Within 10 years of Martin Luther’s now-famous declaration against the Roman Catholic Church that sparked the Protestant Reformation, other voices began to emerge. They called for an even stronger separation from the Catholics. Luther had certainly wanted a simpler faith but for many his reforms against the Catholic Church just did not go far enough.
By the 1520s the Protestant Reformation was in full swing. But for at least one group of devoted Swiss Christians a desire to adhere to ardently biblical principles for faith and practice was forcing a new controversy.
Baptisms of fire
In January 1525 the city council of Zurich ordered that Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz stop leading their own Bible classes within the community. The city council had already warned that parents who did not baptise their babies within eight days of birth would face banishment from the city. As several citizens gathered to sort out what to do with this growing coercion and interference by the state into the affairs of church members, it became increasingly clear that something had to be done.
After a time of prayer, one of the men in the group, a former priest, asked Grebel if he would baptise him in the tradition of the apostolic forefathers. Just as the Ethiopian eunuch had requested to be baptised by Philip in the Book of Acts, now grown men who had been baptised as infants were wanting to be baptised to publicly demonstrate their personal faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. In essence, these men where wanting to be rebaptised for their faith. Thus, the Anabaptist movement began.
For the most part the Anabaptists demurred their new “Anabaptist” title because they didn’t believe the baptism they received as infants counted for anything. They much preferred to be called “Baptists”. For most of them, however, the fundamental issue was not baptism but rather the concern over the church’s relationship with civil governments.
For the Anabaptists, the religious requirements that were being imposed on the people by the state were undermining the essence of true faith-based Christianity. In their view, how could someone freely follow Jesus at the end of the civil sword? People were being forced to attend church and participate in church life by the government, which in the end was undermining a real adherence to genuine faith in Christ.
At war with the government
Luther had taught that people should be able to study the Bible for themselves, but now as the Anabaptists looked to the Scriptures they saw a different world from how the early followers of Christ practised their faith. Even though Luther had called for reform, the Lutheran churches were still arms of the government. For the Anabaptists, the Christianity of the Bible was a religion of authenticity and freedom and not a religion of governmental coercion or manipulation.
With this new rebellion against civil government, the authorities moved swiftly to banish the Anabaptists. But when this seemed to have little effect in curbing them, a new edict was enforced that called for the sentence of death by drowning. Apparently the thought was, “if the heretics want water, let them have it”.
Major persecution against the Anabaptists ensued and thousands of ardent, humble and faithful followers of Jesus Christ were put to death. But even this persecution didn’t slow down the movement. If anything, it just added fuel to the fire.
Growth and divisions
As time passed, the Anabaptist movement attracted other men with strong convictions. Men such as Menno Simons (the Mennonites) and Jacob Hutter (the Hutterites) along with John Yoder and Alan Kreider helped to solidify and then codify the beliefs of the Anabaptists. These were:
1) Discipleship. The call to follow Jesus Christ should be a call that is demonstrated in every area of life through faithful obedience to Him.
2) Love. The Anabaptists were motivated to love others without the use of force. They would neither go to war nor defend themselves as they practised a loving pacifism toward their enemies. This love was also demonstrated through how the community of believers shared and cared for people within and without the church.
3) Congregationalism. This was seen in how the Anabaptists governed themselves as a church. Each member was a freely baptised believer in Christ and was therefore “a priest to fellow believers and a missionary to non-believers”. The entire membership helped to determine the tenets of faith and practice for the church.
4) Separation of church and state. Faith is a free gift from God apart from state intrusion or coercion.
Many other churches have followed the tradition of the Anabaptists. Distant relatives of them would include the Baptists, the Quakers and the Congregationalists.
It seems that throughout history any time the church moves away from the simple teaching of Scripture, controversy and conflict ensues. One group argues for a liberal view of the Scriptures while another argues for a more conservative view.
No wonder those outside the church look and shrug. How can there be a message of peace, harmony and love in the midst of such cruelty, destruction and hatred over the centuries? But couldn’t it be said that just because there is controversy within the church, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t any truth to the claims of Christianity?
The truth is in the sock drawer
There are a lot of things we argue about but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an absolute truth to consider. For example, with regard to what’s known as the “freshman fallacy” (“If I know the answer to a particular question, then the question is too easy”, etc.) I might ask you how many socks I have in my sock drawer in my bedroom. After surveying many people I’m sure that I would get all kinds of suggestions and opinions about the matter.
But just because there are a lot of different opinions about how many socks there are doesn’t mean that there isn’t an absolute answer to the question. We could examine the drawer and see for ourselves how many socks there are actually in it. Similarly, just because there are many viewpoints about Christianity doesn’t mean there isn’t an essential absolute truth about its claims.
Perhaps we need to do some examining or even re-examining of the data for ourselves before we are able to draw a conclusion. Perhaps you need to see for yourself what Christ intended for the world as you examine the evidence for Christianity in the Bible. Don’t worry. I won’t make you look in my sock drawer.
– Reverend Bradley S. Belcher is the senior pastor with the International Baptist Church of Budapest, www.ibcbudapest.org. Should you have a question or comment regarding this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.