McKnight, Scot. A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014). 265 pp. Publisher’s description.(Amazon new price: $15.92 hardcover, $7.99 Kindle, cheaper used.)
This idea, that Paul’s mission was a mixed assembly of differents, lies at the core of my beliefs about how the whole Bible works… Are we willing to embrace the diversity of the church as the very thing God most wants? (pp. 89, 91, italics in original, bold added)
The need for the the Church to become more unified is, thankfully, receiving some long-overdue attention. This book is NT scholar Scot McKnight’s contribution to the topic.
McKnight is widely-known in at least three ways: As a blogger, as an author of biblical commentaries, and as an author of popular-level books on the Christian life, the atonement, and Bible interpretation. This book falls into the third category: books written for the church rather than the academy. Prior to this book, I had only read McKnight via his other two categories: his blog and his commentaries.
My impression of McKnight prior to this book was mixed, and so is my impression of this book. (I have enjoyed McKnights’s emphasis on the kingdom of God, some of his challenges to Calvinist thinking, and his emphasis on the social and ethical aspects of Christian transformation. I am less than happy with things like his adoption of gender role egalitarianism or his promotion of evolutionary creationism.)
So, what do I think about A Fellowship of Differents?
Some things I like:
The emphasis that church life shapes our understanding of the the Christian life. Examples: Highly emotional revival meetings that call people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer might teach us to think of salvation as only a one-time event. Congregations where everyone looks the same (class, ethnicity) might lead us to overlook what the NT says about the radical social composition of Jesus’ Church. What I experience in church shapes what I think Christianity is all about.
The challenge to consider who is invisible both in the Church and in our congregations. McKnight mentions the Hampton Ministers’ Conference, “the longest running pastors’ conference in the USA, attended by seven thousand” (p. 18). I’d never heard of it. Neither had McKnight until recently. Why? Certainly, in part (there are also theological reasons), because McKnight and I are white while this 101-year-old conference focuses on the needs of the African-American church. Closer to home: Who might be invisible in my own congregation? Widows and widowers? Children? Races? Women? The poor? Urban? Suburban? Rural? (Win!) Those with higher education? Those with less? Those battling sexual temptation or confusion? Introverts? The abused? The depressed?
The challenge to get our of our just-like-me comfort zones. McKnight quotes a confession from Christena Cleveland from her recent book Disunity in Christ (which is also on my wish list): “I chose to build community with people with whom I could pretty much agree on everything” (p. 32). Ouch. Or this: “Genuine friendships, which are two-way, are always transformative. One reason, then, we don’t love those unlike us in the church is because we don’t want their presence rubbing off on us” (p. 59).
Helpful insights on the Lord’s Supper. I enjoyed the extended quotation of Justin Martyr’s record of a second-century Christian gathering. First came the Word, then came the Table, and then came Offerings. Woven through the whole account are clauses displaying Christian unity: “We always keep together… All who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place… We all rise together and pray… There is a distribution to each… and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons… we all hold our common assembly” (pp. 102-103). “The Eucharist—as an action, as symbols, as an event—gospels to all those who observe and to all those who participate” (p. 101). The gospel binds us together, and the Supper is to be eaten together (1 Cor. 11:33).
Some good exegesis and pastoral advice about same-sex attraction. McKnight includes a whole chapter on sexual matters, much of it devoted to the sub-topic of same-sex matters. I didn’t think the chapter was perfect, but it does reflect a clear stance both that same-sex acts are sinful and that the Church must grow in loving and supporting repentant same-sex Christians. I am glad to see McKnight speak clearly on this topic.
A powerful story from Greg Boyd about transformation by grace. The words “there is now no condemnation for them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) were the key that led to Boyd’s gradual freedom from pornography (pp. 152-53).
A reminder that “the best way to be political is to be the church” (p. 187). Both “kingdom” and “church” were political terms, after all.
Some good quoteables. Such as: “Joy… is a church-shaped disposition. Only folks in the church can experience what Paul means by joy” (p. 234).
Some things I didn’t like:
Careless or inconsistent editing. Examples: The first line on the back cover is an endorsement that begins, “This is [sic] most important book…” (Missing “the.”) On pages 40 and 72 Bible references are unhelpfully buried in endnotes, though often included elsewhere in the main text. On page 52 McKnight says, “Take Paul at his word. Love is the ‘only thing that counts.'” Paul actually said “faith working through love” is the only thing that counts (Gal. 5:6). On page 70 we read, “Some elements of our covenant love commitment of presence include spending our evenings together…” The wording suggests a list, which never comes. On page 98 a story begins in present tense but switches mid-sentence to past tense. On page 141 we are promised some italicized words in a Bible quote, but none are included. More examples of awkward syntax are found on pages 227 and 228.
Exaggeration. Examples: “God has designed the church—and this is the heart of Paul’s mission—to be a fellowship of difference and difference” (p. 16). Was church diversity really the very heart of Paul’s mission? Is “the diversity of the church” really “the very thing God most wants” (see above)? Might we be missing a deeper goal that makes diversity meaningful and necessary? And is inclusion of differents really “the church’s biggest challenge” (p. 25)? Don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board that church diversity is a crucial implication of the core gospel message. But these kinds of overstatements put me on the defensive, making me weigh more carefully everything else the author writes.
A bit of self-promotion. McKnight describes a book written by a friend, called The Gospel of Yes. “It’s the best title of a book I’ve ever seen (except for The Blue Parakeet).” Which happens to be McKnight’s book.
Casual tone. I’m probably just the wrong reader for this book (on page 38 McKnight says “maybe you’ve not read Paul’s story enough to know the details”), but I confess some of these kind of try-to-make-you-laugh comments fall flat with me. Another example: On page 148 McKnight introduces the “circumcision party,” “which ought to be self-explanatory (#ouch).” After describing the circumcision party, he includes this “(#intimidating).” McKnight seemed concerned not to be too formal, so sometimes this book feels like a series of extended blog posts.
Uninformative chapter titles. A chapter called “Teacher with the Big Fancy Hat” turns out to be about suffering. Another called “On a Walk with Kris” turns out to be about joy. This might make you curious, but doesn’t help you trace the book’s big idea, nor review content later.
Unclear statements about God’s love. On page 34 McKnight quotes Romans 8:31 (“If God is for us, who can be against us?”). In context, Paul writes this to those who have been justified by faith and are walking in the Spirit. But McKnight’s application sounds more general: “God loves everyone.” On the following page he elaborates (in center-justified, bold text as follows) with words that sound more like Joel Osteen than Paul the apostle:
No matter what you have done,
not because you go to church,
not because you read your Bible,
not because folks think you are spiritual,
no matter what sins you have committed,
no matter how vicious or mean or vile they were,
no matter how calloused your heart and soul have become,
God loves you.
Not because you are good,
not because you do good things,
not because you are famous or have served others,
but because you are you.
To you, God has said Yes,
God is saying Yes,
and God will eternally say Yes.
God is for the You that is You.
Missing balance about church boundaries. McKnight says he originally planned to include a chapter on obedience (see here). I think this book would be much more balanced if it included such a chapter, along with a discussion of the role of church discipline when the diverse people who join our churches don’t faithfully follow the words and way of Jesus. I felt there were too many unqualified statements like this: “As long as one was on the journey toward sexual redemption, Paul was encouraging. At the house churches they didn’t put up a sign that said ‘For the Morally Kosher Only'” (p. 129). Or this: “What Jesus and the apostles taught was that you were welcomed because the church welcomed all to the table” (p. 17). In contrast, buried in a footnote are these words about the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) from Justin Martyr: “No one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined” (p. 252). If only McKnight had included and discussed such things in his main text! To be fair, McKnight clarifies that love does not mean “toleration” (p. 130); it means helping another experience positive change. But I didn’t notice that McKnight anywhere said what to do if a person in the church resists or seems indifferent to any such growth in holiness.
Lack of discussion of the universal church. At one point McKnight writes, “I hope you agree with me that the hope for the world is the local church, and that the heart of God’s plan is found in creating a whole new society in a local church” (p. 188). Interestingly, Ben Witherington, a NT scholar and friend of McKnight, pushed back on this point: “At one point in the book, you say that the local church is the hope of the world. For a minute I thought that was a slip up, and you meant to say Christ is. Talk to us a bit about the interface between Christ and his body, between Christology and your vision of ecclesiology. For my part I would prefer to say that the local church at its best is simply the local expression of ‘the one true church apostolic and universal’. In other words I would not want to talk about church with a little c without talking about church with a big C, though I would agree that, like politics, in one sense all churches are local.” In a subsequent online conversation I had with Witherington, he agreed with me that part of the problem is our tendency to read the “membership” and “body of Christ” language in the NT as referring to the local church, when really such language strongly implies the universal church. There is only one Head of the Church, right? And a head can only have one body?
Strong (and poorly defended) assertions about gender equality. McKnight seems to feel that any distinction in gender roles is a denial of gender equality in Christ—a position that, barring hermeneutical gymnastics, leaves Paul contradicting himself. The following quote even suggests that God’s creation order falls short of his plan for us in Christ (this despite the fact that Paul repeatedly cites creation as the basis for his statements about gender roles!): “In creation God ‘gendered’ us into male and female, but in the new creation, God makes us one” (p. 90). You’d be hard pressed to find those two ideas connected with a “but” in the Bible, except perhaps by implication in Christ’s discussion of life after death. “Sexual differences” have “been transcended,” writes McKnight (p. 91). But I’m left without help to know how to such statements to what McKnight writes later: “One in Christ does not mean Paul ceases being male, nor does Junia cease being a female” (95). True, identity, gender or otherwise, is not eradicated in Christ. But, for McKnight, unlike Paul, identity apparently has nothing to do with roles. As has often been pointed out, such a re-reading of Paul also means that one has little hermeneutical basis for denying that Paul’s words affirm homosexual role relationships when he says that “there is no male and female” in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Enough on this for now.
Salad-bowl feel. Mcknight rightly wants us to adopt a vision of the church as a salad bowl full of diversity. Unfortunately his book felt like a bit of a salad bowl to me, as if he was pulling together a handful of semi-related topics for publication. (Is this true of McKnights earlier books? Or is this the symptom of a popular author who feels pressured to keep the books coming?) The title of the book suggests the book is about diversity and unity in the church. But the back cover suggests other themes: “McKnight shares his personal experience of church and offers to the church a thorough study of what the Apostle Paul writes about the Christian life… Ultimately, McKnight raises two significant questions: What is the church supposed to be? and If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like?” Wow. with those questions, you can include about anything you want. I think this book would be more compelling if it focused more narrowly on unity and diversity in the church. For example: More hands-on stories of churches wrestling with diversity would help. I think the survey of Paul’s writings could have been more focused on this topic, as well. And sometimes when wide-ranging topics were included (love, grace, suffering, joy–all main themes of either chapters or whole parts of the book), a stronger and clearer connection should have been made with the theme of church diversity. On page 43, I scribbled in the margin, “What does this powerful story have to do with the book’s thesis?” The book could also be improved by a concluding chapter that ties the disparate themes together.
This book has good sections, but is not great. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.
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I just finished a book that I underestimated. Sometime over the past months I snatched up When the Church Was a Family on Kindle for 99 cents. Between the low price and the warm photo on the cover, I somehow assumed this was another one of the hundreds of hastily-written, opinion-packed popular-level books on church that are being produced these days. I was wrong.
When the Church Was a Family is indeed as inviting as its cover, and accessible to a wide range of readers. But it is also based on solid scholarship. On page 156 I finally discovered why Joseph H. Hellerman, the author, is able to speak with such confidence: “I researched and wrote my UCLA [Ph.D.] dissertation about the church as a family.”
“Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community.” This brief opening line captures the thesis of the book. But in order to support this thesis, Hellerman covers an impressive amount of ground. In this review I’ll simply summarize each chapter of this book, providing a few excerpts and a little commentary.
Chapters 1 and 2describe the family bonds of the ancient NT world. Since our family is considering major decisions at present, Hellerman’s discussion of decision-making struck home:
Collegians and young singles are well aware that the choices they make in the three areas outlined above [vocation, spouse, residence—we’re currently evaluating 2 of those 3!] will radically affect every area of their lives—for the rest of their lives. But this makes the process all the more painful, and it generates a certain theological dissonance as well because the Bible says almost nothing about making the kinds of decisions that face young adults. One cannot find a passage detailing a series of criteria for choosing a mate or a text that will help a collegian decide which major to pick. God’s Word is relatively silent on these topics. And we should not be surprised. For all its timeless relevance, the Bible remains a collection of strong-group documents written by people who shared a collectivist worldview. People in biblical times simply did not make major life decisions on their own. An ancient Israelite, for example, typically did not have to determine whom he was going to marry, what he was going to do for a living, or where he was going to reside. All these decisions were made for him by his community, that is, by his family and the broader society to which he belonged. (p. 24. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
At the end of chapter two, Hellerman provides these summary principles:
Principle #1: In the New Testament world the group took priority over the individual.
Principle #2: In the New Testament world a person’s most important group was his blood family.
Principle #3: In the New Testament world the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings. (p. 50, Kindle Edition)
At this point you would be forgiven for wondering, as I was, whether Hellerman is arguing that our biological families should look more like families in Jesus’ day. But Hellerman explains why he has taken this “excursion into the realm of cultural anthropology and kinship analysis”:
We have sought to make sense of ancient family systems in order to understand what the early Christians meant when they used family language to encourage healthy relationships in their churches. (p. 50. B&H Publishing)
Chapters 3 and 4 deal with NT data about family and church-as-family, focusing first on Jesus and then on Paul. Hellerman makes some fascinating observations about specific Bible passages in these chapters. For example, he examines the passage in Mark 1:14-20, where Jesus does two things: (1) Preach the good news of the kingdom of God and (2) call his first disciples. Hellerman comments:
It is no accident that Mark, writing under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, placed the material in vv. 14–15 before the story of the call of the fishermen. The two passages are to be read together. The behavior of Simon, Andrew, James, and John is intended to illustrate the proper response to Jesus’ message in vv. 14–15. Apparently, leaving one’s father and following Jesus constitutes for Mark a paradigmatic example of what it means to “Repent and believe in the good news!” Again, exchanging one family for another is at the very heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.(p. 68. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
Hellerman provides a very helpful synthesis of Jesus’ contrasting teachings on family, arranging them in a triangle: his Pro-family Teachings (e.g. Matt. 15:3-6; 19:3-9), his Anti-family Teachings (e.g. Matt. 8:21-22; 10:34-38; 12:46-48), and his Faith-family Teachings (Matt. 12:49-50; 18:15-35; Mark 10:28-30). The tension between the first two teachings, Hellerman observes, finds its solution in the third group of teachings:
Jesus strongly affirmed the commandment to honor father and mother. Yet He challenged a potential follower who wished to do precisely that to “let the dead bury their own dead.” How do we harmonize these apparently contradictory sayings? The answer lies in the Faith-Family Teachings, which I have placed at the top of the triangle. Jesus’ establishment of His followers as a surrogate family created a potential conflict of loyalties between a disciple’s natural family and his new surrogate family of faith… A person simply could not express equal allegiance to two families in the social world of Jesus and the early Christians. Those who joined the family of God that Jesus was gathering around Him had to wrestle with their ongoing commitment to their natural families. To which family should they assign priority? The Anti-Family Teachings serve to resolve this conflict in favor of the Faith Family… When a conflict of loyalty occurred, a follower of Jesus aligned himself with his church family as his primary locus of relational solidarity. (p. 72. Kindle Edition)
Hellerman’s key point here is that following Jesus involves more than just following a “personal Savior”:
Jesus did not simply intend for His followers to substitute a personal commitment to Him for ties of blood family loyalty. He intended for them to exchange their loyalty to one family for unswerving loyalty to another—the family of God. (p. 71. Kindle Edition)
Hellerman examines Paul’s family imagery under four headings:
1. Affective Solidarity: the emotional bond that Paul experienced among brothers and sisters in God’s family
2. Family Unity: the interpersonal harmony and absence of discord that Paul expected among brothers and sisters in God’s family
3. Material Solidarity: the sharing of resources that Paul assumed would characterize relationships among brothers and sisters in God’s family
4. Family Loyalty: the undivided commitment to God’s group that was to mark the value system of brothers and sisters in God’s family (pp. 78-79. Kindle Edition)
Paul, despite operating partly in a contrasting Gentile world, shared the same concept of Jesus’ followers being a family:
Unfortunately, most Western readers treat “brothers” in Paul’s letters much as we would a punctuation mark, or perhaps as some sort of aside with little theological import. Such an approach is clearly untenable in view of what we have learned about the importance of sibling relations in the New Testament world.(p. 78. Kindle Edition)
Here I would have liked more analysis on Hellerman’s part of how ancient writers and speakers used the term “brother.” Hellerman believes Paul’s use of such familial terms indicates Paul say his churches as family units. Undoubtedly this is true, yet we also see Paul using “brother” language to describe his unsaved fellow Jews (Rom. 9:3; Acts 22:1). How close or exclusive a bond did this word imply?
But my question must not detract from Hellerman’s strengths. Again, helpful insights into individual passages abound. For example:
I just opened my NIV Bible to 1 Corinthians 7 and found that the editors have placed the heading Marriage above the chapter. Aha! This is precisely how we teach this chapter again and again in churches all over America: 1 Corinthians 7 is about marriage. But this is simply another clear-cut example of us reading our priorities—the nuclear family—into a passage that is concerned with God’s priority—the church family. This chapter is not about marriage, at least not about marriage in isolation. It is about the status of marriage as a secondary priority in view of what God is doing to grow his eternal family in the world. (p. 90. Kindle Edition)
I will have to evaluate Hellerman’s discussion of this chapter more closely as I consider Paul’s instructions regarding divorce in the future. For example:
Paul assumed a paradigm that would have had long-standing implications for Christians in the ancient world: unbelievers are not truly family to begin with. All marriages involving a “brother” or a “sister” with an unbeliever are necessarily and ultimately tentative: “For you, wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Or you, husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor 7:16). (p. 94. Kindle Edition)
Jesus and Paul shake up our Western priorities:
Neither Paul nor Jesus can be cited in support of a life-priority list that generates a false dichotomy between commitment to God and commitment to His group in order to stick natural family relations somewhere in between:
(1st) God — (2nd) Family — (3rd) Church — (4th) Others
For both Jesus and Paul, commitment to God was commitment to God’s group. Such an outlook generates a rather different list of priorities, one that more accurately reflects the strong-group perspective of the early Christians:
(1st) God’s Family — (2nd) My Family — (3rd) Others
(p. 94. Kindle Edition)
Chapter 5 is full of fascinating stories of how the early church functioned as a family. Here Hellerman emphasizes that ideological reasons (attraction of monotheism, etc.) alone cannot explain the growth of the early church. Rather, a primary reason for the church’s growth is because Christians were deeply devoted to each other as family. Tertullian’s claim was only mild exaggeration:
We call ourselves brothers. . . . So, we who are united in mind and soul have no hesitation about sharing what we have. Everything is in common among us—except our wives. (Apologeticus 39.8–11, italics added by Hellerman; quoted p. 108. Kindle Edition)
Chapter 6 is entitled “Salvation as a Community-Creating Event.” Here Hellerman starts preaching to the American church:
Due to the individualistic tendencies of our culture, and the correspondingly loose connection in our thinking between soteriology and ecclesiology, it is not uncommon to encounter persons who claim to be followers of Jesus but who remain unconnected to a local faith community.
In contrast, we do not find an unchurched Christian in the New Testament. Nor do we find one in the ensuing generations of early church history. It is not hard to see why this is the case in light of what happens from God’s perspective when we come to Christ. Paul and the other New Testament writers made it quite clear that getting saved and becoming a member of the people of God are inseparable, simultaneous events: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
In the New Testament era a person was not saved for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal relationship with God. Indeed, the phrase “personal relationship with God” is found nowhere in the Bible. According to the New Testament, a person is saved to community. (pp. 123-124. Kindle Edition)
Despite his preaching, Hellerman uses a lot of theological language in this chapter. This is where he introduces his own new theological term, one I am tempted to add to my vocabulary:
Just as we are justified with respect to God the Father upon salvation, so also we are familified with respect to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And this familification is no less a positional reality than our justification.
It would follow from this that just as we need to increasingly actualize the positional reality of our justification in the spiritual formation process, so also should we long to increasingly actualize the positional reality of our familification, as we grow into the image and likeness of Christ. Indeed, as we have seen throughout our discussion, we simply cannot separate the two. To be sold out to God (and thereby actualize our justification) is to be sold out to God’s group (and thereby actualize our familification). (p. 132. Kindle Edition)
Hellerman notes the obvious—Americans have preached a very individualistic salvation. But then he astutely makes additional observations:
As long as America’s traditional social glue of relational commitment and integrity continued to hold people together in their marriages, their churches, and their communities, an individualistic “bar code” gospel could be preached and little damage done. In fact, great good was accomplished as converts took their “personal relationships with God” back into their church and family settings.
Until the late 1960s, social pressure alone was sufficient to keep people married, and it was sufficient to keep church members committed to one another in local community life. Society frowned upon divorce, and it highly valued commitment to church and civic organizations. We could preach an individualistic gospel, ignore the sociological aspects of biblical soteriology, and rely on the pressures of society to keep people in community. And for a season it worked.
But in recent decades the inherent weaknesses of such an approach to the gospel have become increasingly apparent. As we are now painfully aware, the social values that once exerted pressure in favor of relational commitment are gone. The glue that held American society together for nearly two centuries is irredeemably cracked and brittle. Now that American society has become relationally disconnected, the poverty of our “group-less” gospel is glaringly manifested.
The practical ramifications of all this for our lives and for our churches are enormous. By separating salvation from church involvement, in a culture that is already socially fragmented and relatively devoid of relational commitment, we implicitly give people permission to leave God’s family when the going gets rough—to take their “personal relationships with Jesus” with them to another church down the block or, worse, to no church family at all. And this is precisely what they do…
So here is the tragic result of driving a wedge between soteriology (salvation) and ecclesiology (church). We have removed from the gospel what the Bible views as central to the sanctification process, namely, commitment to God’s group. In doing so, we invariably set ourselves up for the relational shipwrecks that happen in the lives of countless Sunday attenders who opt for individual satisfaction over loyalty to God’s group…
Thirty years of church ministry—combined with constant immersion in the conceptual world of the early Christian church—has convinced me of an important truth. To leave God’s family is to leave the very arena in which God manifests His life-giving power and hope to human beings in the world in which we live. (pp. 135-136. Kindle Edition)
As Hellerman emphasizes that familification is intrinsic to salvation, he draws lessons both for individuals and for churches. I was intentionally listening for both, because sometimes those who emphasize church bonds seem to place all the responsibility on individuals, without considering how the social implications of the gospel should inform our church structures and practices. Here is a lesson Hellerman draws for the church as it relates with individuals:
During my earlier years in the pastorate, I conceived of this process as a linear one: (1) conversion, followed by (2) involvement in a local church, where (3) biblical education would characterize the continuing life of the believer. After all, this had been my own experience when I became a follower of Jesus at 23 years of age in 1975. I am now discovering that the “1→2→3” of discipleship often looks more like “2→1→3” in twenty-first century southern California where I minister. In other words, non-Christian newcomers to Oceanside Christian Fellowship first tend to establish relationships with our church members. Then they make decisions for Christ months or even years later. In this process of spiritual formation, it is the quality of the relationships our newcomers make with our regular attenders—and the quality of the relationships they observe among the members of God’s family—that ultimately leads these folks to give their lives to Jesus. (p. 137. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
Hellerman connects this “2→1→3” discipleship approach with observations about theories of the atonement. He notes that different images of salvation have resonated more deeply at different times and places throughout history. For example, sometimes people have been most eager to be saved from moral evil within; at other times they have most feared external evil. Hellerman says he sees a shift happening in Western culture that suggests a change in our evangelistic approaches:
[In our] introspective, individualistic orientation of modern Western society…, until recently, the New Testament image of individual justification through the forgiveness of sins—a message dealing specifically with internal evil—has proven to be the key “facet of the jewel of the atonement” drawing men and women into the kingdom. I included the phrase “until recently” in the previous sentence because I believe that we have observed a shift in our culture that renders yet another biblical image of salvation more relevant for contemporary society. The image I have in mind is the New Testament picture of the atonement as reconciliation—an image drawn not from the temple, the marketplace, the courtroom, or the battlefield, but one drawn instead from the family. (p. 138. Kindle Edition)
Hellerman’s examples of “2→1→3” discipleship stretch me. For example:
For nearly a year Brian played his guitar on our worship team and vicariously enjoyed the benefits of Christian community before he finally became a child of God… It happened like this. One Sunday Brian approached me to let me know how much he was enjoying our church and to express his appreciation for how much Oceanside Christian Fellowship had done for his marriage and for his family. I was greatly encouraged. But then Brian remarked that he needed answers to some intellectual questions he had about Christianity before he himself would join the party. Here is how Brian expressed it: “It sure is warm and cozy in this hot tub here, Joe, but I just want to make sure the water’s clean before I jump in.” …Shortly thereafter Brian joined his wife and kids as an eternal member of the family of God. We baptized them together as a family at the beach the following August. (p. 142. Kindle Edition.)
Two things stretch me here: Brian’s participation on the worship team prior to his conversion, and how the baptism of Brian’s wife and children were delayed until after Brian’s conversion. But whatever we make of those particulars, I appreciate Hellerman’s point: when the church is a family, this changes not only the way that the individual relates to the church, but also the way the church relates to the individual. We may debate how much this family warmth should be extended to unbelievers, but (a) I think it is possible that we confuse the NT teachings about how (not) to relate with apostates with how we are to treat spiritual seekers and (b) we certainly underestimate how much family warmth should be extended to some members of Christ’s family.
Chapter 7 is called “Life Together in the Family of God.” This chapter includes multiple stories from Hellerman’s own life. We hear stories of familial bonds within his local church, which serves as a kind of lab for experimenting with the fruits of Hellerman’s research. We also hear a fascinating description of how his own natural family has been expanded—for the sake of the church family—to include an older single lady who lives with them. Here is the outline for this chapter:
Four New Testament family values will serve as our roadmap:
1. We share our stuff with one another.
2. We share our hearts with one another.
3. We stay, embrace the pain, and grow up with one another
4. Family is about more than me, the wife, and the kids.
(p. 145. Kindle Edition)
This paragraph about church unity demands further thought:
I am not suggesting that there is never a legitimate reason for leaving a local church, but I find it rather striking that neither in the midst of the Galatian heresy nor in the context of divisiveness and immorality at Corinth did Paul instruct his readers to leave the community in order to find a healthier group of brothers and sisters. Instead, he challenged them to stick it out and partner with God to make things better. (p. 153. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
As do these about church discipline:
Most of our churches struggle with exercising church discipline. We are overly hesitant to deal with sin in the church. And when finally we do attempt to correct a hurtful person, we often bumble around and handle the confrontation in a less-than-loving manner.
Perhaps we need to begin with the social context in which Jesus expects us to work through our conflicts and disagreements. The people involved in Matthew 18 are not simply members of an impersonal institution that assembles for a large meeting on Sunday, which we happen to call “church.” They are brothers—brothers who share their stuff with one another and brothers who share their hearts with one another. The point here is that Jesus assumes an intimate relational context for the exercise of church discipline. He assumes a family context. (p. 154. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
In Chapter 8 Hellerman addresses “DecisionMaking in the Family of God” by describing a situation where his church advised a couple to delay their wedding until they first received counseling:
Recall the list of relational priorities with which our own church culture is so familiar:
(1st) God — (2nd) Family — (3rd) Church — (4th) Others
Working from this list, Nick and Tina could have reasoned just like so many other couples do when they are faced with the same dilemma: “How dare the church [3rd] tell us what to do! We each have a personal relationship with God [1st]. And God is in our relationship with one another [2nd]. We can ignore Pastor Joe’s and Pastor Steve’s advice [3rd] without being unfaithful to God [1st]. After all, family [2nd] is more important than church [3rd]. We need each other, and the kids need a mother. Let’s just get married in December.” Fortunately, Nick and Tina did not respond like this… (p. 167. Kindle Edition)
Here is the main point of this chapter:
In my 25 years of church ministry, I have observed a general principle that I believe we can take to the bank when it comes to making major life decisions. I have blocked it off in the text in order to emphasize its importance:
The closer a Christian group approximates the strong-group, church family model that characterized early Christianity, the better the decisions that are made by the group’s individual members and nuclear family units. (p. 170. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
Hellerman cautions that reaching this goal is not easy:
But teaching our people about the church as a family will not suffice to alter deeply ingrained patterns of behavior. We must also reevaluate the social contexts of church life, the ways in which our ministries are executed. The priority most churches place upon the success of the Sunday service subtly but powerfully communicates the message that this impersonal, once-a-week social environment is quintessentially what “church” is all about. After all, this is where most church leaders count heads, and this is where we collect the money.
As a result, the one event preeminently identified with the word “church” in most congregations finds our people seated side-by-side, facing forward, with little or no interpersonal interaction with persons to the right or to the left. A fellow sitting next to me in Sunday church might have lost his job—or his spouse—that very week. Tragically, however, I would never know it. (p. 177. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
Simply promoting a small-group program as a second option during the week is not enough. These relational settings must become central to the values of our church culture. You might try what I did on a Sunday morning some time ago. I preached a sermon entitled “Why Sunday A.M. Is Not Church” in which I compared early church family values and practices with the way that we do church on Sunday morning… I proceeded gently but firmly to inform my people that many of them—some of whom had attended on Sunday for years—had never been to church! Then I encouraged them to begin going to church, that is, to start attending one of our home-group settings where they could cultivate the kind of surrogate sibling relationships that God intends for His children to enjoy with one another.
Some months later, I gave a presentation about Christian community at a gathering of our church’s top-level leadership team of 20 or so people. I still recall the rather horrified look on the face of a member of our stewardship committee (these are the precious people who track Sunday attendance and Sunday giving at our church) when I informed the group that, if I had to choose, I would rather have our people attending a home group than sitting in our Sunday morning service. Genuine spiritual formation depends upon such priorities. (pp. 178-179. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
Chapter 9 is called “Leadership in the Family of God.” Here Hellerman acknowledges that the NT model of strong-group familial churches can, apart from good leadership, lead to abuse:
Cults like Tizer’s [called “The Community”] give us serious reservations about the strong-group approach to community life, whether Christian or otherwise. It is important to remember our description of the collectivist church model from chapter 2:
The person perceives himself or herself to be a member of a church and responsible to the church for his or her actions, destiny, career, development, and life in general. . . . The individual person is embedded in the church and is free to do what he or she feels right and necessary only if in accord with church norms and only if the action is in the church’s best interest. The church has priority over the individual member.1
Substitute “The Community” for the word “church,” and you have a pretty accurate description of Tizer’s cult group. (pp. 183-184. Kindle Edition)
Hellerman summarizes the problem and proposes a two-part solution:
We need some checks and balances that allow us to move ahead with the early Christian approach to community but that at the same time prevent the group—and especially group leaders—from exercising authority in a destructive way. (p. 185. Kindle Edition)
A biblical, strong-group church family led by a team of persons who exercise their authority as servants of their brethren will have no problem with abuse and manipulation. Plurality and servant leadership are designed to be central to God’s model of the church as a strong-group family.(p. 186. Kindle Edition, emphasis added)
The rest of this chapter focuses on these two themes. Hellerman’s treatment of these themes is solid, but neither theme is unusual or new to me, so I won’t comment further.
The Conclusion systematically summarizes the book but also introduces new concepts. For example, Hellerman describes “two essential values”:
…Values that gave the ancient church much of its social capital and relational integrity, values that ought to characterize any community that seeks to identify itself as Christian…
I call the first value “robust boundaries”—boundaries that served to distinguish those who belonged to the local Christian community from those who did not… “Relational solidarity” is what I call the second social value… I have in mind here the way in which the early Christians took care of one another—like family. (p. unclear, Kindle edition, emphasis added)
[Note: from here on my Kindle edition has neither page numbers nor Kindle locations, so they will be missing from the rest of my quotes.]
Hellerman is most concerned about the first value:
…The future looks quite bright for relational solidarity. There is a fresh wind blowing among a new generation of believers who are intentionally seeking to recapture the relational integrity of the early church in ways that baby-boomer Christians have not.
But the idea that we might also need to have robust boundaries in place to define the contours of an authentic Christian community does not particularly resonate with our culture. And I get the impression that this key social value of the ancient church does not particularly resonate with some of our emerging church leaders either.
I am both happy and dissatisfied with Hellerman’s discussion here. I agree with his emphasis on the need for robust boundaries, and I agree with his suggestions about what these boundaries might look like:
Issues that served to delineate the robust boundaries of the New Testament church included sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:1–8), lack of repentance when sinning against a brother (Matt 18:15–18), unwillingness to forgive a repentant brother (Matt 18:21–35), the propagation of false doctrine (2 Tim 3:1–8), divisiveness (Titus 3:10–11), and even sloth (2 Thess 3:6–15). People who lived their lives according to community standards remained part of the family of God, but those who did not were excluded. (emphasis added)
My dissatisfaction comes from what is left unsaid. Earlier I noted that it is important to ask not only about the implications of the NT church-family model for the individual (in relationship to the church), but also for the congregation (as it relates to individuals). I think Hellerman could do a better job of asking this second question here in his conclusion.
For example, in his discussion of robust boundaries, Hellerman might also ask about the dangers of creating boundaries that divide members of Christ’s family from one another. He doesn’t address the question of whether it is suitable for a local congregation to add boundaries in addition to those biblical boundaries that are provided for the universal church. Is it possible to erect robust boundaries (value 2) that actually discourage relational solidarity (value 1) among God’s children? Hellerman doesn’t seem attuned to this possibility.
This lacuna (failure to address the question of the congregation’s responsibility toward the individual) becomes more evident as the Conclusion progresses. Hellerman correctly notes that “a saving relationship with God and a commitment to God’s group were apparently inseparable in the early church.” And he warns against too hastily concluding that a person who fails to join a church is unsaved. He also has helpful advice about evangelism, suggesting we should “we inform our potential converts in no uncertain terms that commitment to Jesus also involves commitment to God’s group.” But he misses an obvious implication of his own illustration:
An illustration from the natural world will drive the point home. Under normal circumstances, babies are born into families. The social chaos characterizing America in recent decades has generated, among its various casualties, unwanted newborn babies who are left in dumpsters to die. These babies are obviously not born into families. It has become tragically clear to anyone who follows news stories like these that babies who are not born into families do not have a chance for survival.
So it is with Christians who are not born into the local family of God. Receiving Christ as Savior without church involvement is a sure recipe for stillbirth.
The obvious implication is that sometimes Christians, too—new or old—are “left in dumpsters to die.” Not every churchless Christian is churchless by his or her own preference.
To be fair, Hellerman does “put the ball right back in our court” (quote) regarding the church’s responsibility to welcome unbelievers:
Our friends and neighbors often have good reason not to like church. Most of them have never experienced church as we see it functioning in early Christianity. They only know church as an American cultural institution. They only know church as we have designed it.
The solution to this dilemma is readily apparent. We need to cultivate in our churches the kind of social environments where our non-Christian friends can come and experience firsthand Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community.
I wish he did the same more clearly regarding the church’s responsibility to believers.
Another way to frame this is to say that Hellerman could have considered more carefully the implications of his findings on the universal church, not merely the local congregation. He does this from time to time, such as when he discusses how the early church collected offerings for distant Christians. But he could have also considered the relationship of the universal and local church in his discussion of church boundaries.
Why is this important to me? It is important because I have noticed in the past that sometimes conservative Anabaptists take books written by evangelicals, books focusing on evangelical problems and operating with evangelical assumptions, and then use them somewhat out of context to address Anabaptist concerns. More clearly: I have seen evangelical books that rightly promote the need for more church loyalty and church discipline, but that are also written with the assumption that the church has no authority to erect extra-biblical boundaries. In some such books, this assumption is so strong that it is barely mentioned, despite clear teaching about things like servant leadership. Then I have seen Anabaptist churches use such books to reinforce allegiance to extra-biblical boundaries, sometimes in ways that contradict, I am certain, the desires of the authors.
Hellerman is not writing to conservative Anabaptists, so I hesitate to fault him for this lack. But I do think conservative Anabaptists should review Hellerman’s wonderful survey of NT church-family values and teachings, analyzing them for additional implications about how we can better “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).
For my final quote, I want to return to what Hellerman does well—showing the implications of his findings for relationships within the local church. In the following quote he is speaking to church leaders:
…We must answer the question Who are my brothers and sisters? in terms of the people in our own congregations. It will not do for us to share our lives only with other leaders in the broader Christian community, as helpful as that might be on occasion. If a pastor is unwilling to risk openness with a handful of brothers in his church—for whatever reason—then the members will surely do likewise. We simply cannot take our people where we are unwilling to go. We must be willing to go there whatever the cost…
Only when pastors set aside our misled need to father our flocks, and instead share the oversight and instruction of our congregations with other mature brothers, will we tangibly and persuasively communicate to others the absolute centrality of the biblical model of the church as a society of surrogate siblings.
As usual, this has turned into more than a simple book review. Buy this book—it’s a steal at only 99 cents on Kindle! And it comes with glowing reviews from people as diverse as Dan Kimball (author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church) and J.P. Moreland (Christian philosopher and author of many books, including Love Your God with All Your Mind).
Hellerman has written an exceptionally useful book for recapturing the NT vision of church.
I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
B. Malina, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986), 19, paraphrased. ↩
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 FaberMenno 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)
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.)
J. A. Oosterbaan, “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,” MQR 51 (1977): 176. ↩
Max Göbel, Geschichte des Christlichen Leben (Coblenz, 1848), 37. ↩
George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 485. ↩