During the 1500s, fiery groups of Christians in continental Europe set Europe aflame with their quest to restore apostolic Christianity. These Christians—known as Anabaptists—truly were one of the most remarkable movements in all of church history. Historians often refer to the Anabaptists as the “third wing of the Reformation,” the first two wings being the Lutheran and Reformed. Others call the Anabaptist movement the “radical Reformation.” That’s because the Anabaptists recognized that any restoration of primitive Christianity must entail a radical transformation of lives.
Out of all of the restoration movements of the past five hundred years, the Anabaptists probably came the closest to recapturing the primitive Christian ethos of the “two kingdoms.” That is, they fully realized that Christians cannot serve two masters. We cannot be embroiled in the political and military affairs of this world and think we can still be fully committed to Christ. Nor can we be entangled in building commercial empires and still be seeking His kingdom first. His kingdom is not of this world, and when we live by the teachings of Christ, we will be noticeably different from the world around us—just as were the early Christians.
Interestingly, of the three wings of the Reformation, the Anabaptists were generally the furthest removed from the intellectual centers of their day. Although the Anabaptists could count a number of university-educated men among their leaders, most of their teachers lacked any such education. However, even though there were no early church scholars among them, the majority of their beliefs were the same as those of the early Christians—particularly in matters of lifestyle.
What was their secret? Their secret is that they tried to follow the literal words of Scripture. The fact that the Bible-minded Anabaptists came to so many of the same conclusions as did the early Christians is one of the strongest corroborations we have that early Christianity was Biblically sound. Actually, about the only areas where the Anabaptists taught differently than the early church is where they failed to take New Testament Scriptures literally.
Some of the conclusions the Anabaptists came to were considered extremely revolutionary and radical by most professing Christians of their day—Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed alike. For example, the Anabaptists taught that the church should be separate from the state. Ever since the time of Constantine, the church and state had been married to each other, and practically nobody in the sixteenth century the propriety of this. The entire structure of medieval society rested on the union of church and state. Luther initially talked about church and state being separate, but he backed off of this position when he saw it was unacceptable to the governing authorities.
Therefore, most people thought that the Anabaptist teachings would lead to anarchy. As a result, Anabaptists were outlawed in virtually every country of Europe. As one of them lamented, “A true teacher who preaches the Word of the Lord without blame is not permitted at the present time, as far as our knowledge goes, to dwell in any kingdom, country, or city under heaven, if he be known.”1
Within a few years, most of the original Anabaptist leaders had been arrested and executed. Anabaptists became a hunted group, moving from place to place and meeting in forests and other secret hideaways. Yet they were tireless evangelists and they grew rapidly. The secret of their strength was that most of them loved their Lord with all of their heart, mind, and soul.
Parallels Between The Anabaptists
And The Early Christians
To a large degree, Anabaptists rejected the things of the world, and they lived as citizens of a heavenly kingdom—just as had the early Christians. The rest of the church hated them because of this. Unlike Luther, who disparaged the Gospel of Matthew, the Anabaptists took the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount quite seriously and literally. They stressed that a reborn Christian must live by those teachings.
Although most churches care for the needy today, this wasn't the case at the time of the Reformation. As a result, the Anabaptists stood in stark contrast to the Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic churches in their brotherly care for one another. The Anabaptists declared to these other churches:
“This mercy, love, and community we teach and practice, and have taught and practiced these seventeen years. God be thanked forever that although our property has to a great extent been taken away from us and is still daily taken, and many a righteous father and mother are put to the sword or fire, and although we are not allowed the free enjoyment of our homes as is manifest ... yet none of those who have joined us nor any of their orphaned children have been forced to beg. If this is not Christian practice, then we might as well abandon the whole Gospel of our Lord. ...
“Is it not sad and intolerable hypocrisy that these poor people [the Lutherans] boast of having the Word of God, of being the true, Christian church, never remembering that they have entirely lost their sign of true Christianity? Although many of them have plenty of everything, go about in silk and velvet, gold and silver, and in all manner of pomp and splendor, ... they allow many of their own poor and afflicted members to ask for alms. [They force] the poor, the hungry, the suffering, the elderly, the lame, the blind, and the sick to beg for bread at their doors.
“Oh preachers, dear preachers, where is the power of the Gospel you preach? ... Where are the fruits of the Spirit you have received?”2
Like the early Christians, the Anabaptists also preached the message of the cross. “If the Head had to suffer such torture, anguish, misery, and pain, how shall His servants, children, and members expect peace and freedom as to their flesh?”3 they asked. At the same time, although they were cruelly hunted down, tortured and executed, they refused to fight back or retaliate against their persecutors.
One of the most touching examples of their unselfish love for others is that of Dirk Willems. Fleeing from the Catholic authorities who had come to arrest him, Willems dashed across a frozen lake and made it safely to the other side. Glancing back as he ran up the banks of the shore, Willems noticed that the deputy pursuing him had fallen through the ice and was about to drown. Although he now could have escaped with ease, Willems turned back and pulled the drowning deputy to safety. Unmoved by this unselfish act of love, the officer in charge ordered the deputy to arrest Willems. As a result, Willems was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually burned alive.
Again, like the early Christians, the Anabaptists refused to use the sword on behalf of their country, either for protection or for executing criminals.4 In obedience to Jesus' words, they refused to take oaths.5 Rather than preaching a gospel of health and wealth, they stressed simplicity of living. In fact, because of persecution, most of them lived in dire poverty.
Although “salvation by faith alone” was the slogan of the Reformation, the Anabaptists taught that obedience was also essential for salvation. However, they didn't teach that salvation is earned by accumulating good works, and they rejected all of the ritual works of self-justification taught by Roman Catholics. They stressed the fact that salvation is a gift from God; yet, they also taught that it is a conditional gift, which can be taken away from the disobedient.
Actually, their doctrine of salvation was very similar to that of the early church. Yet because they taught that obedience is necessary for salvation, the Lutherans and Reformed Christians called them “heaven-stormers.”6At a time when others were emphasizing Augustine's teachings, the Anabaptists completely rejected the doctrine of predestination. They taught instead that salvation was open to everyone, and that everyone chooses for himself either to accept or to reject God's gracious provisions for salvation.
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