I had heard the compliments a thousand times. “Your people are so wonderful: hard working, solid families, simple lives, and good pies.” The more they went on, the more my ballooning pride neared its bursting point. Growing up working at an Amish furniture store I was accustomed to hearing the question: “What does it mean to be Amish/Mennonite?”
When the question arose last week I was determined to talk about more than furniture and pies. In vain, I tried to direct the conversation to Christ but the customer was intent on praising men. As I reflect on the conversation I can’t help but wonder if this is really what the Stepchildren envisioned.
In my late teen years I became fascinated by church history. The thing that fascinated me the most was why the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century were called the Radical Reformers. This group is now most prominently associated with farming, furniture, buggies, suspenders and pies. How had they ever been known as radicals? What set them apart from the mainstream reformation?
In his book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Leonard Verduin takes up this question. Verduin recounts the struggle which precipitated the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century. Verduin aptly uses the term “Stepchildren of the Reformation”(15) to describe the Radical Reformers who differed from the Magisterial Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Terms of derision were heaped on those who joined the Stepchildren. The book is spent unpacking these slang terms as the author argues that the Stepchildren have often been misrepresented. First, I will visit a few of these labels.
In order to understand this name given to the Stepchildren, we must go back to the time of Constantine. Ancient man envisioned everyone worshiping at the same shrine. Therefore “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” was a novel idea. Verduin argues that all pre-Christian societies were sacral(23). By this he means, “bound together by a common religious loyalty”(23). A sacral society was held together by a common religion to which all members of that society committed.
Early Christians were at odds with the Roman State when they began to declare Jesus as Lord, refusing to worship the Roman Emperor. A sacral society must exterminate anything that might erode its supreme authority; the swift spread of Christianity was a threat to the Roman Empire. Therefore early Christians were persecuted intensely.
How could the eroding Roman Empire be saved? Introduce a “Christian sacralism.” The result: the marriage of the Church and the Roman Empire at the “conversion” of Constantine. Now, all who stood in the path of this “Christian sacralism” would receive the wrath of Christendom. The Donatists of the fourth century attempted to stand against this change, believing that the true church was a small body of regenerate believers separate from the all-inclusive state church.
For similar reasons 1,200 years later, the Stepchildren of the Reformation were often labeled the new Donatists.
Another derogatory term unleashed against the “heretics” was Stabler. This term means “staff-carriers” (64), and refers to the way the two differing groups viewed the Church’s relationship with the sword. While the Constantinian Church had long been engaged in forms of coercion, the Stepchildren saw no place in the Gospel for “conversion” by coercion. They believed the New Testament taught that a person voluntarily followed Christ. This drew the wrath of all who held to a sacralist view of the church.
The Stepchildren believed the New Testament called believers to walk in a new manner of life. By contrast, the sacralist church was embracing everyone in its given locality, removing the purifying aspect of the Body of Christ. It was this mentality the Stepchildren attacked. This brought charges of Perfectionism upon the “heretics.” These charges often had little basis (103).
Another New Testament practice resurrected by the Stepchildren was church discipline. Verduin astutely observes, “Church discipline as set forth in the New Testament is impossible in ‘Christian Sacralism’”(119). When Conrad Grebel of the Stepchildren dared to challenge this practice he met vehement opposition. Grebel proposed church discipline as the New Testament presents it. Excommunication was the ultimate punishment in the church, not death. As Verduin says, “Grebel’s program was calculated to terminate the Church as it had been known for twelve centuries and to substitute for it the Church of the New Testament”(121).
Because the Reformers embraced the sacralist formula, they were unable to attack the lax morality of the state church or resurrect Biblical Church discipline. As Verduin says, “In this whole area the Stepchildren blazed a new trail, by repudiating the Constantinian change, by reinstituting the Church of believers with conductual distinctiveness, by driving away the sword function out of the Church, by re-introducing Church discipline in which excommunication is the ultimate penalty. This program earned for them the incriminating appellative of Catharer [heretic]”(131).
The book is not a quick, easy read and you must stay engaged to comprehend well. However, the mental work required is well worth it. Also, some may find the book a bit academic (many of the footnotes are in original languages) and the average reader will want a dictionary handy.
A Reason to Read
This is one of the most compelling books I have read on the Reformation era. While critics will dismiss Verduin’s take on the Constantinian change as simplistic and his presentation of Anabaptism as overly sympathetic, time has largely vindicated the Stepchildren. This book is a wonderful contribution to Anabaptism and should be read by anyone with interest in church history or Anabaptism.
I still wrestle with how to direct questions about my heritage to the Gospel. It’s easier to be quiet and lap up men’s praise than to testify of a risen and returning Savior who calls us to repent. Fallen humanity continues to spurn worship of the one true God and erect idols. The Stepchildren advocated a vision of society where no man is coerced into a religion. They did not do this because it was popular; they did it because they believed following Christ included suffering with Christ.
Western society is rapidly rejecting religious freedom. In its place a new sacralism is emerging. Those who will not bow the knee to the idols of erotic liberty and unbridled autonomy are labeled bigots and haters. Once again biblical Christianity is in the crosshairs. Once again religious people will be leading the persecution. Once again the Church of Christ must pick up the Cross and follow.
Will there be Stepchildren in this generation who practice and voice biblical convictions when the praise of men stops and the terms of derision start?
|Timothy Miller currently lives near Sarasota Florida with his wife Sarah. Notable interests include hunting, woodworking, reading, sports, and traveling. Timothy is passionate about the Bible, truth, and understanding history. His supreme desire is the glorification of Jesus Christ through sacrificial service.
Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Sarasota: Christian Hymnary, 1991. Print.