The Anabaptist movement began in central Europe around 1525 with the desire of some to return to the faith expressed in the Scriptures. They saw that the death of Christ truly inaugurated a new covenant, and therefore the old law was not to be followed or used for doctrinal purposes. This stood in stark contrast to many other Protestant groups, who held that many of the laws under the covenant with Moses were still valid, either in their pure form or in a more “Christ-like” form. It was for this reason that they denied the need for infant baptism and stressed the need for what is known as “believer’s baptism,” that the individual is only baptized after believing in Christ himself. They were thus given the name “anabaptist,” or “re-baptizers.”
As discussed below, the Anabaptist movement began with three groups, the largest of which was named “Mennonite” after one of its most influential evangelists, Menno Simons, around the year 1536. Near the end of the seventeenth century, division occurred within one of the groups when Jacob Amman left the church because of perceived laxity concerning the “ban” on excommunicated members1. The group that followed him was known as the Amish, and these two groups represent the greatest portion of the Anabaptist movement today.
There is great diversity within the Anabaptist movement, especially concerning conformity (or the lack thereof) to technological and sociological developments and the interaction between church members and the state government. The Anabaptist movement is united, however, in its desire to conform to the pattern of the New Testament church. We can applaud the Anabaptists for their desire to return to the church of the New Testament; we appreciate this desire, although the goal was not fully met.
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The Anabaptist movement and its variants are exceedingly complex; therefore, a chart has been provided to assist in the understanding of the changes that have gone on since the sixteenth century.
The Anabaptists began in three different communities, the oldest of which is known as the Swiss Brethren. This group began in 1525, and it stressed the unity within the group (calling themselves brethren and not a church), the need for “believer’s baptism,” and nonconformity. Persecution by Calvinists and Roman Catholics kept this group very small. The Swiss Brethren still have a following today, although it is rather small compared to the other Anabaptist groups. The second group began as just the “Anabaptists,” when some from the Swiss Brethren began preaching in Germany. Three groups of these “Anabaptists” eventually developed and did so on cultural lines: the Dutch, the Frisian, and the Flemish. These are the groups that took on the name “Mennonite” after the 1530s because of the popularity of Menno Simons. The third group is known as the Hutterian Brethren, from Hans Hut, who preached in Germany in around 1528. His group emphasized the need for communal living and the sharing of property and goods for the welfare of the whole; this teaching would catch on in many Anabaptist groups in later times. The Hutterian Brethren is the only Anabaptist group that has not suffered schism, and many colonies exist today.
The first real division in an Anabaptist group came in 1697 between the Swiss Brethren and Jacob Amman, who believed that the “ban” on excommunicated members needed strict adherence. His opinion was not popular among the Brethren, and he left. Many followed him, and took on his name, coming to be known as the Amish.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw little division because of the persecution that the Anabaptist churches faced. They taught doctrines that did not conform to either church or state: infants need not be baptized, since adults do; Anabaptists should not go to war or cause any form of pain on anyone, since Jesus taught that one should turn the other cheek. The churches of the time, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, did not want to consider the loss of infant baptism, for then the future is not as secure; furthermore, the states of the time did not wish to support individuals who would not support the state militarily. The persecutions were the worst in the cities; therefore, the majority of the Anabaptists fled to rural areas, and became adept at farming. In order to survive, most Anabaptist groups either lived communally or made up the vast majority of the population in certain areas.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw easing of the persecution, and tensions began to form. By this time, many of the Anabaptist groups had moved to North America, in Canada and the United States, and the tolerance provided to them caused internal conflict. The Anabaptists no longer needed to live separately in their own communes or cities, and some groups resisted conformity within new societies. This caused division in both the Amish and the Mennonite churches: among the Amish, many churches drifted from the former patterns and became the “Amish Mennonite” church in the latter half of the nineteenth century, while the “conservative” Amish became known as the “Old Order” Amish. Another wave of separation occurred in the early twentieth century when Moses Beachy did not disassociate from Amish who left to become part of the Mennonite churches; this group is known as the Beachy Mennonite Amish.
In the end, the Amish Mennonites had fewer problems with English or the technology of the nineteenth century, and all eventually joined the Mennonite Church. The Mennonite division came in the 1870s, with the “Old Colony” and “Old Order” Mennonites splitting off due to their allegiance to the communal way of life and the use of German. Both the Old Order Amish and the Old Colony Mennonites are known for their simplistic way of living, their farming ability, and their embrace of community over technology.
Another division within the Mennonite body came from external sources. The eighteenth century saw the creation of the Pietist movement in Germany, which focused on the spirit in man. They placed emphasis not on Scripture alone, but also on the conversion process within the individual and the work of the Spirit within him afterward. Some of the preachers of this movement began to preach to some in the Mennonite groups in Russia, and some of these began to add the Pietistic beliefs to their Mennonite heritage. This group also had contact with the Baptists, who believed that baptism was immersion; they added this to their belief also. This group is known as the Mennonite Brethren Church, began officially in 1859.
Other divisions occurred in this time over external doctrines and internal schism, creating the smaller Reformed Mennonite Church and Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. The end of the nineteenth century saw the formation of two groups that would eventually represent the majority of the Mennonite church, the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC). The difference between the two groups is based on evangelism, with the GCMC placing greater emphasis on it than the MC.
One of the practices that unite many of the Anabaptist groups is nonresistance2. Nonresistance is the belief that one should not physically fight against an opponent, but should be at peace with all men. This is based on the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-39:
“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’ but I say unto you, resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
There is certainly no problem with not wishing to fight against another; unfortunately, however, some Anabaptists have taken this belief to the point of withholding their tax money because of the warlike actions of the state3. Concerning the government, Paul says the following in Romans 13:7:
Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
We see no evidence that Paul is telling Christians to only pay taxes when the funds do not go for the expenses of war; likewise, we can be confident that the money that Paul and the early Christians would have paid in taxes went to the building up of the Roman army. Nevertheless, we are still to pay taxes, so that our earthly protector in the government may continue.
Some Anabaptist groups, particularly the Hutterites, practice communalism, which represents having all believers living in a commune, having all goods and possessions in common. This belief is based on the early church in Acts 2:42-48 that did the same and also the political condition of the Anabaptists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: excluded from society and/or persecuted, many groups had to come together in order to survive. There is nothing wrong with a communal lifestyle; unfortunately, their self-imposed isolation has made many exclusionary, looking at all outsiders as threats, and some have the belief that the communistic life is the only life to live4. What do the Scriptures teach?
As Christians, we do have a responsibility not to be conformed to this world, as Paul says in Romans 12:1-2:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
We are not supposed to be completely excluded from the world, however, or else no one else would be saved, emphasized by Jesus in Matthew 5:14-16 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10:
“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
I wrote unto you in my epistle to have no company with fornicators; not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous and extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.
The true Christians will live so as to glorify God to all mankind, and not live apart, viewing non-members as outsiders that pose a threat.
Concerning communalism in the New Testament, we see that it was done in Jerusalem after Pentecost, most probably because the former Jews who heard the Gospel while visiting Jerusalem for Pentecost had nowhere to stay and little money to survive, and it was necessary to support them with the goods of the other Christians. We know that this situation was temporary, for we see the following in Acts 8:1:
And Saul was consenting unto his death. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.
This is the last that we hear of a communal living environment in the Scriptures. Christians had strong bonds with each other and would help each other in a time of need (cf. the famine in Judea, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15), but did not hold all things in common. Communal living is therefore not the only pattern of life that the Christian has been given in the Scriptures, and God has never bound communal living upon His children as a necessity.
Some parts of the Anabaptist movement, the “Old Orders” especially (Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonite, Old Colony Mennonite), have clung to many traditions concerning dress, lifestyle, language, and other factors5. Many believe that their way of life is simpler and thus more “biblical” than modern life and appreciate their traditions: they wish to keep the old languages (generally German), to wear the clothing worn in the seventeenth centuries, and to use the machinery used then. For others, the choices are made on the basis of maintaining community and to remain distinct from the outside world. If all members consent to such a lifestyle, there is nothing inherently wrong with it; unfortunately, those who attempt to leave this system are often excommunicated and banned over these traditions.
We do have Scriptural commentary on such things. Paul says the following in Romans 14:1-4:
But him that is weak in faith receive ye, yet not for decision of scruples. One man hath faith to eat all things: but he that is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth set at nought him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest the servant of another? to his own lord he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be made to stand; for the Lord hath power to make him stand.
Paul here is discussing the division in Rome over the cleanliness of certain foods, but the principle is the same: in issues where God has not bound, one has the liberty to perform the action or to not perform the action, but the one who does not perform the action (the “weak”) does not have the right to judge the one who does (the “strong”). By not accepting those who do not accept their old traditions, these groups are working against Paul’s prayer in Romans 15:5-7:
Now the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of the same mind one with another according to Christ Jesus: that with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, even as Christ also received you, to the glory of God.
Acceptance needs to be based on righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17), not on the language used or the clothes worn. It would be good to remember the words of John in 2 John 1:9:
Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son.
The focus of many of these groups on community and the Christian life is commendable in many ways, yet the means by which these goals are accomplished are at odds with the greater mission of Christians in Christ. Jesus indicates not only that Christians are to be lights of the world and a city set on a hill but also a light on a lampstand for all to see (Matthew 5:13-16). Christians, as much as they are able, also ought to emulate Paul in being “all things to all men, that by all means [we] may save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). If we demonstrate ourselves as so distinct in matters of liberty so that we have no common ground with our fellow man, how can we win them over? The overall failure of many of these conservative communities to engage in evangelism proper demonstrates the Biblical difficulties with this lifestyle (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 1:16). We indeed are to not be of the world and we are not to be conformed to the world (1 John 2:15-17, Romans 12:2); nevertheless, we have a responsibility to remain within the world so as to lead others to salvation (1 Corinthians 5:10). This is a difficult path to follow, but going to either extreme will not help us conform to Jesus!
1: The “ban” refers to the ban on fellowship with excommunicated individuals according to 1 Corinthians 5. Mennonites have wavered many times on the strictness of the ban, whether it dealt with complete ostracization or if family members could still hold to their physical ties despite one breaking the spiritual tie.
2: from Cornelius Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, pp. 412-413
3: an example is in ibid., p. 143
4: an example is in ibid., p. 407
5: Ibid., pp. 238, 307