At a pastors' conference this year, we were all encouraged to read "Reformation Theology", a big tome about the reformation five hundred years ago. For the uninitiated, pastors feel they have to "keep up with the Jones's" like everyone else - which means for us, reading all the latest books. The older you get the fewer you buy, because you learn that much that passes for advice is publishers hype: a book is generally worth buying if it is still in print a decade later.
Anyway, I bought this particular must-have book and there is some good stuff in there, but what is most striking about it is the near-absence of the Anabaptists. In the index there is no mention of Felix Manz or Conrad Grebel or George Blaurock.
Perhaps these names are unknown to my readers - which makes the point twice!
Who were the Anabaptists?
The Anabaptists were a group of Christians who arose at the time of the Reformation in the 1500s when great truths such as Justification by Faith alone - the central doctrine of the Gospel - were being rediscovered by men such as Luther (Germany) and Zwingli (Switzerland). The big reformers, such as Luther and Zwingli are called Magisterial Reformers, not because of the majesty of the doctrines they proclaimed - though for some of those doctrines, majestic is a good description - but because of their biggest mistake: they refused to separate the church from the state and relied on the magistrates (hence "magisterial") to support the church, even though the magistrates may be unbelievers. This seemed to make sense to them in "Christian" Europe, because wasn't everyone a Christian?
Supporting this church-state view of the Magisterial Reformers (MRs) was the doctrine of infant baptism. How did a citizen of the state also become a member of the church? By being baptised as an infant, that's how. The moment a citizen was baptised as an infant they entered the church and became part of the entangled Church-state system called "Christendom". We, from the standpoint of the 21st century can see what a terrible error this was, but they could not, and as I say, the MRs all defended infant baptism and the church-state connection.
However, a group of Christians reading their Bibles - and just as importantly, wanting to follow Jesus faithfully - noticed that infant baptism is just not taught anywhere in the Bible. So in January 1525 they held the first private baptism (for centuries?) in a home, somewhere near Zurich. They baptised each other (still only with water on the head) and my own view is that 1525 is just as important for the reformation as 1517.
The biggest consequence of this seemingly simple act was the restoration of the New Testament church as a group of believers meeting separate to the state's knowledge or interference or permission in a home.
No big deal, we say. But unbelievably gi-normous deal in 1525. Baptising an adult believer in a private home was seen by the MRs as an act of treason against the state! Because you were disrupting the centuries old connection between church and state and thereby threatening the stability of the state (and hence the stability of the compromised church).
Apart from being totally unbiblical, the stance of the MRs had a terrible side-consequence: the "church" was filled with unbelievers! You can't reform a nation by baptising every child who is born into the church. Men and women must be born again. So the church was filled with unbelievers - a problem Luther himself lamented.
The Anabaptists say that in order for the church to be pure, and in line with the New Testamant, it must be separated from the state and be allowed to choose its own godly pastors and to exercise discipline where necessary.
That cold winter's day in January was the start of an amazing forgotten reformation started by men like Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock; a reformation which attempted to go much further than the MRs and return to the simple separated worship and life of the NT church. They went from village to village preaching the Gospel and winning many converts to Christ, baptising them on the way.
Why are they forgotten?
So why little mention of them today?
(i) History is written by the victors. The Anabaptists were hounded to death by both the Catholics and the MRs. Whole communities were wiped out, tens of thousands imprisoned, tortured and killed. The favourite way was by drowning: "You want to be baptised again? We'll do it for you." The victors wrote the Reformation History and the losers were lost in time.
(ii) The Anabaptists were common folk. By and large the Anabaptists were ordinary folks, and once again, history is written by those who can write, the scholars of the age, not the losers.
(iii) The Anabaptists were not great doctrine writers. Because western evangelicalism at least, prides itself in itself scholarly doctrines, it pays little attention to the fishermen / tax-collector types. So because these guys didn't write great tomes they are ignored - even though they made up in their zeal ten times what they lacked in theology.
(iv) A few men who are - falsely - connected with the Anabaptists taught crazy stuff, and gave them all a bad name. There was even a city take over where some guy proclaimed himself to be king! But these excesses were on the fringe of the movement, and by an large excesses like this are found in any renewal movement.
What can we learn from the Anabaptists?
I'll return to this in another blog, but first and foremost, we learn the true cost of following Jesus - in any age. The Martyrs Mirror records the moving account of their lives and deaths. In every age - including our own - faithfulness to Christ will bring persecution - from the religious establishment as well as the world. But the joy of following Christ far far outweighs the mocking, the jeers, the cruel and false accusations.
In many ways, as we read their story, it resembles Acts far more than the story of the MRs does and I find myself for one much more at home with the Anabaptists that with the Luthers or Zwinglis - as good as those men were, for, oddly enough, we are far closer to them in our independent evangelical churches than we are to Luther, Zwingli or Calvin.