Where the Werra flows between the Thüringer Forest and the highlands of the Rhön, the castle of the knights of Bibra-Schwebenheim overshadowed the little house of Johannes Hut, his wife, and his four children. Johannes (they called him Hans) bound books and sold them. He worked on a commission for the knights and traveled far and wide selling the books he bound.
In 1524, while passing through the city of Weißenfels in Sachsen-Anhalt, Hans Hut got into a discussion with a miller, a tailor, and a wool weaver. They talked about infant baptism. The longer they talked and compared what the holy writings said, the better Hans could see that Christ wanted believers, not babies, to be baptized. When his wife gave birth to a baby shortly afterward, they decided to keep him at home.
The priest and the townspeople learned about this and called for a public dispute. The judges declared Hans the "loser" in the dispute and gave him eight days to leave Thüringen. With his wife and five children, and with their belongings tied up in bags on their backs, the Hut family set out for Nürnberg. There they met Hans Denck. They rented a house, and Hans Hut continued to travel around selling books. On May 15, 1525, he found himself in the city of Frankenhausen when the peasants, led by Thomas Müntzer, revolted and fell in bloody chaos before the armies of the German princes. Hans saw that armed revolt was not of Christ, and that Thomas Müntzer and the peasants were not building the Lord's commune. Then on May 26, 1526, in a little house by the gate of the Holy Cross in Augsburg, he asked Hans Denck to baptize him -- and the movement of Christ in southern Germany gained one of its most enthusiastic promotors.
A Visible Commune
Hans Hut began to baptize others wherever he went. Many of those he baptized, he ordained at once and sent out as messengers to keep on baptizing. But he did not promote a vague, "spiritualistic" Christianity. Soon after he became part of the Anabaptist movement he wrote:
When there are a number of Christians who have gone the way of the cross, suffering, and sorrow, and who have gotten tied together in a covenant, they become one congregation and one body in Christ -- a visible commune.
In the Lord's commune all goodness, mercy, praise, glory, and honour appear in the Holy Spirit. All things are held in common: nothing is private property. . . . We prove our covenant by giving ourselves to Christ. We give ourselves to Christ by giving ourselves to the brothers and sisters. We give ourselves to them in body, life, property, and honour, regardless of how the world misunderstands us.1
Hans Schlaffer, also baptized and ordained by Hans Hut, wrote:
Because God, through his Son Jesus Christ, is again raising up a visible, holy, Christian commune in these last and dangerous times, he wants it to become apparent in the world through the outward sign of water baptism . . . 2
Menno Simons wrote:
The visible commune must be sound in teaching and sacraments. The commune must be irreproachable in life before the world, as far as man who is able to see only the outward, can tell. . . . The true commune of Christ is made manifest among this wicked generation in words and work. She can no more be hidden than a city on a hill or a candle on a candlestick.3
Dirk Philips wrote:
God's commune is not like Franck says, just an invisible fellowship of believers. The very term ecclesia (those who are called out) proves that. God's commune is not invisible. The apostles, according to the command of Jesus and by the power of Christian baptism, gathered a community of believers out of all nations. Theirs was not an invisible community. The apostles did not address their letters in a general or indiscriminate way to all people. They specifically named the congregations and the people to whom they wrote.
Paul Glock, Anabaptist messenger of southern Germany, fell into the hands of the authorities in Württemberg, where they imprisoned him for nineteen years in the Hohenwittlingen castle. They tortured him on the rack. They sent two priests to dispute with him. When Paul spoke of the community of the holy ones, the priests made fun of him. They said no man, only God, can know who belongs to that community and who does not. They said the true church is an invisible body of those who are right with God in their hearts, and that no one can point with their hands and say, "Here is the true church," or "There is the true church." But to this Paul Glock replied:
Now it becomes clear that you are false prophets! When Christ was on the earth he pointed out the true church with his hands. He spread his hands out over his disciples and said, "These are my brothers, my mother, and my sisters." Everyone who does the will of Christ belongs to his family. Christ also said we would be the light of the world, and a city on a hill which cannot be hidden. He said we should love one another as he loved us so that the world could see this and know that we are his disciples. Peter said we should live an honest life among the Gentiles so that they may be won without words. He also pointed to the Christian church when he spoke of the believers as a chosen people, as a kingly priesthood, a holy nation and a special possession of God. Paul did the same when he spoke of the believers as the temple of God and the seal of his apostolic office. So you see, you deceptive serpents, how that God does indeed point out his true and visible commune. Since you are unable to do that, you are still children of the night and of darkness, and not members of the body of Christ. If you would be members of his body, you would certainly be able to point it out!4
The Anabaptists spoke of an inner community with Christ. They rejected the belief that outer rites or substances alone can save. Menno Simons wrote:
Those who point you only to bread or water as something by which you are saved point you away from true reality. They point you to signs, from Christ back to Moses, and give you a vain hope and a false security so that you remain impenitent and without Christ all your life. You console yourselves so much with the signs that you remain without the signified truth, as may, unfortunately be seen in the case of the whole world. No matter how drunken, covetous, showy, vain, and untruthful the world's people are, they still boast of being Christians. They console themselves with this godless sealing by the idolatrous water. . . . and with the bread and wine of the preachers, to the extent that they walk without fear upon the broad way and remain without the Word of God.5
But the Anabaptists, with their emphasis on inner community with Christ, did not go the way of the spiritualists or the pietists. They never rejected the outward sacraments. Instead, they taught that true reality is inner faith made complete by outer form.
The Struggle with the Spiritualists
The Anabaptists were not the left wing of the Reformation that some historians make them to be. They were not radical opponents to Roman Catholicism -- doing things differently only to be different -- but followers of Christ. They followed his example in water baptism and in communion with bread and wine, no matter where that put them in the light of sixteenth century controversies.
Sebastian Franck, the scholar and historian, was a radical. So were Casper Schwenkfeld and later on the Quakers who rejected the visible sacraments altogether. Sebastian Franck wrote:
I do not want to be a follower of the Pope. . . . I do not want to go with Zwingli. . . . I will refuse to be an Anabaptist.6
He taught that the sacraments (water, bread, and wine) were given to the first Christians only because of their immaturity, and that it is no longer necessary to practice them.
To this, Dirk Philips replied:
Something horrible is coming up like smoke from the depths of the pit to hide the brightness of the sun. This is Sebastian Franck's teaching that the holy rites instituted by Christ are no longer important, and that they are like a baby's things and child's play. Franck says the visible sacraments are weak elements, and no longer necessary. . . . To this coarse blasphemy I reply: Who has ever written so shamefully of the holy rites as Sebastian Franck? Shall God permit the devil to do with the sacraments whatever he wants?
It is an unendurable blasphemy for Sebastian Franck, a scorner of God and the sacraments, to look upon the first Christians as children who played with rag dolls, while he claims to have reached spiritual manhood. As if Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the first Christians did not have the Holy Spirit because they used outward elements in connection with faith! What abominable presumption and blindness! A man contradicting Christ and rejecting his rites. What foolishness of heart!7
Pilgram Marpeck took a firm stand against the spiritualists in southern Germany. His book, the Verantwortung, is directed against the error of rejecting or minimizing the importance of the sacraments -- like Thomas Müntzer and Casper Schwenkfeld did. Conrad Grebel and the Swiss Brethren, the Anabaptists of Austria, and those of the Bruderhöfe in Moravia felt likewise. "On the question of baptism," wrote one historian, "the Zürich brethren and Thomas Müntzer went opposite directions. For Grebel, baptism had increasing significance, and proper baptism was emphasized as part of the obedience required by the church. Müntzer, however, developed more and more in the direction of a mystical spirituality in which outward forms such as baptism had no place or meaning."8
Menno Simons wrote:
Do not say, as some do, "I will renounce the (state) church and idolatry, I will serve my neighbour, etc., but I do not wish to be baptized." Oh you blind men! Do you think the Lord is pleased if you reject his counsel and Word? No. He desires obedience and not sacrifices.9
Dirk Philips wrote:
I must warn my brothers and sisters against proud despisers of the commands of Christ -- men who have no regard for baptism, which Christ himself instituted, which the apostles so earnestly practiced, and to which the holy writings give such a prominent place. The nighttime meal is of no significance to them.10
Faith and Sacraments
Menno Simons wrote:
It is faith that compels us to observe the rites commanded by God. These rites, such as the rite of Israelite sacrifices under the law and the rite of baptism under the Gospel, operate by virtue of faith. They become saving rites where people obediently and lovingly fulfill them, carrying out not only the rite, but also all the rest of what God commands us to do.11
Dirk Philips wrote:
He that despises baptism despises not a human but a divine ordinance. He rejects the name of God in whom Christians are baptized. He rejects Christ and his death. . . . and he disobeys the Gospel. The Gospel shows that baptism must follow confession of faith. We stand firmly against all who make light of Christian baptism. We do not follow such men. We follow Christ and the apostles who linked baptism to faith.12
Something to See
Inner religion without exterior rites and form, the Anabaptists taught, was a hypocrite's religion. They could not believe that a person really dedicated to obeying God would downplay visible obedience. Dirk Philips wrote:
Abraham did not neglect circumcision, although it was but a sign and insignificant. He received it as a seal of faith (Rom. 4:11). Neither should Christians neglect baptism, for they have not only Abraham but Christ as an example.13
Menno Simons wrote:
Abraham was circumcised and we are baptized because God commanded it. Whoever disobeys the command of God concerning these ceremonies and despises the performance of them because of their supposed triviality excludes himself from the covenant of grace.14
Hans Schlaffer wrote:
Water baptism is a sign whereby Christians recognize and learn to know one another and whereby they make a public confession and promise to practice and demonstrate Christian brotherly love according to the command of Christ -- that is, to teach, admonish, help, punish, exclude, bind, and loose one another.15
No Safety Without the Sacraments
Saving faith, for the Anabaptists, was a faith sealed in water and expressed in communion with the brothers and sisters during the nighttime meal. Dirk Philips wrote:
It is an abomination to God when people profess an inner life and a new birth but refuse to follow Christ in external commands. What they say about the new birth and a new creature, what they profess about the inner life is nothing but vain babbling. If they were born of God they would not reject the washing of the new birth (Titus 3:5). If they were baptized with the Holy Spirit in their hearts they would not refuse the rite of outer baptism given by the example and command of Jesus Christ.16
Menno Simons wrote:
If we do not perform the nighttime meal and baptism, or if we perform them differently from what God has commanded, we have by our disobedience neither covenant nor promise. Whoever teaches you differently deceives your soul.17
Christ can have nothing but a visible commune. We cannot follow Christ in secret. Either we show by our actions that we belong to him, or we show by our actions that we do not. Either we belong to his body and function as members of it, or we are not part of the body.
The Anabaptists recognized these clearly visible limits of the Lord's commune. Jakob Kautz wrote: "The true commune of Christ cannot be tied to any particular place, time or person. . . . It is gathered by shepherds who have a heavenly, rather than an earthly calling -- shepherds who are not tied to the persons, places or elements of the earth." But like his Anabaptist brothers he baptized with water those who believed in Christ and separated from communion those who did not. The Anabaptists believed that this binding in baptism and this loosing in separation was the binding and loosing of which Christ spoke in Matt. 16:19.
Leonhard Schiemer wrote:
All who have not thrown themselves with all their possessions underneath the cross of Christ and into the community of the holy ones, all who have not been unbound from their sins (entbunden) by the Lord's commune are of the devil and of the antichrist.18
Peter Rideman wrote:
Since man's sins are left behind and forgiven in baptism, and since the Lord's commune holds the key (to remit or retain sin), baptism should take place before the brothers. The whole commune should kneel together with the convert before his baptism takes place, asking God to forgive his sins. But if this cannot be, and if the brothers cannot be present, the baptizer may baptize the convert apart, or alone.19
Menno Simons wrote:
Do not say, "Let the commune put me out. Their putting out will not hurt me," and other such lighthearted things. I tell you the truth, I would rather be cut into pieces than to allow myself to be separated for a valid reason from the Lord's commune. Brothers, this is serious!
In the Old testament they burned evildoers with fire. That is a small thing compared to our day when evildoers are delivered unto Satan in the name of Christ and in the binding power of his Holy Word. Let everyone be careful to conduct himself wisely before God and his commune so that he may never be smitten with such a curse by Christ -- so that he may never be placed outside of the holy congregation by Christ and his commune. All who are outside of Christ's congregation must be in that of Antichrist. Oh children, take care! Watch, pray, and be on guard. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.20
Who Should Be Put Out
As soon as he believed and was baptized, the Anabaptist convert began to enjoy the blessings and order of the Lord's commune. He became a disciple and friend of Christ. He remained on intimate terms with Christ and his body as long as he obeyed him. But these blessings ended when he disobeyed Christ, and if he persisted in that disobedience.
A person could be baptized, become part of the body of Christ and be separated from it shortly afterward. But he could not be baptized, live in sin, and keep on belonging to it. If he disobeyed Christ and returned to living in sin, Christ and the members of his body had to separate themselves from him.
The Anabaptists spoke of two reasons for this separation (Absonderung) from the body of Christ. The first and greatest reason was to awaken the disobedient to the reality of their condition and to bring them back to repentance. The second reason was to protect the health and testimony of the body of Christ itself.
Menno Simons explained who should be put out and why:
Christ says, "If your brother sins against you, but will not hear you, nor the witnesses, nor the commune, then let him be to you as a heathen man and a publican." Paul says that if a brother turns out to be a fornicator, covetous, idolatrous, an accuser, a drunkard, or a cheat, then we should not eat with him. To this class belong all who openly walk in the damnable works of the flesh which Paul names elsewhere. Lazy people who become busybodies must be put out. Divisive people, all who argue against the teachings of Christ and his apostles must be put out.
All who lead carnal lives or persist in false teachings must, as a last resort, be put out of the Lord's commune in the name of Christ. By the power of the Holy Ghost and by the binding Word of God, they must be put out, marked and avoided until they repent.21
A City without Walls
Menno Simons wrote:
As long as the Israelites dealt with evildoers among them, they remained upright and pious. But when they neglected internal discipline, they fell into all kinds of wickedness and idolatry. . . . This is also the way it went in the first Christian commune. As long as the overseers required a godly life, as long as they baptized and gave the nighttime meal only to the penitent, as long as they put sinners out, according to the holy writngs, they were Christ's commune. But as soon as they sought a carefree life without the cross, they laid aside the rod of discipline and preached peace. In this way they established an anti-Christian Babel, which has existed by now for many centuries. . . . A community without discipline and a separation from sinners is like a vineyard without trenches, like a city without walls or gates. Enemies freely come to plant their weeds within it.22
An Act of Love
The Anabaptists believed in being firm but not harsh. Menno Simons, although he went along with unsound teachings on excommunication in his later years, did what he could to keep separated members from harsh treatment. He wrote:
No one is separated from the communion of the brothers except those who have already separated themselves by false doctrine or improper conduct. We do not want to put anyone out. We want to receive. We do not want to amputate but to heal. We do not want to discard but win back, not grieve but comfort, not condemn but save. Whoever turns from evil and comes back to the Gospel into which he was baptized cannot and shall not be put out.23
In another tract he wrote:
We should not deny necessary services, love, and mercy to those who have been separated from communion. Separation is a work of divine love, not of unmerciful, heathenish cruelty. True Christians love, help, and pity everyone, even their most bitter enemies. True Christians hate cruelty. They have a nature like God of whom they are born. God makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and unjust. If we are of a different nature, we show that we are not his children. . . . We do not separate people from the commune to destroy them but to help them.24
Holy but Human
Even though they believed in a visible commune with visible limits, and even though they believed in keeping the Lord's commune holy and separated from sin, the Anabaptists did not boast, as some accused them of boasting, that they were a perfect brotherhood. They knew that they were still human. Dirk Philips wrote:
Several Gospel parables describe the Lord's commune. One parable is that of the net cast into the sea which drew up all kinds of fish (Matt. 13:47). The other is the parable of a king who made a wedding for his son and invited both the good and the bad (Matt. 22:2). Christ speaks in these parables of the kingdom of heaven, that is of his commune.
After hearing these parables we must admit without arguing that not only the God-fearing but the wicked come into the commune of Christ. But the wicked are not to stay there. We are to separate them from our communion as far as we are able, already here on this earth. Then in the future, the work will reach completion when Christ separates the sheep from the goats on the youngest day.25
Menno Simons wrote:
We teach that the nighttime meal is to be observed as the Lord Jesus himself observed it, that is, with a commune that is outwardly without spot or blemish -- without open transgression and wickedness. The commune can judge only that which is visible. What is inwardly evil but does not appear outwardly, God alone will judge. God alone, not the community of brothers, can discern the hearts and minds of men.26
The Cost of Visibility
The visible sacraments of baptism and the nighttime meal brought unspeakable suffering upon the Anabaptist movement. But Dirk Philips wrote:
We are not weakened or confused by those who ask us what benefit baptism has. They ask us why we suffer persecution to be baptized when we ourselves say that salvation is not dependent upon outward signs. They say that faith and love can override all outward institutions such as baptism and the nighttime meal. They point to Moses who discontinued circumcision in the wilderness when it was not convenient, and say that Christians may now leave off from baptizing believers or do as they please about it. But we pay no attention to them. . . . They have the nature of spiders turning everything good into evil, yes, even honey into poison.27
Hans Hut of Thüringen discovered the high cost of following Christ in a visible way. After baptizing an untold number of converts into the Lord's commune, they arrested and tortured him. One night, lying unconscious in his cell after an especially severe torturing session, his foot overset his candle. The straw in the cell caught fire and burned him. Eight days later he died. They drowned his daughter at Bamberg in Franconia and his son Philip fled to Moravia.
But walking in the light, "shining as stars in the universe among a crooked and depraved generation," those whom Hans had baptized into a visible commune went . . .
Table of Contents