Anabaptists Roots- Part 1: Roman Catholic Ecclesiology

This serious of blog posts aims at developing a meaningful theology of evangelism in what I am calling “the transition zone” (referred to often in literature as post-modernity).  My belief if that a starting place for this theology is with an often overlooked vision of the church—that coming from the Anabaptist[i] tradition. 

For the blog posts for this week, I intend to provide a brief overview of the development of the Anabaptist ecclesiology, comparing and contrasting it with the two other major ecclesiastical traditions of Christianity—Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation.  The purpose is not to cast aspersion on either of these fine traditions (both of which have and will continue to go through their own internal reformations).  Rather our intention is to review the context out of which the Anabaptist was given birth.

The Roots of Anabaptist Ecclesiology

Anabaptist ecclesiology did not begin in a vacuum.  To understand this movement, it is necessary to examine it in relation to the ecclesiastical traditions from which it tried to differentiate itself—specifically the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation Church.

The Development of Roman Catholic Ecclesiology 

As we discover in the Acts of the Apostles, following the day of Pentecost the church of Jesus Christ experienced not only tremendous growth but also terrible persecution (cf. Acts 4:1-4; 5:17-42; 7:54-60; 8:1-3; 16:16-40; 19:23-41; 21:27-32; 23:12-15).  Cornelius J. Dyck has written:  “The baptism with water and by the Spirit was often followed by the baptism of blood—martyrdom.”[ii]  Persecution came from both the government and the religious establishment.  Despite this persecution, the missionary zeal of the early believers remained fervent.  The gospel rapidly spread and churches were established throughout Asia, India, Northern Africa, and even into Europe.

As the gospel message spread the intensity of the persecution subsided.  Political leaders began to see that the Christian leader Tertullian was correct when he said, “The blood of martyrs is seed.” Furthermore, due to the expansion of the church, civic leaders began to view Christians as a valuable constituency.  Political leaders began supporting the development of church structures they believed could prove beneficial to the state.

The developing tie between the church and the state took a quantum leap forward when Constantine became the emperor of Rome.  Early within his reign, Constantine was baptized into the Christian church.  Throughout the centuries, historians have questioned the genuineness of Constantine’s conversion.[iii]  What cannot be questioned is the effective manner in which he employed the power of the state to enforce the practices and doctrines of the Christian religion.   In AD 321, in appreciation of the church for its support, Constantine made Sunday an official day of rest. He wrote letters of instruction for members of the clergy.  He even entertained clerical leaders in his home at the expense of the state to increase further the synthesis between the church and state.[iv]   Why he did all this is a matter of debate, but the most likely suggestion is that Constantine recognized the political benefit of having a state religion to unify the declining Roman Empire.

Theologians of Constantine’s day sought to justify this synthesis between the church and the state.  The issue that needed constant attention was the conflict between the biblical understanding of the church as the body of Christ (Corpus Christi) and the secular view of the church as the whole of society (Corpus Christianum).  Perhaps the greatest theologian of this era was Augustine.  Augustine realized that Corpus Christianum did not express the biblical understanding of Church.  For this reason, he suggested there must be a band of truly faithful Christians hidden within Corpus Christianum.  He referred to these hidden believers as “the invisible church.”[v]  For many centuries, Augustine’s ecclesiastical formula effectively addressed the conflict between the biblical understanding of the church and the status quo of state church synthesis.

For a millennium the church and the state enjoyed the benefits of unification.  Though political leaders would come and go, and though the Roman Empire would eventually collapse, the importance of the synthesis between the church and state remained virtually unchallenged.  Political leaders used the church to unify their secular power base.  Religious leaders enjoyed the benefit of having their doctrines enforced by the might of the military.  With the decline of Rome the glory and greatness of the empire were slowly transferred to the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

While the synthesis between the Christian religion and the secular state might appear positive, it created tremendous problems in the Church.  First, the church faced the challenge of “bringing into its life masses of people who had become members without knowing it.”[vi]  Second, the witness of the church suffered as the persecuted church became the persecuting church instituting the Crusades to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims.  Third, the institutional church became increasingly materialistic—as illustrated by the practice of selling indulgences to earn the release of those in purgatory.  The selling of indulgences served as a rallying cry for Reformers who viewed the practice as a corruption of the church.  The greatest challenge for the church during this era was that it held to a sacramental understanding of salvation—allowing participation in religious rituals to become more important than sincere faith and obedience.  The Reformer’s critique was that the spiritual had become almost entirely objective and mechanical. 

The soteriological emphasis within the Roman Catholic Church was, to a large extent, centered on the reception of divine grace through God’s ordained sacramental institution—the church.  Roman Catholicism teaches that the church, as the earthly mediator of divine grace, was absolutely necessary for salvation.[vii]  Those outside the church were considered outside the sphere of the Spirit’s work since “he cannot have God for his Father who has not the church for his mother.”[viii]  Because the church was the body of Christ it could never be considered dispensable.  Roman Catholics believe that Christians constantly need the grace that only church supplies.[ix]  The ministry of the church, therefore, is to administer the sacraments:  baptism, confirmation, penance, ordination, marriage, the Eucharist, and extreme unction. The administration the sacraments is the means by which the church dispenses grace and participation in these rituals provides a person with salvation. Of the Roman Catholic tradition, Paul Lederach writes, “Salvation became a matter of pardon, not repentance and renewal.”[x]

[i] The word Anabaptist means “to re-baptize.”  Anabaptists believe that baptism is the first step in a life of Christian discipleship.  Early Anabaptists rejected the efficacy of their childhood baptism and were “re-baptized” as adults upon their confession of faith. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944); Paul M. Lederach, A Third Way, (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1980); Donald F. Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church:  The History and Character of Radical Protestantism. (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1985); and Franklin H. Littell, The Free Church, (Boston:  Star King Press, 1957).

[ii] Cornelius J. Dyck, A Introduction to Mennonite History, (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1993), 16.

[iii] Constantine was on his way toward world conquest when he had his so-called conversion experience.  In the story, Constantine looks up toward heaven, sees a cross, and hears a voice saying, “Conquer in this sign.”  See Lederach, A Third Way, 39;  and  J.G. Davies, The Early Christian Church:  A History of Its First Five Centuries, (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Baker Book House, 1965), 120. 

[iv] Davies, The Early Christian Church, 120.

[v] Lederach, A Third Way, 39-44.

[vi] Dyck, Mennonite History, 17.

[vii] Ted A. Campbell, Christian Confessions:  A Historical Introduction.  (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminister John Knox Press, 1996), 99.

[viii] This quotation is attributed to Irenaeus by Davies, The Early Christian Church, 144.

[ix] Campbell, Christian Confessions, 99.

[x] Lederach, The Third Way, 41.

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