Who Is an Anabaptist?

from Issue #1, April 2016, page # 6

by James G. Landis

In 1927, the M.B. Bergey Company in Souderton, Pennsylvania, owned a hosiery mill that manufactured stockings for women.  According to my father, the Bergey company bought the name “Granite Hosiery” from a New York company for $10,000.  Think of it—$10,000 redeemable in one-ounce gold coins worth $20 each.  Those 500 gold coins today are worth $1200 each or $600,000 – for just a name!

Maybe the name “Granite Hosiery” was worth $600,000 because of what it represented.  Maybe not.  But our interest here is: What is a good name to describe a Bible-believing, Bible-practicing follower of Jesus in today’s world?  Is “Anabaptist” a good name to describe such a believer?

So what does the name “Anabaptist” mean to us?  Who is an Anabaptist? First, I shall define who an Anabaptist is by looking at what the historic Anabaptists believed and practiced in the sixteenth century.  Then I will discuss what it means to be an Anabaptist today.

Historic Anabaptism

Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. – Acts 8:4

When we attempt to define historic Anabaptism, we must note that “Anabaptist” was a name given to a people by their enemies.  To be called an “Anabaptist” smeared the person and marked him as uncooperative, a rebellious citizen, and a heretic.  “Anabaptist” was a bad name and often brought on hiding, exile, imprisonment, confiscation of property, torture, and death.  Anabaptists expected such suffering and called it “cross-bearing.”

We are proposing that three sets of “B”s stand out in the historic Swiss Anabaptist movement that began in 1525:

Believer Baptism, Bible Believer & Brotherhood Belt

1. Believer Baptism        

Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  – Matthew 4:17

Believer baptism lay at the very core of Anabaptism.  In 1525, six adult brethren baptized each other upon their own confession of faith.  Their confessions and vows meant these brethren would surrender their lives to Christ and follow Him.  To the early Anabaptists, baptism marked the beginning of a new and changed life that included repentance, surrender, and obedience.  To them, baptism could not mean just a verbal commitment, but rather a life-changing event.  From then on, they had the will to live in obedience to the Word of God under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism marked the beginning of a new life.

This “rebaptism” meant these brethren had rejected their baptism as infants, as well as the authority of the Reformed and the Catholic churches to rule over their lives.  Instead, they sought to establish a New Testament church based on the supreme authority of the Word of God.  This revolutionary heresy tore apart the fabric of their society in which the priests, preachers, princes, and popes claimed divine authority to make the Word of God whatever they wanted it to be.  The rite of a believer baptism signified to everyone the rejection of state and state-church authority to govern matters of conscience.

Therefore, in the sixteenth century, to be called an Anabaptist meant that one had been baptized upon a voluntary confession of faith instead of as an infant.  There is a huge difference between the two baptisms.  The meaning of a believer baptism lay in the voluntary vow, while the significance of infant baptism lay in an act by a priest.  “Rebaptism” denied the validity of infant baptism and the very grace it supposedly conferred upon the innocent head. Thus believer baptism fired the soul of historic Anabaptists.

2. Bible Believer          

You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. – John 15:14

Think what it would be like if the only Bible available were in Latin.  What would it be like if the only people trained to read Latin were clerics, monks, and scholars?  How ready would you be to trust the rulers to correctly dispense the truth to you, especially if rich officials living openly corrupt lives demanded subservience and built cathedrals that took hundreds of years to build?

In such discouraging times, God inspired Johann Gutenberg, and others using his invention, to print Bibles. Then God raised up scholars like Zwingli, Manz, and Grebel who could study the Bible in the original languages.   God appointed others, such as Luther and Tyndale, to translate the Bible into English, German, and Dutch.

Suddenly copies of the Bible became available in the native languages at a price many could afford.  Now even peasants could read the Word of God.  They took it in simple childlike faith to mean what it said.  They obeyed its teachings and commandments.  Many peasants learned to read so they could do like the Bereans and see if the new things they were hearing were true.

The Bible stood at the center of Anabaptist faith as the rock upon which they built their practice.  Their simple interpretation of the New Testament as teaching to be obeyed and put into practice set them apart from all the other reformers—Luther, Knox, Calvin, Zwingli.

To become an Anabaptist meant disregarding state and church authority and placing their supreme trust in the Word of God (Jesus).  Believers no longer attended the state church services, refused to have their babies baptized, refused military service, declined serving as civil officers, and ordained, married, and baptized without the sanction of the state or the organized church.

The Anabaptists were not attempting to reform the unscriptural Catholic church; they were building the kingdom of Christ on earth.  That kingdom was, above all, a peaceable kingdom where men did not join armies to kill, steal, and destroy.  Every believer was to be part of a holy kingdom where all believers were expected to live a pure life free from drunkenness, fornication, and swearing.  Anabaptists separated themselves from the world and the civil and religious governments that ruled by force.

With the open Bible before them and their simple faith, both the learned and the unlearned among them were unafraid to debate with and challenge the priests and nobles of their day.  The Bible gave Anabaptists a surety that made them willing to suffer and die for the Kingdom of Christ.

3. Brotherhood Belt    

Your love for one another proves to the world that you are my disciples. – John 13:35

To become a hated Anabaptist ushered in a sense of brotherhood familiar only to those who looked at the New Testament churches as models to be copied.  This brotherhood of being one in Christ was something distinctly radical to the Catholic and Reformed churches of Switzerland.

Among the believers, a great need arose for the strength of the body.  They yearned to be together to hear the teaching of the Word, to feel the power of song, and to share the joys and sorrows of life with one another—in caves, in houses, in barns, and in forests—a fellowship they never found in the majestic cathedrals.

They established an alms fund to help the needy among them.  Collectively, they shared what they had to help those remaining behind while loved ones suffered confiscation of their goods, exile, imprisonment, torture, and death.  Though many Anabaptists suffered terribly under torture, they still refused to divulge the names and whereabouts of their brethren.

In the beginning, there was no formal church government to organize this movement.  Most of the early leaders were martyred or died soon after they took up the cause.  It is true that some believers who followed men and left Biblical obedience went astray.  Some like the Munsterites used force in an attempt to set up the kingdom of God on earth and thus gave the Anabaptist movement a bad name.  But as a whole, the movement was directed by Biblical obedience and local leadership rather than by centralized authority.

Anabaptists rejected a distinct line of ascending authority such as that practiced by the Catholics—priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and pope.  Anabaptists knew one another as “brethren” and called their ministers and deacons to serve the brotherhood as equals, rather than calling leaders to positions of authority, power, and wealth.  Servants came from the local brotherhood.  Yes, the writings of Menno Simons and others did give some direction to the churches, but the writings had no church power to force its decisions on the local congregations.  That authority came later in the movement, along with outstanding problems.

Anabaptists believed the New Testament teaching that errant sinners should be publicly put out of the brotherhood until they repented and could be lovingly restored.  That desire to maintain purity of life within Christ’s kingdom set Anabaptists apart from all the state churches, where sinful members could not be separated from a sinful world under the dominion of Satan.

The common belief in the kingdom of Christ and the practice of holy living united Anabaptists.  These brethren were also drawn together by horrible persecution which Satan stirred against them.  The result of these two forces created a strong brotherhood among the Anabaptists that stood distinctly separate from the world around them.

Anabaptism Today

You are our letter, … known and read by all men. – II Corinthians 3:2

We are attempting to define what an Anabaptist is today.  We have looked at three distinct aspects in the faith and practice of those who were first called Anabaptists.

1. Believer Baptism. All Anabaptists hold that baptism must be upon a confession of one’s faith as an adult.  Furthermore, baptism to an Anabaptist includes repentance, surrender, and obedience.  It is the beginning of a new life that includes the possibility of falling back into a life of sin.

These statements about believer baptism stand in contrast to a baptism that is only an event in infancy or adulthood where pardon and grace for sin are bestowed upon the individual by the pouring of water or submersion in it.  And then the event is over.  It is the difference between saying and doing.

The meaning of baptism to an Anabaptist is a lifelong vow to follow Jesus and keep His commandments.  It is not just saying; it is doing.

2. Bible Believer. An Anabaptist accepts the written Word of God as his final rule of faith and practice.  The Anabaptist views the New Testament as being God’s will for the present day church that is living in the Kingdom of God on earth — now.  This means that the teachings of the New Testament are to be put into practice and not relegated to some future age.

Some of the plain marks of this life are: a literal woman’s prayer veiling, a modest life style, honesty, non-resistance, Lord’s Day observance, the holy kiss, men as leaders, disciplined children, pure sexual life, and a secure family life.  These are only some of the things that set Anabaptists apart from the world and its allurements and mark them as different than most contemporary churches.

3. Brotherhood Belt.  Because Anabaptists are bound together as one under the Lordship of Christ, a special love for one another exists.  That love means self-sacrifice for the good of others in the church.  We call that special love “brotherhood.”

One belt of brotherhood stands for close-knit relationships and involvement in each other’s lives.  It means intertwined lives that share common joys, sorrows, experiences, hopes, goals, and resources.  It is close communion in everyday life where brethren really learn to know each other as soul mates, rather than in a shallow world of virtual existence.  Brotherhood to an Anabaptist is much more than a once-a-week meeting and an annual picnic.

Leadership to an Anabaptist means a plural servant ministry instead of a professional clergy.  We call our leaders “brothers” and “ministers” (servants), instead of “Reverend” or “Father.”  Jesus taught us to stay away from elevating leaders to positions of power where they lord it over the souls of others.   

Brotherhood binds Anabaptists together when danger threatens.  When Satan attacks a believer through sickness, storm, or persecution, the brotherhood is there to support him.  In need, a believer turns first to the brotherhood, rather than depending on insurance companies, government agencies, or community groups.

Brotherhood unites Anabaptists in a common desire to share our goods and the Gospel with those helpless suffering ones whether they are victims of disease, disaster, hunger, or war.  Our hearts and our hands go out to them.  For Jesus said, “If you see your brother in need and do not share your possessions with him, the love of God does not dwell in you (I John 3:17 PBV).

Practical Application:

Take up your cross daily and follow Me

 – Luke 9:23.

I am suggesting that the same “B”s that characterized an early Anabaptist—Believer Baptism, Bible Believer, Brotherhood Belt—also tell what an Anabaptist is today. Yet there is one thing quite different today from those early times.

In the 1500’s, “Anabaptist” was a name placed upon the believers by those seeking to destroy them.  In that time the name brought forth a vision of disgrace, suffering, and deliverance through death.

Today, to be called an Anabaptist does not automatically conjure bad images in the mind—burning crosses on your lawn, lynchings, police raids, jail time, or confiscation of property.  In most of the “Christian” world the name has been sanitized of most of its stigma.  It now designates in the mind of many people a respected, although somewhat peculiar religious group.

But what does “Anabaptist” mean to us who have chosen to use this name to describe who we are?

It seems to me that our weakness is fear of persecution.  As a result, we back off whenever society or the government passes out its ungodly decrees.  So we become quiet on health care, conscription, environmental decrees, insurance, war, and the judgment to come … lest we anger others and lose our privileges and subsidies.

We ought to pray for boldness to proclaim the Word of God as they did in Acts 4:29, come what may.  God heard their prayer and shook the walls of the place where they worshiped.  Then, “They spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).

Part of being an Anabaptist, an obedient disciple of Jesus, is persecution—hatred, threats, jail, hunger, injustice.  An Anabaptist should expect it, for Jesus said, “… the world hates you … If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20).

I ask then, “What does it mean to be an Anabaptist?”  Count the cost.  Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).  Are you ready to take up your cross every day and be called an “Anabaptist”?

~ JGL, Waynesboro, GA

Questions for Readers:

What practice should be added to help define Anabaptism?  Why?

Why do Anabaptists not experience much persecution today?

Should Anabaptists condemn sin by persons in government?

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