No halfway liberty

Anabaptists completed what Luther started

Oct 9, 2017 by

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The protest that shook the world began 500 years ago this month. On a church door in the Saxon town of Wittenberg, an obscure German monk posted 95 statements of dispute with Catholicism. It was Oct. 31, 1517. The Reformation had begun. Soon the Catholic Church would split, and the many-sided argument known as Protestantism would change the face of Christianity.

Mennonites, too, are celebrating the anniversary of Martin Luther’s bold challenge to authority. The Anabaptists were third-way radicals rejected by Catholics and Protestants alike, but their movement emerged from the religious and political revolution Luther ignited.

Not that Luther approved of the dangerous fanatics who eventually took the name of a Dutch priest, Menno Simons. In fact, Luther was an ardent foe of Anabaptism, as columnist Rich Preheim writes. Though Pope Leo X denounced Luther as a wild boar in the Lord’s vineyard, Anabaptism gave Catholics and Lutherans one thing to agree on: The rebaptizers must die.

The root of the Anabaptist heresy was their insistence that Christian faith was an adult choice, separate from the rule of the state. Even reform-minded leaders found it difficult to imagine a legitimate church that didn’t baptize infants. Luther and other Protestant reformers rejected papal authority and corrupt clergy but held fast to Christendom — the linking of spiritual and civil authority that bound people together by faith, soil and crown. Anabaptism looked like anarchy.

In fact, Anabaptism was the future. Seeking to separate church and state, Anabaptists pioneered the idea of religious liberty. By claiming the freedom to worship as they saw fit, they took a stand for a principle that would form the bedrock of democratic governments and pluralist societies.

Luther typically gets the credit for setting in motion the forces of individual liberty that would shape Protestantism and shift the course of history. But it was the Anabaptists who extended Luther’s religious rebellion to the political realm.

“All Christians are priests,” Luther said, and so “have the power to test and judge what is correct or incorrect in matters of faith.” This ability to judge would be far from complete without the freedom to reject the state’s authority over religious faith. Protestants are known for refusing to let others tell them what to believe, but it was the Anabaptists who first pushed that principle to its fullest extent. It would take centuries for their radical idea to go mainstream.

The Reformation anniversary provides an occasion to reflect on our Anabaptist identity and to appreciate the heritage we share with other Christian traditions. The global Anabaptist family is marking the milestone with a 10-year series of events, Renewal 2027, extending beyond the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism in 2025. The first Renewal gathering took place in Germany in February. The next will be in Kenya in April.

The passage of time has brought reconciliation to Luther’s and Menno’s spiritual descendants. In 2010 the Lutheran World Federation officially apologized for the persecution of Anabaptists, and Mennonite World Conference granted forgiveness. Participants in Lutheran-Mennonite dialogues regarded their work as more than a historical footnote. They believed it healed a wound on the body of Christ.

The Lutheran-Mennonite journey from condemnation to friendship shows the good fruit of ecumenical relationships. Protestants’ many-sided argument may never be resolved, but we’re grateful Luther got the debate started, Anabaptists jumped into the midst of it, and today it’s conducted with words, not swords.

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