Historic Anabaptism

Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. -Acts 8:4

When we attempt to define Anabaptism, we must note that “Anabaptist” was a name given to a people by their enemies. To be called an “Anabaptist” smeared the person and marked him as uncooperative, a rebellious citizen, and a heretic. “Anabaptist” was a bad name and often brought on hiding, exile, imprisonment, confiscation of property, torture, and death. Anabaptists expected such suffering and called it “cross-bearing.”

We are proposing that three sets of “B”s stand out in the historic Swiss Anabaptist movement that began in 1525:

  1. Believer Baptism
  2. Bible Believer
  3. Brotherhood Belt

1. Believer Baptism

Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. -Matthew 4:17

Believer baptism lay at the very core of Anabaptism. In 1525, six adult brethren baptized each other upon their own confession of faith. Their confessions and vows meant these brethren would surrender their lives to Christ and follow Him. To the early Anabaptists, baptism marked the beginning of a new and changed life that included repentance, surrender, and obedience. To them baptism could not mean just a verbal commitment, but rather a life-changing event. From then on, they had the will to live in obedience to the Word of God under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit. Baptism marked the beginning of a new life.

This “rebaptism” meant these brethren had rejected their baptism as infants, as well as the authority of the Reformed and the Catholic churches to rule over their lives. Instead, they sought to establish a New Testament church based on the supreme authority of the Word of God. This revolutionary heresy tore apart the fabric of their society in which the priests, preachers, princes, and popes claimed divine authority to make the Word of God whatever they wanted it to be. The rite of a believer baptism signified to everyone the rejection of state and state-church authority to govern matters of conscience.

Therefore, in the sixteenth century, to be called an Anabaptist meant that one had been baptized upon a voluntary vow, while the significance of infant baptism lay in an act by a priest. “Rebaptism” denied the validity of infant baptism and the very grace it supposedly conferred upon the innocent head. (Anabaptists did not consider putting water on the head of an infant a baptism at all. Therefore, a believer baptism was not rebaptism, but the first real baptism.)

Thus believer baptism fired the soul of historic Anabaptists.

2. Bible Believer

You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. -John 15:14

Think what it would be like if the only Bible available were in Latin. What would it be like if the only people trained to read Latin were clerics, monks, and scholars? How ready would you be to trust the rulers to correctly dispense the truth to you, especially if rich officials living openly corrupt lives demanded subservience and built cathedrals that took hundreds of years to build?

In such discouraging times, God inspired Johann Gutenberg, and others using his invention, to print Bibles. Then God raised up scholars like Zwingli, Manz, and Grebel who could study the Bible in the original languages. God appointed others, such as Luther and Tyndale, to translate the Bible into English, German, and Dutch.

Suddenly copies of the Bible became available in the native languages at a price many could afford. Now even peasants could read the Word of God. They took it in simple childlike faith to mean what it said. They obeyed its teachings and commandments. Many peasants learned to read so they could do like the Bereans and see if the new things there were hearing were true.

The Bible stood at the center of Anabaptist faith as the rock upon which they built their practice. Their simple interpretation of the New Testament as teaching to be obeyed and put into practice set them apart from all the other reformers– Luther, Knox, Calvin, Zwingli.

To become an Anabaptist meant disregarding state and church authority and placing their supreme trust in the Word of God (Jesus). Believers no longer attended the state church services, refused military service, declined serving as civil officers, and ordained, married, and baptized without the sanction of the state or the organized church.

The Anabaptists were not attempting to reform the unscriptural Catholic church; they were building the kingdom of Christ on earth. That kingdom was, above all, a peaceable kingdom where men did not join armies to kill, steal, and destroy. Every believer was to be part of a holy kingdom where all believers were expected to live a pure life free from drunkenness, fornication, and swearing. Anabaptists separated themselves from the world and the civil and religious governments that ruled by force.

With the open Bible before them and their simple faith, both the learned and the unlearned among them were unafraid to debate with and challenge the priest and nobles of their day. The Bible gave Anabaptists a surety that made them willing to suffer and die for the Kingdom of Christ.

3. Brotherhood

Your love for one another proves to the world that you are my disciples. -John 13:35

To become a hated Anabaptist ushered in a sense of brotherhood familiar only to those who looked at the New Testament churches as models to be copied. This brotherhood of being one in Christ was something distinctly radical to the Catholic and Reformed churches of Switzerland.

Among the believers, a great need arose for the strength of the body. They yearned to be together to hear the teaching of the Word, to feel the power of song, and to share the joys and sorrows of life with one another– in caves, in houses, in barns, and in forests– a fellowship they never found in the majestic cathedrals.

They established an alms fund to help the needy among them. Collectively, they shared what they had to help those whose loved ones suffered confiscation of their goods, exile, imprisonment, torture, and death. Though many Anabaptists suffered terribly under torture, they still refused to divulge the names and whereabouts of their brethren.

In the beginning, there was no formal church government to organize this movement. Most of the early leaders were martyred or died soon after they took up the cause. It is true that some believers who followed men and left Biblical obedience went astray. Some like the Münsterites used force in an attempt to set up the kingdom of God on earth and thus gave the Anabaptist movement a bad name. But as a whole, the movement was directed by Biblical obedience and local leadership rather than by centralized authority.

Anabaptists rejected a distinct line of ascending authority such as that practiced by the Catholics– priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and pope. Anabaptists knew one another as “brethren” and called their ministers and deacons to serve the brotherhood as equals, rather than calling leaders to positions of authority, power, and wealth. Servants came from the local brotherhood. Yes, the writings of Menno Simmons and others did give some direction to the churches, but the writings had no church power to force its decisions on the local congregations. That authority came later in the movement, along with outstanding problems.

Anabaptists believed the New Testament teaching that errant sinners should be publicly put out of the brotherhood until they repented and could be lovingly restored. That desire to maintain purity of life within Christ’s kingdom set Anabaptists apart from all the state churches, where sinful members could not be separated from a sinful world under the dominion of Satan.

The common belief in the Kingdom of Christ and the practice of holy living united Anabaptists. These brethren were also drawn together by horrible persecution which Satan stirred against them. The result of these two forces created a strong brotherhood among the Anabaptists that stood distinctly separate from the world around them.

by: James G. Landis

reprinted with permission from an article in Anabaptist Voice (Issue #1)