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.