What Anabaptists Believed— What Is a Christian

For Anabaptists, as for all other Christians in the sixteenth century, Christian faith had been revealed to men by God. God was the author of it; the mediator of it was Jesus Christ.

By Jesus’ death, which was an expression of the love and mercy of God, sin is removed and man is forgiven. Man’s own merit achieves nothing for he has none before God. Life in Christ is a gift of God’s grace. Jesus Christ is the saviour of man, and man is saved by faith in him.

But to accept him as Saviour is only the beginning of faith. Obedience to Christ the Lord is an integral part. As Hans Denck affirmed in his first public statement:

This obedience must be genuine, that is, that heart, mouth, and deed coincide together. For there can be no true heart where neither mouth nor deed is visible.

Christ’s life served as the model of a God-pleasing life. “Let Christ Jesus with His Spirit and Word be your teacher and example, your way and your mirror.” In thousands of passages in Anabaptist writings, there is a call for a concrete following of the example of Christ.

Anabaptists made a great deal of the new commandment of love in John 13:34; the fulfillment of which was a mark of “genuine faith and true Christianity.” They insisted that the commandment of love was concrete and had to do with specifics in human life and experience. It meant forgiveness for injury, refusal to retaliate, refusal to injure, refusal to coerce. It meant aiding, supporting and defending the needy, comforting the sorrowing, preaching the Gospel to the poor. The commandment to love had content, they believed, usually identified as the ethical injunctions of Jesus and the apostles. And it was not a casual matter; it must be deliberately and consciously fulfilled. It is a commitment that every disciple takes upon himself at baptism, and which he makes regularly every time he shares in the Supper.

Since God gave the commandment to love all men, to live the truth, and to do it in a community, the Anabaptists straightforwardly assumed that it was possible, and that God would give his power and Spirit to those who asked him. They believed that the person who has faith is gradually changed into the holiness of God after the image of Jesus by the action of the Holy Spirit; this sanctification then becomes visible by the life that is lived. Good works are both the consequence and the evidence of being made holy.

Because of their emphasis on Christ-like living, Anabaptists have repeatedly been subject to the charge of legalism. Luther was one of the first. When Anabaptists emphasized that faith is visible and genuine only if expressed in action, Luther saw nothing but a new system of righteousness by works.

The Anabaptists were very sensitive to this charge and regularly replied to and rejected it. As Menno Simons explained:

Because we teach from the mouth of the Lord that if we would enter into life, we must keep the commandments; that the love of God is that we keep his commandments, the preachers call us heaven-stormers and meritmen, saying that we want to be saved by our own merits even though we have always confessed that we cannot be saved by means of anything other than by the merits, intercession, death, and blood of Christ.

Luther emphasized salvation by grace through faith alone. He did not discount good works but rather insisted that they will follow faith even as the good tree bears good fruit. But some of Luther’s statements convinced the Anabaptists that he was not serious about a Christlike life. When he said “Sin bravely,” what were people to think? Many readily concluded that such a statement cancelled out his call for a good life. In reverse, while Luther and others undoubtedly heard Anabaptist assurances of an evangelical position, these assurances were in turn cancelled out by their constant references to “the new law” and the “law of Christ.” Law was for Luther the opposite of Gospel; there could be no joining of the two.

Luther’s concern was to break free of the multitude of things required of the faithful in Roman Christianity to achieve salvation: the prayers, penances, pilgrimages and all that. But many assumed from Luther’s words that works also included moral behaviour, and, therefore, that this too was no longer important. The Protestant insistence that there is no law for the Christian resulted in a popular tendency to assume that Protestantism removed all moral shackles and restraints. Menno Simons complained about the carnal lives of these professing Christians in his Reply to False Accusations:

No drunkard, no avaricious or pompous person, no defiler of women, no cheat or liar, no thief, robber, or shedder of blood (I mean in the conduct of warfare), no curser so great and ungodly but he must be called a Christian. If he but say, I am sorry, then all is ascribed to his weakness and imperfechon and he is admitted to the Lord’s Supper, for, say they, he is saved by grace and not by merits. He remains a member of their church even though he is an impenitent and hardened godless heathen; today as yesterday and tomorrow as today, notwithstanding that the Scriptures so plainly testify that such shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

In contrast, the Anabaptists espoused a radical, uncompromising discipleship.

The Community of Believers

While the decision to become a disciple was an individual step of faith, the new life upon which the disciple entered was communal. Becoming a disciple brought him into the community of those who deliberately resolved to realize, in the present, God’s will for the whole of mankind. Peter Rideman wrote:

The Church of Christ is a lantern of righteousness, in which the light of grace is borne and held before the whole world, that men may also learn to see and know the way of life.

Anabaptists were convinced that the Christian was not capable of being a disciple by himself; rather that he needed the help and understanding of others to walk the steep and narrow way of life.

In a world that applied all its pressures to crush them, the Anabaptists could not be casual about following Christ. Sin had to be dealt with if they were to continue as disciples and the model community. Therefore the church practiced discipline, “Christ’s rule of binding and loosing” found in Matt. 18:15–18. If sin occurred, the one who knew about it was responsible to get rid of it. The provision was that privacy about it be preserved. It could not become the subject of gossip and ignorant judgment. If it could be settled at that level the matter was finished; loosing or forgiveness had taken place. It might, for one reason or another go further, but the same rule of privacy applied for the protection of the one who sinned. Only as a last resort did the community use the ban of excommunication—when clear incompatibility of life and conviction had been established. In that case the one who persisted in disobedience was to be regarded as a heathen and let alone. When that happened the person remained bound or the sin was retained. A sin cannot be forgiven unless it is acknowledged; forgiveness makes possible the liberation of the offender.

Binding and loosing is surely one of the most radical aspects of Anabaptist discipleship for it clearly assumed that the company of Jesus’ disciples—that is the church—forgives and retains sin. This was a continuation of the Catholic belief that the power to forgive sins is actually in the hands of the church under the direct authority of Jesus.

The Anabaptists’ strong commitment to church discipline cannot be dismissed as legalism, for voluntarily accepted discipline is never the equivalent of legalism. A spirit of legalism nevertheless became evident. The Anabaptist way of life required constant attention to the details of Christian discipleship. It is seldom easy to determine whether any given act really does compromise one’s position as a disciple, and people could not always easily decide whether a matter was important or not. Issues were sometimes pressed and made the test of discipleship, and there was a tendency to over-emphasize the seriousness of an offence. The pressure of persecution from outside surely added to the determination not to relax vigilance, and the tendency was strong to err on the side of caution.

The Anabaptist’s dicipleship led them into a new attitude towards property. They all agreed that in the Kingdom of God there could be no “mine” and “thine.” When a person entered the community he put all that he had at the disposal of the brothers. While this did not necessarily involve a common treasury it did mean that no Christian could call his property his own as though it had nothing to do with others. They simply believed that within the community of faith there should be no need. As Balthasar Hubmaier stated:

Everyone should be concerned about the needs of others, so that the hungry might be fed, the thirsty given to drink, and the naked clothed. For we are not lords of our possessions, but stewards and distributors. There is certainly no one who says that another’s goods may be seized and made common; rather, he would gladly give the coat in addition to the shirt.

Personal property was allowed among the Anabaptists—it was not made common, but was treated as such. An exception were the Hutterian Anabaptists in Moravia, where this conviction developed into a complete community of goods involving both production and consumption.

Despite the fact that Zwingli and Melanchthon had both at one time spoken like Anabaptists on the question of private property, they now regarded such convictions as seditious. While Anabaptists expected the new attitude to property to prevail in their own community, and at no time advocated its extension to the whole of society, it nevertheless represented a threat to the stability of society. Had the movement a chance to grow it could most certainly have had major economic consequences. The established authorities were understandably apprehensive.


Baptism was to be administered to those who had given evidence of repentance and a changed life, who believed that their sins had been taken away by Christ, and who desired to follow him. In baptism the reborn believer committed himself to a life of obedience in the fellowship with other believers. This was an adult decision, thus baptism was for adults. Baptism signified a changed life by virtue of Christ’s death but by no means in an individualistic sense. Repeatedly Anabaptists insisted that no one was to be baptized without committing himself to the discipline of the community. He thereby declared himself ready to participate in dealing with sin in the community in a redemptive way.

Anabaptists saw infant baptism as a practical inference from the doctrine of original sin, but as having no support in Scripture. Sin, they argued, came into the world with the awakening of the knowledge of good and evil. An infant does not have this knowledge and therefore has no sin. Consequently it needs no baptism for the removal of sin. Statements by Marpeck and Grebel illustrate this position.

When the children grow in the knowledge of good and evil, only then do sin, death, and condemnation come into play. Since the guilt of sin exists in the knowledge of sin, Christ has taken away the sin of the world by his blood, the innocent through the word of promise, the guilty through faith in him. Although innocence contains a root of sin in the manner of flesh, it is still not sin itself.
All children who have not yet come to the discernment of the knowledge of good and evil, are surely saved by the suffering of Christ, the new Adam.

Religious Liberty

At rock bottom in medieval life was the belief that European society was a Christian society, often referred to as the “corpus Christianum.” Since the time of Constantine church and state had been united. The church encompassed all members of society—if not by conviction by coercion. It was recognized that within this larger church there was a true church of the faithful—but no one knew who or where they were. They formed an “invisible church” within Christendom.

In contrast, the Anabaptists viewed the church as the company of those who were consciously committed to Jesus. No one was under any compulsion to join them. And if anyone already in their community could not agree he was not forced to conform against his will but was allowed to leave without restriction. The Anabaptists, along with a few other individuals such as Sebastian Frank and Sebastian Castellio, were the first ones to raise this claim for religious liberty.

Since the Middle Ages it had been accepted practice to put dissenters and unbelievers to death. It was done for their own good, it was argued. It prevented them from falling even further into error; sometimes torture and stake brought them to “repentance.” During the Reformation period Zwingli, Luther and Calvin completely rejected the notion of religious liberty. Catholics and Protestants alike agreed that dissenters had to be dealt with by force if they did not yield to persuasion.

The Anabaptists, however, appealed to their Lord’s command to love all men and their conviction that God’s truth needed no human coercion to be victorious. When persuasion by God’s Word failed, the dissenter ought to be allowed to hold his error without losing his head. With some individual exceptions this was regarded by all in sixteenth century Europe as an invitation to anarchy. Simply by being the visible church in this new way, Anabaptists were setting up a counter-society which, whether they intended it or not, challenged the existing one where church and state were one. From the point of view of the authorities this could not be tolerated. Hence there was fierce and persistent persecution.

The Bible

Anabaptists shared in the reformation claim that the Scriptures were the final authority for the Christian. Along with Protestants they rejected the Catholic teaching which assigned equal validity to Scripture and tradition.

But how were these Scriptures to be correctly interpreted? Anabaptists gave a twofold answer. First, they understood the coming of Jesus to be central, the event in which God revealed himself more clearly and with greater authority than anywhere else. What Jesus said and did as well as the words and actions of his first followers therefore had greater authority than anything or anyone else. They rejected as God’s Word for their day whatever did not agree with the life and doctrine of Christ.

Secondly, Anabaptists agreed with Luther when he insisted that every believer, no matter how humble, had the Holy Spirit and could therefore legitimately interpret Scripture. But they went a step further and held to the old principle that ultimately it is the church that interprets Scripture. It is not the hierarchy as in Catholicism, nor an appointed group of scholar-teachers as in Protestantism, which interprets the Bible, but rather the gathered disciple community. This community struggles with the meaning of Scripture and reaches, where possible, a common understanding of its intent.

What Is Sacred?

Anabaptists rejected totally the notion that specially sanctified persons, places, and things put man in touch with God, thereby rejecting a centuries-long Christian understanding of the sacred. (At this point they clearly followed their teacher Zwingli.) This is demonstrated in their observance of the Lord’s Supper.

In an effort to dissociate themselves completely from the sacramental words of the Catholic Mass, the Anabaptists insisted on the non-sacred function of words. Conrad Grebel wrote that only the words from the Gospels or 1 Corinthians were to be used for the observance of the Supper, with no additions.

There were no sacred things—ordinary bread and drinking vessels were to be used. No place was sacred—Anabaptists gathered in homes, and felt that celebrating the Supper in a church created a false reverence. There were no sacred persons for Anabaptists. All who belong to Christ are saints, and no one is any more sacred than anyone else. Special holy days were also rejected.

Anabaptists frequently spoke of holiness, but in its basic prophetic sense which is personal and ethical in nature. In Jesus God has sanctified all persons, places, things, time, and words that are devoted to him.

In an effort to eliminate the abuses which characterized Catholic practices of their day, Anabaptism did away with emotionally necessary and religiously satisfying ritual, including aesthetics of sound, color, and movement. Conrad Grebel, for example, insisted that singing is contrary to the will of God (though many other Anabaptists clearly did not accept this view). Anabaptism settled for religious forms that were meaningful beyond doubt but unquestionably impoverished.

Conflict with the State

Anabaptist belief and practice came into conflict with the civil government at point after point. Their attitudes toward property, defense of religious liberty, even the refusal to baptize infants, all threatened the established political structures. There are several more areas where this conflict was explicit.

1. They refused to participate in the magistry. This refusal was founded upon the biblical conception of the two orders, the old and the new. The state is the restraining authority in that area which has not accepted the Lordship of Christ, punishing the evil and protecting the good. As the servant of God’s anger, the state carried out its function with the sword.

The other order is that which has willfully and joyfully accepted Christ’s Lordship. Anabaptists knew they belonged to the new order in which radically different ways of acting were the norm. If they were serious about their confession of nonviolence they could not participate in the functions of any state in their time.

But they were also consistent and tried to apply the reverse as well. They called on the magistrate to stay out of the affairs of the new order, the church, denying the state any right to make decisions in the church. It was a radical departure from an assumption practically unquestioned for more than a thousand years.

2. They refused to take oaths. The basic statements on the oath found in the literature simply restate Jesus’ prohibition of swearing any oath at all. The oath is not used by disciples of Jesus since it is designed to ensure that truth is spoken. The disciple speaks the truth as a matter of course since he belongs to the Truth which is Christ.

There was an added dimension to the Anabaptists’ refusal of oaths. Many of them were faced with swearing an oath of allegiance to the state of which they were citizens. Such an oath involved the commitment to bear arms on behalf of that state, and confirmed a view of the function of the state which they could not hold. Considering their refusal of this oath, it is no wonder they were always suspected of sedition.

3. They refused to participate in warfare. Like the refusal to take an oath, this refusal follows directly from the Anabaptist view of the disciple’s relation to the state. Their refusal occurred in a time of constant warfare, territorially and in the Holy Roman Empire. It was also a time when all of Europe feared the aggressiveness of the Ottoman Turks. So when Michael Sattler said he would not fight against the Turks, that was akin to saying today that one would not fight against communism. To a Christian society, refusal to fight meant that one was ready to let the infidels conquer. To Anabaptists, refusal to fight signified a trust in God’s hand in the ultimate consequences of human conflict.

When Anabaptists spoke about refusing to bear arms, they were addressing professing Christians who were fighting professing Christians. They were pointing out a glaring contradiction—confessed allegiance to the prince of Peace and denial of him in action. As Grebel wrote, the “gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves.” Anabaptists believed that the community of Jesus had resources of strength for its life and work which made the power of governments unnecessary.

Fighting and killing were clearly contrary to the law of love, no matter how much the situation might seem to demand it. Menno Simons wrote:

All Christians are commanded to love their enemies; to do good unto those who abuse and persecute them; to give the mantle when the cloak is taken, the other cheek when one is struck. Tell me, how can a Christian defend scripturally retaliation rebellion, war, striking, slaying, torturing, stealing, robbing and plundering and burning cities, and conquering countries?

In every age there are those who appeal to the necessity of violence in the pursuit of justice. Anabaptists certainly called for justice, but they knew that justice and violence are enemies, and that the attempt to achieve justice with violence was like fighting fire with oil. Instead they simply refused the old powers and institutions the authority which they were claiming over people. They began to live as though the kingdom of God, whose final arrival they anticipated, had already come. They said in their day “the war is over,” and commenced to live in peace.

Anabaptism challenged the oneness of medieval society, in which church and empire, pope and emperor, bishop and king, priest and nobleman were united in their shared responsibility for maintaining wholeness, peace, and order. The Anabaptist response to these prevailing assumptions was a direct consequence of their understanding of the Christian life as discipleship and their view of the church as the company of those who were consciously committed to Jesus.

This is in contrast to the Reformers. While religiously they were clearly and undeniably innovative, socially they were all, to a man, conservative, clinging in some form to the medieval idea of the unity of society. While Zwingli and Luther had, to begin with, made some truly radical noises, they were soon haunted by the very real prospect of the secularization of the state and the dechristianization of society. At that point their conservatism won out. They then consciously and deliberately opposed the trend away from the unitary society which was already beginning to develop.

The Suffering Church

Anabaptists believed that the persecution they faced was not accidental. It was assumed that the community of faith would be a suffering community. Jesus had said this would be true. Further, the New Testament writings all had the shadow of persecution over them. The Anabaptists believed that anyone who was serious about following Christ would be persecuted.

An Anabaptist lived by the rule of Jesus at the price of his own life, thus giving concrete expression to Jesus’ words: “Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind; he must take up his cross, and come with me.” While the Anabaptist movement was persecuted in an orgy of fire and blood, yet the movement did not compromise its commitment to living by new rules even in the midst of the terrible power of the old. Four centuries ago they knew and lived and died by their “theology of hope” in the resurrection, somehow certain that their faithfulness would be taken up into God’s great peace plan for mankind.

Walter Klaassen, Ph.D., is a Professor of history at Conrad Grebel College of the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario