15.2.6 Objections to the Anabaptist Call to Return to Primitive Christianity -Revised

I have revised this article published years ago to show that the view presented in the book discussed a prevailing viewpoint over the last centuries against the return to original Christianity.  I realized in reviewing the article that I did not make this clear.  Reading the article I realized it would be easy to think I was agreeing with the author when I was not.

The theme of the argument presented in the book, The Anabaptist View of the Church, is that if the majority of Christians wanted to return to primitive Christianity they would have done so a long time ago. Franklin Hamlin Littell, in his book, The Anabaptist View of the Church, discusses the Anabaptist call to return to primitive Christianity as well as reasons why it was not accepted by more believers.

Littel’s view is very popular.  Again, it is not the view of this website.

A brief overview of the situation is this. The Anabaptists believed:

  • The apostles’ doctrine, as seen in the New Testament, was to be followed above all else.
  • The Anabaptist stand was that, in following the model of the New Testament, the church must be a voluntary organization as opposed to one mandated by the state. This was a radical departure from the status quo and was considered treasonous in some places.
  • Political punishment for errors in faith was unbiblical, the proper discipline was the “ban”, to exile the person from the fellowship.
  • The church had been corrupt since the changes made by Constantine (although some believed the corruption started much earlier).
  • Changes included changing your ideas on ownership (communism), church government (voluntary congregational churches), citizenship (no oaths, pacifism, no military service.), and more.
  • Additionally, some believed (Littell calls these the spiritualizers of the movement) the leading of the spirit, including possibly, prophecy and other manifestations are crucial to the leading of the Church.

This Anabaptist stand has a lot of (but not all of) what his website promotes as the apostle’s tradition that we are to follow.  However, the theme of the book is to show that these ideas are not well received and why.

Littell specifies that the Anabaptist stand was not well received because it was seen as just another form of primitivism. Primitivism is a philosophy that can be summed up by the phrase, “the good old days.” Primitivism says that at one time there was a utopian society, a Garden of Eden, that can be re-obtained by restoring the culture and environment that existed at the time of this utopian society. In other words, the good old days would be back again.

Inherent in this argument about restitution is the idea of a fallen church. If we must restore something, it can only be because what we have now is inferior and corrupted. And, in fact, throughout history, there have been numerous proponents of this idea that the church did not get better as it developed, but in fact, strayed from its powerful beginnings.

One such proponent was the Abbot Joachim of Fiore. Living at the end of the 12th century Joachim actually predicted that there would be a prophet of the last times who would be a “spiritual Constantine freeing the church from the trammels with which the imperial Constantine had bound her. For with Constantine, all heathen had streamed into the church, polluting and compromising her. The fall of the church which followed the time of the apostles would soon be ended…”[1]

A more modern proponent of the fall of the church was Walter Hobhouse who in 1909 wrote,

“Long ago I came to believe that the great change in the relation between the church and the world which began with the conversion of Constantine is not only the decisive turning point in church history, but is also the key to many of the practical difficulties of the present day; and the church of the future is destined more and more to return to a condition of things somewhat like that which prevailed in the anti-Nicene church; that is to say, that instead of pretending to be coextensive with the world, it will accept a position involving a more conscience antagonism with the world, and will, in return, regain in some measure its former coherence.” [2]

Hobhouse here is clearly referring to a fallen church and a restored one. He is also dating the fall of the church with the influence of Constantine.

Abbot Joachim of Fiore and Walter Hobhouse are examples that show that throughout history there have been believers that promoted a return to original Christianity.

Littell points out that the impact of these ideas on a person’s life is huge both then and now. Consider the person who works for someone or perhaps has a small business. That person’s very life is intertwined with coworkers, customers, neighbors, and in fact, many members of society. In order to adopt such a radical philosophy requires a great deal of change in such a person’s life. When that person makes the declaration that they now believe that their church is a fallen church and that many aspects of their life in general need to change, all the above relationships, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and customers, are at risk.

It is one thing to follow the policy, as Luther and the reformers did, that the church system is basically good, but it needs to have a few things fixed. The state-run church system is the way to go, there are some sacraments that are acceptable, and life as you know it will be pretty much the same, only under some new state-run church management, with some appropriate doctrinal and practical changes.

It is a totally different thing to say that the church is fallen, that it has been veering off the mark for most of its existence, and fixing it requires changing the way we live as we know things to be. But that is the Anabaptist stand. Look at these radical components of the Anabaptist stand.

Communism was promoted by these Anabaptists! In the gospels, we have examples like the widow who gave all she had and in Acts, we have references to the early church believers who had all things in common. These ideas are so radically different from the capitalism of the realm. Pacifism, not going to war, not taking oaths; how can these things have any practicality for citizens?[3]

Claiming anything promotes communism in our day and time is inflammatory and propaganda to influence a case negatively.

Diminishing the possibility of the church veering off course right after the apostles ignores the Christian historians who document that Christianity in the decades after the apostles was appeared to ignore the writings of Paul and especially warnings like Acts 20:28-29:

Take heed, therefore, to yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the assembly of the Lord and God which he purchased with his own blood. For I know that after my departure, vicious wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will arise from among your own selves, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Act 20:28-30 WEB)

Interestingly, the Polish brethren dated the beginning of the fall of the church with the death of Simeon, about 111 A.D. At that time there was no disputing of doctrine, or defining of heresy on Christian doctrine. There was no empire-enforced trinitarianism. The fall came into full force with the Council of Nicaea where the Trinitarian formula was raised to ultimate importance while charismatic leadership and inspired congregational life were de-emphasized.[4]

It is Littell’s opinion that history teaches us that for most of the people that call themselves Christians, these radical steps, whether right or wrong, are too overwhelming. Look at how many people followed Christ when he was alive, yet abandoned him when he was taken by the authorities. People do not easily make radical changes.

Littell’s criticism of religious primitivism is that it focuses on a past that never truly existed. Littell rejects primitivism because he views it as a pie in the sky thinking by the masses who really do not understand the issues, and do not fully understand the real state of the primitive culture.

According to Littell, this is a legitimate concern. If people think that they need to get back to Christianity’s original state, and have unrealistic expectations of what those origins are they are deluding themselves. Primitive Christianity was not the Garden of Eden. Yes, there were miracles, great fellowship, great sharing, and powerful manifestations of the spirit. But all this happened in a world of persecution. Believers were killed, run out of town, tortured, lost their jobs and income, and had a host of other problems because of their faith in that day and time.

According to the author, there are other major problems in the call to return to primitive Christianity. One is that people cannot agree on all of the aspects of the New Testament doctrine. In our day and time, the question becomes very complicated because of the number of differing views of Christian doctrine, with many claiming to be the New Testament standard yet being inconsistent with each other. How do you filter through the myriad combinations of doctrinal views presented to be the truth? (For more insight go to the Table of Contents page and look at the Divisions section.) The sheer volume of debates on the issues that divided churches becomes overwhelming and confusing to many.

The second problem in the return to primitive Christianity, according to the author is that there are differing opinions on when the fall of the church happened. For example, some claim the church was powerfully led through the third century, and the fall didn’t start until Constantine. Others claim the fall started within decades after Paul. Look at how the Polish Brethren differed from the other Anabaptist groups. Restoring the New Testament Church sounds simple but these questions make restoring that church too problematic.

Still, for the individual the question comes down to this; supposing you do see the error in the church as presented in an Anabaptist view, how much of your world, your job, your friends, your family, your co-workers your income, your lifestyle would you give up to follow Jesus? Consider these words;

In the same way, none of you can be my disciples unless you give up everything. [The words of Jesus in Luke 14:33]

The topics presented on this website are presented with the view that Christianity is obviously different today that in the New Testament.  I chose this book to show a longstanding and prevailing view of Christianity that accepts all of the denominations and divisions in our day and time.

The way Littell presents the challenge of the church returning to original Christianity it looks like an overwhelming, daunting task. To that, I simply refer to scripture.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Most certainly I say to you, a rich man will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven with difficulty. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into God’s Kingdom.” When the disciples heard it, they were exceedingly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” Looking at them, Jesus said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mat 19:23-26 WEB)

I honestly don’t know how it would work myself. I just know that God is in the business of doing the impossible.

[1] THE ANABAPTIST VIEW OF THE CHURCH, Franklin Hamlin Littell, Star King Press, Boston, 1958, p. 52
[2] ibid. p.55-56
[3] ibid. p.59
[4] ibid. p.63

revised 2/6/23

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