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“Red Letter Reductionism” Expanded

Recently I received word that someone might be interested in publishing my “Red Letter Reductionism” essay that I first shared in 2013—if only I could reduce it a little.

So I expanded it from 23 pages to 31 pages. Then, with great effort and the judicious advice of a friend, I cut it down to 14 pages. Now I have two red letter reductionism essays:

  • “Red Letter Reductionism” (expanded version, 31 pages)
  • “Red Letter Reductionism and Apostolic Authority” (reduced version, 14 pages)

This is all rather expansive for an essay about reductionism, but I am thankful for the results.

I’m not sure I want to post my abbreviated essay until it has been published in print (trusting it will be). But here is the expanded version of the original essay:

Red Letter Reductionism

What is this essay about?

Red letter Christians are any Christians who in some way prioritize the words of Jesus over the rest of Bible, including over the rest of the New Testament. While the words of Jesus are indeed important, I think that elevating the Bible’s red letters over its black letters is a bad practice that can lead to bad results.

In this essay I explain why, focusing especially on the authority Jesus gave to his apostles, including his promise to speak through them.

From the essay introduction:

This essay is about red letter theology and red letter Christians. It is about the authority of the New Testament and the nature of the gospel. First, we need an introduction to red letter Christianity. Then we will ask whether it is harmless. To answer our question, we will consider the promise of the Spirit, the limits of pre-Pentecostal revelation, and the nature of apostolic authority. We will take a close look at Paul, examining his gospel and his apostolic claims. We will examine John 3:16 as a test case for red letter theology and then ask whether this theology paints a shrunken, two-dimensional Jesus. We will consider the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the gospel and ask whether Anabaptists are truly excited about the gospel. Finally, we will consult Matthew’s opinion on red and black letters, then conclude with two clarifications and five suggestions for readers of this essay.

What is new in this edition?

First, I combed the entire essay, trying to improve clarity and weed out overstatements. Then I added significant new content.

I invite you to read the entire essay, even (perhaps especially) if you’ve read it before. Most paragraphs were tweaked at least a little.

But I don’t want you to miss some of the new material I’ve included, so I’ll share four excerpts here (minus footnotes).

1. On the term “the authority of Scripture”:

We must pause to examine what we mean by “the authority of Scripture.” First, following N.T. Wright, I believe that “the phrase ‘the authority of scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’”[1] On the one hand, this definition prevents us from directing worship to a book rather than to its Author; on the other hand, it reminds us that reverence for Scripture as the word of God is not idolatry but essential fear of God. Second, the term authority is used variously to refer to both (a) the divine origin of Scripture and (b) the weight or influence that any portion of Scripture carries to shape our interpretations and behaviors. In this essay I am primarily addressing the question of the divine origin of Scripture, arguing that red and black letters alike are words from God and, in that sense, equally authoritative. But one question leads to another; those who question whether all black letters truly come from God will also not allow them to shape their interpretations and behaviors as strongly. So near the end of this essay I will briefly address the question of which passages of Scripture should rightly shape our interpretation of Scripture most directly and strongly.

2. On the self-awareness of the New Testament authors about the authority they exercised as they wrote:

At least some New Testament authors seem to have been aware of the authority entrusted to them as they wrote. Peter addresses his readers as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:1), declaring that what he had “written” was “the true grace of God” in which his readers must “stand firm” (1 Pet. 5:12). This self-identification as “apostle” is found at the beginning of many New Testament letters, and should not be missed. When an Old Testament prophet said “Thus says the LORD,” he was using a standard messenger formula—the same formula that was used by the herald of a king, who would preface his message by saying “Thus says king so-and-so.” This formula indicated that the prophet was on assignment, speaking God’s words.[1] A similar thing seems to be happening in the New Testament whenever an author claims to be an apostle. He is using this title to assert that he is God’s messenger—“the special envoy of Christ Jesus commissioned by the will of God.”[2]

…John… prefaces his prophetic visions with a blessing best reserved for the word of God (cf. Jesus’ statement in Luke 11:28): “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (Rev. 1:3a). At the end of Revelation, Jesus repeats this blessing on those who “keep” what John has written (Rev. 22:7; cf. 22:9), just as faithful saints elsewhere in the book are said to “keep” the commandments of God (12:17; 14:12) and the word of Jesus (3:8, 10).

John’s prophecy ends with a most solemn warning (that may come from the lips of Jesus himself):

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19)

This warning adapts similar warnings found in the Law of Moses (Deut. 4:1-2; 12:32; 29:19-20), leading Oxford theologian Christopher Rowland to this observation:

In utilizing this prohibition from Deuteronomy John appears to regard his own revelations as being of equal importance with earlier communications from God given to Moses. There is no question here of this book being regarded by its author either as a series of inspired guesses or intelligent surmise. John believes that what he has seen and heard actually conveys the divine truth to his readers… John sees himself as the one who has been commissioned to write down the divine counsels for the benefits of the churches (Rev. 1:19).[3] 

3. On whether Paul undermines nonresistance:

Another reason some people are uneasy about Paul’s influence is because they fear he is not sufficiently clear on nonresistance. After all, a majority of Protestants historically have been all too quick to take up the sword and repay evil with evil. Does this endorsement of violence flow naturally from the Pauline Reformed theology that many of them embrace? More explicitly still, Romans 13 certainly has been and still is used by many Protestants to defend the Christian use of the sword. Isn’t it safest—even essential—to subjugate Paul’s ambivalent teachings on the sword to Jesus’ clear command that we must not resist evil?

Four brief responses can be given. First, Reformed or even Protestant theology simply does not explain most of the Christian use of the sword throughout history. Roman Catholics, too, have historically affirmed the Christian use of the sword, despite not being shaped by the Pauline theology of Luther which set the trajectory for Protestant doctrines. During the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics alike waged war and persecuted Anabaptists. And Christian just war theory is much older than the Reformation. It stretches back at least to Augustine (A.D. 354-430), was developed most significantly by the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274), and remains the official doctrine of the Catholic church to this day.

Second, Paul is not to blame for Augustine’s formulation of just war theory. Augustine believed that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor meant that Christians must normally not kill in self-defense. Yet, drawing explicitly upon Greco-Roman pagan thinkers—especially Cicero[1]—he made an exception for “just wars.” Romans 13 was not his “starting point,” despite the chapter’s later close association with just war theory by thinkers such as Aquinas and Luther.[2] Augustine concluded, as one scholar summarizes, that “‘times change’… pacifism was appropriate… in the time of the apostles [but] not… in a day and age when kings and nations have succumbed to the gospel” in fulfillment of prophecy.[3] Augustine was well aware of what both Jesus and the apostles taught, but concluded that new circumstances called for new behaviors. Augustine’s theology was too pagan, not too Pauline.

This leads to a third point: the influence of politics on theology. Catholics and Protestants alike developed their theology within the context of a Christendom that extended back to Constantine, the first Roman emperor to bear the sword in the name of Jesus. Political allegiances shaped the magisterial theology of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin, with each relying on the sword-bearing support of city councils or German princes. The Swiss Brethren Anabaptists, in contrast, counted the cost of losing political legitimacy at the time they chose believers’ baptism. Living as a persecuted minority, they were free of political entanglements that might have hindered them from following Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent enemy-love. Yet they developed their nonresistant theology, it must be noted, while also wrestling meaningfully with Paul’s teachings in Romans 13.[4] This influence of political power over our theology of the sword continues to this day, as Reformed theologian Preston Sprinkle has observed:

It’s fascinating (one might say disturbing) to see how each person’s political context or position shapes his or her understanding of Romans 13. Christians living in North Korea or Burma tend to read Romans 13 differently than Americans do… Not more than a generation ago, Romans 13 was hailed as the charter for apartheid in South Africa. American Christian leaders did the same during the years of slavery and segregation.[5]

“Most now would see such a view of Romans 13 as going a bit too far,” Sprinkle continues. “But only a bit.” He notes how Wayne Grudem has applied this chapter to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assuming that America is the good government and that Iraq and Afghanistan are the bad governments. “Were it flipped around and Romans 13 was used to validate Afghanistan’s invasion of America as punishment for horrific drone strikes on civilians,” Sprinkle suggests, “most Americans would see this as a misreading of Romans 13.”[6]

Which brings us to our final point: Paul is far clearer on nonresistance than many Christians, red letter or not, tend to acknowledge. In fact, Paul’s writings are in line with the entire New Testament, which “highlights Jesus’s nonviolent response to violence as a pattern to follow more often than any other aspect of his ministry.”[7] Paul “has the Sermon on the Mount ingrained in his soul,” Sprinkle observes, and most of “Paul’s litany of commands… in Romans 12… has the scent of Jesus’s Sermon.”[8] “Repay no one evil for evil… never avenge yourselves… if your enemy is hungry, feed him… overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21). The clarity of Romans 12 and other Pauline passages should remove all doubt that when Romans 13 puts the sword into the hand of the third-person government (“he,” not “you”), Paul cannot be affirming Christian vengeance. After all, “Paul explicitly forbids the church in Romans 12 from doing what the government does in Romans 13.”[9]

4. On whether Matthew—the favorite gospel of many red letter Christians—promotes red letter theology:

David Starling addresses such questions in his recent book Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship.[1] First, Starling notes that both the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the six “antitheses” of Matthew 5 give Jesus’ own words a prominence that matches and perhaps even exceeds the law of Moses. Similarly, at the center of Matthew’s Gospel we find the mount of transfiguration, where God the Father exalts Jesus with an assertion (“this is my Son”) and a command (“listen to him!”). Starling suggests that “the assertion and command… (echoed by Jesus’s own assertion and command in Matt. 28:18-20a) are the twin foci around which Matthew arranges the material of his Gospel.” Thus, there are “five big blocks of red-letter content (chs. 5-7; 10; 13:1-52; 18; 24-25) in Matthew,” each underscoring “the identity and authority of Jesus as the Son of God.” Starling summarizes what this reveals about Matthew’s purposes as a Gospel writer:

The bulk and the prominence of these five blocks of teaching suggest that Matthew intended not only to narrate Jesus’ story but also to preserve and propagate his teachings, so that his disciples might learn and obey them. Evidently, according to the shape and content of Matthew’s testimony, the redness of the red letters in his Gospel is of no small significance to Jesus, to Matthew, and to God himself, and ought to be of no small significance to the Gospel’s readers.[2]

So far, so good for red letter theology. But Starling continues:

But what exactly is the nature of that significance? How does Matthew want us to understand the relationship between Jesus’s words and the words of the Old Testament Scriptures (and, for that matter, Matthew’s own words as the writer of the Gospel)?[3]

Starling answers by examining both Jesus’ words and Matthew’s words. The first words of Jesus recorded in Matthew (at his baptism) implicitly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 3:15). The next recorded words (at his temptation) directly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11). The Beatitudes “are soaked in recollections of the Scriptures,” and “it is harder to imagine a stronger claim for the enduring importance of the Law than the language Jesus uses” in Matthew 5:18: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”[4] As we continue reading Matthew’s record of Jesus’ words, the pattern of quoting and honoring the Scriptures continues. So Starling concludes:

The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel can hardly be interpreted as an attempt to wrest authority away from the black. Any notion we might have that Jesus’s words could replace or supersede the words of Old Testament Scripture is dispelled as soon as Jesus starts speaking.[5]

Matthew’s own words have a similar effect. Starling suggests that Matthew is teaching a way of reading the Scriptures. He does this by using a “constant interleaving of biographical narrative [about Jesus’ life], typological allusions [from the Old Testament], and scriptural citations [also from the Old Testament].”[6] Craig Keener explains:

Matthew has constructed almost every paragraph following the genealogy and until the Sermon on the Mount around at least one text of Scripture. He thus invites his ideal audience to read Jesus in light of Scripture and Scripture in light of Jesus.[7]

The references to the Old Testament continue throughout Matthew’s narrative, “so that we might learn to read Scripture, and to understand Christ, accordingly.”[8]

Starling ends his chapter with insightful and mature reflections, worth quoting at length:

The red letters of Jesus’s teachings do indeed… fulfill a particular function in the economy of Scripture. Christians who… attempt to read the Scriptures as a timeless, undifferentiated compendium of divine commands, may revere Scripture but can hardly be said to have understood its message: those who faithfully trace the lines of Scripture’s black letters must inevitably be led to the place where they become hearers (and doers) of the red.

But the relationship between the black letters and the red is not a one-way street; it is a recursive, reciprocal relationship. The black letters of the Old Testament prophecy and apostolic testimony lead us to Jesus and urge us to listen to him; the red letters of Jesus’s teaching, in turn, commission and authorize his apostles as heralds of the gospel and send us back to the Old Testament to learn its meaning and its implications afresh in light of his coming. The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel are joined to the black in an indispensable, mutually authorizing, and mutually interpretive relationship; what God has joined together no interpreter should attempt to separate.

For evangelicals in our own time, confronted with the claim that we must choose between two different kinds of Christianity—one defined by the red letters of Scripture and the other defined by the black—the Gospel of Matthew provides a timely warning against false dichotomies and needless schisms. It reminds “red letter Christians” of the indispensability of the black letters and reminds “black letter Christians of the centrality of the red (or, more precisely, of the one who speaks them).[9]

To this exhortation I say “amen”—adding only a little more precision by reminding us that it is actually the risen Jesus himself who is speaking in the black letters of the apostolic writings, as we noted above. In summary, Christians who try to use Matthew’s Gospel to create a more perfect red letter version of Christianity do dishonor to Matthew and to Jesus himself.

May God help us all read and honor his written word and his risen Christ more faithfully!

The original version of this essay was much improved by the feedback of some readers—including some very rigorous ones on the crashed-and-rebranded former Mennodiscuss.com. (Thankfully, I downloaded and saved much of that feedback!) I welcome your feedback here, too, in the comments below. Thank you!


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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (7): Conclusions and Questions

How should we live today, as children of the Reformation? Should we celebrate the Reformation, looking to its heroes as a foundation for our churches? Should we continue debating and dividing among ourselves in our search for truth, emphasizing our post-Reformation denominational distinctives? Should Anabaptists read the Christian world primarily through an “Anabaptists are not X (especially Protestant)” lens?

Should we see the Reformation primarily as a tragedy, dividing the seamless robe of Christ, cutting his Bride in two? Should we focus our efforts on reuniting the broken Church, looking for common ground? Should we set aside secondary theological matters as we join arms with all who name Christ’s name, trying to undo the damage triggered by Luther?

Should we—as some today seem to be doing—try to do church as if the Reformation never happened? Is it ancient history that we are wisest to ignore, acting instead as if our parents or grandparents lived among the apostles? It has been almost 500 years since the Reformation; may we safely forget it as most of us have forgotten other momentous events in church history (such as the division of Eastern and Western churches, the decline of Christianity in the Middle East, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, or the tragedy and glory of European colonization)? After all, we who are Anabaptists are just biased in thinking that the historical period of our birth was exceptionally important, right?

While some of these questions are deliberately off-balance, I don’t think a simple yes or no answer will suffice for any of them. History abounds with reactionary responses to history.

This post is a (very belated) final installment in our series surveying the ecclesiology of the reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See the introduction to this series and posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , Calvin, Simons, and Tyndale.)

In this post I want to do two things: (1) Quote some of George’s summary reflections on Reformation ecclesiology and (2) add a random and non-representative sample of some of my own questions and conclusions.

Summary Reflections from Timothy George

The abiding validity of Reformation theology is that, despite the many varied emphases it contains within itself, it challenges the church to listen reverently and obediently to what God has once and for all said (Deus dixit) and once and for all done in Jesus Christ. How the church will respond to this challenge is not a matter of academic speculation or ecclesiastical gamesmanship. It is a question of life or death. It is the decision of whether the church will serve the true and living God of Jesus Christ, the God of the Old and the New Testaments, or else succumb to the worship of Baal. (Kindle Locations 8173-8177, emphasis added)

I agree: The Reformation helped to refocus the church of Christ upon Christ himself, not only in its soteriology (theology of salvation) but also in its understandings of the definition of the true church. This lesson must not be forgotten. This next quote underscores the same theme:

The different Christological nuances among the reformers were substantial and significant, but Menno’s favorite text (1 Cor 3:11) could serve as the basic theme for each of them: the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the only foundation, the only compelling and exclusive criterion, for Christian life and Christian theology. (Kindle Locations 8253-8255)

A second essential lesson of the Reformation is that Scripture—the Scripture that in its entirety gives witness to Christ—must be given primacy over both church tradition and personal experience:

In the sixteenth century the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture was not a matter of dispute between Catholics and Protestants. All of the reformers, including the radicals, accepted the divine origin and infallible character of the Bible. The issue which emerged at the Reformation was how the divinely attested authority of Holy Scripture was related to the authority of the church and ecclesiastical tradition (Roman Catholics) on the one hand and the power of personal experience (Spiritualists) on the other. The sola in sola scriptura was not intended to discount completely the value of church tradition but rather to subordinate it to the primacy of Holy Scripture. Whereas the Roman Church appealed to the witness of the church to validate the authority of the canonical Scriptures, the Protestant reformers insisted that the Bible was self-authenticating, that is, deemed trustworthy on the basis of its own perspicuity [clarity]… evidenced by the internal testimony [i.e., witness in our hearts] of the Holy Spirit. (Kindle Locations 8278-8286, emphasis added)

This emphasis on Scripture carried practical results for church life, resulting in a biblicism that has been both incredibly freeing but also—given (a) human interpretive fallibility and (b) pragmatic retreats to other sources of authority—a trigger point for much unfortunate division:

The reformers… were convinced that the proclamation of the Christian church could not be derived from any philosophy or any self-wrought worldview. It could be nothing less than an interpretation of the Scriptures. No other proclamation has either right or promise in the church. (Kindle Locations 8300-8302, emphasis added)

The second of the “Ten Conclusions of Berne” (1528) [Reformed] expresses this positive biblicism that governed, albeit with different results, both Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiology: “The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God.” (Kindle Locations 8292-8294, emphasis added)

To the above I say a hearty “Amen,” while affirming with Paul and others (Acts 16:6-10, etc.) that the belief in the still-speaking Spirit is also “grounded upon… the Word of God.” (The Bible provides guidance for the church of all time; the Spirit continues to give more specific, limited guidance that is in full agreement with the new covenant gospel Word found in the Scriptures.) Let us press on to ever more faithful biblical interpretation and living, while also extending gracious patience toward those who disagree on what should be identified as “human traditions.”

The following excerpt gives George’s summary of the Reformation definition of the church, followed by a lesson he draws for us today:

In the perspective of the Reformation, then, the church of Jesus Christ is that communion of saints and congregation of the faithful that has heard the Word of God in Holy Scripture and that, through obedient service to its Lord, bears witness to that Word in the world. We should remember that the church did not begin with the Reformation. The reformers intended to return to the New Testament conception of the church, to purge and purify the church of their day in accordance with the norm of Holy Scripture. Even the Anabaptists, who felt that an absolutely new beginning was called for, retained–even as they transmuted–more of the tradition and theology of the church of the Fathers and the creeds than they imagined. While we must not forfeit the hard-won victories of the reformers in the interest of a facile ecumenism, we celebrate and participate in the quest for Christian unity precisely because we take seriously the Reformation concept of the church–ecclesia semper reformanda, not merely a church once and for all reformed but rather a church always to be reformed, a church ever in need of further reformation on the basis of the Word of God. (Kindle Locations 8294-8300, emphasis added)

George also summarizes some Reformation church practices—changes, especially in worship practices, that resulted from changes in their theology:

As a part of their protest against clerical domination of the church, the reformers aimed at full participation in worship. Their reintroduction of the vernacular was itself revolutionary because it required that divine worship be offered to almighty God in the language used by businessmen in the marketplace and by husbands and wives in the privacy of their bedchambers. The intent of the reformers was not so much to secularize worship as to sanctify common life. (Kindle Locations 8315-8318, emphasis added)

In discussing these worship practices, George acknowledges differences among the reformers but seeks common ground:

We have seen how the reformers pared down the medieval sacraments from seven to two. We have also noted how, with regard to these two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, differences among the reformers became a major obstacle to unity among them. The Anabaptists insisted that baptism be consequent to faith and further denied that infants could be the proper recipients of faith whether presumed (Luther), parental (Zwingli), or partial (Calvin). Thus they returned to the early church practices of baptism as an adult rite of initiation signifying a committed participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ecumenical significance of the Anabaptist doctrine of baptism is recognized in the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry statement of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. While admitting the validity of both infant and believer’s baptism, it is stated that “baptism upon personal confession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.”1 (Kindle Locations 8320-8327, emphasis added)

George discusses lessons we can learn about baptism from the reformers:

As a corrective to the casual role assigned to baptism in much of contemporary church life, we can appropriate two central concerns from the Reformation doctrines of baptism: From the Anabaptists we can learn the intrinsic connection between baptism and repentance and faith; from the mainline reformers (though more from Luther than from the others) we can learn that in baptism not only do we say something to God and to the Christian community but God also says and does something for us, for baptism is both God’s gift and our human response to that gift. (Kindle Locations 8330-8335, emphasis added)

…and laments that baptismal differences still divide the church:

Even for many churches that are able mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism, full participation in the Eucharist can only be hoped for as a goal not yet achieved. There is no easy side-stepping of this serious ecumenical problem, nor is it possible to ignore the scars that remain from the sixteenth-century disputes over the meaning of “hoc est corpus meum [this is my body].” (Kindle Locations 8340-8343, emphasis added)

George also draws lessons from the Reformation about the Lord’s Supper. Again, a desire for unity helps shape George’s discussion:

What can we learn from the Reformation debates on the Lord’s Supper? First, we need to reclaim a theology of presence The Lord’s Supper is not “merely” a symbol. To be sure, it is a symbol, but it is a symbol that conveys that which it signifies…
Second, we need to return to the practice of more frequent Communion. The earliest Christians may have celebrated the Lord’s Supper daily (Acts 2:42, 46), and they certainly did so weekly… If the Lord’s supper is given to us for “daily food and sustenance to refresh and strengthen us” (Luther); if it “supports and augments faith” (Zwingli); if it is a “spiritual banquet” (Calvin); the “Christian marriage feast at which Jesus Christ is present with his grace, Spirit and promise” (Menno); and if it is the “spiritual food and meat of our souls” (Tyndale), then to neglect its frequent sharing in the context of worship is to spurn the external sign of God’s grace to our spiritual impoverishment.
Third, we need to restore the balance between Word and sacrament in Christian worship. The reformers did not invent the sermon, but they elevated preaching to a central role in the divine service… [Since] Vatican Council II (1963)… many Roman Catholic congregations have emphasized the decisive importance of the Liturgy of the Word in Christian worship. At the same time many Protestant congregations have regained a new appreciation for the central role of the Eucharist in Christian worship. Each of these trends is an encouraging sign. (Kindle Locations 8345-8375, emphasis added)

I find myself agreeing with most of George’s comments here about church worship practices. For example, I wish our churches weren’t so lackadaisical (or fearful?) about observing the Lord’s Supper more often.

George’s reflections about the ethics of the reformers are also relevant:

There is a kind of adulation of the reformers of the sixteenth century that divorces their theology from their ethics. This perspective rightly recognizes the reformers as great heroes of the faith but fails to discern their prophetic role and their revolutionary impact on society.  However, Reformation faith was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with the religious or spiritual sphere. (Kindle Locations 8388-8391)

I am tempted to launch a very Anabaptist-style critique of George at this point. I notice that in his subsequent discussion of Reformation ethics (four lengthy paragraphs, one each for Luther, Zwingli/Calvin, Menno, and Tyndale) he focuses to a large extent on what each man said about ethics, not what he actually did. This is natural in a book about theology, yet it is also a potential weakness, one we Anabaptists are keen to point out as we contrast the Luther of the Peasants’ Revolt with the Anabaptists who refused to bear the sword. In fact, George’s paragraph on Anabaptist ethics does indeed focus on deeds as much as on words, and he observes that “the Anabaptist vision is a corrective to the ethics of the mainline reformers. It reminds us that to sanctify the secular must never mean simply to sprinkle holy water on the status quo but always to confront the culture with the radical demands of Jesus Christ” (Kindle Locations 8417-8419, emphasis added). So I’ll end my brief critique and acknowledge that George shares my concern.

After summarizing the ethical emphases of various reformers, George continues:

Which of these ethical directions is right for the church today? No one of them is sufficient alone, for each is susceptible to its own distortion. The Lutheran emphasis on the priority of faith to works can degenerate into mere formalism because pure doctrine without holy living always results in dead orthodoxy. The Reformed emphasis on involvement in the world can turn the church into little more than a political action committee or a social service organization, while the Anabaptist critique of culture can lapse into a sterile separatism that has forgotten its sense of mission. We have much to learn from each of these traditions, but we are bound to none of them. We are bound only to Jesus Christ. The church is communio sanctorum, a communion of saved sinners, founded on the gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, sent into the world for which Christ died, ever to confront that world in witness and service with the absolute demands of Christ. (Kindle Locations 8427-8433, emphasis added)

Several things are noteworthy to me in the above excerpt. First, we see again George’s admirable desire to learn from everyone and to seek common ground in Christ. George’s ecumenical friendliness, though rooted strongly in devotion to Christ, probably makes some of us at least slightly uncomfortable at times. (George not only “chairs the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance,” but he also “is active in Evangelical-Roman Catholic Church dialogue.” See here.) But I think George’s keen sense of the unity of all true believers is sorely needed in our conservative Anabaptist churches. His account of the Reformation provides healthy balance to the narrower Anabaptists-focused story we usually hear.

Second, the above excerpt provides George’s own definition of the church. It is a remarkably good definition. I might quibble with his use of the word “sinners” to describe Christians (it depends in part on what you mean by “sinner”). But I like how George’s definition (a) is structured around repeated references to Christ, (b) is rooted in the gospel of grace while also affirming good works, (c) distinguishes the church from the world based on the “absolute demands” of Christ, and (d) emphasizes both word and deed as part of the church’s responsibility to the world.

Random Conclusions and Questions

One reason why it took me so long to write this final post in this series is because I feel utterly unqualified to properly “wrap up” this subject. I am only a student, and a very part-time and forgetful one! So, at the risk of repeating a redundant redundancy, let me remind you that what follows is only random thoughts that have popped into my head that I managed to write down before they flew.

First, some of my own conclusions:

  • It is inaccurate and unfair to describe American evangelicals today by quoting Luther. Some conservative Anabaptists regularly lament that we are so different from the first Anabaptists. Yet some of these same people regularly summarize Luther on church-state relationships or Calvin on predestination and imply that evangelicals today believe essentially the same thing, unchanged across 500 years. The truth is, some do and most don’t. One example: most American evangelicals today are roughly half way between Luther and the early Swiss Brethren (Grebel and Mantz, etc.) on the relationship between church and state. They have inherited ideas on this topic indirectly from both and also from a host of other sources. In fact, Luther might not even consider most evangelicals today to actually be true Christians! (Calvin would have his concerns about many American Christians, too.)
  • Our assumptions about church are powerfully shaped by our historical and ecclesiological contexts. The obvious lesson here is that we should be humble. We should intentionally allow our assumptions to be tested by others from different times and church traditions. This means that I, as a 21st-century Anabaptist living in the microcosm that is my local church—a very tiny slice of Christ’s church across time and space—this means that I must hold onto Christ and the Scriptures tightly but hold onto my particular ways of doing church lightly. It also means that I would be wise to listen regularly to voices from outside my own church heritage.
  • I am thankful for my Anabaptist heritage. Everyone grows up somewhere, and denying our roots does not make them disappear.  I think my various Anabaptist predecessors were wrong on multiple points: Conrad Grebel should not have forbade singing in church, Melchior Hoffman was wrong to predict the date of Christ’s return, Dirk Philips was too rigid in his application of the ban, and Menno Simons was confused about the incarnation. Anabaptists since have added other errors, some of which remain entrenched to this day. But I am deeply grateful to have been born into a stream of Christ’s church that clearly teaches believer’s baptism and a believers’ church, suffering love and nonviolence, and brotherly love and accountability. I want to humbly rejoice in such blessings while identifying with all of the people of Christ.
  • Christ must be central in everything, including all efforts to unify the church. Any true unity, any true theology, any true understandings of the church, any true brothers and sisters—all will be found in increasing measure only as we draw ever nearer to Christ. Ephesians 4:1-16 is so helpful here, with its description of two aspects of church unity: First, we must eagerly “maintain the unity” that the Spirit has already created between all who are in Christ, nurturing the bond of peace between us (v. 3). It is already an established fact that there is only “one body” (v. 4); we don’t have to create that reality! Second, we must also harness all the Spirit-given gifts (vv. 11-12), each member working properly (v. 16) and speaking theological truth in love (v. 15), all with the goal of “building up” the one “body of Christ” (v. 12) until we all “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Maintain unity… attain unity. Both tasks are essential. And both truth and love are essential for both tasks. And both tasks occur with Christ as initiator and Christ as goal (vv. 5, 7, 13, 15).

 Finally, here are some questions that I think we should be asking—some rhetorical, some open-ended:

  • What can I do to imitate the reformers in testing all my received understandings and practices by Scripture? (I have heard that the first self-identity of the Swiss Brethren was “Bible students.” That is an Anabaptist identity that I eagerly embrace.)
  • What intentional steps can I take to both “maintain” and “attain” unity among all of Christ’s disciples who live in my local town or community, regardless of denominational affiliation?
  • How can I help other people groups worldwide enjoy the biggest single blessing of the Reformation–the Bible in their own language?
  • Am I wise and bold enough to know the right times to confront error within my own church, ready to “stand alone on the… B-I-B-L-E” when necessary?
  • Am I wise and humble enough to learn from my brothers and sisters, expecting Christ to teach me through them?
  • How can we restore greater room for the priesthood of all believers, giving more trust and voice to individual members during times of gathered worship and decision-making?
  • Given our Anabaptist emphasis on believer’s baptism, how can we do a better job of teaching our children to believe and welcoming them into our churches? Does our theology equip us to understand the needs of children, or only of adult converts?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, then should we change our baptismal practices so that not only all who are baptized believe, but also all who believe are baptized? Do we have a biblical basis for withholding baptism from those who believe? If the church is the school of Christ (to borrow Calvin’s term), is baptism the entrance ticket or the graduation certificate?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, replacing infant baptism as the entrance into the true church, then should we change our church membership practices so that not only all who are members are baptized, but also all who are baptized are members? Or is baptism not that significant after all?
  • How can we capitalize on the blessings of freedom of religion that the early Anabaptists lacked (open doors for evangelism and extended biblical study, to name only two) while also regaining the fiery zeal that marked the words and deeds of the martyrs?

My last question is more complicated, so I’ll present it in paragraphs:

Is it possible to divide Christ’s church by treating “marks of a healthy church” as if they are essential “marks of the true church”? The magisterial reformers identified a handful of key marks of the true church; typically correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments are cited, although Luther mentioned as many as seven. Calvin’s heirs added church discipline, which the Anabaptist also affirmed. Menno Simons listed “six marks by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word” (George, Kindle Locations 6431-6436).

More recently the 9Marks ministry has identified “nine marks of a healthy church,” citing preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, discipline, discipleship, and leadership. On the website these nine marks are called “the nine marks,” but I know I’ve heard founder Mark Dever explain that he actually prefers to leave the “the” off, for this list was not intended to be exclusive. In other words, there are additional things that a healthy church will also focus on, besides these nine marks. And I am certain Dever does not intend for this list to be marks of the true church; rather, he knows that many churches are weak in some of these areas. They may be weak churches, but they are still expressions of Christ’s church. (See here and here for more on marks of the church, past and present.)

I’m saying all this to return to my initial question. Clearly, there is a difference between a list of marks of the true church and a list of marks of a healthy church. After all, in Revelation we see a list of churches that were still part of the true church, but not currently healthy! This means, therefore, that any list of marks of the true church should be shorter than any list of marks of a healthy church. Thus, some questions: Which kind of list was Menno’s list? How “unadulterated” and “pure” must a church’s “doctrine” be for that church to be part of the true church? How full an “obedience” must her members demonstrate? How much “oppression and tribulation” must they endure? And what about our lists, written or unwritten, of the true church today? Are we confusing the two kinds of lists? And does our confusion ever cause us to reject as “untrue” any part of Christ’s church that might be merely “unhealthy” and in need of nurture rather than isolation?

I think I’ve written enough to tip my hand: I’m a child of the reformers, and I pray that we will be continually reforming our churches to better follow Christ and honor his written Word.

I’d love to hear from some of you. What questions do you think we should be asking ourselves, in light of our Reformation heritage? Maybe we could compile a longer list! What conclusions for today do you draw from your reflection on our history, Anabaptist or otherwise? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


PS: If you have enjoyed this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I shared here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. Leith, John H., Creeds of the Churches, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 610.

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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (5): Menno Simons

Menno Simons, had he foreseen it, would have been dumbfounded: today there are about 1.7 million people who belong to churches that bear his name. (He would have been doubly disoriented by the discovery that over 96% of them do not live in Europe!) As one of these Mennonites,  I have good reason to be curious about what Menno Simons believed about the Church.

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See past posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , and Calvin. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for William Tyndale and my conclusions and questions.)

Perhaps because I have personal stake in the quest, I have found this the hardest post yet to prepare for this series. I’ve had to cut out so much intriguing information! To manage length somewhat, I will focus on one theme in Menno Simon’s ecclesiology: the purity of the Church. Along the way, I’ll note other themes also worth exploring.

First, I’ll let Timothy George introduce the Radical Reformation:

The Radical Reformation…, was not merely a “wing,” a side effect that revealed a more extreme form of the Reformation; it was instead a movement that gave birth to a new form of Christian faith and life. As one scholar put it, it was a “reformation of the Reformation” or “a correction of the correction of Catholicism.”1 Precisely this, together with the fact that for the most part the radicals were forced to develop their model of the Christian life outside the confines of the official churches, gave their spirituality and church life a distinctive cast. (Kindle Locations 5827-5831)

George identifies three branches of the Radical Reformation–the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists, and the Evangelical Rationalists.

Each branch of the Radical Reformation attached itself to a distinctive “root.” For the Anabaptists it was the Bible, especially the New Testament. They desired not merely to reform the church but to restore it to its pristine, apostolic purity. (Kindle Locations 5820-5822, emphasis added)

Menno’s early life and education were formative, but let’s leap ahead: What drove Menno Simons from being a Roman Catholic priest to becoming “the most outstanding leader” (George) of the Anabaptists?

Three important clusters of events and ideas are in Menno’s developing consciousness of the true church and his role in it… In 1525, the year that Grebel and Mantz were organizing the first Anabaptist congregations in Switzerland, Menno began to entertain doubts about the dogma of transubstantiation. “It occurred to me, as often as I handled the bread and wine in the mass, that they were not the flesh and blood of the Lord.” (Kindle Locations 5887-5894, emphasis added)

Menno might have quietly remained within the Roman fold had he not come to question another pillar of the established tradition, infant baptism… On March 20, 1531…, an itinerant tailor named Sicke Freerks was beheaded because he had been baptized a second time. Menno later commented, “It sounded very strange in my ears that one spoke of a second baptism.” …He began to investigate the basis for infant baptism. He examined the arguments of Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, and Bullinger but found them all lacking… Finally, he “searched the Scriptures diligently and considered the question seriously but could find nothing about infant baptism.” (Kindle Locations 5908-5917, emphasis added)

Possessed of new convictions on the Lord’s Supper and baptism, Menno nonetheless did not break with the Roman Church until he was deeply stirred by events surrounding the… violent, revolutionary kingdom of the two Jans at Münster… On March 30, 1535, a group of some three hundred violent Anabaptists captured the Old Cloister near Bolsward… On April 7 the cloister was retaken and the radicals savagely slain. Among them was Menno’s brother…

After this had transpired the blood of these people, although misled, fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it, nor find rest in my soul… I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith. And I was one of those who disclosed to some of them the abominations of the papal system… I thought to myself—I, miserable man, what am I doing? If I continue in this way, and do not live agreeably to the Word of the Lord, according to the knowledge of the truth which I have obtained; if I do not censure to the best of my little talent the hypocrisy, the impenitent, carnal life, the erroneous baptism, the Lord’s Supper in the false service of God which the learned ones teach; if I through bodily fear do not lay bare the foundations of the truth, nor use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty if they knew it, to the true pastures of Christ—oh, how shall their shed blood, shed in the midst of transgression rise against me at the judgment of the Almighty and pronounce sentence against my poor, miserable soul! (Kindle Locations 5920-5936, emphasis added)

Let me draw two observations from this description. First, note the centrality of the Scriptures for Menno. They are, he realized, the ultimate guide both for discerning truth and for living rightly. Second, note Menno’s self-identity as a teacher. He was a teacher before he became an Anabaptist, and when he finally decided to become one, his decision was sealed by his sense that the Anabaptists needed a pastor-teacher “to direct the wandering flock… to the true pastures of Christ.”

Menno… felt a special compassion for the “poor misguided sheep” who wandered about without a shepherd. About a year after he had left the comfortable parish at Witmarsum to become an itinerant underground evangelist, …Anabaptist brethren near Groningen entreated him to accept the office of elder or chief shepherd of the brotherhood. After a time of struggling with this decision , he consented and so began “to teach and to baptize, to labor with my limited talents in the harvest field of the Lord, to assist in building up his holy city and temple and to repair the dilapidated walls.” Having been baptized earlier, Menno was now duly ordained… (Kindle Locations 5950-5956)

Menno Simons is reported to have said, …that nothing on earth was as precious to him as the church. For twenty-five years he labored throughout the Netherlands and northern Germany to establish fellowships of believers into organized congregations committed to one another and to their mission in the world. (Kindle Locations 6385-6387)

Most of those years were spent on the run for his life. And somehow, while on the run with his family, Menno wrote.

…Menno’s theology was situational; it emerged in the context of his active involvement in the life of the church… Menno never had the leisure to produce learned tomes or to develop a systematic theology. Yet he wrote with vigor and insight, drawing both on the earlier Anabaptist heritage and the wider Christian tradition but primarily on his own intensive engagement with the Scriptures. (Kindle Locations 5981-5984)

In Menno’s writing, as in his speaking, he was a teacher of the Church:

In 1540 Menno published what was to become his most influential writing…The Foundation of Christian Doctrine. In some ways this treatise is comparable to the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, published only four years earlier. It was at once a tract for the times and a sort of catechetical instruction for new believers. (Kindle Locations 5986-5989)

The Foundation was an apology for those Anabaptists who chose the way of the cross over that of the sword… Menno’s book had little if any impact on the rulers, who continued their unabated assault against all Anabaptists. Its real influence was on the believers, who found in it a succinct summary of Anabaptist theology and churchmanship. (Kindle Locations 5998-6002)

Menno’s beliefs about the purity of the true Church were shaped by his understanding of conversion:

As long ago as 1848, the historian Max Göbel recognized that “the essential and distinguishing characteristic of this [Anabaptist] church is its great emphasis upon the actual personal conversion and regeneration of every Christian through the Holy Spirit.”2 Although Luther described himself as “born again,” and both Zwingli and Calvin commented on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, Menno placed the greatest emphasis on the necessity for the new birth: “If now you desire to have your wicked nature cleared up, and desire to be free from eternal death and damnation . . . then you must be born again.” (Kindle Locations 6029-6034)

Conversion involved both faith and repentance:

Faith was the inward appropriation of the gospel, which Menno defined as “the blessed announcement of the favor and grace of God to us, and of forgiveness of sins through Christ Jesus.” (Kindle Locations 6034-6036)

God radically transforms such a believing heart! But faith

was incomplete without the prior act of repentance… It will not “help a fig,” he averred, to be called Christians or boast of the Lord’s blood, death, merits, grace, and gospel, as long as believers were not genuinely converted from their wicked, sinful lives. (Kindle Locations 6044-6048)

If believers had the faith of penitent Zacchaeus , Menno claimed, then… “There would soon be a different and better situation because, it cannot fail, the righteous must live his faith.” (Kindle Locations 6059-6062, emphasis added)

Much could be said here about how Menno’s understanding of Scripture shaped his theology and ecclesiology. For example, his “severe pruning of the liturgical tradition of the church was based on a strict application of the principle that what the Bible does not expressly enjoin should not be permitted” (Kindle Locations 6169-6171).

It is significant that Menno quoted more from the New Testament than the Old at a ratio of 3:1… The thrust of the whole Scripture is to direct us to Christ… According to Menno, Jesus Christ really did bring something new. (Kindle Locations 6210-6213)

Thus Menno rejected the mainline reformer’s use of the Old Testament to justify infant baptism and church-state relationships.

Such topics are familiar to most amateur students of Anabaptism. But fewer people are aware of another theological topic that shaped Menno’s understanding of the church:

Menno obviously felt that his doctrine of the incarnation was worth defending in large treatises as he devoted more attention to it than to any other doctrinal concern… Menno could not allow that Christ received his human nature from Mary, else he would have been tainted with the Adamic sin that is common to all his descendants. (Kindle Locations 6325-6330, emphasis added)

More could be said here about Menno’s understanding of Adamic sin (he did not actually believe we are held guilty because of it) or of Roman Catholic and Reformed explanations for Christ’s sinlessness.

Menno set aside both of these explanations: The former elevated Mary to the status of a divine goddess, the latter split Christ into two parts, destroying the unity of his person. Menno sought to resolve the problem by pointing to the celestial origin of Christ’s entire being: “The entire Christ Jesus, both God and man, man and God, has his origin in heaven and not on earth.” (Kindle Locations 6335-6340, emphasis added)

[Menno’s] opponents… accused him of teaching a docetic Christology, the ancient heresy that Christ only appeared or seemed to be human… However…, Menno had no intention of denying the true humanity of Christ… He asserted that Christ “was truly human and not a mere phantasm… He was afflicted, hungry, thirsty, subject to suffering and death, according to the flesh.” Menno’s concern was to show how Christ remained unsullied from original sin, able to offer a perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. (Kindle Locations 6355-6364, emphasis added)

Many Anabaptists in Menno’s own time, and most since, have rejected Menno’s understanding of the incarnation. So why is it worth mentioning in this post about ecclesiology?

…During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Menno’s doctrine had important soteriological and ecclesiological implications for Dutch Anabaptism. The crucial importance of the new birth depends on the incarnation through which believers are made partakers of the divine nature. Menno’s concept of the church as a community without spot or wrinkle, feasting at Communion on the heavenly “manna” that Jesus identified with his body (John 6:51), is also related to the miracle of the incarnation. (Kindle Locations 6374-6381, emphasis added)

If true believers share in Christ’s pure divine nature, then purity, surely, is a distinguishing mark of the true Church. Menno’s words:

They verily are not the true congregation of Christ who merely boast of his name. But they are the true congregation of Christ who are truly converted, who are born from above of God, who are of a regenerate mind by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the divine Word, and have become the children of God, have entered into obedience to him, and live unblamably in his holy commandments, and according to his holy will with all their days, or from the moment of their call. (Kindle Locations 6390-6394, emphasis added)

Thus, with the other Anabaptists, Menno wanted to restore the Church, not merely reform it:

Unlike Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, who wanted to reform the church on the basis of the Word of God, the radical reformers were more concerned to restore the primitive church, which they believed had “fallen” or apostatized… New wine could not be stored in old wineskins. Rather the New Testament church had to be restored “according to the true apostolic rule and criterion.” (Kindle Locations 6418-6422)

Doctrinal and ethical purity marked the truth Church:

Menno’s favorite word for the church was Gemeente (cf. Gemeinde), by which he designated the living fellowship or community of believers, the true communion of saints. In his Reply to Gellius Faber Menno listed the following six characteristics by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word. It is significant that four of these six marks of the church are concerned with the ethical and moral dimensions of the Christian life. (Kindle Locations 6431-6436, emphasis added)

Menno’s understandings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper also featured this focus on purity. George summarizes Menno’s doctrine of baptism in three affirmations. Here is the third:

Baptism is the public initiation of the believer into a life of radical discipleship... For Menno baptism signaled a response of obedience to the gospel, a literal imitation and initiation taken by a novice upon his entrance to the monastic order. In the monastic tradition, such a vow implied a radical break with one’s past life and the assumption of a new identity within the community, symbolized by the receiving of a new name and investiture in new garments. Baptism among the Anabaptists was symbolic of a similar radical change in identity and lifestyle. (Kindle Locations 6475-6485)

In his Foundation Menno discusses four affirmations about the Lord’s Supper. Here is George’s description of the fourth:

…The Supper was the Communion of the body and blood of Christ… With connotations of the heavenly flesh of Christ, Menno declared that in Communion Christians were made “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.” (Kindle Locations 6545-6550)

Menno’s emphasis on the purity of the church was related directly to his “celestial flesh” Christology and to his view of the Supper as a marriage feast or fellowship meal with the sinless Christ. As Adam had but one Eve, and Isaac but one Rebecca, and even as Christ had but one body

which was heavenly and from heaven, and was righteous and holy in all its members, so also he has but one Eve in the Spirit, but one new Rebecca, who is his spiritual body, spouse, church, bride, namely, those who are believers, the regenerate, the meek, merciful, mortified, righteous, peaceable, lovely, and obedient children in the kingdom and house of his peace; pure, chaste virgins in the spirit, holy souls, who are of his divine family and holy flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone. (Kindle Locations 6585-6591, emphasis added)

If–as all the Reformers agreed–the sacraments form the boundaries of the Church, and if it is also true–as Menno emphasized–that personal and corporate purity are intrinsic to the sacraments, then the true Church must practice church discipline.

Despite the differences among themselves, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin agreed on two essential marks or characteristics (notae) of the true church: the correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments… The Anabaptists, on the other hand, insisted that discipline, carried out in accordance with the instruction of Jesus in Matt 18:15–18, was an indispensable mark of the true church… (Kindle Locations 6568-6573)

Menno wrote three treatises on the subject of church discipline.

So prominent did the role of excommunication become in the Dutch Anabaptist tradition that one historian has dubbed the entire movement as “Anabanism.”3 …In his later years Menno regarded the strict practice of discipline as one of the features that distinguished the peaceful Anabaptists from their violence-prone rivals: “It is more than evident that if we had not been zealous in this matter these days, we would be considered and called by every man the companions of the sect of Münster and all perverted sects.” (Kindle Locations 6579-6584)

Church discipline was essential, especially for a church without the governing “help” of magistrates. But it was also a point of great controversy among the Anabaptists. For example, should a wife sleep with her husband if he was under church discipline? Answers varied.

…The formal ban was, at least in theory, only a social confirmation of a severance from Christ that had already occurred in the heart of the unrepentant member:

No one is excommunicated or expelled by us from the communion of the brethren but those who have already separated and expelled themselves from Christ’s communion either by false doctrine or improper conduct. For we do not want to expel any, but rather to receive; not to amputate, but rather to heal; not to discard, but rather to win back; not to grieve, but rather to comfort; not to condemn, but rather to save.

The pastoral tone of this statement, which comes from Menno’s Admonition on Church Discipline (1541), was in fact often betrayed by the vindictive and harsh recriminations often involved in the shunning of expelled members. (Kindle Locations 6600-6607)

I don’t have time or space to reflect deeply here on this issue of the purity of the Church. It was a burning issue in Menno’s day, and it remains a burning one today. On the one hand, I resonate deeply with the Anabaptist insistence that Christ’s grace transforms individuals! I also heartily affirm their rejection of corpus christianum and their insistence on a believers’ Church.

That said, it is no secret that even Menno was distressed in his latter days by harsh applications of church discipline and the resulting church divisions. (Listen here to a fascinating talk by Chester Weaver which contrasts this Dutch Anabaptist experience with the Swiss Brethren emphasis on brotherly love.) Perhaps the strongest warning I would sound today is that it is deadly to retain the Anabaptist emphasis on the purity of the church while also forgetting Menno’s clear teaching about the gospel of grace and the regenerating power of the Spirit.

Let me end with three more quotes from George–one summarizing what we’ve already discussed, and two introducing more of Menno’s marks of the church:

Faced with persecution and hostility from without, the Anabaptist churches were especially on guard against corruption or laxity from within. Membership in an Anabaptist church was neither casual nor assumed; participation was perforce hearty and vigorous. A true, visible church was at once a rebaptized company of gathered saints, separated from the world in its autonomous polity and eschewal of all violent connections, and a squad of spiritual shock troops separating back to the world through congregational discipline those members whose lives betrayed their profession. (Kindle Locations 6622-6626)

Another mark of the Church:

Perhaps more so than with most other Christian groups, it is difficult to separate the ecclesiology of the Anabaptists from their ethics. Menno felt that genuine compassion for the poor was one of the marks that distinguished his movement from that of the mainline reformers. He criticized the “easygoing gospel and barren bread-breaking” of the established clergy who lived in luxury while their poor members begged for food, and the old, lame, blind, and suffering ones were shunted. (Kindle Locations 6780-6783, emphasis added)

And one final mark of the true Church:

Menno… believed the true church of Christ was characterized by the fact that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone. The gospel was to be preached to everyone, but no one was to be compelled by force to accept it. These principles are accepted as axiomatic by large segments of modern society. Yet we should not forget that they were first enunciated at great risk by the early Anabaptists. (Kindle Locations 6794-6797. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added)

(Next up: the ecclesiology of William Tyndale.)

What did you learn from these excerpts of Timothy George’s survey of Menno’s ecclesiology? What do you think we should learn from Menno today? What are the strengths and weaknesses of our early Mennonite ecclesiological DNA? Share your insights and questions in the comments below. Thank you!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. J. A. Oosterbaan, “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,” MQR 51 (1977): 176.
  2. Max Göbel, Geschichte des Christlichen Leben (Coblenz, 1848), 37.
  3. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 485.

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