(Image caption: Woodcut image of the Peasant’s Revolt. A number of early Anabaptist leaders were involved in such uprisings.)
by Greg Thiessen
This semester I have the privilege of teaching Anabaptist History and Thought at Columbia Bible College. As I have been preparing for the course, it strikes me yet again how full of conflict our Anabaptist heritage is. We often think about the conflict between the early Anabaptists and other Christians of the 16th Century – both Protestants and Catholics – and how horribly the Anabaptists were persecuted.
What we fail to reflect on are all the conflicts and divisions among Anabaptists themselves. It was by no means a unified movement, and along with religious zeal and pursuits of purity and correct biblical (and/or spiritual) teaching came disagreements, excommunications (the Ban), and schisms. Key leaders like Michael Sattler and Hans Denck, Wilhelm Reublin and Jacob Wiedemann, Balthasar Hubmaier and Hans Hut, and even Menno Simons and David Joris butted heads and opposed one another. These conflicts often resulted in banishments or schisms rather than reconciliation and unity. While some were pacifist in the sense of not taking up arms – and this was by no means a universal trait – there was widely a great failure of peace. I mean peace here in the biblical sense of shalom – reconciliation with God, one another, creation, and oneself. Thankfully, Menno Simons’ pastoral heart and the recoil from the Munster debacle (where Anabaptists took the city by force as the New Jerusalem, held public executions to maintain control, and were in the end massacred) brought some more stability to Anabaptist radicalism. Nevertheless, disagreements and schisms have continued throughout Mennonite history under the pursuit of purity in the visible church.
Today, I believe we have embraced much of the good and rejected much of the bad from our heritage. I know, for example, of none of our MCBC churches actively practicing the Ban. There are other areas, however, where we are blind to how our heritage shapes us. While we acclaim a pacifist stance, we often fail to live out peace. Guided by our genuine pursuit of purity, we can oppress others who also seek to follow Christ, but have come to different understandings. While we may not do physical harm to one another, we can do emotional and spiritual harm as our words can be incredibly militant. While passion for God’s Kingdom is good – let us pursue words and ways of building up that Kingdom with conviction and love instead of using our words as a way to dominate and suppress others.
To help us navigate our common pursuit of Christ and his peace, I would like to encourage us as a denomination to be historically mindful. When we are familiar with our Anabaptist and broader Christian heritage – not just the exemplary points, but also the lamentable – we will hopefully be humbled in our own opinions and become more charitable and peaceable to one another. This will help us live into our MCBC theme for the year: Building Healthy Connections. We also gain a greater perspective to see Christ himself more clearly.
This coming October the Metzger Collection will be starting a feature exhibit on the Reformation in honour of the 500 Year Anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses on October 31st, 1517. Similar to the Anabaptist story in particular, the Reformation as a whole bears much to acclaim and celebrate, but also much to lament. We see a period in which people gain access to the Bible, where justification by faith is preached, and where corruptions are exposed. But we also see a period of division, turmoil, and violence. It is part of our story, and shapes our heritage, whether we are aware of it or not.