Today is Reformation Sunday, when the Protestant Church has traditionally remembered and celebrated its theological distinctives and the reasons why it split from the Catholic Church. The Reformers who usually get the attention today are men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and Ulrich Zwingli. What most inspires me about the Reformation are not any of these well-known church leaders but a people movement that started here in Switzerland.
On the evening of 21st January, 1525, less than eight years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, a small group of Christians met secretly in a house in Zürich to talk, study the Scriptures and pray together. They had been enthusiastic followers of Ulrich Zwingli, minister of the Grossmünster, who was attempting to reform both the church and the city of Zürich. But they were now disappointed by his apparent reluctance to follow through on what he had been preaching and to implement what they regarded as clear biblical teaching on a number of issues – including the baptism of believers rather than infants.
After a time of heart-searching and fervent prayer, several of those present asked to be baptised on confession of their faith. This event is looked on as the birth of what became known as the Swiss Brethern and the Anabaptist (baptise again) Movement. So if you have been to a baptismal service where people were baptised on confession of their faith, you have experienced the legacy of these simple Swiss believers
This movement spread quickly but was terribly persecuted by both Protestant and Catholics authorities. Most of its early leaders were executed, its reckoned at least 5000 Anabaptists were executed by other Christians in the first century of their existence. They were either beheaded or drowned by the Protestant authorities or burnt at the stake by Catholic authorities. They fled across Europe encountering persecution wherever they went, and many ended up in North America where they became known as the Mennonites, Hutterites or Amish where they lived in communities. Other parts of the movement developed into what are called today Mennonite Churches or became more mainstream Baptists.
Why were the Anabaptists so terribly persecuted?
It was because they tenaciously held on to their distinctives which they believed expressed the essence of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus according to the New Testament. Here is how one church historian has summed up their distinctives
- Christians are to follow Jesus and obey his teachings, whatever the consequences.
- The Bible is authoritative on ethical and ecclesial issues as well as theology.
- Church and state are both divinely ordained but are to be kept separate.
- Churches are communities of baptised disciples accountable to and for one another.
- Church discipline (including the use of the ‘ban’) is crucial to maintain the purity and distinctiveness of the church.
- Followers of Jesus are to share their resources freely with one another.
- Non-violence and truth-telling are essential aspects of discipleship, so Christians should not fight or swear oaths.
- Suffering is normal for faithful disciples and is a mark of the true church
This is what so inspires me about the Anabaptists. They focused on Jesus and were serious about discipleship, they believed in orthodoxy and orthopraxy, believing the right things and living the right way. As a result they were committed to following the example and teaching of Jesus whatever the cost. They believed that the Sermon on the Mount was meant to be taken seriously and lived out. This led them to reject violence. Following the example of the first generations of Christians they refused to serve in the military. They refused to take oaths of loyalty to Kings or governments. They steadfastly said that rulers and governments shouldn’t get to control the church and that the church should resist exercising secular power. They also rejected the idea of a clergy class and believed strongly in the priesthood of all believers so their decisions were largely made collectively. They had a great emphasis on community and fellowship, making sure that they shared with those in need.
It was no surprise then that the authorities, both Catholic and Protestant, viewed the Anabaptists as being dangerous subversives and tried to stamp them out. These were people whose lives challenged so many vested beliefs. Thousands willingly gave their life for their faith while refusing to take life for their faith. This Reformation Sunday I’m giving thanks for their emphasis and example in following Jesus, whatever the cost.