15.2.1 The Major Difference Between the Reformation and the Anabaptist Movement. – Freedom of Religion

In The Anabaptist View of the Church Franklin Littell wrote:

“The important point to emphasize is that the real issue here was not the act of baptism, but rather a bitter and irreducible struggle between two mutually exclusive concepts of the church. Zwingli was finally committed to the state church; and the continuance of the parish system and cantonal denominational division was implied. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, were out to restore Apostolic Christianity. Baptism became important because it was the most obvious dividing line between the two systems, and because it afforded the authorities an excuse for suppressing the radicals by force.”[1]

So, while the “baptist” in Anabaptist seems to indicate that baptism was the critical issue, the differences between the original reformers were far deeper. The Anabaptists demanded a return to Apostolic Christianity while Luther, Zwingli and the reformers were deeply embedded in the church state system.

The state church is modeled after the Roman Catholic model which in that age was a power that integrated spiritual and political concerns. The Roman Catholic Church was also the government of the Papal States. Soon after the Reformation Luther was the head of the German church. Zwingli became the head of the Swiss Church, and so forth. This political power was important to them as the threat of being coerced by the Vatican, its influence with other kings and its own armies was very real. While Luther’s original intent was just to reform the Catholic Church, once it was established that his Lutheran Church was the only way he could see the reforms he wanted, he operated the church politically much the same way as the Roman Catholic Church that he wanted to reform. It was because of the support of aristocrats like Price Frederick III, elector of Saxony, that his church became recognized and government sanctioned.

So reformed churches became sanctioned by governments. Councils were ruled by members of the sanctioned church. This relationship made the governments intolerable of other churches. Churches not teaching the sanctioned religion could have their property confiscated, and the members punished, even unto death.

Thus Church and government were completely intertwined. Not following the state religion was akin to treason, and was punishable by various means including death. It can’t be overstated how this system made people plead loyalty to Christianity when all they may be interested in is political or economic gain or both. The sale of bishoprics in order for the church to increase in property was a prime example of this.

The Anabaptists held no stock in the then existing state –church system which they believed to be corrupt since its inception with Constantine. They were really standing on their right to freedom of religion.

This major difference in religious political viewpoint is seen in the inception of this movement. On January 21, 1525 the Zurich City Council had passed a law forbidding the assembly of Anabaptist groups. That very night a group of six such men met to decide what to do in face of this government sanction against them.

Complicating this issue was that despite the Reformation’s cries of “sola scriptura”  Zwingli, the leader of Reform in Switzerland, eventually sided with the view that political and economic concerns were as important as biblical accuracy, that any progress made by reforms had to be done in a manner that safeguarded the strength of the government as well as the economy of the region. Inherent in his belief was that all the residents were Christians as the ages old practice of infant baptism had insured that all citizens were Christian.

The group meeting that night disagreed that men were Christian because they were baptized as infants and participated in what was perceived as a Christian community. The men took the stand that no government, no economy was as important as following the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ, and one necessary way to follow Christ was to be baptized. That very night they made the radical decision to baptize each other, and the movement was birthed. [2]

These men were immediately persecuted. Many were imprisoned and killed. Some Anabaptists took an Old Testament model where they believed that they should take their city by force. While this was a minority view this only served to confirm to many of the public that Anabaptists were only evil, violent people worth of what ever fate was meted out to them.

Nevertheless as happens with persecution the movement spread geographically and these radical ideas spread with them. After the violence the movement made changes to reflect pacifism, and this is reflected in modern groups descended from these Anabaptists like the Mennonites and the Amish.

As admirable as the Reformers were we must really question how much they were following the Lord in persecuting the Anabaptists. So many of the things that they considered so radical, i.e., believer’s baptism, eliminating the government as an authority in the church, dedication to following the apostolic model of the church, and even pacifism are now embraced by many. As far as the stand of the Reformers against the Anabaptists where is the biblical model to confiscate property, torture, imprison, and kill people who teach differently than you do?

In the U.S.A. today we have a hard time imagining what it would be like to have our religion prescribed for us and are shocked where we see it in places like the middle east and elsewhere. It is these Anabaptist that we can at least partially thank for our religious freedom as their radicalism spread and encouraged others to take the stand for religious freedom, the right to choose what kind of church to which we are going to belong. We can also thank them for taking the stand that the closer we get to Apostolic Christianity the closer we are to true Christianity.

[1] The Anabaptist View of the Church, Franklin Hamlin Littell, Star King Press, Boston, 1958, p. 14
[2] ANABAPTISM: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant, Walter Klaussen, Conrad Press, Waterloo, Ontario, 1973 p. 3

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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