by a combination of greater personal intimacy with Jesus (“to be with him”) and a special commissioning (“to be sent out”) to preach, exorcise and heal as Jesus’ authorised representatives. They also had a symbolic role, constituting a backward reference to Old Testament Israel and a forward reference to the new messianic community. Despite their special role, however, the Twelve possessed no special dignity or authority within the larger body of disciples. Whenever they tried to arrogate such to themselves, conflict developed and Jesus gave corrective teaching (see, for example, Mark 9:33-41; 10:35-45).

Discipleship, then, is only one form of positive response to Jesus described in the gospels. Not all who repented and believed became disciples; most did not. Yet the gospel writers concentrate most attention on the experience of the disciples because the disciples provide the clearest illustration of what it means to encounter the kingdom of God. They exemplify most powerfully how a commitment to the way of Jesus touches relationships, reconciliation, ethics and justice.

Jesus’ initiative in calling disciples

Discipleship always began with Jesus taking the initiative, calling those whom he wanted and laying down the conditions he required them to meet. Jesus delighted in choosing individuals who, by contemporary standards, were least qualified for the job. He chose fishermen, not learned experts in religious affairs. He chose small-town Galileans, not sophisticated urbanites from Jerusalem. He called tax-collectors, individuals regarded as “unclean” outcasts in Jewish society because of their collaboration with Rome in exploiting God’s people. At the same time he chose violent, dangerous Zealots, fanatical nationalists who would as soon assassinate Romans (and tax-collectors!) as handle their coinage.

Greek philosophers and Jewish rabbis also had disciples. But in their case a disciple would approach the master and ask to join his school, and would typically be an able, studious individual, well equipped for higher learning. Not so with Jesus. He nominated his own disciples and paid little regard to the “natural equipment”. Why? Because Christian discipleship is pre-eminently a gift, an unearned privilege, a relationship conferred by grace. The ability to succeed in discipleship is received, not achieved. “Apart from me”, Jesus tells his disciples in John I5:5, “you can do nothing.”

Yet Jesus did not dragoon people into the cause of the kingdom. His call, though authoritative, was not irresistible. It could be refused (cf. Mark 10:17-22) – and for good reason! Accepting Jesus’ call involved some very difficult choices. It meant accepting the conditions of discipleship he laid down, and those conditions were not easy.

In Mark 1:15 Jesus demands a twofold response to his proclamation of the kingdom of God: repentance and faith. The fishermen respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship in a twofold way: they leave all and follow Jesus. Becoming a disciple involved a fundamental act of repentance, expressed in their “leaving”, and a radical commitment of faith, expressed in their “following”.

In the biblical tradition, metanoia or “repentance” is not simply a change of mind or opinion, as it was in secular Greek. Nor is it primarily a feeling of remorse or sorrow for wrongdoing, as in popular usage today. Biblical repentance entails the redirection of one’s entire manner of life. The term requires a turning away from an existing way of life, with all its values, ambitions, priorities and allegiances, and turning towards a new way of life, with a new set of values, ambitions, priorities and allegiances.

A decisive break with the social order

For the four fishermen in Mark 1:16-20, conversion to discipleship required them to make a decisive break with the existing social order in three main areas. First, they abandoned their possessions and means of livelihood: they left their boats and nets. Discipleship had economic implications. Second, they relinquished their positions of authority and control; they left behind their hired servants. Discipleship had implications for existing patterns of social status and power. Third, and most demanding of all, these fishermen detached themselves from family ties and traditions, the primary source of identity and stability for first-century Palestinians. Discipleship had costly ramifications for family life and kinship responsibilities.

Why did Jesus require such a radical conversion of his followers, such an emphatic break with life as usual? One common explanation is that Jesus expected the end of the world to be imminent. Time was short; extreme measures where needed for extreme times. As it turned out, however, Jesus was wrong about the closeness of the End and, by implication, the ethical radicalism he demanded of his followers can no longer be sustained today. According to this perspective, the response of the fishermen cannot be regarded as a viable pattern for Christian disciples today – which is most convenient!

Indeed, Jesus’ mission was characterised by a sense of eschatological urgency, which in part accounts for the rigorous nature of discipleship as depicted in the gospels. But it was not so much the temporal imminence as the totalitarian character of the impinging kingdom that explains Jesus’ radicalism. I suggest that Jesus placed such severe demands upon his followers because he wanted his company of travelling disciples to serve as a symbolic demonstration that God’s kingdom lays claim to the whole of one’s life and requires the radical transformation of everything one is and does.

Jesus’ disciples had to make a categorical break with life as usual because life in God’s kingdom, now breaking into the present, required a fundamental recalibration of their social, political and economic values and commitments. That is why, later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus gives ethical teaching that corresponds directly to, and redefines the values of, the three spheres of existence left behind by the fishermen in order to follow Jesus:

  • They had to make a break with their possessions and livelihood because within the new order of God’s kingdom, a wholly new attitude toward wealth prevails: “Now hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).
  • They needed to leave behind their hired servants because within the kingdom community there is to be a new attitude to social power, prestige and authority: “. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43, 44).
  • The break with family was necessary to show that in the messianic community an entirely new concept and experience of family comes into being: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

In short, those entering discipleship had to leave behind the world as they knew it in order to enter a new world, with a disturbingly new vision of life. The discipleship community was to be a living, breathing demonstration that God was making a new way of life possible. It was to serve as a visible incarnation of God’s kingdom on earth, a colony of the new age planted in the midst of the old.

Discipleship had to be radical. Otherwise where would have been a yawning credibility gap at the heart of Jesus’ message. How could Jesus have gone about announcing the in-breaking of God’s cosmic reign on earth – the climactic fulfilment of all human history – while allowing his followers to go about their normal lives as though nothing had changed?

And yet, Jesus did not expect the same expression of commitment from everyone who embraced his message. Localised sympathisers did not leave their jobs, home and families; they remained a functioning part of the existing social order. Nevertheless, the transforming agenda of the kingdom, most starkly visible in the company of disciples, was also apparent in the lives of local supporters. They too began to redistribute their wealth (Luke 12:13-21; 19:1-10); they used their homes and possessions to serve the goals of the kingdom (Mark 11:1-17; 12:41-44; 14:3-9; Luke 8:1-3; 14:12-14; 22:7-13); they cared for the poor and the sick, the prisoners and the oppressed (Mark 9:38-41; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37).

The almost suicidal renunciation of all means of human security placed the fishermen in a situation of radical dependency, even powerlessness. In order to follow Jesus they had divested themselves of all that gave them control or power over their own and others’ lives. It was an unwillingness to live at such extreme risk and vulnerability that disqualified the rich man, despite his obvious piety, from following Jesus (Mark 10:17-22).

Conversion to a risky, dependent faith

Where does this all leave us today? From the perspective of the gospel narratives, “radical discipleship” is a tautology. There is no discipleship other than radical discipleship. It is radical because it requires a thorough-going conversion of one’s personal, social and political values and commitments. It requires a risky, dependent faith that looks wholly and solely to Jesus for identity, provision and protection. The most strenuous commands of Jesus, such as those requiring redistribution of wealth or a nonviolent response to aggression, presuppose such conversion and faith.

It is true that the economic dispossession and itinerant lifestyle of those first disciples was a response specific to, and appropriate for, the unique circumstances of Jesus’ historical ministry. Subsequent generations of believers are not required to imitate in detail the economic divestment and subordination of family ties required of the earliest disciples. (There is little evidence of such imitation by Christians in other New Testament documents though see 1 Cor. 13:3). Their lifestyle was not a blueprint to be replicated but a model to learn from. As the foundation of the messianic community, they are a paradigm for all Christians, not in the sense that we copy them in specifics but that, like them, we allow the reality of God’s kingdom to challenge and transform every dimension of our lives so that we also become living proof that God has made a new corporate way of life possible.

The above essay is a shortened version of an article by the same title that appeared in Faith and Freedom (December 1994: 8-12). Used by permission.

Chris Marshall is Head of the Department of New Testament Studies at the Bible College of New Zealand in Auckland He is author of Faith as a Theme in Mark’s Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 1989) and Kingdom Come: The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Auckland: Impetus Publications. 1993)

What a wonderful time to be a Christian! What a privilege to be standing at this kairos moment! What a challenge to be able to explore fresh ways of expressing what it means to be disciples of Jesus!

Does all this excite you? Or do you feel tired, jaded, frustrated, disorientated and angry about faith in general and church in particular? I meet many Christians today who do. We stand at the threshold of the third millennium, within an arid secular culture. While spiritual hunger is driving some people to pursue a genuine spiritual quest, the vision of the majority in our culture is determined by video and their values by virtual reality. Our culture is all too eager to write us off as just another “evangelical cult”. Around the world the church is growing faster than at any time in history, but in Great Britain we don’t see much of the action! Unfulfilled promises about the spiritual impact of the church on society, made by preachers in recent decades, have left many Christians here deeply disenchanted. There has developed a popular Christian appetite for happening in preference to being. People are looking for the “next thing” – whatever that may be – rather than rejoicing in the freedom of rugged discipleship.

Our challenge is to discover what it means to be an Anabaptist Christian today. We embark on this quest because, whatever our feelings and circumstances, Jesus is the one that inspires us. He is the “dawn” (Luke 1:78) and the “morning star” (Revelation 22:16); only he has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). We are also inspired by the lives and insights of our sisters and brothers, the Anabaptists. In the turbulent days of the sixteenth century, with society and church set against them, they demonstrated the creative power of following Jesus with the anointing of the Spirit. They left an indelible mark upon their own generation and those that followed. The challenge is for us to do the same.

I have never liked the use of the popular Christian phrases such as “revival”, “renewal”, “recovery” or “restoration”. These simply are not biblical or New Covenant terms in the way most Christians use them. They each carry an inherent sense of a response to failure, and are backward-looking. The language of the New Testament looks forward and speaks about “eternal life”, “outpouring”, “fruitfulness”, and “transfiguration”. In Jesus’ day there were many renewal movements, but his work was different. I believe that Anabaptism has to do with the demonstration of truth rather than renewal. I want to stand tall, girded in truth, in the “waters of the river of life” (Revelation 22:1) and expect them to get deeper Ezekiel 47:1-5).

Radical rootedness

I have always been gripped by the words “roots”, “rootedness” and “radical” (from the Latin word for roots, radix). Here is a biblical principle that is key for the way ahead. The roots that we are to explore together can be nothing less than the roots of the Tree of Life. Roots are the life of the tree, drawing nourishment into the trunk and the branches; they provide strength and security to the whole. They are the hidden inner structure whose existence is revealed and demonstrated in the branches and the fruit. Those who feed upon the Tree of Life become like it in character, for “the seed is in the fruit” (Genesis 1:12). This is beautifully expressed by Jeremiah (17:7-8):

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by the water, sending out its shoots by the stream. It shall not fear when the heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

What then are the roots to the Tree of Life which are to characterise our lives both as individuals and communities of faith? Below are what I see as central and essential for those who are looking for Anabaptist discipleship distinctives:

1. Jesus

The word “root” is one of many titles given to Jesus in the New Testament (Revelation 5:5; 22:16). To be Christian is to be Christocentric – not only in name, but also in practice. We live in a “Christian” culture which gives lip-service to the centrality of Jesus. But in reality he has been reduced to a theological factor with specific reference to the atonement: that he died for our sins. Too few Christians believe that the incarnation is a pattern for discipleship, that Jesus showed us how to live. The example of Jesus’ life is dismissed on the grounds that he was God, and so irrelevant because his way of living is unattainable. A primary task in bringing an Anabaptist perspective to our churches is to see people becoming disciples of Jesus in practical lifestyle terms, being obedient to his words and modelling their behaviour on his actions. This is the foundational element, in which and from which all other Anabaptist principles find their source. The task of bringing people to this point of understanding may appear straightforward, but it meets a great deal of resistance. Discipleship to Jesus begins by each of us individually making the commitment to “follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

2. Spirit

The Spirit is the sap that flows through the whole root system of the Tree of Life. The Spirit is inseparably linked with Jesus’ call to a practical discipleship, and is that which makes such a response actually possible. Because evangelical charismatic Christianity has not been Christocentric, it has emphasised experience rather than discipleship. This has led to the pursuit of the latest phenomenon rather than the power of a consistently godly lifestyle. Biblical themes of spirituality and sanctification are too often neglected in the regular teaching of the church; holiness is usually reduced to legalism. The possibility of substantial sanctification is largely dismissed, with the resulting expectation that Christians will inevitably sin. But the New Testament appears to put no limits upon the possible work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. The person of the Spirit is a constant reminder to us that in our exploration of radical discipleship “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). The presence and anointing of the Spirit must be tangibly demonstrated in the actions of our lives.

3. Shalom

Here is the all-embracing vision, a declaration of cosmic wholeness, integration and peace. Shalom (the Hebrew word for all-encompassing peace) sets the scene for our understanding of God’s eternal purpose for all things, a time when everything fits and moves together in perfect creative harmony in the power of the Spirit. Cosmic wholeness in the new heaven and earth is the only restoration the New Testament understands. This vision and reality is so clear that radical disciples of Jesus must by definition be “shalom activists”, working for peace. God’s peace is not on our agenda, it is our agenda. The gospel is nothing less than the proclamation of peace to the whole creation (cf. Mark 16:15; Ephesians 2:17). The shalom mandate touches everything from personal integrity to global ecology and eschatology. At every point it works to put right broken or unjust relationships.

Shalom focuses on Jesus’ call to nonviolence, nonretaliation and strong gentleness. Peaceableness is at the very heart of the gospel, but rarely on the agenda of the local church. Even people committed to a peace agenda often tend to think of it primarily in terms of war in the international sphere. But we live in a society in which there is violence at every level, expressed in a multitude of ways. It is this localised violence that the community of shalom must also creatively tackle.

4. Justice

Inseparably linked with shalom is the issue of justice, or putting things right. The pulsating heart and motivation of justice is found in righteousness, love, mercy and compassion. Justice stands against evil and corruption with invincible tenacity while nurturing the vulnerable and the damaged with deep tenderness.

Both local and global, justice-seeking must be the work of every disciple of Jesus. Right economics are at the heart of true holiness. Two-thirds world debt and the unfair distribution of resources must be our concern, as must be the plight of street children in the cities around the world as well as the homeless across Britain today. Justice is concerned with prisoners of conscience, with prison reform (and perhaps abolition!) and the overthrow of the death penalty. Justice means peacemaking at the heart of violence and mediation that makes enemies friends.

Religious toleration was an important theme to the original Anabaptists, and I believe it is a justice issue today. We have the privilege to live in a multi-faith yet secular society, and both facts are a source of anxiety to many Christians. Some view Islam as the new enemy and Hinduism as an alien pollutant. As witnesses to justice and truth, we must make sure that those of other faiths have freedom of worship and freedom from prejudice. True justice is a light that will enlighten through the power of the Spirit. We don’t compromise on our beliefs, but are secure amid other faiths.

5. Truth

We live in a church culture that stresses creed rather than character. Biblically, the essential question is not, “what is truth?” but “who is truth?” The answer, of course, is God revealed in Jesus. It is essential to express what we believe in words. Yet to embrace truth is to become Christlike in character, not simply to give verbal assent to a doctrinal statement. So often truth is seen as a set of intellectual propositions rather than a life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus through the power of the Spirit.

“What is the gospel?” is one of the most important questions to ask in these days of church growth and church planting. The gospel is not simply a call to spiritual transaction, but to a total conversion and radical discipleship. The question of Christian initiation is one of the biggest challenges to church today; it involves the message preached and the response made. What is essential is to bring together preaching the gospel, embracing baptism and receiving the Spirit as a single focus. Does our proclamation of the gospel as a call to discipleship see people make a complete break with the past? Do believers embrace new values, and have a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus through the power of the Spirit?

“How do we interpret scripture?” is the question that lies behind almost every difference between Christians. The early Anabaptists had a Christocentric approach, and recognised both unity and discontinuity between the Testaments. Anabaptists wanted the community to interpret Scripture together, and tested the quality of interpretation by the quality of life it produced. All this will help us capture the heart of Bible interpretation – along with the more technical tools of modern scholarship.

6. Freedom

“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Freedom is something few Christians really cope with, even though it is the hallmark of truth. The emphasis of many churches is almost exclusively on freedom from (sin, death, fear, guilt); but Jesus also promises freedom to. Most Christian teaching on freedom is cloaked legalism, whereas Jesus calls us to messianic anarchy. To follow Jesus is an invitation to explore and experiment with a freedom that is characterised by truth and shaped by discipline. This is the wonderful, dangerous freedom characterised by self-control, strong gentleness, sensitive love and deep joy.

The heart of freedom is grace, the extravagant goodness of God. It is an environment of knowing God’s forgiveness and being wrapped in his love. It is the place for dealing with guilt, disillusion, anger, doubt and hurt. It is an ethos that encourages questioning and doubt as a means of working though to mature faith and security. We must all work energetically to see this liberating grace become the air that the church breathes and the ethos it expresses.

7. Wisdom

This is the ability to apply truth practically to everyday life in a way that harmonises with the kingdom of God. It is the self-expression of mature godly freedom. In a culture that is saturated with information, there is a crying need for wisdom. In a church that has both knowledge and experience, but scant ability at application, wisdom is the missing but essential ingredient. Biblically, wisdom is something you seek (Ecclesiastes 1:13), and you “become” wise. It is a gift of the Spirit, and like shalom it is something that radical disciples pursue. Wisdom reminds us that church is to be a learning environment. It is the place where we bring our questions and experiences and share them together.

Wisdom is the quality expected of a leader, reflecting experience and maturity. Instead of wisdom, today there is a great deal of insecurity in the church. This often expresses itself in narrow thinking, top-down autocratic styles, and a fear of opening the congregation up to new ways of thinking. The lack of wisdom is evident in the failure to have a true cultural and historical perspective on the spiritual phenomena currently being seen.

8. Community

Somebody observed that “Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God and what appeared was the church”. Yet the church is the God-ordained means for God’s people to operate in the world. For those who are struggling with hurts and anger towards the church, this may be galling. For those who are isolated or hanging on to local church by their fingertips, this will be frustrating. The fact that most of us who want to see an Anabaptist vision grip the church are thinly scattered around the country makes the difficult task of community-building even harder. Yet church community is the environment in which roots of the Tree of Life are to be planted and fruits of the Tree are to be seen.

Local church is vital, but networking among churches is essential and an important point of nurture for both the individual and the whole church. Local church is an important starting point for those who are isolated or hurting. We need each other if we are to sharpen our faith and mature, if we are to find support as we experiment with truth. We need each other for encouragement, protection and the opportunity for celebration. We need individuals and groups to infiltrate existing local churches with radical discipleship and Anabaptist ideas; the call is to be subversive! It takes time and patience, but it can begin to happen. Truth always works on a bottom-up rather than top-down principle – as in yeast, mustard seed or dew.

We should not underestimate the power of the model. Until people see Anabaptist vision and values incarnated in local communities of faith the values will not be widely embraced; others need to be able to “see what we mean”. So the planting of peace churches is vital; make it top priority! There is no one single pattern for church in the New Testament. Rather, there are principles that can express themselves in many different ways. There is a real opportunity and vital need for people to experiment with truth. We must excite children with faith and radical discipleship; they are a central part of the body today and the voices of tomorrow. We have failed children in church and we must put it right. We must inspire them and learn from them.

For such a time as this

For Christians in Britain today it is unlikely that the doors of our homes will burst open with armed officers coming to arrest us. Is someone going to drag you in front of the local magistrate before whom you can give an eloquent defence of your faith? There is little chance that you will spend the night in prison at the hands of the torturer, or that in the morning you will have your tongue torn out and be dragged to the stake and burned as a witness for Jesus. Nevertheless, a challenge of equal importance awaits us all in bringing the joyful message of radical discipleship to our country. It is important to reflect on what we would have done in the sixteenth century, but much more important to decide what we will do today!

The call is to feed on the Tree of Life with our roots soaking up the Water of Life. Then, as Jeremiah told us, our leaves will stay green, we will not be anxious in the drought, and we will not cease to bear fruit. However lonely, hurt or disillusioned you may feel, stand tall and follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Walk as a free, joyful, holy person through the church and the world, exuding the aroma of life. As Mordecai said to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to [the kingdom] for just such a time as this!” Esther 4:14)

Noel Moules is the founder and director of Workshop, a nationwide teaching programme in Christian discipleship and leadership which more than two thousand students from all major denominations have completed. This article is adapted from his presentation at the Anabaptist Network conference in Leeds in September, 1995.

Daniel Liechty, ed., Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings. New York, Paulist Press, 1994. 304 pp. £14.99

Marlene Kropf and Eddy Hall, Praying with the Anabaptists: The Secret of Bearing Fruit. Newton, Kansas, Faith and Life Press, 1994. 176 pp. £8.75; with cassette, £15.50

As depicted in a famous engraving, the image is unforgettable: the Anabaptist Dirk Willems, safely across the frozen river, spontaneously doing the dangerous thing. He turns around and pulls to safety the dripping thief-catcher—who had fallen through thin ice—even though this led to Dirk being arrested and burned for heresy. What Dirk did was not a carefully considered action; it was reflexive, an expression of his character.1 God had so worked in his life that loving the enemy was not something he decided to do; it was rather an expression of who he was. But what was it that shaped Dirk’s character? What was the spirituality of Dirk and the other early Anabaptists?

For centuries people in the Anabaptist tradition didn’t talk about “spirituality” -a word that would have seemed too Catholic. Prayer was something that was central to their lives, but to talk in detail about it seemed akin to “praying on the street corners” (Matthew 6:5), and hence, proud. In recent decades relatively few Anabaptist scholars have paid attention to the spirituality of their ancestors – partly because of the early Anabaptists’ reticence and partly because of their own preoccupation with ethics and polity. In light of this neglect from within, it is not surprising that writers from other traditions have treated Reformation spirituality as if the Anabaptists made no distinctive contribution to it.2

Two recent books, however, agree in finding a lively and distinctive spirituality in the Anabaptist tradition. Other researchers also are at work, whose writings will further illuminate prayer in the Anabaptist tradition. Thus we may grow in our capacity to understand and learn from the inner life and spiritual disciplines that animated Dirk Willems and the other martyrs.

Leichty: a new translation of select writings

Daniel Liechty’s volume, Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings (in The Classics of Western Spirituality series), is the more conventional of the two. It consists of a selection of thirteen writings by nine Anabaptists, all newly translated by the editor. The texts are fascinating, opening up to the reader the varieties of early Anabaptist reflection on the Christian life. Liechty’s rendering makes them readily comprehensible. A number of them—especially the writings of Hans Denck and Peter Walpot—make a strong impression and would be suitable for group discussion.

But these writings still do not help us greatly in our search for the spirituality that animated Dirk Willems. Another Dirk, Dutch Anabaptist leader Dirk Philips, reminds us of the problem. In 1556 he wrote: “Jesus Christ, the only son of God … is the example to all Christians, ordained by the Father that we might be conformed to him. For godly character, which is to be our pattern, is perfectly reflected and shown in him. Therefore, all those who claim to know the new birth should have the character and nature of Christ and hold firmly to his character from beginning to end”3

Dirk Willems might well have pondered this passage. Yet Dirk Philips doesn’t tell his readers how to pray, or how to go about achieving the inner transformation necessary to live reflexively like Jesus. Nor do the other writers in Dan Liechty’s volume.

To be sure, clear theological themes emerge from Liechty’s Anabaptists. As he summarizes their themes (pp. 9-14), three stand out. First was a classical theme in spirituality: the believer’s personal relationship to Christ. To this the Anabaptists added the distinctive assertion that this relationship was immediate and no priest was necessary to enable it. Second was a central Anabaptist concern: the believer’s life of discipleship. The Anabaptists believed that Christ was unknowable unless one followed him in practical and costly ways, even at the cost of persecution. Finally, there was a distinctive emphasis upon community. The Anabaptists claimed to know Christ through their life together with other members of his body.

But how did the Anabaptists go about realising these themes? How did they pray, individually or together? The writings in Liechty’s collection tell us little about this. This is in part because they are theological writings, not writings about spirituality in the classical sense. It also is perhaps because Liechty has limited himself to writings by “recognized leaders” among the Anabaptists, instead of drawing upon the less cultured sources which reveal more of the inner life of the empowered “rank and file” which made the Anabaptists such a distinctive movement.4 If Liechty had drawn upon Anabaptist letters and court records – not least those recorded in the remarkable source so underused by historians, the massive Martyrs’ Mirror- we would know more about how the Anabaptists prayed. How useful it would have been, for example, if Liechty had included accounts such as that of the weaver Joriaen Simons and his fellow prisoners in 1557 in the Haarlem Jail: “Our sister Mariken … is of such courage and good cheer, that she delights and rejoices us all. We exhort each other with the Word of the Lord, as much as God gives each to speak, now by words, now by hymns; yea, I have many hours in which I never once think of it that I am a prisoner; such is the joy which the Lord gives us.”5

Liechty could also have devoted more attention to two categories of Anabaptist texts which give particular expression to their spirituality: prayers and hymns. Liechty includes two prayers by Hans Schlaffer; but other prayers are scattered throughout Anabaptist writings which can yield fascinating insights.6 As to hymns, the Anabaptists were reflexive singers, and Liechty acknowledges this by providing the text of six hymns, including two by people (one by Annelein of Freiburg, and one by seven anonymous prisoners in Gmund) who were hardly leaders. Through these hymns, multiplied many times, the Anabaptists internalised their faith and experience. These were vehicles of worship; these were means of telling the martyrs’ stories; these were prophetic expressions of resistance. In 1552 the glazier Adriaen Corneliss was thrown into solitary confinement, “whereupon,” he reported, “I immediately began to sing the hymn” based on Isaiah 59:14: “Justice is turned back, and … truth stumbles in the public square.”7 Far more than the writings of the theologians, the Anabaptist hymns put us into connection with Anabaptist spirituality and help us understand what shaped the Anabaptists’ reflexes.

Kropf and Hall: Anabaptist spirituality for today

The second volume, Praying with the Anabaptists, is an attempt to shape an Anabaptist spirituality in our own time.8 The book grew out of a retreat on the part of a number of North American Mennonites, who agreed on the book’s main themes and then commissioned two participants – Marlene Kropf and Eddy Hall – to do the writing.

The book’s format is simple. Each of its fifteen chapters begins with a meditation upon verses from John 13 – 17 and proceeds with brief quotations from a sixteenth-century Anabaptist writer. Next in each chapter comes the heart of the book, and the part which could shape our character and reflexes: the “Guided Prayer Exercises” which enable the reader to pray on the theme of the chapter. Each chapter ends with a prayer of an Anabaptist martyr in the context of his or her story. The book is divided into three large sections: “Abiding in the Vine”, “Joined in Love,” and “Bearing Fruit”. These develop a threefold Anabaptist “rule of life” -“a vital, personal relationship to Jesus Christ”, “a wholehearted, loving commitment to life in Christian community”, and “joyfully following Christ’s way in the world through a holy life of witness, service and peacemaking – even through suffering” .9 This threefold balance of emphases corresponds neatly to that of Liechty.

Kropf and Hail are not Anabaptist historians, so they rely in part upon edited selections of early writings. But the source in which they find thirteen of their fifteen Anabaptist prayers is the Martyrs’ Mirror. At times they quote these prayers precisely; at other times they find implied prayers, editing the texts to write prayers that are usable today. Some edited prayers may bend the original intent of the text, but in general I find them to be a valid way of appropriating Anabaptist words in prayer today. For example, Maeyken Boosers, burnt in 1564:

  • Martyrs’ Mirror: “My heart constantly longs to be fit in His sight, that I might finish to His praise that which He has commenced in me.”
  • As altered by Kropf and Hall: “O Lord, my heart constantly longs to be fit in your sight that I might finish to your praise that which you have commenced in me. Amen.”10

The heart of Kropf and Hall’s book is its “Guided Prayer Exercises”. Whether or not one finds the book helpful will depend on how one responds to these. Each exercise begins with the invitation to listen to a hymn or song on the accompanying cassette tape; the cassette is optional, at an extra cost, and reflects the importance which North American Mennonites have placed upon congregational singing as a means of praising God and experiencing his presence (the choral singing, to my ears, is pleasing, but I found myself just using the book). Then, after a Preparatory Prayer asking God’s Spirit to grant a particular grace, the exercise leads the reader into a variety of forms of prayer. There are imaginative meditations, meditations on scripture, prayers of stillness and centering, listening prayers, and prayers of intercession and confession. These prayers can often lead to action. For example, a community-building prayer:

Remember the gifts of love you have received through the body of Christ. Give thanks for these gifts. Ask the Spirit to bring to mind those failures of love in which you or your congregation have taken part. Confess your sin and the sin of your people. Ask God to forgive you. As in Isaiah’s vision, imagine God’s cleansing as a live coal that touches your lips and body as well as your congregation. Receive the words of grace, “your sin is blotted out” (Isaiah 6.7). In silence, wait before God. Is God asking you to take some healing or reconciling action? How are you called to respond?11

It is fascinating to see how Kropf and Hall, not having an extensive literature of Anabaptist prayer techniques to draw upon, have borrowed freely from the strengths of others. The prayer for discernment, which could be especially useful in congregational business meetings, seems indebted to Quaker insights and practices. Elsewhere the debts seem to be largely to Catholic, especially Ignatian, spirituality. Kropf and Hall (p. 98) talk about these prayers as “spiritual exercises”. Praying with the Anabaptists thus mediates insight in two directions: prayer techniques from Catholics to Anabaptists and Evangelicals; and a wholistic “three-fold” theology from the Anabaptists to Catholics and other Christians. I find this to be encouraging, a sign of God’s providence. Certainly these exercises will help contemporary Christians – some of whom are having great difficulty praying at all – to pray in new ways. Over several weeks I have used these exercises, and they – like much Ignatian spirituality – have been helpful to me.

Charismatic nature and social setting of early Anabaptism

There are two themes in early Anabaptist spirituality which do not find an adequate voice in either of our books. The first of these is the charismatic nature of some early Anabaptist piety, which Liechty does not mention and which Kropf and Hall do not develop.l2 It is not that, in general, the Anabaptists spoke in tongues; while some of them may have done, tongues do not seem to have been apart of the prayer repertoire of most Anabaptist communities.13 But there was, nevertheless, an openness to the Holy Spirit and to enthusiastic phenomena which would be familiar to many contemporary charismatic Christians.114 It certainly was no staid congregation that could utter, “Praise God with shouting”15 – or that could speak fresh words as if from Jesus: “If I the Lord and Master am poor, it is evident that my servants are poor, and that my disciples do not seek or desire riches.”16 It is important for modern students of Anabaptism not to filter out of the historical record the undomesticable spirituality of the early years. In terms of the renewal of the church and its witness today, it also will be immensely helpful when contemporary Anabaptists appropriate charismatic as well contemplative spiritual riches.

The other theme that receives less attention than it merits is spirituality’s social setting. In the Liechty volume, it is the Hutterian Peter Walpot who mentions this in his doughty insistence that wealth has spiritual consequences: not only does it fetter discipleship, it locks and “occupies” the heart.17 Kropf and Hall mention the theme at least by implication; they provide a guided prayer inviting us to consider whether possessions are impeding us from responding when God calls us to serve.18 But many sixteenth-century Anabaptists were keenly aware that prison and suffering changed the way that they perceived reality and therefore the way they prayed. “O dear brothers and sisters,” Joost Verkindert wrote in 1570, “we now look through quite different eyes … than when we were out of bonds; for out of bonds I could never pray to God as I now sometimes do.”19 I wonder: can well-fed, well-adjusted Western Christians really pray with the Anabaptists?

We can, I believe. But it will take more than searching for themes of spirituality in Anabaptist theological texts. If we, with Kropf and Hall, ask Jesus for the grace of prayer – “Lord, teach us to pray”; if we go on to develop forms of prayer that are liberating and antennae that listen to God not only in churches and retreat centres but also in the world; if we then venture out into areas of risk, oppression and suffering – then we may experience that growth in fellowship with Christ and his disciples which will transform the way we live, our character and our reflexes. Then we may also discover that Dirk Willems will become more than an Anabaptist icon; he will become an elder brother whom we, by God’s grace, are coming to understand.

Alan Kreider is director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College in Oxford. He and his wife Eleanor coordinate study groups in the Anabaptist Network and frequently speak at churches and other settings in the UK and Ireland.


1. For recent discussion of Dirk Willems’ response, see Joseph Liechty, “Why Did Dirk Willems Turn Back’?” Anabaptism Today 6 (1994: 7-12).

2. Alister McGrath, for example, in Roots that Refresh: A Celebration of Refornration Spirituality (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991}, does not mention Anabaptist spirituality.

3. Dirk Phillips, “Concerning the New Birth and the New Creature,” in Liechty, 216.

4. Hans Hillerbrand makes this point in his “Preface” to Liechty, xviii.

5. Thieleman I. van Braght, The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians (henceforth MM; 1660/1685; this ed. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1951), 566.

6. E.g., Menno Simons, Complete Works (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956), 955-58; also the prayers in Martyrs’ Mirror cited by Kropf and Hall (MM, 427, 429, 430, 431-32, 434-35, 464, 467-68, 517, 667, 800, 826, 979). There are many more that they could have chosen.

7. MM, 531.

8. A review of this book already appeared in this journal. Anabaptism Today 8 (1995:22).

9. Kropf and Hall, 10-11.

10. MM, 667; Kropf and Hall, 65.

11. Kropf and Hall, 82-83.

12. See Stuart Murray, “Anabaptism as a Charismatic Movement”. Anabaptism Today 8 (1995:7-11).

13. MM, 516, 790.

14. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism, A Social History, 1526-I618 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 121-22.

15. MM, 429

16. MM, 457

17. Liechty, 145.

18. Kropf and Hall, 129.

19 MM, 852, 761.

If you have been part of congregational decision making that left people feeling angry or alienated, you know how painful that can be. Good process and careful listening may not remove the hurt of dealing with conflict in groups, but they increase the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome. My first article (October 1995) dealt largely with conflict between individuals; the following article draws from biblical sources and mediation theory to suggest ways conflict and decision making in groups can be most productive.

Acts 15 tells how early Christians faced a volatile dispute (whether Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved) and went through stages of group process that issued in a decision most participants were able to accept. Conflict in this case went through the following steps:

1. There was a big argument. “Certain individuals” differed with Paul and Barnabas on the question of circumcision, and “no small dissension and debate” arose ( Acts 15:1-2).

2. The church sought out a forum in which all parties could be heard. The local faith community took action, and appointed “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:2).

3. People in conflict had opportunity to tell their stories. The delegation of disputants arrived at Jerusalem and “reported all that God had done with them” (Acts 15:4).

4. There was enough time to air convictions, feelings and perspectives. There was “much debate” (Acts 15:7).

5. Leaders, after careful listening, proposed a way forward that took into account concerns raised by both sides on this issue. “After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers … I have reached the decision that we should not trouble [with circumcision] those Gentiles who are turning to God … but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication …” (Acts 15:13-21)

6. The proposed solution was ratified by consensus. With the “consent of the whole church” the leaders at Jerusalem sent a delegation to Antioch to convey the agreements reached (Acts 15:22,25).

7. The entire decision making process was handled with sensitivity to all participants, under Holy Spirit guidance. The end result “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

Actual events of Acts 15 might not have been as positive and pastorally sensitive as the interpretation above would suggest. Nevertheless, even by standards of modern conflict theory, the early Christians got it right when they brought conflict out into the open and gave all parties a good hearing. People in conflict want to be heard, and this especially is true when individuals believe they will be affected by decisions made by leaders or by the group.

Be clear about process

Perhaps no principle of group decision making is more foundational than the need for everyone involved to understand and accept the process by which the matter will be resolved. People are most likely to accept the outcome of group decision making if they agreed in the first place with how it would be decided. Congregations and denominations vary on process; some Christian groups make decisions “from the top down”, with leaders setting a direction and others expecting to follow. Other groups work “from the bottom up”, eliciting perspectives from all participants before moving toward a vote or consensus.

Circumstances of sixteenth-century history predisposed many early Anabaptists to adopt “from bottom up” leadership and decision making. Persecution and geography made it difficult for centralised, institutional leadership to mandate decisions “from the top”. Congregations often had to come to their own conclusions on controversial matters, as believers gathered together around the scriptures. Church leaders today facing congregational or denominational disputes would be wise to spell out to themselves and others how the matters at hand will be resolved.

Leaders preparing a congregation for making a major decision making might, for example, propose something like this:

1) for one month we will elicit as many ideas (or nominations) as possible

2) during the second month a committee agreed to by the congregation will study the various ideas put forward and make a recommendation

3) during the third month we will decide the matter by an 80 per cent vote (or by consensus or lot or whatever the group agrees).

There are many variations possible on the above plan, and the length of the whole process should suit the scale and complexity of the issue. The important thing is to be specific about the process, and to be certain participants agree it is acceptable. Group decisions are strongest when participants also have opportunity to express their convictions and concerns. The notion that the Spirit of God moves through all believers is biblical (Acts 2:17-18), and Anabaptists understood this as one aspect of the priesthood of all believers.

Give everyone a fair hearing

The following are a few suggestions on ways to air differences in the process of decision making and increase the likelihood of real dialogue. These ideas assume there is a sensitive chairperson, respected by the group, who is determined to suspend judgement for a while and give all parties a fair hearing.

l. Provide more than one way for people to be heard. Typical church business meetings favour group members who are effective public speakers and who are secure enough to engage in public debate. If this is the only forum for response, certain personality types gain a disproportionate share of power. There are many alternatives: questionnaires, voting, small group discussions with reporting back to the larger gathering, one-to-one interviews, sermons or written presentations with opportunity for oral or written reply, and “straw polling” (an “unofficial” vote just to see where most people are).

2. Experiment with alternative group processes. There are many ways to get a group to interact on controversial issues without simply inviting persuasive speeches from the most articulate. Among these are:

a. The Human Rainbow (so named by my colleague Alastair McKay). If there is a difference of opinion on a matter to be decided, the chairperson can invite all participants physically to position themselves at some point between two extremes in the meeting room. Suppose, for example, there was a debate about whether or not the church should renovate their worship space. The chairperson might say: “Imagine there is a line down the centre of this room from one end to the other. In a minute I’m going to ask everybody to stand at some point on the line. Those who strongly favour renovation, please stand at the left end of the line; those who definitely are against renovation, please stand at the right end. If you are somewhere in between those extremes, position yourself accordingly. There is no “right” place on the line; this is simply a way to visualise our different views. Nobody stand, please, until everybody knows exactly where on the line they will be. When I give the signal, everyone will move quickly to take their position.”

After everyone is in position, then the chairperson may give opportunity for people at various points on the Rainbow to say why they stand where they do. It is surprising how this exercise enables people to express themselves to a group. At minimum people can be “heard” simply taking a visible position on the line; often they are able to state a reason for why they stand where they do. On complex issues it may be useful to have participants stay in their positions for a few minutes, talking about what they observe about the group’s convictions. The chairperson can also say “what do people at this end of the Rainbow need from your sisters and brothers at the opposite end?”

b. The Samoan Circle (reportedly used by villagers in Samoa). Suppose fifty people at the business meeting. are divided into two or more factions on the church renovation issue. Fifty chairs are placed in a circle (or concentric circles) with enough space in the centre for a smaller circle of, say, six chairs. The group agrees that all discussion (for a set period of time) will take place within that innermost circle of six chairs. It may be helpful, to start the process, for one or two individuals from each side of the debate to present their argument at the inner circle. Other volunteers fill chairs in the centre circle along with the presenters, and amongst themselves they begin to discuss and debate. Anyone else from the larger circle, at any time, can join the debate by moving to a chair in the inner circle. If all chairs are full, people from the larger circle may come and stand behind one of the chairs already occupied. Whoever is seated there is under obligation to move out within a short period of time, when they are finished speaking. This method of dealing with disagreement (or processing difficult decisions) works well if everybody respects the rules (no comments from the outer circle!). In situations of high tension, this structure has the effect of slowing down and moderating interaction. People in disagreement have to look their opponents in the eye and be close enough for actual dialogue, with the assembled congregation as witnesses. Angry people are less likely to make careless statements in that context. Congregations in conflict have used this structure over a period of several meetings for up to eight or ten hours. Much less time may be needed for relatively simple issues or conflicts.

Look for common areas of concern

People in church decision making often take a position and seek to defend it (“I absolutely do not want us to renovate the meeting space!”). Good group process should help people voice the underlying interests that led to their position. For example, a pro-renovation group might say “We want to renovate our meeting space because we believe it will make our church more attractive for visitors and increase our impact on the neighbourhood” The anti-renovation group might say, “We want to use the money that would go to the renovation to start a day care programme that will be a means of service in our neighbourhood.” In that case both groups have a common interest: to make an impact on the neighbourhood. Underlying common interests may take time to identify, but usually the commonalties are there. Look for them, and help participants in the debate step back a bit from their positions to reflect on underlying interests.

Having identified the interests of both parties, the group then is ready to move toward possible solutions. Here brainstorming may be useful. A flip chart or chalkboard is essential, and the chairperson writes down all suggestions and ideas for a possible solution. The chairperson must emphasise that this is a time for any ideas, and that none will be evaluated until the brainstorming time is finished. The more ideas there are offered, the more people will think creatively. With many ideas available, the group then need to make choices. Seek solutions that take into consideration underlying interests of the various participants. Seek God’s will by providing space for silence and prayer. When the group comes to a decision, write out the agreements clearly so there is no disagreement in the future about what was decided. Be prepared to revisit the decision again some time in the future; perhaps even incorporate a formal review after a trial period of, say, a year or two.

Nelson Kraybill is an elder at the Wood Green Mennonite Church in North London. He and Alastair McKay work with Bridge Builders, a mediation and conflict training programme for churches sponsored by the London Mennonite Centre. If you are interested in mediation or training for your congregation, contact Bridge Builders, 14 Shepherds Hill, Highgate, London N6 5AQ (Tel: 0845-4500 214). Or see the Bridge Builders website

Perhaps the most common objection to the claim that Jesus rejected violence is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple (Matt. 21:12-17 and parallels). The last time I heard a sermon from that passage I was treated to a drama which portrayed Jesus not only whipping people, but kicking and punching them as well. This makes for exciting preaching, but is it an accurate picture of what really happened in the temple? If it is, how does this fit in with the otherwise nonviolent picture of Jesus?

The temple-cleansing incident seems to persist in popular Christian folklore as an example of acceptable violence by Jesus. Bruce Milne comments that John 2 “has been frequently used as evidence of Jesus’ support for the use of physical and military force to liberate the victims of oppressive political structures”.1 One example of this can be found in the book Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor by Colin Morris. He supports S. G. F. Brandon’s thesis that Jesus actually condoned the use of violence, but the early church whitewashed this in order to save their own skins. This thesis suffers from the old problem of assuming what it tries to prove2 and has been discredited as an accurate picture of Jesus.3

Little comment from Anabaptists

It is surprising that Anabaptist sources scarcely refer to the temple demonstration (I consulted only English translations). Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Pilgrim Marpeck, Balthasar Hubmaier and Conrad Grebel do not mention it, although there is a reference in The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren where it is used to support community: “Christ does not want any trading of goods in his house; he wants Christian community. This buying and selling is a sign by which one shall recognise the false church, discerning the evil that Christ drove out on two occasions with a good whip.”4 Thomas Muntzer refers to the incident as an example of the “sternness of Christ” as he faces the roots of idolatry.5 However Muntzer used the story in a sermon which invited his hearers to help the godly destroy the wicked and establish the kingdom of God on earth. This interpretation would not have been supported by the majority of Anabaptists and was used at a time when his movement was passing into its violent phase.

Stuart Murray observes that Anabaptist hermeneutics were developed “in debate with opponents as well as within friendly meetings”.6 It could well be that the Anabaptists rarely referred to the temple demonstration simply because the reformers such as Luther and Calvin did not use it to support violence. Luther wrote “this act of Christ cannot be cited as an example to be emulated”, because he understood Jesus to be spanning the gap between Old and New covenants. To Luther, Jesus was here acting as a servant of the Old Testament, a “disciple of Moses” and therefore “in accordance with the Law of Moses he here resorts to force.”7 It is interesting that Luther mentions the Anabaptists at this point, failing to distinguish them from Muntzer: “The devil bade the Anabaptists, Muntzer and the Pope have recourse to the sword, although Christ strictly forbade this to his apostles and preachers.”8 In Calvin’s commentary on the Gospel of John there is no explicit reference to the whip. Calvin thought that Jesus was purifying the temple “in order to bring back to its original purity the worship of God, which had been corrupted by the wickedness of men”. According to Calvin, Jesus did this to awaken “sluggish and drowsy minds”, to in some way take possession of the temple in order to give proof of his divine authority.

It may have been that the Anabaptists paid little attention to the temple demonstration simply because they did not understand it, but knew that it could not teach a discipleship of violence. Stuart Murray points out that the failure to acknowledge difficulties in Scripture seemed to be a feature of hermeneutics both for the Anabaptists and the Reformers,9 but perhaps the availability today of other sources can shed some light. A brilliant example of this is found in the writings of Richard Bauckham, who interprets the action of Jesus as a prophetic act of protest against economic exploitation in the temple courts.10 He argues convincingly that the priestly aristocracy were plundering the people of God, particularly the poor. In so doing they represented God not as a Father who provides, but as a King like any other who demands tax. Bauckham uses Matthew 17:24-27 (Jesus’ conversation with Peter about the temple tax) as background for the temple-cleansing to show Jesus’ opposition to the temple tax (which was presented by Jerusalem religious authorities as theocratic taxation). In Matthew 17 Jesus gives the father-son relationship precedence over the king-subject relationship for the children of God. The sons are exempt, and “God does not rule his people in the way that earthly kings do”.11 God does not treat them as subjects who owe him taxes, but rather he provides for them. Even today in the local church the Old Testament concept of the tithe is often used to persuade people into a strict ten percent giving, under a thinly veiled threat of “robbing God” (Mal. 3:9). This is not a Jesus-centred handling of the Old’ Testament, and only results in the well-off keeping more than they need and the poor giving away more than they can afford – all in the name of God’s rule over his people, just as with the temple tax.

A social justice reading of the temple episode

The connection between Matthew 17 and the temple demonstration is clearly seen when Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers. By doing this he “attacked the most visible manifestation of the tax operations”, and so directly criticised the very existence of the tax and aimed it at the highest level of the economic hierarchy – the priestly aristocracy – who claimed to operate in the name of God himself. Bauckham’s thesis is strengthened by the reference to the selling of doves. He uses a variety of Jewish sources to show that the temple treasury had a monopoly on the selling of doves because of the strict requirements on fitness and rearing which they imposed. This probably created a monopoly where the treasury could charge prices as high as it liked, making the most common sacrifice of the poor a burden to them in the same way as the tax itself. The idea is not that Jesus objected to the sacrificial system, but rather sought to fulfill its real purpose: “The scandal of the temple trade in these days was that the laws specifically intended to make worship possible for the poor were being so applied as to make them a financial burden on the poor.” Bauckham uses the sources to make a similar case for the “merchandise” being carried through the temple courts, which were probably vessels used to deliver the other materials used in offerings (flour, oil, wine) which were also monopolised by the treasury.12

When Jesus drove out those buying and selling in the temple courts, it is reasonable to interpret his actions with reference to the commercial transactions of the temple, rather than the worshippers themselves. Those selling were not necessarily profit-keeping themselves, but were the custodians of a vast economic enterprise with huge reserves of money which made the temple comparable to a bank. This made the temple an important employer and resource for Jerusalem, but one with little benefit for the many Jews outside the city. Tom Wright tells us of the temple that “its importance at every level can hardly be overestimated.”13 This was the place where God lived, ruled and restored Israel by grace through the sacrificial system so that she could continue to be his people. The temple also combined in itself the functions of national figurehead, government and financial institution. Wright points out that it occupied around one quarter of Jerusalem city, symbolising its central place for every aspect of existence for the Jew. Thus at the very heart of Jewish life God was being misrepresented and his real relation to his people obscured, obstructing the very purpose of the temple and its worship. It seems most likely then that it was commercialism rather than corruption that provoked the prophetic demonstration of Jesus.

Alan Kreider notes a second purpose in the protest of Jesus, to do with the location of the transactions. That the place of worship for the outsider (the Court of the Gentiles) was taken over by commercialism was a powerful illustration of Jewish nationalism and exclusivism which by this time probably pervaded Israel. Jesus demonstrates that the purpose of God was to include the outsider, “The enemies were to be loved, the nations were to be brought in.”14

A questionable translation

Bauckham’s interpretation makes good sense of Jesus’ actions, but he follows most commentators in understanding that Jesus used the whip against people. However, J. Lasserre shows that the traditional translation of John 2:15 – which has Jesus violently driving out people with a whip – is an incorrect one which even today is present in popular Bibles. 15 The questionable translation is: “Jesus … drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen” (NASB and similarly The Message, the Authorised Version, NKJV, NEB, RSV and The Jerusalem Bible). The NIV and Amplified have a similar translation to that which Lasserre supports: “Jesus … drove them all from the temple, the sheep as well as the cattle”. The point is that there is no need to include people amongst the animals which Jesus drove out with the whip.

Lassere examined the grammatical construction used in John 2:15 (particularly the Greek words te kai) and compared it with eighty other occurrences in the New Testament.16 He found that in seventy-six instances it supports the translation of “sheep as well as the cattle” and not “as well as sheep and cattle”. Even in the remaining four instances the former translation would be natural and normal. Lassere is quite correct to conclude that a violent interpretation of the demonstration cannot be justified. Even the phrase “driving out” (Mark 11:15) used in the synoptics to portray Jesus chasing people out, perhaps whip in hand, is a bad translation. The same verb can just as easily be translated “send out” (as in Matt. 9:38 and many other places). The fact that recent commentaries on the gospels do not refer to Lassere, despite J. H. Yoder’s support and use of him, shows how big a part pre-understanding plays in exegesis. It would not seem feasible then to use the temple demonstration to justify violence toward people, as Jesus did not use the whip on them.

Furthermore, even for those who disagree with Lasserre’s translation the temple incident does not easily justify violence. For example, George Beasley-Murray supports the traditional translation, but notes that the grammatical construction of John 2:15 draws attention to the expulsion of the animals rather than the people.17 He thinks that the demonstration’s purpose is to bring about the new era where sacrificial worship has been fulfilled. However, he notes that this is achieved not through the demonstration itself and the use of the whip, but through that to which its use leads – the death of the Messiah. This is why Psalm 69:9 is quoted, and the righteous sufferer is cited elsewhere in the New Testament with reference to the death of Jesus: “In all four gospels the event signifies less the action of a zealous reformer to purify the worship in the temple than an act of judgment that presaged a new and more worthy order of worship of God. That new order is achieved not by Jesus throwing the traders and their beasts out of the temple but by the death to which his action leads, and the resurrection which is inseparable from it.”18 Since Jesus did not intend his actions to directly accomplish his purposes, they cannot be used by his followers as justification for force today.

James Dunn is broadly representative of New Testament scholarship when he concludes that Jesus was not a violent revolutionary: “. . . we can be fairly confident that the revolutionary option was open to Jesus in one form or another.

But it is also sufficiently clear that Jesus did not commend or accept that option.”19 Jesus did not condone violence, either by example or by words, and so his disciples are called to follow him in this area as in every other. This is both a crucial demonstration of God’s active presence in the world, and a precious realisation of our status as peacemaking children of God (Matt. 5:9, 45).

Tim Foley recently served as associate pastor at Folly’s End Christian Fellowship in Croydon, and is a graduate student at Spurgeon’s College in South London.


1. B. Milne, The Message of John (Leicester: IVP, 1993), p. 72.

2. J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus’ Call to Discipleship (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), p. 47.

3. N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 (Oxford: OUP, 1990), p. 380.

4. The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, vol. 1 (Rifton, New York, 1987), p. 270.

5. G. H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), p, 67.

6. S. Murray, Spirit, Discipleship, Community.- The Contemporary Significance of Anabaptist Hermeneutics (unpublished Phd thesis; Oxford: The Whitefield Institute, 1992), p. 59.

7. J. Pelikan, Gospel of John chapters 1-4, in Luther’s Works, vol. 22 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), p. 224.

g Pelikan, Luther’s Works, vol. 22, p. 225.

9. Murray, Spirit, Discipleship, Community, p. 96.

10. R. Bauckham, “Jesus’ Demonstration in the Temple”, in g. Lindars, ed., Law and Religion (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1988).

11. Bauckham, “Jesus’ Demonstration”, p. 82.

12. Bauckham, “Jesus’ Demonstration”, p. 78.

13. N, T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), p. 224.

14. A. Kreider, Journey Towards Holiness (Basingstoke: Marshall-Pickering, 1986), p. 154.

15. J Lasserre (trans. 1. H. Yoder), The Whip in the Temple: A Tenacious Misinterpretation, Occasional Papers of the Council Mennonite Seminaries and Institute of Mennonite studies, No. l (Elkhart, Indiana: 1981).

16. Lasserre, The Whip in the Temple, p. 37.

17. G. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1991), p. 40.

18. Beasley-Murray, John, p. 50.

19. Dunn Jesus.’ Call to Discipleship, p. 47.

“An Anabaptist congregation will exhibit an understanding of community that makes possible radical economic sharing, the exercise of loving church discipline, and the development and deployment of a wide range of gifts for the benefit of the church and the world beyond the church.” – Stuart Murray, Anabaptism Today, June, 1996, p. 12.

The Church as “community” is a reality many Christians long for, but it often seems difficult to achieve. Geography, poor transport, architecture, mental habits, traditional churchy culture – these and many other factors militate against the kind of genuine relationships we desire. Worship is an important context for congregations to build community. The following are a few ways in which the worship of a church can establish and nurture community relationships (small churches find these things easier, but even larger ones can do them):

Learn to know each other in community

• Use pictures and names to build relationships. One Sunday during after-service coffee a member of one congregation went around snapping informal photos of all the little clusters of people in conversation. The next week there was a big poster in the hall with everyone’s name next to their photo. It was not an expensive idea, but it helped everyone – especially newcomers – to get to know each other on a personal basis. The children especially were pleased to be known individually.

In another small church the children three years old and younger went out during the sermon for their own activities. When they returned to the main room for the closing songs and blessings, they were carried or escorted in with a special song: “Welcome, welcome Christopher! We are glad you’re here” . . . “Welcome, welcome, Catherine! We are glad you’re here!” The little ones then received a special prayer of blessing by the whole church: “God loves you. God goes with you. God stays with you.”

Another church – a much bigger one – has pledged that every adult will learn the names of all the children and will address them face to face. A tall adult standing to speak to a little child is not an acceptable posture. Adults will either sit down or get down to speak directly to the child. This may sound trivial or drastic, but it embodies an important point: in this church children are valued members of the community. The idea of learning names comes first because it is essential to building community.

• Learn what others do during the week. A new pastor asked permission to “shadow” or visit each member, for at least a few hours, at their place of involvement or employment. He took photos and soon these decorated the entry hallway under the label “our church in mission”. It was funny to see people in unfamiliar-looking clothes because they always came to church casually dressed. Our “churchy selves” are only one part of the picture. We need to learn more about each others’ lives.

• Pray, for specific day-to-day needs of members. Some churches forget to pray for their own members. If we know people’s names and something about their weekly involvements, we can make intercessions practical and specific. One large church has a number of people involved in the health professions, a cluster of school teachers, and a lot of university students. Once a month, in rotation, they hold extended prayers after the evening service around the weekday concerns of these particular groups of people.

Some churches appoint a “prayers group” to function with the same seriousness as the more familiar music groups. In worship meetings the prayers group consistently and systematically lead congregational prayers which include the members’ individual and corporate work concerns. Churches who are only good at praying about medical needs and bereavements can learn to ask for and accept prayers dealing with a wider range of commitment and concerns.

Prayer telephone “hot-lines”, prayer partners, adult-child mentor programmes, service sheet inserts with prayer requests – these and other methods can help a church to pray for its own needs. Prayer is a valuable link between individual and corporate life. We need to pray for one another, both in worship and through the week. Praying together builds community.

• Use notices to strengthen community ties. Perfunctory announcements of dates and times of meetings can give way to sharing news of what those groups of people are actually doing. It is also helpful to have “feedback notices” which remind people what happened in last week’s events. Notices and prayers can converge. Notices might go like this:

“The women’s group convenes on Thursday morning at Betty’s house at 10 Rose Close. This week they will be writing letters concerning prisoners of conscience. They have asked the church to pray as they prepare to write these letters, and especially to intercede for the safety of a particular prisoner (named).”

“Last week our children enjoyed a day out at the nature reserve. Thanks to Sue and Jim and Sally who planned and took care of all the arrangements. One concern arose on that day for which we ask the church to pray. . .”

Notices, prayers and shared projects of mercy and service – bringing these specific concerns of our humanity into worship helps to build community. Do we hear notices like the following one in our worship and prayer meetings? If so, our worship is getting well earthed into the wider community:

“Are there four volunteers for Tuesday to help clear the site of the Jones’ garage, which recently burned down’? We might not know this family personally, but they are neighbours to our church. They are distressed because they lost some valuable equipment in the fire. Let’s pray for them and for the workers who will go to help with this job.”

Encourage economic sharing

As members know more about each other’s weekly work and family circumstances and as they work together in projects of mercy and aid, they can give support of many kinds – including economic. This might be in the form of a “koinonia fund” through which gifts of money are loaned or given according to need. In many churches money is a “hot” issue – an area of secrecy and control, sometimes of misery and isolation.

We can work corporately at defusing the power of money. One of the ways is through worship and prayer, giving thanks for God’s provision, recognising it is not only our brilliance and hard work that builds our bank account. We can study and pray on the basis of Jesus’ and the early Christians’ concerns that we be content rather than greedy. Sharing what we have and giving generously are not instinctive acts. But they can be taught, caught, learned, practised, enjoyed – and all of these may be encouraged in corporate worship.

For example, there is the potent symbol of the offering plate. Sometimes the quiet, solemn music of the “offertory” gives a funereal impression: what a sad thing it is, to part with our own hard-earned money! I recently got many surprised comments after playing a jolly song as the plates came forward. We could learn from African Christians who make the offering a high point of their worship, giving their gifts with festive singing and dancing. Children can fully take part in such an offering, learning and dramatising the importance of freely giving back to God what God has given to us. It’s fun, too – and fun builds community.

The offering plates are sometimes placed onto the communion table. This action is a reminder of early Christians’ generous and responsible care for the needy within and outside their immediate fellowship. Gifts in kind, gifts of service – many offerings could go into the plate and onto the communion table, incorporated into the fellowship of bread and wine. After all, the very name communion derives from the word meaning “sharing”. Community, communion and sharing all tit together.

Foster disciplined relationships

Discipline means learning. Worship leaders should always ask, “How can we, in this service, help people to grow as Jesus’ loved disciples?” It will mean more than going through a series of songs and sermons and then leaving it up to each person to figure out how worship connects with their life. Worship leaders present Jesus, worthy of our adoration – but also Jesus as our winsome teacher, the one who challenges and coaxes us on our disciple way. We are on the way together; common discipleship builds community.

But it is for each one to approach worship with hopeful expectation. ( know a person who says, “When I go to worship, I always listen for at least one thing which will be significant for my daily life.” Whenever Christians meet for prayer and worship, each one should be able to gain an insight, make a resolve, confess a weakness, or determine to take a step forward in their walk of faith. Every worship service needs a point for inner appropriation, for a movement of each person’s will under the leading of the Spirit. There needs to be space, silence, and room for this to happen. We need to face up to our varying degrees of success in taking that step, or remembering the insight.

Corporate worship can easily link with one-to-one relationships within the church, with spiritual friendships in which we are able to be lovingly honest with one another. When relationships are strong, honesty with humility can flourish. We will be able to give and to receive the hard words as well as the approving ones. We need to help each other learn the mind of Christ, and learn to walk in his way. Loving discipline builds community.

Elicit and deploy many gifts

Corporate worship is not the place for practising what we don’t know how to do. The church asks those to serve the group who show the spiritual gift for a particular function. The finest pianist is not necessarily gifted to lead music in worship. The most fluent public speaker isn’t always the best Bible teacher. Church members know these things. Ask them which person most enables them to pray; ask them who most winsomely visits the ill. The church discerns the gifts. The church then sees that the gifts are trained, developed, and accepted into the fabric of worship and service.

A good check on this is to return to a church after a couple of years’ absence. Are you surprised and delighted with the growth and maturity of gifts? Young people may be leading prayers and heading up service projects. People may be serving in ways that they didn’t know they could do. The church is maturing and gifts are growing! Growing the gifts builds community.

But spiritual gifts aren’t only for internal benefit. The spiritual qualities and gifts which a congregation most needs are the same ones that the world out there is crying for: the merciful spirit, humility in careful listening, discerning God’s prophetic word for a particular situation, a heart that mourns for broken lives, a gift of healing prayer. “These we can practise within the church. But they will spill over beyond the Christian fellowship. In significant ways they shape the kind of neighbours and work mates we are throughout the week. In our worship meetings we can hone our peacemaking skills, our disciplined corporate prayer, our thankfulness and ability to discern God at work These expressions will flow out into the mission that is our daily work and walk of life. We need spiritual gifts for the community beyond the church. Gifts of the Spirit expressed in mission build community.

Every Christian congregation values strong community life. But I believe that there is something about Anabaptist definitions and practices which give distinctive shape and impetus to community. Community is not an optional feature; for Anabaptists it is about solidarity as we walk together. It is about survival in the face of testing. Community is about sharing bread for the journey. It is about sharing joy and good times in the life of God’s Kingdom. All of these qualities are expressed in the worship of the church.

Based at Regent’s Park College in Oxford, Eleanor Kreider teaches, writes and speaks in the area of Christian worship. In 1997 she will publish Communion Shapes Character (Herald Press).

In the report of the Evangelical-Roman Catholic dialogue on mission we read:

A large number of Evangelicals (perhaps the majority) practise only believers’ baptism. That is they baptise only those who have personally accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord and they regard baptism both as the convert’s public profession of faith and as the dramatisation (by immersion in water) of his or her having died and risen with Christ.’

Members of the mainline churches, on the other hand, are almost all baptised as infants. Unfortunately, this very often leads to mere nominal christianity. Scholars still disagree on the prevalence of infant baptism in the early church. Yet new evidence continually impresses on us how widespread adult baptism was. It seems clear, for example, that many of the holy wells in Ireland were the adult baptisteries of the pre-Norman church. Here we re-examine some of the local evidence as a Roman Catholic contribution to the debate.


St Patrick came to Ireland as a missionary bishop some time in the fifth century. The date of his death is disputed: either 461 or 491 AD. He has left us two documents. The first is a letter excommunicating Coroticus, a British chief who carried away some of his neophytes into slavery in Britain. The better known one is his Confession which is largely autobiographical.2Those documents mark the beginning of historicity in Ireland. Ecclesiastically, they offer an even more important insight into the British church that sent him to Ireland.3

Studies on Patrick continue to abound. Most recently David Howlett and Maire Brid de Paor have discovered the chiastic structure of the Confession.4 The work of Daniel Conneely sets his thought firmly in the context of the fifth century controversies on grace. So when Patrick tells us how in his youth he was dead in sin and unbelief Conneely insists that “we must interpret him here as meaning exactly what he says and not diminish his presentation, for an entire argument is built on it”.5

From the five passages cited by Conneely we may quote the following. “I did not believe in the living God, nor had I believed in him from childhood, but remained in death and unbelief.”6 While he was a slave in the wood of Foclut, probably in present day County Mayo, God literally made him a believer. All this makes much more sense if Patrick was not baptised at the time. Indeed it is virtually incomprehensible if we presume that he received baptism as an infant.

He prayed several times in the day and night for “the Spirit was fervent” in him.7 This means that the Spirit had come upon him now for the first time. Like the Gentiles who came to Cornelius, he received the Spirit before baptism. Then when he returned to Britain or Gaul he was baptised and ordained.

Patrick came from a Christian family. He tells us in the Confession that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a presbyter. But at this time even that fact would not guarantee baptism. Augustine, who died earlier in the fifth century, was reared by a Christian mother yet she did not baptise him. Such was the custom at the time. The Confessions of both, then, describe a sinful unbelieving youth and adult conversion. As well as Augustine and Patrick, their near contemporaries, Jerome, Basil and Ambrose were baptized and ordained in quick succession.


When we read early church history without presuming infant baptism, many other possibilities emerge. St Columba, apostle of Scotland, known as Colm Cille in Ireland, died in 597 AD. Adamnan, his tenth successor as abbot of lona (679-704), wrote a biography of the founder in the style of the time.8 From it we get some insights into practice at the turn of the eighth century.

Adamnan tells us that while Columba was still in the womb, his mother saw a vision which indicated that the child would be famous. There is, however, no indication of the child being sanctified in the womb like John the Baptist. Next we are told that he was fostered to a priest called Cruineachtán. One night he saw a ball of fire standing over the child as he slept. Then the priest “understood that the grace of the Holy Spirit had been poured from heaven on his foster-son”. This statement would be meaningless if Columba had already been baptised and was regarded as having the Spirit in infancy. Rather, like Patrick, he was now receiving the Holy Spirit prior to his actual baptism.

An objection to this might be that Adamnan later mentions another time when “the grace of the Holy Spirit was poured” on Columba. So perhaps the phrase could be used of a child who already had the Spirit. This later vision is quite different, however, as Adamnan says that the grace came “abundantly and in an incomparable manner” It lasted three days. The secret mysteries of the Scriptures were revealed to Columba.9 It was the culmination of his mystical experience. The vision of his foster father is most naturally interpreted as a first coming of the Spirit.

The ritual

In the Bangor Antiphonary we find a hymn, Ignis creator igneus’, which was to be sung at the blessing of the paschal candle on the night of the Easter vigil. Michael Curran translates the last two verses as follows.

You store up the nourishment of divine honey in the secret recesses of the honey-comb: purifying the innermost cells of the heart, you fill them with your work, so that the swarm of new offspring, begotten by the word and the Spirit, may leave behind the things of earth and soar towards heaven on carefree wings.

Curran regards this as “a fine expression of the deeply experienced reality of the early church on Easter night”. He believes that it indicates that at the time there must have been “a large number of candidates for initiation at Easter”.10 The purification and the abandonment of earthly things by the neophytes could only refer to adults, not to infants. This precious document was compiled about 680 AD and so is roughly contemporary with Adamnan. This is the kind of initiation he presupposes for Columba.

The Second Synod of Patrick is a pseudonymous document dated by Bieler to the seventh century. This is its prescription for infants. “On the eighth day they are catechumens. (Octavo die caticumini sunt.) Thereafter they are baptised on the solemnities of the Lord, that is Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany”. 11 One might imagine that they were then baptised at the next major feast, and so before one year old. However, the parallel practice of the Eastern church shows that baptism was deferred to a mature age. This is also borne out by the holy wells which were clearly suited for baptising adults.

Yet another text gives us some insight into the actual ritual of baptism. In The Alphabet of Devotion we read:

In baptism three waves pass over a person and in these is made a threefold renunciation; firstly, the world and its pretensions; secondly, the devil and his snares; and thirdly, the lusts of the body. This is what changes a person from being a son of death into a son of light.

This description presumes that renunciation is part of baptism and therefore for adults. The text goes on to say that if one fails in those renunciations, “heaven is closed to him unless he first dips into three pools”, namely, repentance, discipline and labour. Dipping in the pool must be the equivalent of the waves passing over a person and so is a clear reference to baptism by immersion.

A few further details of the ritual may not evoke as much sympathy from some evangelicals. The well or font was to contain living water. That meant that it was to be flowing rather than stagnant. It was blessed by a thanksgiving (or eucharistic) prayer. Then holy oil (or chrism) was poured into the water. Water and oil flowed away but the well remained holy or “blessed”.

After baptism in some rites water was sprinkled on the people as a memorial of their own baptism. In Gaul and in Ireland, however, the people drank some of the holy water in a ceremony reminiscent of Jesus’ words about drinking living water. Christianity was first brought to Gaul by Irenaeus. He was closely connected to the community which gave us the Gospel of John. The church spread from Gaul to Britain to Ireland. Perhaps this is why so many distinctively Johannine emphases are found in the Irish tradition.

Curran implies that the system of baptising adults at Easter was in vogue in western Europe at this time also. It seems that it was about a century later with Charlemagne that baptism of infants was first prescribed for all. This quickly became normal practice on the continent while peripheral Ireland conserved the older way of doing things.

Norman reform

A life of Columba written in the Old Irish language tells how he was baptised immediately after birth. But Maire Herbert shows that this life was written as late as 1150 AD at a time when the Irish church was striving to reform itself by coming into line with practice on the Continent.12 Infant baptism was one of these reforms. When the Normans came twenty years later they made a law that the baptistery was now to be inside the church. The surviving examples show that they were for the baptism of infants but still by immersion.

The Normans had behind them the authority of Pope Alexander III who wrote to Henry II urging ecclesiastical reform in Ireland. The abuses of the Irish church are a common theme of medieval literature. Because it existed on the periphery, many older usages survived in Ireland when they had gone out of fashion elsewhere. What was universal practice at an earlier stage was now regarded as an abuse. This was the main worry of the continentals about Ireland.

Pope Alexander complained that the Irish ate flesh during Lent and did not pay tithes.13 Gerald of Wales, who described the conquest of Ireland, claimed that Henry was ordered to ensure that every household in Ireland would pay one penny a year to the Pope, known as “Peter’s pence”. 14 The significance of this and other reforms was that they could be imposed by the sword. Because infant baptism was now the law, everybody would have to accept the reforms. In the earlier Irish church one freely embraced Christianity and baptism as an adult. So many people elected to remain pagan. This system the medieval papal church regarded as a great abuse. Today perhaps we are agreed that it is an ideal to which we should all return.

Brother Eoin de Bhaldraithe, O. Cist., is a monk of Bolton Abbey, Moone, Co. Kildare, Ireland


1. B. Meeking, J. Stott, eds., The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission l977-1984: A Report (Exeter, Paternoster, 1986), 57.

2 L. Bieler, Libri Epislolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi: Introduction, Text and Commentary (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 1993).

3. C- Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (London, Batsford, 1981), chap 14, “St Patrick’s Episcopate and the British Church”.

4. D.R. Howlett, The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop (Dublin, Four Courts, 1994): acknowledgement to M.B. de Paor, p. 110.

5. D. Conneely, St Patrick’s Letters: A Study of their Theological Dimension (Maynooth, An Sagart, 1993), p. Ill.

6. Conneely, 68; Howlett, 70.

7. Conneely, 66; Howlett, 63.

8. A.O. & M.O. Anderson, eds., Adomnan’s Life of Columba (London, 1961).

9. Ibid., p. 503.

10. M. Curran, The Antiphonary of Bangor and the Early Irish Monastic Liturgy (Dublin, Irish Academic, 1984), P. 63.

11.Second synod of St Patrick, 19; L. Meter, The Irish Penitentials (Dublin, 1963), pp. 191-92.

12. M. Herbert, Iona Kells and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba (Dublin, Four Courts, 1996), text in Irish, p. 226; in English, p. 253; date. p. 192; church reform, p. 109.

13. Douglas and Greenaway, eds., English historical Documents, If (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1953), pp- 774-80.


Much scholarly discussion on the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) has focused on the question of their authenticity. Predictably, many conservative scholars argue that Paul wrote them, whereas most non-conservatives would disagree. The general scholarly consensus, in what has become a somewhat sterile debate, is that they were not written by Paul. In addition, it has often been assumed by readers that the purpose of the Pastorals is to provide instruction on church leadership and organisation. The questions of authorship and purpose combine to produce the consensus that the Pastorals were written to promote a particular form of church organisation in the period following the death of Paul when the church was undergoing the transition from charismatic leadership to a much more institutionalised structure.

I hope, in a series of articles, to focus on particular passages in the Pastorals (not least those which appear to marginalise women). For the purpose of this introductory article, however, I want simply to highlight certain themes which I believe are relevant for today.

Comfortable Christianity?

The debates about authenticity and church structure have meant that the Pastoral Epistles are not the books in the New Testament that people would instinctively go to for insight on radical discipleship. Many would agree with Martin Dibelius’ famous description of the Pastorals as having as their goal “christliche Bürgerlichkeit” translated either as “good Christian citizenship” or, more pejoratively, as “bourgeois Christianity”. For Dibelius, and many scholars following him, the Pastorals reflect a version of post-Pauline Christianity which has settled for a comfortable co-existence with the world. Furthermore, for many the Pastorals also reflect a move away from Paul’s vision of egalitarian Christian community to a hierarchical and patriarchal ecclesiastical structure in which women are marginalised. The history of scholarship on the Pastorals does not prove a fruitful hunting ground for anyone who wishes to view them as radical documents!

I beg to differ. Space does not permit me to rehearse all the arguments here (the arguments form the bulk of the content of my current PhD work!). My position, stated briefly, is that the Pastorals address Pauline communities struggling over what it means to stand in genuine continuity with Paul in the period following his death. I believe that the second half of the first century CE witnessed a battle taking place between competing images of Paul in Christian communities that cherished his memory. The Pastorals participate in this struggle and seek, therefore, to promote a particular view of Paul against competing claims.

Unlike Dibelius and others, I do not believe that the Pastorals reflect a settled community at ease with itself and the world. On the contrary, the letters betray signs of intense strife affecting the communities. In Ephesus there are teachers in the community teaching a different doctrine (1 Tim 1:3-7) and advocating an extreme asceticism (1 Tim 4:1-3). As a result of their impact households are being disrupted (1 Tim 5:13-15; 2 Tim 3:1-9), and there is a suggestion that they are out for financial gain (1 Tim 6:5). In Crete too they are disrupting households and teaching for financial gain (Titus 1:10-16). It is not my purpose in this article to dwell on the false teachers; suffice it to say that the author of the Pastorals is profoundly concerned about their impact on households. To counter this he places specific emphasis on the household. The episkopos must be able to manage his own household well (1 Tim 3:4), so too must diakonoii (1 Tim 3:12). Children or grandchildren of widows must first learn their duty to their own household (1 Tim 5:4) and the church itself is described as the household of God (1 Tim 3:15). The author’s concern for stable community, which has been rightly noted by the scholars, arises in my view, not out of a desire to conform or compromise with the world, but out of the specific circumstances which the communities addressed find themselves – namely the risk of being torn apart by factions within. Furthermore, the author’s concern is that this internal strife affects the communities’ witness to the wider world.

Dibelius and Conzelmann rightly point out that eusebeia (godliness/piety), a key word in the Pastorals occurring no less than ten times, elsewhere in the New Testament is found only in Acts and 2 Peter. They note that the word occurs frequently in Greek honorary inscriptions alongside words such as “virtue”, “righteousness” and “goodness.” It is thus a word which appears “in those schematic catalogues of virtues which were so popular”. For them words such as eusebeia and semnotes (dignity) highlight the Pastorals’ concern to promote “good Christian citizenship.” What they fail to note is that the kind of eusebeia advocated by the Pastorals is eusebeia “in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:12) and that the “mystery of godliness” (to tes eusebeias mysterion) points to Christ (1 Tim 3:16). The Pastorals’ emphasis on eusebeia, therefore, would be well understood in the Hellenistic culture in which the communities found themselves, but this does not imply that the author of the Pastorals expects the communities simply to conform to the surrounding culture. It is specifically Christ-centred eusebeia that is being advocated-and the author well knows that this kind of eusebeia leads inevitably to persecution (2 Tim 3:12).

2 Tim 3:12 has been widely neglected in scholarship. Either fairly bland comments about Jesus and Paul expecting their followers to face persecution have been made, or the threat of persecution is treated merely as a rhetorical device of the author to encourage faithful living. It deserves far more attention, particularly in an Anabaptist context where early Anabaptist history bears eloquent and painful testimony to the verse’s insistence that “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”. If taken seriously and literally, it calls into question the whole “bourgeois Christianity” line of interpretation.


The Pastorals emphasise tradition. In the context of competing claims about Paul the Pastorals want to state clearly: “we stand in this Pauline tradition—we can do no other”. The emphasis is on a standard of sound teaching which has been received from Paul and is to be passed on to future generations (e.g. 1 Tim 4:11-16; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2; Titus 1:9). In the current climate, when there is so much emphasis on the “new thing that God is doing,” the Pastorals issue a timely reminder that we are to pay attention to our tradition. One of the great strengths of the Anabaptist Network has been the desire to learn about the Anabaptist heritage and thus to develop a sense of historical perspective. Of course the author of the Pastorals is convinced that he stands in the true Pauline tradition and thus Paul’s authority for a new generation is simply assumed. Our task has to be more critical—there are aspects of our Anabaptist heritage that we would not necessarily want to endorse; furthermore, sixteenth century Anabaptist solutions cannot be uncritically transposed into our late-twentieth-century context. Nevertheless, there is still much for today’s global church to learn from the early Anabaptists.


I do not subscribe to the scholarly consensus that the Pastorals reflect introspective communities more concerned about their own internal structure and organisation than with engagement with the world. The Pastorals have a massive emphasis on “good works”. Sound teaching, as far as the Pastorals are concerned, is not merely for the purpose of right believing but is to promote right living. This is familiar Anabaptist territory! Christian belief is outworked in appropriate conduct. Furthermore, instead of the endless debate as to whether the emphasis on “good works” is a departure from Paul, scholars would do well to pay attention to the fact that this emphasis on good works is “Sermon on the Mount stuff”. Good works, according to Mt 5:16, are essentially mission-oriented and I believe the Pastorals need to be seen in this light too. 1 Tim 2:1-2, which for many serves to epitomise the Pastorals as concerned with “bourgeois Christianity”, is immediately followed by a statement concerning the saving will of God. Prayer for peaceful conditions is not so that the church can be comfortable but to facilitate mission. The author is acutely aware that outsiders are influenced, either positively or negatively, by the conduct of the Christian communities. This leads to my final point.

Cultural Engagement without Cultural Conformity

This is a massive subject which I can only briefly touch upon here. Let me give just one example. It is generally accepted by Pastorals scholars that the moral exhortations in the letters combine the central concerns of Hellenistic ethical writings with Jewish traditions in a way very similar to that of the first-century Jewish apologist Philo. For example, three of the four Hellenistic cardinal virtues – self-control, justice and piety – are combined in Titus 2:11-12. The ethical concerns of the Pastorals would have been thoroughly understood in a Hellenistic context. Nevertheless, it is significant that the fourth virtue, “courage”, is absent from this text, from the Pastorals generally, and indeed from the entire New Testament. This is because classically the virtue of courage was associated with valour in war. Warlike valour is not a Christian virtue. Instead “courage” is replaced by “endurance” as a New Testament virtue.

This highlights a distinctive aspect of the Christian tradition in relation both to Hellenistic and to Jewish traditions. Because Jesus was crucified by his enemies without meeting their violence with counter-violence, the early Christian tradition eschews violent resistance. Like Jesus, however, Christians were sometimes persecuted, and the kind of courage they would need was “endurance”.

So, in connection with the cardinal virtues valued by the surrounding culture, the Pastorals engage with those values and yet do not simply embrace them. Courage is transformed into endurance; piety, as we have already seen, is Christ-centred piety; self-control is a mark of the Spirit (2 Tim 1:7); the virtues flow out of lives transformed by the grace of God (Titus 2:11-12). The Pastorals thus seriously engage with the challenge of mission-how relevantly to address contemporary culture without compromising with it. For the author of the Pastorals compromise is not an option; he well knows that the kind of Christian praxis he is advocating is paradoxically both profoundly attractive and yet ultimately threatening to the value systems of this world. At the end of the day this kind of discipleship leads not to an easy life but to suffering and hardship (2 Tim 1:8; 2:3; 3:12; 4:5).

Lloyd Pietersen was, for a number of years, an elder in Bristol Christian Fellowship. He is currently doing doctoral research on the Pastoral Epistles at Sheffield University.


1. M. Dibelius, Die Pastoralbriefe (HNT 13; 2nd edition; Tubingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1931), pp. 24-25; M. Dibelius and H. Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972); referred to hereafter as D-C.

2. The related verb eusebeo (to live piously) occurs once and the adverb eusebos (godly) occurs twice.

3. D-C, p. 39.

4. This verse does not fit well with D-Cs thesis concerning “bourgeois Christianity”. All they say about this verse is: “The apostle’s experience of suffering is applied to all Christians in the form of a general thesis. Thus the verse expresses the intention of these biographical allusions” p. 119.

5. See Stuart Murray’s excellent essay “Introducing the Anabaptists”, Anabaptism Today 14 (February 1997), pp. 4-18, especially pp. LS-17. 6. The phrase occurs no less than fourteen times: l Tim 2:10; 3: l; 5:10 (twice), 25; 6:18; 2 Tim 2:21; 3:17; Titus 1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:1, 8, 14.

7. See Mt 5:16 where the same phrase is used. Incidentally, it is my firm conviction that an Anabaptist hermeneutic, in which “the uncomfortable and provocative Jesus of the Gospels” (S. Murray, “Introducing the Anabaptists”, p. 16) is made the controlling centre for interpretation, consistently sheds light on the Epistles. Failure o make connections between the Jesus of the Gospels and the teaching of the Epistles leads to a distinctly impoverished understanding of the New Testament.

8. See the important argument, supporting this view of the Pastorals, of Philip H. Towner, The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles (JSNTSup, 34; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989).

9. See S.C. Mott, “Greek Ethics and Christian Conversion: The Philonic Background of Titus 2:10-14 and 3: 3-7”, Novum Testamentum 20 (1978), pp. 22-48 (23-26) for the connection between piety (eusebeia) and the Platonic cardinal virtue of wisdom (phronesis).

10. Although Mott notes this fact he fails to see its significance; op.cit. p. 28.

11. See the astute comments of M. Davies, The Pastoral Epistles (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), pp. 20-22.

12. M. Davies, op.cit, p. 21.

One of the remarkable features of the early Anabaptist movement is the very brief periods of ministry of the most influential leaders (some not even as long as the ministry of Jesus). Few survived to die peacefully in old age; some (like Conrad Grebel) succumbed to the plague, but many more were drowned, burned or beheaded after only a few years – or even a few months – of ministry. If the writings of these leaders which have survived seem a little rough and ready by comparison with their more illustrious Protestant contemporaries, this is not surprising, given the brevity and precariousness of their lives as Anabaptist leaders. Anabaptist theology has been characterised as “theology on the run”. What is more surprising is the continuing influence of some of their writings centuries later.

In the summer of 1526, only eighteen months after the first believers’ baptisms in Zurich had signalled the start of the Anabaptist movement, Michael Sattler suddenly appeared on the scene. In a whirlwind ministry tour, he preached, baptised and taught new converts in various Swiss villages, continued these activities in Strasbourg and nearby Lahr, held talks with the Strasbourg reformers, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito, fell out with some of the early South German Anabaptists, participated in the crucial Schleitheim Conference and was arrested shortly after this in Austria. By May 1527, less than a year after starting his active ministry as an Anabaptist, he was dead. But in this brief period, Sattler left a lasting imprint on the Swiss branch of the movement.

History does not record how Sattler was converted to the Anabaptist cause. He had been the Prior (second in seniority) within the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter’s of the Black Forest, but we do not know whether he was still there when, in 1525, this monastery was captured by a peasant war band during the widespread unrest that historians refer to as the Peasants’ War. Since this war band included men from Waldshut and Hallau, where Anabaptism was already becoming established, it may be that Sattler encountered Anabaptist ideas through his contact with the peasants who overran his monastery. We know too that someone by the name of Michael spent time in the village of Klingau with the Anabaptist Hans Kuenzi; this may have been Sattler.

But his Anabaptist convictions were sufficiently thought out, and his reputation within the movement adequately established, for Sattler to play a significant role in the Schleitheim Conference. This conference drew together’ Swiss Anabaptist leaders and produced the Schleitheim Confession, which in seven articles spelled out key convictions of the emerging movement. Sattler may well have been the author of this document, and of the “Congregational Order” which circulated with the Confession and spelled out seven further articles dealing with congregational practice. His influence is certainly evident. Arnold Snyder refers to the Schleitheim articles as the “crystallization point” for Swiss Anabaptism, defining it as a movement and giving it a rallying point. These articles were not all endorsed by other branches of the diverse movement that comprised Anabaptism, but they were fundamental for the Swiss Brethren.

In his short ministry, Sattler had three significant debates with other Anabaptists, each of which reveals some of the tensions in this rapidly developing movement. Each also highlights an issue of continuing concern for Christians.

(1) He argued against the spiritualist Anabaptists Hans Denek and Ludwig Hatzer (who called him a “sly evil lurker”) that the teachings of Scripture must be obeyed to the letter. One of the issues which troubled and divided early Anabaptists was the relationship between “Word” and “Spirit”. Anabaptism was both a charismatic movement with a deep awareness of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and a biblical movement with a deep concern to take very seriously the explicit teachings of Scripture, especially the words of Jesus. Michael Sattter represented the wing of the Anabaptist movement which emphasised the necessity of obeying the letter of Scripture and not allowing this to be spiritualised or explained away by appeal to general principles.

(2) He argued against the apocalyptic Anabaptists led by Hans Hut, the most prolific and successful early Anabaptist evangelist, who anticipated the return of Christ within months and was fascinated by the prophetic passages of the Bible. Sattler argued that the church should concern itself primarily with obedience to Christ rather than speculation about the future.

(3) He argued against the magisterial Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier, who was much more hopeful than most of his contemporaries that society as a whole might be reformed and who encouraged Christians to play an active role within society. Sattler disagreed and urged a more separatist line. His underlying theological framework was that there were “two kingdoms” – the kingdom of Satan or the world, and the kingdom of Christ, the church. Christians were to live distinctive lives and to submit to the rule of Christ rather than the customs of the world.

Michael Sattler does not emerge from what little we know about him as the most appealing of early Anabaptists. His monastic training seems to have resulted in his understanding Anabaptism as a new “rule” for living, and his writings emphasise obedience to the letter of Scripture to the extent that he has often been accused of literalism and legalism. But within the context of the first decade of the Anabaptist movement, he seems to have provided an important check on those who were in danger of downplaying the teaching of Jesus in favour of spiritual experiences, prophetic speculation or political ambitions. Sattler insisted on a firmly Christocentric interpretation of the Bible, which eventually came to be accepted as the norm within the movement and which continues to challenge biblical interpreters to take Jesus seriously. But the Schleitheim Confession is his most enduring legacy.

Extracts from the Schleitheim Confession can be found in the Freeze Frame in this issue. This document gives us important insights into the concerns of the early Swiss Anabaptists. But another kind of document is also available as a resource for understanding the early Anabaptists – therecords of their trials. Some of these make poignant reading. These are Christians under pressure, not engaging in careful study or polite debate. Their comments are sharp and likely to get them into even deeper trouble. But they help us understand what issues were regarded as significant by those who persecuted them, and how the Anabaptists presented their convictions in a hostile environment.

We do not have enough information about Michael Sattler’s life to justify a lengthy article. But we have an account of his trial, which gives us an indication of what kind of man he was and why the Swiss Brethren so quickly warmed to the ex-prior. What follows is a dramatised (and abbreviated) account of Sattler’s trial, drawn primarily from Thieleman van Braght’s The Martyrs ‘ Mirror.

The date is the 17th of May 1527. The place: the imperial city of Rottenburg in Germany. The court is in session with Count Joachim of Zollern in the chair. On trial are Michael Sattler and thirteen other alleged Anabaptists.

Count: Defendants, you may choose a lawyer to represent you.

Sattler: Thank you, Sir, but we choose not to be represented. Though we know you are servants of God in your capacity as judges, we also know that the Word of God gives you no right to judge matters of faith. This court is not competent to try us.

Count: You insolent fellow! You will soon see what we are empowered to do to you. Read the charges.

Clerk: The charges against Mr Sattler are (1) that he and his adherents acted contrary to the decree of the emperor; (2) that he taught, maintained and believed that the body and blood of Christ were not present in his sacrament; (3) that he taught and believed that infant baptism was not promotive of salvation; (4) that they rejected the sacrament of unction; (5) that they despised and reviled the Mother of God, and condemned the saints; (6) that he declared that men should not swear before a magistrate; (7) that he has commenced a new and unheard of custom in regard to the Lord’s Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, eating and drinking the same; (8) that contrary to the rule he has married a wife; (9) that he said that if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and if he approved of war he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks.

Count: Now do you answer these serious charges?

Sattler: May I ask for them to be read again so that 1 may fully understand them?

Clerk: He has boasted that he has the Holy Spirit. If that is true, we do not need to read the charges again – the Holy Spirit can inform him?

Sattler: Please read them again. (Clerk reads them again.)

Count: Will you now reply to these charges?

Clerk: The charges against Mr Sattler are (1) that he and his adherents acted contrary to the decree of the emperor.

Sattler: This first charge was directed against the Lutherans and urged them to preach only the gospel and the word of God. We have observed this for we have not acted contrary to the word of God.

Clerk: (2) that he taught, maintained and believed that the body and blood of Christ were not present in his sacrament.

Sattler.– The second charge 1 accept as true and 1 will show you many Scriptures to defend this.

Clerk: (3) that he taught and believed that infant baptism was not promotive of salvation.

Sattler: The third also is true, for baptism is for believers, not for infants, as the Scriptures clearly show.

Clerk: (4) that they rejected the sacrament of unction.

Sattler: The sacrament of unction is nothing. Oil is made by God and so is good, but no papal blessing improves it.

Clerk: (5) that they despised and reviled the Mother of God, and condemned the saints.

Sattler: We do not revile the Mother of God, but the Scriptures do not allow us to treat her or the saints as intercessors for us.

Clerk: (6) that he declared that men should not swear before a magistrate.

Sattler: The sixth charge is true, for swearing oaths is forbidden by Christ himself.

Clerk: (7) that he has commenced a new and unheard of custom in regard to the Lord’s Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, eating and drinking the same.

Sattler: 1 will make no response to the seventh charge, for it is not worth defending.

Clerk: (8) that contrary to the rule he has married a wife.

Sattler: As to my marriage, this is an ordinance of God. How many chaste priests do you know?

Clerk: (9) that he said that if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and if he approved of war he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks.

Sattler: As regards the Turks, we will not fight, for we are told “Thou shalt not kill”.

Count: Is this your full reply?

Sattler: 1 am happy to discuss these matters in greater detail with you if you will allow me to appeal to the Scriptures.

The judges became infuriated at Sattler’s calm confidence and began to ridicule and threaten him, but he did not lose his composure. At length they conferred pronounced him guilty and declared the sentence. Two

days later Sattler was executed. His ordeal began in the marketplace where a piece was cut from his tongue. Pieces of flesh were torn from his body with red-hot tangs. He was tied to a cart and the tongs used five more times on the way to the site of execution. To the guards’ amazement, Sattler was still able to speak and he could be heard praying for his persecutors. Then he was bound to a ladder and pushed into the fire.

Sattler: People, judges, Lord Mayor – hear the word of God, repent and believe the gospel. Almighty God, eternal God, you are the way and the truth. Because 1 have not been shown to be in error, 1 will with your help this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.

When the ropes on his wrists burned through, Sattler raised the two fore fingers of his hands, giving the promised signal to the brethren that a martyr’s death was bearable. Then the crowd heard him say through seared lips…

Sattler: Father, I commend my spirit into your hands.

Two days later, Sattler’s wife, Margareta, refused to recant her beliefs and was drowned.

As you reflect on this account, you might want to ask these questions:

(1) This was trial by a Catholic court. Which of the charges against Sattler would equally have applied to a Protestant defendant, and which were distinctively Anabaptist?

(2) How would you have responded to these charges?

(3) Which, if any, of these issues are still significant issues of disagreement among Christians?

(4) What convictions might land Christians in late twentieth century Britain in trouble with the courts?

Stuart Murray teaches church planting and evangelism at Spurgeon’s College, London.


I have received several enquiries concerning whether I was going to tackle the “difficult passage” 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in this series. It was always my intention to do so and, in light of these enquiries, I have decided to tackle the passage sooner rather than later. At the outset, I confess that I approach this text with several hats on:

1. As an Anabaptist, I am passionately committed to women having an equal role alongside men.

2. As a Christian nurtured in the evangelical tradition, I am committed to taking Scripture seriously and cannot simply ignore a passage because it does not seem to fit with my convictions.

3. As a New Testament scholar, I must insist that this text is not taken out of its context. I Tim. 2:11-15 is not a unit on its own – it forms part of the unit 1 Tim. 2:8-15. Furthermore, 1 Tim. 2:8-15 is imbedded in 1 Timothy as a whole. Finally, 1 Timothy forms part of the corpus known as the Pastoral Epistles – I Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus. This is crucial, for we need to understand what the author’s concerns about women are, and this can only be achieved by examining the whole of the Pastorals rather than prematurely making 1 Tim. 2:11-15 the controlling centre for interpretation.

4. Finally, as an Anabaptist New Testament scholar, I cannot make 1 Tim. 2:11-15 the controlling centre for a New Testament understanding of the role of women in any case. A Christocentric hermeneutic (to which 1 am committed) insists that our text must be read in light of the Jesus revealed in the Gospels.


I am firmly convinced that the Pastoral Epistles are not to be read as a manual of church order. The purpose of the Pastorals (or at least 1 Timothy) is stated in 1 Tim. 1:3-4. In my view, the Pastorals are polemical documents written to counter false teaching which was threatening to undermine the communities addressed. The false teachers took pride in propagating special knowledge or “gnosis” (1 Tim. 6:20) with a strong ascetic thrust (1 Tim. 4:1-3) based on the understanding that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim. 2:18). The fact that these false teachers forbade marriage (1 Tim. 4:3) is particularly significant.

In a recently published article, I argue that the polemic is particularly strong because the opponents had previously been influential leaders within the Christian community. They were clearly able to teach in some capacity (1 Tim. 1:3; Titus 1:1 1); Hymenaeus and Alexander, leading opponents, are described as having “suffered shipwreck in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:20), implying that they had once been regarded as “in the faith”. Even the passages concerning qualifications of church leaders serve the author’s overall purpose. Those who forbid marriage, for example, cannot be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:1; 3:12; Titus 1:6) and so are disqualified from serving as overseers, deacons or elders within the community.1

It would appear that these teachers enjoyed particular success among women (2 Tim. 3:6) and we need to examine why this might be the case.

The Widows (1 Tim. 5:3-16)

It continually amazes me that, whilst much time and attention is given to the question of women in I Tim. 2:11-I5, relatively little is paid to 1 Tim. 5:3­16. This is particularly important when we notice that 1 Tim. 5:14 refers to bearing children and that the verb teknogonein and its related noun teknogonia occur only here and in 1 Tim. 2:15 in the entire New Testament. Some commentators go to great lengths to assert that the childbearing referred to in 1 Tim. 2:15 refers to the birth of Jesus and yet completely ignore 1 Tim. 5 :14. It seems to me that the question of the widows is both of great concern to our author as he devotes so much space to it and of relevance to the question of women in 1 Tim. 2.

The passage is not without its own difficulties. Commentators are divided as to whether it refers to one group throughout or whether a separate group of enrolled widows is addressed from verse 9. My view is that only one group is addressed – the passage is framed by the concern to assist those who are “real widows” (1 Tim. 5:3,16), The Greek term chera (widow) refers to a woman who is living without a husband. Its most common meaning was the one we would associate with the word “widow” – a woman whose husband had died. However, this was not its only meaning. A woman without a husband might be divorced or might have renounced her marriage as did the later Montanist prophetesses, Maximilla and Priscilla.2 Furthermore, the context in 1 Tim. 5 suggests a further extension of the word to include all women who had taken vows of celibacy, whether previously married or not.3 This interpretation is supported by a passage from Ignatius, “I greet the households of my brothers with their wives and children, and the virgins who are called widows. “4

The Old Testament regularly exhorts the community of faith to take care of widows and the early church continued this tradition (Acts 6:1). However, it would appear that in the communities addressed in the Pastorals the circle of widows had grown to include those whom the author did not consider “real widows” worthy of support. Included in this circle were younger women who had taken vows of celibacy. The problems seem to have been two-fold. First, supporting such a large group was draining the com­munities’ resources (1 Tim. 5:16). To deal with this, the author restricts the supported group to those “who are really widows”. To qualify as a “real widow” worthy of support a woman would have to meet several criteria:

• No family to provide support (verses 4-5).

• At least sixty years old – the recognised age in antiquity when one was classified as “old” and correspondingly less likely to remarry (verse 9).

• Faithful to her previous husband (verse 9).

• Well attested for good works, bringing up children, hospitality, etc. (verse 10).

• No support from other believing women in the community (verse I6).

The author specifically forbids support for younger widows (verse 11). His initial argument focuses on the seriousness of potentially breaking the vow of celibacy (verses 11-12). However, this is not his main concern, as he clearly does not want them to take such vows in the first place – he wants younger widows to get married (verse 14). Why does he want them to marry, bear children and manage their households? Because their household responsibilities would prevent them from “gadding about from house to house” and being “gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say” (verse 13). This is the second problem posed by the circle of widows.

These younger widows were revelling in their freedom from the constraints of the traditional household structure. Having already taken the celibate route, they were also particularly vulnerable to false teachers who were forbidding marriage. If they were enjoying the freedom that celibacy brought, it would not be a huge step to embrace teaching that actually opposed marriage. Here is the crux of the matter and what really concerns the author. The opponents have already had some success amongst this circle of widows (verse 15).5 The opponents’ rejection of the household structure is deeply threatening to the community of faith which is addressed by the author as “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). His solution to preserve this potentially vulnerable group of women from the error confronting the community is that they should marry, bear children and immerse themselves in their households (1 Tim. 5:14).

1 Tim. 2:8-15

Having set the scene, we come at last to this passage. As stated above, we cannot concentrate attention on just verses 11-12 or even verses 11-15. Verses 9-15 are concerned with women but verse 9 begins with hosautos (likewise) – verse 9 is a dependent clause subordinate to verse 8. So the text reads “I want men to pray… likewise (I want) women to adorn themselves…” The passage is concerned about relations between men and women in the community of faith. However, because false teaching appears to have enjoyed particular success among women, after a brief exhortation to men the author turns to address women for the rest of the chapter. His concern is for appropriate behaviour in the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). It would appear that women have not behaved appropriately. This is particularly true of the younger, celibate “widows” and, of course, of those who have succumbed to false teaching.

Whatever the precise nature of the false teaching (and scholarly opinion varies on this), clearly its effect was to disrupt households (1 Tim. 4:4; 5:13-15; 2 Tim. 3:6-7; Titus 1:10-11). I have argued that women were particularly attracted to this teaching as it provided them with freedom from the constraints of the patriarchal family structure. In addressing women, therefore, precisely because of the problems facing the community, the author reinforces the traditional family values of both Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures. The contrast between external adornment and moral virtue for women was a regular feature in ethical writings of the time. In particular, the author wants women to display sophrosune. This word occurs in verse 9 and 15 and is virtually untranslatable by a single word. It was one of the four Greek cardinal virtues and involves modesty, prudence, temperance, discretion, sound judgment and self-control.

This emphasis on sophrosune which frames this passage highlights both that verses 11-15 cannot be divorced from verses 9-10 and that the entire passage is rooted in the ethical concerns of the day. As David Scholer rightly notes: “…there is no exegetical, historical or hermeneutical basis to regard 2:9-10 as normatively different from 2:11-12. Nevertheless, most evangelicals, including those who see 2:11-12 as warrant for limiting women in ministry, take the injunctions against women’s adornment in 2:9-10 to be culturally relative and do not seek to apply them in the unqualified terms in which they are stated. Furthermore, many who discuss 2:11-12 as warrant for limiting women in ministry do not even consider 2:9-10 in their discussion or they treat it rather briefly. The point is that 2:9-10 is intended to protect women from the enticements of the false teachers. Thus 2:9-10 is part of Paul’s specific response to the false teaching in Ephesus that had been directed especially at women who had been made vulnerable by their treatment as inferior or marginal in society.”6

To underline the point, if anyone insists, on the basis of this passage, that women cannot teach or exercise authority over men in the church today, then they must give equal seriousness to the injunction that women should dress appropriately, not have their hair braided, nor wear gold, pearls or expensive clothes. Either we take the whole passage as normative for today or we recognise that it is concerned with specific issues facing the community addressed.

The author goes on to address the crucial question of teaching within the community. That the question is raised at all demonstrates the prominence women enjoyed in early Christian communities. If women had never taught, or at least aspired to teach, there would be no need for the prohibition here. Some commentators, seeking to combine a respect for the passage with an egalitarian approach, have argued that the emphasis falls on “let a woman learn” and not on “I do not permit a woman to teach”. I taught this for a number of years, but having spent a fair amount of time wrestling with the text, I am no longer persuaded by it.

First, the structure of verses 11 -12 forms what is technically known as a chiasm. This is a literary two-part structure in which the second half is a mirror image of the first. In the chiastic structure ABCBA, found in verses 11-12, the emphasis falls on the middle term C. In the text the phrase corresponding to C is “I do not permit a woman to teach” and so this is structurally where the emphasis lies. In any case, far too much is made of the supposedly revolutionary nature of “let a woman learn”. “It simply goes too far to argue from this that he is herewith commanding that they be taught, thus inaugurating a new era for women. The rest of the data in the

New Testament makes it clear that that had already happened among most Christians. “7

Second, the author grounds his prohibition on women teaching and exercising authority over men in the creation account. If the Adam and Eve narrative were being used to support the imperative of verse 11, then reference to it should be placed immediately after “let a woman learn”. The Genesis account provides a two-fold warrant for the author. First, the sequence of creation – Adam, then Eve – draws on “the widespread [contemporary] assumption that the first born …has superior status and rightful authority over younger siblings”.8 This supports his contention that a woman should not exercise authority over a man. Second, relying on Gen. 3:13, he argues that Eve, not Adam, was deceived. “The author’s reasoning is that the deception of Eve and not Adam reveals this to be a weakness peculiar to women, and the particular success of the opponents with women confirms it. Thus women must not be permitted to exercise the crucial role of teacher lest their vulnerability to deception permit the spread of false teachings in the church (cf. 5:13).”9

Finally, reference to childbearing in verse 15 is highly unlikely to refer to the birth of Jesus for at least three reasons. First, it would be an obscure way of referring to the Incarnation. Second, the act of bearing Jesus is nowhere else suggested as the means of salvation. The word certainly cannot be stretched to mean Jesus himself Third, as stated above, the related verb occurs in 5:14 where it clearly refers to bearing children. It is a vital part of the author’s argument that women find salvation through a role which is the exclusive preserve of women – that of childbearing. If some women were revelling in their freedom from the traditional household structure, and this made them susceptible to false teaching, then, to counter the effects of this false teaching, women will be saved from error by accepting their traditional role as childbearers. In an amazing twist on Gen. 3:16, the author insists that just as Eve, the archetypal woman, was “cursed” in childbearing as a result of her deception, so she will now he saved from deception by means of childbearing.

Those women who bear children are unlikely to be affected by the heresy. Of course, childbearing alone is no guarantee against error so women need to continue in faith, love and holiness with sophrosune. Many commen­tators argue that “save” here cannot mean salvation from error as it is consistently used in the Pastorals to denote redemption from sin. However, 1 Tim. 4:16 is consistently overlooked. Timothy is exhorted that, by paying close attention to himself and his teaching, he will be able to “save” (same Greek word) both himself and his hearers. In I Tim. 4, the context is clearly the refutation of error.

Jouette Bassler sums up what this passage is essentially about:

The reference to bearing children has an obvious anti-ascetic and thus anti-heretical thrust. It may be that because of the Pastor’s concern to reject the celibate lifestyle advocated by his opponents, he sought here to counter the suggestion of Genesis that childbirth is a curse, an idea that would play into the hands of the heretics. Indeed, the heretics, who were skilled in manipulating Jewish myths (Titus 1:14), may have already exploited the potential of this idea. The Pastor then polemically transformed the Genesis curse into a Christian blessing, which may have operated on two levels. A woman will be saved from the allure of the heretical message by bearing children, and because she thus avoids making a shipwreck of her faith (I Tim 1: 19), she will also be saved in the absolute sense of the word, provided, of course, she continues in faith, love, and holiness. 10


To counter the effects of heretical teaching on women, the author reinforces the traditional expectations of women in Graeco-Roman society. He insists, in common with other contemporary ethical writings, that women should be examples of moral uprightness and fulfil their traditional family role as mothers, thereby saving themselves from the error of the opponents. In view of the perceived problem of deception, he refuses to allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. He grounds his argument in the account of Adam and Eve found in Genesis 2-3.

Llovd Pietersen is currently doing doctoral research on the Pastoral Epistles at Sheffield University. In the second part of this article he will explore further the implications of this understanding of this passage.

End Notes

1. For further details see my paper, “Despicable Deviants: Labelling Theory and the Polemic of the Pastorals”. Sociology of Religion 58:4 (1997), pp. 343-352.

2. Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History 5.18.3. Priscilla, according to Apollonius (cited by Eusebius in this passage), was thereafter called a virgin by the Montanists.

3. Verse 12 appears to suggest a vow of chastity and verses 1 1 and 14 refer to marriage and not remarriage.

4. Smyrnaeans 13.1, my emphasis.

5. I am indebted to Jouette M. Bassler, “The Widow’s Tale: A Fresh Look at I Tim. 5:3-16”, JBL 103 (1984), pp. 23-41, for an insightful analysis of this passage emphasising the attractiveness of freedom from the traditional household constraints for these celibate younger widows.

6. David M. Scholer, “1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church’s Ministry” in Alvera Mickelsen (ed.), Women, Authority and the Bible (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1987), pp. 193-219 (202). I am substantially in agreement with both Scholer’s exegesis and conclusions.

7. Gordon D. Fee, I Timothy and 2 Timothy, Titus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), p. 72.

8. Jouette M. Bassler, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), p. 60.

9. Jouette M. Bassler, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, pp. 60-61.

10. Jouette M. Bassler, “Adam, Eve, and the Pastor: The Use of Genesis 2-3 in the Pastoral Epistles,” in G. Robbins (ed.), Genesis 1-3 in the History of Exegesis (Lewiston, NY: Mellon, 1988), pp. 43-65.

Timeless teaching or Cultural context?

I suspect that many readers will be disappointed with my exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in the previous edition of Anabaptism Today. It appears to reaffirm the traditional interpretation of this passage, which denies any teaching role for women in the church. However, I have consistently stated that the passage has to be understood against the background of the serious nature of the opposition encountered in the communities receiving this letter. The author is proposing a specific solution to a very specific problem. This makes it unlikely that this text should be taken as some timeless command prohibiting women from any teaching or authoritative role in the church.

The major objection to the argument that this passage is a historically limited, ad hoc text is that the author seeks to ground his argument in the Genesis creation account. The appeal to so-called “creation ordinances”, it is often argued, makes the author’s prohibition particularly authoritative. However, the author is highly selective in his use of the Genesis material and draws on traditional Jewish exegesis of Genesis 3 to argue that Eve, rather than Adam, became a transgressor (1 Tim. 2:14).1 The grounding of an argument in the Genesis creation account does not necessarily thereby give the argument universal, timeless significance. For example, Paul uses material from Genesis 2 in 1 Corinthians 11: 7-9 to support his argument that women ought to have their heads covered when they pray and prophesy. Most commentators would accept that the issue of head covering is culture-bound, yet Paul uses material from the so-called creation ordinances to buttress this culture-bound argument. To accept this in 1 Corinthians 11 :7-9 but to deny it in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is, I suggest, hermeneuticallv inconsistent.2

Starting with Jesus?

Furthermore, to suggest that 1 Tim. 2:11-15 is a timeless prohibition on women teaching or exercising authority is to make this text the controlling centre for interpreting biblical teaching on the role of women. An Anabaptist hermeneutic refuses to start here but insists that this text must be read in the light of the way Jesus treated women. This is a massive subject in its own right, but here are a few examples:

  • Women specifically travelled with Jesus alongside the twelve in his ministry of proclaiming the gospel (Lk. 8:1-3).
  • Jesus cut across the traditional and religious concepts of a woman’s role (Lk. 10:38-42; 11:27-28).
  • Jesus held a theological conversation with a woman and specifically revealed himself to her as the Christ (Jn. 4:1-27).
  • This woman was the instrument in evangelising many from her city (Jn. 4:39).
  • According to John’s account, Jesus first revealed himself after his resurrection to a woman and commissioned her to tell the disciples. She is thus the first eyewitness to the resurrection (Jn. 20:14-18).

Paul clearly follows in the Jesus tradition. As most commentators acknowledge, this is nowhere more clearly expressed than in Galatians 3:28. A cursory reading of Romans 16 also highlights the importance of women in Paul’s ministry. In my view, the examples of Jesus and Paul bear eloquent testimony to the fact that 1 Timothy 2 cannot be treated in isolation and cannot be taken as a timeless injunction.

1 Timothy 2 today

What then are we to do with this text today? I conclude by listing some possible implications for those of us who want to take the text seriously but recognise its time-conditioned nature.

  • I emphasised in the first part of this article that the whole of verses 8-15 form a unit. Although I have concentrated on verses 9-15, this point must not be forgotten. The whole unit forms a household code with reciprocal instructions to men and women. Exhortation in the form of a household code was given to encourage Christians to live respectably in accordance, as far as possible, with the rules of the surrounding society. As Towner has persuasively argued, this was not in order for the church to live comfortably, but to assist the church in its task of mission. 3 1 Timothy 2:8­15 thus displays a sensitivity to the surrounding culture in order to advance the missionary activity of the community.
  • In the same way, therefore, in the spirit of the household code, the church today should be sensitive to relevant developments and trends in our contemporary culture, in order effectively to engage with that culture in the task of mission. I would suggest that insisting on women having no teaching or leadership roles in the church today neither engages with our culture nor assists the church in its missionary task!
  • The specific problems facing the communities addressed in 1 Timothy 2 required drastic action. The only way to deal with the problem of the effect false teaching was having on women in the communities was to prohibit any public teaching or authoritative role for women. Here we have the very real pastoral tension between the actual and the ideal. I do not think the spirit of Galatians 3:28 is entirely lost in the Pastorals. The author does not deal with the problem by clamping down on women entirely. He does still insist that they should learn (1 Tim. 2:11), he allows women deacons in the community (I Tim. 3:11),4 he acknowledges true widows as those who have set their hope on God and continue in prayer (1 Tim. 5:5) and older women do have a teaching role in relation to younger women (Titus 2:3-5).
  • I would suggest, therefore, that this text illustrates that there are times when the pastoral problems faced by the church are of such magnitude that some clear principles (here, the egalitarian position of Gal. 3:28) have to be modified for a time (not abandoned) in the light of other clear principles (here, safeguarding the church from error) in order to deal with the problems at hand. Of course, how those principles are modified, by whom and for how long are not easy questions to answer.
  • An Anabaptist Christocentric hermeneutic must, therefore, be carefully applied. It is not quite sufficient to appeal to the example of Jesus as though that settles the issue. Even in New Testament times, it was not always sufficient to refer to Jesus’ example. Paul, for instance, acknowledges that it was a command of Jesus that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14), yet he felt quite free to ignore this command. Paul recognised that what was appropriate for Jesus and his disciples in Palestine was not necessarily appropriate to the altered social circumstances of mission to the Hellenistic cities of the Mediterranean world.
  • Nevertheless, a commitment to a suitably qualified Christocentric hermeneutic would serve to subvert all attempts to make texts such as the one under consideration normative. A tragedy of church history has been that texts such as 1 Timothy 2 have been divorced from the example of Jesus and have thus served to perpetuate, in the name of the New Testament, the subjection of women.

Finally, I can do no better than conclude with David Scholer’s comments concerning the hermeneutical implications of this passage:

  • The text speaks clearly and urgently about the importance of the church’s sensitivity to the destructiveness of false teaching.
  • The text speaks even more powerfully to the tension between the church’s engagement with culture and its critique of culture.
  • The text speaks most powerfully to a concern for sexual fidelity, faithfulness and respect between and among men and women, and to a concern for a rejection of material extravagance.

In the first century AD in the Roman Empire, sexual fidelity/infidelity and material extravagance/modesty were seen primarily as responsibilities of women. For us in conversation with this text in the church today, we must understand that faithfulness to each other as men and women and faithfulness to God with reference to material possessions are necessary for the “adornment” and integrity of the gospel in our world. 1 Timothy 2:9-15 says to the church today that such faithfulness between men and women and to the demands of the gospel must be expressed over against culture in order to speak attractively and persuasively with integrity to culture. Today we understand that both men and women share these demands together.6

Lloyd Pietersen, an accountant in Bristol, is currently doing doctoral research on the Pastoral Epistles at Sheffield University. The first part of this article appeared in Anabaptism Today, .Spring 1998, pp. 8-16.

End Notes

1. For example, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) reads: “From a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die.”

2. See David M. Scholoar, “1 Timothy, 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church’s Ministry” in Alvera Mickelsen (ed.), Women, Authority and the Bible (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1987), pp. 208-212; Philip H. Towner, The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles, JSNT Supplement Series 34 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), pp. 217-218.

3. Towner, Goal.

4. I know this point is disputed but I am convinced that this is the best way structurally to read the ambiguous “women likewise” in 1 Tim. 3:11, coming as it does in the middle of a discussion about deacons. See Jouette M. Bassler, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothv, Titus, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashvlle, TN: Abingdon, 1996), pp.70-71.

5. See G. Thiessen, “Legitimation and Subsistence: An Essay on the Sociology of Early Christian Missionaries”, in his The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982), pp. 27-67.

6. Scholer’s response to Nancy Wiles Holsey’s response to him in Women, Authority and the Bible, p. 253, note 87.

He [God] admonishes us therefore to go out from Babylon and from the earthly Egypt, that we may not be partakers in their torment and suffering, which the Lord will bring upon them … Thereby shall also fall away from us the diabolical weapons of violence – such as sword, armour, and the like, and all of their use to protect friends or against enemies – by virtue of the word of Christ: “you shall not resist evil.”1

These words taken from the Schleitheim Confession (1527) capture what is for many people the dominant image of early Swiss Anabaptism – that of a separatist, pacifist movement. However, whilst this is certainly an accurate picture of the movement by the end of the 1520s, it is not true of the entire movement in its earliest years. In fact the first few years of the Swiss Anabaptist movement were marked by a variety of approaches to the Sword and it was only with the Schleitheim Confession that widespread agreement was reached.

The Sword in Early Swiss Anabaptism

The Swiss Anabaptist movement had its roots in the tension which existed from the second half of 1523 between Ulrich Zwingli and a group of erstwhile supporters, including both Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz. As early as September 1524, Grebel set out his vision of a believers’ church which seemed both to embrace pacifism and move towards apoliticism. In a letter to Thomas Muntzer, he wrote that,

The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor [should] they [protect] themselves… True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptised in anguish and tribulation, persecution, suffering and death, tried in fire, and must reach the fatherland o f eternal rest not by slaying the physical but the spiritual. They use neither worldly sword nor war, since killing has ceased with them entirely. 2

The logical implication of Grebel’s argument that Christians wield “neither worldly sword nor war” is that they should not participate in the process of government and by December 1524 Zwingli was reporting that some of his opponents believed that “no one who is a ruler can be a Christian.”3Felix Mantz seems to have held similar views to Grebel and his position is beautifully expressed in his farewell song penned shortly before his death sentence:

The true love of Christ shall scatter the enemy; so that he who would be an heir with Christ is taught that he must be merciful, as the Father in heaven is merciful… Christ never hated anyone; neither did his true servants, but they continued to follow Christ in the true way, as he went before them. This Light of life they have before them, and are glad to walk in it; but those who are hateful and envious, and do thus wickedly betray, accuse, smite and quarrel, cannot be Christians. 4

Initially Anabaptism spread as a series of inter-related local initiatives in response to local issues and concerns rather than as a single, coherent movement. For instance, much of the effort of the Anabaptist congregation in the village of Zollikon was spent on clarifying and defending their position on the meaning and significance of baptism rather than working out the ethical and ecclesiological implications which follow. In fact, testimonies from the village say very little concerning government and the Sword (despite the fact that most of the adult men in the village were experienced soldiers) and there is no evidence that Zollikon Anabaptism espoused a doctrine of apolitical non-resistance.

However, the growth of Anabaptism in 1525 cannot be understood apart from the Peasants’ War which affected many parts of Central Europe, particularly the German-speaking regions. The war was part of the ongoing conflict between landowners and peasants which was one consequence of the shift from a feudal society to a capitalist one. Although the conflict had its roots in economic and political issues, it also had significant ecclesiastical and religious components (not only was the church one of the major landowners at the time but the vast majority of the upper clergy were an integral part of the aristocracy and thus dependent on the revenues produced by their serfs and tenant farmers). Indeed, many in the peasants’ movement believed that the Reformation meant not only religious reform but also social change which would lead to a more egalitarian society, in which they would have both a political and a religious voice. As historian Arnold Snyder observes, the peasants’ revolt” was a search for social, economic and political redress which found ideological legitimisation in Reformation concepts.”5

The Anabaptist movement thus found a sympathetic audience, not only in the religiously motivated common people who longed for a reform in both the structures and practices of the church, but also among those who were disaffected with social and economic conditions. However, their very success among the lower-middle and artisan classes presented Anabaptist leaders with a stark choice as to whether or not to support the peasants in their increasingly violent struggle. In practice, a number of Anabaptist reformers entered into de facto alliances with the peasants and it is likely that some of those who were baptised actually took up arms. For instance, Hans Krusi, the reformer of St Gall, gave the peasants moral support in their battle against tithes. In return, the peasants pledged themselves to defend their preacher with arms (unfortunately for Krusi, they failed to carry out their pledge when he was arrested in the middle of the night!).

In the town of Hallau, the peasants’ struggle for local autonomy and opposition to the tithe on both religious and economic grounds provided the context for Wilhelm Reublin and Johannes Broth’s attempt to create a radical Anabaptist variety of Reformed Christendom. Initially the two reformers enjoyed great success and, in the early months of 1525, virtually the entire population of the town was baptised. At the same time, peasant troops from the town participated in a variety of local armed conflicts, including an attempt to occupy the nearby city of Neunkirch, and when the Schaffhausen council tried to imprison Brotli and Reublin, the rebellious villagers actively protected their pastors. Whilst there is no evidence that Brotli and Reublin themselves were active participants in violence, it is clear that they were willing to receive armed protection and implicitly, at least, to legitimise the use of the sword in a “just cause.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the Anabaptist movement could have taken root as a populist one in towns such as Hallau if it had completely disassociated itself from the peasants’ struggle.

In the town of Waldshut, north of Zurich, the reformer was Balthasar Hubmaier. Hubmaier initially set out his reformation programme in April 1524, which he began to implement a few months later, although it was not until Easter 1525 that he was baptised (by Reublin) and began to baptise others, including the majority of the town council. By this time, the town was under the military protection of the peasant army, whom Hubmaier believed were engaged in justified resistance to tyranny. Consequently, during April and May, the city gave military assistance to the peasant army in the form of men, cannon and wagons. In July 1525, in the middle of the peasants’ struggle, Hubmaier stated his position on the Sword as follows, “there should be a government which carries the Sword … The more Christian it is, the more it, like Solomon, asks God for wisdom to rule.”6

Hubmaier’s comment, and the development of Anabaptism in St Gall, Hallau and Waldshut, point to the fact that the movement as a whole had yet to develop and articulate a pacifist, separatist ethic. In fact, the mass Anabaptism of these towns (which was for most of 1525 the main locus of Swiss Anabaptism) was rooted in the idea of a popular, voluntary, Anabaptist church ruled by a Christian government. There is no suggestion at this stage that social and governmental functions, such as the magistracy or even the army, were regarded as inappropriate spheres for Christian participation. Nonetheless, even in these towns there are hints of a more apolitical approach. In Waldshut, Jacob Gross and Ulrick Teck were exiled for refusing to fight alongside the peasants, although Gross was willing to accept non-combatant service. Similarly, Junghans Waldshuter from Hallau was exiled for his less than wholehearted support for the peasants’ cause. After his exile he argued that “a Christian government should not kill people … [since] no Christian is permitted to kill.”7

The Schleitheim Confession

By the end of 1525, the peasants’ revolt had failed and the fledgling Anabaptist movement faced a much more hostile environment. Hubmaier had fled Waldshut; Reublin and Brotli had left Hallau, whilst Grebel, Mantz, and others were held in prison. Although Grebel escaped in March 1526, he died soon after of the plague. It is at this point that Michael Sattler, an ex-Benedictine prior, emerges as one of the leaders of Swiss Anabaptism. It was Sattler who would give voice to the radical separatism which would soon become a defining tenet of Swiss Anabaptism.

Whilst it is not clear when Sattler joined the Anabaptist movement, by June 1526 he is reported as “preaching, teaching and baptising in the same Swiss villages where the peasants had earlier taken up arms.”8 At some point, his ministry spread to Strasbourg and the surrounding area, where he held discussions with Bucer and Capito, the city’s reformers. Subsequently, Sattler wrote to them in the form of twenty articles, in which he justified his Anabaptist position and appealed for the release of some Anabaptist prisoners in the city. These articles foreshadow what was to become a central theme in the Schleitheim Confession, that of the basic duality between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of the world, in which Christians are seen as citizens of heaven and not of earth, with no further need of worldly arms.

By the beginning of 1527, the movement was in severe danger; local authority persecution had intensified (Felix Mantz was drowned by the Zurich authorities in early January), whilst conversations with the Strasbourg Reformers had reached an impasse. It was at this crucial time

that leaders of the fledgling Anabaptist movement converged on Schleitheim and, guided by Sattler, produced a document which not only provides a biblical and theological grounding to the Anabaptist experience of persecution, but also sets out a fundamentally different vision of reform from the magisterial model, albeit one which is achieved by being separate from the world and by living and modelling an alternative vision of church and society.

The confession itself comprises seven articles: baptism, ban, the Lord’s Supper, separation from the world and all evil, shepherds, sword, and oath. The fourth article describes a church which is separated from a sinful world:

Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are [come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols. Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other.9

It continues by rejecting the use of “the diabolical weapons of violence – such as sword, armour and the like.” However, it is the article on the Sword which, more than any other, sets out the separatist non-resistance stance which was quickly to become the norm in Swiss Anabaptism. This article asserts that, whilst government is installed by God in order to punish the wicked and protect the good, it is “outside the perfection of Christ” and thus a no-go area for Christians. Moreover, Christians should forsake the Sword even “against the wicked for the protection or defence of the good, or for the sake of love.” Rather, the disciple of Christ should be meek and lowly of heart, acting with mercy and forgiveness, refusing to pass sentence in disputes and strife about worldly matters or to participate as a magistrate in the government of the temporal realm. Christians, it argues, are citizens of heaven, not of this world, whose battle is not against the flesh, but against “the fortifications of the devil”, and whose weapons are spiritual not physical. Thus, whilst the worldly are “armed with steel and iron…. Christians are armed with the armour of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and with the Word of God.”10

After the events of 1525 and 1526, Swiss Anabaptism became a largely rural, “underground” movement, whilst further persecution also saw notable migrations to places where there was either outright toleration of Anabaptism or where legal enforcement was less severe. Nonetheless, Hubmaier from his new base in the Moravian city of Nicholsburg continued to reject separatist non-resistance as a valid option. In his final work, On the Sword,11 published a month after Sattler’s execution in June 1527, he argued that Christians, much to their own regret, are citizens of this world and that the governmental role of punishing the evil and protecting the good is best accomplished by a Christian government. Christians are to imitate Christ by being faithful to their calling, “be it in government or obedience.”

Ironically, just one month after the publication of On the Sword, Hubmaier was arrested. He was subsequently to suffer the full force of the governmental Sword when he was burned at the stake in Vienna in March 1528 as a rebel and a heretic. His state-church Anabaptism did not survive much longer and, although the text of Schleitheim was quoted infrequently as the century wore on, its Christocentric, separatist, non-resistant position on the sword not only survived but became the political ethic of the Anabaptists.

And Today…

Nearly 500 years after the emergence of Swiss Anabaptism, in the vastly different political and ecclesiological environment of the late twentieth century, the contrasting approaches of Sattler and Hubmaier and of Hallau and Schleitheim still remain before the Anabaptist movement. In reality, the challenge for contemporary Anabaptists is probably how to combine the best from both approaches whilst learning from their weaknesses. In outline, some of the features of such a witness might include:

  • viewing the church as a paradigm whose mission is to reveal God’s intention for the whole of human society;
  • combining a vision for social transformation with a healthy suspicion of worldly power (whilst rejecting the “pure church”/”evil world” polarity);
  • working for the reduction of all forms of violence, coercion and oppression and towards the establishment of shalom;
  • being willing to form tactical alliances with those outside our community where there is a common interest;
  • giving priority to grassroots activism (“the mustard seed conspiracy”);12
  • following the pattern of Jesus by obedience to his teaching and his example.

Andy Potter has recently completed studies at Spurgeon ‘s College and is now minister of the Baptist Church in Margate, Kent.


1 Translated by J.H. Yoder, The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale: Herald, 1973).

2 Letter from Grebel to Munster, Zurich, September 5, 1524. Translated in Harder, L., The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism (Scottdale: Herald, 1985), 290.

3 J.M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (2nd Edition) (Lawrence, 1976), 103.

4 Felix Mantz, “Admonition”, 1526. Translated in Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale: Herald, 1981), 268.

5 C.A. Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener: Pandora, 1995), 32.

6 Balthasar Hubmaier, “On the Christian Baptism of Believers”, 1525. Translated in Pipkin, and Yoder, Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism (Scottdale:: Herald, 1988), 98.

7 Stayer, “Reublin and Broth: The Revolutionary Beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism”, The Origins and Characteristics of Anabaptism (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), 100.

8 Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, 60.

9 Yoder, The Schleitheim Confession, 12.

10 Ibid, 14-16.

1 I Balthasar Hubmaier, “On The Sword”, Translation in Pipkin and Yoder, 494-523.

12 This is the title of a book by Tom Sine (London: MARC Europe, 198 1) which documents a wide range of grassroots Christian social action.

Preaching sermons lies at the heart of church life in the Protestant tradition. For Luther, the preaching of the Word virtually constituted the church, while much of Calvin’s output consisted of sermons. Many books on the theory and practice of preaching continue to flow from the religious and academic publishers. In recent years, The Proclamation Trust has been set up to encourage quality expository preaching in Britain. For most evangeli­cal church leaders, preparing to preach sermons is a major, regular responsibility. In choosing a new minister, most churches look for someone who can deliver good sermons (however “good” might be defined).

Since I left ordained Anglican ministry in 1988, I have listened to many more sermons than I have preached, in Anglican, United Reformed, Free and now Baptist churches. A sizeable proportion of them have been, frankly, appalling: apparently biblical, but actually a string of references merely following hackneyed themes, frequently boring and sometimes arrogantly delivered. But even if they had helped me to understand and apply the Scriptures, challenged my discipleship, or renewed my vision for the church, I would still be left with doubts about the high profile of the conventional sermon in the life of the church. Before I became immersed in the Anabaptist tradition, I wrote an essay which questioned the preoccupa­tion with sermons in several church traditions, and this was published by Grove Books in December 1996.

That essay challenged the common equation of preaching with the delivery of monologue sermons. It sought to understand the high estimation that sermons enjoy in Lutheran and particularly Reformed theologies of preaching, and offered an alternative theology for a more dialogical kind of preaching. Three years ago, I became convinced by John Howard Yoder’s writings that conventional Protestant ways of understanding the church inhibited a proper appreciation of human community at the centre of church life. Since then, I have sought to understand Yoder’s doctrine of the church and have developed several further considerations about preaching and sermons. Here I will summarise my earlier argument from the New Testament and then outline three of these new considerations.

The Argument from the New Testament

In the New Testament, the word “preach” translates several different Greek words which mean to bring good news, proclaim, speak, and so on. It is used in Acts and the Epistles for situations which we might call evangelis­tic, rather than teaching committed Christians. Preaching appears to vary in format and setting from a fairly formal monologue (e.g. Acts 13:16-41) to a Bible study in a chariot (Acts 8:35). Many other terms are used which indicate considerable verbal interaction between preacher and hearers: argue, persuade, dispute, discuss, converse.

When the activity is geared to teaching the committed, the same variety is to be found. There are some blocks of teaching, like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but he might also ask questions of his disciples and interact with them in houses or on the road. At Troas, Paul spoke to the believers through the night (Acts 20:7-12), but we should not think of this as a monologue, interrupted only by Eutychus’ fall from the window; the Greek words imply verbal interaction between Paul and his hearers.

The early history of the Christian sermon is not clear, but it seems that there was at least some congregational participation in patristic homilies. Over the years, the formal sermon has developed and the congregation has come to expect to listen in silence. Pastoral ministry may include some more interactive teaching, and some valuable learning takes place in Bible study/ discussion groups. But for most preachers, the real business happens in church on a Sunday, from a pulpit. And there would be shock, indignation, reprimand even, should a member of the congregation ask a question of the preacher in mid-sermon!

Now interpretation of the New Testament cannot separate what is said from how it is said. The manner of preaching and teaching in the Bible conveys significant attitudes concerning human nature and ways of learning. So I conclude that there remains a place for formal presentation of the gospel or teaching of believers, but that the monologue must not be overvalued, since it is only one form among many, and the informal and interactive are no less important.

The Relationship between God and his People

Defenders of the traditional sermon sometimes accuse those who would challenge it of wanting to undermine the authority of God’s word or of having no message to proclaim. But I would counter this by arguing that we have become so used to the great doctrine of the word of God that we confine to the realm of prayer the less well known doctrine of the listening of God. Here we need to do some biblical theology, starting with the Old Testament.

The non-negotiable heart of the Law was not given by human mediation at all (Exodus 20:1, 18f). It is true that Moses (and later prophets) had a vital role in conveying and interpreting God’s word, priests taught the law, and sages emphasised listening to and obeying instruction (Proverbs 6:20). So we might conclude that communication between God and human beings was unidirectional, with certain figures acting as mouthpieces. However, it is clear (from passages like Genesis ??: 17-32, Exodus 3:4-4:17, and several places in the prophets) that God wanted an interactive relationship with certain people in the Old Testament. Even more significantly, it is not only with certain key people that God formed an interactive relationship, but with the people of Israel as a whole. Their ancient confession, the Shema, (“Hear”, as in Deuteronomy 6:4) reflected on God’s original command at Sinai (Exodus 20:2-3). But before God spoke to the Israelites, he had heard their cry for help (Exodus 2:23-25; 3:7-9). This was because God had previously committed himself to Israel in a relationship of love(Deuteronomy 7:7-11; Hosea 11:1-4), and love listens as well as speaks. Speech is only part of a relationship: listening is “The Other Side of Language”.55 This is the title of Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s philosophy of listening, (Routledge, London, 1990). Perhaps it is significant that a woman should write such a book, since men generally find listening more difficult than women. In fact, I wonder whether the historical domination of preaching by men has been a factor in the careful guarding of its monologue format. The lament or complaint psalms were uttered on the premise that God listens and responds to his people. The psalms of praise and thanks-giving were vehicles for the people to express their response to and confidence in God.

I would argue that the conversational or interactive relationship which God sought with Israel (though it was frequently compromised by Israel), as well as with certain key people in Israel, begins to shift the role of the prophet or other leader away from that of mouthpiece (as in conventional religious views of revelation), and the role of the people away from that of passive recipients. It is only the beginning of a shift, since Moses realises the limitations imposed upon the people by restricted access to God’s Spirit (Numbers 11:29) and Joel must look forward to a pouring out of the Spirit on all (Joel 2:28). But, of course, the Spirit was given to the church on the Day of Pentecost, and now no human being plays an exclusive or unques-tionable role in the reception of God’s word. While there are various gifts and ministries, it is through the church as a community that God’s word is perceived66 Yoder expounds this brilliantly in his essay, “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood”, in The Priestly Kingdom (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp 15-44..

I am claiming that the great variety of means of communication employed in the Gospels and Acts77 Of course many of the Epistles were also part of an ongoing dialogical relationship between the writers and churches. Several letters passed between the Corinthians and Paul., involving speak-ing and listening, initiative and response, bears witness to the relational nature of human beings and to the way God communicates with the church. Having made us this way, and enlivened us by his Spirit, God communi­cates with us accordingly. The fact that Jesus and his followers encouraged dialogue, entered debate, and conversed with people does not mean that they had nothing to communicate or lacked authority. It means that their communication was richly relational; they respected their interlocutors to the extent of listening as well as speaking. Only by the recognition of the particularity of their conversation partners could Jesus and the apostles match the expression of their message to its recipients and communicate effectively. Only by involving the receivers of their communication at the level of linguistic self-expression could they help them to articulate their own mistaken assumptions, or doubts, or growing faith.

The Issue of Modelling

I would suggest that the dominant monological preaching paradigm can be traced to a master/slave model of God’s relationship to human beings, characterised by commands or issuing instructions, as it were, by mega-phone. We have seen that this paradigm is partly present, but partly undermined in the Old Testament. While there is a proper reverence before God’s word, and it is true that we are “unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10), this emphasis is balanced in the New Testament by Jesus calling his disciples “no longer servants but friends” (John 15:15). Thus, although there should be significant times for a church to listen to God’s word in humble submission in the form of conventional preaching (or prophecy or other ministry), a church needs to see modelled other ways in which God speaks with the church. The use of more interactive forms of preaching would have a significant modelling function.

The image of the preacher, “six feet above contradiction”, is at least partly derived from the supposed authority of the clergy over the lay congregation. There is no need for me to argue that the abusive clergy-laity divide should come to an end, since Alan Kreider has ably presented the case88 “Abolishing the Laity”, in Paul Beasely-Murray (ed.): Anyone for Ordination (Tunbridge Wells: MARC, 1993) pp 84-111.. I believe that church leaders are worthy of respect, but that they must actively look for ways to break down the conventional religious expectations which keep recurring in churches. Here is a key practice with which preachers and teachers can undermine the clergy-laity mind-set. We can model a way of communicating which reflects God’s own way if we stimulate more questions and allow more interaction.

Ordering Systematic Theology

Those who set great store by the sermon often emphasise the doctrine of the word of God. The doctrine of the church comes much further down their list of priorities. This is understandable because the Reformation definition of the church was usually in terms of “where the Word of God is properly preached and the sacraments properly administered”. Such a definition placed the emphasis upon the one who exercised ordained ministry, not on the community who made up the church. But if the focus were to be moved from the leaders of the church to the congregation as a whole, as Yoder argues99 The Royal Priesthood (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) pp 76ff., a more convincing definition of the church could be given. The church is made up of those whose basic personal posture is to confess Jesus as Lord110 Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, p 171.0. Now I would suggest that our thinking about the ministry of the word in the church should come logically after our thinking about the church.

Here we need to consider more carefully the recipients of preaching and teaching. In the New Testament, preaching the good news was aimed at unbelievers, whereas believers were taught about growth in discipleship. Many contemporary sermons aim at converting unbelievers, even when most present have some Christian faith and the rest of the “service” assumes they are (creed, prayers, hymns). An Anabaptist view of the church would suggest that in the gathering of Christians the assumption can be made that Christian faith is shared and the emphasis can be on teaching disciples. This is not to say all are disciples, but those who are not are most likely to be challenged by such teaching. It is outside the church gathering that evangelism goes on; largely informally, but sometimes more formally, preaching the gospel occurs. Thus, evangelistic preaching builds the church in the sense of adding to its number those who are being saved. But teaching disciples builds the church in the sense of developing maturity and deepening community.

This view of things is clearly reflected in I Corinthians 14. Yoder points out that this chapter was an important in the discussions of church life all across the Reformation movement in its early years111 John Howard Yoder: Body Politics (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992) pp 64-67.1. It is a chapter which submits the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues to the criterion “what builds the church?” (vv.-5, 12, 26) and which allows to the whole church an importantt weighing function as to what constitutes God’s word (v26-32). Of course, the magisterial reformers had subsequently to distance themselves from such a revolutionary understanding of how God speaks to the church, since it relativised their authoritarian role as preachers. But the Anabaptists were able to able to embody it in a style of church life which allowed much more participation to the church community (at least, to begin with).

Common usage of the term “preaching” seems to reflect not only the confinement of the ministry of the word to the monologue given by a select few, but also confusion about the identity of the church. It should be clear by now that I believe an Anabaptist view of preaching depends upon an Anabaptist ecclesiology. Anabaptists can ask searching questions concern-ing the effectiveness of preaching more easily than can our mainstream Protestant friends simply because preaching is less of an icon of our identity.

A Personal Reflection and Conclusion

In my own experience, I would say that God has spoken to me through some sermons, but these are but one channel among many, including group Bible study, talks followed by questions, reading books and conversations with friends. When it has been a question of God’s word to the church, again the sermon has sometimes been effective, but more often than not this has been a means of avoiding grappling with the real issues at stake, or of imposing a leadership view.

I do not deny that some people have been richly taught, helped and encouraged by great sermons. But I want to maintain that many people who insist stridently on the central importance of the sermon have a one-dimensional understanding of the way God speaks and a limited vision of the church. I believe that teachers and preachers should be looking for ways to break old models of dependency and remodel their ministries around the flexibility and adaptability of Jesus and the apostles, looking for more interactive relationships with their hearers.

So, while I would not argue that conventional sermons should cease, I do believe that they should be viewed as one of a number of ministries of the word. From time to time, a conventional sermon will be appropriate, but at other times a sermon might be followed by a time of questions from the congregation, a talk might lead into guided discussion, or other forms of educational activity might be adopted to enable people to hear and learn from God’s word what discipleship in today’s world means112 For further explorations of the practical implications, see the penultimate section of Preaching as Dialogue. If you want to pursue the subject further, I can recommend David Norrington’s To Preach or not to Preach? (Paternoster Press, 1996), which examines the historical origins of the sermon and argues that it fails to foster the maturity which New Testament writers envisage for disciples.2.


Jeremy Thomson is a theological educator and relationship counsellor, currently completing a doctorate in the ecclesiology of John H Yoder at King’s College, London. He is the author of Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow?

Developing the Reflexes of Peacemakers

Growing up in a Mennonite church family, I often saw a picture – a seventeenth-century engraving of a man, on the edge of cracking ice, reaching down to save another man who had fallen through and was in danger of drowning. As a child, I didn’t understand much about the story. I knew it had taken place long ago in Holland – there was a windmill in the background – and I knew the rescuer’s name, Dirk Willems. But I didn’t know what religious persecution was, or that the man whose life was being saved would be forced to arrest Dirk, leading to his burning for heresy; I didn’t think about the unfairness of the situation, or why God hadn’t protected the life of his servant. I didn’t ask whether Dirk did the right thing; should he have run away so he could survive, even if it meant his pursuer drowning? Above all, I didn’t ask why Dirk did it. Why did he, instead of running to safety, turn back?

Since then I have heard, and told, Dirk’s story many times – it, and the engraving by Jan Luyken, have become a kind of Anabaptist icon. And the question of “why” has become ever more powerful in my mind. Why did Dirk turn back? It wasn’t that he spent much time thinking about what he should do. People who drown in icy waters don’t sink slowly; they go down fast. So when Dirk heard his pursuer’s cry, he didn’t have time to calculate outcomes or weigh ethical options. He had to react. Dirk’s response was absolutely reflexive. And so my question has become: what shaped Dirk’s reflexes? How did he develop the reflexes and habits that enabled him to respond to his enemy’s need?

Reflexes are important. We all, like Dirk, have reflexes – spontaneous responses under pressure. Conventionally these are fight and flight. But Dirk responded differently, in a surprising and question-posing way. Dirk’s reflexes had been trained, probably by two things. One was his decision to follow Jesus. As an Anabaptist Christian he had pondered Jesus’ life and teachings. He knew that he, as a follower of Jesus, was called to love his enemies. He may have prayed that when under pressure he would do what Jesus had taught. The other thing shaping Dirk’s reflexes was the life of his Christian community. Reflexes like Dirk’s are possible in individuals, but they are shaped in a group of people among whom habits are formed and norms become normal. I suspect Dirk responded as he did because he came from a particular kind of church, in which loving the enemy was an expres­sion of loving the Lord who had taught Dirk to love his enemies.

Reflecting on Dirk’s life and death can help us become a peace church. For, at the deepest level, the kind of church we are – a peace church or another kind of church – is the product of our reflexes. Our reflexes, like our values and our deep convictions, are shaped by the people with whom we share at the deepest level and with whom we have the deepest ties.

Who shapes you? Who trains your reflexes? Your church? Your family and friends? Or commercials on TV, films, soaps? If it is your church, does your church shape you to demonstrate – in your individual reflexes as in your common life – the teachings and way of Jesus to the world?

The Church as a Culture of Peace

The church is called to be a culture shaped by the God we worship and the story we tell. We are not called to be against culture; our life and witness will inevitably take cultural form. But we have an exciting destiny – to become not a moral majority but a prophetic minority. Christians cannot dominate the world any more. In a multicultural situation in which no culture can force others to do things in its way, we have the opportunity to develop a distinctive cultural identity – growing out of our life in fellowship with Jesus Christ; the opportunity to develop distinctive practices in keeping with his teachings and way.

We can become a “contrast society”.1 Whether Catholic or Baptist, Anglican or New Church, we can become “nonconformists”, who are not conformed to other cultural options because we seek to be conformed to Jesus Christ. We can develop new reflexes; we can find new things to be possible or worth working on. It’s this kind of church, worshipping this kind of Lord, that enables the term “peace church” to make sense.

For the church to make a contribution to the healing of the world, we must allow God to change us, its members. God longs for us to be a people who believe that the Gospel is true, and hence who are becoming a people of peace and forgiveness. God invites us, in Christ, to accept his peace and to learn how to be peacemakers. Richard Chartres, Anglican bishop of London, writes: “At the top of the agenda of every human society is going to be the question of how we relate, how we live peacefully together, and the church as a school of relating…is very well placed to make a contribution.”2

We won’t do this by avoiding conflict. We will do it by developing, as Dirk did, reflexes that enable us to deal with conflict positively and hopefully. Through Christ God has made peace with us; and he wants to equip us to make peace with each other – and through this to become peacemakers in the world. The church has nothing to offer to the world other than what it has learned to live in its own “domestic” life.

But how does this happen? How can we become such a “school of relating?” How can we become apprentices who are learning the craft of peacemaking? How can we become a prophetic minority whose reflexes are enemy-loving and peacemaking? How can we become a peace church?

The Disciplines of Peacemaking

Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-20, gives us a clue: we cannot make peace in the world until we have learned to make peace within the church.3 The passage deals with a situation in which “another member of the church sins against you”, and establishes a procedure for dealing with this. Jesus assumes there will be problems in the church. In verse 15, Jesus gives instructions about what to do “if a brother/sister sins”. He does not indicate that this is surprising. People sin. Indeed, sins in relationships happen when people share their lives on more than a superficial level. In the church people sin; sometimes they sin against us. Of course, we also sin against others – in Matthew 5:23 Jesus reminds us that our brother/sister may “have something against us”. There will always be sin and conflicts in the church. The question is: how do we handle them?

Jesus’ instruction is not to make peace but to make conflict. Don’t avoid the conflict, Jesus says; face into it. Don’t talk to someone else, but go directly to the person to point out the fault privately. Don’t gossip. Jesus admonishes his disciples to confrontation – but confrontation of a particular kind. Jesus-style confrontation is marked by good speaking and good listening. Three times he emphasises that the other person listens. Jesus invites his disciples to engage in a process of give and take. When this process begins, we don’t know what will happen. By speaking we may discover a new clarity in our view of the situation; as the other listens she may find a new understanding of herself – and may repent. But we may also discover that the other person has a truth, perspective or pain that transforms our understanding. We may even discover that we have sinned against her, and thus that we need to repent.

If this one-on-one conversation doesn’t lead to right relationships, a process ensues. At every stage, Jesus emphasises listening. We are to take one or two others along, to confirm what is said by listening well, with the goal that the other party will “listen”. If they refuse, then we are to “tell it to the church”. But if the offender “refuses to listen” even to the church? Then the offender is to be to us “as a Gentile and a tax collector”. Jesus is clear that listening is a core value of the community; so that by not listening, the brother or sister has shown that they are outside the commu­nity. They do not honour its core values; they will not allow their reflexes to be shaped by its reflexes. So, says Jesus, treat them as outsiders; treat them as well as Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors (with love and hope); but recognise that they are not participants in the new culture of the Messianic community.

Jesus is present in this peacemaking through confrontations: “there am I among them” (v 20). Jesus has promised to be present when his disciples are practising the art of loving confrontation, when we are developing the skill of good listening. So when we are about to speak directly to someone whom we have offended, or who has offended us, we can pray: “Jesus, you promised to be among us; please be with us now as we differ and seek your way.”

This is teaching for forgiven sinners. It is not for a pure church, but for a church of people whom God has forgiven. Immediately after this passage in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reminds Peter that the members of his community are to forgive without limit – seventy times seven (18:21-22). Jesus is telling his disciples: when you go into conflict, go as forgiven people to other forgiven people. You are all debtors; your peacemaking is rooted in grace! So go with humility – but go, because truth in relationships is what the church is all about.

Jesus’ teaching about conflict and peacemaking in the church is basic to being a peace church. He does not promise that this will always lead to “success”. Sometimes a direct approach to someone who has offended us will lead to healing self-disclosures and a wonderful repair of relationships. At other times people may refuse to “listen”, or we ourselves may abort the process. There are situations in which a power imbalance can make a direct approach difficult. But note that Jesus has constructed a process (“take one or two others along with you”) which seems designed to deal with power imbalance. It was clearly immensely important to Jesus that his disciples would not be deflected from practising the craft of peacemaking, so that their communities would be cultures of peace in a world of war.

Conflict Is Normal

How revolutionary Jesus was being! He didn’t sweep conflict under the carpet; he was clear that conflict is normal. Jesus’ own peacemaking activities led him into conflict (“I have not come to bring peace but division” [Luke 12:51]). And his disciples after the resurrection also had conflict. The composition of their groups led to problems and conflict; it was bound to, for God was drawing together astonishingly different people – people who didn’t belong together – to be members of communities of peace. And, in any event, new religious movements such as the early church always have conflict. It seems a rule that where people are serious about life and issues, differences are inevitable. Conflict was present in the Christian movement from the outset. But the biblical accounts make it clear that this conflict was often important and useful.

A sample of this is Acts 6:1-7, a story of conflict in the Jerusalem church between the “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists”. The church’s system of feeding people was not working, and the weakest people in the community – widows among the immigrants (Hellenists) – were being neglected. This led to conflict, and a fascinating process ensued. The leaders called the commu­nity together, reminded them of their holistic vision (feeding people as well as proclaiming the word), and established an interactive decision-making process in which people were full participants. The result was heartening: they chose men from the weaker community to help with the distribution, so everyone got fed and the word continued to be proclaimed. Here it is clear that friction between differing groups can be productive. God’s Spirit works, not just through prophetic words, but through good process. Conflict can be good. And a warning: where conflict is not acknowledged, where people fear conflict or think it is wrong, things will get very unhealthy. The results will be thoroughly unpleasant: anger, depression, explosions, broken relationships, people damaged and alienated from the church…

Our Society Has Trouble with Conflict

We have trouble receiving Jesus’ teaching and putting it into practice. We live in an environment that is not conducive to good conflict or peacemaking – a world of polarisation, of adversarial thinking and acting, of winners and losers. The House of Commons has a classic confrontational format, people facing each other across a void and heckling each other. Law courts are as confrontational as Parliament. And churches unfortunately function much like the rest of society.

Our Churches Can Learn to Handle Conflict Well

The culture of our churches is notorious for poor conflict. Non-Christians, insofar as they know of us, often make fun of us for strife and hypocrisy. But it doesn’t need to be so. Our churches can become Christian cultures, in which conflict is handled well and is an aspect of peacemaking. The basic skills for handling conflict well are not difficult to understand; but it takes time to learn to practise them well – and this is an ongoing challenge. Learning to be peacemakers will be a task for our churches until the end of time. To work at this our churches need visionary leaders who will teach Jesus’ way of peacemaking conflict to all church members. I think of one church – Oxford Road Church in Mexborough, South Yorkshire – where this has happened. In this church there has been severe conflict. But in recent years there has been extensive, practical teaching about how Jesus’ Matthew 18 process can be put to work. On the wall of the church are posters reminding members what is involved in peacemaking. One begins: “THE STEPS TO TAKE. One to one. Tell no one else. If this fails, take someone else…” This is not a perfect church. Perfect churches don’t exist. It is rather a church which is using Jesus’ means of dealing with the inevitable imperfections and is finding unity in its life and witness.

Most congregations need not less conflict but more. They need to recognise that the absence of apparent conflict is not the same thing as peace. God hates false peace. The prophets regularly denounced places of worship that proclaimed “shalom, shalom” where there was no shalom (e.g. Ezekiel 13:10). When Jesus went to church (the temple) he disturbed the peace – he upset tables and exposed injustice – in the cause of true peace (Mark 11:15-18). God longs for the peace of right relationships, rooted in justice and an expression of truth.

Four Attitudes of Peacemakers

We can be transformed as God teaches us the attitudes and skills that enable us to make peace by having good conflict.

  • Humility: we expect to hear something of value from the other, who like us is a sinner, but is loved, forgiven and equipped with insight and vision. God’s truth is bigger than we have yet seen, and we cannot see it without the other.
  • Commitment to the “safety” of others: we observe that people function best when they feel safe in expressing their views without being made fun of. If someone adopts a position that we dislike, we will not call them “liberal”, “fundamentalist” or “dinosaur”. We will try not to wound people even when they are our enemies, because we believe God’s business is building friendship out of enmity.
  • Acceptance of conflict: we learn that conflict is a part of life, in the church and outside it. It indicates that people have real concerns, that they feel passionately about things, and that power issues are involved.
  • Hope: we believe God is at work making peace, especially in situations of conflict; we believe the Holy Spirit is at work, and that all kinds of creativity can break loose – if we pray trustingly and vulnerably open ourselves to the Spirit’s work.

Four Skills of Peacemakers

• Truthful Speech: peacemakers are called to learn to communicate truthfully but lovingly, passionately but humbly. This is more than a matter of words. Ephesians 4:15 urges its readers to “aletheuein in love”. This is often translated to “speak the truth in love”, but its meaning is broader; it means to “truth in love”, to communicate truth with the total loving person, with our body language, facial expressions, actions, decisions as well as our words. Truthful communication will involve being confrontational

when necessary; being vulnerable with one another, expressing our needs, worries and longings; and encouraging one another. As we learn to “truth in love”, we will grow up into Christlikeness; and our churches will become cultures in which good communication is taught and modelled.

• Expectant Listening: peacemakers are called to learn to listen well. People in conflict care passionately about things, and they want to be heard. So we will develop the skill of really paying attention to what the other is saying. We will want to make sure we understand the other person, that we enter into the thought world and experience of the other. And as we listen, we will want to convey to the other person that we are listening – by our body language, by eye contact, by our reluctance to interrupt. In his book, Exclusion and Embrace, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, whose family and friends have suffered in the Yugoslav wars, writes: “We enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspective.”4

• Alertness to Community: peacemakers learn in community about the complex interweavings of human experience. Peacemakers are aware of the importance of differing generations. These are people, like Dirk Willems, whose reflexes have been sanctified by their friendship with the Prince of Peace. They have so much to teach simply by what they are. Their wise sayings and stories are also important. Peace churches must provide set-tings for elders to mentor “youngers”. Younger Christians, on the other hand, will have much to contribute to their elders – excitement, a lively memory of what it was like not to be a Christian, a willingness to question and test. It is through this intergenerational sharing that the wisdom, skills and attitudes of peacemaking are taught. Furthermore, peacemakers must not forget that justice and peace are interrelated, that the shalom of a community will depend on its willingness to face economic questions. From Acts 6 and 1 Corinthians 11 onwards, church leaders have recognised that it strains fellowship and distorts peace when some Christians are wealthy and others are struggling. Some churches sensitive to economic need are committed to experimenting with radical measures to lessen inequality and to meet need. Where these things do not happen, it is probable that relation­ships will be ultimately superficial and that economics will undermine the peace of the church.

• Good Process: peacemakers contend that a peace church is one which makes decisions in a way that is truthful, just and corporate. I believe that the church meeting – a Baptist and Quaker institution which it has been fashionable to belittle – can be central to the development of a peace church. Of course, church meetings are often scenes for point-making, power plays, and displays of parliamentary prowess. But the distortions are the product of the church being too much like the world – its failure to develop its own distinctive culture. It can be otherwise, when Christians learn to realise “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) as they make decisions together. Leaders must believe that the Holy Spirit, who works among the people as well as the leaders, may produce something wiser than they could have anticipated. And when people know that their views matter, they respond with a quality of enthusiasm and ownership that can be breathtaking.

On the Journey: Becoming a Peace Church

It’s not clear what it will mean for a church to decide to become a peace church. The changes required will be numerous: new attitudes and reflexes that enable a constructive handling of differences; good listening; truthing in love; expecting God to bring insight through the other’s experience; believ­ing that the Holy Spirit is at work to bring about the Jesus way of peace on earth – now. There is no master plan for learning these things. Each church will learn things in its own order, in its own time. But any church that sets out to learn them will be on a journey. Woe to the church that arrives! It will not be a peace church. But in greeting the Messiah, Zechariah was surely right. God’s mercy was at work “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, [and] to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). And this way will transform not only the church’s “domestic” life; it will transform its “foreign relations” – its life and witness in the world. To this I shall turn in my third article.

Alan Kreider is director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. He travels widely to speak on topics of discipleship, worship, mission and peacemaking. He and his wife Eleanor were the resource persons for the November 1998 Anabaptist Network conference on peacemaking.


1 Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith (London: SPCK, 1985), 122.

2 Quoted in The Independent, 6 September 1995.

3 My treatment of Matthew 18.15-20 owes much to Stanley Hauerwas, “Peacemaking: The Virture of the Church,” in his Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living Between (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1988), 89-97; and John H. Yoder, “Practising the Rule of Christ,” in Nancey Murphy, Brad J. Kallenberg, and Mark Thiessen Nation (eds.), Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition: Christian Ethics after MacIntyre (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 132-160.

4 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 9.

“Grace and peace to you.” What difference does it make to our churches, and to the world, when we take peace as seriously as grace? What differ-ence does it make when we allow “the God of peace [to] sanctify us”, not just as indi­vidu­als or in bits of our lives, but “wholly” – making us peaceful, holy, in all the dimensions of our life (1Thess 5.23)?

In the two earlier articles in this series, I have argued that it makes a big difference when we allow “peace” to help shape our identity as churches. It changes the way we think. Furthermore, there is a “peace dividend” for our churches. This transforms our churches’ common life; it helps build communi­ties of people who are learning the skills and disciplines of peacemaking. It also – as I want to demonstrate in this article and in the next issue of Anabaptism Today – changes our church’s witness, our way of living in the world and reaching out to others; it transforms our “foreign policy”.

Living in a World of Multidimensional Conflict

Twenty years ago, many people in the West were frightened. They were living in a polarised world of Cold War, divided between two power blocs, both of whom had nuclear arms. Now, post-Cold War, nuclear weapons still loom over our world, but the conflicts of the world seem more complex than they did. It’s not a world divided between vast alliances or among nation states. Rather it’s a world divided among intermingling cultures, tribes, ethnic and religious groups. Throughout the Cold War this multi-cultural world was there, but it had been suppressed; now it has emerged, with cultural identities that fragment nation-states and that ignore political borders. These cultural groupings – the Serbs and the Albanians, the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Kurds and the Turks – often elicit immense passion and lethal violence. And it is not “out there”; for many of us, it characterises and enriches our own neighbourhoods. Ours is a multicul-tural world, and it won’t go away. We have to learn to live with it, and that means living with complexity and conflict.

So this is the setting for our churches’ witness – our “foreign policy”. And my belief is this: as we discover how to be a peace church, we can have an impact for God and for good on our world. In this article I show how this will deepen our worship; in a final article I shall show how this will trans-form our approaches to areas of work, war and witness.

Peacemaking Worship

Is worship a part of the church’s “foreign policy”? Isn’t worship an intra-mural activity of the Christian family? Granted, worship services often do have nothing to do with the world. Worship services at times remind me of the first astronauts, just back from the moon, who were put into quarantine. Nobody wanted the moon to contaminate the earth. That’s how it often is with our churches’ services; the world is quarantined; we don’t want it to contaminate what happens in the church. This leads to unreality, and to phoney worship. The worship of the church should be a truthful encounter with the God who loves the world and who wants to empower his people to participate in his mission to the world. God is a personal God, and he is eager to meet with us. But God is also Lord of history, and he is serious about being Lord of all peoples and nations, principalities and powers. Furthermore, worship is a meeting with other people in God’s presence. Through this meeting with God and with each other, we see the world in a new light – and things happen. We change; adoration transforms us, so we are ready to do God’s work in a difficult situation. And somehow, mysteri­ously, things change too on the earth and in the heavenlies. Worship is the motor of history; it is an engine of peacemaking.

1. We acclaim Jesus as Lord. When we gather to worship God, we gather “in Jesus’ name” to confess that “Jesus is Lord”. This is powerful. We are asserting that – although there are lesser lords – our ultimate loyalty is to him. If there is a conflict of sovereignties, it is Jesus whom we will obey. So his teaching is authoritative for us, and his way is normative. As we gather, we open ourselves to seeing the world from his perspective. In worship, we use our Lord’s words and tell his stories. By doing this we will come to see reality in such a way that Jesus makes sense. And if Jesus makes sense, a lot of things that pass for common sense in our culture won’t make sense. Jesus’ teaching on wealth, peace, truth, enemies, sex and trust is not good late-twentieth-century English common sense; in worship, God gives us “liberation from common sense” and encourages us to “cultivate holy madness.”1

So when a peace church worships, there will be a YES and a NO: a choosing of God’s way and a rejection of much of the sensibleness of our age. In the worship of peace churches, we will seek the perspective of our Lord, and we will discern what in our life and experience is in keeping with the way, truth and life of Jesus, who shows us the Father. What, in contrast, is worldly wisdom which God wants us to unmask and discredit?

2. We affirm solidarity with God’s global family. Because there is one Lord, ultimately there is one people who acknowledge his gracious rule. By grace we are adopted as children of the same King, and hence we are brothers and sisters in an incredible family made up of people from every tribe and nation. Wherever around the globe Christians gather, we acknowledge this fundamental fact – in Christ we are one in our praise and one in our belonging. The implications of this are prophetic; our worship is a reminder to the world of “the arbitrariness of the divisions between people…”2

Why should this be surprising? Because society programmes us not to think of people as Christians who are one in Christ, who are made brothers and sisters by his grace, who share bread and wine at his table; society pro-grammes us rather to think of people above all according to their race or nationality – as Serbs, not as Orthodox or Baptist Christians. A symbol of this is the nuclear bomb that in 1945 destroyed Nagasaki. It was dropped by a US plane, piloted by Catholic crewmen who were given spiritual support by Catholic padres, upon a target whose epicentre was a Roman Catholic cathe­dral at the heart of the largest Christian community in Japan; the bomb wiped out two orders of Catholic nuns. War causes pain in the body of Christ.

The worship of peace churches repudiates these values. So, to make the desecration of God’s family more difficult, peace churches seek ways to remember the big picture. They keep in touch with Christians around the world, exchanging letters, photos, and e-mails; when foreigners visit our churches we listen to them with expectancy.

3. We tell God’s story. Worship in the Bible more than anything else tells the story of God’s actions. From the song of the sea (Exodus 15) through the psalms and Passover rituals to the table worship of the New Testament churches, the emphasis of worship is on remembering. All of these are means of telling the story of God.

Why is this important? Because we as humans are people whose identity is primarily shaped by the stories that we tell. Our beliefs and our sense of selfhood are rooted in our experiences, and in the stories that we have discovered to be true. The biblical writers knew this. They knew that the story of God and the people of God was strange. From the calling of childless Abram and Sarai to be the parents of multitudes if they would leave their securities to the breaking down of insider/outsider barriers through the work of Jesus Christ – this is a counter-cultural story. Its themes and values are odd. Christian worship is designed to instil that story deeply into our con­scious­ness. So we tell the story, ponder on its depths and ambiguities, celebrate it – and by God’s grace continue it.

In every era Christians face the temptation to replace the story of God by other, more sensible, stories that make powerful humans feel better about their wealth and violence. Some of these stories are fundamental, underlying many others. Two such deep stories are “the myth of redemptive violence” and “the metanarrative of military consumerism”.3 What do these mean in ordinary English? “The only thing that works is force.” “I deserve to be better off than my parents were.” “Well, the armaments industry provides lots of jobs.” “We’ll give the people a choice; either they follow our leadership or they can go elsewhere.”

We are constantly fed a diet of spin, which is designed to shape us to the dominant story of our society and make us good, pliant, well-adjusted, inwardly violent consumers. If we buy this story, there’s not a chance of our churches being peace churches.

That’s why it’s so important in our worship to tell, ponder and celebrate the story of another kind of God. Think about it: does your worship tell the story? Children’s stories, Bible readings, testimonies about God’s activities today, stories from the world church and church history, sermons, the words and rite of the communion service – all of these can help us to remember and inspire us to praise – and also to live differently. If we tell God’s story, we’ll be less likely to be choked by our culture’s diet of spin.

4. We cry out to God for the world. The biblical writers urge us to intercede – for the peace of Jerusalem, for kings and all people, that God’s Kingdom may come and God’s will be done on earth. We come to worship as people who know God’s peace and whose churches are coming to be cultures of peace; so the places where peace is denied cry out. We hear the cries, and we join in them – to the God of peace who hears the groans of the inarticulate and receives the prayers of his people. God’s Spirit helps us in our praying (Rom 8.26-27); and our prayers make a difference on earth (Rev 8.3-4). We struggle with evil in our prayers – “against the rulers, against the authorities and the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph 6.12); we contend with powers that diminish and dehumanise people, and that express themselves in injustice, war, victimisation, scapegoating, persecution.

This prayer can have astonishing effects. Fifteen years ago, no one would have thought the following things to be possible – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the end of Apartheid without massacre, the Irish peace process. But some churches prayed for these with persistence and passion. “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (Ps 46.9). When we pray, we are entering into the work of God. We are praising God for all the places where his peacemaking is happening in new and exciting ways. We are interceding for human peaceworkers – including some of our own members whom we commission – whose power is minimal save in the

power of God. And somehow, through our prayers and the prayers of many others, God can change the world. “History,” wrote Walter Wink, “belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.”4 What impossibilities are we praying for at the moment? Right relations between Serbs and Kosovars? A world-wide abolition of nuclear weapons?5 Can there be a peace church without intercession as an integral part of its worship? It’s unthinkable!

5. We sing our theology. Our songs and hymns are important. We may talk theology, but we really believe what we sing. There is power and potential here for the energising and envisioning of peace churches. But there is also danger. The danger is in part the “music wars” which characterise some congregations – what we sing can be a source of conflict which, if handled badly, can be a source of destructive division. More seriously, the danger can be that one side will win. Some churches triumphalistically reject the old and, in the guise of piety, are tempted to sing the world’s theology of power and domination. Other churches defensively repudiate anything that seems emotive or new. Both of these approaches truncate the life and discipleship of the church. Peace churches need to draw upon the artistic fruits of God’s Creator Spirit both across the centuries and now – they need to “bring out of their treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13.52). And they must pray to God for songwriters who, inspired by the vision of shalom, will give poetic and musical expression to a theology of peace-making. What we sing is what we internalise – it will be with us when we’re weakest, when we’re old and are dying. Let’s choose wisely what we sing!

6. God reconciles us and forgives us. When we worship God, God is the main actor. God is at work pursuing his Kingdom goals of “justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14.17). God is at work reconciling us to himself, healing us of our sicknesses of body and spirit, forgiving us our sins, restoring our inner motives and our priorities. Worship is one of the main tools in God’s workshop – it is an activity which is God’s gift, which God uses to refashion us in the divine image and to end our alienation. This is glorious and gracious, a source of endless wonder and thanksgiving.

The worship of the peace church will not stop there. It will observe that, throughout the Bible, God does not simply plead with people to accept his forgiveness; he urges them to act forgivingly to others. God’s concern is not simply to be reconciled to people; it is for them to be reconciled to others. Paul put this so economi­cally: “Accept one another, just as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15.7). Miroslav Volf has commented: Paul’s injunc-tion “is to make the pattern of divine action toward us a pattern for our actions toward the other”.6 According to this vision, every church which experiences and celebrates the reconciling and forgiving love of God is called to be a peace church. It is called, not to hoard the reconciliation, but to pass it on. This is why the early Christians developed the rite of “the kiss of love” (1 Pet 5.14); it was a means, within their worship, of celebrating the peace of God and where there were broken relationships of restoring them.7 Jesus told his disciples that making peace between brothers who are at odds with each other is incredibly important, certainly more important than the offering (Matt 5.23ff). A peace church will be asking always: in our worship do we allow God to reconcile us to himself, and to each other – and to be empowered to be his ambassadors of reconciliation in the world?

7. God feeds us, making us a people of sharing and non-violence. Com­mun­ion is central to the life of the peace church. No place was more characteristic for Jesus to be with his disciples than at table. In our day it is also at table that we meet with Christ, who breaks the bread and pours out the wine and reveals his presence to us. At this table we all are equal. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23); and all of us are offered the same quantity of Christ’s limitless food and drink.

Communion is thus an expression of the radical egalitarianism of the gospel. It is also an expression of the gospel’s non-violence. Jesus said to his disciples, “Remember me. Remember my sacrifice for you. Remember my way of dealing with my enemies. Remember my teaching.” Communion offers us a rite by which we can keep from forgetting that Jesus has made things new. He was the last scapegoat; after him there is no need for further violence.8 Peace churches will use the communion meal in many ways to keep us filled with, and in tune with, our peacemaking Lord.

8. God shapes our vision and mission. Steve Finamore has proposed a life-cycle of worship and mission.9 1)When we gather for worship, we bring “reports from the front.” We bring the experiences and hurts and longings from our involvement in God’s Kingdom work in the world. We reflect the violence, are agonised by the hardness and are scarred by broken rela-tionships. 2) In worship we encounter “the God of peace who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ” (Heb 13.20). We tell the story of God and celebrate it. We learn the ways of God and come to view these as the path to abundant living. We praise God, give thanks, intercede. Worship thus functions as a filter; it purifies us, clarifies our vision. And it empowers us: it restores our belief, re-inspires us with God’s grace and vision for the world. 3) This equips us for mission. Re-visioned by our encounter with the God of peace, we go back into the world equipped with hope and vision and spiritual energy. We will be in the struggle with princi­pali­ties and powers. But we will find God at work, calling people to faith, suggesting new ways forward in intractable situations, and doing the new thing. We will not go unscathed, but the God of peace will be with us. We will fail, and the tasks will be too large. So we will come back to worship, bringing our brokenness and stories of God’s grace. And the cycle will continue. This cycle of worship is a sine qua non for a peace church: it heals us, energises us, and keeps us on course. It links God’s love with our lives, and with God’s world, in a swirl of new creation. Worship can thus be anything but quarantine: it is the heart and soul of the peace church’s foreign relations.

Alan Kreider is director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. He travels widely to speak on topics of discipleship, worship, mission and peacemaking.


1 Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press,1996), 96-98.

2 Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (London: SCM Press, 1984), 100. A friend of mine has proposed a slogan which surprises people: Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.

3 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 13; Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 718.

4 Wink, Engaging, 304.

5 For the post-Cold War “gift of time” in which nuclear weapons might be disarmed and banned, see Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (London: Granta Books,1998.

6 Miroslav Volf, “The Clumsy Embrace,” Christianity Today, 26 October 1998, 69.

7 Eleanor Kreider, “Let the Faithful Greet Each Other: The Kiss of Peace” Conrad Grebel Review 5 (1987), 29-49.

8 Clapp, Peculiar People, 110-111.

9 Steve Finamore, “Worship, Social Action and the Kingdom of Heaven” Theology Themes 4.2 (1997), 8-12.

In February 1997, a delegation representing Italian Roman Catholic bishops apologised to Italian Protestants at a service held at the Waldensian church in Piazza Cavour, Rome, for the injustices inflicted on Italy’s Protestants over the centuries. The Catholic archbishop of Perugia spoke of the need to “tend the wounds in our memories first by recognising them and then, where necessary, by asking and giving forgiveness”. The occasion was of special importance for the Italian Waldensian church, which dates from the twelfth century, and Paolo Ricca, professor of church history at the Waldensian seminary in Rome, spoke of the courageous step that had been taken.1

A year later, I was at the Waldensian seminary myself and heard Ricca speak of the remarkable way in which dialogue between Catholics and Protestants was taking place. He traced how this began with secret ecumen-ical discussions in the 1950s and had moved to official dialogue in the years following Vatican II. Ricca suggested that new attitudes on both sides, following centuries of mutual suspicion, were evidence of a true movement of the Holy Spirit. The way in which Waldensians have been providing models of reconciliation and hope has been highlighted by world Protestant leaders.2 The reconciliation service at the Piazzo Cavour church was supposed to be preliminary to a more general reconciliation, but no further action appears to have been taken on the Catholic side.

The Waldensian Church has its origins in the 1170s. As such, it is the oldest church body in membership of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The story of the movement has recently been retold by Prescot Stephens in a thoroughly researched book, The Waldensian Story (1998). The other pre-Reformation Protestant communities that still exist today are the different strands of the Czech brethren. These have their origins in the preaching and leadership of Jan Hus in Prague, in what was then Bohemia, in the fifteenth century. The Waldensians, who had their main centres further south in Europe, are named after Valdes, a wealthy businessman from Lyons in France. Around 1174, Valdes became concerned about his relationship with God. He experienced a dramatic conversion and decided to distribute most of his considerable wealth. He also commissioned two priests to translate parts of the Bible into the local language. This seems to have been the earliest western medieval vernacular translation of the Bible.

Valdes began to preach and to gather a group of lay men and women who formed a community dedicated to recovering the standards that they saw in early Christianity. They read the Bible and prayed together and went out in pairs to engage in mission. One contemporary commentator from England, Walter Map, described them in this way: “They go about two by two bare-footed in woollen habit, possessing nothing, holding everything in common like the apostles; naked, they follow a naked Christ.”3

In their early period these “Poor of Lyons”, as they became known, operated within the Catholic Church, and indeed Valdes sought approval from the pope, Alexander III. The pope was not unsympathetic to the “Poor” but was opposed to any sanctioning of their preaching activities. In 1181, the followers of Valdes were expelled from Lyons by the archbishop and three years later were condemned by a council at Verona; but, rather than being brought under control by these measures, the Waldensians spread to the north of Italy, new areas of France (the north-east and the south), and German-speaking regions beyond the Rhine.4 A split occurred between the French and Italian branches of the movement in 1205, towards the end of Valdes’ life. The Italians – known as “the poor Lombards” – were adopting a stance which was more antagonistic to the Catholic Church than that of Valdes himself. It was still Valdes’ hope that there might be reconciliation with the Catholic authorities. Innocent III, who became pope in 1198, was keen to explore new initiatives and, in 1208, the Society of Poor Catholics was established as an authorised Catholic movement. Former followers of Valdes who joined the new society were given licence to preach, although this ministry was not extended to women. The “poor Catholics” stated that through their distinctive religious garb they wanted to be “recognised as separated in body as in heart from the poor of Lyons”.5 Pressure on the Waldensians who were outside the Church built up and, by the end of the thirteenth century, the Inquisition had forced many French Waldensians into underground congregations.

During the thirteenth century, however, Waldensians spread widely in central Europe. Synods were convened which brought together up to 1,000 delegates. German-speaking Waldensians held their meetings in Austria and there were also important centres in Bohemia and Moravia (now Czech Republic). An inquisitorial statement from this period confirmed that the Waldensians held to orthodox belief in the main areas of Christian faith. Some of the crucial areas in which they differed from accepted teaching and practice was in maintaining that the Bible was the only source of authority in spiritual matters, that there was an obligation to preach the gospel, and that the Christian way was one of non-violence. There was no defined position on the nature of the Eucharist and confession of sin was practised.6

Travelling preachers, called barbas, which means “uncles”, gave direction to the Waldensian communities and heard individual confessions. The Waldensians did not formulate a doctrine of justification by faith, but they did, nonetheless, prepare the way for the sixteenth-century Reformation. Their role as a bridge from the medieval protest movements to the new Protestant outlook is a crucial one.

By the time of the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations in mainland Europe, most Waldensians were meeting in small groups rather than in larger churches. These enclaves were usually based on families. But a more vibrant and outgoing wing of the movement, with its centre in Bohemia, made common cause with some of the followers of Jan Hus, the powerful preacher at Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel, who was put to death for heresy in 1415. This stream of Waldensianism became increasingly politicised, the original Waldensian commitment to non-violence, which in any case had been implemented in a patchy way, being abandoned. One Hussite leader who seems to have been influenced by the Waldenisans was Petr Chelcicky, who formed a movement called the Unity of the Brethren, or Unitas Fratrum. As someone who conceived of the church as a voluntary association of believers, Chelcicky’s radical ecclesiology was unparalleled among the voices of the fifteenth-century era.7 His thinking in this respect anticipated that of the Anabaptists, although no clear connection between the Czech brethren and Anabaptism has yet been established, and, like the Waldensians, the Hussites were eventually to identify with the mainstream of the Reformation.

For the Waldensians, this identification took place from the early 1530s, when Waldensian leaders had conversations with William Farel, who was a leader in the Swiss Reformation and who worked closely in Geneva with John Calvin. The details of these contacts are not entirely clear and Euan Cameron, in The Reformation of the Heretics, has argued that there is not enough evidence to support the traditional view that Waldensian leaders embraced the Protestant Reformation at a synod in 1532.8 Certainly there were differing opinions among the leaders as to whether such a move was wise, but from that point Waldensians embarked on a path which would, in the 1560s, see them emerge as a Protestant church committed to Calvinist beliefs. From 1550-1700, the valleys in the Piedmontese Alps inhabited by the Waldensians were regarded as an outpost of European Protestantism and, as such, suffered oppressions from the governing family of Savoy. The aim of the Savoy policy, which was encouraged by the Catholic Church, was to reconquer this area in the name of Catholicism. A notorious massacre, known as the Piedmontese Easter, took place in 1655. The horrific reports of the killings aroused protests around Europe and brought about the diplomatic intervention of the English under Oliver Cromwell. An outraged John Milton wrote a sonnet about the atrocities – “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”.

The troubles of the Waldensians were not over. In 1686, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and thus the removal of the rights previously given to Protestants, whole communities of Waldensians, by now confined to the Piedmont Valleys, were wiped out. They attempted to put up a fight, but they were massively outnumbered by Catholic forces. Out of a Waldensian population of approximately 14,000, almost half were killed or later died in prison. About 3,000 found their way to Geneva and were welcomed by the city authorities. This influx of people strained the resources of a city noted for its hospitality to refugees. For their part, the Waldensians spoke of being indebted to the Genevan citizens for their life and liberty.9 The absorption of this medieval protest movement into Reformed Protestantism was now virtually complete. A further cementing of the relationship of the Waldensians with the mainstream Protestant cause in Europe came three years later when William of Orange, who was by then king of England, with his wife Mary as queen, helped to finance the return of the Waldensians to their Alpine centres. Mary organised collections in a number of Protestant churches and set up a fund from which many Waldensian pastors were paid.

It was not until almost two centuries later, on 17 February 1848, that Italian Waldensians were finally given civil (though not initially religious) rights. Gradually churches began to be established throughout various parts of Italy. Because of their concern for freedom, Waldensians also participate actively in movements working for civil and political renewal. Spring-ing from the original work of Valdes in Bible translation, Waldensians remained strongly committed to education. Their aim was that each local community should have a primary school and a teacher, together with a seller of Bibles. In addition there were initiatives to create boarding schools, children’s homes and training centres. Waldensians have seen the gospel as having specific social implications and have founded hospitals, old people’s homes and centres for those with special needs. There are five Waldensian hospitals (of which two, at Genoa and Naples, are administered in collaboration with other evangelical churches) and nine old people’s homes.

In 1979, the Methodist Church of Italy joined the Waldensian Church and from then on the two bodies began to operate through a united denominational synod. The organisation of the Waldensian Church is similar to the Presbyterian system, reflecting the sixteenth-century influence of Geneva. Today the Waldensians-Methodists have a joint membership in Italy of about 30,000. Although traditionally Waldensians were the main Protestant group in Italy, Pentecostalism is now much larger. Half of the Italian Waldensians live in their traditional heartlands, while many others who are in membership in churches in cities such as Rome still have roots in Piedmont. Pastoral care of the churches is undertaken by about 100 pastors and 25 lay workers. Pastors are trained at the theological college in Rome, which is also used by Italian Baptists, and those in training spend some time abroad. There are also about 15,000 Waldensians in two South American countries, Argentina and Uruguay. Baptists and Waldensians now jointly publish a weekly newspaper, Riforma, a sign of their increasing co-operation.10 Waldensians have an internationally renowned ecumenical centre in Italy called Agape.

Valdes founded his original movement not as a breakaway from the Catholic Church but as a movement of mission and renewal. Waldensians are indebted both to their pre-Reformation Catholic roots and also to the Reformed convictions which they later embraced. Their distinctive story has, therefore, a unique contribution to make to an understanding of catholicity in European church history. In this connection there may be a parallel with Anabaptism. It has recently been argued by Abraham Friesen that the Anabaptists followed Erasmus in their understanding of Christ’s great commission to teach and then to baptise. For Friesen, the Erasmian focus on teaching the central doctrines of the faith had the potential to bridge Catholic/Protestant divides.11 Viewed from this perspective, both the Anabaptist and Waldensian traditions offer trans-denominational insights. The contemporary Waldensian churches, as Prescot Stephens puts it in The Waldensian Story, want to spread the gospel in word and in deed, but also seek to act as agents of reconciliation. “If the wounds of history can be healed through repen­tance and forgiveness,” Stephens writes with reference to the significant 1997 Catholic statement, “it would enable Catholics and Protestants to stand closer together against the evils of the age.”12 Radical movements such as the Waldensians can disturb, renew – and even unite.

Ian M. Randall is the tutor in church history and spirituality at Spurgeon’s College, London.


1 Press notice from the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, 28 February. I am grateful to Prescot Stephens for this notice and to Erica Scroppo Newbury for other details. Information about the Waldensian Church Missions can be obtained from her at 21 de Freville Avenue, Cambridge CB4 1HW.

2 See, for example, Into the Light, Vol. 10, No. 16 (1997), pp. 3, 5.

3 Cited by P Stephens, The Waldensian Story (Lewes: The Book Guild, 1998), p. 15.

4 M Lambert, Medieval Heresy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 69.

5 W L Wakefield and A P Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 226.

6 Stephens, Waldensian Story, chapter 8.

7 M L Wagner, Petr Chelcicky (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1983), p. 161.

8 E Cameron, The Reformation of the Heretics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 138-44.

9 A J Wylie, History of the Waldensians (Rapidan, Virginia: Hartland, 1996), p. 162.

10 The Waldensian Review, Autumn 1997, p. 10.

11 A Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 126.

12 Stephens, The Waldensian Story, p. 344.

A peace church is possible! Although Christians have often been wary of peace, peace is at the heart of what our churches are meant to be about. We are passionately committed to grace; if we wish to have biblical priorities we also will be passionately committed to peace. New Testament writers habitually began their letters by coupling these together: “grace and peace” (Rom 1.7, 1 Cor 1.3, etc). What happens when our churches, like those of the New Testament, rediscover this coupling? It changes our theology and way of thinking. It deepens and enriches our churches’ common life – our “domestic policy”. And rediscovering peace transforms our churches’ “foreign policy”: our worship takes on new reality and depth, and our approaches to work, war and witness are opened up to new creativity and hopefulness.

Peacemakers at Work

Most of us – those who are unemployed or at home with children as well as those in paid employment – have the opportunity to work, to invest our creativity, skills and sweat for the good of others. When our churches become peace churches, we discover that we have new things – life-giving things – to offer in our work.

1. We bring peacemaking habits, attitudes and skills. As I noted in my second article, in a peace church where Christians are learning to follow Matthew 18.15ff. procedures, to practise “truthing in love” and to see with “double vision”, a distinctive kind of Christian is formed.1 Such people are humble, because they know they are forgiven sinners; unafraid of conflict, because they believe God can use conflict to bring peace; committed to good speech, good listening and good process; good listeners, who don’t interrupt or compete; people who really believe it is important to see

through the eyes of others as well as themselves. These habits, attitudes and skills are immensely useful in the world. They enable things to happen better. I have begun to collect samples of Christians who in many work situations are peacemakers. An IT consultant from Yorkshire recently wrote to me, “By facilitating dialogue, or acting as a go-between, I was in fact mediating peace and encouraging relationships to develop. God is not only interested in my work, but even in acrimonious business meetings God wants to work through me to establish the values of his Kingdom there.”

2. We bring peacemaking imagination to our jobs. As a result, new possibilities spring to mind. Peace church Christians get new ideas. They are less likely to sit back and be conventional. They believe God is at work in the creche as well as the boardroom, and that God is in the business of peacemaking and thus can change things. So a peacemaking imagination can transform our work, altering the parameters of the possible, and inspir-ing us to try precarious new things. It’s important for peace churches to tell stories of how this has happened. Some are well-known, such as the peace church sculptors who recently created a massive swords-to-ploughshares

sculpture for Judiciary Square, Washington, DC, made of over 3,000 decommissioned handguns. Some have led to major changes in judicial practice, such as the restorative justice procedures that grew out of the hunch of two Canadian Mennonite probation officers that justice involves a restoration of relationships.2 Some, such as the “Empowering for Recon-ciliation with Justice Project” in South Africa, are massive in scope: in the early 1990s the ERJ trained over a thousand people with the skills of mediation and peacemaking.3 Some, such as the quiet efforts of Christians in the Parades Commission in Northern Ireland or of student mediators in schools, are unsung. Nobody involved in these initiatives would say that carrying a peace church vision into the workplace makes things easy. But it brings hope and new possibilities.

3. This can change our vocation. Sometimes we discover that habits, attitudes and skills we are learning in the peace church make trouble in the workplace. Sometimes our bosses or workmates reject the peacemaking imagination we bring to our jobs. And sometimes we realise, with sur-prising clarity, that our jobs are incompatible with our worship of the God of Peace. For any of these reasons, members of peace churches may find themselves retooling for new vocations. A engineer friend of mine, after many years in a defence electronics firm, has enrolled in the MA course in Peace Studies at Bradford University. Dave was a Christian on a journey. He was moved by visiting the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau; he cared deeply about the Yugoslavian crisis and felt unable to do anything about it; he heard God inviting him to a new vision of his life through Isaiah 58.6-9; and he saw peace church Christians doing new things in the area of conflict resolution that gave him hope. Dave is a loss to the electronics industry, but he is now working at something he really believes in – becoming a mediator. He is an example of what happens when the God of Peace works in our lives. God changes us; he may also change our jobs.

War and Violence

A peace church is not necessarily a church in which all members are paci­fist. There will be some pacifists in a peace church; indeed the Mennonites are a peace church in which most members are pacifist Christians. But a peace church is not defined by the pacifism of its members, or by the posi­tions adopted by the church’s central bodies. You don’t become a peace church by making statements! You become a peace church by being genu-inely committed to the gospel of peace, by learning to put peace on the agenda, by trying to live the life of God’s peace together in the church, and by carrying this, as best you can, into all areas of life.

This leads into the world of war and violence. Most of us most of the time are not involved in war (although we may be involved in military-related industry); but many of us are surrounded by violence. Especially those of us who live in cities: fights and muggings are part of our world. How do we cope with violence? Not everyone in a peace church will necessarily agree that they will never, under any circumstances, knowingly inflict lasting psychological or physical harm on another (pacifism); some may feel that in emergencies, when stringent criteria are met, violence is necessary which they must support even by their action (“just war”). But in a peace church everyone will agree: the church must talk about peace, think about peace, work for peace, evangelise peace, and learn the attitudes and disciplines of peacemakers.

1. Reflecting on the Bible. In interpreting the Bible it makes a big difference what presuppositions we bring. If we assume the gospel is a gospel of peace, and if we begin to take risks as a result of this reading, we will make surprising discoveries. For example, it’s not accidental that the Gospels are full of references to crucifixions, tax-collectors, zealots and soldiers. God sent Jesus into a situation of Roman military repression and anti-Roman agitation. Jesus’ teachings and actions, read against this back- ground, give fascinating insights into alternative responses to violence today. Walter Wink’s study of Matthew 5.38-42 has shown that the way to love one’s enemies is not through “non-resistance” (an incorrect reading of the text) but through “nonviolent engagement” – resisting enemies lovingly, surprisingly and imaginatively.4 This exposes the truth of a situation – at times with high humour – without hurting people and invites people to change. When read from a peace church perspective, the “problem pass-ages” – even Romans 13.1-6 – suggest new solutions. These verses are “perhaps the most influential part of the New Testament on the plane of world history”.5 Why? Because rulers and church leaders have used them to force Christians into being obedient citizens who fight wars. But Paul wasn’t urging Christians in Rome to fight for the state if asked; rather he was telling them to believe, apparently against the evidence, that God could use even an oppressive Roman state for good.6 As our churches become peace churches, we can expect the Bible to speak with an authoritative voice, often challenging platitudinous pieties – and bringing us divine revelation.

2. Thinking about violence – and training. Peace churches will be alert to the violence in our society. It’s helpful for Christians to ask themselves: what would you do if someone attacked you? This perennial anti-pacifist question is an important one. Peace churches are natural settings to think about responses to violence.7 Peace church Christians can develop alternative responses to urban violence; they can learn forms of creative, non-violent resistance which can be taught by training and role-play.8 They can tell stories about their experience, developing a fund of unconventional wisdom about how Christians have responded to violence. What violence have our members experienced? How did they respond? What techniques did they find useful? What still needs to be learned? What was the role of prayer in the conflict? The Mennonite Church in North America has published some stories; we need a comparable collection from Britain and Northern Ireland.9

3. Thinking about war in peacetime. Traditionally churches almost never talk about war, except on Remembrance Sunday. Talking about war is painful for many members; they have lost friends and family members and may themselves have been through the trauma of battle. So it’s only when war is about to be declared that Christians begin to talk about war. Then they generally say, with their government, “there is no alternative”, and think and behave like everyone else. Take the widespread assumption of British Christians that they believe in “just war”. But “just war” isn’t a way of reassuring ourselves that the wars our country fights are just; it’s a method of deciding, by carefully developed criteria, in each case whether it is just to wage war, and if so how one can wage war without fighting unjustly.10 This takes a lot of education: how else can Christians discern whether a war is just or not? And the church virtually never equips people to make these decisions. If a peace church is willing to say that pacifism is the norm for its members, this may not be necessary. Otherwise, a church that wants to put peace on its agenda should, at a very minimum, teach its members what the just war criteria are: just cause, right intention, last resort, discrimination (non-combatant immunity), proportion. When our nation’s leaders decide to bomb other countries, church leaders can use these current events as opportunities to teach about just-war thinking. I know of one church whose pastor, in 1998 after the American bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan, brought a full-scale model of a cruise missile to church. He asked the children’s meeting, “Was Bill right?” teaching the children (and their parents) to think with just-war criteria. Nobody dozed!

4. Developing a different view of global politics. When you develop the reflex of listening to people you disagree with, it becomes easier to think that most disputes, even those between nations, have two sides – and it becomes harder to think of killing your opponents. So in peace churches name-calling and stereotyping are unacceptable; they are contrary to the community’s basic values. A peace church will stand for justice; but it will not think justice can be secured by violent solutions – e.g., “taking out” the hate figure of the moment. Justice is made through building right personal and economic relationships, not by means of quick military actions.

Danilo, an elderly Serbian Christian, grew up in the only Serb family in a village. Early in World War II his father was killed by a German bomb. His mother became a refugee, wandering with Danilo and his brother in search of food. When the Yugoslav civil war began in 1991, fracturing relations between Serbs and Croats, instead of becoming afraid of the “other side”, Danilo immediately volunteered to work with “Bread of Life” – the Yugoslav Evangelical relief organisation – to help the innocent who were suffering. During the Kosovo crisis, Danilo, concerned by the manipulative behaviour of the Serbian media, said: “Don’t let the media poison your minds. Rather, think concretely; imagine how you would feel if you were an Albanian mother in Kosovo… Don’t become angry at what the media says the other side may have done to us. Instead, remember the Good Samaritan and act concretely to help our neighbours who suffer.” Danilo is a Serb who lets the New Testament shape his approach to his nation’s enemies.11 This isn’t the kind of Serb whom we hear about in the news; and his empathy, and his practice of “double vision” shames most Christians in the UK. When we, like Danilo, learn to think independently and empathetically about war and enemies, we are on the way to becoming a peace church.

5. Action for peace. The life of the peace church isn’t a cop-out in wartime; it’s a ministry of reconciliation, justice and truth. It calls to mind unpopular realities (e.g. the Western “Christian” maltreatment of Middle Eastern Arabs, many of whom are Christians). It also dares to act in repentance and hope. The Reconciliation Walk, in which Western Christians over a four-year period have retraced the steps of the first Crusaders to apologise for the Crusades, is a sample of this. So also is the New Abolitionist movement among American Christians, who remind a world that would rather forget that nuclear weapons have not gone away, and that in this post-Cold War period God is giving the world a “gift of time” in which universal nuclear disarmament is possible.12 Occasionally peace church Christians will act in demonstrative ways, like the prophet Jeremiah, to make a point dramatically – they will be publicly inconvenient and may be arrested for their troubles. The point is not to be dramatic, but to bear witness to the God of Peace in as many ways as possible.

A Witnessing Church

We live in a world that is post-Christendom and post-modern. People do not flock to church because being Christian is good for their career or business, or because peer pressure sweeps them along. Instead, as never before, we are surrounded by a critique of Christianity. Church history shows the Christian faith is intrinsically violent, we are told; and there are New Age alternatives which can wonderfully move us from the violent Age of Pisces to the tolerant, loving Age of Aquarius. Anyway, there are lots of options, each with its own arguments. Why in this world be Christian?

What counts, it seems to me, is demonstration. The question is not: does the church have an alternative message? Nor is it: is the church saying the correct things? Rather the main question is this: is God alive among the Christians, enabling them to live convincingly, interestingly, hopefully? In our post-Christendom, post-modern era, Christian witness cannot be divorced from the way of life of a community that worships the God revealed in Jesus Christ. So how we live matters; what we do counts. The question is not so much does it make sense, but does it work? Does it bring abundance of life – and new possibilities?

In this world the peace church has a special witness that can be important to the entire Christian church, in four areas:

1. The character of our missionary God. The God whom the Bible reveals is a God who has a mission. God, in overflowing love, has a project – to bring wholeness to creation and to reconcile former enemies. God imple-mented this by sending Jesus, living in solidarity with suffering people and embodying and teaching an alternative authority which is just and peace-able. Although Jesus coerced nobody, he threatened religious and political leaders who killed him; God’s mission leads to the cross. But God vindi-cated his Son in resurrection, and poured out the Holy Spirit on those who acknowledge him, so that as the Father sent the Son (in vulnerability, truthfulness, non-coercive love) the Son may also send us, his followers (John 20.21). The result is a people, a “God movement”, that extends the way of Jesus throughout time and throughout the world. This people is a peace church. It is not an end in itself, but an instrument in God’s mission of reconciliation and peace.

2. The character of Christians. Character matters immensely. who we are as individuals and as communities will either be instruments of God’s mission and evidences of God’s character; or we will be impediments of God’s mission – and will give God a bad name. As Marva Dawn has writ-ten, “The vitality and faithfulness of our personal and corporate Christian lives and the effectiveness of our outreach to the world depend on the char-acter that is formed in us.”13 It matters how we live, what our priorities are, how we transact business and what skills we develop. It matters how we are reflexed, how we handle conflict. Because our witness is rooted in our character, this will determine what people think of God (1 Pet 2.12).

This is true of individuals. Our lives pose questions: “That Susan, she tells the truth; I can count on her; she doesn’t always try to win an argument, but she listens and cares about justice. I wonder why.” It is also true of churches, whose common life poses questions: “The Grace and Peace Baptist Church has been useful in our school. They have produced a dispro-portionate number of mediators. They have a self-effacing, non-coercive way of telling the truth. I asked about it, and they said, ‘Well, our church has had a lot of conflict in the past, but God has taught us a lot and we’re very grateful. Are you interested?’ And I am.”

Missiologists such as Robert Warren are recognising this: “We stand faced with a great new opportunity to speak the good news of Christ into our culture by the way we live that truth in the life of the local church… The church is called to be the pilot project of the new humanity established by Christ… Not least is the world looking for models of handling conflict… Conflicts in the church can seem such a distraction from getting on with the real work; but this is the real work. When people come near such a com- munity they will instinctively know how real the relationships are.”14

3. Words, ideas, actions. There is endless scope for the witness of peace churches. Locally, in our schools and places of work, we can emphasise listening and reconciliation, not power plays. When people ask why we have helpfully odd ideas about conflict, we can tell them about Jesus. Nationally, in debates about policy and in letters to MPs, we can write words of caution and sobriety, recalling that violence never produces the results people anticipate and that violence is always self-justifying. We can inject new ideas. In peace churches, where the gospel is preached and the Spirit is alive, new things become thinkable: church members can volunteer to do conflict teaching in school assemblies; they can help apply restorative justice principles to dealing with sexual offenders. Demonstrative actions also become part of the peace church’s witness. At times, working with non-Christians, followers of Jesus can link arms in the chain of witness at Jubilee 2000 or sit in the road at an Arms Bazaar.

Throughout the foreign relations of the peace church, one thing stands out:

4. Fascination. In many churches today there is a strong emphasis upon evangelism – equipping people to share the good news of Jesus. There are programmes to train people for this, to help them deal with the questions of post-modern people, to help them persuade people of Christian truth so they will want to become Christians.

Five years ago I was doing research into evangelism in the church of the first three centuries. And I was puzzled: the early church was growing rapidly, but in early Christian literature there are no training programmes for evangelism and practically no admonitions to evangelism. Why? I concluded, not least through reading what early Christians themselves said, that the church before the conversion of Constantine was growing because it was living in a way that fascinated people. It spoke to their needs; it addressed their questions; and it didn’t so much persuade as fascinate people into new life.15 Early Christians believed that, in Christ, God had begun a vast movement of reconciliation which had incorporated them; so they had renounced violence, converted their swords into ploughshares, and stopped studying war. This was something they had experienced, and that had given them a new way of living.

This was true of the New Testament: the church was “the light to the nations” (Luke 2.32). The church was good news, and it grew by fascina­tion as well as by words, by its creative distinctiveness, by its radiant Jesus-likeness, by its sheer hopefulness (1 Pet 3.15). This is still possible today. It is possible for the church to be, not the last bastion of conservative Britain, but the centre of new thinking in which intractable problems are dealt with in Jesus-like ways. It is possible for churches to grow because the culture of Christian congregations has been shaped by the gospel of peace. It is possible to grow because people discover that the way of Jesus Christ is abundant, and that it leads to new possibilities for all. The rumour gets out: “You know, those house church Christians used to have a reputation for conflict, but they’ve learned to deal with it; they all talk about peacemaking – maybe they could be a resource for us.”

The news of this peace church witness gets out little by little. It is hidden and always partial. Historical change involves little events, seemingly unconnected, which fit into a larger pattern. Our churches’ learning and action, our individual witnesses, our new initiatives fit together and enable something new. We are always sinful and always incomplete – so we point to the grace of Jesus Christ. But we are also captivated by the possibility of newness which we have begun to experience – we point to Jesus Christ, our peacemaker and teacher. And, by God’s unfathomable mercy, we point to the church as a sign of his saving power in history. The peace church is a “nonfinal reconciliation in the midst of struggle”.16 It is on the road with its Lord. As God changes us and as we learn how to be a peace church, we declare confidently and with deep gratitude – God is a God of peace, and God is good!

Alan Kreider is director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. He travels widely to speak on topics of discipleship, worship, mission and peacemaking.


1. Miroslav Volf: Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 213, 256.

2. John Bender: “Reconciliation Begins in Canada,” Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section Newsletter, 16 (Jan-Feb 1986), 1-3

3. Walter Wink: When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 62-63.

4. Walter Wink: Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 175ff.

5. Ernst Bammel: “Romans 13.” In E. Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (eds.): Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 365.

6. John Howard Yoder: The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (revised edition) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), ch 10.

7. John Howard Yoder: What Would You Do? A Serious Answer to a Standard Question (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press), 1983.

8. Vaughan Bowie: Coping with Violence: A Guide for the Human Services (Sydney: Karibuni Press, 1989).

9 . Lois Barrett (ed.): A Mennonite Statement and Study on Violence: Study Guide (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1998).

10. John Howard Yoder: When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).

11 . Bread of Life Prayer Bulletin, 17. Information about Bread of Life, and about Christians such as Danilo, is available from jjtosic@eunet.yu.

12. David Cortright, “Ban the Bomb II: A new movement emerges to abolish nuclear weapons”, Sojourners, January-February 1999, 25-26.

13. Marva Dawn: Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 4.

14. Robert Warren: Being Human, Being Church (London: Marshall Pickering, 1995), 154.

15 . Alan Kreider: Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom, Alcuin/GROW Joint Liturgical Studies, 32 (Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd, 1995).

16 . Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 109.

Anabaptists did not always agree with each other. Over time some common convictions emerged, but in the early years of the movement they argued about many issues, such as

  • Is it always wrong for Christians to use violence in the pursuit of good?
  • How deeply can Christians participate in the state?
  • Is state-sponsored church renewal possible?
  • What level of holiness is achievable for the Christian?
  • Does the uniqueness of Jesus imply that we are incapable of living as he lived?

Balthasar Hubmaier disagreed with the answers given by many other early Anabaptists to these important questions. His writings provide us with alternative perspectives. Hubmaier, formerly a colleague of Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zürich, was the only professional theologian within Anabaptism and had an extensive public ministry prior to his baptism. Nobody else, not even Zwingli, could write with his clarity, exegetical rigour and wit. Hubmaier is regarded by some as the virtual initiator of the German Peasants’ War (1524-1526); while the evidence does not support this, he was certainly the most prominent Anabaptist leader who was associated with the Peasants’ War while he was an Anabaptist. Copies of his many treatises were widely distributed. These helped make Anabaptism more peasant-friendly and encouraged the creation of congregations from radical peasant groups. He was befriended by Conrad Grebel, was baptised by Wilhelm Reublin, and was active among the Swiss Anabaptists. From his baptism in Easter 1525 to his execution in March 1528 he published frequently and earned the title “theologian of Anabaptism”.

Baptism and the Church

Hubmaier devoted considerable energy to the subject of baptism, writing seven treatises, which gave theological support to the developing Anabaptist movement, but which provoked strong reactions from his former colleagues, including Zwingli. Hubmaier’s thinking on baptism also gives us access to his convictions about biblical interpretation, salvation and the church.

Hubmaier’s major work, On the Christian Baptism of Believers, was published in June 1525. In this treatise Hubmaier provided a critical response to Zwingli’s recent attack on the Anabaptist movement (On Baptism, Rebaptism and Infant Baptism) and a manifesto for Anabaptism. It has been described as Hubmaier’s best and most significant writing, and it enjoyed rapid and wide distribution. Zwingli had to make a quick and forceful response with his Answer to Balthaser Hubmaier’s Baptism Book on 5 November 1525, the day before the third dispute on infant baptism was to take place in Zürich. This dispute was a key turning point in the Reformation; it increased the power of the Magisterial Reformers, and it provided a model for other states in their treatment of Anabaptists.

In contrast to Zwingli’s approach to biblical interpretation (which allowed that which is not explicitly forbidden in Scripture), Hubmaier rejected any practices which were not commanded in those matters which concerned God and souls. Later, in his Dialogue with Zwingli (November 1525), Hubmaier put it like this: “For Christ does not say, ‘All plants which my heavenly Father has forbidden should be uprooted.’ Rather he says, ‘All plants which my heavenly Father has not planted should be uprooted.’”1 Zwingli’s approach justified infant baptism and so was not radical enough for Hubmaier.

In his examination of the apostles’ ministry, Hubmaier noted three practices (preaching, faith and baptism) which the apostles were commanded to do. Here he related baptism to the church: in order for converts to interact with the church as Christians, they must first give public testimony to their faith through baptism. This church is therefore a visible church, where baptism in the entry point and church discipline is practised according to Matthew 18. Hubmaier’s order of salvation was: confess sin; believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins; resolve to live a new life and to order it according to the will of Christ, in the power of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and receive admonishment according to the rule of Christ in order to grow in faith. Christians, through baptism and by virtue of the rule of Christ, have given authority to their brothers and sisters to admonish, punish, ban and re-accept them. “Where does this authority come from if not from the pledge of baptism?”2

So, for Hubmaier, believers’ baptism was the foundation of the church and the public testimony of discipleship according to the rule of Christ. Believers’ baptism defined a new kind of church – the believers’ church: “no baptism, no church; no baptism, no discipleship”.3 In his last writing

on baptism (A Form for Water Baptism in autumn 1526) he redefined the meaning of “sacrament” as referring to the commitment to follow Christ, rather than anything that happens in the rite: “The baptismal commitment or the pledge of love is really and truly ‘sacrament’ in the Latin; i.e. a

commitment by oath and a pledge given by the hand which the one baptised makes to Christ.”4 This is a good summary of Hubmaier’s thinking on baptism – this sacrament of obedience both creates the church and is the basis of the church as a new prophetic community.

Hubmaier and the peasants

During Easter 1525, the town of Waldshut embraced Anabaptism. Hubmaier and sixty other Waldshuters were baptised by the Swiss Anabaptist Reublin, and this was quickly followed by the baptism of most of the town’s adults by Hubmaier. Waldshut was under threat from Austria because of Hubmaier’s reformation programme: he had encouraged the people to remove themselves from Austrian authority, to oppose tithes and to defend themselves. Around this time it dawned on Hubmaier and the city council that they could not rely on the Reformers in Zürich for military assistance against Austria. Hubmaier encouraged co-operation between armed peasants and Waldshut, and he himself carried weapons. It was natural to look to Reublin and his close connections with the peasant forces for help. Reublin was one of the first people to forge links between Anabaptism and the peasants and was also active in resistance against the tithe system. Anabaptist Waldshut was later to send forces to support the peasant army in the siege of Radolfzell and also to Anabaptist Hallau.

Given Hubmaier’s gift of popularising through print, it is not surprising that he was accused of writing for the peasants. The Catholic “heresy hunter” Faber reported that Hubmaier had admitted to elaborating and interpreting The Peasant Articles. But, as Faber’s agenda included Hubmaier’s prosecution, we can be certain only that Hubmaier recognised the articles as scriptural and just, and that he probably supported the peasants’ cause. It is more likely that Hubmaier was editor of Draft of a Constitution and author of the Letter of Articles. There are parallels in both to his other writings, including a striking similarity between Hubmaier’s instruction on the Christian “ban” (avoidance as an aspect of church discipline) and the secular ban mentioned in the documents. The latter ban was a non-violent attempt to dispose of holders of castles and monasteries, who had been the cause of the peasants’ misery, by boycotting them until they left their lands: “Absolutely no intercourse should be maintained or carried on with those who refuse and decline to enter the brotherly union and to promote the general Christian welfare – neither by way of eating, drinking, bathing, grinding meal, baking, tilling the soil, mowing hay.”5

On the Sword

However, Hubmaier was also known as a friend of the nobility, and his criticism of the rulers during his Waldshut days resulted from their treat-ment of the peasants rather than from hostility towards their social class. He often dedicated his treatises to nobles, and his reforms at Waldshut and Nicholsburg had the approval of the city authorities, to whom he had an advisory relationship similar to Zwingli’s in Zürich. One of the reasons for his significant treatise, On the Sword (1527), was to prove his positive attitude towards government and to show the difference between his position and that held by most Swiss Anabaptists. This gives us an alter-native Anabaptist view of the state to that espoused by the Schleitheim Confession (written four months earlier) and demonstrates that there were different stand-points on the sword in early Anabaptism.

For the Swiss, it was enough to quote Scripture with a minimum of com-men­tary, but Hubmaier, the theologian, exhaustively exegeted the text and used the tools of analysis, rhetoric and humour to convince his readers. Article 6 of the Schleitheim Confession did not tackle any of the difficult New Testament passages on the sword and omitted any reference to the Sermon on the Mount, but Hubmaier tackled these head on. Whereas the Confession briefly mentioned Matthew 20 (“it shall not be so among you”) as part of Jesus’ teaching forbidding the sword, Hubmaier expounded it for two pages (although from Luke 22). He argued from the context that the passage was addressed to preachers (a point which is not obvious), who should stay out of worldly affairs, in contrast to ordinary Christians who could be magistrates and wield the sword of government.

Hubmaier did not have a simple “following Jesus” model of discipleship. He insisted that Jesus could not be our model because Jesus’ calling was to the salvation of humanity and our calling is to a variety of social and state roles. In his exegesis of Luke 9, Hubmaier made the point that Christ was not called to be a judge or to get involved in worldly affairs, but to save people by his word. This was a powerful attempt to pull the carpet from under the “brothers” who emphasised following the example of Christ. According to Hubmaier, Christ gave no example here, so the brothers had no point. While Jesus forbade killing out of anger and mockery, this did not apply to the government who killed out of obedience to God and keeping the peace. When the government needed the believer’s help, it was the call of God to which one should respond: “For whoever does not protect the righteous kills him and is guilty of his death as much as the one who does not feed the hungry.”6 Because of his conviction that Christians could kill, Hubmaier’s approach to Matthew 5, like Zwingli’s, really called for a change of spirit rather than behaviour, obedience to Christ in private but not in public service. While he shared with the Swiss Brethren a literal approach to Scripture, his theology led him in a different direction.

Like virtually everyone at the time, he believed that the sword was the result of sin and the Fall. Hubmaier frequently used Romans 13 to explain that the government should use the sword to protect the innocent and punish the wicked; this would not have been controversial at Schleitheim.

It was his assertion that Christians too should be sword-bearers which would have offended many of the Swiss. It is intriguing that Hubmaier’s use of the Old Testament is almost exclusively concerned with justifying this position. Anabaptist biblical interpretation was generally Christocentric for precisely the opposite reason – Jesus is the lens through which we should read the Old Testament and so Christians are forbidden to wield the sword.

Up to Our Ears in Sin

Hubmaier gave more attention to anthropology and the freedom of the will than any other Anabaptist. His two treatises on free will show his concern that the doctrine of predestination encouraged a lazy Christian life, and he clearly believed that the idea of salvation “by faith alone and not from works” provided an excuse for this. His views on free will can therefore be understood as an anti-clerical concern to improve morals. In effect: Don’t listen the priests, listen to Scripture, “For God made you without your help; but he will not make you holy without your help.”7

Hubmaier’s thinking on holiness was more sophisticated and more negative than that of most Swiss Anabaptists. In contrast to their emphasis on the kingdom of God, he argued that we are stuck “right up to our ears” in this worldly kingdom of sin, death and hell.8 Christ alone can say, “my king-dom is not of this world”, for he is the only one without sin. Even righteous Christians must also confess their wretchedness. The implication is that Christians are not capable of following Jesus. Hubmaier’s outlook is realistic in the sense of recognising humanity’s common culpability and common responsibility to restrain evil, even with the sword.

Thus he argued that in reality Christ is not our head and we are not his members, for Christ is just and truthful and we are evil and deceitful. He was convinced that we remain rooted in sin, that perfection is impossible, but that spiritual growth is possible and desirable: “Now we become members of Christ in faith, not in nature, that is, not in willing and doing as it concerns the flesh, which does not want to be subject to the law of God; but in faith the power is now given to us to become the children of God accord- ing to the spirit and the soul, also to will and work Good, although all our works according to the flesh are still blameworthy, lazy, worthless, and not all just before the face of God.”9

The Readiness to Disobey

Hubmaier was one of the few Anabaptists whose ministry attempted to answer the question of whether a reformation undertaken with the blessing of a civil government in sixteenth-century Europe could be Anabaptist and still survive. Luther and Zwingli had decided, between 1523 and 1525, that the pace of reform should be governed by the civil rulers. Anabaptist leaders like Michael Sattler and Hans Hut rejected this, but Hubmaier hoped that, with proper teaching and God’s blessing, a supportive government could be found for an Anabaptist state church. His programme, which was little different from Luther’s or Zwingli’s, was unusual but not unique within Anabaptism, and Hubmaier experienced its outworking briefly in Waldshut and in Nicholsburg. So why did it fail?

John Howard Yoder observed that, without readiness to disobey the authorities, no renewal movement will survive which intends to redefine the church on the basis of personal faith. The rulers’ managing of the implementation of reformation is not in principle compatible with the Bible being normative and its interpretation being congregational.10 The issue separating the Swiss Anabaptists and Zwingli from October to December 1523 was how and when to implement changes in the mass. Zwingli decided to rely on the Zürich council and was opposed by the Anabaptists. This was a defining experience for the formation of Swiss Anabaptism but one which Hubmaier did not go through. His theology led him towards a state church. His optimistic view of government was naïve, but experience had not taught him the “readiness to disobey”.

Hubmaier’s reputation as the “theologian of Anabaptism” is well deserved. More than anyone else, he defined the theological core of Anabaptism. His Catechism, while probably used only in Nicholsburg, encapsulated Anabaptist distinctives which were widely echoed elsewhere, and his writ-ings were to influence European Anabaptists well into the seventeenth century. The rapid spread of his writings also had the effect of imparting to his readers confidence that they too could interpret Scripture using simple principles. Although his model of an Anabaptist state church did not suc-ceed, his ministry and writings demonstrate the variety within early

Anabaptism. While we may finally disagree with him, Hubmaier’s writings

will have to be taken seriously by students of Anabaptism who have the courage to face the ambiguity of living between the times.

Tim Foley serves on the leadership team for Wood Green Mennonite Church in north London and is an associate of Bridge Builders mediation training at the London Mennonite Centre.


1 Pipkin, H. Wayne & Yoder, John H: Balthasar Hubmaier (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press 1989), 184.

2 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 127, 142.

22 Anabaptism Today Autumn 1999

3 Pipkin, H. Wayne: “The Baptismal Theology of Bathasar Hubmaier” Mennonite Quarterly Review 65 (Jan 1991), 40.

22 Anabaptism Today Autumn 1999

4 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 391.

5 Stayer, James M: The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 71.

6 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 515-516.

7 Goertz, Hans-Jurgen: The Anabaptists (London: Routledge, 1996), 63.

8 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 497.

9 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 519.

10 Yoder, John H: “The Believers’ Church Conferences in Historical Perspective”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 65 (Jan 1991), 16.

Pilgram Marpeck was born in Rattenberg in the last decade of the fifteenth century and spent time in Strasbourg (1528–32) and Augsburg (1544–56), with the intervening time possibly in Switzerland and Moravia. He was a citizen of two leading imperial cities and was in the employ of the city councils in the capacity of a ‘mining magistrate’ and mining engineer, ensuring the city of Strasbourg was provided with wood and performing other types of engineering work.

Marpeck’s writings1 (which are very readable) demonstrate influences from a number of sources including medieval mysticism and Hutterite Anabaptism. However, he had the ability to draw on older concepts and use them creatively in order to develop a unique position within early Anabaptism. Three important motifs recur again and again in his writings: the connection between inner and outer spirituality; freedom of conscience with respect to legalism and coercion; and the primacy of love.

Marpeck engaged in debate around these issues with many of his contemporaries, including the Strasbourg Reformer, Martin Bucer; Spiritualists such as Hans Bunderlin, Christian Entfelder and Caspar Schwenckfeld; the Swiss Brethren; and the Hutterites. He was concerned about the individualism of Spiritualism, with its emphasis on the meaningless nature of external ceremonies. But he doubted that either the legalistic and coercive nature of ‘the ban’ within the Swiss Brethren movement or the communitarianism of the Hutterites was in line with the freedom and love expressed in the gospel.

In response to these positions, Marpeck developed a critique both of radical individualism and of collectivism and demonstrated a deep desire to find a mediating position that would produce unity amongst the diverse Anabaptist streams.

The Debate with Martin Bucer

The debate with Bucer in Strasbourg was fruitful for Marpeck’s development and has been described as the ‘debate where two of the best spirits of the Reformation met each other’.2 In contrast to the vitriolic nature of other debates between Reformers and radicals, one senses that Marpeck and Bucer really did desire to understand one another and sought to listen to each other’s points of view.

Nevertheless, in the end, they did disagree on two issues. First, Marpeck clearly recognised a separation (albeit moderate) between the church and the state, in that he refused to permit authorities to have the final say in prescribing the shape of his Christian faith. Second, in exploring the relation between the Old Testament and the New Testament, Marpeck insisted that the Christ-event marked a decisive break and concluded that the ceremonies of the Old Testament were signs and figures, whereas the ceremonies of the New Testament implied substance and reality. This meant that he rejected infant baptism, which the Reformers based on a covenantal theology. It was within this debate with Bucer that Marpeck clearly marked himself out as an Anabaptist.

The Debate with the Spiritualists

The initial context of Marpeck’s debate with those called ‘Spiritualists’ also took place in Strasbourg, a city whose reputation for tolerance had drawn proponents of various radical groups into its shelter. Two such were Bunderlin and Entfelder, transitional Anabaptists who began to develop a theology against external ceremonies. They proposed a radical program of omitting church ceremonies in an attempt to see the real essence of religion in the inner attitudes and feelings rather than the external expression.

The attractiveness of the Spiritualist position should not be underestimated. Its strength lay in various factors, including the scepticism generated by endless disputes concerning ‘externals’ (for example, Luther and Zwingli’s interminable arguments regarding the Lord’s Supper) and the concern felt

over legalism within Anabaptism, particularly following the promulgation of the Schleitheim Articles. Neither must the context of persecution be ignored for followers of radical groups. Indeed, for many Anabaptists who lived in a situation of constant persecution and danger, Spiritualism was an attractive option. After all, if true baptism is spiritual and inner, perhaps it wasn’t worth losing one’s life over an outer ceremony.

Marpeck’s response to the Spiritualist position of Bunderlin is demonstrated in his work, A Clear Refutation. One of the Spiritualists’ complaints revolved around the fact that there was ‘no longer any command or witness of the Scripture concerning such [external] ceremonies’.3 Marpeck responded to this by accusing them of a radical individualising of the Spirit. His answer lay in the idea that there is a need to love one another, and that such love is displayed in external actions.

In refuting their position, Marpeck also developed an argument to show that inner and outer existence are indissolubly linked. He did this by developing a Christology based on the incarnation and particularly the humanity of Christ. In this way Christ is seen as validating the ‘material world’ and the church continues his work as the Body of Christ, carrying out his actions. Thus Christology became one of Marpeck’s significant contributions to the theology of the developing Anabaptist movement.

This ‘logic of the incarnation’ as developed by Marpeck is noteworthy because it begins to engage with the Spiritualists by affirming the spirituality of the Christian faith, but also in seeking to answer the question as to why Christianity is more than spiritual subjectivism. His link with the incarnation provided him with the answer. In fact, it is the incarnation which demonstrates the necessity of taking the material world seriously and is demonstrated by believers in their love for one another and their enemies.

As his incarnational theology developed, ‘Marpeck conceived of a transformed community of transformed persons transforming a larger human community’.4 The reality of this theological position was shown in a practical way: he provided physical and spiritual welfare to those outside of the congregation; he was active in attempts at ‘poor relief’; and he provided wood and water for the people in Strasbourg.

Above all, Marpeck’s chief concern shone through: he wanted through his theology to maintain a mediating position between polarised stances. If the Spiritualists, with their rejection of externals, were at one pole, the Swiss Brethren and Hutterites were at the other.

The Debate with the Swiss Brethren and the Hutterites

If Marpeck judged the Spiritualists guilty of prioritising ‘inner spirituality’, he criticised other groups for the way in which they gave ‘externals’ primacy. He saw the Swiss Brethren, Hutterites and Munsterites as examples of biblical literalism, harsh legalism and coercive practices against individual conscience. His central motifs in formulating responses to these positions were the freedom of the Spirit and the centrality of love within the gospel. Although these themes flow through much of Marpeck’s writing, they are particularly prominent in his discussions regarding the use of the ‘ban’ within Anabaptism and the communitarian practices of the Hutterites and Munsterites.

Within the Swiss Brethren movement, the ban was dealt with in Articles 2 and 4 of the Schleitheim Confession. It was based on Matthew 18:15ff. (where they perceived the necessity for the ‘unity of the body’ before taking the Lord’s Supper), and also on 2 Corinthians 6:14, which required a separation from those whose works were evil and needed to be excommunicated. Their chief concern was the need to keep the body (the church) flawless and without sin.

Marpeck saw this view as one that led the Swiss into a legalism which caused them to use the ban too quickly, and he responded to it in Judgement and Decision.5 He stressed the primacy of love and the key issue of freedom. For him, law brought the threat of punishment, but the gospel brought freedom from the law. Thus, any recourse to legalism missed the emphasis of the gospel. He wrote: ‘Christ erases the handwriting of the devil so that it is no longer the law that reigns, but grace and freedom in Jesus Christ, according to the nature of the true love of God and neighbour. This love in God is the real freedom.’6

It is no surprise to find that Marpeck was criticised by the Swiss, who saw him as expounding anti-nomianism. However, such is the fate of those who desire balance, he also had to speak out against some of those in Alsace and Moravia who were too liberal in their interpretation of the freedom of Christ. Therefore, in Concerning the Libertarians (1544),7 he showed that it is impossible to live in sin and self-indulgence, because such behaviour displays a lack of love, and portrays an ‘invented liberty,’ in slavery only to sin.

If his writings on the ban demonstrate Marpeck’s anti-legalist stance, his views on ‘the community of goods’ represent his ‘anti-coercive’ position. Amongst the Hutterites and in Munster, there was enthusiasm for the sharing of possessions as described in Acts 4. Marpeck responded with a statement of his own position, showing that communitarianism was not prevalent in all the churches of the New Testament, and was more a matter of love than coercion. He explained: ‘No coercion or commandment, however, made them [i.e. the early Christians] share all things communally. Rather, the sharing was done simply out of a free love which caused the community to be of one heart and soul.’8

He saw the practice of communitarianism in his day as one which was born out of greed and which coerced others into giving for dubious motives. Marpeck’s vision was not one of external collectivism but for ‘true believers to say in their hearts that their possessions are not theirs, but belong to the poor and the needy’, being ‘yielded to God without earthly coercion’.9

Marpeck’s chief concern was with coercive collectivism and coercive legalism and their violation of the individual conscience. For him, the problems of a coerced faith were obvious; namely, that it was not of the Spirit and merely resulted in a superficial faith. Furthermore, in that it was achieved by violent means, it stood in stark contrast to the cross, which was a ‘permanent protest against coercion’.10

In his dialogues and debates with Reformers, Spiritualists, Swiss Brethren and Hutterites, Marpeck appears to have been searching for a mediating position between these groups, seeing them holding extreme positions which he felt could be bridged. He sought to do this by developing a theology that linked inner spiritual reality with the necessity for real outer ceremonies, where neither was obsolete or redundant. A major motive for this search was his desire for unity in the church with a concomitant dislike of schism.

Evaluating Marpeck

But how successful was he? In evaluating Marpeck’s contribution to early Anabaptism it is necessary to exercise caution, and to identify the grounds on which his work is to be judged. In terms of his dialogue with other groups, Marpeck failed. It seems that others were not as interested in the possible unity of a mediating position. The Hutterites refused to allow him to pray in their assemblies,11 the Swiss remained unimpressed by his arguments, and Spiritualism remained an attractive option. Furthermore, his movement within South German/Austrian Anabaptism failed to survive ‘much past the sixteenth century’.12

Despite this apparent failure, Marpeck’s contribution was influential in differentiating his group from the other radical groups in Strasbourg and also by bringing a high degree of unity to discordant groups in the Augsburg area. He raised important questions regarding identity and unity within Anabaptism, and having shown in his debate with Bucer that he was no Magisterial Reformer, he also distanced himself from extreme apoca-ypticism, dogged literalism and separatism. His interest in intra-Anabaptist debate is unparalleled and gives a unique insight into the live issues of early Anabaptism itself.

His theological work set the agenda for his ethical practice. It presented a vision of the church being involved in the work of Christ in the world by showing love and promoting anti-coercive practices. In this way he provided a link between the regenerate community and the world which was markedly different from the extreme separatism of Schleitheim. He demonstrated his concern for others in poor relief and social action, ‘so that Christ might spread to all of the empire, but without coercive power’.13

Above all, Marpeck demonstrated another way of being Anabaptist. His theological stress on love was demonstrated in his irenic writing (one needs only to compare this with Luther’s vitriolic polemics) and the determined desire for a mediating position between legalistic coercion and spiritualism. He died of old age, a rarity amongst Anabaptist leaders, and despite claims that he compromised with the authorities,14 it is more likely that his wisdom in not provoking others and his Christian love allowed him to continue teaching his unique Anabaptist insights for longer than most.

Marpeck for Today?

There is something immensely attractive about the character and life of Pilgram Marpeck. He lived in a period when dogmatic stances were the norm, and yet somehow he managed to be able to hear the arguments of others without resorting to vitriol or reacting with fear. It is not stretching the evidence to say that he was an ecumenical Anabaptist.

He was certainly irenic and winsome in his writings – perhaps a trick he learned from working with the authorities. However, this does not mean that he had no firm beliefs of his own. He cared passionately about the truth and was especially grieved when church unity was put at risk. And yet he seemed to communicate this in a way that respected the other’s point of view. Perhaps you would expect no less from a man who stood against coercive practices that damaged freedom of conscience and who sought a mediating position between the extremes in early Anabaptism. But there are numerous examples, even of Anabaptists, whose lives did not match their words. Pilgram Marpeck is not one of them.

Perhaps Marpeck was ahead of his time. Certainly, his words ring with remarkable clarity and resonance today. Coercive practices are always a possibility within the Christian community – imposed both by church leaders upon their flock and by Christians upon other groups. In such situations Marpeck still calls for love and tolerance. Legalistic and literalistic stances are all too easy to adopt in the Christian community: Marpeck calls us not to bind people’s consciences. Finally, in a church where dogmatism is a safe option – first because it tells us who we are, and second because it enables us to identify our enemies – Marpeck issues a challenge. It is a challenge to dare to listen to others without fear, and to dare to believe that the rare quality of unity is worth being passionate about and can be attained.

It is remarkable to find such a mediator as Marpeck in the turmoil of the sixteenth century. Perhaps it is no less remarkable that his words still have something to say to us today.

David Southall is a final-year student at Spurgeon’s College, training for the Baptist ministry.

Editor’s Note: For more from Marpeck, check out his A Clear Refutation in the Primary Document Section


1. His extant work is collected together in W. Klassen and W. Klaassen, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978).

2. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 36.

3. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 47.

4. S.B. Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck: His Life and Social Theology (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), p. 170.

5. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, pp. 311ff.

6. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 315.

7. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 403.

8. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, pp. 278-279.

9. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 279.

10. Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck, p. 161.

11. H.-J. Goertz (ed.), Profiles of Radical Reformers (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982) p. 172.

12. C.A. Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora, 1995) p. 79.

13. Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck, p. 171.

14. See Friedmann, in Klassen and Klaassen, p. 40.

A Cathedral of Paradox

Coventry Cathedral is the most popular twentieth-century building in Britain, according to a survey carried out in 1999 by English Heritage and Channel 4. But the building and the institution it houses are full of paradox. The architecture and art are starkly modern, but the shape is inflexibly Gothic, so your eye is drawn from the entrance right up to the huge tapestry of ‘Christ in Glory’ on the east wall. The high altar is huge but remote, so the original concept of ‘an altar for the whole people of God’ is impossible to express without using a smaller, portable table for the Holy Communion.

The building is full of Christian symbols: even the side-chapels are named after Gospel-centred concepts or stories (e.g. Chapels of Unity, of Christ the Servant, of Gethsemane). But the story we tell can easily slip from the Christ-centred gospel of his death and resurrection to our own experience of destruction and rebuilding, as if the link did not need to be made. We live in at least two worlds, with two quite different stories. The original Benedictine foundation set great store on prayer and hospitality. We still aim to be a place and a community of prayer – but we run a choral foundation to help us pray, which takes over half my time and a goodly percentage of our budget. (I do not resent this – but it is not the most obvious way to pray.) We aim to provide hospitality to our many visitors, and to be a centre of pilgrimage, so that tourists have an opportunity to become pilgrims and meet Christ. But this aim is set alongside the need to encourage these same visitors to spend money with us – they are our single biggest source of income, and the decline in their numbers has caused us real financial troubles. We have inherited a ministry of international reconciliation – but the office of the International Director is called the Navy Room, and is filled with naval memorabilia, not least from our links with successive warships bearing the name HMS Coventry. We are a Christian church, whose ‘bottom line’ purpose is to be the spiritual HQ and prayer-support for the bishop and his mission in the diocese. But we are also a secular institution, with a place in the city, nation and world; with financial and cultural opportunities and demands; with a stake in the present world order, as well as a hope in the world to come.

Peacemaking Issues

The Christian gospel is the gospel of grace and peace – peace between estranged and hostile people, deriving from the ‘grace-gift’ of peace with God. Anabaptist history is full of stories of people living and witnessing to the gospel of peace, both within their own communities and far away, in situations of conflict and danger. Coventry Cathedral’s story is a bit different. It started after the bombing of the old Cathedral in November 1940, when Dick Howard (the then Provost) vowed to seek reconciliation, not revenge, as a response to the destruction. After World War 2, links of friendship were formed with cities in former enemy countries, Germany and the USSR – Kiel, Stalingrad and, most famously, Dresden. They involved not only leading citizens but young people, who went on exchanges between Dresden and Coventry and worked on rebuilding projects in both cities. The ministry developed in ways that emphasised world and church leaders more than local communities and people, and when I came to Coventry the International Ministry was coming over as remote from the cathedral congregation.

Even then, however, small groups got involved – I went with a dozen people to Romania in 1996, to present a cross of nails (our symbol of reconciliation in Christ’s name) to a peace centre. The following year the cathedral choir’s tour to South Africa developed a reconciliation flavour, as we sang in a township church and visited the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Since then, the International Ministry has been shared with members of the cathedral congregation and across the diocese.

We were delighted to meet a group of ‘Cape Coloured’ people from South Africa, who are trying to get back the land from which they were evicted under apartheid. They came to our international conference last August and won our hearts by their charm and simplicity, their direct faith and love for God’s people. At the same conference we met community leaders from Arab and Jewish Christian groups in Israel/Palestine, and church leaders from Iraq, for whom nothing, political or religious, is simple. But they were there, and they were talking to each other, however hard that was.

Underneath all this peacemaking activity, the Cathedral is not at all good at being reconciled within itself. We have traditionally sought an acceptably easy outcome with no thought to process – the opposite of what I learned as a vicar in Leeds, over the Remem-brance Sunday issue (see Coming Home) – and have been poor at listening to each other. Justice is talked about but often not practised, and some members of the community, both paid staff and congregation volunteers, are more or less permanently aggrieved. Are we a Christian community at all? – yes, despite all I have said, there are marks of Christlike grace about. And things are getting better: it seems that a new culture is seeping in, with tolerance, forgiveness and mutual respect at its heart.

Community Issues

I have mentioned the word community quite a lot. Being in the Cathedral has raised powerfully for me the question of what a Christian community is. My parish congregation in Leeds was small and intimate; with all the usual qualifications about people on the fringe, we knew by and large that we belonged together, and that we shared a common story which the wider neighbourhood did not share with us. The cathedral community does not know what it is, or even particularly what binds it together. Nevertheless, the new cathedral constitution calls for a roll of community members (larger than the traditional Anglican electoral roll) that includes congre-gation, paid staff and volunteers. I suppose the common factor between all of us is that we feel we belong somehow to Coventry Cathedral, whatever that means for each of us.

Unlike a small church in inner-city Leeds (or an Anabaptist community in Reformation Europe), we are in no sense a minority. If we want to talk to the City Council we expect to go to the top. We are invited to sit in the front row at civic events, and invite civic leaders to sit in the front row at big Cathedral events: I got a wry laugh pointing this out when preaching last September on James 2. The clergy of the diocese are sometimes supportive, sometimes even deferential, but as often they are cynical about our position in church and society. This isn’t entirely fair, in that the position is expected of us – however, we occasionally ask for it by giving ourselves airs and graces. We seem to live in a constant whirl of short-term relationships, which can be quite intense.

I still remember the service for those who had been involved in adoption; this was a risky venture, which generated a strong team spirit among the planning group, but as soon as the service was over the team and its spirit dissipated. Such a service gathers several hundred strangers, expects them to form enough of a community to worship and maybe share deep emotions together (as this one did, successfully). It then propels them forth into the world, in the hope that they have been reached by a glimpse of God’s glory or a touch of his healing love.

Establishment Issues

I was brought up in an evangelical environment that would not have approved of the church getting involved in politics, and I am still something of a ‘floating voter’ – reluctant to commit myself to any party or ideology. But I have shocked myself by becoming gradually more and more involved in local politics, usually in pursuit of an objective that seems to me connected with the Christian gospel. The day I arrived at Coventry Cathedral the Provost was invited to be the independent chair of the Coventry Anti-Poverty Forum, a task which he was unable to fulfil with more than token commitment. I was in his study at the time, and offered to help. So I became co-chair of a campaigning and lobbying group of workers in voluntary-sector charities, local councillors and council officers, and health and other statutory workers. Out of that I was asked to chair a programme delivery group tackling poverty for Coventry’s new Community Plan, and my face is familiar to the occupants of the City Council offices.

I suppose this is the area of my ministry where I feel least tension with my convictions and aspirations, and the area where I feel the least hankering after Anabaptist ideas. The reason I am acceptable (and even influential) in the local authority is my position as a cathedral canon. I have no theological right to that position or that influence – indeed, the Church does not have that right – but if a secular society invites me to exercise a ministry in this way, who am I to refuse? I would love to discuss this with a more thorough-going Anabaptist, as I am unsure whether it is heresy or not!

Recently I asked a council officer who has become a friend whether he could think of a two-word mission statement that would express the ‘social responsibility’ concept in a less ‘worthy’, ought-ridden manner. He is far from being a Christian, but replied immediately with the reminder, ‘I don’t think you could improve on “Faith in the City”. It inspired a whole generation of local government people, and we still regard the Church of England highly because of it.’ That report was published 15 years ago – how many other church reports from any denomination have that long an active life?

The opportunity to represent my parishioners (who had no access of their own to the corridors of power) was one aspect of ministry I discovered as a vicar. Now that I have no parish, I am seeking to represent people and communities in poverty, by influencing structures and political decisions to make the fight against poverty a higher priority. My reasons for believing in this are theological, but the language I use is almost entirely secular.


These are personal conclusions, which I hope will serve to open a discussion of the issues that are relevant to the growing Anabaptist identity outside historically Anabaptist denominations. I have found myself in a ‘top-down’ Anglican cathedral which works for peace between world leaders (and sometimes more lowly people and communities) but is still needing to learn reconciliation within its own community. It calls itself a community, but the ties of belonging, shared story and common virtues are loose. Even the story of the destruction and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral will no longer have its eye-witness power, once the eye-witnesses are no longer with us. However, the privilege of being part of the establishment has opened up opportunities to work on behalf of the powerless and marginalised – not to solve their problems so much as to influence minds and decisions, so that they are enabled to work at their problems for themselves.

Chris Burch, whose story ‘The Vicar’s Tale’ appears in Coming Home, met Anabaptist insights and people while he was a vicar in inner-city Leeds. In 1995 he moved to become Canon Precentor of Coventry Cathedral, where he is responsible for the Cathedral’s worship and takes part in the governance of that high-profile Anglican institution. He is also involved in the city of Coventry, as chair of two secular anti-poverty groups and Bishop’s Chaplain to Urban Priority Areas.

Although I have for many years had an interest in the Moravian Church, especially because of the remarkable missionary history associated with the Moravians from the eighteenth century (a story that predates the Baptist Missionary Society), it was only when I moved to Prague in August 1999 that I had the opportunity to explore at first hand the roots of the movement in what is now part of Czech Republic. As with most religious issues in this part of the world, the figure of Jan Hus (c.1372-1415), whose statue dominates Old Town Square in Prague, looms large in the story. Those influenced by him took aspects of his teaching from Bohemia to neighbouring Moravia. In this article I want to trace something of the roots and development of what has been variously called the Moravian movement, the Unity of the Brethren, and the Czech Brethren. In 1527 some of the leaders of the movement described how ‘our Unity is truly of the universal Christian faith’. The links, as well as the contrasts, between this movement and Anabaptism will become evident.

The influence of Jan Hus

A crucial issue that provoked Jan Hus to protest against the Catholic Church in the early fifteenth century was that which was to galvan-ise Martin Luther into action a century later – the practice of selling indulgences to remit time in purgatory. Indeed it is arguable that Luther’s reformation was the second reformation, the first being the movement of reform in Bohemia led by Hus. Born and brought up in Bohemia, Hus studied at the University of Prague, took his Master’s degree, and began teaching at the university in 1396. In 1402 he became rector and preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel, Prague. This large, plain building had been founded in 1391 as a centre where people could hear preaching in the Czech language. Hus was committed to this vision (he described Czech as being as precious to God as Latin), eloquently addressing each week a congregation of 3,000 people.1 In 1412 Hus offered an extended critique of the sale of papal indulgences. His message was that only through the grace of God could there be forgiveness.

To add fuel to the theological fire, three young men from Prague who supported Hus – Martin, John and Stašek – were put on trial by Prague’s city councillors for protesting against the sale of indulgences at St Vitus Cathedral, the Týn Church and St James, the three principal churches in Prague. Despite promises of leniency, the three were beheaded, which fanned the flames of unrest. The bodies were taken to the Bethlehem Chapel, with huge numbers of people processing and singing of the young men as saints. Hus himself sang a martyrs’ mass over them. It was a deliberately defiant gesture. Many of the ordinary people of Prague besieged the Town Hall.

Pressure mounted on Hus and Rome excommunicated him. Prague was placed under a papal interdict – there could be no authorised church services in the city – as long as he remained there. There were attacks on the Bethlehem Chapel. King Wenzel asked Hus to go into exile and this he did for a time. During the exile he wrote his famous The Church, in which he argued that the true Church had Christ as its head, not the pope. He took the view that it was right to rebel against a pope who erred. One element of this call by Hus was nationalistic. The Czechs should not tolerate outside domination. But there was a clear theological issue. Hus was taking the same kind of stance as was John Wycliffe in England, whose writing Hus read. The people must not, Hus argued, give unconditional obedience to ecclesiastical rulers without consideration as to whether the decrees being enacted were in accordance with the commands of God. Reform was needed.2

A Council was called at Constance in Germany in 1414 to discuss reform. Hus was invited to attend and was given a promise by Emperor Sigismund that he would have safe passage. But a few weeks after he arrived in Constance he was arrested, put in prison, tried and sentenced to be burned as a heretic. Hus was asked whether he would recant. ‘I shall die with joy’, he affirmed, ‘in the faith of the gospel which I have preached.’3 From this point increasing numbers of people in Bohemia engaged in protest. Moderate Hussite reformers, seeking to persuade the Church to allow the laity to receive the wine as well as the bread, had as their symbol the communion cup. They were called ‘Utraquists’, from sub utraque – under both kinds. A second Hussite branch became militant and because these Hussites were located around Mount Tabor in south Bohemia they received the name Taborites. In the 1420s very large Catholic and Hussite armies fought each other.

The emergence of the Czech Brethren

The more moderate radicals, as we may term them, reached an accommodation with the Catholic Church over issues such as the form of communion. Jan Rokycana, who had been an outspoken preacher at the Týn Church in Prague but had been forced into exile because of his radical views, later became the Archbishop of Prague. In this influential position he aligned himself openly with the Utraquists and attacked ecclesiastical corruption. His condemnation of priests ‘who had put the devil into the elements of the holy communion’, as he put it, led to calls for immediate action, especially from a nephew of Rokyana called Gregory (Rehor), who was a former monk. Gregory asked his uncle for advice as to what should be done.

Rokycana’s response was very significant for the story of the Czech Brethren. He had been reading the writings of Petr Chelchický, a native of south Bohemia (probably born about 1390) who had been influenced by Hus and who developed his own thinking about the ‘law of love’ as the centrepiece of Christ’s teaching and thus of Christian living.4 This led him to pacifism, and thus to disagreement with Hus and especially with the militants who followed him. Rokycana suggested to Gregory that he should read the writings of Chelchický and meet him. One record, from 1547 (about one hundred years after these events), describes what happened: ‘Master Rokycana showed to the brethren Gregory and his friends the writings of Peter Chelchicky, admonishing them to read these books which he himself read so frequently … obeying his advice the brethren read the writings of this man with much diligence and had even many talks with him … from which they obtained much knowledge of the right way of life.’5

The life and thinking of Chelchický has been thoroughly researched and analysed by Murray Wagner, who has shown Chelchický’s independence of thought. Dependence on Hus is evident, but since Chelchický did not go through the theological education of his time he was perhaps more able to develop a fresh approach. His views had similarities to the thinking of the Walden-sians (whose base of operations in the fourteenth century was in the Piedmont valleys), particularly in the way he understood the church as a ‘separate’ community while not making separation from the existing Church an ideological principle. Since there were links between the Waldensians and the Hussites, there may well have been Waldensian influence on the communities around Chelchický in south Bohemia. But it is likely that Chelchický came initially to his conclusions about the church as a community of believers through his own study. As Wagner argues, his ‘primitive Christianity arose within the context of the fresh criticism of official Christendom by Bohemian reformers.’6 This was an indigenous movement of reform.

As such, it appealed greatly to younger leaders such as Gregory. He read the works of Chelchický – such as his most famous book The Net of Faith – with great excitement and subsequently put into practice Chelchický’s thinking about living out the Christian faith. In The Net of Faith God’s net pulls in believing people, but it is ripped by the pope and the emperor. Only the shreds remain of the primitive church. Killer whales have been at work.7 Gregory and his friends attempted to return to what they saw as early church life, and a community was set up near a Czech village called Kunwald in 1467. It was this group that was called ‘a Unity of Brethren’ – in Czech Jednota bratrská and in Latin Unitas Fratrum. This step, creating a community that had all the distinguishing marks of a separate church, went beyond what had been done by Chelchický. Nonetheless, it is right to see Chelchický as the father of this new movement. Although Hus wrote about the church, it was Chelchický who envisaged a community in which everyone would be committed to the same practice of faith. This vision has continued to be influential. Leo Tolstoy, in his The Kingdom of God is within You, described Chelchický’s The Net of Faith as ‘a most remarkable production of human thought, both from the profundity of its con-tents and the wonderful force and beauty of its popular language’.

The Unity and the Anabaptists

The Unity of the Brethren was not primarily a doctrinal movement, at least in its early stages. Rather it was, like the Anabaptist movement, primarily an attempt to return to the simplicity of the early church. Yet there were powerful doctrinal implications in the steps that were being taken. At the same time as the community in Kunwald was established as the Unity of the Brethren, the members put in place their own ordained ministry. Two Waldensians ordained the first bishop of the Brethren. There was a stress in this community – and here the thinking of John Wycliffe and the Lollards in England was influential – on having the Bible in the language of the people.

The Brethren also gave particular attention to the teaching of the New Testament about the nature of the church and about living a life of peace, in contrast with the warlike Taborites who drew inspiration from some Old Testament passages about the people of God going to war.8

In 1473 Gregory died and Luke (Lukáš) of Prague succeeded him in the leadership of the Brethren. As someone who wanted to bind the movement more closely together at a time of strain and division, Luke wrote extensively. He produced a catechism and a hymnbook. Divisions occurred between those Brethren who wished to be more open to engagement with society and those who remained closed in their thinking. One small group within the Brethren held almost entirely to Anabaptist views. J. K. Zeman, a major writer on the Czech Brethren (as he terms the Unity), speaks about the date of 1525 as both the start of Anabaptism and the end of the creative period in the thinking of the Unity of the Brethren in Bohemia and Moravia. By that year Luke of Prague, the leader of the largest ‘party’ within the Brethren, had completed his ‘restitutionist’ theology in which he explored more fully the limits of the idea of the early church being restored.9 As the Czech Brethren worked out the further implications of their view of the church, they began to encounter Anabaptists who were moving into Moravia.

What, then, were the links between the Czech Brethren and Anabaptism? The rise of Anabaptism in Moravia, where there was unusual religious freedom, can be dated to 1526, when Balthasar Hubmaier and others arrived in the town of Mikuluv. It is possible that he already knew of the Czech Brethren. Certainly leaders of the Brethren had been in touch with Erasmus in 1521, the same year in which Hubmaier visited him, but Hubmaier himself makes no reference to Hus and acknowledges no debt to the Bohemian reformation.10 In his early period in Mukuluv, Humbaier won over to Anabaptism some Germans in the area, and he had contact with Utraquists, but there is no evidence that he had dealings with the Czech Brethren. Zeman describes this as astonishing, given the many doctrinal parallels between the teachings of Hubmaier and of the Czech Brethren in this period.11

Although Hubmaier’s time in Moravia was limited – he was arrested in July 1527 and put to death in 1528 – the Anabaptists remained in Moravia for much of the next 100 years. Strangely, only once during that period, in 1528, did they engage in any dialogue with local Christian communities with a view to a possible coming together. This dialogue was with the main group of Czech Brethren, and although there was initially some thought that some Anabaptists on the ‘spiritualising’ wing of the movement in Moravia might merge with the Brethren, the discussions soon foundered. Why was this? One problematic issue was the Lord’s Supper. The Brethren held to a view of the ‘real presence’ that was not shared by the Anabaptists. No doubt the Brethren’s retention of infant baptism alongside the practice of believer’s baptism was a problem, although it is not mentioned in the records of the discussions. Finally, most Anabaptists had come into Moravia from elsewhere, and most were German-speaking. Very few were Czechs or spoke Czech. The Czech Brethren expected Anabaptists to fall in line with their own older, indigenous tradition. The newcomers refused to do so.12

From the 1530s through to the 1560s there were further contacts between the Anabaptists – the largest group in Moravia being the Hutterites – and the Czech Brethren. Leonard Gross, in The Golden Years of the Hutterites, draws attention to Czech Brethren criticisms of the Hutterites in the 1570s. According to the Czechs, the Hutterite craftsmen were robbing local craftsmen of their jobs, were buying up food supplies and were even stealing barrels of beer.13 By this time the major leaders within Czech Brethren were aligning themselves to a much greater extent with the mainstream Protestant Reformation. In 1620 the Protestant cause in the Czech lands was defeated by Austro-Hungarian Catholic forces and the Brethren were forced to leave Moravia. Initially many, including Jan Komenski, the renowned, progressive educator, went to Poland. The Moravian church, or the Renewed Unity of the Brethren, was reconstituted in 1727 in a settlement named Herrnhut (the Lord’s watch or protection) in Germany, and it was from this period that Moravianism’s remarkable world missionary vision developed.


The story of the Czech Brethren has been significant for many people, not only those within the radical Christian tradition. T. G. Masaryk, the philosopher-politician who founded Czechoslovakia and became its first President in 1918, was inspired by this example of free church life and thought.14 From 1919 to the 1960s, Baptists in Czechoslovakia used the name Unity of the Brethren of Chelchický. The Masaryk tradition has been espoused by the current President of Czech Republic, Václav Havel. The missionary example of later Moravianism, as its missionaries made immense journeys across the world, is also powerful. In some respects Herrnhut incorporated elements of community life that mirrored the Hutterites. This highlights, however, one of the great ironies of the story of the Czech Brethren and Anabaptism – the lack of attempts to achieve understanding. The way in which Hutterites and Czech Brethren lived side by side for decades yet had so little meaningful contact may serve as a warning. The Chronicle (1525-1665) of the Hutterites relied for its information on the Czech Reformation on writings, from the 1520s, of a Dominican inquisitor!15 Those within the Anabaptist radical tradition sometimes feel that other Christians misunderstand them. Efforts often need to be made, however, to overcome mutual misunderstandings.

Ian Randall teaches at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, and Spurgeon’s College, London.


1. M. Spinka, Jan Hus: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 47-52.

2. P. Roubiczek and J. Kalmer, Warrior of God: The Life and Death of John Hus (London: Nicholson and Watson, 1947), p. 159.

3. A.W. Schattschneider, Through Five Hundred Years: A Popular History of the Moravian Church (Winston-Salem, NC: Moravian Church, 1996), p. 16.

4. P. Brock, The Political and Social Doctrines of the Unity of Czech Brethren in the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries (The Hague: Mouton, 1957), p. 44.

5. Schattschneider, Through Five Hundred Years, p. 21.

6. M.L. Wagner, Petr Chelchický: A Radical Separatist in Hussite Bohemia (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1983), pp. 46-55.

7. Wagner, Petr Chelchický, p. 132.

8. Brock, Political and Social Doctrines, p. 86.

9. J.K. Zeman, ‘Restitution and Dissent in the Late Medieval Renewal Movements: The Waldensians, the Hussites and the Bohemian Brethren’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. XLIV (1976), pp. 17ff.

10. J.K. Zeman, The Anabaptists and the Czech Brethren in Moravia (The Hague: Mouton, 1969), pp. 122-3; 138-43.

11. Zeman, The Anabaptists, p. 173.

12. Zeman, The Anabaptists, chapter 4, pp. 177-241.

13. L. Gross, The Golden Years of the Hutterites (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1998), p. 38.

14. For books on T.G. Masaryk see K. Capek, Talks with T. G. Masaryk (North Haven, CT: Catbird Press, 1995).

15. Zeman, The Anabaptists, pp. 269-71.

According to Bauman, postmodernism is ‘no more but no less than the modern mind taking a long attentive and sober look at itself, at its conditions and past works, not fully liking what it sees and sensing the urge to change’.1 Sixteenth-century Anabaptism could be described in very similar terms. In this article I want to suggest that Christians today can find useful points of contact between postmodern ideas and Anabaptist beliefs and lifestyle.

Anabaptism versus postmodernism

There are, of course, a number of real differences between Anabaptist perspectives and postmodern thinking, of which the following are the most significant.

First, Anabaptism is rooted in particular interpretations of Scripture, which is understood as being both truth and revelation from God. Postmodernists would challenge the assertion that there is only one truth or meaning, particularly in regard to the interpretation of biblical texts, and would encourage people to ‘treat all as provisional, assume no absolutes.’

Second, postmodernism suggests that every individual’s own interpretation of life, reality or even Scripture is valid for them as individuals. This increases the likelihood of the dissolution of communities that were formerly cohesive because of their shared interpretations. Anabaptists will try to find a balance between celebrating personal choice and individuality on the one hand, and protecting the well-being of their congregations from the negative influence of excessive individualism on the other. Use of church discipline or the ‘ban’ would appear to postmodernists as a gross infringement into a person’s private life.

Third, sixteenth-century Anabaptists were people of conviction who were willing to die for their beliefs. In contrast, postmodernists would consider it absurd that any personal opinion or conviction would warrant such loyalty.

Anabaptism engaging postmodernism

But there are also several areas of similarity and shared perspective, some of which may enable Anabaptists to engage creatively with postmodernists. For example, forms of centralised authority – those that exercise leadership without prior regard to the wishes of those impacted, or without giving consideration to the uniqueness of circumstances or contingencies in which people find themselves as individuals or in communities – are anathema to postmodernists. They are especially critical of centralised church leadership, where issues of power and reponsibility arise. An Anabaptist leadership style is primarily functional rather than positional, in accordance with the New Testament, and based on spiritual qualification. Leaders who behave as facilitators and initiators at a congregational level, rather than as dictators of the implementation of a decision or policy that has been arrived at by a centralised authority, will be more acceptable to postmodernists.

To the postmodernist it is unacceptable that the insights and interpretations of the ordinary person are of less value than those purporting to be ‘expert’. Anabaptism is well suited to this postmodern ‘demise of elites’, as Anabaptists do not consider there to be any ontological difference between leaders and other congregation members, irrespective of gender, standard of education or spiritual gifting. Shank discerns that for mission to have any chance of succeeding in a postmodern context it must be conducted by a ‘lay apostolate’ who have secular jobs, and consequently have greater credibility than professional missionaries whose very function in a pluralistic society is regarded as illegitimate.2

Another point of contact is the use of dialogue. Dialogue is highly valued within postmodernism, where Tarnas observes the ‘widespread call for and practice of open conversation between different understandings, different vocabularies, different cultural paradigms’.3 Traditionally, Anabaptists have been willing to dialogue and discuss theological matters with others, rather than imposing beliefs upon them. Anabaptist congregations have expressed this by their community hermeneutic, and in more recent times by interactive preaching.4 Neufeld Harder, a contemporary Anabaptist, believes that Anabaptists should welcome ‘dialogue partners’ because in former centuries Anabaptists were victims of oppression. They were deliberately excluded from dialogue; today’s Anabaptists should not practise such exclusivism.5 Reader, working within Anglicanism, encourages Christians to utilise the postmodern preference for dialogue as a way of establishing meaningful contact between Christians and others within their parishes or local communities.6

Postmodernism also appears to favour oral communication, and places importance on the telling of one’s own story. Nowadays soundbites characterise the utterances of politicians and slogans of advertisers, more than well-reasoned and written argument does. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists primarily communicated their beliefs orally, sometimes utilising popular tavern songs and superimposing Anabaptist theology upon them.7 Otherwise, they simply chatted enthusiastically about their new-found faith to their neighbours, co-workers, friends and family members. Groothius suggests that evangelicals ‘ought to capitalise on the postmodern fascination with narrative’, and adds that ‘postmodernists are correct in emphasising the centrality of stories in culture’, given that stories have more entertainment value, but more importantly offer meaning too.8 With the need for urban and inner-city mission to be conducted other than by use of printed material, and the move in society generally away from written to visible and audible communication, the oral tradition in Anabaptist mission is a pertinent model with immense potential.

Then there is the emphasis on holism. Modernity, in the opinion of postmodernists, was overly reductionist in that it demanded that spiritual beliefs be regarded as private, compartmentalised values. Postmodernists favour a holism and pragmatism that refuses to view a person’s life as consisting of unrelated and isolated segments, and insists that the impact of one’s beliefs should be tangible and beneficial to one’s life. The Anabaptist expectation that salvation transforms the totality of a person’s life and results in an ongoing and increasing discipleship of Jesus fits well with this. It is incongruous to Anabaptists that those professing allegiance to Jesus would live in a moral and ethical manner at variance with his personal example and teaching found in the New Testament – salvation is not a preoccupation with the soul and its afterlife.9 A holistic understanding and presentation of salvation is required to reach people in the postmodern context.10

Postmodernism advocates an individualism that asserts that people are free to choose their own spiritual beliefs. Anabaptists are also adamant that individuals have the right to choose their spiritual beliefs without coercion.11 Indeed, modern Anabaptists Koontz and Harder highlight this and encourage the practice of respecting people’s ‘accountable right’ to make their own spiritual decisions.12

Yearning for community is another widely acknowledged feature of postmodernism. So too is diversity within community, as is reflected in the postmodern gathering under the umbrella of the New Age Movement where diversity abounds. Anabaptists also value community, expressed by shared understanding on a core of theological and ecclesiological issues, yet which also permits varying degrees of diversity and individuality from congregation to congregation. Anabaptists such as Koontz and Laurense advocate Anabaptism as an ideal spiritual option, one which facilitates people experiencing a greater degree of fulfilment as individuals within the context of belonging to a community.13

In a departure from the dry rationalism of modernity that has influenced much of western Christianity, postmodernists display a penchant for the subjective and experiential regarding their spiritual and religious preferences, although this is not based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Feeling takes precedence over fact or truth. Anabaptists usually measure subjective or charismatic promptings against Scripture, especially the New Testament, but they have been accused at times of charismatic excess. Anabaptism was at heart a charismatic movement, and open to a degree of (positive) subjectivism, and today to spontaneity and Spirit-led worship.

Postmodernists utterly refute the suggestion that one single philosophical or spiritual metanarrative is sufficient and suitable for all people in all situations. In practice, Anabaptists have habitually contextualised, theologically or otherwise, their message and practice to the circumstances in which they found themselves. No single or identical metanarrative has been worn as a uniform by all Anabaptists.

Postmodernism displays anthropocentric tendencies, in that for the postmodernist, humanity is the centre of the universe, and all life and events are interpreted through human understanding and experience.

Although Anabaptists were not anthropocentric in their fundamental beliefs, in their Christological focus on Jesus’ humanity, and also their emphasis on the outworking of salvation as tangible in a person’s daily life, Anabaptists might also be understood as displaying anthropocentric tendencies.

Finally, postmodernists are unwilling placidly to accept the status quo, be it philosophical or theological, and believe it incumbent upon them to challenge assumptions, in an attempt to unearth biases and flawed thinking. Historically, even at the risk of martyrdom, Anabaptists challenged theological and ecclesiological assumptions that for centuries had been accepted as the way things were intended to be. Holding this practice in common facilitates interaction and dialogue between today’s Anabaptists and postmodernists.

Embracing some of these Anabaptist emphases would provide us with vital missiological keys to present Christianity as accessible and attractive to those with postmodern preferences. This might then precipitate an expansion of the vibrant and biblically radical Christianity that has rarely been seen since the halcyon days of sixteenth-century Anabaptism.

Paul Rothwell is a leader in Fellowship Bible Church, Dublin, and has recently obtained a BA (Hons) in Theology with the Open Theological College.


1. E.A. Castelli, S.D. Moore et al (eds.), The Postmodern Bible: The Bible and Collective Culture (New York: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 3.

2. D. Shank, ‘A Missionary Approach to a Dechristianised Society’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 28 (January 1954), pp. 52-53.

3. R. Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (London: Pimlico, 1991), p. 402.

4. See J. Thomson, ‘Interactive Preaching’, Anabaptism Today (20, Spring 1999), pp. 14-21.

5. L. Neufeld Harder, ‘Postmodern Suspicion and Imagination: Therapy for Mennonite Hermeneutic Communities’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 71 (April 1997), p. 273.

6. J. Reader, Local Theology: Church and Community in Dialogue (London: SPCK, 1994), pp. 4-6.

7. See C.A. Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Tradition (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora, 1997), pp. 173, 178. See also B. Castle, ‘Hymns: Blueprints for Mission’, Missionalia, Vol. 21 (1993), pp. 19-25.

8. D. Groothius, ‘The Postmodernist Challenge to Theology’, Themelios, Vol. 25 (November 1999), p. 20.

9. S. Murray, Radical Christian Groups (Cheltenham: Open Theological College, undated), p. 11.

10. See L. Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans/WCC), pp. 128-40; and D. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis), p. 512.

11. See W. Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981), pp. 290-301.

12. See T. Koontz, ‘Mennonites and Postmodernity’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 63 (October 1989), p. 415; and L. Harder, ‘Mennonite Witness in an Urban World’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 34 (October 1960), pp. 278-279.

13. See Koontz, ‘Mennonites and Postmodernity’, pp. 410, 418; and L. Laurense, ‘The Catholicity of the Anabaptists’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 38 (July 1964), pp. 268, 426.

As readers of Anabaptism Today are aware, to use the term ‘Anabaptist’ and particularly to reflect on the Anabaptists in the first hundred years (1520–1620) is to refer to a very diverse group of communities whose roots are to be found in a variety of theological, cultural and national backgrounds. However, there are certain values common to many of the early Anabaptist groups that can encourage our contemporary reflection. The aim of this article is to ask what were some of the values and concerns behind early Anabaptist thinking and how these insights might inform those of us seeking to develop forms of worship and construct liturgies today.

Two specific sources

In looking for influential figures in the field of worship we are inevitably drawn to Huldrych Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier. Their contribution to the development of Anabaptist worship is crucial. Zwingli, of course, was not an Anabaptist, but the reformation in Zürich, which he led, was a formative influence for those who became the Swiss and South German Anabaptists. In the case of Zwingli, it was public preaching in worship that gave birth to the reformation and maintained it. For Zwingli was not the university professor (Luther) nor the systematic theologian (Calvin) but rather the local pastor working within the life and worship of the local church.

Zwingli and worship

The preaching of Zwingli was strongly biblical, and when he came to Zürich he began to preach systematically through the New Testament. On 1 January 1519 he set aside the old Lectionary and began consecutive expository preaching, starting with the genealogy in Matthew 1. Zwingli was particularly concerned with a common breakdown of morals and actually named individuals from the pulpit. Preaching became Christocentric and life-related. These two approaches were vital for his close friends who became Anabaptists. Preaching in the language of the people was placed at the centre of worship, which was in sharp contrast to the prevailing practice in medieval worship.

The Prophezei School

For Zwingli a key initiative was the development of the Prophezei School. This School was held early in the morning before breakfast on every day except Sunday and Friday. Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, George Blaurock and others who became Anabaptists were founding members. The School became notable, not only for its education of preachers, but for the translations and commentaries it produced between 1525 and 1531. Working with the biblical text in Latin, Hebrew, Greek and German this community of scholars explored what it meant, comparing Scripture with Scripture. Townsfolk would join them as the word was proclaimed. It was this rigorous biblical theological preparation which developed into the preaching of the Reformed church and the Swiss Anabaptists.

Balthasar Hubmaier

Hubmaier was one of the leading figures in the early days of the Anabaptist movement. None of the early leaders who emerged from the Prophezei School published significant works on Anabaptist ideas. This task fell to Hubmaier, a trained theologian, who began his radical reformation journey at the side of Zwingli in the Zürich disputations (public debates on theological issues).

Hubmaier and worship

Hubmaier followed Zwingli in his basic ideas for a radical and creative liturgy. In his Eighteen Theses he argued:

  • Faith cannot be idle. It must work itself out in acts of gratitude towards God and in all sorts of works of brotherly love.
  • The Mass is not a sacrifice and so cannot be ‘offered’ for the dead or the living.
  • Faith must be proclaimed in the language of the land – it is better to translate a single verse of a psalm into each land’s language for people to understand than to sing five whole psalms in a strange language.
  • The hour is coming and now is when no one will be counted a priest unless he preaches the word of God.

Hubmaier focused on simplicity of worship. In July 1526 in Mikulov (Nikolsburg), Moravia, the local lords urged him to write a defence of his beliefs. In this we read: ‘I am well satisfied with singing and reading in church, but not as hitherto practised – only if it is done in the spirit and from the heart and with understanding of the words and for the edifying of the church.’ In his catechism (10 December 1526) he goes on to say:

Where do we worship Christ? Not in a particular place. Even though someone says look there on the altar is Christ! I do not believe it. I worship him seated on the right hand of the Father, there he is my own intercessor, mediator and reconciler to God.

Hubmaier produced three texts that give us his liturgical worship structure – On Fraternal Admonition, A Form for Water Baptism and A Form for Christ’s Supper. These three documents, and the catechism, constitute a rounded picture of Anabaptist worship life, unique among the documents of that century.

A Form of the Lord’s Supper

Hubmaier published his Form of the Lord’s Supper in Nikolsburg in 1527. This has proved to be one of the most influential writings on Anabaptist liturgy, and at the heart of that liturgy is the meal of the believers’ church. The order of worship was similar to that of Grebel’s, with a strong emphasis on the ‘breaking of bread’.

His notes advise that brethren and sisters who ‘wish to hold the table of the Lord’ shall gather at a suitable place and time – people being advised not to come early or late, thereby neglecting evangelical teaching. He wants the table to be prepared with ordinary bread and wine. People are encouraged to be respectably dressed and sit in an orderly way.

Both Zwingli and Hubmaier favoured people receiving bread and wine sitting down and meeting around the table. They argued against the ‘Holy Table’ being set apart from the people (a practice still common in most Protestant churches today) in favour of the vision of the church gathering around the important things – table and word.

For Hubmaier the first element was community confession. This was to be led by the leader of the flock. He advocated, as part of the response, a time of silence and also developed something that has been linked with him in Anabaptist theology and has been recovered in contemporary reflections on Anabaptism – the Pledge of Love, an expression of commitment from believers to each other.

After the believers’ church had responded to the Pledge of Love, then the leader offered the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, including the Words of Institution and Invocation of the Holy Spirit. Then the meal was shared. Hubmaier preferred to place bread into the hands of the believers. Zwingli wanted wooden communion vessels (for the avoidance of pride). Hubmaier was indifferent to this. Zwingli, Hubmaier and the Swiss Anabaptists reformed the meal in a very similar way.

Thus we have the outline structure of Anabaptist worship in Switzerland, South Germany and Moravia in the 1500s. However, we need to be clear that though Hubmaier had a fixed concept and a liturgical form, this does not appear to have been the case with other early Anabaptists. Hubmaier, being a well-trained theologian and pastorally responsible for a church parish, was in a most unusual situation. His work represents one application of Anabaptist themes, theologically creative and pastorally challenging. In other written documents for worship there are general rubrics rather than specific prayers. The Swiss brethren, especially as we detect them in Grebel’s letters to Thomas Muntzer, developed a simpler and strongly biblical liturgy. The Hutterite Chronicle, recording events in 1569, says:

The people met and celebrated the Lord’s Supper to remember and continually refresh the holy memory of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ … It was a celebration of thanksgiving for his love and his unspeakable kindness in what he has done for our sakes: this we in turn should do for his sake in thanksgiving. Such a celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the opposite of the idolatrous sacrament of the priests.

The Swiss Anabaptists had, by 1527, a Congregational Order, which asserted:

  • We recognise the need for the word to be properly preached to us; therefore the brothers and sisters will gather at least three or four times a week.
  • We will read something together and explain it to one another, but not so that two or three are talking at the same time.
  • The Lord’s Supper shall be held as often as the brothers and sisters are together, thereby proclaiming the death of the Lord.
  • The Psalter shall be read daily at home.

It is worth noting here that most Anabaptist communities at this time sang hymns in their worship but, of course, replaced the mediaeval hymns with their own writings, and the Swiss Anabaptists developed their own hymnbook, the Ausbund. The hymns were essentially ones of praise and supplication, and reflected the martyrdom spirit of the Anabaptist communities. In Europe the Ausbund was often an illegal publication and subject to confiscation.

Anabaptist worship today?

Having mapped out some of the principal concerns of two influential thinkers in the development of Anabaptist worship, what values can we identify as we look at our worship today?

The setting

Both Zwingli and Hubmaier were concerned about the setting. We might suggest that their theology speaks of the gathering of the believers around the things that matter – the table and the word. This raises questions about traditional Protestant church architecture and marks it out as being anti-Anabaptist. Hubmaier implies that any place might be used. In the Martyrs Mirror there is one famous etching of Dutch Anabaptists holding their worship in a boat (which, in itself, has interesting theological undertones).

The idea of covenanted believers gathering around the things that matter rules out the architectural principles of the high church. Not for Anabaptists the separation of action and people – the altar cordoned off and a great way distant, guarded from interference by the people of God. Also condemned is a typical preaching-centred Protestant architecture designed to make the preacher visible to the audience, who see only the word proclaimed. This thinking was often based on the model of the Greek emphasis on rhetoric: the pulpit high and central and all else subservient to it, often with a small communion table almost hidden under the pulpit, with long rows of the faithful, or at best theatre-style to hear the word and watch the preacher.

Anabaptist theology appears to call for the gathered community to draw near around the things of importance. Can we propose an Anabaptist church architecture for the third millennium? The community of worshippers meeting around the table and the word all on one level in an architectural setting that draws people together as participators? Here the table would be at the centre with either a simple reading desk adjacent or the word proclaimed out of the midst of the community.

The shape of worship

The normative form of worship for the early Anabaptists appears to have been the word and the meal. This resonates with the biblical description of worship in Acts 2:42 ff. Here is the key weekly event of the gathering people. We may conclude from our reflections on the first Anabaptists that the principal community act of the week was the opening up of the word, sharing in mutual confession and teaching, and breaking the bread in thanksgiving together.

The nature of that worship might be understood as having eight parts, based on the elements discerned from the New Testament and in the reflections of Zwingli, Hubmaier and others:

The Gathering (Hubmaier calls for this to happen in a timely, ordered way)

  • The Confession (the importance of community confession)
  • The Hearing and Proclaiming (Christocentric reading and expounding of the word)
  • The Response and the Silence (the word needs a response)
  • The Recognition (Pledge of Love and the kiss of peace)
  • The Thanksgiving
  • The Breaking and Sharing (around the table together)
  • The Dismissal

Of course, it is possible to see the links with classic Orthodox/

Catholic and Protestant liturgies, but there are also fundamental differences – the accent on the gathering of the community and the crucial point of the Christocentric proclamation. Following that the Recognition – which carries a greater significance as Hubmaier and others understand it than the contemporary formulation of the Peace in modern ecumenical liturgies, declaring much more about the intimate covenanted community.

Proclamation in worship

The word stands central to and at the heart of the worship. The reading and reflection on Scripture is crucial and should have a Christ-centred focus, but also include readings from throughout the canon. This would run counter to much current evangelical worship practice, which often appears to minimise the place of reading the Scriptures together. The word is focused in the community, so the work of interpreting and expounding is not exclusive to one person. Though one person might be the mouthpiece, in the way the word was reflected on, understood and then articulated in Anabaptist communities, there are insights about communal interpretation, about the spectacles we choose to wear (Christocentric) as we approach the Scriptures, and about the importance of a response. The word is not simply proclaimed, it has to be acted on.

The bread and wine

Hubmaier and the first Anabaptists went for the simple table setting, with the normal bread of the community and wine from the local vineyard. At the IBTS Seminary in Prague simple ceramic ware made by a local potter is used, no fancy silver ware or pewter as found in most Protestant congregations. The seminary uses the bread the baker brings each day for ordinary meals and wine from Mikulov (Nikolsburg, Hubmaier’s base) in Moravia. Sign and symbol are important, so the bread is passed around – one loaf, as we are one body. Again, ought we not to abandon the ‘doll’s tea cups’ of the health and hygiene movement and return to the shared cup?

The participants

Most Anabaptists saw the nature of the fellowship to be very deep and binding. Early Anabaptists put a strong sacramental emphasis on this, the gathering people becoming the body of Christ by their participation in the meal, which came out of what they believed about Christ. So, principally the meal was for believers known within the community. Today, with increased travel and movement, we often have people present we do not know and we might want to argue against denying anyone the chance of table fellowship, but that must mean taking a real interest in all who receive and explaining to them the sense of recognition and belonging that participation in the meal implies.


So, I have tried not so much to enter the deeper mystical and theological insights of worship among some Anabaptist groups, but rather to look at certain significant figures and then offer comments from other key participants and to take those biblical and practical insights and set out a contemporary framework for further reflection. For we need to move beyond our understanding of the past and our theologising about Anabaptism to ask what needs to be changed so that our practice reflects our theology.

Keith Jones is the Rector of the International Baptist Theological Seminary of the European Baptist Federation, which is located in Prague, Czech Republic.

For Further Reading

Dale R. Stoffer (ed.), The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1997).

John D. Rempel, The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism: A Study in the Christology of Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck and Dirk Philips (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1993).Eleanor Kreider, Given For You: A Fresh Look at Communion (Leicester: IVP, 1998).

I’m going out to join the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) based in Hebron, from 15 September to 1 October, to help encourage people committed to build peace by peaceful means. After 20 years designing weapon systems and giving military capability to governments to use violence, I went to college for an MA in Peace Studies, studied the Middle East, religion and conflict, and in my dissertation looked at how churches in Nicaragua and South Africa responded to potential revolution. Sadly, for much of the time most churches were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. During this time I came to believe that the way of Jesus is not the way of violence, but rather a way of suffering love, of loving God, loving neighbours, and even loving enemies.

Earlier this year I spent a month in Chicago being trained by CPT, the first European to do so, and after a considerable period of discernment decided to sign up as a ‘reservist’. That commits me for three years, spending a minimum of two weeks per year with one of the teams in a conflict site, raising over £1,500 a year, and explaining to people our mission and practice.

CPT started following a call by Ron Sider in 1984 for Christians to take their peacemaking as seriously as soldiers, who are prepared to kill and die for their belief in their ways of dealing with enemies. His call was for Christians to love their neighbours and enemies, and if necessary put their lives on the line nonviolently to prevent, reduce or transform conflict, being active rather than passively nonresistant. Coincidentally since then, Christians and churches have played significant roles in nonviolent transformations in the Philippines, South Africa, and the fall of the Berlin wall, where it seems to me that in each case prayer opened windows of opportunity for those who had prepared themselves to act. The relative peacefulness of those transitions, compared to others such as Yugoslavia, may be a result of prayer and commitment to nonviolent actions.

That’s a vision I embrace, and sense is the way for me. Violence causes huge fear and a legacy of hatred; nonviolence can bring change without the fear and hatred, and helps people to live together after conflict.

CPT is currently working in Hebron, West Bank (since June 95), Colombia, Chiapas Mexico, and on First Nation issues in the USA and Canada. CPT goes only where it is invited, where it believes it can do some good, where it can resource a team, where at least one party is committed to nonviolence, and where governments of CPT members’ countries are part of the problem. Being located in conflict zones, we do not give development aid, or do evangelism, as these are better done by others, and could prejudice our ability to win the trust of conflicting parties.

Commitment to reconciliation

In the West Bank, our aim is to strengthen and encourage those – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Israelis – who are committed to nonviolent means to bring peace; violence is a major part of the problem. The major divide that we and other peace groups identify is not between Jews and Palestinians, but between those committed to violence as a means to deal with enemies, and those committed to reconciliation and thus peaceful means to peace. There are of course many in the middle between these ways. Surprising though it may seem, Palestinian ‘terrorists’, some Jewish ‘settlers’, and the Israeli government and forces believe the same thing – that the more pain, the more hurt, the more violence and the more fear that you inflict on the other side, the more the other side will be reasonable and see your point of view and agree to what you want. We believe that’s madness, and does not build a future. As has been said, ‘An eye for an eye leaves both blinded.’

Though the conflict is at one level very complex, at another level it comes down to the almost universal question: ‘How do two or more peoples with some history in, or affinity for, a bit of land find ways of living together with justice and equality?’ For without justice and equality there will be no long-term peace, and if they can’t live together then the alternatives are apartheid, voluntary separation or ethnic cleansing; none of those lead towards peace.

So, I go to encourage people to remain nonviolent, as many are. CPT is working alongside Jews, Muslims and Christians. Some of the work will be human rights monitoring; some may include involvement in protests or vigils; I may spend time in Beit Jala or other areas under threat of reoccupation – being there as an international can help to reduce the level of violence, and local people feel safer if internationals are there. However, I am also very aware that I am entering what is almost a war zone. An official international monitoring force might be very effective, but both Israeli and US governments have vetoed this. Having internationals there to record what happens and get the information out to media, churches and governments can influence both sides to curtail violence, as trusted observers are more believed than media reporters.

So I’d ask for your prayers, and those of your church. For safety for myself and the team, but much more that peace – with justice and equality – would come, and that those committed to violence would show restraint. For Christians to love God, their neighbours, and their enemies, even in these difficult situations. That injury and loss of life would be minimised. That anti-Semitism would be eradicated. That ‘Jerusalem would find peace’, and that Jewish and Palestinian Christians would find the same unity that Greek and Jewish Christians did in the early church. I really believe that prayer opens windows of opportunity, so that those who are prepared can then make a real difference.

David Cockburn, whose story is featured in Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland, recently wrote to the editor and other members of the Anabaptist Network with news of a forthcoming trip to the Middle East. David is a reservist with Christian Peacemaker Teams, a faith-based organisation that supports violence reduction efforts around the world. CPT has roots in the Mennonite Church, the Church of the Brethren and the Society of Friends, and includes members from Protestant and Catholic traditions. Contact CPT at P.O. Box 6508 Chicago, IL 60680 USA; Tel: (001) 312-455-1199; Fax: (001) 312-432-1213; E-mail:; website:

In spite of occasional bursts of public debate, it still seems difficult for many people to work up much enthusiasm for a forthright conversation concerning the establishment of the Church of England. Even in supposedly ‘free church’ circles, my experience is that the issue is seen more as one of pragmatism and expedience than principle. The English aversion ‘to rocking the boat’ seems to outweigh any sense that there might be an important issue about the nature, authenticity and vocation of the church at stake here.

Awkward realities

Ironically it is more within than without the established Church1 that a sense of need to open up the establishment question seems to be arising. There are obvious reasons for this. Though ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is the un-theological slogan of first resort in many Anglican circles, the evidence of a breaking process is now substantial. Weekly attendance at parish churches has now slumped well below one million, such that Church House no longer sees fit to publish regular attendance figures.

Deep economic problems threaten the central structures of the Church. Most of its assets are tied up in property and pensions when they are urgently required for outward-looking mission and practical ecumenism. The debate about faith schools is proving difficult, and too much hope is pinned on education as the last foothold for a ‘national church’.

As if all this was not enough, the need to choose a new Archbishop of Canterbury exposes once more the bizarre inability of the Church to select its own leaders (and indeed its own liturgy, orders of ministry and financial strategy) without the involvement of government and state bureaucracy. Within the inner counsels of the Church there is also anxious discussion about what status the Church will have in a future coronation.

Those who have vacated positions of power in an institution are often best placed to see the true scale of its crisis. The recently retired Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, and (even more extraordinarily) the former Archdeacon of York, George Austin, are among those who have changed sides to say that a formal church-state link is no longer appropriate. Even the Dean of Westminster and the Church of England’s adviser on Faith and Order, who have offered spirited defences of establishment, still envisage significant change. It is not just ‘the same old suspects’ (Bishop Colin Buchanan on the evangelical wing of the Church, retired Bishop David Jenkins on its liberal wing, or the Jubilee Group with its radical brand of Catholicism) who are speaking out.

But why is establishment so central to the crisis of the Church? What are the core theological convictions that must not be overlooked in the midst of ecclesiastical trauma? And what significance does this matter have for Anabaptists in particular? Let me tackle those questions in turn.

A false sense of security

Regarding the Church of England itself, establishment is both a ruling ideology (what Valerie Pitt calls ‘a false consciousness’2) and a binding not so much of Church and people but of Church and crown. The state link was specifically created in Tudor times to exclude the papal writ and to secure the monarchy by controlling religious dissent. In a plural, multi-religious and democratic age it seems hugely out of place. Even more importantly, it is a massive mental block on change for the Church itself.

Establishment gives the Church of England the quite erroneous idea that it is slightly more important than other churches (or ‘first among equals’ as it might coyly put it), that its beliefs are close to ‘the heart of the nation’, that the future of the gospel in England is bound up with the Church’s legal status, and that it is the continued expression of a subterranean ‘Christian nation’ preserved from fatal secularism and pluralism by the suffusing of Christianity into the symbols and structures of statehood.

The reality on the streets, as one might say, is remarkably different. My experience is rather that an establishment mentality lulls the Church of England into a false sense of security. Though it is a minority alongside others, it still thinks of itself as part of some vague majority. Though its vicarious availability is but a shadow of the radicality of the gospel, it fails to recognise quite how utilitarian is its appropriation as a national symbol of comfort in times of trouble. While its structures, buildings and assets are largely self-absorbing, it has little idea how to engage with the predominant cultures of those outside its ranks. While it cooperates with other churches, it cannot readily conceive of a mission or ecumenism to which it is not central and defining.

Church as a theological concern

Bishop Hugh Montefiore argues that an established Church offers standards and values that a country should pursue in its public life. But the ‘influence’ of the Church (any church) is now almost extinguished, as Roman Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor has candidly admitted. Besides, Christian practice is not rooted in general values. It flows from the specific experience of community arising from a history going back to the irruption of Jesus Christ into our assumptions about the world and God.3

This is where the theological challenge becomes clearly visible. The life of the true church rests not upon the mutual advantage of a concordat with governing authorities, but upon faithfulness to Jesus Christ, who turns lordship upside down and converts it into service. ‘It shall not be so among you’ (Mark 10.42). Bishops of the Church of England, however, still have to swear allegiance to the crown in all matters, spiritual and material. The words by which this is done are unknown to most Anglicans, but they are there in the Ordinal.

The crown to which the Church is subject is an institution that embodies nothing less than the triumph of a pure hereditary privilege that elevates those born to rule over those born to be subjects. In the realm of God’s metanoia, by contrast, we are citizens and equals.

Given this fundamental compromise of free, gracious faith to hierarchical national polity, it is not surprising that the pattern of the Church of England’s life has become that of lease-holder not sojourner, settler not pioneer. Ease in Zion has translated into a ministry predominantly of chaplaincy rather than prophecy, availability more than engagement. Comfort makes it difficult to face reality: our own, and that of the unequal and uncertain society around us. Whereas the levelling, God-ward vision of the seer is most accessible to those whose faith has pushed them to the margins of power and respectability.

None of this means that disestablishment is a panacea. Becoming one church alongside others requires a re-orientation of thinking and of relationships. Unravelling the complex pattern of ownership and investment by which the ties of state and church are bound will surely follow, and it will prove very difficult. The challenge will be for the Church of England, to become a church in England – and thereby more freely part of the universal, catholic church. Financial self-responsibility, sharing of resources, mission goals directed by need rather than obligation, and the freedom to associate liturgically and ecclesiologically apart from Acts of Parliament will be part of the fresh picture.

It is far better that the Church of England takes this responsibility for deciding its own future while it still has the chance. Sooner or later a secular, democratic state serving a plural society is bound to decide that according privilege to one religious institution is both anachronistic and unseemly. At that point there would be fewer choices left.

Learning from Anabaptists

In taking the path of freedom the Church of England will not have to go it alone. It already has strong links and relationships with other traditions. Anabaptists, especially, can help English Anglicans discover a renewed vision of church which is, in the non-partisan sense of these words, what John Howard Yoder terms both catholic and evangelical: part of the breadth of the whole Christian community and committed to the gospel as a Christ-centred way that requires a different relation to power.

In the Catholic church, which (whatever its own contradictions) has a strong sense of ecclesial identity not dependent on the nation, there has been a renaissance of the peace tradition. That possibility has been stunted in the Church of England. States are always, by definition, going to defend their interests by force. Establishment through them means abandoning our ability to rediscover the centrality of the non-violent Messiah. As part of the ecumenical reconsideration of church-state relations that would surely be entailed by disestablishment, that voice needs to be heard again. And not just within the Church of England. Non-conformism has also been long stifled in the ‘free churches’.

All this implies the very opposite of the ‘sectarianism’ that is usually assumed to be the only alternative to establishment by those who wish to preserve the status quo. I am of course aware that this word has a long, rich and complex use in Anabaptist thinking – far removed from its stereo-typical, quasi-sociological use in popular speech. But if Anglicanism needs to learn gospel non-conformity, then by the same token the gifts of catholicity and provisionality it has nurtured might find more fertile ground once the territory on which all expressions of church have to operate has been levelled. There are some important conversations to be had among dissenters of all traditions on this point.

A two-way challenge

One final observation. For me, as an Anglican influenced both by the radical Catholic tradition and by the Mennonites, disestablishment is fundamentally about the end of Christendom as a way of doing church and the final unweaving of the Constantinian settlement. There are those who think that the collapse of mainline denominations is an inevitable part of this anyway. So why bother with disestablishment?

The answer I would give to Anabaptists and those in newer or independent churches is twofold. First, in the world of which we are both a part and apart, the challenges of institutional politics, the submerging of charisms in the necessities of organisational culture, the need for structures of authority, and the obligation to decide how to use power appropriately are realities we all have to live with. It may be tempting to think that they are aspects of the unique corruption of some larger church bodies. But to believe that would be to fall prey to romanticism and idealism. The small have something to learn from the large in their problems and successes, as well as vice versa.

Second, thinking ecclesiologically, none of us has the right to mistake our freedom for ‘going it alone’. To be the church of Jesus Christ with some degree of rightful accountability asks of all of us that we seek to be appropriately evangelical (oriented towards the Good News), ecumenical (oriented towards God’s love for the whole inhabited earth) and catholic (part of the universal church in our given particularities). In that requirement lies a very different kind of ‘establishment’.

Simon Barrow works for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, but is writing in a personal capacity.


1. I am using Church with a capital ‘C’ to denote the Church of England. I do this not because I share the self-importance this can denote, but because it distinguishes the established Church from the church universal and from ‘the churches’ as gathered Christian communities.

2. Valerie Pitt, ‘The Church by Law Established’, in Kenneth Leech (ed.), Setting the Church of England Free, The Jubilee Group, 2001.

3. I have explored these issues in greater depth in my essay ‘Unravelling the rhetoric of establishment’, in Leech, 2001.

In my previous article I reflected on the role the Great Commission played as both a motivating force for evangelism and theological centre within Anabaptism. Lest I gave the impression that all Anabaptist evangelism was an attraction through their community life I will dwell this time on other factors that made the Anabaptists so effective.

The Great Commission for every believer

In addition to everything said in the previous article, it is clear the Anabaptists, unlike the Reformers, believed the Great Commission had not been intended for the apostles only. It was for their time and was binding on every Anabaptist congregation. They probably went further, being the first church group to believe the Great Commission was the responsibility of every believer.

Johann Kessler, an eyewitness, records the story of Anabaptism in St Gallen.

Thereafter our Anabaptists assumed the apostolic office as the first in the newly established church, believing that it was their obligation to follow Christ’s command when he said, ‘Go ye into all the world, etc’ (Mark 16:15). They ran beyond the city gate into the outlying villages, regions, and market towns to preach there … (Harder, 1985:423)

Historian Hans Kasdorf notes of the Anabaptists:

When asked what compelled them to go, they answered without hesitation: the Great Commission (Kasdorf, 1984:62).

So, who is responsible for the Great Commission today? If I am a true Anabaptist I have to take seriously that my little congregation in Gillingham is! I have to make it clear in my preaching and in my discipling of younger

Christians that they, each one of them, has a clear Great Commission obligation. Do they realise it is not primarily the pastor’s job, or to be left to mission agencies? And do I take seriously the fact that if they don’t do it, I still must?

The use of relational networks

To say that Anabaptists used relationships to spread the gospel seems a statement of the obvious. However, in our age of methods and cold-calls it is a point worth making. We may consider their use of relationships under three different headings.

First, they were quick to use their own personal oikos (family/kinship group). Such an approach provided a natural network of existing, strong relationships for the would-be evangelist to build on. The fact that a friend or family member had converted to the notorious Anabaptists no doubt helped guarantee an inquisitive audience.

Then there were neighbours and acquaintances.

Bible study groups met in homes and invited unbelievers from the neighbourhood with the objective of winning them to the Lord. Social events such as weddings and similar community affairs … provided excellent opportunities to make new acquaintances and to invite people to a Bible Reading (Kasdorf, 1984:60).

An advantage for Anabaptists was that, with their movement increasingly subject to arrest and persecution, and their preaching banned, working among those with whom they already had day-to-day contact provided cover for their activities.

The third network is worthy of special consideration – that created by their trade or work. Katherin Lorenzen (later the wife of Jacob Hutter) testified in court about her conversion, claiming that her employer, a Christian baker, and other employees had witnessed to her and persuaded her to join the Anabaptist sect. Indeed, the workplace often seems to have functioned for Anabaptists as an informal ‘Bible school’.

A fascinating court record exists of the trial of an Anabaptist called Hans Nadler, a needle seller to cobblers and tailors, and an active evangelist. In his trial he gave simple testimony of his methods (Snyder, 1995:107). These may be outlined as follows:

Introductory witness. Nadler would begin witnessing in the course of normal conversation by mentioning the high cost of true religious commitment in the current moral and political climate.

  • Simple enquiry. He would then enquire where his listener stood on such matters, and whether they were seeking after spiritual truth.
  • Explanation of faith. If the other person seemed interested, Nadler would then explain his own faith in Christ, as clearly as he could.
  • Outline the cost. Nadler would follow his explanation of the message with clear warnings of the great cost involved in truly following Christ. This cost was twofold: the inner cost of a life of selfless service and the outer one of persecution.
  • Basic nurture. Although not in a position to baptise, if any conversation led to the person expressing a sincere desire to embrace the Anabaptist way, Nadler would conclude by giving basic instruction in the new faith, principally through two well-known ‘tools’: the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

Historian Arnold Snyder comments:

Nadler’s personal, direct and simple approach seems to have been the norm in Anabaptist evangelization of the people who were not part of one’s own circle of friends and family (Snyder 1995:107).

As I reflect on this, two things spring to mind. First, the Anabaptists put most of us to shame when it comes to personal witnessing. How often do we say to people that the most difficult place to witness is at home? How often do we tell people that ‘others’ who are more detached have a better chance of reaching our loved ones? Yet the Anabaptists seem to have made family and friends their first priority. Perhaps they were experiencing such a transformation of life, and not just religion, that family witnessing was unavoidable!

The Anabaptists also show there is much benefit from deliberately and intentionally training every new believer in an appropriate ‘Nadler method’. Such training would cover how to: identify one’s relational network; introduce spiritual subjects into a conversation; tell one’s own conversion story; explain the Christian message (including culturally relevant illustrations); and offer basic encouragement to a new convert.

As a small start in this direction, our church plans to give every new member a shoebox containing: a jar of coffee (to encourage friendship evangelism); a number of tracts and booklets (for them to give away or use in conversation); a booklet and/or set of tapes outlining our church’s vision and values; and a short tape on a method of personal evangelism.

It’s not earth-shattering, I know, but it is something.

Helpful tools

Nadler’s use of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed show that Anabaptists employed a range of devices to help them communicate their faith, especially among the illiterate and poorly educated. Two approaches in particular stand out:

1. Songs Anabaptists were great song writers. It was not uncommon for their hymns to have 20 or more verses. Such songs often told stories, usually those of Anabaptist martyrs, and in so doing reiterated core beliefs of the movement. Here is one example, translated by Hans Kasdorf (1984:63):

As God his Son was sending
Into this world of sin.
His Son is now commanding
That we this world should win
He sends us and commissions
To preach the gospel clear,
To call upon all nations
To listen and to hear.

And if thou, Lord, desire
And should it be thy will
That we taste sword and fire
By those who thus would kill
Then comfort, pray, our loved ones
And tell them, we’ve endured
And we shall see them yonder –
Eternally secured.

When one sees how the Anabaptists used hymns and Scripture, one is led to consider the whole area of worship/liturgy. In many churches this represents the backbone of church life. Indeed, in our predominately ‘Sunday event’ approach, the liturgy is church for many people. If we are to be missionary congregations we will need to develop new forms of liturgy that reflect God’s mission agenda. Indeed, is not mission an expression of the very being and character of God? In other words, how about a missionary liturgy?A mission-shaped liturgy, and hence a mission-shaped worship, could help form a mission-shaped congregation.

When I think of my own church’s ‘thirty minutes of singing’ format I ask, what place does God’s heart for the lost find in our worship? Does the shape of our service reflect the missionary agenda of God, or our own self-centred desire for a bless-up? (And I’ve got no one to blame but myself.)

2. Topical concordances Anabaptists gathered together their most important Scripture references and recorded them in concordances, usually under themed headings. Some seemed to have been intended for learning by rote, while others were hand-copied from person to person. The themes included baptism, the ban (church discipline), the Lord’s Supper, discipleship, suffering and martyrdom, and apostasy. Such concordances were evidently very effective in helping the faithful to understand both their Anabaptist faith and their Bibles.

Biblical illiteracy

Why is it – in an age where we have more versions, more freely available, than ever before – that so few Christians seem to know much about what the Bible says? It is sobering to think that in many cases an illiterate 16th-century Anabaptist would have known more Scripture than a degree-educated 21st-century evangelical! Again I must ask, Why? I offer three suggestions:

1. A loss of faith in the Bible Many believers have lost their nerve in grappling with scientific issues like evolution and cosmology, and moral issues like homosexuality and genetic engineering. As Bishop Lesslie Newbigin would have put it, we have become content to allow the Bible to be private devotional opinion, not public proclaimable truth. If Anabaptists

had believed that, there would never have been a Radical Reformation. However, rhetoric will solve nothing. There is a responsibility on my part to educate believers on how to deal with these issues. Silence from the pulpit all too easily sounds like a confession of defeat.

2. A loss of the lectionary The tendency in most evangelical churches is to preach through a book or thematic series. However helpful this is, one must acknowledge a downside. The various lectionaries followed by many denominations not only require readings from the Old Testament, New Testament and the Gospels each Sunday, but also ensure that, over a period of time, the main themes, events, characters and truths of the faith are remembered. The comment of one house church leader – ‘What’s Lent? We have enough trouble remembering Christmas and Easter’ – is hopefully not typical. There is also the tendency to focus on smaller and smaller parts of the Bible. To preach through Galatians one verse at a time, or to take six months to study Mark’s Gospel may be commendable, but does the congregation end up learning more and more about less and less?

3. We are making church membership too easy If someone wishes to be baptised and (depending on our practice) join the church, should we not insist on proper preparation? Attending a course is not enough. A good baptismal/membership class should teach the broad story of the Bible (salvation-history) and how to read it. After all, if baptism means anything, it surely means baptism into Christ and the story he has written and is writing.

Apostolic teams

Initially Anabaptist preachers were often driven from town to town by persecution. However, the movement quickly began to bring more organisation to the missionary task. The Augsburg Synod divided up Europe for missionary activity and led to the formation of several ‘teams’ for church planting. Within two weeks of that meeting the Augsburg church alone had sent more than 24 missionaries to appointed places n Germany and Austria.

Typically Anabaptist teams consisted of three people – the preacher, a deacon (with special responsibility for practical ministry), and a ‘common lay brother’ (who acted as the messenger between church and team).

In the event that one of the team members was apprehended, the church was immediately notified so that reinforcement could be sent and those in prison visited and their needs supplied. (Kasdorf, 1984:65)

It was probably under the Hutterites that Anabaptist missionary endeavour was most organised.They sent mission teams each spring and autumn, and covered most of Germany and Austria, as well as making visits to Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Bohemia, Denmark and Slovakia. They developed a formal missionary training program, which may have been compulsory for every believer.

The Anabaptist practice of sending out small mission teams is one that we might fruitfully reproduce. Teams can be sent to other churches for evangelistic purposes, such as ‘faith sharing’, or for various social action projects. Such mission trips, especially if conducted in an ongoing partnership with the other church, can be a transformational experience for those who participate, as well as being helpful to the receiving church.

Is there any reason why small teams should not be sent out to plant churches? As many move away from Christendom and ‘Sunday event’ models, the need to send a big team armed with Sunday-school teachers and musicians is decreasing. How many people do you need to plant a cell church?

An end-time perspective

The Anabaptists believed that ‘time was short’. There was widespread apocalyptic fervour at the time, with the Reformers too believing that the last day was at hand. This undoubtedly helped the spread of Anabaptism:

The Anabaptists were in full harmony with large sectors of society in expecting an imminent end to the world … Millennial expectations predispose those who hold them to make dramatic choices about priorities and behaviour. (Kraybill, 1995:6).

This factor should not be overlooked. The doctrine of the second coming is all too easy to ignore in our context, where humanity’s destiny seems in our own hands and fear of the sudden destruction of the world has receded. Yet the New Testament has ten references to Christ’s return for every one to his birth. A focus on Christ’s return in preaching and teaching would help, but it also needs to be reflected in our liturgy, hymnody and discipleship programmes. This is not a call to return to a simple-minded revivalism. Rather, it reflects the conviction that for Christians of the New Testament era, and for 16th-century Anabaptists, Christianity was lived in the knowledge that history would not go on for ever, and that its ending was closer now than at any time before. Such a conviction might bring an earnestness and urgency to the task of evangelism that the church desperately needs to reclaim. It might also act as a counterbalance to the increasing consumerism seeping into the church.

All of which has to be applied to me before it is applied to anyone else. How would I be living if I were really conscious of the immanent return of Jesus? I probably would not spend half the time worrying about the things I do at the moment. Would I allocate my time differently? Would I have greatly different priorities? Would I evaluate myself and my ‘success’ differently? I don’t know. But I must acknowledge that life is often lived without any genuine expectation that Christ could return soon. I wish it were otherwise.


The secret of the Anabaptists cannot be distilled into a formula or method. They had done nothing less than discovered a new form of Christianity, and it changed their lives. For them it was true, and it worked. No new idea, model or scheme holds the answers for us either. However, like them, we must dare to read the New Testament again with open eyes and open minds, seeking not to confirm our existing beliefs, but rather with a heart that says, ‘Lord, show me a better way.’ For them what emerged was a Christianity where community was to the fore, where faith led to a changed life, where discipleship really meant something, and where all of life was lived under the shadow of the return of Christ. I long for something similar for myself.

Darren Blaney is pastor of The Bridge Baptist Church, Gillingham, Kent

Books referred to:

Leland Harder (ed.), The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1985).

Hans Kasdorf, ‘The Anabaptist Approach to Mission’ in W.R. Shenk (ed.)

Anabaptism and Mission (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1984).

Nelson Kraybill, ‘Discipleship in the Balance: Enthusiasm in the Anabaptist Tradition of Dissent’ (unpublished paper, London Mennonite Centre, 1995).

C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1995).

Fifty years ago, in 1953, the London Mennonite Centre opened its doors. But the Centre’s story grew out of a longer story – the Anabaptist movement in the Reformation which led to the Mennonite Church. There were Anabaptist stories in England before 1953. Some, such as the crushing of an Anabaptist church and burning of two Anabaptists in 1575, are well known to many readers of Anabaptism Today. Other are less well-known: the publishing by English Baptists in 1853 of an English translation of Martyrs’ Mirror, or the influence of English Baptists on continental Mennonites, exemplified in the solid, churchy building of Weierhof Mennonite Church, in Germany, built in 1837 as a replica of the solid, churchy Tottenham Baptist Church.

There is also the story of North American Mennonite relief work in England during World War II, which in 1940 brought John Coffman to England and which distributed food, clothing and blankets from a large house at 80 Shepherds Hill, Highgate. At the end of the war, the relief workers moved to the more immediately needy continent. John Coffman, with his wife Eileen Pells, whom he married in 1943, moved to Canada, but then returned to England, where they engaged in evangelistic work in the heart of London, first at the Finsbury Mission and then, supported by the Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM), at the Free Gospel Hall in Kentish Town.

But North American Mennonites did not forget England completely. They knew that there was racial discrimination in England, and that students from what was then the British Empire (especially India and Africa) were having difficulty obtaining housing. So MBM decided to provide a counter-witness by opening a student residence in London. Where was more natural for them to look than a part of London already familiar to Mennonites – Highgate, where there were large houses, conveniently near a tube station?

In 1953, for £6,000, MBM purchased 14 Shepherds Hill – just down the road from the former centre – and Quintus and Miriam Leatherman volunteered to lead the new venture.

International village

The Leathermans established the Centre and its characteristic ethos. Quintus, gentle and courtly, had taught high school in Philadelphia; Miriam was a nurse, quick and excitable. In 1952, both took early retirement to come to London, bringing with them two of their three children. With children among the students, the Centre from the outset felt like a family. Miriam cooked countless meals for students – her Sunday dinners were legendary. She also presided properly at tea-time, which became another Centre institution. The Leathermans functioned as parents to generations of students from all over the world who felt displaced from their families and cultures. They savoured England: they entered into a national Friday ritual by taking the bus to Archway to buy fish and chips. They especially loved people and enabled the Centre to become a kind of international village; smells of Ugandan, Chinese and Indian cooking wafted from the Centre’s various kitchens to mingle in the entrance.

The Leathermans’ Christian witness was not bookish or verbal. There were few books in the Centre’s library and no teaching courses. But people, influenced by them, became Christians: their character and loving hospitality were deeply attractive. The London Mennonite Fellowship (LMF) met weekly under Quintus’ leadership; it was a chaplaincy to students, but outsiders also came – some, such as Karel and Constance Kulik, were drawn to Mennonite theology and way of life; others were Germanic Mennonites who through war had ended up in England. On Sunday evenings the Leathermans took the bus down the hill to support the Coffmans at the Free Gospel Hall.

The Leathermans were supported by a remarkable succession of North American volunteers. And they made it clear that the Centre’s ministry and ethos were not solely their creation: they relied heavily on resident students to build the Centre’s community. These included Dolly Cheung (Knapp) from Malaysia, Les and Lynn Fairfield from the U.S. (Katie Kreider’s parents, who became Christians at the Centre), Richard and May Kwan from Hong Kong and Malaysia (who laid out the Centre’s garden and planted the roses), and English Christians Neil and Pauline Summerton, for whom the Centre was their first marital home and a lifelong interest. The community generally worked together well. Symbolic of this, in 1967 many people gathered to tear down the fence dividing the garden of No.14 from that of the recently purchased No.16. Axes felled trees and bushes, and amidst rejoicing there was a great bonfire. Similar cooperation was evident every December in ‘leaf day’, another Centre tradition (when friends come to LMC to clear leaves from the large back garden).

In 1969, the Leathermans retired and MBM replaced them with Menno and Shirley Friesen from Iowa. They were a hard act to follow, but the Friesens brought their own strengths to this community of international students. Menno was an academic, with a doctorate in American literature, who brought discussion and intellectual stimulation. Shirley and their three children brought the gift of hospitality and the humanising, familial qualities already so familiar in the Centre. Wisely they preserved established traditions in the Centre’s life. Tea-time continued to flourish; loving care and listening were much in evidence; the smells of disparate cuisines continued to mingle.

This was the era of the Viet Nam War and of anticipated international revolution, so there was much to discuss. Contacts with English academics brought new insight into the cultures of London and England. The discussions could be passionate; there was a bloc of Latin American residents who were vehemently anti-American. But at their best, the discussions – even when anti-American perspectives predominated – were good humoured and exploratory. Iconic of this was Joanilio Teixeira, a chess-playing, pipe-smoking Brazilian, who did a brilliant PhD in economics and has become one of his country’s premier economists; he, his wife Selma, and two children were exemplary student residents. In 1970, Lesley Mabbett (Misrahi) moved into the Centre to which she has made such a remarkable contribution. The LMF continued meeting during this period, but was not a priority.

Mission to England

In 1974, Alan and Eleanor Kreider arrived from Indiana as the new directors. They had been student residents for two years in the 1960s, had been profoundly shaped by the Leathermans’ witness and ethos, and were determined to foster these. But they wanted to place a heavier emphasis on the Centre’s mission to England. So, assisted by Lesley Mabbett, they recruited Stephen Longley and Richard Bird, English Christian students; and soon these were joined by Helen Maddox (Yocum). For the next seven years the mixture of English students with counterparts from India, Japan, France and Pakistan was congenial and spiritually productive. The LMF began anew to preoccupy Centre staff. At the urging of Stephen Longley, the Fellowship in 1976 reformed itself, covenanting to be a congregation explicitly in the Anabaptist tradition; Stephen and his new Finnish wife Margot Kottelin were part of this from the start. It wasn’t always clear how it could cohabit with the international student programme; and in 1980-1981 the Fellowship had times of turbulent disagreement. Nevertheless, in 1981 it began to grow rapidly. People were drawn to its worship, and also to the domestic setting of the worship; in what other church could you worship God, eat a wonderful soup, and then play croquet? By 1983 the fifty plus attenders had overspilled the Centre’s largest room, and the LMF began its journey to find a home, which ended, in 1987, in Wood Green: hence the church’s current name, Wood Green Mennonite Church (WGMC).

The 1980s were tense politically. Hopes or fears of world revolution were replaced by fears of nuclear war; as cruise missiles arrived in Britain, Christians of many denominations began to turn to Mennonites who, unlike most Christians, had been thinking all along about issues of war and violence. At the same time, Anabaptism began to appear on the radar screens of theologians and church leaders; John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and Doris Janzen Longacre’s More with Less Cookbook all said, intellectually and practically, that ‘no one could truly know Jesus unless they followed him in life.’ So the Centre started to sell books. Irish Anabaptist Mike Garde founded Metanoia Book Service by his itinerant promoting, and others have built on this, notably Pauline Summerton and then Will Newcomb, who came to Mennonites through the Christian peace movement. The Centre’s library began to grow, and its peculiar collection of Anabaptist, Mennonite, radical theological and peace literature was given coherent cataloguing by Janice Kreider, a librarian from the University of British Columbia.

In 1981, the Centre decided to conclude its 28 year ministry to international students. Universities now had halls of residence, laws proscribed racial discrimination in housing, and the escalation of fees for international students meant that only those from wealthy families could afford to study in the UK. So into the Centre moved members of the LMF to live in community and to host the many people who came to use its resources and experience its hospitality. The Centre’s life remained intense, as church members struggled to learn the skills of community living. Food cooked by the residents (including the emerging chef Andrew Kreider), was often delicious, but the smells of its cooking were less varied than in student days.

In the 1980s, staff became involved in the Christian peace movement, attending and helping organise worship services at nuclear bases. They were increasingly invited to teach and speak. In 1982, eminent Evangelical Anglican leader John Stott invited Alan Kreider to All Souls, Langham Place to debate with Marshall of the Royal Air Force, Lord Cameron, on ‘The Defence Debate’; this gave the Centre new visibility. Speaking opportunities in Baptist, Anglican, charismatic and evangelical circles came to various members of staff. On one occasion, Wally Fahrer gave a speech that had life-changing impact on inner-city church-planter Stuart Murray. Recognising that staff were being pulled hither and yon to speak at the whims of others, the Centre in 1986 started its own teaching programme – Cross-Currents. Chris Marshall, a New Zealand PhD student in New Testament, co-founded this with Alan and Eleanor Kreider; and ever since it has taught courses both at the Centre and on the road which have popularised Christian discipleship in the Anabaptist tradition. Centre staff and residents also began the discipline of daily corporate prayers. This was reflected in 1990 in the building of the Centre’s prayer hut, designed by Andy Watts, which provided a new resource for the Centre’s ministries – two leading urban pastors, Jane and Geoff Thorington-Hassell, became engaged in this place of prayer!


In 1991, the Kreiders moved to Manchester and were succeeded as directors by Nelson and Ellen Kraybill. The Kraybills built on the work of their predecessors, but they brought special gifts. Nelson brought biblical scholarship – he is an authority on the book of Revelation – while Ellen brought the touch of a physiotherapist and the gift of friendship. Cross-Currents continued, as did tea-time, daily prayers and involvement in WGMC. Nelson was a gifted communicator and was asked to address widely varied audiences. On one occasion, in the Wembley Conference Centre, he presented an Anabaptist understanding of the gospel, lights flashing and artificial smoke billowing, to thousands of youthful Jesus Army recruits. He also exercised his gifts of practical theological communication as he walked, with members of the Anabaptist Network, on the ancient way from Farnham to Canterbury – which led to his widely used book, On the Pilgrim’s Way.

Clarification of vision was one of his gifts. Nelson brought new coherence to the Centre’s organisation as he worked with people like Dave Nussbaum and Lizzie Smith to initiate a strategic plan; from now on the Trust and Council would provide effective oversight over the Centre’s programmes. Nelson was director when the Anabaptist Network was founded. In response to the vision of Stuart Murray, in 1991 a network of Anabaptist sympathisers across the UK was founded, which was soon sponsoring study groups, a theologians’ group, conferences and a journal. Nelson co-edited Anabaptism Today with Stuart, with Nelson responsible for making contributions concise, cutting out unnecessary padding; for good reason he was known as ‘the butcher of Shepherds Hill’.

Nelson also gave direction to the emerging incarnation in England of conflict transformation skills that are the product of an Anabaptist understanding of the Bible. He invited his brother, Ron Kraybill, founding director of Mennonite Conciliation Service, to London to lead a mediation skills training course in 1994. Among those attending this was Alastair McKay, a WGMC member and chair of the LMC Council. Alastair and Nelson were excited by the training and gathered interested participants to establish a mediation service. Bridge Builders was launched as a community mediation service in 1995, but proved unsustainable on a voluntary basis. However, Nelson began to receive invitations to teach churches about handling conflict and to offer mediation services. He and Alastair had a vision to serve British churches in this area and, with a grant from Mennonite Central Committee, Bridge Builders was relaunched in 1996 with Alastair working a day a week alongside Nelson.

The Centre in the Kraybill years was recognisably itself; the ethos, which outsiders note upon entering the building, remained one of palpable peace. Now Eileen Coffman presided at tea-time (John had died in 1990); Jocelyn Murray engaged in discussion of missiology with all and sundry; and the Kraybills’ friends from the neighbourhood and beyond were often present for tea and conversation. Who would it be today? Arfon Jones? Tricia Fowler? Howard Moss? Judith Gardiner? Helen Atkinson-Roe? In the Kraybill years, Wayne and Leabell Miller provided animated and gracious hospitality for the Centre’s guests, as Bob and Freda Milne, Bill and Liz Barge and Peter Olsen had done in the Kreider era, and as Abner and Virginia Schlabach and Jerry and Becky Miller would later do; the Centre’s witness owes an incalculable debt to the Christian character of these and other volunteers.


In 1996, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary called Nelson Kraybill to be its president, so the LMC Trust invited Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation from California to be the Centre’s leaders, supported by MBM. Mark brought the skills of a professional theologian and ethicist, while Mary’s decades of experience of inner-city ministry gave her keen insight into the pastoral dimensions of urban mission. The core traditions continued: daily prayers, tea time, leaf day, hospitality, encouraging the use of the library and prayer hut, and participation in the WGMC. The Centre’s familial character and peace continued, enjoyed by visitors and regulars such as Esther Misrahi, Charlotte Gardiner and Veronica Zundel. When Eileen Coffman and Jocelyn Murray died (in 2000 and 2001), there was a widely shared sense of grief.

Under Mark and Mary, Cross-Currents continued to grow; increasingly its courses were held at the nearby Cholmeley Evangelical Church – 160 people attended a conference, led by Mark’s friend, notable American theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Mark established connections with English theologians both prominent and emerging – Jeremy Thomson and Tim Foley were special conversation partners – and wrote extensively, while Mary worked intensively with urban Christians and their churches. The staff grew to nine, four of whom are English; Metanoia Book Service grew, not least through a mutually beneficial collaboration with Noel Moules’ Workshop teaching programme. And the Centre and the Anabaptist Network continued to be resources to each other, even as the precise nature of the relationship was negotiated, at times painfully.

Bridge Builders’ work was expanding and in 1997 Alastair went for further training in Eastern Mennonite University’s Conflict Transformation Program. Andrew Lewis-Smith and Mary Thiessen Nation kept up the impetus by leading seminars for denominational leaders and theological students. When Alastair returned in 1999, Bridge Builders moved into full-time operation. It has sponsored week-long seminars in conflict transformation co-led by Alastair and gifted international resource people, such as Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. Bridge Builders has also responded to invitations to mediate in congregational conflicts. Among those helped by it is the Archbishop of York, David Hope, who is on the Council of Reference. His participation is indicative of a theme that has emerged in the Centre in recent years: the potential of a minority with a coherent point of view, such as the Mennonites, to provide a witness of ecumenical resonance. In the same way, the Anabaptist Network has opened new horizons for people in many denominations as the centrality of Jesus, community and peace emerge as themes for post-Christendom Christians.

In 2002, the Thiessen Nations left for academic assignments in Virginia, and the LMC Trust invited Canadians Vic and Kathy Thiessen, supported by the Mennonite Mission Network, to provide leadership. Elsewhere in this issue Vic gives his vision of the doors that, after 50 years, are continuing to open up for the Centre. Eleanor and I, and the many other people whose lives have been touched by the Centre’s first half century, will be praying for God’s wisdom and empowerment as the visions of Vic and his co-workers are tested and realised. As we celebrate the Centre’s 50th birthday in June, we will also be thanking God for his faithfulness and generosity. The LMC has been a marginal development in the history of Christianity in Britain in the past half century. But the Bible reminds us continually that God delights to use marginal people. May the Centre, as it gains institutional strength and influence, not lose its marginality. And may it reflect the words of its Saviour and Teacher, who says to a loving, marginal and indomitable church (Rev 3.8), ‘I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.’

Alan Kreider, now living in Elkhart, Indiana, is Mission Educator for the Mennonite Mission Network, teaches Church History and Evangelism at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and is addicted to Frank Cooper’s Thick Cut Marmalade.

For more info see London Mennonite Centre’s 50th Anniversary for a presentation, report and photos.

There is one passage in the Gospels in which Jesus endorses the possession of weapons of violence, if not their violent use:

He said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”: and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’ (Luke 22:35-38, NRSV)

Does this mean that Jesus, though he had previously advocated love of enemies,1 was now envisaging that extreme situations would arise for disciples, in which violence would be an unfortunate necessity? Was he, in his true humanity, accommodating himself to the ‘non-ideal’ context of human fallen-ness, as some have suggested?2

The written records of the Anabaptists give us no clues as to how they understood this passage.3 Before their time, the notion of ‘the two swords’ had been used to justify the Holy Roman Empire by early medieval thinkers, and then theorists of the High Middle Ages grounded the notion of a papal theocracy in the same. For Martin Luther, however, it was a literal interpretation of Romans 13:4 that was basic to his conception of ‘Sword’, and this dominated the discussion of all temporal use of force between the Magisterial Reformers and the Anabaptists.

It is in more recent times that Mennonites and others in the peace tradition have tried to find an understanding of this passage that escapes an endorsement of violence from Jesus himself. I will briefly discuss three of these before suggesting what I believe to be a more convincing approach.

Non-literal readings of the passage

In a previous generation, Guy Herschberger pointed out that the disciples, alert to plots to kill their master, had already acquired swords with which to protect him. However, they had failed to grasp Jesus’ radical rejection of violence, as they had many other elements of his mission. Thus Jesus’ command here should be taken ironically as a rebuke to Peter’s lack of faith (especially in view in the preceding verses, 22:31-34), and Jesus’ conclusion, ‘It is enough,’ should be taken as a regretful ‘What more can I say?’4

More recently, John Stoner has seen our passage as Jesus’ final examination of the disciples’ grasp of his teaching of non-violence, focused on the threat of violence in the impending crisis. Their failure to protest or question his command constituted failure of the test, while his response meant, ‘That is enough. Obviously you do not understand. We shall go on.’5

Richard Hays, in the course of an important chapter-length presentation of the New Testament case against the use of violence, attends to our passage. He takes Jesus’ command as a figurative warning of impending opposition, while the disciples’ literalist response provokes the impatient dismissal, ‘Enough already!’6

Now non-literal ways of taking Jesus’ command are common among commentary writers on Luke who accept the integrity of the narrative, for they must take account of Jesus’ rejection of violence at his arrest (22:49-51). Hays supports his figurative reading of Jesus’ instruction by quoting Howard Marshall: ‘The saying can be regarded only as grimly ironical, expressing the intensity of the opposition which Jesus and his disciples will experience, endangering their very lives.’7 The general approach of more recent commentators, however, has been to take Jesus’ command as a metaphorical reference to the impending reality of hostility against the disciples, not just during, but after his passion.8

However, I can see why such explanations are unsatisfactory to sceptics; figure and irony are difficult to prove. I believe that irony is employed elsewhere in Luke’s writing (e.g. in Paul’s remark concerning the high priest in Acts 23:5), but the only reason to appeal to a figural interpretation here is Jesus’ rejection of sword-use later in the chapter. More immediate considerations count against it. First, if the disciples had misunderstood Jesus, why did he not correct them – as he did on other occasions? Immediately before this interchange, he had punctured Peter’s extravagant expression of devotion (22:31-34). Second, Jesus supplies an explanation of his command in his quotation from Isaiah 53:12 in verse 37. His double insistence here on scriptural fulfilment concerns the culmination of his own career, i.e. in the next few hours. This requires that the command is not a general instruction for the disciples’ future disposition in mission, but has to do with an immediate estimation of Jesus as outlaw (in the eyes of the authorities?).

Furthermore, it is true that several times in Luke Jesus warns the disciples about their encountering hostility (9:23-27; 12:4-12; 21:12-19), and that two of these clearly refer to post-Easter experiences. Yet, hostility has already been expressed towards Jesus and his disciples (6:1-11; 11:53-54), and he has already said, ‘From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three’ (12:52). Conversely, in Luke’s second volume, the followers of Jesus experience ‘the goodwill of all the people’ (Acts 2:47), at least initially. So, Luke portrays the disciples encountering a mixture of goodwill and hostility both during and after Jesus’ earthly ministry – there is no overall shift to a bleaker reception of the disciples after his death and resurrection.

A more straightforward reading

Jesus’ command in verse 36 should not be taken as modifying or superseding his earlier commands as to the apostles’ mission lifestyle in general. He wanted his disciples to carry literal swords as his end approached in order to appear among outlaws, precisely because he had such a binding understanding of Scripture’s delineation of his own career. In which case, Jesus’ final remark in the interchange (v. 38) must be taken as at least a measure of approval; ‘Two swords are enough for me to be counted among the lawless.’ How then to reconcile this with the account of the arrest later the same evening (22:47-53)?

There can be no argument that when ‘it came down to the wire’ Jesus rejected the use of the sword, the bearing of which he had earlier enjoined, in an explicit statement, ‘No more of this!’ (v. 51). The miraculous healing of the severed ear emphasised that violence had no place in his peaceable kingdom: its effects were reversed. Jesus then spoke to those who had come to arrest him, insisting that his previous conduct did not warrant their preparations for violence. The Jewish authorities were revealing their true colours by making a forcible arrest away from the crowds: Jesus recognised the darkness of the powers to which they had given themselves (v. 53b), and with which he must grapple. So we still have an apparent anomaly: Why at his arrest did Jesus reject the identification of himself as bandit, if he previously instructed the carrying of swords in order to be associated with outlaws?

So far I have said nothing about the incident that occurs between the two swords interchange and the arrest. Luke depicts Jesus’ struggle in the unnamed place near the Mount of Olives (22:39-46) in terms of his reluctance to go through with the ‘cup’ of suffering. But what alternative was there by which he might accomplish his Messianic task? – it was a choice between the way of suffering or a campaign of violence. Perhaps the thought came to Jesus that those two swords could be wielded in a dramatic break-out, and that, having once resorted to violence, he could subsequently lead a peasant army to victory over the hated Roman occupying forces. If we try to read the account as a genuine struggle – without a pre-determined view of its outcome – then we may imagine that Jesus had no exact blueprint in his mind as to what would transpire.9 Of course, he had the outline of betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection (9:22; 9:44; 18:32f.), but his preoccupation with scriptural fulfilment indicates that this could be filled out only in limited ways. He did not know exactly what was to be done with the swords when he spoke about obtaining them, except that their appearance would entail outlaw associations. The Jewish authorities would know that so far Jesus and his disciples had not borne arms; to come across them at night carrying swords would signal a significant policy change.

But as Jesus emerged from his prayer-trial, he had become even more determined that the old cycle of violence must come to an end. When one of the swords was used, he immediately intervened. The disciple’s assumption of the outlaw role (wielding the sword against the high priest’s slave) gave Jesus the opportunity to stop the violence. His pronouncement, because it was made in the worst circumstances possible (‘your hour and the power of darkness’, v. 53b), assumes the character of an absolute prohibition for all his followers; an end to violence for all time.


It may be profitable to reflect briefly upon my interpretive method. I have deliberately restricted myself to thinking about Luke’s writing in its canonical form, rather than speculating about ‘the historical Jesus’ or how traditions about Jesus have been passed down and assembled by the author. It seems to me that Christians must be guided by the canonical witness to Jesus, rather than such scholarly attempts at reconstruction. A canonical approach, however, must go on to reckon with the witness of the other Gospels, and so some engagement with accounts of Jesus’ arrest in Matthew, Mark and John would be necessary for a full treatment of that incident. Yet discussion of the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds as recounted by Luke cannot escape reflection on what was meant at the time of their utterance, and even some speculation as to what was in Jesus’ earthly mind during the events to which the Gospels testify, for theological reflection upon Jesus concerns more than a textual construct. It seeks to come to terms with his humanity at the same time as his divine Sonship.

This way of reading Luke’s two swords passage avoids a hard-to-prove figural take on Jesus’ command. It pays attention more seriously than do others to Jesus’ scriptural quotation. It integrates Jesus’ experience of prayerful struggle over whether to suffer rather than to inflict violence. Finally, it turns the tables on any suggestion that Jesus might have endorsed the use of violence, by suggesting that Jesus’ words in verse 51 should be taken as a theological pronouncement. For a short time Jesus had allowed the impression to arise among his disciples that he might be ‘armed and dangerous’ but, as one began to implement this scenario, Jesus repudiated such a stance once and for all. Jesus knew that his career would be misconceived (if not misrepresented) by the powers that he threatened; yet, at least among his own followers, he declared: ‘No more of this.’

There are two practical implications of my interpretation of the two swords interchange. First, Jesus’ instruction to buy a sword cannot be used to justify the purchase and carrying of weapons today. Many Christians have, of course, been misled by centuries of compromise with violence, and believe that ‘striking with the sword’ can be justified in certain circumstances, especially as a solution to certain political evils. Like the disciple who used his sword, they do not understand the profundity of Jesus’ way to the cross as impacting the deepest of human antipathies. In refusing the violence option, and having compassion on his enemies, Jesus maintains his integrity. He is able to behave in such a remarkably calm manner because he has allowed himself time to contemplate the full enormity of what he is taking on, and prayed through his horror of it. He instructs his disciples twice to pray that we may not come into such a time of trial, but he gives no guarantees that we will avoid it.

Second, Jesus’ preoccupation with the Scriptures regarding the course of his career is remarkable. The Isaiah passage to which Jesus refers was clearly at the forefront of his mind as his passion drew near. Our lives as Christians are not given such clear delineation in the Bible as was Jesus’, and yet he gives us an extraordinary model of searching the Scriptures in detail for setting our contemporary agendas. And it may be that Jesus did not know exactly how this detail would be played out when he invoked it – only as he went on down the path towards arrest did it become quite clear. So there may be times in our lives when parts of the Bible challenge us in strange ways, require us to re-examine our understanding of God’s call on our lives, and lead us to reckon afresh with the cost involved.

Jeremy Thomson is a tutor on the Oasis Youth Work and Ministry Course and a lecturer in Biblical Studies with the Faculty of Continuing Education, Birkbeck College, London.


1. The details of the question in 22:35 recall, not the instructions to the twelve in Luke 9:1-6, but those to the seventy in Luke 10:4-6.

2. This is despite the fact that there is no account of sword-carrying or -use in the early church (see particularly the echoes of Jesus’ teaching against violence in Rom 12:14-21). The early Fathers, especially Tertullian and Origen, clearly condemn the use of violence.

3. I thank Jared Diener for research that confirmed my suspicion on this point. See also the remarks of Tim Foley concerning the scarcity of Anabaptist comment on Jesus’ supposed use of violence in the Temple incident, ‘A Stubborn Misinterpretation,’ Anabaptism Today 12, (June 1996), 15-20.

4. See Guy F. Hershberger. War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969), 302-303.

5. John K. Stoner. ‘The Two Swords Passage: A Command or a Question? Nonviolence in Luke 22.’ In Within the Perfection of Christ, ed. Terry L. Brensinger and E. Morris Sider (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1990), 67-80. I owe this reference to Jared Diener.

6. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 333.

7. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke NIGCT (Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1978), 823.

8. See Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 347, and Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1997), 774. For a slightly different symbolic interpretation see John Nolland, Luke18:35–24:53 WBC (Dallas, TX: Word, 1993), 1076.

9. I am aware that John 18:4 might be taken to imply otherwise. But to say that Jesus knew all that would transpire once the arrest party arrived is not to say that he knew the same at an earlier point in the evening.

A few years ago I published my doctoral research under the title Disavowing Constantine.1 I was pleased that my supervisor Professor Colin Gunton, the news of whose untimely death arrived just as I write, was willing to pen a commendation, which read in part:

It is now almost a commonplace that the Constantinian settlement of the Christian church was a mistake and must now be renounced. A commonplace, however, often brings oversimplification in its train, and this is no exception. Unclarity abounds both in describing the situation and more especially in replacing it with a more satisfactory theology of the relation of church and state.

What follows is an extended reflection upon this comment. The persuasion that Christendom was a bad idea is now commonplace but in being rejected the issues surrounding ‘Christendom’ are often oversimplified and unclear. A satisfactory theology of church and state is indeed more difficult to construct than Christendom is to deconstruct.

Gunton identifies a widespread sense that Christendom was a mistake. There are exceptions to this, of course. Some believe the Christendom ideal to have been rightly intentioned even if regrettably blemished. At a high scholarly level is the work by the ethicist Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations.2 At the level of the practitioner there are contributions like the unpublished paper by Dr Esmond Birnie MLA, ‘In Praise of Constantine and the Reformed State’. There are informed and intelligent advocates supporting the establishment of the Church of England as a residue of Christendom, such as Paul Avis, Church, State and Establishment,3 or Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali. Nor should it be assumed, as it often is in a multi-cultural society, that either non-Anglican or non-Christian religious traditions are necessarily in favour of disestablishment. Changing times have shifted the balance. The issue for many has now become not which religious worldview will undergird the instruments of government but which will most likely resist displacement by secularism.

Such weighty exceptions apart, however, there does seem to be a widespread mood that the Christendom project proved in the event an unwise one, that it became itself a kind of sectarianism identifying Christian faith with particular national identities, and that it made the church complicit in acts of coercion which are not only alien but inimical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Readers of Anabaptism Today are most likely to be among the ranks of those opposed to Christendom, for whom the notion of re-inventing Christendom is likely to be provocative. If it was mistaken, why re-invent it? In explaining the title I need to clarify:

  • In the West any re-invention of Christendom is remote. Its precondition, as it was in the Roman Empire, is a growing and vigorous church gaining the allegiance through persuasion of large numbers of the population. This is not our situation. But just this is happening in many nations, which will face their own Christendom questions in ways that do not mirror the early fourth century. The West does not define the world by its religious decline or its theological inclinations.
  • We need to reckon with at least two kinds of historic Christendom,4 one that has been achieved by the application from above of what Ramsey MacMullen called ‘flattery and battery’,5 and another that has come to pass from the bottom up from the simple fact that the preaching of the Gospel has been successful. If the former has employed coercion then the latter achieved transformation through consensus. Both Christendoms represent the dominance of Christian belief as the primary metanarrative of a culture, but one was achieved by force, the other by persuasion. In democratic societies the convictions and worldviews of a population, in this case Christian ones, will translate through legislation into a code of regulation thatis enforced. As this is how democracy works, it is hard to object to it and, if the loss of Christendom means that public policy is now determined by a secularist worldview, I find it hard to rejoice in it.
  • What I am exploring has to do with the way in which Christendom was mistaken. It was surely never wrong to offer a theological interpretation of the state with the intention of giving guidance to the exercise of worldly power. What was wrong was that the way this was done was inadequately controlled by the theological and spiritual resources at the heart of Christian faith, particularly not by a theology of the cross. Furthermore, it is not wrong to seek to influence social and political structures along the way of Christ, nor is it wrong to see human states as being explicitly responsible to God and to Christ. We need a Christian vision of the state which, even if imperfectly realised, can guide our action. But once we say this is desirable we are committed to a kind of Christendom vision in which both church and state are understood within the context of God’s purpose made known in Christ.

So we are back to Gunton in the search for ‘a more satisfactory theology of the relation of church and state.’ I contend that just as the Anabaptist vision is not about the rejection of church but a better and more faithful way of being the church, so an Anabaptist vision of the state does not simply abandon it to the world of unbelief and disobedience, but holds out better possibilities for it. Indeed, without some such vision, a conviction that some things are relatively right for the state and some absolutely not, it is difficult to see how there can be a prophetic voice calling political agents to be true to their vocation. This represents some kind of Christendom vision.

With these explanations stated then, how might we re-invent Christendom, this time with a more thoroughgoing Christian vision? In answering that question I immediately run up against difficulties – that for instance of reading my own political prejudices or conditioning into a theology, or that of applying a limited Western imagination to the task. What we might offer are several theologically derived co-ordinates defining a space within which particular theologies might be constructed, leaving open the possibility that a variety of theologies might do. These coordinates are not meant to specify what a political stance might contain in the way of policy but to provide a number of broad issues which might construct a space within which such discussions might take place.

What might these co-ordinates be?

1. A universal Trinitarian perspective

I am of the school that sees Trinitarian thought as the grammar out of which talk of God, and all else, is constructed. Trinity is a direct outgrowth from Christology: the Christian God is self-revealed in Christ who is according to the Barmen Declaration ‘the one Word of God we are to hear and obey in life and in death’.

One criticism of Baptist theologies is that they have been Christological without being robustly Trinitarian and that this has contributed to the lack of a theology of creation. By contrast, Reformed theology has been strong on the cultural mandate: stewarding the earth is part of the image of God in humankind. Building institutions and political structures is part of this mandate and so we please God and realise ourselves when we engage in these activities. Moreover through Christ’s redemption we learn to do this better – in the light and with the power of the Redeemer. That we should do so is a given requirement of created, and so Christian, existence and so part of our duty.

2. The eschatological horizon

Having acknowledged this, the second co-ordinate is eschatological and concerns the familiar ‘now and not yet’ understanding of the kingdom of God. Christendom thinking represented a form of over-realised eschatology in its belief that the kingdom of God had been realised significantly in the conversion of the Emperor. We need a degree of empathy here: in the circumstances we might have concluded the same. But the conversion of Constantine was the beginning of a long, incremental process that would issue in historic Christendom. What it would become was by no means evident from how it began. It came to be seen as a triumph for the kingdom of God and interpreted in millennial terms – the coming of Christ’s reign in historical reality. By a process of assimilation many characteristics of the earthly Empire, particularly its power to coerce, were incorporated into the church as the expression of the heavenly kingdom.

The theologian who gave most powerful expression to this was Augustine, who articulated a theology whereby the church made use of the state’s power for disciplinary purposes. To be fair to Augustine, we need to understand that he saw it as precisely that – not a means of destroying the wayward but of disciplining them back into the fold. By and large Christendom continued to see the use of coercion as disciplinary rather than punitive in nature, but eventually, as we are aware and regret, resort was had to widespread execution. Augustine’s theology became the norm and justification of this approach even within the variants of Protestant and Reformed religion. It was first effectively challenged in the 16th and 17th centuries by those who espoused the radical tolerationism that has since become the received orthodoxy even among those who argue for a Christendom model of established religion.6

An eschatology that distinguishes more radically between the present age and that which is to come is a necessary co-ordinate for understanding what is possible now and what is only possible in the fullness of God’s purposes. If the present age is characterised by domination, the kingdom of Christ is not of this world in that it is not realised in the same terms and by the same means as worldly domination. A distinction between two kingdoms is required, but not in the sense of a false dualism between the two, nor in a kind of Lutheran resolution which allows each to operate by its own principles. The future impinges upon the present by relativising it, by judging it and by drawing it albeit partially in the direction of a better future. The present world of domination may be qualified, influenced and modified in the light of God’s future, but it will not finally be resolved until the onset of the messianic kingdom.

3. The church is the bearer of the future, not the state

With Christendom, hope for the future shifted towards the state as a millennial realisation of God’s kingdom. In John Howard Yoder’s term the state therefore became ‘the bearer of the meaning of history’,7 displacing the church from this central task and further implicating the church in the application of coercive violence. The kingdom of God is to be assisted through worldly power. The difficulty with this construct is its optimistic view of the church. The state can sometimes perform better than we might expect and the church often behaves worse. However, whatever the church’s compromises and failures it is the locus of that energy we call the kingdom of God: ‘The kingdom of God is among you.’ In spite of the church, there is that within it which has that power of newness – which makes for renewal.

4. All human power structures are ambivalent

Walter Wink’s penetrating analysis of ‘the Powers’ repeatedly affirms that the powers are simultaneously created, fallen and to be redeemed.8 Each of these dimensions is significant:

  • Created – for a purpose related to the enhancement of life and to secure that stability in which human beings might flourish.
  • Fallen – in that they have collapsed in upon themselves and tend to become idolatrous.
  • To be redeemed – in that they are comprehended within the scope of final salvation. In this latter area we have sounded the note of eschatological caution – the ‘not yet.’

Enthusiasts for established religion tend to emphasise the createdness of the powers in the form of national identity and government (and possibly their capacity for redemption) and point to the explicit acknowledgement of a transcendent dimension in remaining true to their created intent. Opponents of establishment religion, like Anabaptists, emphasise the fallenness of the powers and the fact that for the church to be governed by them, as in state churches, or too closely tied to them, is to compromise the church’s freedom. They are more comfortable with a hermeneutic of suspicion applied to established religion and see legitimation of the state by religion being exchanged for social privilege.

Does that leave us then with a godless state? Are we to abandon the powers to idolatry? Sometimes I gain from Anabaptist friends the impression that they are so keen to be free of Christendom that a godless state is exactly what they would prefer. By contrast, I want to contend that the vision of a non-sectarian state can actually be a Christian vision for the state. I fully agree that no state can be value-neutral. When this is claimed it is simply a cloak for the fact that the state has become secularist and this is in itself a form of state religion. But ‘neutrality’ can have various meanings, including those of impartiality and active fairness and these are embedded in a web of values about what it means to be human and just. A non-sectarian state pursues the fair application of values based upon a respect for our common humanity. It proceeds not from the tolerance of indifference (which argues that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it doesn’t matter) but from a productive tolerance which is genuinely respectful of real differences. This approach, and this is both my primary contention and my re-invented Christendom, is grounded in a religious and theological vision.

5. The issue is not whether the church should have a vision for the state, but the content of that vision

Christians should not be prepared to abandon any part of creation to godlessness. They insist that things only make sense as they are seen in the light of the one through whom all things have been created. Yet the Christian community is the source of our insights into the true nature of the civil community. The kind of experiment taking place in the one is applicable to the other. How we think of the church shapes how we approach society and state. From the politics of the church which are rooted in egalitarianism, service, sharing, consensus, welcoming and participation we can derive a vision of God’s intention for all societies.

With these co-ordinates I am conscious that I am not saying much that is new. But if there is something new it is in the spin suggested by the title. It was right to have a Christian vision for the state, even if the content of that vision became distorted and corrupted. It is right to see the past as an arena in which the grace of God has been at work. We are able to learn from it, disavowing parts of it and building on others, but within the co-ordinates laid down as a frame and a guide for us to do better, if we can, than did our forbears.

Nigel Wright is the principal of Spurgeon’s College and recent past president of the Baptist Union.


1. Disavowing Constantine: Mission, Church and the Social Order in the Theologies of John Howard Yoder and Jürgen Moltmann (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000).

2. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

3. Church, State and Establishment (London: SPCK, 2001).

4. See further on this my New Baptists New Agenda (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002), pp. 98-101.

5. Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100-400 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 119.

6. John Coffey traces this in Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689 (Harlow: Longman, 2000).

7. The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), p. 11.

8. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

Sixteenth-century Anabaptists looked to Acts 2:42 for a worship model. ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ What a simple form, doing only what is necessary for truly Christian worship! They also washed one another’s feet and sang hymns, both of which have scriptural precedence. The New Testament gave them authority for free, participative worship offered to God in sincerity and truth.

Most Christians claim their worship is rooted in the Bible. We desire to be true to biblical values in prayer and praise. We ferret out texts and patterns. In varied ways Christians have searched for the simplicity, truth, mystery and power we sense as we read of worship in the New Testament. But are we as true to the Bible as we think?

The Bible is not a book of common prayer or a ministers’ handbook for ordering worship services. But it is marvellously rich in materials about and for worship. The Old Testament preserves many ways in which the Hebrews worshipped God. The psalms, books of the law and prophetic writings record teaching about worship, prescribe festivals and preserve prayers and songs of individuals and communities across many centuries.

The New Testament, too, is a mine of worship in the biggest sense. Worship is not only words, songs and feelings of the worshipping community. True biblical worship is a living demonstration of how praise and honour to God is lived out within the body of Christ. It flows outward in prophetic truth and self-giving love to the world around. This is the full witness of God’s worshipping people.

How can we make appropriate connections with the New Testament? What can we learn about the ethos and inner meanings of early Christian worship?

Prophetic and ecstatic worship in Revelation

In Revelation, the Christian community makes a vigorous interpretation of its own times. It makes this critique within worship. We can hardly imagine the first political impact of the assertion: God alone is worthy of worship! Revelation has many liturgical dimensions. Worship is to sing and confess, in God’s presence, that there is salvation in bleak times. It is to acclaim God as Ruler over all things. It is to break the enchantment and power of the world. To sing the songs of Revelation is to interpret the meaning of contemporary events. This is worship which connects God, the Holy One, with humans and all of God’s creation.

Testimonies, stories and advice

In worship in the earliest communities Christians gave testimonies, preserved memories and passed on Gospel stories. How else would we know about Stephen’s stoning, the women at the foot of the cross, or Paul’s undignified escape over the Damascus city wall? In worship they repeated the preciously harboured materials we call Gospels. They read out wise advice and encouragement which came through pastoral letters. Testimonies, stories, letters, advice and encouragement were integrated into New Testament worship.

Prayers and blessings sprang from intense experiences of persecution, growth, struggle and joy. And so we find varied and colourful fragments of worship. We do not find structures and patterns, templates, grids or rubrics. We find single words, fragments, bits of creeds, hymns, prayers and references to rites such as baptism, communion and foot-washing. These fragments are rich and revealing about the inner meanings and fervent ethos in worship.

Pastoral and political meanings in worship

The best-loved New Testament hymn is ‘Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself …’ (Phil 2). Equally exalted in praise of Christ are these outbursts: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ (Col 1:15f); ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ (Eph 5:14); ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit …’ (1 Peter 3:18). Singing these hymns, early Christians remembered the matchless character of their Lord and the quality of their life together. Imagine them chanting the Beatitudes, repeating the Great Commandment together, aligning their common life to the teaching and model of Jesus. Worship built up the common life.

The shortest biblical creed makes a sharp political point: ‘Jesus is Lord’ (not Caesar!) (Rom 10:9). Unlike the kingdoms of this world, ‘The kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 14:17). Another creed packs the mystery of our faith into six short phrases: ‘He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory’ (1 Tim 3:16). What a vast vision! In worship Christians could get and keep things in proper perspective.

Blessings, rites and patterns of readings

Numerous prayers and blessings are scattered throughout the New Testament letters: ‘I pray that God … may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him …’ (Eph 1:17ff); ‘Blessed be God who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing …’ (Eph 1:3); ‘Blessed be … the Father of mercies and God of all consolation’ (2 Cor 1:3f).

We have references to baptism, six times in Acts, though no descriptions of the rite. In four places appear accounts of Jesus’ mandate for eucharistic celebration: ‘Do this to remember me.’ The Gospel of John records Jesus’ disconcerting action of washing his disciples’ feet, and his instructions that they were to wash one another’s feet. Unlike other rites, this is fully described.

Jesus is the measure of our worship

In summary, the New Testament is a lively product of worshipping communities. Its literary footprints do not reveal specific patterns forworship, but give important clues about the content, ethos and values of the worship of the first Christian communities.

The primary theme of New Testament worship is devotion to Jesus Christ, who was acknowledged as Messiah and Lord. Worship texts and rites always point to this one person. Who was Jesus? How could new Christians express their relationship to him? If the central meaning of New Testament worship texts is Jesus, then to be true to the New Testament, we, too, must look to Jesus as the measure of our worship. We will consider three claims which the New Testament communities passionately asserted in letters, testimonies and stories.

Jesus is Messiah

This was a dramatic claim. Songs and stories in the Gospels reveal what such a claim meant to people. How they longed and prayed for the liberation Messiah would bring!

Zechariah’s prophetic words over the infant John (Luke 1:68-79) give us a sense of this intense hope for Messiah. ‘You, child, will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.’ And our hearts leap with Simeon’s as he recognises Jesus’ identity: ‘My eyes have seen your salvation!’ (Luke 2:30).

The disciples Martha and Peter each exclaimed, ‘You are Messiah!’ (Mt 16:15; Jn 11:27). Jesus himself confessed his royal identity to the High Priest at the trial (Mk 14:62). What a range of expectation, joy, doubt and hope centred on this figure – the one long expected and sent from God to set his people free.

In the Emmaus road conversation Jesus spelled it out. The dejected disciples blurted out, ‘He [Jesus] was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ Then Jesus explained from Moses and the prophets everything about himself, how it was necessary (in the divine purpose) that Messiah should suffer and then enter into his glory (Luke 24:13-29).

The meaning of Messiah’s role became clearer after the resurrection and Pentecost. Christians realised Jesus had interpreted his Messiah role according to the Servant Songs of Isaiah (e.g. Isa 42; 49; 50; 52–53). He was Messiah not only for Israel, but for ‘many’, for ‘all’. We hear it in the Words of Institution: ‘This is my blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt 26: 28). We see Jesus’ messianic passion for justice and true worship in the temple-cleansing incident. God’s house was to be a ‘house of prayer for all nations’.

What did it mean for early Christians to say ‘Jesus is Messiah’? It meant remembering and repeating the stories of Jesus (e.g. temple-cleansing and journey to Emmaus). It meant interpreting historical events (e.g. Simeon, Zechariah). It meant putting things into the big context (e.g. Peter, Martha).

We can see their vision gradually opening up. Peter in Acts 10 welcomes the Roman centurion. An enemy becomes a brother. Paul’s passion was for the integration of Gentiles into the body of Christ. Forgiveness and reconciliation was for ‘many’ and ‘all’, just as Jesus had said.

We tell the whole story in worship

To draw on this big vision is to tell the story of God with Israel, the story of creation, fall and redemption. It means grasping what the disciples did on the Emmaus road and interpreting where Jesus belongs in the great story of God’s redemptive love. It means continuing the story on into our own period.

To say ‘Jesus is Messiah’ required early Christians, and us, as their inheritors, to tell the whole story, interpret its implications – salvation, redemption, forgiveness – and incarnate the story. That means we carry the story of Messiah on, every day of our lives. I suggest we retain the name Messiah and tell Messiah’s story: the story of Israel’s longing, exile and hopelessness, the story of the Spirit’s reappearance and of Jesus. Let’s use the mission statement of Messiah Jesus in Luke 4:18-19. Memorise it. Sing it. Pray it.

Jesus is Lord

This confession may have been most characteristic of Gentile Christians. We find it twice (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3). Was this a liturgical acclamation? A statement used in courts in which Christians had to bear witness? Part of a baptismal liturgy? Was it used in worship assembly? We don’t know.

But it was not a vote in an election: ‘Please designate the rabbi of your choice.’ It was not just part of Jesus’ name – Sir Jesus, or Lord Jesus of Nazareth. No! It was much more! In whatever context this phrase was used, it was a statement of allegiance. We know the rival confession: ‘Caesar is Lord.’ If Christians replied ‘Jesus is Lord’, they made a political challenge. It was provocative and dangerous. This declaration of Jesus’ lordship embodied subversive values. If there was a conflict of interest, they needed to declare, ‘We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. We obey God rather than humans’ (Acts 5:29).

Did early Christian worship reflect this obedience to Jesus as Lord? Yes, we can see it in many instances. Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. They learned to reflect his piety, his intimacy with the Father, his concerns in prayer. Jesus gave them what might be better titled the ‘Disciples’ Prayer’ and in it they could closely follow his lead.

Jesus’ way and his teachings pervade the Epistles: ‘You are light – walk as children of the light’ (Eph 5:8); ‘Have this mind among you, which is yours in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 2:5); ‘Have no anxiety about anything’ (Phil 4:6); ‘May the peace of Christ rule in your hearts’ (Col 3:15); ‘suffer for righteousness’ sake and you will be blessed’ (1 Peter 2:14). The writers were Jesus’ disciples! They recognised his authority. Jesus was Lord of the common life, their common prayer and praise.

Jesus’ authority in our worship

How does our worship embody and project the authority of Jesus as Lord? I suggest we take Jesus’ words seriously and incorporate them into our prayer and worship.

The words of the Lord’s Prayer are probably the words of Jesus most often repeated in our worship. But when Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Pray like this’ he might have meant more than simply repeating his words. Many Christians have used the prayer as an outline for their own extempore praying. Their prayer follows the inner content and the outer pattern, beginning with the intimate address to Abba, the hallowing of God’s name, moving on through prayer for kingdom concerns, thanks for bread and forgiveness, confession and petition that we will become a forgiving people, kept safe from evil. In praying like this, we follow Jesus’ deepest concerns and enter his fervent, loving relationship with the Father.

But there are other words of Jesus which we could also use. Because of their two-part form, the Beatitudes could easily become a regular part of worship. The first part of each could be spoken, and the second answered by the congregation. We can use Jesus’ words of comfort as conclusions of our confession prayers: ‘My peace I give you, not as the world gives’ (Jn 14:27a). ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid’ (Jn 14:27b). We might pray through John 17, reflecting on Jesus’ passionate concerns. Do these phrases and ideas flood our spontaneous praying? If not, it is probably because we don’t keep listening to Jesus at prayer.

These days there are exciting experiments with retelling Gospel stories – biblical storytelling, dynamic dramatisations, stories mimed and danced, ‘rap’ stories. All of these keep Jesus’ story alive in worship and keep his rabbinic, authoritative lordship in its proper place. His life, his words, his stories have first place. Our own words take second place.

Jesus is here

In the weeks after the devastating event at Golgotha, Jesus unaccountably appeared to his frightened disciples, fully alive. In their assemblies, along the way, at table, on the beach, suddenly Jesus was there. At first terrified and baffled, later they understood and appropriated Jesus’ promises – ‘I will send the Comforter to you’, ‘I am with you.’ They explained their experience: ‘the Lord is the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:17-18).

In their worship the Lord was truly present! They worshipped and prayed in the power of the Spirit, through the Spirit. Though Acts reports Christians attended Temple prayers, for them the sacrificial cult had lost its meaning. Christians worshipped and prayed in homes, in settings similar to Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Table-companionship and the remembered meals with Jesus took on distinctive forms – because of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.

But most important was the presence and operation of the Spirit. As they searched the Scriptures and recalled Jesus’ words, Christians came to understand their experience in this way. In our life together, here, now, the prophets are vindicated. Their words are coming true. John the Baptist, Isaiah, Micah, Joel – it all fits together! It makes sense!

Now they remembered Jesus’ words: ‘The Spirit will remind you of all that I have said to you’ (Jn 14:26). Everything Jesus had taught them the Spirit in retrospect made clear: about the merciful Father, God’s kingdom, love, Jesus’ arrest and execution, his resurrection. No longer humiliated and afraid, now they could ‘proclaim the death of Christ’. The whole story had to be told, interpreted and celebrated – ‘Until he comes again!’ (1 Cor 11:26).

Worship to build up the church

The Spirit integrated the meaning of their faith and new life together. The Spirit’s powerful presence brought their worship alive.

The only New Testament text which provides details about Christian worship is 1 Corinthians 14. To build up the community is the dominant notion. In the course of this chapter we discover an astonishing variety of activities in worship: tongues, revelation, prophecy, teaching; saying a blessing, thanksgiving, ‘Amen’, instruction, hymn, lesson, revelation, interpretation of tongues. The purpose behind all these varied, Spirited activities is clear: ‘let all be done for building up the church’ (v. 26c). In their worship all members took responsibility and contributed as they were enabled by the Spirit, whether in hymns, prayers, teachings or any other ways the Spirit gave them. This was truly Spirit-animated worship.

Making space for the Spirit

This is true for us as it was for them. The Spirit is active in all members’ preparation for worship. We can pray for willingness to receive something fresh. Instead of rushing from one thing to the next, we can allow silence in our worship for listening to what the Spirit is saying. We can reserve time at the close of worship for prayers of recapitulation – a chance to hear again significant words, phrases, thoughts and pictures which have arisen during worship. The Spirit may find ways to put these together for us in a step, choice or conviction as we close our corporate worship. Do we encourage free expression, allow space for this? Or do we show lack of trust in trying to monitor and control everything? Do we give the appearance of freedom, and yet in reality rein in the Spirit and put things into our own order?

Sixteenth-century Anabaptism was a Spirit-movement. Anabaptist worship was charismatic, Spirit-inspired and Spirit-energised. Its principles of practice were delineated in 1 Corinthians 14. Contributing to worship was every participant’s responsibility. Each one brought a hymn, lesson, revelation or prayer.

Jesus is the measure

So the New Testament is a rich resource. It reveals much about the worship of early Christian communities. It gives us words for worship. It evokes for us the spirit and ethos of worship. We’ve considered three assertions about Jesus early Christians joyfully made. These can serve us as sightlines by which to steer as we worship.

Jesus is Messiah. Let’s tell the great story of God, the saga of redemption and hope, and interpret our own times in its light.

Jesus is Lord. Let’s worship so that we inspire the walk of discipleship, strengthen our consciences and soften our hearts. Let’s develop the reflex of paying close attention to Jesus.

Jesus is here. Worship can be risky as well as inspiring. In worship we are listening, preparing ourselves, expecting a word from God. Are we willing to appropriate that word to our lifestyle as well as to our feelings? As we worship we look Jesus in the face, not in sideways glances!

So let’s continue to express in our worship the simplicity, truth and power of the Gospel. We will find this in Jesus himself, the Lord of our worship. This is Jesus Christ who is present in his Spirit, Lord and Messiah.

Eleanor Kreider is a mission educator with the Mennonite Mission Network, now in North America after 30 years in England. This article is an abbreviated version of an essay first published in Bernie Neufeld (ed.), Music in Worship: A Mennonite Perspective (Scottale, PA, Herald Press, 1998), 13-30.

In 1994, Anabaptism Today published an article by Harry Sprange, ‘Children in an Anabaptist Congregation’. It concluded with an invitation from the Editor for others to submit responses, but this does not seem to have been taken up. I note, however, that one of the principles of ‘Church From Scratch’, the story of which was told in the last issue, was ‘Children were always going to be seen as part of the church today, not in training for tomorrow.’ A similar conviction led our Sunday-school teachers, in summer 2001, to inform the church that they felt the pattern of the young people going out from morning worship to Sunday school was no longer working. They proposed to terminate the Sunday school at Christmas. This gave the church time to prepare a new way of meeting, to begin in the new year. I wrote an article in our church newsletter, encouraging people to submit ideas.

The elders, deacons and Sunday-school teachers met together on an ‘away-day’ in November of that year prayerfully to seek God’s will for Sunday mornings. In preparation, all read Sprange’s article, together with papers by Paul Martin1 and Keith White.2 An agreed summary of our conclusions was submitted to and approved by the church meeting. This began with the following aim:

Our purpose in meeting on Sunday mornings is to meet with Christ, to be made his disciples. We meet him as he speaks to us in the Word, and we experience his fellowship in the fellowship of believers. All ages should be able to meet with and respond to him in a way that is appropriate to them, through active participation, and worship has to enhance this.

At the beginning of 2003, a survey was conducted of the entire morning congregation to gauge how people felt the service was developing (younger children were helped to fill in questionnaires by trained adults other than parents). From Easter 2003, my church gave me sabbatical study-leave to research how the ‘morning service’ might be further improved. In many ways, this opened up questions about our whole concept of church, not just how we do a particular service.

How has it worked out in practice?

Readings for each Sunday of the coming month (adapted from the Revised Common Lectionary) are publicised in our church newsletter. We had agreed that it would be best to concentrate on readings of a narrative nature, so we tend to focus on the Gospel reading. This ought to give an ‘Anabaptist’ slant to things!3

People are encouraged to prepare for the service on the basis of these readings, as I do, and to let me know of things they could contribute. In fact, adults have submitted little other than prayer requests. It is the young people, who were invited to submit songs, questions, etc. along with everyone else, who have done so! They informed me of their favourite songs, suggested a new song some of them had learnt at a camp and volunteered to do readings. One young man performed some magic tricks with a gospel message.

The majority of our young people are ‘tweenagers’ (10–14-year-olds).4 Some of the ‘non-church’ girls have been seen less, but visitors have found this is more to do with situations at home than any feelings for or against the service. Most youngsters continue to attend and most now have parents with them, which partly accounts for a noted increase in the congregation. I suspect the format of meetings is less important for holding them than the caring relationships that have been built up (in the survey 100 per cent affirmed the fellowship they felt!). Their former Sunday-school teachers are as much pastors as teachers to them, and they continue to meet some of this age group in a mid-week Bible study group.

Initially, our biggest problem (to my thinking anyway) was what to do when we have Communion. Although we felt children should not share in the bread and wine, as they have not expressed faith and fellowship in baptism, we did not wish to withhold these from them. We do not refuse bread and wine to adult visitors, but challenge them to examine themselves, and decline participation themselves (if necessary). We decided adults should sit with the children and help them examine themselves in the same way.

My main problem became the complaint from mature believers that they were ‘not being fed’. Those close to the young people point out that there is always the evening service for mature believers, and the evidence is that attendance in the morning by non-believers has gone up. Nevertheless, experiencing other churches’ all-age services, as part of my sabbatical study, made me aware of how I miss it when I am unable to apply teaching to myself – even when I respect how well the service copes with all ages, and when I also have an evening service in which to be spiritually fed. My study therefore concentrated on the question: ‘How can all ages learn together from the Bible?’ My sabbatical study had two components in parallel: practical experience of all-age services in other churches and theological reflection on relevant Scripture.

Practical experience

This was initially disappointing. I tried to visit two churches that were said5 to be successfully reaching young people and fully incorporating them in their life, only to find they had folded! Another church mentioned was still as alive as ever, but had a ‘family service’ where the children went out.

Nevertheless, I did observe some good examples of all-age services in local churches.6

I want to draw attention to a couple of challenges to conventional modes of church. First, where services kept the interest of all ages, this was not because of high-tech visual aids, but because there were lots of brief items, with opportunities for all to be involved. It seems to be better for people to do things, rather than simply to see or hear them. Yet how many of our meetings are performances (whether by preacher or ‘worship leader’ and band)?

Second, planning such services is hard work and really needs a team of people to share it. This may cause us to question our received patterns of one-person ministry.

Theological reflection

Many would argue for including children with adults in worship and teaching from such Old Testament examples as Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 78:5-8 and the Passover ritual. I believe they are mistaken. Such passages demonstrate the importance God’s people gave to instructing the children of their own families in the home. They have no bearing on the corporate worship and teaching of synagogue and temple, where women and children were positively excluded.

Rather, I take as my starting point God’s revelation to people regardless of mental capacity (Matt 11:25/Luke 10:21) and his gift of the Spirit to all, regardless of age, sex or social standing (Acts 2:17,18 [Joel 2:28,29]). Above all, if our purpose in meeting is ‘to meet with Christ’, we must base our practice on his. Did Jesus teach all ages together?

Ishmael points out that Jesus set an example in teaching all ages together at the feeding of the 5,000. Here, a young boy plays a central role (John 6:9) and those fed are actually 5,000 men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21, similarly in 15:38). It is interesting that only Matthew stresses their presence. Keith White argues that there is an emphasis on children running through Matthew 17–21. I would argue that this runs through the whole Gospel.7

Many scholars interpret ‘little ones’ in Matthew’s Gospel as a metaphorical reference to disciples. Discipleship is certainly a major theme: matheteuo (‘to disciple’) is found in Matthew 13:53; 27:57; 28:19 and elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts14:21. Nevertheless, the children in Matthew 14:21, 15:38 and 21:15-16 are literal children and, if Jesus uses children as a picture of discipleship, this is following his practice in Matthew 18:1-5, where he uses a child as an example. Are we to suppose that ‘these little ones’ in 18:6, 10 and14 are not to be linked with the child Jesus mentions?

That passage is interesting, not only indicating (like John 6:9) that young children were present as Jesus taught his disciples, but also showing how he was prepared to involve them in illustrating his teaching. I find it ironic that, whereas we tend to assume all-age services are geared to children and non-believers, in the only places where the presence of children is emphasised when Jesus is teaching, he is teaching adults, and disciples at that.

All this suggests Jesus’ general teaching method communicated well to all ages. What were the main characteristics of his teaching style? Matthew’s tendency to collect Jesus’ sayings into apparent monologues (e.g. the ‘Sermon’ on the Mount) can mask the interactive nature of his teaching. He frequently asks or answers questions. He tells stories and illustrates his teaching with visual aids from the world around. We are used to this style in a ‘children’s address’; Jesus does it with adults!

The value of having children with us, as we seek to follow Jesus together, is that we can learn from them how to be learners. Children like asking questions. Christ as a child is our model here, ‘sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’ (Luke 2:47). This brings us back to Christ’s interactive style of preaching. He so often teaches by asking or answering questions. This is good educational practice. Our young people will be used to it in school. Yet so often the church service is a performance.

Children as models for discipleship also remind us that we all need to grow. Even though he was so precocious at his first visit to the Temple (after infancy), Jesus still ‘grew in wisdom and stature’ (Luke 2:52). How much more do we all need to grow spiritually! Because we often see an all-age service as an evangelistic opportunity (as I confess I have tended to do), we can concentrate on getting people from ‘unsaved’ to ‘saved’. If we understand the church as ‘a band of people, all on a shared journey’, should we not see each service as an opportunity for each of us to travel a little further after Christ?

So what now?

Since my sabbatical, everyone seems pleased with the morning service, so something must have improved, though I am unsure what. Development along the lines suggested above has been tentative. I try to ask questions and usually get a response, although I have always found our predominantly Afro-Caribbean morning congregation very responsive anyway. I have experimented with helping people to think themselves into roles in the Bible stories. Two golden moments. First, when I asked, ‘What would you have done?’ and a visiting lad put up his hand and answered and we had a dialogue that helped reinforce the point I was making. Second, when a visiting speaker invited questions and actually got one.

But we have some way to go. Although I try to involve a number of people in the service, the planning and organisation still falls entirely on me, even though in other respects our church has a team leadership. If a team to lead the all-age service develops in future, its members are likely to come from the young peoples’ Bible study group (mentioned above). Two of them have already requested baptism and membership, and one has completed his preparation for this, so ‘tweenagers’, at any rate, will officially be ‘part of the church today’.

Bob Allaway is pastor of Eldon Road Baptist Church in Wood Green, North London.


1. Paul Martin, ‘Towards a Baptist ecclesiology inclusive of children’, Theology in Context, 1 (2000), 47-59.

2. Keith White, ‘A little child will lead them’, report to Cutting Edge III conference (2001).

3. See the second Core Conviction of the Anabaptist Network on the inside back cover.

4. See Peter Brierley, Reaching and Keeping Tweenagers (London: Christian Research, 2002). Our service is not totally ‘all-age’ as the under-sevens still go out.

5. In Stuart Murray and Anne Wilkinson Hayes, Hope from the Margins (Cambridge: Grove, 2000).

6. I am happy to pass my observations on to anyone wanting to plan such services: contact me at 9 Forfar Road, London N22 5QE or < r.allaway(at symbol here)>.

7. Note in the following that the references in bold type are only in Matthew, or lack the reference to children/little ones in parallels in other Gospels: Matthew 2:16-18; 7:9-11; 10:42; 11:16,17,25; 14:21; 15:38; 17:14-18; 18:1-5,6: 18:10,14; 19:13-15; 21:15,16.

Editors’ note: We invite readers to respond to Bob Allaway’s comments about children in an Anabaptist church in the the Children and Anabaptism forum.

Early Christians? Why does it matter to us what they did? After all they lived at least 17 hundred years ago, in a primitive world without mobile phones and the World Wide Web. And since then we’ve had centuries of Christianity, Christendom, and we know what Christians are like: respectable, predictable, rather old-fashioned. Can we really learn anything from the early Christians?

I believe we can. It’s not that things are the same now as then. We have had Western civilisation, Christendom, which brought us Gothic cathedrals and the horrors of the Crusades. A lot of people are hostile to Christianity, often for good reason.

But now, in post-Christendom, we are in a world with fascinating parallels to pre-Christendom, the first three centuries of Christianity. Most people in the West are not, like the early Christians, persecuted for their faith. But in many places it’s not ‘cool’ to be Christian. Many people who call them-selves Christian seldom go to church. There are many other things to do. But we are surrounded by people who are hungry for spirituality. Hostility, apathy, spiritual hunger, in a world which Christians cannot control – it sounds like the world of the early church.

In pre-Christendom the church was growing. Today the church is often on the defensive. I propose that if we post-Christendom Christians learn from our early Christian sisters and brothers about just one thing – initiation – we too can experience new life and growth. I’m not going to talk about the early church’s initiatory practices here; those who want to learn more about this can check out my writings or the growing body of literature by others.1 But here I am going to make nine proposals for the practice of initiation today based on what the early Christians did.

Proposal 1

All candidates for baptism will take part in a class that meets twice a week and lasts 18 months. That seems a lot? Not by the standards of the early church, where the initiatory course often met daily for three years. Why so many meetings, and over so long a period? Because the early church knew, and we today are discovering, that preparing people properly for baptism is urgently important. We’re preparing them to live in a world with many religious options, with huge ethical dilemmas, with addictions encouraged by clever advertisers.

A young Christian may, by the time she is 18, have spent 800 hours in Sunday school; she also will have spent 11,000 hours in public school and 15,000 hours watching TV. Are we going to give the Creator and Redeemer of the universe a fraction of the attention that we give to Universal Studios? Further, what if baptismal candidates discover that God wants them to change? How much time do they have to learn to be different, to allow themselves to be re-reflexed? They can’t do this overnight. Eighteen months of catechesis should not be a hard and fast rule. Some might need more. There should be flexibility.

Proposal 2

Every candidate will have a baptised sponsor. Relationships are at the heart of the initiatory process. People today who want to become Christian are drawn more by the question-posing freedom, joy and hope of Christians they know than by worship services or the Christian media. People today, as in the early centuries, are drawn to Christ and the church by Christians whose lives, love and words raise questions. The non-Christian feels free to approach such a Christian; and the Christian is open to relationship. Such a Christian, in the language of the early church, was called a ‘sponsor’. We might call her a mentor. And the mentor agrees to go to the teaching sessions with the mentee. Bonding takes place; friendship is built; questions about the faith are dealt with spontaneously and informally; and the mentor, whose life attracted the mentee towards Christ in the first place, can explain why she lives as she does. Because of the authenticity of the relationship, the mentee grows in Christlikeness through the attractive discipleship of her mentor.

Proposal 3

Catechesis will deal with big issues and practical problems. Non-Christians are attracted to Christians and their church because they sense that, in a world of addictions and bondages, the Christians are free. So the catechetical teaching of the church will address the major issues of bondage in our society. What are these? The catechists will ask their students, and an interesting list may result. Sex, the occult, workaholism, endless accumulation, substance abuse and violence are likely to be mentioned. The catechist will apply the teaching of Jesus to the addictions of today; and the presence of mentors will give the catechists a resource of wisdom and example. ‘I really struggled with over-work, but this is how I put limits on my compulsion.’ ‘I used to be addicted to drink, but Christ has set me free.’ These teachings and stories will give hope to the candidates. Other issues will arise: How do I respond to beggars? In a world of scarcity, what car would Jesus drive? How much should I plan my life around security? People learn to be Christians when their faith affects their material choices; without this, the early Christians rightly thought, people will be Christian in name only.

Proposal 4

Catechesis will be experiential. Every person being prepared for baptism will have a work assignment that imparts the values of the church in practical ways. The early Christian leaders asked: Are the catechumens visiting the sick? Are they caring for the poor? Today we will build into the catechetical programme a practical assignment: working in a food bank; helping teach English to immigrants; doing grocery shopping for the elderly. These sessions will aim to help the candidates see people as God sees them, and to shape their reflexes – to recognise that Jesus is really present in those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, in prison (Matt 25:31ff.). Today, as in the early church, no one will be baptised until they have shown that they are as eager to serve the poor as they are to discuss big ideas.

Proposal 5

Candidates will memorise key Bible passages – New Testament passages that emphasise thanksgiving and the peace of God (Phil 4:4-7), psalms that encourage the believer to wait in trust when things don’t develop as rapidly as they desire (Ps 27:14). But all candidates, today as in the early church, will memorise two passages that profoundly affect people’s lives – the Sermon on the Mount and the ‘swords into ploughshares’ passage from Isaiah 2.2-4. The former is the church’s prime source of practical and spiritual guidance; and the Isaiah passage fills Christians with hope in the action – hidden now but someday manifest – of the peacemaking God. Candidates for baptism develop the habit of memorising scripture.

Proposal 6

Candidates will be taught to think critically about culture. What areas of contemporary culture can Christians fit in with? What areas must they be cautious about or repudiate? The 2nd-century Epistle to Diognetus talks about Christians who followed the customs of their country in clothing and food, but who were ‘resident aliens’ in the way they handled wealth, loved their enemies, and refused to abort or expose unwanted infants. How about today? Catechists will help the baptismal candidates learn to think missionally, to decide at what points to blend in with the wider society and on what issues to nonconform freely.

Proposal 7

Candidates will be taught the historic faith of the Church. In pre-Christendom, after the candidates had begun to learn how to live as Christians, they were given the creed to memorise. The catechists taught them the meaning of this summary of Christian thinking, clause by clause. Today the catechist may start by asking the candidates what their questions are. These will be many and varied, in light of the spiritual smorgasbord of our time. Catechists will deal with these in light of the teaching of the church, as expressed in statements such as the Apostle’s Creed or The Mennonite Confession of Faith. Today, as in pre-Christendom, catechists will help candidates navigate their way through the ‘heresies’ that are floating about, and to learn to avoid these. Careless thinking about the faith can kill faith.

Proposal 8

Candidates will be prayed for, and will be taught to pray. At the end of every teaching session, teachers today, as in the early church, will lay their hands on the catechumens and pray for them. They will pray that they may be protected from the evil one and find joy and freedom in Christ. Similarly, every Sunday in the morning service the pastor will pray for candidates who are growing in faith as they move towards baptism. Prayer for catechumens is critically important. So also, it is important that the catechumens learn to pray. Today, as in the early centuries, the Lord’s Prayer will be the heart of the Christian’s prayer. Apprentice Christians will use it line by line, as an outline prayer. What could be more important than praying this distillation of the piety of Jesus?

Proposal 9

The catechetical process will culminate in a ritually impressive baptism. In pre-Christendom, candidates were immersed three times, naked; then they were clothed in white robes, given the milk and honey of the promised land, and led amidst great joy to the fellowship of the eucharistic table. Today we may skip the nakedness; and we may not have milk and honey. But we will find ways of making the baptismal service ritually impressive – beautiful, exultant, exuberant. Why not? The candidates have completed a journey – from death to life. They have died to their old selves; they have been reborn to life in the resurrection of Christ (Rom 6). They have learned to say no to Caesar’s lordship, no to the tyranny of violence and escalating lifestyle – and YES to Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of the world and Lord of their lives. Why observe this half-heartedly? For from this process, new Christians have emerged, who will be as attractive to non-Christians as the Christians who had attracted them. The baptismal services of the early Christians often took place on Easter, the day of Resurrection. I propose that in post-Christendom we make Easter our primary baptismal day, too.

Initiation now

In the Christendom centuries, churches could retain their numerical strength by genetic means. In post-Christendom this doesn’t work any more. Birth rates are lower; communities no longer have coercive power over their young; people wander off. But when the Christian community is attractive and question-posing, and when people are drawn to an initiatory process that is both rigorous and joyful, there will be people from within Christian families and from the hungry world that is watching us who will be attracted, who will want to be initiated into Jesus and in baptism to say to him, YES!

Alan Kreider is Mission Educator with the Mennonite Mission Network; he teaches courses in the early church at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, USA.

This article is reprinted, with adaptations for the UK context, from the Summer 2004 issue of Leader, a magazine for congregational leaders in North America. Used with permission of Mennonite Publishing Network.


1. Alan Kreider: Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1995); Alan Kreider: The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999); Jane Hoober Peifer and John Stahl-Wert: Welcoming New Christians: A Guide for the Christian Initiation of Adults (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1995); Thomas M. Finn: From Death to Rebirth: Ritual and Conversion in Antiquity (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1997).

As Christians we are called both to be disciples and to make disciples. I have always liked the fact that the word ‘disciple’ means ‘a learner’ and not the popular notion of simply being ‘a follower’. You can follow another enthusiastically all you like, yet in reality be changed very little. However, the process of learning demands that change takes place. The old educational definition that ‘true learning brings about a relatively permanent change in behaviour’, may not say everything we want to express on the subject, but it makes an important point.

As a teacher I have always been passionate about learning, but for the last 22 years my particular focus has been to create an encounter with truth for people within, or close to the edge of, the Christian community; an engagement that brings about distinctive and effective personal change in someone’s spiritual and practical experience. In so doing my central aim has always been to help people find an empowerment within that can be translated into an expression of leadership that will go on to impact the lives of many others. The influences that have shaped my approach have been drawn from values similar to those that inspired the early Anabaptist groups, which in themselves take us back to Jesus and the earliest Christian communities.

The words ‘learning’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘leadership’ are understood in different ways within the church. When you raise questions and bring divergent perspectives to them it is interesting how strong the negative reactions can be. Not necessarily from established churches, where many times there is a genuine desire to explore fresh perspectives, but quite often from groups who consider themselves to be free and creative. These three ideas have an uncanny ability to reveal people’s insecurities and desire for control. That fact alone suggests they are significant areas to reflect on.

Jesus: learning and leadership

We meet Jesus in the Gospels as a teacher and leader, calling people to discover the transforming encounter of the kingdom of God. For Jesus, education begins with ‘repentance’ (Greek: metanoia), a permanent change in the way we think about everything, which gives our life a total redirection. Christian learning involves thinking differently; the weaving of information and experience together in such a way that all our perceptions change. This is the essence of the Hebrew word yada – ‘to know’. For Jesus, the learning of ‘discipleship’ is a total reorientation.

Over the years I have come to recognise that there are certain sessions that I teach, and even certain phrases I will use, that always have an electrifying effect on at least one or two people in any group. Cosmic pennies dropping! I never know who it will be until it happens, but when it happens I know they will never be the same again. Often it is sudden, but it can equally be like lighting a fuse, initiating a smouldering burn that will detonate later. For others, learning is more a process of ‘contamination’, truth seeping into the reservoir of their heart and mind, slowly infecting the whole, or like a virus affecting the central nervous system. Truth-learning is all-encompassing in its impact.

Jesus makes it clear that the learning of discipleship is about transfiguration:

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher’ (Luke 6:40).

Christian teaching, following the example of Jesus, has Christ-likeness as its goal. Character is the core of the curriculum. As a teacher this is both clear and disturbing. It is a reminder that how I live my life when I am not teaching is every bit as important as what I say while I am teaching. I cannot take learners further than I have travelled myself, though I can point them forwards in the direction that I myself am also journeying. So teaching and learning is a shared quest in which we discover, together, a growing Christ-likeness through the creative power of the Spirit.

Jesus shows us that true learning comes out of relationship. He loved the crowds who came to him and he had compassion for those to whom he spoke, but those who were most deeply and immediately affected by him were those who travelled from place to place and spent time in his company. My teaching has influenced many people but it is those with whom I have spent quality time thinking, arguing, discussing and praying that seem to take it into their DNA and can replicate it and pass it on to others without any necessary reference to the original stimulus. Relationship at the heart of learning is the example Jesus gives us.

In the world of education the big question we always have to ask about any teaching session is, ‘What evidence do I actually have that learning has really taken place?’ Discipleship learning must face the same acid test. For Jesus the assessment process is clear, ‘By their fruits you will know them’ (Matt. 7:16). The evidence for learning is in life-shape and behaviour.

The qualities of Messianic character are many; one that is foundational is freedom:

‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom’

(2 Cor. 3:17);

‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’

(John 8:32).

The true disciple is embraced by the learning of liberation, and this emancipating education leads to empowerment. The one who says we are to become like him, goes on to say that we will do even ‘greater works’ than he did (John 14:12). In walking with the teacher, the hallmarks of true learning are to be free, empowered and starting to lead others.

This liberated leadership calls us to learn, example and teach the ‘leadership of the servant’ (Luke 22:26-27), which is characterized by the strength of gentleness, the boldness of humility and a pliable heart that is both persuasive and persuadable. It is a leadership that enables others (Luke 22:31-32), liberates others (Matt 10:8) and rejoices when others experience and express diversity (John 21:21-22). The disciple is one who both learns and leads. A Christian understanding of leadership happens whenever someone takes spiritual or practical initiative in terms of another person, in God’s name, within either the church or society.

This ‘network’ understanding of leadership functions much like the nervous system of the body. It is constantly being empowered while at the same time systematically disempowering itself as it mediates its neural energy to other parts of the plexus. This is the body of Christ, challenging the hierarchical approaches of most societies and most churches. Learning to think and live differently.

Church: learning and leadership

Most popular Christian training is driven by particular denominations and much of it tends to stress:

  • gaining more knowledge / information;
  • gaining orientation / commitment;
  • gaining skills / abilities;
  • gaining recognised qualifications.

Properly understood this can have real value, but training for liberated leadership needs more; many people who have had traditional church training still feel inadequate and insecure, often with growing frustration with local church. What is needed is learning as empowerment.

Leadership inevitably mirrors the teaching and training that has been used to develop it. In spite of much discussion in this area the broad pattern of local church leadership displays most, if not all, the following characteristics:

  • hierarchical rather than relational;
  • structural rather than natural;
  • denominational rather than ecumenical;
  • patriarchal rather than inclusive;
  • functional rather than creative.

There are of course exceptions, but they do tend to prove the rule. It is not just that the church finds itself in a post-modern, post-Christendom world where such thinking and practice is no longer appropriate. It is simply not Christian; never has been, and has no place in how we express ourselves. No excuses, no argument; we have to change.

Learning: as empowerment

Christian learning is about thinking differently, from which empowerment flows. Rooted in a vision of the character of God to which it draws disciples, it works with essential principles that are woven from primary biblical values.

Truth as integrity: Truth is much more than simply information that is correct and accurate. From a biblical perspective truth is ‘moral’ rather than ‘cerebral’; a person’s character increasingly harmonises with the nature of who God is. It is to do with:

  • ‘character’ rather than ‘criteria’
  • ‘personhood’ rather than ‘propositions’
  • ‘disposition’ rather than ‘information’
  • ‘right person’ rather than ‘right ideas’.

As we communicate truth, people are set free because they are changed from the inside out. It confronts them with the essential question, ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’ It provokes fresh insight into values that mesh them together from within, liberating them, but it is also to do with understanding.

Understanding as holistic: ‘Being able to join all the dots together’ is how the biblical concept of ‘understanding’ has been described. People live much of their lives with fragments of information and experience, which is often very precious, but it is disconnected and fractured. We need to teach in a way that fits it together into an integrated whole. Making connections between the biblical text, theological ideas and contemporary questions and challenges, linking spirituality and mission with doctrine and church life, and so the permutations continue.

At first sight this can seem obvious but experience proves that this interconnectedness happens very little. Enabling people to have a ‘big picture’ inspires both vision and confidence, fitting everything together.

Questioning as creative: Christians love to feel they are dealing with certainties but in so doing continually diminish and distort truth. Local church leaders often discourage questioning seeing it as a sign of dissent rather than an example of growth and maturity; more than that, they do not understand it as essential. The way we teach must smash the sterile trap of accepting the status quo, provoking enquiry for the enrichment of all. We must get people to delight in creative debate that looks for fresh insights and application of truth. For years I have said that the essential learning environment should be a safe place where terrible things happen! Dangerous thinking in a safe environment is an essential step towards empowerment. Doubt can be destructive but more often, properly handled, it can become a radical step towards certainty and maturity. We must encourage people to live with paradox and explore the world with the wide-eyed wonder of mature childlikeness.

Spirituality as radical: The life of the Spirit is the deep well at the centre of our being beside which the Tree of Life grows. Its multi-flavoured fruit conveys the aroma and texture of the character of God in Jesus. In enabling people to learn we are nurturing and cultivating the roots that give life to this sacred plant. As it flourishes so do those in whose heart it is planted; this is the process of discipleship. While rooted and connected it is also grows under the open heaven, experiencing the removal of the barriers between the physical and spiritual, developing broad horizons. From this comes maturity, empowered by the Spirit, generating profound excitement about God, and drawing richly from every Christian tradition, historically and internationally.

Wisdom as practical: In a world that is awash with information and data it is astonishing how little discussion or understanding there is about wisdom. A core biblical value, it is almost entirely absent from the vocabulary and thinking of the contemporary church. In a powerful subtle way, wisdom takes knowledge and understanding and ingeniously applies truth to life in a manner that works to God’s glory and is most appropriate for the moment and circumstances. It learns from experience and prayerful reflection, struggling with ethical issues in a way that enhances freedom, meeting objections to our faith with a sensitive confidence. Wisdom is replete with creativity, imagination, inspiration and so much more. It is at the core of empowerment.

Church as inclusive: So much Christian thinking about church is parochial and local; what is needed is to fling open the doors of their understanding to the reality that there is only one church. It is historical, global and eternal. There are historical and theological reasons for differences between groups that are usually valuable and enriching. Learning to live with diversity within unity is a key principle to embrace. Being able to critique and respect another person’s perspective in equal measure is essential. We must give learners the confidence to carry their responsibility to create an ‘enabling environment’ for others to grow and the inter-connected body of Christ to flourish.

Hope as central: It is astonishing how little genuine biblical Christian hope is around in the community of faith. Few have a ‘living hope’ (1 Pet 1:3) or could give ‘a reason for their hope’ (1 Pet 3:15). Much of it is little more than a vague superstition that they are ‘going to heaven when they die’. This has to be swept away. A foundational stepping-stone towards freedom and empowerment is for learners to encounter the awesome biblical vision of shalom with its promise of the final and total integration of all things in Jesus. Over the years I have seen the thinking of thousands of people transfigured by this truth. Eschatology inspires destiny and as a result the mundane becomes alive with a sense of the eternal.

Leadership: as liberated

These themes and principles have proved time and again to have a liberating and empowering impact on the lives of those seeking to be disciples of Jesus. The result has been to see a belief in leadership blossom in the lives of those who were previously inhibited by insecurities, fear and doubt.

We are living at the most exciting time to be a Christian in 2,000 years of the church. Everything is changing and the possibilities seem limitless. What is needed is diversified leadership, shared by everyone in a way that is appropriate, that is truly liberated and empowered. People with a passion for mission, who understand the gospel as cosmic and the church as global, and are enthused by the vision and values of shalom.

All this should inspire us to invest time and effort in creating quality-learning experiences that truly empower living as Jesus’ disciples.

Noel Moules is the founder of the Anvil Trust and co-ordinator of its training programmes. The first is Workshop: Applied Christian Studies, from which has recently been developed Advanced Workshop, focusing on ethics, hermeneutics and apologetics.

Setting the stage

Mennonites in the United States and Canada, most of whom today still trace their historical and spiritual roots to the Europe from which their forbears fled or emigrated in significant numbers for several centuries beginning in the early 1700s, have been involved in a variety of mission activities across Europe over the past half-century.

This mission work in Europe followed on the heels of relief work done under the umbrella of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an inter-Mennonite body that came into being in response to the plight of Mennonites in the Ukraine in the civil war and famine of the early 1920s. Soon after the outbreak of war in 1939, MCC relief work began in Poland, France and England – where assistance was given to refugees from Europe and children evacuated from the cities. At the end of the war in 1945, work began in Belgium, Holland and Italy, and in the following year in Germany, Denmark, Austria and France.

Already during the war, North American Mennonites had become convinced that, as a 1942 study put it, ‘Our present peace testimony in the form of relief work should result in the opening of great door and effectual in the way of conducting mission work in Europe and Asia.’ As Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM) examined the possibility of post-war mission work in England, Belgium and Germany, it did so with the conviction that ‘we owe a positive, evangelistic testimony to the Europe, the continent which produced our forebears’. By the early 1950s, serious thought was being given to what a missionary approach to Europe’s ‘dechristianised’ society should look like, rooted in the central task of introducing men and women to Jesus Christ.

Today several North American mission agencies, as well as MCC, continue their activities in Europe, although in quite different conditions and also in different countries from those of the early postwar years. With the fall of communism in 1989, new possibilities opened up in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; in west European countries where mission presence has continued and broadened over a half-century, the nature and style of the work has experienced change as well as continuity.

Mennonite Mission Network

Within the limits of this short article, attention will be focused on the work of Mennonite Mission Network (Mission Network for short), the official mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, which came into being in February 2002 as one of the successor agencies to MBM, whose work in Europe went back to 1950 in Belgium.

Working in close consultation with European partner churches and organisations is an important part of Mission Network’s style of work in Europe, as elsewhere. In the UK, the London Mennonite Centre, Wood Green Mennonite Church and the Anabaptist Network are the principal partner organisations for Mission Network. Over the past several years, short-term workers have been placed as well with the Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), the Corrymeela Community and the Hertford Community Church.

At present, Mennonite Mission Network supports ministries – either through placing North American workers or providing grants to local partners – in 14 countries: Belgium, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Kosovo (still officially part of Serbia), Lithuania, The Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Ukraine. Approximately 40 North American workers are either partially or fully supported by Mission Network in a dozen of these countries, and programme grants to Mennonite centres in London, Paris and Brussels help make it possible to engage local personnel in these projects. Some of these workers are on long-term assignments – three couples have served more than 20 years in their current locations – while others are serving as associates or interns for one- or two-year terms.

Through these North American workers and European partner organisations, a broad variety of Christian ministries are carried out,
reflecting Mission Network’s commitment to ‘holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world’. These ministries include: Anabaptist-oriented Bible teaching and theological education in congregations and schools; Christian mediation and reconciliation training and resources; evangelism and church planting; Anabaptist literature and training resources; the afore-mentioned Mennonite centres in a number of major cities; providing pastoral leadership in young congregations; relating to and working with Christians in the fine arts; counseling and caring for senior adults; and Christian higher education. This last ministry is most notably the case in Klaipeda, Lithuania, where six Mission Network workers are administrators or professors at Lithuania Christian College, a four-year Christian liberal arts college founded in the early 1990s on the model of Mennonite colleges in North America such as Goshen (Indiana) College.

Mission methods

Speaking to a Mission Network Europe consultation in Paris in May 2004, Alan Kreider – who was, along with his wife Eleanor, a long-term Mission Network worker in England, and who certainly needs no further introduction to regular readers of AT – identified seven methods used by Mennonite missionaries in Europe over the past half-century. His presentation is worth reporting at length, as he has captured well both the style and content of Mennonite mission efforts down to the present.

Kreider noted that the general approach has been to call committed persons to mission, to inspire them with a theological and missiological vision and ‘to trust them to find ways in various countries to incarnate the vision’. The result had been ‘varied programmes’ using a ‘variety of methods’, with ‘a commitment to a long-term approach’ undergirding them all: ‘Long-term missionaries, in Europe for decades if not for life, have been crucial to the Mennonite contribution,’ Kreider emphasised.

He identified a first method as engagement in practical ministries. ‘Mennonite workers have tried to see what needs to be done in a given culture, and to bring Mennonite resources and new thinking to the task.’ This service orientation is grounded in the conviction that ‘mission must be rooted in something that makes a visible difference to people’. This has led to involvement in such things as sheltered workshops for the mentally handicapped, providing housing for foreign students, work with addicts and prisoners, counseling people caught up in new religious movements, teaching English classes, providing mediation training and skills, and ministries in the arts and drama.

Second, Mennonite missionaries have worked in churches and founded churches, participating as ‘leaders and as supportive members in lives of existing congregations – both Mennonite and Free Church’. In addition, they have ‘planted’ new Anabaptist congregations ‘as an expression of Christian theology, especially in the Anabaptist tradition. When men and women are introduced to Jesus Christ, they must be incorporated in a body of believers in which worship, nurture, common life and evangelism can take place.’ The aim was to establish churches ‘that would be distinctive – different from other churches in Europe, where the decline of Christianity was often a repudiation of church culture; also different from Mennonite churches in North America’. Wanting to ‘do the church right’, Kreider noted, ‘was the heavy burden of the Anabaptist vision. So the way some of us to do church was both attractive and demanding – and at times may have involved the export of North American cultural values in ways that we didn’t sufficiently examine.’

A third method has been to establish study centres. This has happened most notably in London, Paris and Brussels, but also in several other locations. ‘The work of the centres has varied, and at times has been as catalysts for change,’ Kreider said, but they ‘have not attempted to turn everyone into Anabaptists or Mennonites; they have hospitably put their resources at the disposal of others who may appropriate much or little while remaining in their own denominations. This non-threatening approach has enabled significant Europeans to experience a profound reorientation of their thinking so that they in turn change the thinking of others.’

A fourth method has been to encourage the recovery of Anabaptism in contemporary Europe. Whereas 50 years ago, ‘Anabaptism was simply not on the radar screen of scholars or church people in Europe’, today it has re-emerged because of its relevance in addressing issues and needs of community, violence and the centrality of Jesus. ‘In all these areas of relevance, Anabaptist understandings are gradually making inroads into the minds of European Christians.’ These ideas have spread ‘as people discover the need of a theology of marginality for churches that have become marginal’, but also have ‘made sense in communities active in primary evangelism’. Kreider emphasised that ‘in post-Christendom the church will survive only if it is evangelistic. I believe that Anabaptism’s future lies not least in its practical consequences and its evangelistic efficacy.’

Fifth, Mennonite missionaries have reclaimed peace as a theme for European Christians. ‘Working with others, they have reclaimed peace in many ways: they have inspired and supported conscientious objectors; they have worshipped outside of nuclear bases; in wartime they have debated and demonstrated and in peacetime have been awkward in reminding people that the gospel of Jesus Christ is “the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15), which is to shape every aspect of Christian life.’ While at times they may have focused too much on peace, on the whole, ‘Mennonite missionaries have played an important role in putting peace back on the agenda of European Christians, especially evangelical Christians.’

Sixth, Mennonite mission work in Europe has been committed to networking. From the very beginning there has been an eagerness to work together with other local Christians and with Mennonites in countries with historic Mennonite communities going back to the 16th century (The Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland). As a still-lively example that dates back to the 1970s, Kreider pointed to the Colloquium, a biennial ‘church conference in which mutually supportive and powerfully affective primary relationships [have] developed among European and North American adults and youths, which [has] led to much visiting, befriending and encouraging’.

As a seventh method, Kreider noted that Mennonite missionaries in Europe have been resolutely ecumenical. ‘They have associated with, and learned from, Christians who are evangelical and liberal, Protestant and Catholic, contemplative and charismatic.’ As a result, ‘Relationships have broadened – even converted – the Mennonite workers, giving them a breadth of sympathy, and perhaps instilling in them a degree of humility.’ Kreider concluded by asking ‘whether we missionaries would have been more productive if we had had a simpler, more focused approach. But I believe not. I think it is precisely the holism of our approach, which grows out of our Anabaptist-coloured Christian faith and possibly our upbringing as Mennonites, that has been our best contribution to mission in Europe.’

Looking ahead

A series of recommendations for the future of Mennonite Mission Network ministry in Europe came out of the May 2004 Paris consultation attended by 30 persons – Europe mission personnel, representatives of European Mennonite partner organisations and staff from Mission Network offices in the USA. A major part of the consultation focused on the growing presence of immigrant churches from the southern continents and how Mennonite mission might interact with them.

Among the affirmations and recommendations were the following:

  • We affirm a clearly holistic approach with the careful management of the complexities it implies. We reaffirm the importance of the integrative approach to gospel work and the flexibility by which the work has responded to opportunities.
  • We affirm both working with established churches and working with new bodies of believers with a hope that the convergence with offer renewal for established churches. We perceive this as a high priority for the next ten years.
  • Peace witness continues to provide a clear opportunity for historic Anabaptist, biblical values to converge with perceived societal needs.
  • North Americans need to grow in awareness of European issues, and we recommend intentional invitation for Europeans to come and consult with and relate to the churches in North America.
  • In light of the urgency of the migration phenomenon, we recommend exploring with European colleagues and churches what forms of response are appropriate. We solicit and receive with gratitude the gifts of Mennonite churches in Africa and other southern continents to enable collaborative immigrant ministries, church planting and church renewal in Europe.
  • We reaffirm continued cooperation with and openness to other Christian bodies. We should collaborate to encourage Anabaptist networks, develop Mennonite centres and plant Mennonite churches.
  • We remain committed to long-term worker presence as a foundation for meaningful ministry.

To be sure, there are a number of factors that will have an impact on how these recommendations can be carried out in the coming years, not the least of which is the continuing availability of human and financial resources from Mennonite churches in North America for carrying on international work. But the vision and intent is clear: in 2004, no less than it was a half-century earlier, post-Christendom Europe will remain a significant area of mission activity for Mennonites from North America.

J. Robert Charles, Goshen, Indiana, is director for Europe for Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA. He previously served as director for Africa and Europe for Mennonite Board of Missions from 1996 to 2002 and as a Mennonite missionary in Belgium from 1980 to 1988.

Want to know more?

J. Robert Charles, ‘North American Mennonite Agencies in Europe since World War II’, Mission Focus, 16(3) (September 1988), pp. 48-52.

Alan Kreider, Anabaptist Christianity: Revived and Relevant. MBM Celebrates 50 Years of Faithful Witness in Europe, Mission Insight 16 (Elkhart, Indiana: Mennonite Board of Missions, 2001).

David A. Shank, ‘A Missionary Approach to a Dechristianized Society’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, 28 (1954), pp. 39-55. The official website of Mennonite Mission Network, providing up-to-date information and reports from programmes and personnel around the world, including Europe.

Mennonites in the United States and Canada, most of whom today still trace their historical and spiritual roots to the Europe from which their forbears fled or emigrated in significant numbers for several centuries beginning in the early 1700s, have been involved in a variety of mission activities across Europe over the past half-century.

This mission work in Europe followed on the heels of relief work done under the umbrella of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an inter-Mennonite body that came into being in response to the plight of Mennonites in the Ukraine in the civil war and famine of the early 1920s. Soon after the outbreak of war in 1939, MCC relief work began in Poland, France and England – where assistance was given to refugees from Europe and children evacuated from the cities. At the end of the war in 1945, work began in Belgium, Holland and Italy, and in the following year in Germany, Denmark, Austria and France.

Already during the war, North American Mennonites had become convinced that, as a 1942 study put it, ‘Our present peace testimony in the form of relief work should result in the opening of great door and effectual in the way of conducting mission work in Europe and Asia.’ As Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM) examined the possibility of post-war mission work in England, Belgium and Germany, it did so with the conviction that ‘we owe a positive, evangelistic testimony to the Europe, the continent which produced our forebears’. By the early 1950s, serious thought was being given to what a missionary approach to Europe’s ‘dechristianised’ society should look like, rooted in the central task of introducing men and women to Jesus Christ.

Today several North American mission agencies, as well as MCC, continue their activities in Europe, although in quite different conditions and also in different countries from those of the early postwar years. With the fall of communism in 1989, new possibilities opened up in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; in west European countries where mission presence has continued and broadened over a half-century, the nature and style of the work has experienced change as well as continuity.

Mennonite Mission Network

Within the limits of this short article, attention will be focused on the work of Mennonite Mission Network (Mission Network for short), the official mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, which came into being in February 2002 as one of the successor agencies to MBM, whose work in Europe went back to 1950 in Belgium.

Working in close consultation with European partner churches and organisations is an important part of Mission Network’s style of work in Europe, as elsewhere. In the UK, the London Mennonite Centre, Wood Green Mennonite Church and the Anabaptist Network are the principal partner organisations for Mission Network. Over the past several years, short-term workers have been placed as well with the Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), the Corrymeela Community and the Hertford Community Church.

At present, Mennonite Mission Network supports ministries – either through placing North American workers or providing grants to local partners – in 14 countries: Belgium, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Kosovo (still officially part of Serbia), Lithuania, The Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Ukraine. Approximately 40 North American workers are either partially or fully supported by Mission Network in a dozen of these countries, and programme grants to Mennonite centres in London, Paris and Brussels help make it possible to engage local personnel in these projects. Some of these workers are on long-term assignments – three couples have served more than 20 years in their current locations – while others are serving as associates or interns for one- or two-year terms.

Through these North American workers and European partner organisations, a broad variety of Christian ministries are carried out, reflecting Mission Network’s commitment to ‘holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world’. These ministries include: Anabaptist-oriented Bible teaching and theological education in congregations and schools; Christian mediation and reconciliation training and resources; evangelism and church planting; Anabaptist literature and training resources; the afore-mentioned Mennonite centres in a number of major cities; providing pastoral leadership in young congregations; relating to and working with Christians in the fine arts; counseling and caring for senior adults; and Christian higher education. This last ministry is most notably the case in Klaipeda, Lithuania, where six Mission Network workers are administrators or professors at Lithuania Christian College, a four-year Christian liberal arts college founded in the early 1990s on the model of Mennonite colleges in North America such as Goshen (Indiana) College.

Mission methods

Speaking to a Mission Network Europe consultation in Paris in May 2004, Alan Kreider – who was, along with his wife Eleanor, a long-term Mission Network worker in England, and who certainly needs no further introduction to regular readers of AT – identified seven methods used by Mennonite missionaries in Europe over the past half-century. His presentation is worth reporting at length, as he has captured well both the style and content of Mennonite mission efforts down to the present.

Kreider noted that the general approach has been to call committed persons to mission, to inspire them with a theological and missiological vision and ‘to trust them to find ways in various countries to incarnate the vision’. The result had been ‘varied programmes’ using a ‘variety of methods’, with ‘a commitment to a long-term approach’ undergirding them all: ‘Long-term missionaries, in Europe for decades if not for life, have been crucial to the Mennonite contribution,’ Kreider emphasised.

He identified a first method as engagement in practical ministries. ‘Mennonite workers have tried to see what needs to be done in a given culture, and to bring Mennonite resources and new thinking to the task.’ This service orientation is grounded in the conviction that ‘mission must be rooted in something that makes a visible difference to people’. This has led to involvement in such things as sheltered workshops for the mentally handicapped, providing housing for foreign students, work with addicts and prisoners, counseling people caught up in new religious movements, teaching English classes, providing mediation training and skills, and ministries in the arts and drama.

Second, Mennonite missionaries have worked in churches and founded churches, participating as ‘leaders and as supportive members in lives of existing congregations – both Mennonite and Free Church’. In addition, they have ‘planted’ new Anabaptist congregations ‘as an expression of Christian theology, especially in the Anabaptist tradition. When men and women are introduced to Jesus Christ, they must be incorporated in a body of believers in which worship, nurture, common life and evangelism can take place.’ The aim was to establish churches ‘that would be distinctive – different from other churches in Europe, where the decline of Christianity was often a repudiation of church culture; also different from Mennonite churches in North America’. Wanting to ‘do the church right’, Kreider noted, ‘was the heavy burden of the Anabaptist vision. So the way some of us to do church was both attractive and demanding – and at times may have involved the export of North American cultural values in ways that we didn’t sufficiently examine.’

A third method has been to establish study centres. This has happened most notably in London, Paris and Brussels, but also in several other locations. ‘The work of the centres has varied, and at times has been as catalysts for change,’ Kreider said, but they ‘have not attempted to turn everyone into Anabaptists or Mennonites; they have hospitably put their resources at the disposal of others who may appropriate much or little while remaining in their own denominations. This non-threatening approach has enabled significant Europeans to experience a profound reorientation of their thinking so that they in turn change the thinking of others.’

A fourth method has been to encourage the recovery of Anabaptism in contemporary Europe. Whereas 50 years ago, ‘Anabaptism was simply not on the radar screen of scholars or church people in Europe’, today it has re-emerged because of its relevance in addressing issues and needs of community, violence and the centrality of Jesus. ‘In all these areas of relevance, Anabaptist understandings are gradually making inroads into the minds of European Christians.’ These ideas have spread ‘as people discover the need of a theology of marginality for churches that have become marginal’, but also have ‘made sense in communities active in primary evangelism’. Kreider emphasised that ‘in post-Christendom the church will survive only if it is evangelistic. I believe that Anabaptism’s future lies not least in its practical consequences and its evangelistic efficacy.’

Fifth, Mennonite missionaries have reclaimed peace as a theme for European Christians. ‘Working with others, they have reclaimed peace in many ways: they have inspired and supported conscientious objectors; they have worshipped outside of nuclear bases; in wartime they have debated and demonstrated and in peacetime have been awkward in reminding people that the gospel of Jesus Christ is “the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15), which is to shape every aspect of Christian life.’ While at times they may have focused too much on peace, on the whole, ‘Mennonite missionaries have played an important role in putting peace back on the agenda of European Christians, especially evangelical Christians.’

Sixth, Mennonite mission work in Europe has been committed to networking. From the very beginning there has been an eagerness to work together with other local Christians and with Mennonites in countries with historic Mennonite communities going back to the 16th century (The Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland). As a still-lively example that dates back to the 1970s, Kreider pointed to the Colloquium, a biennial ‘church conference in which mutually supportive and powerfully affective primary relationships [have] developed among European and North American adults and youths, which [has] led to much visiting, befriending and encouraging’.

As a seventh method, Kreider noted that Mennonite missionaries in Europe have been resolutely ecumenical. ‘They have associated with, and learned from, Christians who are evangelical and liberal, Protestant and Catholic, contemplative and charismatic.’ As a result, ‘Relationships have broadened – even converted – the Mennonite workers, giving them a breadth of sympathy, and perhaps instilling in them a degree of humility.’

Kreider concluded by asking ‘whether we missionaries would have been more productive if we had had a simpler, more focused approach. But I believe not. I think it is precisely the holism of our approach, which grows out of our Anabaptist-coloured Christian faith and possibly our upbringing as Mennonites, that has been our best contribution to mission in Europe.’

Looking ahead

A series of recommendations for the future of Mennonite Mission Network ministry in Europe came out of the May 2004 Paris consultation attended by 30 persons – Europe mission personnel, representatives of European Mennonite partner organisations and staff from Mission Network offices in the USA. A major part of the consultation focused on the growing presence of immigrant churches from the southern continents and how Mennonite mission might interact with them.

Among the affirmations and recommendations were the following:

  • We affirm a clearly holistic approach with the careful management of the complexities it implies. We reaffirm the importance of the integrative approach to gospel work and the flexibility by which the work has responded to opportunities.
  • We affirm both working with established churches and working with new bodies of believers with a hope that the convergence with offer renewal for established churches. We perceive this as a high priority for the next ten years.
  • Peace witness continues to provide a clear opportunity for historic Anabaptist, biblical values to converge with perceived societal needs.
  • North Americans need to grow in awareness of European issues, and we recommend intentional invitation for Europeans to come and consult with and relate to the churches in North America.
  • In light of the urgency of the migration phenomenon, we recommend exploring with European colleagues and churches what forms of response are appropriate. We solicit and receive with gratitude the gifts of Mennonite churches in Africa and other southern continents to enable collaborative immigrant ministries, church planting and church renewal in Europe.
  • We reaffirm continued cooperation with and openness to other Christian bodies. We should collaborate to encourage Anabaptist networks, develop Mennonite centres and plant Mennonite churches.
  • We remain committed to long-term worker presence as a foundation for meaningful ministry.

To be sure, there are a number of factors that will have an impact on how these recommendations can be carried out in the coming years, not the least of which is the continuing availability of human and financial resources from Mennonite churches in North America for carrying on international work. But the vision and intent is clear: in 2004, no less than it was a half-century earlier, post-Christendom Europe will remain a significant area of mission activity for Mennonites from North America.

J. Robert Charles, Goshen, Indiana, is director for Europe for Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA. He previously served as director for Africa and Europe for Mennonite Board of Missions from 1996 to 2002 and as a Mennonite missionary in Belgium from 1980 to 1988.

Want to know more?

J. Robert Charles, ‘North American Mennonite Agencies in Europe since World WarII’, Mission Focus, 16(3) (September 1988), pp. 48-52.

Alan Kreider, Anabaptist Christianity: Revived and Relevant. MBM Celebrates 50

Years of Faithful Witness in Europe, Mission Insight 16 (Elkhart, Indiana: Mennonite Board of Missions, 2001).

David A. Shank, ‘A Missionary Approach to a Dechristianized Society’, Mennonite

Quarterly Review, 28 (1954), pp. 39-55. The official website of Mennonite Mission Network, providing up-to-date information and reports from programmes and personnel around the world, including Europe.