In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek argues that the single most important concept for any company, person, or movement is to know why they do what they do. This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation which means that the question of why the Reformation happened is in the spotlight. Martin Luther’s protest against the Roman Catholic establishment set events in motion that would forever change the face of the world. Therefore the Protestant world is devoting a lot of attention to his life and legacy this year. However, what will draw little attention is the consequential movement which developed in the shadow of the Protestant Reformation: the Anabaptists. I believe now is also the time to consider why this movement began, assess where it has gone, and continue allowing the Word of God to reform it. Although I can only scratch the surface, I want to highlight three ideas which shaped the original Anabaptist movement: biblical authority, brotherhood, and cross bearing. These men were not perfect but there is much to learn from the original architects’ attempt at true gospel reform. My intent in revisiting these ideas is to consider why the Anabaptist movement began and why we need reform today.
Martin Luther’s writings were causing a stir all across Europe. Meanwhile in Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli was leading a reform campaign of his own. A number of young men had gathered around him to study the Bible in the original languages. As the Bible was studied with fresh vigor it became apparent the Roman Catholic establishment was corrupt and promoting false doctrine; doctrine which was foreign to the apostolic church. Although the implications were many, at the heart of restoring the true gospel was the desire to restore both the living Word of God and the written Word of God, rather than the Pope and tradition, as authoritative for church life and practice.
Yet those desiring reform discovered the authority of the Word faced a major obstacle: the authority of the state. This became crystal clear on October 26-28, 1523, in a public debate concerning the Mass. Although Zwingli had previously denounced the practice as unbiblical, when the Zurich city council decided to maintain the practice, he relented and said the decision was in their hands. For many of Zwingli’s young followers this concession was unthinkable because it subjected the Word to the city council.1
One of the opponents of the Mass, Simon Stumpf, boldly declared, “Master Ulrich, you do not have the right to place the decision on this matter in the hands of my lords, for the decision has already been made, the Spirit of God decides.”1 In other words, Stumpf was saying that the Spirit of God through the clear revelation of God’s Word, had already made the decision.
Conrad Grebel, who was also at the debate and an enthusiastic supporter of Zwingli, was deeply grieved by this compromise. Consequently the group who felt betrayed by Zwingli began to move in a different direction and developed under the leadership of Grebel. His vision for gospel reform can be summarized in a letter written in 1524. “Exercise discipline according to the Word, and establish a Christian church with the help of Christ and His rule…be admonished to preach fearlessly the Word of God alone, establish divine customs alone, accept alone what may be found in clear Scripture, and reject, hate, and curse all proposals, words, customs, and opinions of all men, including your own.”1
The core idea driving this group was that the rule of Christ alone, as revealed in the Word of God alone, was absolutely authoritative for all of life. Today, cultural pressure wars against the Word and this foundational idea has been compromised in many facets of Anabaptism. I know many will think this sounds like a caricature but it’s the only way I know how to concisely portray where we presently stand. One wing of Anabaptism fell under the sway of men’s ideas in an attempt to keep the movement relevant; the other wing resorted to men’s practices in an attempt to keep the movement safe. In the process both have undermined the biblical gospel.
If gospel reform is going to take place in our movement we must make a steadfast resolution to “reject, hate, and curse all proposals, words, customs, and opinions of all men” and allow clear Scripture to govern and guide us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is only possible if men, women, and children will hunger for the living Word and study the written Word with fresh vigor. If the Anabaptist world is going to experience gospel reform then the Word of God must be the final authority.
A second idea which developed in this movement was the need for the church to be a brotherhood. Jesus’ incarnation was the foundation for this life together. He was gathering a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation held together by His life, death, and resurrection. This idea of a community held together by the gospel was antithetical to the hierarchal system which had developed in Roman Catholicism. In that system the church was held together and disciplined by the physical sword rather than the sword of the Spirit. Yet Jesus himself warned against this kind of tyrannical leadership in Matthew 20:25, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be a servant.” So a leader in God’s kingdom is called to shepherd according the Word of God, not by physical and mental coercion.
Our communities must be built on love, truth, and transparency; following the example of Christ. Too many Anabaptist communities fail in these most basic precepts of community. Change must start with the leaders, our communities need leaders who are broken, humble, and fear God. Shepherds must show the flock by example. True holiness will never flourish until gospel-motivated faith, repentance, and transparency water the hearts of our people. If the Anabaptist world is going to experience gospel reform then the church must be a loving, truthful, and transparent community.
A third idea which developed in this movement was the reality of daily cross bearing. A servant was not above his master. Therefore, if Jesus suffered to fulfill the will of the Father and enter into glory then we likewise must follow in His path. Furthermore a profession of faith which allowed one to maintain a carnal lifestyle of comfort and ease was not one of true faith. Menno Simons says of those who would follow Christ, “They must take upon themselves the heavy cross of all poverty, distress, disdain, sorrow, sadness, and must so follow the rejected, the outcast, the bleeding and the crucified Christ…My faithful brethren, this is a true and certain word.”3
This gospel of cross bearing seems alien in the church today. Many seem to identify more with a Trump-esque religion than with the Man from Nazareth. Yet cross bearing is the way the church must overcome evil. It is a Christ exalting, sacrificial life which disarms evil and reveals it for what it is. If the Anabaptist world is going to experience gospel reform then cross bearing must become a daily reality in the life of the church.
I long to see the light of the gospel burn brightly in this generation of Anabaptists. However, this will not happen by accident or complacency. We must reconsider why this movement began. There is much work to be done to regain the vision of the original reform movement. The true gospel will ignite our hearts if we hunger and thirst for His righteousness. May we be able to say with Conrad Grebel, “For that now olden light of Truth again is shining bright in the world with Gospel splendor.”1
|Timothy Miller currently lives near Sarasota, Florida with his wife Sarah and son Malachi. He enjoys spending time with his family, hunting, woodworking, reading, sports, and traveling. Timothy is passionate about the Bible, truth, and understanding history. His greatest desire is to more intimately know Christ.
- Bender, Harold S. Conrad Grebel, c. 1498-1526 The Founder Of The Swiss Brethren. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998.
- The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway , 2001.
- Simons, Menno. The Complete Writings Of Menno Simons c. 1496-1561. Edited by J. C. Wenger. Translated by Leonard Verduin, Herald Press, 1984