Each year, four million tourists visit Holmes County, Ohio to observe the unique people known as Amish. As a Mennonite and one who lives in the area, I see it all firsthand. It seems that anything and everything sells better with “Amish” in the name. Amish furniture, Amish peanut butter (which we all know and love), even Amish reality shows. Amish (and Mennonites) are known for their good craftsmanship, good cooking, and strange culture.
I’m afraid that the larger culture looks at Anabaptists as interesting, but irrelevant. Quaint. Unfortunately, it seems that our generation of Anabaptists feels the same way. Many have fallen for the notion that our distinctives are only cultural with nothing to offer to today’s world. They would rather not be identified as cultural oddballs and they move on to the community church down the street or the less conservative church across town.
The purpose of this blog is to call young Anabaptists back to their roots, but what are the roots? Are Anabaptists just good cabinet-makers and good farmers, or are we also radical Christ-followers?
A look back
To find the roots of a movement, one has to dig into its history. Now, I like history quite a bit. The stories of heroic individuals, great battles, and strange occurrences are exciting, but church history? Not so much.
I suppose there are worse topics to study (like the history of quilting or stamp collecting, for instance), but church history can seem a little boring. Yet as I study it, I’m learning that it’s really about how God worked through ordinary people who were totally committed to Him. That’s something we should all be excited about.
Over the next few months, some of our articles will look at early Anabaptist beliefs from what is known as the Schleitheim Confession. When I first read the Schleitheim Confession about a year ago, I found it to be rather mundane. It talked about the usual doctrines we hear in church: baptism, communion, non-resistance, and so on. In fact, about the most entertaining part was trying to say “Schleitheim” properly. At the time, I skimmed for the basic details and then moved on to more important things. Yet, the more I look at Anabaptist history, the more I find that it was both revolutionary and radical.
From the very beginning, Christianity has been revolutionary. The book of Acts describes how the first handful of Jesus’ followers grew exponentially after Pentecost. However, it was not long before persecution reared its head. The Jewish leaders fought back against these Christians with all they had. Much to the delight of the Jewish leaders, persecution scattered Christianity across the Roman world.
However, instead of dying out it spread like wildfire. The death of martyrs only served to fuel the spreading of the Gospel. And so, for the first several hundred years, to be Christian was costly. Discipleship required total submission to Christ’s lordship. It was only through dying to self that believers found strength to suffer persecution.
Then in 313, Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity legal. Not only did it become legal, it also became mandatory. If persecution built the church, legalization destroyed it. For the first time, Christianity was indelibly linked with the state. Everyone was now “Christian.”
By the time the Reformation came about at the end of the Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism had dominated all areas of life and politics for over 1,000 years. Catholicism had become a dead religion where ritual masked the gospel. You’ve probably heard of Martin Luther and other men who called for reformation. They wanted more than dead rituals; they wanted the living gospel.
The Reformers declared that salvation was by grace through faith and that Scripture was the ultimate authority, not the pope. Despite their good intentions and all that they accomplished, they didn’t go far enough. The church was still part of the state.
Enter the Anabaptists
The Anabaptists, or radical reformers, called for a church made up of voluntary believers who had counted the cost and chose to believe. As a result, they rejected the state church, infant baptism, and other unbiblical practices. Soon the Anabaptists were persecuted on all sides. The return to a believers church was also a return to persecution. Early Anabaptists were known for two things: their radical beliefs and their conviction to die well. Once again, being Christian was costly.
The Schleitheim Confession
It was in this context that the Schleitheim Confession was written. The believers church was growing, but not without difficulty. From the outside, the state persecution was taking its toll. From the inside, some Anabaptists were spreading unscriptural beliefs. Instead of the way of love, these men wanted to bring about God’s kingdom with the sword.
As a result, Anabaptist leaders met in secret to clarify their beliefs. Since the Anabaptists agreed with most Protestant beliefs, this confession only covered the more controversial points.
I believe the Schleitheim Confession had two purposes: to take a unified stand for scriptural truth that Protestant reformers were neglecting and to encourage the believers to stand firm in persecution. These beliefs weren’t just “part of the Mennonite culture” because there was no such thing. The Anabaptists simply read the Bible and chose to obey, no matter the cost.
Consider the testimony of Michael Sattler, the man who most likely wrote the Schleitheim confession. Sattler was a monk who left the Catholic Church when he became convinced of his need for a personal savior. He soon became a prominent leader in the Anabaptist movement.
Soon after the council at Schleitheim, he and several others were arrested. After months in prison and severe torture, Sattler was condemned to be burned as a heretic. His tongue was removed and strips of flesh were torn from his body with glowing tongs. Even then, as they prepared to throw him in the fire, he prayed for his persecutors. As his body was burning, he raised his hands to testify that God had been faithful.
Worth dying for?
I believe that kind of conviction is the bedrock of Christianity. Even today, the Schleitheim Confession calls us to be radical disciples of Christ. We don’t need more farmers and more construction workers to keep Anabaptism alive. We need cross-bearers.
Would you die for a good work ethic and good cooking? I hope not. Take some time to read the Schleitheim Confession or study the accounts of martyrs. Are you an Anabaptist because you were raised that way or have you studied the truth of Scripture and found Jesus worth dying for?
|Bryce Wenger lives and works on a small farm near Dalton, Ohio. He has a love for music, literature, and learning. His free time is usually spent backpacking, canoeing, or otherwise enjoying nature. He is passionate about knowing God’s Word and living life to the fullest.
“Fact Sheets.” Amish Country and Holmes County. Holmes County Chamber of Commerce, n.d. Web. 04 Sept. 2015. <http://holmescountychamber.com/press_factsheets.php?ID=14>.
Wenger, John C. and C. Arnold Snyder. “Schleitheim confession.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 22 Aug 2015
Bossert, Jr., Gustav, Harold S. Bender and C. Arnold Snyder. “Sattler, Michael (d. 1527).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 22 Aug 2015