In 1527, two years after the birth of the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland, people already wondered about its secret. Their wondering (with minds just coming out of the Dark Ages) led them to suspect magic. Somewhere in the deep valley of the River Inn, among the snow capped mountains of Austria, a strange story began to circulate. People said the Anabaptists had a magic container, a little vial, filled with a liquid about which the devil himself had no clue. They said the Anabaptists forced their converts to drink from the vial. One little sip of its contents was enough to bring anyone completely under their power. Just one sip and a person became serious-minded, no longer able to do what he used to do. No amount of money and nothing that life had to offer could bring him back to what he used to be. Once a person tasted from the vial, he would die before giving up his strange beliefs.
Leonhard Schiemer, in prison before his beheading at Rattenberg on the Inn, took the time to answer this foolish story in 1527:
Well you godless crowd, let me tell you how it is. Let us say you are right. Let us say it is true that we must all drink from a little vial. And like you say, it certainly is true that the devil does not know what is in it. If you do not know it either, you are also devils . . . but if you want to know, I will reveal the liquid's secret proportions to you!
Like Caiaphas, you speak the truth without knowing it. You say that whoever takes a sip from the vial is permanently changed. How true! For the liquid in the vial is made from nothing else than a struck down, ground up, rubbed apart, and sorrowful heart pulverized in the mortar and pestle of the cross . . . and it is the liquid which our dear brother and friend, Christ Jesus, drank -- mixed with vinegar and gall.
The vial is the one he offered to the sons of Zebedee. It is the one he drank from in the garden. It is the one that caused him to sweat until he sweated drops of blood, and until he trembled and fell into a faint so that angels had to lift him up. Truly the liquid in it is such an awful liquid that no one can drink it without his neighbours taking note that he is totally changed!
Whoever takes a sip from the vial indeed becomes willing to forsake everything he has . . . because the Spirit of Christ teaches him and reveals to him things that no man can express and which cannot be written onto paper. Nobody knows what those things are, save those to whom they have been revealed . . .1
A broken heart and fellowship with Christ -- Leonhard Schiemer answered the foolish story in a truly Anabaptist way.
The Anabaptists followed Christ.
It was so simple that people could not understand it. It was so easy to explain that it seemed mysterious.
Called by Christ
When the New Testament fell into their hands in the sixteenth century, many German people "naively" took it at face value. When they heard Christ's call to the disciples, "Follow me," they thought it meant them. When they read Christ's commands, "Turn the other cheek," "Give to him who asks of you," or "Sell everything you have," that is what they did. They thought Christ was God in human flesh, showing them how to live, and that God expected them to live just like that. They thought that being a disciple of Christ meant studying his teachings, putting them to practice, and living with the consequences (the cross) of following him.
It never occurred to them that following Christ (while carrying a cross) would lead anywhere else but to death.
Michael Schneider, imprisoned in the castle at Passau in Bavaria, wrote:
Listen to me, all peoples of the earth. Listen to me, young and old, great and small. If you want to be saved, you need to leave sin, follow Christ the Lord, and live according to his will. Christ Jesus came to the earth to teach men the right way to go, to teach them to turn from sin and to follow him. He said: "I am the way the truth and the life, no-one comes to the father except through me."
He who longs for Gemeinschaft (community) with Christ and who wants to take part in his kingdom, needs to do what Christ did while he was on the earth. He who wants to reign with Christ must first be willing to suffer for his name. The man who dies with Christ in this life will enter with him into the Father's kingdom, in eternal joy. But the man who does not follow Christ is not redeemed by the blood of Christ and his sins will never be forgiven.
Those whose sins have been forgiven should live no longer in sin. This is what Jesus Christ, our Lord, teaches us. Those who fall back into sin break their covenant with God. Even greater pain and suffering will be theirs -- and their loss will be forever.
Not all who say "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom. Only those who keep his covenant will be accepted by him. He who confesses Christ before the world and who stands for the truth to the end will be saved.
Help us to that, God, our Lord, that we may stay with Christ -- that we may always walk according to his teachings, that we may commit no more sins, and that we may be an honour to his name, now and forever . . . into eternity! Amen.2
Community with Christ
Following Christ, for the Anabaptists, was much more than obeying his commandments. It was much more than confessing him publicly or being willing to die for him. It was knowing Christ, and living like the first disciples in full community with him.
The words of Paul in Philippians 3:10 stated distinctly the goal of the Anabaptists: "I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." The Greek word koinonia, translated "fellowship" in this verse, was always translated into the German word Gemeinschaft. To the Anabaptists, this beautiful word meant both spiritual communion and community of goods. It was the word used in Acts 2:44 and 4:32 for "all things common" (alle Dinge gemein . . . es war ihnen alles gemein). It was the word they found in 1 John 1:7: "If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have Gemeinschaft one with another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." It was the word they used instead of "church."3 And finally, it was the word they found in the Apostles' Creed in "the communion of the saints" (die Gemeinschaft der Heiligen). About this statement, Peter Rideman wrote in chains from his dungeon in the castle at Wolkersdorf, in Hesse, in 1540:
We come to take part in the grace of Christ through faith, like Paul says: "Christ lives in your hearts through faith." Such faith comes from the hearing of the Gospel preached. When we listen carefully to the Gospel and conform to it, we come to take part in the community of Christ, as may be seen in the words of John: "What we have seen and heard we declare unto you, that you may have community with us, and our community is with God the Father and with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who has given us all things that he heard and received from his father" (1 John 1:3).
Community is nothing else than to have all things in common with those to whom we are inwardly bound. It is to keep nothing for ourselves, but to share all that we have with others -- like the Father keeps nothing for himself but shares all that he has with the Son, and like the Son keeps nothing for himself, but shares all that he was with the Father and with those in community with him.
Those in community with Christ follow his example and keep nothing for themselves. They hold all things in common with their Teacher, and with all those who belong to his community, so that they may be one in the Son, as the Son is one with the Father (John 16:13-15).
This is called the "community of the holy ones" (in the Apostles Creed) because we hold in common holy things: the things through which we were made holy in the Father and in the Son. The Son makes us holy through what he gives us. In this way everything serves to the advantage and building up of one another, and to the praise and glory of God.4
Community with Christ, like earthly community among men, comes about only at incredible cost and continual struggle. But it is a gift from God. It must be fought for again and again. But it is the only way to peace.
To the Anabaptists, community with Christ was worth having at the expense of husband, wife, children, or parents. It was worth the terror of flight and torture. The glory of community with Christ, the "Gemeinschaft of sharing in his sufferings" lit up the deepest dungeon. It shone with an other-worldly radiance above the flames of the Scheiterhaufen (the woodpile where the condemned were burned at the stake). It was the light they saw that opened the heavens and allowed them to see right there, almost within reach, the unspeakable joy of eternal community in new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells.
Community with Christ, for the Anabaptists, was the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven. A south German Anabaptist wrote in the mid-1500s:
Oh God Father, on heaven's throne, you have prepared for us a crown if we stay in your Son, if we suffer with him the cross and the pain, if we surrender ourselves to him in this life and if we struggle continually to enter into his community. You tell us what we need to know, through your Son, if we have community with him. . . .
You gave your beloved Son to us to be our head. He has marked out for us the road we should take, so that we would not lose our way and find ourselves outside of his community . . . Therefore, Christians, oh little flock, let us all look together at how he walked before us here on the earth. Let us become like him in love and in suffering. Let us keep our covenant with him and not stay away from eating his flesh and his blood.
His flesh and his blood, the food he gave us, must be understood like this: In eating his flesh and blood, the Spirit brings us into community with him. . . . God redeems us together with Christ. He serves us through his Son. His Son is the rock and the cornerstone of the house of his commune -- his wife, his companion and his love, through whom he works on the earth. . . .
Therefore come! Come all you newborn Christians! Come in sincerity to Christ the passover lamb, whose kingdom and community shall never end!5
Christ, the Focus of Their Prayers
The Anabaptists, far removed in Spirit from the wooden Christs, the crosses, and the worship of Mary and the saints in the Dark Ages, prayed freely to Christ. Far removed from the doctrinal "correctness" of the Protestant Reformers (who offered formal praises to "God Almighty, the Lord Sabaoth"), they simply prayed to God the Father or to Christ their brother, or to both at the same time, knowing that in the Spirit their prayers were heard.
Without this direct communication with Christ, the Anabaptists could not have followed him. Under torture or on the way to the Scheiterhaufen, the Anabaptists, like Stephen, cried to Christ in their distress. They lived in total confidence of Christ's words: "Come unto me. . . . Whoever comes to me I will never drive away. . . . No one comes to the Father except through me."
"Oh Christ, help your people!" cried Michael Sattler before they cut out his tongue and burned him at the stake in 1527.
"Oh Lord Christ from heaven, I praise you for turning away my sorrow and sadness!" cried Felix Manz before they threw him into the Limmat River at Zürich, in 1526.
"Fly to the mountain of refuge: Christ Jesus!" wrote Menno Simons. "Commend your affairs to him who has chosen you to be his precious bride, his children and the members of his body."6
The Lord Jesus Christ was no dim theological figure, no "marginal character," to the Anabaptists. He was their friend, their brother, the hero and the focus of their highest admiration. An unnamed Anabaptist wrote in the early 1500s:
Look at Christ the friendly knight! Look at the captain! The battle, when you come to this place, is fierce. The enemies -- the world, the flesh, sin, the devil, and death -- close in around you. But leap to your captain's side! He will kill the enemies! He will help you out of all distress.
Stay with your flag! Do not let them drive you back from your captain, Jesus Christ! If you want the crown and the glory, and if you want to triumph with him, you must suffer and die with him too. They caught Christ our captain and beat him. In like manner they mistreat us, his followers. The hour of distress has come upon all the earth. They hunt us out. In almost every country they try to catch us because we stand for Christ. They try to keep Christ from coming to help us, barricading all the roads until they have us. Then the strangling and the stabbing, the gruesome violence begins. But wait, our captain, he will avenge it! He will break the power of the enemy, and he will stand with his little flock!
All you beloved knights of God, be strong! Be manly in the fight! This dreadful storm will not be long. Stand fast! Stand true to death! Do not allow them to drive you back. Men and women, trust in God!7
A Picture of Christ
Little by little, out of their "community with Christ" (Phil. 3:10), a picture of Christ began to take shape in the Anabaptist movement.
Wolfgang Brandhuber, a servant of the Word among the Anabaptists in southern Germany and Austria, wrote in the late 1520s:
The one who fears God keeps his eyes always, always on God, walking carefully because he knows that the victory, in the end, is not his but God's. He does not trust his own flesh but looks to another: the Creator of creation. This man stands continually in the fear of God, like Job, fearing God's works and paying little attention to himself. He does not take himself for who he appears to be. He counts himself unworthy and sits at the lowest place in the wedding feast.
The one who fears God sees the true light and evaluates in it all his thoughts, his words, and his works. That true light is Christ, whose life is the will of God. In actual humanity Christ Jesus showed us what we should do, so that no one may have an excuse on the last day. Our thoughts on the inside and our deeds on the outside -- all our life is to become a picture of Christ who said: "I and the Father are one."8
Shortly after writing this letter, Wolfgang Brandhuber died with seventy others who were sentenced to death by "fire, water and sword" at Linz, in Austria, in 1529.
The Teacher and the Example
True disciples of Christ follow his example in everything. Doing this is the way to "learn Christ" (Ephesians 4:20).
Before they beheaded him in 1528, Leonhard Schiemer wrote:
The educated people of this world start at the wrong end. They hitch the horse to the back of the wagon. They would love to receive the truth of Christ in high institutions of learning, but that is like me going to the goldsmith and telling him to teach me his trade without bothering to take me into the workshop, or like a man learning out of a book how to make shoes.9
Learning by doing is the way to learn Christ. It sounds easy: "Do what Christ would do." But it is not easy. It is "living by faith instead of living by sight."
Hans Schlaffer was a Roman Catholic priest in the mountains of upper Austria. But he followed Christ and became an Anabaptist servant of the Word. On a cold evening, December 5, 1527, while on a trip up the Inn River to his mountain home for the winter, he attended an Anabaptist meeting in the valley, at Schwatz. The police caught him and locked him up in the nearby Frundsberg castle. There, on the night before they beheaded him, he wrote a long letter addressed to God. In the letter (which contained teachings for his survivors) he wrote:
Oh God, illuminated by your kindness, we understand the word faith in the context of deeds. He who has faith in Christ gives himself to you and to your will. He denies himself, takes up his cross and follows Christ, his teacher, his Lord and his head . . . even into death. He says with Paul, "I live, but not I. It is Christ who lives in me," and "everyone who has not the Spirit of Christ is none of his."
Oh Father in heaven, whoever lives in Christ your Son and suffers and dies with him will rise with him in glory to be in his Kingdom forever. This is how we have understood the holy Gospel. This is how we understand Christ and his teachings, and this is how we now understand the word faith which we never understood like this before.10
Christ the Head of the Body
Paul's picture of Christ and the church as a body could for the Anabaptists have only one meaning: The body must follow the head. Because Christ, the head, suffered, the body must suffer with him.
Ambrosius Spittelmayr, tortured in the castle at Ansbach before they beheaded him in southern Germany wrote in 1527:
All who are one with Christ through his divine Word are members of his body: that is, they are his hands, his feet, and his eyes. . . . Jesus Christ is a real man in the flesh. He is the head of the body, and it is through him that the members are governed.11
Ambrosius went on to speak of the body's "community of suffering" with the head, but I will quote again the ex-priest, Hans Schlaffer, who wrote the night before his execution:
Oh my God, how shall it go with me in the hour of my great need? I lay my worries, my terror, and distress on you. You have always been my powerful help. Surely you will not withdraw yourself from me in the hour of my greatest weakness. . . . Surely you will grant me, in the hour of my body's death, eternal life!
You have decreed that the entire Christ, the head with all the members of the body, must suffer . . . the members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones, who have become as one flesh with him. This is a great mystery in Christ, and in his commune.
Now, since Christ the head lived in human flesh (but without sin) he needed to suffer and die, and we who have become the members of his body cannot do anything but go along with our head.12
Following Christ, the Anabaptists, especially those of south central Europe, spoke of Gelassenheit (a "letting loose" of everything) for Christ. Hans Haffner from a community of believers in Moravia wrote a tract while in the dungeon of the castle in Passau, Bavaria, in the 1530s, entitled "About the True Soldier of Jesus Christ."13 In it he spoke of surrender:
Now let us hear what true surrender is: It is to let go of all things for God's sake . . . and to turn to God so that he may lead us. Jesus Christ called it hatred: "He who does not hate his father and mother and renounce everything he has is not worthy of me." True surrender is to put to death the flesh and to be born another time. The whole world wants to have Christ, but they pass him by. They do not find him because they want to have him only as a gift, only as a giver of grace and a mediator which he certainly is, but they do not want to have him in a suffering way.
The same Christ who says, "All who are heavy laden, come to me and I will refresh you," also says, "Whosoever will not forsake father and mother cannot be my disciple." Whoever loves truth must accept the one as well as the other. Whoever wants to have Christ must have him also in the way of suffering. It is foolish to say: "We believe that Christ has redeemed us, but we do not want to live like he lived."
True surrender involves two things: enduring persecution and overcoming ourselves. When they hit us on one cheek we are to turn to them the other. . . . In the second place we must be weaned from the ways of our human nature as a child must be weaned from his mother's breast. We must be willing to forsake wife and children, father and mother, lands and property, our lives and even what God has given to us . . . for Christ.14
Madmen or Fools?
Four centuries after Hans Haffner wrote this tract, I spoke about Christian economics in a Mennonite church. I read what Jesus said on the subject and implied that we should obey him. No sooner did the service end than the minister of the congregation came to me and wondered what I meant. I said I didn't mean anything but what Jesus said. He replied: "Well, I haven't studied into it much, but I am sure there must be other Scriptures that would give this more of a balance."
Balancing out Christ -- what a difficult assignment! Especially for a minister who hasn't "studied into it much"!
Leonhard Schiemer, Wolfgang Brandhuber, or Hans Schlaffer -- it would never have occurred to them that Christ needed "balancing out." The Anabaptists did not ask what Christ meant. They simply followed him, and people called them fanatics.
The young Anabaptist messenger, Claus Felbinger, wrote in chains from the castle dungeon at Landshut in Bavaria shortly before they beheaded him on July 19, 1560:
The world has become a wilderness, sunken in sin, and knows little or nothing of God. And now the very teaching of the Gospel has become a new and heretical teaching, a deception in the eyes of the world. As soon as God raises up a messenger of salvation . . . one who proclaims to them the true Word of God and shows them the right way to go, they refuse to believe him and think he is a madman or a fool. Anyone filled with the Spirit is considered stupid or insane.15
It was the Protestants, not the Anabaptists, who studied the New Testament in the sixteenth century to find out "what Jesus meant." It was the Protestants, not the Anabaptists, who arrived at a "place of rest" and at "balanced" and "reasonable" positions on scriptural issues. It was the Protestants, not the Anabaptists, who knew their theology, their soteriology, and their ecclesiology. And certainly, the Protestants had inspired and capable leaders too.
A Monk in Armour
As a sixteen-year-old boy wrestling with a colt to get it untangled from its tie strap, I broke my foot. For several weeks I was laid up and an elderly "Conference" Mennonite neighbour brought me books to read from his church library. One of them was a book about Martin Luther called A Monk in Armour.
The story of Martin Luther's conversion struck me to the heart. His conviction and his zeal for the truth inspired me, as few things have, in my Christian life. This is part of the story in his own words:
No matter how irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself to be a sinner in the presence of God. My conscience bothered me very much. I could not believe that I pleased God with the things I was doing to gain his favour. I did not love God and his justice. In fact, I hated him -- if not in open blasphemy, at least with huge murmurings in my heart. I was indignant with him, thinking that on top of condemning us miserable sinners to eternal destruction through original sin and oppressing us with all kinds of calamities through the law and the ten commandments, he had added sorrow onto sorrow by giving us the gospel (impossible to obey) through which his wrath would finally fall on us.
In this way I struggled fiercely and desperately with my conscience, while I continued to knock away at the epistles of Paul, consumed with a burning desire to know what he meant. . . .
Then, at last, I began to understand the justice of God. I began to see that the just man lives by the gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that the justice of God revealed in the Gospels is to be taken in a passive way, and that God justifies men not by works but by faith, as it is written: "The just shall live by faith." When I comprehended this, I felt myself to have been born again, and to have entered through open gates into paradise itself.16
Martin Luther found rest for his conscience -- not in Christ but in Paul, not in the Gospels but in "sound doctrine." When I was ten years old his great hymn, Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, ich bring euch Heil und Gnadenlehr. Der guten Lehr bring ich so viel, davon ich singend sagen will . . . ,17 made a deep impression (through a special occurrence) on me. Throughout my childhood it was my favourite hymn. But in the years following, little by little, I began to see where Martin Luther and the Anabaptists parted ways.
Martin Luther found the Scriptures. The Anabaptists found Christ. Their discoveries led them in totally different directions.
A Balanced Position
At the Diet of Augsburg on June 25, 1530, the rulers and church leaders of Protestant Germany met to draw up the Augsburg Confession of Faith (the "only authoritative and in every way the most significant" confession of the Lutheran church).18 Among its "balanced" and "reasonable" positions, based on the Scriptures, the confession states:
It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, be married, etc.
Condemned here are the Anabaptists, who teach that none of the things indicated above is Christian. Also condemned are those who teach that Christian perfection requires the forsaking of house and home, wife and child, and the renunciation of such activities as are mentioned above. Actually, true perfection consists alone of proper fear of God and real faith in God, for the Gospel does not teach an outward and temporal but an inward and eternal mode of existence and righteousness of the heart.
After five other ringing condemnations of the "Anabaptists, Donatists and Novatians," the Augsburg Confession (translated and adapted for use in the Anglican and Methodist churches of today) was signed by John, duke of Saxony; George, margrave of Brandenburg; Ernest, duke of Lüneburg; Philip, landgrave of Hesse; John Frederick, duke of Saxony; Francis, duke of Lüneburg; Wolfgang, prince of Anhalt; the mayor and council of Nuremberg and the mayor and council of Reutlingen.
But the Anabaptists paid no attention to it. They followed Christ.
Further south, in Protestant Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin also wondered how to handle the "Anabaptist pestilence." In a letter to Vadian (Conrad Grebel's brother-in-law), Zwingli said: "My struggle with the old church (Catholicism) was child's play compared to my struggle with the Anabaptists." John Calvin in his Brief Instruction to Arm Those of Good Faith Against the Errors of the Anabaptists wrote:
These miserable fanatics have no other goal than to put everything into disorder. . . . They reveal themselves to be the enemies of God and of the human race. . . . If it is not right for a Christian man to go to law with anyone to settle quarrels regarding possessions, inheritance, and other matters, then I ask these good teachers what will become of the world!19
The Anabaptists did not answer John Calvin in writing. They answered him with their lives.
"I am the way and the truth and the life."
To the Protestants, the Bible was the manifesto, an end in itself. Once they reached an agreement on how to "properly" interpret it, they revered it and treated it with gallant devotion. They preached and persecuted and fought mighty wars in defense of the Bible and its doctrines.
To the Anabaptists, the Bible was simply the book that took them to Christ.
The Protestants found the "key" to Bible interpretation in the epistles of Paul. But the Anabaptists found it in Christ and his Sermon on the Mount.
The Protestants saw in Paul a great theologian, the expositor of the doctrines of faith and grace. The Anabaptists saw in Paul a man who forsook everything to become a "fool for Christ's sake." They found community with him in his martyr's death.
The Protestants lived to obey their authorities. They spoke much about "God-ordained authority" and held their princes and church leaders in highest esteem.
The Anabaptists lived to obey Christ.
The Protestants worked en masse and waited until "everyone was ready" to make changes in religious practice.
The Anabaptists did, on first opportunity, what they thought Christ wanted them to do. If no one else joined them, they did it alone.
The Protestants followed a logical course. Theologians, princes and educators planned what to do in a way that made sense.
The Anabaptists followed Christ without making plans. That did not make sense. But it was the secret of their great strength. And it led them . . .
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