A Community of Believers In “The Transition Zone”

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In previous blogs under “the transition zone” thread, I have shown that the Anabaptists considered the life of discipleship to be the fundamental aspect of the Christian religion.  Obviously this life of discipleship, as defined by the Anabaptists, could not be lived in isolation.  When the Anabaptists spoke about discipleship, they also spoke to the need for a new society where the radical values of God’s kingdom could be put into practice.  For this reason the Anabaptists saw the need for a community of believers.  

Now, obviously, this community was not for everyone.  This community was for those who by repentance had placed themselves under the authority of God’s rule and were therefore disciples of Jesus Christ.  They were a “Believer’s Church.”[i]  This is a term that is considered offensive to many, especially in this age of ecumenism. Donald F. Durnbaugh says that the term “. . . smacks of partisanship and self-satisfaction.  It seems to regulate all not of that persuasion to the camp of the unbelievers.” Though it sounds rather presumptuous, the term “Believer’s Church,” with all its partisanship, is still a historically accurate way to describe Anabaptist ecclesiology.  Those from the “Believer’s Church” tradition “sincerely held that they were Believers in a sense in which they had to deny others.”[ii]  They contended that the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Reformation Church were not really the true church, but rather corrupt facsimiles.[iii]

In no place is this clearer than by their practice of Baptism.  While the Reformation traditions and the Roman Catholic Church baptized infants into their fellowship, the Anabaptists did not.  Only those who made a commitment to be a disciple were granted entrance into the church.  This prompted the Anabaptists to practice believer’s baptism.  This radically new understanding of the meaning of Baptism quickly became a symbol of this new ecclesiastical movement.[iv]  The Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformation churches sought to maintain a state church in which all were included because of their baptism as infants.  They postulated that a state church was necessary for a stable society.  In contrast, the Anabaptists were never concerned with forming a state church.  For them, the church was exclusively made up of those who had made a conscious decision to become a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Only by making such a decision could a person be baptized into the “Believer’s church.”  Since infants could not make such a decision, they could not be baptized into the church. It was in large part the Anabaptist’s practice of “Believer’s baptism” that caused so much antagonism between them and the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.  The leaders of the state church considered the rejection of “infant baptism” to be revolutionary, politically seditious, and a threat to society.  Their response was to order that all Anabaptists should be put to death.

While those who practice “Believer’s baptism” today are no longer burned at the stake, this practice still remains the primary doctrine that seems to separate the Believer’s Church from other expressions of the Christian faith.  What is at issue is not a question about the proper age for performing a baptism, but rather a profoundly different meaning of baptism and a radically different form of ecclesiology.  Baptism is not a peripheral issue, as many assert, but rather is the central question that “goes to the heart of the meaning of church and Christian commitment.”[v]

The Roman Catholic tradition understands baptism as a sacrament.  In this tradition, when the church administers baptism to an infant, the ritual becomes a means of grace by which the mark of original sin is covered, making it more likely that the child will become a follower of Christ as an adult.  The classical Reformation view is quite similar.  Like Roman Catholics, the Reformers viewed baptism as a means of grace.  That’s why they continued to practice infant baptism. Baptism serves to awaken faith in those whom God has elected or predestined to eternal salvation.[vi]  Through Baptism persons are accepted into the Christian community and conveyed the gift of new birth in Christ[vii]—a gift that will either be rejected or affirmed at confirmation.  Reformation leaders spoke about Baptism as a divinely instituted symbolic act combined with a word of promise about forgiveness that made it efficacious for the dispensing of grace.  

The Anabaptists’ response did not deny that children were privy to God’s grace, since God’s grace was given to all.  What they denied was that baptism either mediated grace or was a sign of God’s grace.  Instead, the Anabaptists said that baptism was a sign of Christian discipleship, a symbol of the individual’s response to God’s freely given grace.  Infant children, like all people, are beneficiaries of God’s grace.  Infant children, however, ought not be baptized because they cannot respond to that grace by committing themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.[viii]

Additionally, there are some supporters of infant baptism who deny any sacramental understanding of the act, instead saying that baptism symbolizes the covenant between God and the community of faith in which children are included.  Again, the Anabaptists affirmed that children ought to be included in the life of the community. What they rejected as unbiblical was the thought that baptism should be seen as some sort of baby dedication rather than as a sign of an individual’s decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Anabaptists believe that Christian baptism symbolizes an individual’s voluntary decision to respond to the grace of God by becoming a disciple of Jesus.  Commitment to Jesus as Lord, therefore, is the only prerequisite to entering the waters of baptism.  But such commitment is not without cost.  First, individuals must confess and repent of their sins.  Such a confession is offered in a spirit of both humility and celebration—humility because of a personal failure, but celebration in the knowledge that God loves and forgives.  Additionally a person must also confess faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, placing himself or herself under the authority of Christ teachings and the accountability of the community.[ix]  As Manz, Grebel and the others were baptized, they made such a commitment as they pledged themselves to a life of discipleship and Christian community.

Aspects of Christian Community

In general, a community is a group of individuals held together by a common center, focus, interests, laws, and direction. Community can be centralized around just about anything—a charismatic individual, a political ideology, a powerful adversary, or a philanthropic cause.  This being the case, community can be judged as either negative or positive, depending on its center.

For Christian disciples, community is centered on Jesus Christ. The Christian community is made up of individuals who are drawn together by a common commitment to follow Jesus Christ.  Arts Gish writes of the centrality of Jesus Christ in the Christian community, saying, “He is the basis, the cohesive force, the guide, and the goal of Christian community.  He is Lord, President, and Chairman.  He draws us to Himself.  We follow Him.  His is our rock, our salvation.”[x]  Engendering a warm sense of congeniality or feelings of community is not itself the focus of the church.  Rather the focus of the church as a Christian community is on the collective decision to follow the Jesus Christ as the Lord. 

What are some of the more important aspects of the Christian community in the Anabaptist tradition?  Only a few can be mention here.

First, Christian community is purely voluntary.  Speaking of Christian community, Harold S. Bender writes, “Voluntary church membership based upon true conversion and involving a commitment to holy living and discipleship was the absolutely essential heart of this concept.”[xi]  Of course, this stands in stark opposition to the idea of the church maintained by the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformers who envisioned a church made up of an entire population by virtue of infant baptism and by coercive force.

If the heart of the Christian religion is discipleship, then the church of Jesus Christ, the Anabaptists reasoned, ought to be made up only of those who were disciples.  Infants could not be baptized into the Christian community because they could not make a decision to become followers of Jesus.  Compulsory religious laws enforced by the dictates of the state were rejected because they infringed upon the individual’s right to voluntarily decide whether to become a follower of Jesus.

Second, Christian community is a visible manifestation of the kingdom of God.  Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms, once likened God’s kingdom to a demonstration plot.  A demonstration plot is a parcel of land dedicated to the production of a new crop to see how it might grow in a given environment.  Jordan says that this was God’s purpose for the church.  The church is a demonstration plot for God’s kingdom—a community of faith demonstrating to the world what it means to be a follower of Jesus.[xii]

Paul Minear identifies four major motifs in the New Testament that describe the church.  These are:  the people of God, the new humanity, the fellowship of believers, and the body of Christ.[xiii]  Each images points to a visible community of people who demonstrate, by their corporate life, their obedience to God.  These images are the biblical foundation for the Anabaptists’ understanding of the church as a visible community.  Paul M. Lederach writes:

For them the church was a called-out group, a holy people, visible because of the quality of life lived as followers of Jesus Christ.  The Anabaptists saw the church as the body of Christ, not as invisible, lost in the masses, but as a group of holy brethren and sisters, highly visible because of their life of love and holiness.[xiv]

A third aspect of the Anabaptist idea of the Christian community was that the church could express a visible witness to the world was by sharing possessions so that the needs of others could be met. In reading the New Testament Anabaptists saw that the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost prompted the early disciples to “share all things in

common” (cf. Acts 2:44-47).  Because they sought to pattern their communal life after the model established in the New Testament, the Anabaptist communities were marked by a propensity to share with one another.  In fact, in AD 1557, a Swiss Brethren community in Strasbourg asked baptismal candidates whether “if necessity required it, they would devote all their possession to the service of the brotherhood and would not fail any member that is in need, if they were able to render aid.”[xv]

What was the motivation for sharing?  Quite simply, sharing was a natural response to the love they knew in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ had given up all that he possessed to bring humankind salvation.[xvi]  Since they have experienced such love, Christians are in the process of being liberated from selfishness and greed.  The natural response to such liberation is to love and care for others.  Such visible expressions of love were not merely items for speculative consideration, but were actually put into practice.[xvii]  Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier said:

Concerning community of goods, I have always said that everyone should be concerned about the needs of others, so that the hungry might be fed, the thirsty given drink, and the naked clothed.  For we are not lords of our possessions, but stewards and distributors.[xviii]

In the fourth place, the Christian community is also nonconformist.  In other words, it stands apart from the values, morals, and principles of the world.  A nonconforming community is the unavoidable result of a voluntary fellowship of person committed to demonstrating the values of the kingdom of God by their life together. Art Gish writes:

The people of God are those who have left all to follow Jesus.  Because they have a different Lord their whole existence stands in contrast to the world around them.  Their relation to the world is one of the marks of their new life in Christ.


The New Testament describes God’s people as strangers. Pilgrims, and aliens.  We are strangers in that we do not feel at home here.  We are pilgrims, for we are on our way to a new city.  We are aliens, for our citizenship is in another kingdom.  We are exiles who can accept no privileged position in society.  We have different values from those who have a settled life.[xix]

In a sense, the principle of nonconformity is simply a “negative expression of the positive requirement of discipleship.”[xx]  Additionally, the principle of nonconformity goes further to set up a boundary between the Christian community and worldly society.  The world cannot accept the practices of true Christians in its society, while the church cannot embrace worldly values among its membership.[xxi]  As a manifestation of God’s kingdom, then, Christian community stands as an expression of judgment against the status quo.  The Christian community marches to the beat of a different drum.  While worldly society caters to the whims of the rich and famous, the Christian community expresses God’s partiality for the poor.  When the world calls people to become warriors against an enemy, the Christian community follows the call of Christ to become peacemakers.  In a society that operates largely on the principles of power politics and coercive force, the Christian community operates on the ideals of humility and sacrificial love.  Because of its unwavering loyalty to the kingdom of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the Christian community always exists in tension with the powers and principalities of this world.  The more they openly follow Jesus Christ as Lord, the more likely they are to run the risk of being separated from the larger society. 

A fifth aspect of Christian community for the Anabaptists was that the church was the focus of God’s redeeming work in earth.  Anabaptists found themselves in basic agreement with the phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus.[xxii]  For the Anabaptist, salvation was understood in terms of becoming a member of the “household of God,” or experiencing “baptism into the body of Christ.”  Salvation meant becoming a part of “the family of God,” or a citizen of God’s new “nation” or “people” (cf. Romans 8:23; 12:1; Eph. 2:11-19; 4; Col. 2:19, and 1 Peter 2:9).  It must be noted that all these biblical images are corporate in nature.  For the Anabaptist, salvation was a corporate matter, not private or individualistic. 

This soteriological theory stands in opposition to both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformation views of salvation.  In the case of Catholicism, salvation “progressively became equated with the gift of immortal life and freedom from the penalty of sin.”  As such, the church eventually became perceived as the “agent of salvation.”  Through the consecration of the sacraments the “guilt of sin could be relieved and escape from deserved penalty assured.”  For the Roman Catholic tradition, extra ecclesiam nulla salus combined with a sacramental view of grace, placed the keys of salvation in the possession of the institutional church.[xxiii]

The Protestant reformers rejected the tendency of Catholicism to link the redeeming work of God to the institution of the church. For them, salvation was a purely supernatural act, “an inward spiritual transaction (justification) which could not be directly related to ethical behavior and human relationships.”[xxiv]  As such, the identity of the truly saved were known only to God.  This being the case, salvation seems to becomes merely an intellectual exercise and the true church was considered an “invisible” community of the truly saved that theoretically existed within the larger institutional church.[xxv] 

In the soteriological views of both the Roman Catholic church and Protestant Reformation church, the social dynamic of biblical salvation is lost.  C. Norman Kraus writes,

Rather than an experience of God’s renewal and life together in a visible community of God’s people, salvation was seen as a private transaction.  Rather than including psychological and ethical renewal, salvation was largely restricted to the intellectual (correct thinking) and to the religious aspects of life.  Since the “spiritual” is a discreet, private category known only to God, life together in the Christian congregation was lived under the umbrella of orthodox doctrine and sacrament.[xxvi]

The Anabaptists offered a third view of salvation.  Quite simply, they suggested that “salvation by grace through faith” should be “understood in terms of new birth, conversion, and life in the visible body of Christ.”[xxvii]  Jesus provided the gift of salvation, but this salvation is realized in its fullness within the community he came to establish.  Salvation is neither a matter of receiving the sacraments nor confessing orthodox doctrines—it is a matter of becoming a part of a community where Jesus Christ is present as Savior and followed as Lord.  In such a community Christian disciples are formed; the Holy Spirit is present; God is honored and worshipped, mutual aid and support are experienced; and persons are freed from their bondage to sin.  For the Anabaptists salvation by grace involved a commitment to live life as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ within a community of fellow disciples.  While the Protestant reformers said, “the just shall live by faith,” Anabaptist leader Menno Simons said, “the just shall live their faith.”[xxviii]  Speaking to the social dynamic of Anabaptist soteriology, Robert Friedmann writes,

Now, then, the central idea of Anabaptism, the real dynamite in the age of Reformation, as I see it, was this, that one cannot find salvation without caring for his brother, that this ‘brother’ actually matters in the personal life . . . This interdependence of men gives life and salvation a new meaning.  It is not ‘faith alone’ which matters (for which faith no church organization would be needed) but it is the brotherhood, this intimate caring for each other, as it was commanded to the disciples of Christ as the way to God’s kingdom.  That was the discovery which made Anabaptism so forceful and outstanding in all church history.[xxix]

Last, but not least, the Anabaptists viewed the Christ-centered community as the place where followers of the Jesus Christ were nurtured in their commitment to discipleship.  The Anabaptists believed that baptism and church membership was not the end of the redemption process, but rather its beginning.  A new birth implied a new life to be lived.  Baptism and church membership were merely the first steps on a journey that would encompass the individual’s remaining life.  The Christian community was to be present to guide a person in the ways of discipleship for the remainder of his or her life.[xxx]

Anabaptists believe that Christian community nurtures disciples in two ways.  First, it provides a place for spiritual growth, support, fellowship, worship, study, and corporate ministry—in keeping with the model established in the Book of Acts. The Anabaptists believe that such positive communal disciplines are necessary to inspire those who take seriously their commitment to Christ.  They recognize that each individual is limited in his or her ability to understand and apply the Christian faith.  Helmut Harder writes, “A community of people helps us to understand biblical passages and to decide upon good courses of action.”[xxxi] 

Second, the Anabaptists believe that Christian community nurtures disciples by correcting them when they have gone astray.  This aspect of church discipline was the second article in Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession of AD 1527:

We are agreed as follows on the ban:  The ban shall be employed with all those who have given themselves to the Lord, to walk in His commandments, and with all those who are baptized into the one body of Christ and who are called brethren or sister, and yet who slip sometimes and fall into error or sin, being inadvertently overtaken.  The same shall be admonished twice in secret and the third time openly disciplined or banned according to the command of Christ.  Matthew 18.  But this shall be done in according to the regulation of the Spirit before the breaking of bread, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup.[xxxii]

The idea of church discipline is the most misunderstood aspects of Anabaptist ecclesiology, primarily because it has been the most misused. There was a tendency among many Anabaptist groups to use the ban in a highly punitive, legalistic and negative fashion.[xxxiii]

Used appropriately, the Anabaptists’ practice of church discipline was an invaluable tool in the formation of Christian disciples.  Church discipline reminded each member of the community that the pattern for discipleship was not a matter of personal preference, but of fidelity to Christ’s example.  The aim of church discipline was not punitive punishment, but rather a process of calling  the fallen person to repentance and reconciliation.  The purpose of church discipline was not to hold individuals captive, but to free them from their sin so that they could more faithfully follow Christ.  The Anabaptists recognized that not only was the individual a witness to the gospel, but also the community.  As such both the individual and the community had to be seen as faithful to the high moral and ethical standards of the reign of God.[xxxiv]

[i] The term “Believer’s Church” was first used to describe the Anabaptist and Quakers by sociologist Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. T. Parsons (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 144-45.

[ii] Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church, ix.

[iii] The Anabaptists rejected the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformation notion of an “invisible church” of “earnest Christians”  which could be found within the larger institution called the church.  Rather, the Anabaptist affirmed only a “visible church” made up only of  “true believers.”  For the Anabaptist, the church was visible, “not because it embraced all people, but because it could be identified by the quality of the lives of those who are in it.” Lederach, A Third Way, 40.

[iv] William R.  Estep, The Anabaptist Story.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 145.

[v] Arthur G. Gish, Living in Christian Community, (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1979), 194.

[vi] Ted A. Campbell, Christian Confessions:  A Historical Introduction.  (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminister John Knox Press, 1996), 176.

[vii] Ibid., 179.

[viii] Ibid., 198.

[ix] Marlin Jeschke, Discipling in the Church:  Recovering a Ministry of the Gospel, (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1988), 69-73.

[x] Gish, Living in Christian Community, 34.

[xi] Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, 26.

[xii] Clarence Jordan, The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons By Clarence Jordan, ed. Dallas Lee, (New York:  Association Press, 1972), 56-61.

[xiii] Minear offers 96 New Testament images for the church but suggests that these four encompass the main themes of the church.  Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1960).

[xiv] Lederach, The Third Way, 41-42.

[xv] Quoted in Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church, 269.

[xvi] See Philippians 2:5-11.

[xvii] Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, 31.

[xviii] Quoted in Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church, 269.

[xix] Gish, Living in Christian Community, 276-292.

[xx] Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, 28.

[xxi] The Anabaptist motto for nonconformity is II Corinthians 6:17 which reads “come out from them, and be separate from them.” 

[xxii] “Outside the church no salvation”—attributed to Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, and quoted in C. Norman Kraus, The Community of the Spirit: How the Church is in the World, (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1993), 103.

[xxiii] Kraus, The Community of the Spirit, 103.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Lederarch, A Third Way, 77.

[xxvi] Kraus, The Community of the Spirit, 104.

[xxvii] Ibid., 106.

[xxviii] Quoted in Kraus, The Community of the Spirit, 106.

[xxix] Robert Friedmann, “On Mennonite Historiography and on Individualism and Brotherhood,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 18 (April 1944): 121.

[xxx] Gish, Living in Christian Community, 133-171.

[xxxi] Harder, Guide to Faith, 101.

[xxxii] Quoted in J.C. Wenger, The Mennonite Quarterly Review, (July 1945): 244-45.

[xxxiii] Jeschke, Discipline in the Church, 135.

[xxxiv] See Jeschke, Discipline in the Church and Gish, Living in Christian Community, 137-171.

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