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.)