Tag Archives: Anabaptist

Spiritual Health and Patience with the Church

by Terry M. Smith

After decades of studying wider Church and Anabaptist-Mennonite history, I suggest that a few words on any period of church history are inadequate for later generations to accurately assess the spiritual health of their predecessors. Often there were problems, yet I suspect there was also more spiritual health than is sometimes acknowledged. Continue reading Spiritual Health and Patience with the Church

Terry Smith: Using Google Without Getting Lost

by Terry M. Smith

Pastors Mike Funk and Garry Koop are thoughtful people with a genuine concern. Put another way: when it comes to Christian Education in our churches, is the EMC at risk of getting lost on Google?

Mike Funk, when a youth pastor at Ridgewood EMC, wanted to see the EMC develop a Sunday School curriculum that would be standard across our churches. Garry Koop, senior pastor at Steinbach EMC, recently sought to develop a Sunday School curriculum based on our EMC Statement of Faith to serve a range of ages. Both have sound desires as pastors: to assist our churches in Sunday School.

The Internet allows EMC pastors to search out all sorts of materials. Our leaders will evaluate and use them as they see fit. The EMC can no more compete with all that’s available there than our few offerings for sale can compete with what’s on Amazon. Yet something is missing if a person listens to an online sermon instead of sitting in a congregation; something else is missed if materials specifically designed for our churches are overlooked.

We can’t produce a lot of materials, but this makes the ones developed more significant. The reality is that from idea to completion, a Sunday School quarterly could take two to three years to complete; and this does not begin to cover a range of ages (nor provide a new quarterly for a few months down the road or next year). The EMC is too small to cover all of its bases—in people power, time, and finances.

Recognising this, we assist churches in three ways: we develop occasional materials, suggest where Anabaptist materials might be found, and recommend that pastors and teachers adjust the materials they use to reflect Evangelical Anabaptist concerns.

As for quarterly materials, working with the CMC and EMMC, the EMC recently produced Holy Wanderings: A Guide to Deeper Discipleship (2019) and a new baptismal/membership guide Living in God’s Kingdom (2016). By the way, The Christian Life: A Practical Study Guide remains available, and has been updated in 2019, for leaders and churches who prefer it. Earlier, in 2006, the EMC produced Follow Me: Exploring More of Our Calling as Christians; the material remains relevant and free copies are available. How much of this material has your church used?

Terry M. Smith

For wider sources of Anabaptist materials, pastors and Sunday School superintendents might check out materials produced by MennoMedia, Christian Light Publications, and The Meeting House (the BICC mega-church in Ontario). Fort Garry EMC has produced materials on our ancient-modern faith.

As for recommending that pastors and teachers adjust the materials they use to reflect Evangelical Anabaptist concerns, in the end the decision is made by the leaders. Individual churches and the conference as a whole place a great deal of trust in our leaders’ abilities to discern and sift. We do this within a framework of a shared Statement of Faith and a commitment to work together as a conference. May the Lord guide us well.

PTS: Evangelicals and the Anabaptists to be Explored on Jan. 7-11 [Course cancelled by a lack of students.]

To assist all Anabaptist conferences whose members train at PTS

by EMC

OTTERBURNE, Man.—The next course offered at Providence Theological Seminary in connection with its new Anabaptist Studies Track is Evangelicals and the Anabaptists (January 7-11, 2019) with Dr. Darryl Klassen.

The Anabaptist Studies Track itself was launched on Feb. 22, 2018, at a campus dessert night with community members and Mennonite conference and Providence representatives in attendance.

Dr. Layton Friesen, the AST director, outlined the new major within the Master of Divinity program. It consists of five related courses, an internship in an Anabaptist setting, and a thesis (if that project is chosen) on an Anabaptist theme.

The courses deal with Radical Reformation history, thought, and practice; Evangelicalism and Anabaptism; contemporary Anabaptism and theologians; global Anabaptism; and Anabaptist perspectives on community, social justice, pacifism, and the state.

All students can take the courses, not only those in the MDiv program, for credit (graduate and undergraduate) or audit. The five courses will be taught as week-long intensives and offered over a three-year cycle.

The relationship between Anabaptism and Evangelicalism was explored by Dr. Friesen and Dr. Patrick Franklin, who then taught systematic theology and ethics. The relationship was seen as challenging, overlapping, and mutually enriching.

Two people led in prayers of dedication for the program: Dr. Lissa Wray Beal, chair of PTS’s Bible and theology department, and Terry Smith, an EMC minister who works in the EMC national office.

Before praying, Smith said he wished three EMC people were in attendance: Ben D. Reimer, Archie Penner, and Susanne Plett. Earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s, they chose despite criticism to study at Providence (then Winnipeg Bible Institute). They would be pleased to see this event, he said.

Reimer became the president of Steinbach Bible Institute (now College) and promoted church planting in Canada. Penner became the first EMCer to earn a PhD; he served as a professor and a pastor. Plett served as a foreign missionary when EMCers were suspicious both of missions and women serving as missionaries. She died on the field in Brazil, but her influence continues.

The program is designed to assist all Anabaptist conferences whose members train at Providence. For more information, Dr. Layton Friesen can be contacted through Providence or the EMC national office.

Bill Rambo: A Look at John Knox and Menno Simons Today

The Protestant (Radical) Reformation Through 2017

 by Bill Rambo

I was baptised as an infant. Don’t be too shocked, please. I was rebaptized as an adult.

But my early life was informed by my parents’ commitment to the Presbyterian Church. It sent them as missionaries to the Congo, later called Zaire, for many of my formative years.

I have missionaries on both sides of my family, going back four generations on Dad’s side and five on Mom’s. My wife Sharon Hildebrand and I met serving in Christian missions in Africa, she with MCC and I with the southern Presbyterians.

This intertwines my history with the experiences of reformers John Knox and Menno Simons, and it raises questions for me and others today.

Priests and Reformers

Knox (c.1505-1572) was a founder of the Reformation in Scotland as it broke from the Roman Catholic tradition in 1560. Simons (1496-1561) was, of course, a key leader of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition in which the EMC has a place. He began as a priest in Friesland in what is now the Netherlands.

Both priests found that political and cultural circumstances, as well as inner convictions, pushed them to consider the Scriptures more highly than the traditions and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Both were influenced by the Reformation activities of Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Switzerland.

Simons was converted and broke with the more mainstream reformers, especially on the issues of believers’ baptism and participation in civil government. Knox came from Great Britain where Protestant forces, especially Henry VIII’s Church of England, contended with Roman Catholics in government; this showed the political influence of the French and the Spanish in England’s royal family.

A Guard and Galley Prisoner

John Knox was influenced by his association with Scottish reformers Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, both of whom were martyred for their Protestant teaching in the first half of the 16th century. Knox was actually an armed bodyguard for Wishart, and was taken prisoner after the French put down an armed uprising. This attack was at the request of Mary of Guise, the Catholic mother of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Roman Catholic regent of Scotland.

Knox was forced to row galleys for the French for almost two years. Later exiled to England, Knox became a priest within the Church of England and was one of six chaplains for the young King Edward VI. In the early 1550s, Knox was offered various posts to keep him under the thumb of Edward’s in-fighting regents. In 1554 he left Great Britain for the continent.

Idolators and Rulers

For the next five years Knox developed his doctrines of Protestantism, focusing on “idolaters”—meaning Roman Catholics—and women as secular rulers. He published “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” largely against Mary of Guise in Scotland and English Queen Mary I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Hundreds of reformers were executed under “Bloody Mary” during her reign from 1553-1558.

Knox consulted both John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger in Switzerland about civil government. He served as a minister to English exiles in Frankfurt and Geneva, before returning to Scotland in 1559. (Menno Simons had read the works of Bullinger and Luther in developing his stance against infant baptism.)

From 1560 to his death, Knox was a renowned preacher in Scotland as the country continued to develop its commitment to Protestantism and against Catholicism. Knox was part of the impetus toward Scottish emphasis on preaching, reading and singing in “the Kirk” (the Church) based on the Word of God.


Even before he returned to Scotland, Knox had written letters to the Scottish churches warning about idolatrous Catholicism and what he called heresies. He included Arminianism, which emphasizes that people are free to choose either to follow Jesus or to reject him.

To Knox, this said that people control their eternal destiny and are justified by works rather than faith. In turn, Simons and other Anabaptists saw the doctrine of predestination as leading to moral laxness for individuals and for the church.

Knox’s longest work, more than 170,000 words, was “An Answer to a Great Number of Blasphemous Cavilations Written by an Anabaptist, and Adultery to God’s Eternal Predestination.”

To be fair, Richard Kyle points out that Anabaptist was a “generic label for all kinds of nonconformity, virtually synonymous with fanaticism or heresy.” Knox may not have referred to the strain of Anabaptism that would eventually respect Menno Simons’ teachings, although he touches on several Anabaptist distinctives.

An Anabaptist?

For instance, Knox had a run-in with an “Anabaptist” while a chaplain for King Edward VI. The man presented Knox with a book that he claimed to be written by God and asked his opinion. After reading that the Devil, not God, had created the world and the wicked creatures in it, Knox said, “Ye deserve death as a blasphemous person and denier of God, if you prefer any word to that which the Holy Ghost has uttered in his plain Scriptures.”

The Anabaptist took the book and left. Knox regretted that he had not kept the book and reported the Anabaptist. This failure could have created serious problems for Knox. Yet even years later, Knox would not mention his name, which could have led to the Anabaptist’s death.

Obviously, this “Anabaptist” was not in the sola scriptura tradition of Simons, Luther, and others.


However, most major reformers and Roman Catholics saw it as dangerous heresy to reject the sacrament of infant baptism. Anabaptists, according to Knox, saw baptism as non-sacramental, a testimony of faith, not itself a part of the process of salvation. Knox and most reformers agreed that baptism did not confer salvation, but Knox asserted that it was not necessary to be rebaptized.

Five Centuries Later

Where does all this controversy leave us five centuries later? Debate continues about predestination versus free will, though with perhaps more charity. Likewise, Christ’s Church has developed more loving attitudes, rather than executing those with whom we don’t agree. We may still have a way to go to conform to the Sermon on the Mount in the areas of anger and the desire to call each other various kinds of fools (Matt. 5:21-22).

As for baptism, it would be nice to think that the Church is more tolerant now than in the Reformation. However, in Zaire as a young adult I requested to be rebaptized and saw the anguish of a Presbyterian colleague from Scotland whose mission authorities forbade him to take part in the ceremony.

Knox and the major Reformers thought that Christians should take part in civil government. Simons and many other Anabaptists thought that separation from the world was required of followers of Christ.

Today, the nature of government in modern democracies seems to require that good people not be separate from the way government is done. “In the world, but not of the world” was easier to discern in the past when rulers came from distinct strata of society and Christian leaders too often confused secular power and religious authority.

Today, citizens of all classes may ascend to political power, and Christian integrity should be shown in the service of politics as well in as our call to be Christ’s witnesses and his hands and feet in the world.

A Command and a Warning

Bill Rambo

In spite of Reformation conflicts in the past, we should continue to progress into a more perfect expression of Christ’s commandment and warning: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Bill Rambo (Saturday Night Church), BA, BS, is a high school teacher in Winnipeg. He grew up in The Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaire and in the United States. After marrying Sharon, he has been rooted in Landmark, Man., for more than a quarter century. However, he still cheers for the Denver Broncos as well as the Bombers. He has served on the EMC Board of Church Ministries and currently serves on its Education Committee.


Geralyn Wichers: Practical Pacifism, Nonviolence in the Workplace


by Geralyn Wichers

When we think of pacifism, it is unlikely that we apply it to our workplace. Most of us  don’t engage in fisticuffs with our boss.

However, in broad terms if we participate in malicious gossip, tear down the character of our boss, verbally abuse a colleague, or answer criticism harshly, we are engaging in violence—verbal violence. A recent experience caused me to rethink what violence meant, and how a philosophy of pacifism could be applied in the workplace.

A Target of Verbal Violence

I found myself the target of a new supervisor. She had done my job before and objected to how I did it. I’d been considered good at my job, but suddenly I was (allegedly) inefficient, unfocused, and unable to make good decisions. I would try to reason with her and defend myself, but that would just prolong the lecture. The stress of constant scrutiny brought on anxiety and depression. I was angry and bitter.

One evening I received a particularly harsh and perplexing reprimand. I argued back to no avail. I continued my task, seething. As I calmed down over a couple of hours, I thought about what I’d said to the supervisor. Had I offended her? Should I apologize despite, in my opinion, being the one who was wronged?

I fought the thought, but I couldn’t shake it. Illogical as it seemed, I knew apologizing was the right thing to do. I went to her office and said I was sorry. As I walked back to my workstation, a weight lifted off my shoulders.

An Experiment

I realized that I did not have to defend myself. She could not force me to react in anger. She couldn’t make me argue with her. God knew that wasn’t working anyway.

This began an experiment of sorts. I tried to always answer her with humility whenever she spoke harshly. It didn’t matter if I was wrong or right. If I was right, I could still apologize for disappointing her. If something went awry and I had no good explanation, I could say “I have no excuses.” This didn’t prevent her words from hurting me—by no means! Still, more often than not it swiftly brought an end to her wrath. Sometimes her attitude would change completely, and she would become understanding.

These acts of humility also allowed me to lay aside my bitterness and see her for the human being that she was. I began to discern patterns in her behaviour. I realized that she likely felt insecure in her position, which fueled her need for control. This didn’t make her actions right, but it did make them understandable. Peace came to our relationship.

Anabaptists and Nonviolence

I was raised in the Anabaptist tradition and since childhood knew that Anabaptists-Mennonites are pacifists. I never identified strongly with this belief. I knew I didn’t want to join the military. I knew nonviolence was my preference.

I just didn’t think pacifism was realistic. As I came through the above experience and reflected on it, I realized I had come full circle, back to the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence. It was simply a non-physical application.

The Dutch Mennonites wrote in the Dordrecht Confession of 1632:

We believe and confess that the Lord Christ has forbidden and set aside to His disciples and followers all revenge and retaliation, and commanded them to render to no one evil for evil, or cursing for cursing, but to put the sword into the sheath….

From this we understand that therefore, and according to His example, we must not inflict pain, harm, or sorrow upon any one, but seek the highest welfare and salvation of all men, and even, if necessity require it, flee for the Lord’s sake from one city or country into another, and suffer the spoiling of our goods; that we must not harm anyone, and, when we are smitten, rather turn the other cheek also, than take revenge or retaliate. Matthew 5:39.

And, moreover, that we must pray for our enemies, feed and refresh them whenever they are hungry or thirsty, and thus convince them by well-doing, and overcome all ignorance. Romans 12:19, 20.

It bears noting that the Dordrecht confession covers not only physical violence, but “harm” in general and the infliction of sorrow. This historical confession is still radical in its declaration of renouncing revenge and retaliation, even to the point of suffering pain and loss rather than inflicting harm.

While this belief has not been universally applied by all Anabaptists through history, there are many examples of nonviolence in action. For instance, more than five thousand Canadian Mennonite men refused to serve in the military during World War 2 and, instead, were conscripted into camps, agriculture, or industry, as the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online says. Some of these men were my own relatives.

Costly Peace

Up front, refusing to engage in violence may appear to be “rolling over” for a bully. We as a society are very concerned about our rights and defending our rights. In fact, defending ourselves is our right. Nonviolence, however, requires us to lay aside many rights. Nonviolence is not weakness if it is a deliberate act of the will.

I do not suggest that nonresistance is the answer in the workplace. There are many ways to mount a resistance without resorting to violence—verbal or physical. I also do not believe in total pacifism as public policy. However, I would suggest that if we wish for peace, be it in our homes, our workplaces, or communities, we can’t expect to get it for free. We may have to bite our tongue, absorb verbal jabs without jabbing back, and apologize even when we’re the one who is hurt. We may have to give the feelings of our coworker, boss, or spouse precedence over our own. It depends on what we want. Both peace and full maintenance of our personal rights may not be possible.

For Mennonites, the cause of peace and nonviolence often meant “fleeing for the Lord’s sake from one city or country into another,” as they said in their Dordrecht confession of faith. There were Mennonites throughout the years that deemed it best to join their countrymen in fighting. However, peace and nonviolence remains an important value of Anabaptists-Mennonites around the world.

Geralyn Wichers

Though I have departed somewhat from my Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage, it makes me proud to return to their values by a modern, practical application of nonviolence. I submit this case for consideration to those who wish for peace.

Geralyn Wichers is a communications student at Red River College, a novelist, and a graduate of Steinbach Bible College (2012). She was raised in the EMC tradition (Anola Fellowship Chapel) and now attends Southland Church in Steinbach.

Editor’s Note: This article has been re-uploaded due to technical difficulties with the first published version. 

Book Review: Anabaptist Essentials

by Pastor Jacob Enns (Leamington).

Anabaptist Essentials: Ten Signs of a Unique Christian Faith, Palmer Becker (Herald Press, 2017). 180 pp. $12.99 USD (paper). ISBN 9781513800417.

In a time when culture seems to increasingly dissect and compartmentalize faith and practice, a message of faith and life integration is welcome. Palmer Becker in his book, Anabaptist Essentials, gives a very clear picture of what Anabaptism is at its core, where it is different from, and what it has in common with other protestant and catholic faith expressions.

From reading his book I have come to the conclusion that much of what we take for granted as Anabaptists has already been lost to the young generation and needs to be brought back to the table. The book is not written for the purpose of pointing out flaws in other faiths.

Palmer focuses on giving a very detailed rationale for the Anabaptist distinctives, and about the social and cultural impact they have made in various places and times in the past and are still doing today. It was these Early Church distinctives that the 16th century Reformers rediscovered, took as their own, and lived by often at great cost.

In a Christianity where people can decide to be “saved” but not serve Jesus as Lord, Palmer points back to the life of early Anabaptist faith where there was no such separation and compartmentalization. It was either people were “followers of Jesus” or they were not. To be saved, but not serve Jesus was not part of their understanding. In Anabaptist faith, faith means obedience. Faith and works cannot not be separated and compartmentalized. He mentions that his father was perplexed by the question, “Are you saved?” His answer was: “I am a follower of Jesus Christ.” It was all one unity. He was baptized on that confession of faith.

At a time when personal autonomy is gaining ground, the Anabaptist view draws people together into community in all aspects of faith expression, from Jesus being the central focus of our love, and radiating that outward to serving one another, being accountable to, and holding one another accountable, sharing ourselves with one another, and even suffering for one another. I suggest this as a good resource for Sunday School classes and small groups.


Terry Smith: Questions Asked Near a Mirror

by Terry M. Smith

Q. Which early Anabaptists influence you the most?
A. Menno Simons and Balthasar Hubmaier.

Q. Do you believe climate change, caused by humans, is real?
A. Yes. It’s a serious problem with victims current and future.

Q. What’s the key issue for the EMC today?
A. Since 2000 we’ve plateaued in membership numbers. We need to grow. More urgency, prayer, workers, and money will help.

Q. What are your favourite periods in Anabaptist history?
A. The sixteenth century, the Western Gospel Mission era (1949-1961), and now.

Q. How do you describe yourself?
A. A flawed Christian. A displaced mainliner re-rooted through Evangelicalism and enriched by Anabaptism.

Q. Are you a neo-Anabaptist?
A. No. That’s a person influenced by Anabaptism who attends a non-Mennonite church.

Q. Do you support same-sex marriage?
A. No. We need to be sensitive, though, to people struggling with sexual issues, whether same-sex or other.

Q. Are you a theistic evolutionist?
A. No. The Earth is older, but secular evolutionists use too many zeros and the missing links are still missing.

Q. What do people overlook about your role?
A. The range of my work: being a minister who serves as a full-time administrator in education, publication, and archives.

Q. What’s your heart’s desire?
A. That more of the United Church of Canada would return to a historic proclamation of Jesus Christ as God become also man, Saviour and Lord.

Q. Does the EMC need to plant more churches?
A. Yes. Churches are made of people helped through Christ. Numbers matter because people matter.

Q. What does being an Evangelical mean to you?
A. It means being privileged. And disturbed by what some Evangelicals think and do.

Q. After journalism studies, why did you study at college and seminary?
A. Because of a call to be of service to the Church.

Q. What question stands out from your formal studies?
A. If a person is awarded a degree while married, why is it called a bachelor’s degree?

Q. Which of your degrees is most important to you?
A. My first MA—Mary Ann.

Q. Why don’t you write about some topics?
A. If the focus shifts from the topic to me, does this help the discussion?

Q. Do you believe everyone will be saved in the end?
A. I wish I could say yes, but no.

Q. Do you believe the Church is called to both evangelism and social justice?
A. Yes.

Terry M. Smith

Q. Which task in your work is most important to you?
A. Preaching, a joy and solemn privilege.

Q. What most surprises you about your work?
A. The wonder and grace of Jesus Christ.

Q. Do you think the EMC, the EMMC, and the CMC (formerly Chortitzer) should merge?
A. Yes. Soon.

Dr. Hanspeter Jecker: Transformed by the Word

The Protestant (Radical) Reformation Through 2017

by Dr. Hanspeter Jecker

Renewal 2027 is a 10-year series of events launched by Mennonite World Conference (MWC) to mark the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement.

“Transformed by the Word: Reading Scripture in Anabaptist Perspectives” (the inaugural event in Augsburg, Germany, Feb. 12, 2017) fit well within the mandate of the MWC Faith and Life Commission to help member churches “understand and describe Anabaptist-Mennonite faith and practice.”

In the midst of the many Reformation commemoration celebrations, especially in Europe, it’s important to remember that the Anabaptists also emerged within the context of the Reformation and were decisively shaped by its rediscovery of the Bible as an authority for Christian faith and life.

Shortly before the first adult baptisms in January 1525, a member of the Bible study group that formed the core of the emerging Anabaptist movement illustrated this clearly:

“However, after we too had taken up the Bible and studied all the possible points, we have been better informed.”

The letter went on to describe how they came to a deeper understanding of Scripture. Five central themes—visible in the quote above—distinguished their shift from walking alongside the Reformers to a posture of opposition:

  • Scripture is the key point of departure for the renewal brought about by the Reformation.
  • It is crucial to learn not only second-hand, but to read Scripture for yourself.
  • The Bible study group read with an expectant attitude. They “studied all the possible points,” posed questions about the text, and received answers.
  • They reoriented themselves around these new insights.

In this way, they were “better informed” in regard to the teachings of the Catholic Church, but also in regards to Zwingli and the other Reformers.

To be “better informed.” At first glance, that statement sounds very positive. But it also carries some pain. It suggests that one has indeed been mistaken; it includes a readiness to let go of older, cherished understandings. This is often not easy.

The key question at stake here is: do we allow the biblical word (and the God who desires to speak to us) to scrutinize our convictions so that we allow ourselves “to be better informed”? Or does the admonition to “test all things and hold on to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) only apply to other people?

Up to this point, all the themes could be regarded as Protestant principles. But the fifth point is the most distinct Anabaptist principle:

  • The “we” in the quote is crucial: not only does Bible study happen in community; but new understandings of Scripture are also reached collectively.

No one is forced to be part of an Anabaptist congregation—faith and membership are always voluntary. No single person has all the understanding or all of the gifts, but everyone has something.

Therefore, it is crucial that we create frameworks for Bible study in which everyone can contribute to a better understanding of the biblical text: old and young, men and women, academics and labourers. Precisely for this reason the “we” in our text is so important!

But several dangers are already evident in this same quote.

To allow ourselves to be “better informed” sounds nice, but who can protect us from endless efforts to prove the superiority of one understanding or from the notorious church divisions that have occurred so frequently in Anabaptist history? How can we ensure that space remains for the recognition that all of our knowledge is partial and in need of additional insights? And how do we ensure that the “struggle for the truth” does not come at the cost of a “struggle for unity”?

Dr. Hanspeter Jecker

If “renewal of faith and life” and “transformation through the Word” are going to happen within the context of Mennonite World Conference, then it will be essential for it to happen in the form of members from north and south, east and west, walking together alongside each other as “we.”

Dr. Hanspeter Jecker is a member of the Mennonite World Conference’s Faith & Life Commission and a professor of historical theology and ethics at Theological Seminary Bienenberg in Switzerland. He holds an MA in Theology (AMBS) and a DPhil (Basel).

Dr. John J. Friesen: Martin Luther and the Anabaptists

by Dr. John. J Friesen

This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting 95 theses on the doors of the churches in the city of Wittenberg, including the All Saints Church. What Luther intended as a debate over how to reform abuses in the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the break-up of the Catholic Church and the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Why should Anabaptists-Mennonites care about Martin Luther, a young university professor, and his reforms? Why should this anniversary be noted in Mennonite-Anabaptist denominational papers?

No Luther, No Anabaptists

The principal reason why Mennonites-Anabaptists should care about Luther’s reform is that Luther is the reason why there was an Anabaptist-Mennonite reform movement at all. Luther’s reforms, and the conflicts they spawned between Catholics and Protestants, created space for the Anabaptist movement to take root.

They sprang up in German states, northern Switzerland, Moravia, and the Netherlands. Without Luther, and the other reformers who followed his lead, there would have been no Anabaptist movements.

Inspired by Key Ideas

Mennonites should also care about Luther’s reform because the early Anabaptist leaders were inspired by Luther’s key ideas. Luther’s reform began as a critique of the Catholic Church selling indulgences. In response Luther formulated his central view that salvation is by grace, that is, a gift from God, and not by works.

When challenged about how he could make such a claim since it deviated from the beliefs of most of the great teachers of the medieval church, Luther said his authority was the Bible, not tradition. Specifically, he based his view of grace on the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. It was the Bible alone, Luther said, on which he based his view that salvation is by faith through grace.   

Following this claim, Luther decided to make the Bible available to the masses by translating it into the German language. Widespread distribution was made possible by the newly invented moveable type printing presses. Access to the Bible allowed people to read scripture for themselves, and to implement reforms that they believed were consistent with scripture.

Luther also rejected the control that the Catholic priesthood had over access to forgiveness. Luther believed that all believers had direct access to God—no priestly mediation was necessary. Luther called this the priesthood of all believers. All these emphases Anabaptists applauded.

A Parting 

Even though at first Luther seemed to empower common people, he also spoke highly of the role German princes should play in any reform. When the peasants revolted in the years 1524-25, Luther condemned them harshly.

He cast his lot with the princes and adopted the state-church model for his reform. Luther looked to the German princes both for protection and direction. This decision set Luther and the Anabaptists against each other.

A ‘Should Have’

Anabaptists believed that Luther’s reform ideas should have resulted in a believers’ church. Such a church would have consisted of those who truly had faith in God and had committed themselves to a life of Christian discipleship. This option would have resulted in a church that was a minority in the population.

Accepting a believers’ church would have resulted in a pluralist society in which minority church groups were tolerated. When Luther opted for the state-church model, placed the Lutheran church under the authority of the state, and persecuted minority churches, Anabaptists believed that Luther had betrayed the teachings of the Bible.

This commitment to a believers’ church allowed Anabaptists to reshape basic Christian beliefs and practices. Anabaptists emphasized baptism on the basis of adult confessions of faith, instead of infant baptism. Church leaders were chosen from within the community of believers instead of being appointed by church hierarchies, or by state officials.

Reforms were based on the church community’s reading of scripture, rather than on the basis of what was politically expedient and approved by princes. Church discipline and social shunning replaced trials and executions of those with whom they disagreed.   

For worship, Anabaptists gathered in houses, barns, and caves to read scripture together. They discussed biblical texts and discerned together, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, how to apply them to daily living. They sang songs composed by their own members based on experiences of persecution and martyrdom. No more majestic cathedrals, chants, organs, monastic choirs, and elaborate liturgies where members were largely spectators.

They rejected feudal oaths since their primary loyalty was to God and not to princes and emperors. They advocated a life of peace, rejected violence, refused to carry swords, forgave those who wronged them, and reconciled conflicts between members of the church.

One cannot imagine the Anabaptist movement without Luther’s reforms. And yet, the direction that Luther’s reforms took resulted in Luther becoming one the Anabaptists’ bitterest enemies.

Even the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the basic Lutheran confession, included the following among a number of condemnations: “We condemn Anabaptists who forbid Christians to hold office,” and “We condemn Anabaptists who reject the baptizing of children, and say that children are saved without baptism.” Most Lutheran states crushed Anabaptist groups within their borders.


This sharp break between Luther and the Anabaptists, however, is not the end of the story of Luther’s influence on Anabaptist Mennonites. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Lutheran Church spawned a Pietist movement, which has in many ways positively influenced Mennonites.

Pietism emphasized Bible reading by laity, a warm devotional life, an experience of conversion and personal commitment to God, a life of discipleship, and an extensive hymnody. Pietists drew upon the early emphases of Luther and thus, in many respects, were close to the emphases of the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement.

Dr. John J. Friesen

Martin Luther and his followers have had a powerful shaping influence on Anabaptists-Mennonites, then and now. It is appropriate to remember Luther and the significant contributions he made to all denominations of the Christian Church, including the Anabaptists-Mennonites. Luther was a giant in his age and will always be honoured for the major impact he made.   

Dr. John J. Friesen is Professor Emeritus for History and Theology, Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man. This article was produced for Meetinghouse, an association of Anabaptist periodicals and editors in Canada and the U.S.