Archive for the ‘anabaptists’ Tag

Anabaptist Bravery   3 comments

Everyone loves a superhero. They have even made a comeback on television. Of course the life of a superhero isn’t easy, what with all that dodging speeding bullets and taking out the villains.

Before you read what I’m going to talk about, check out my fellow blog hoppers and what their take on courage is.

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If you haven’t figured out from my posts yet, I’m not a big fan of heroism. I view the world as a fallen place and I really don’t think there are many actual heroes in the world. I suspect most “heroes” were just stuck in a situation where they couldn’t get out, but they weren’t ready to die, so they did something bloody and violent that someone else hailed as heroism.

As a Baptist and a borderline anarchist, I admire people whose names you know, but I also admire people you’ve never heard of. Are they heroes? Some of them conducted themselves, at least part of the time, in heroic ways. I guess we could leave it at that, but I don’t. I find myself increasingly admiring the people who stood on principle and were crushed under the forces of their society without shedding blood..

My ambivalence toward heroism is one reason I decided to continue the blog hop when it shifted its focus to Courage. It forces me to confront that ambivalence every week and forge my own path toward a definition of it. I haven’t arrived at that yet, but I’m encountering some individuals in history who acted heroically.

Let’s start with Dirk Willems, a courageous young man who escaped from a prison castle and dashed across a frozen river only to turn around to rescue the guy who fell through the ice while trying to recapture our humble young hero. This is a favorite story among Mennonites and Amish (which is how I heard it). He’s not beloved by Southern Baptists, though I’m doing my best to rectify that oversight.

No one knows how many anabaptists died during the 16th century persecution of “non-conformists” (which means anyone who wasn’t either a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran). Nobody really knows because the persecutors mostly didn’t care enough to record the names of the folks they killed. If you count anabaptist-like heretics in general, probably over a million, but we know for certain (because their names were recorded) that at least 1,500 were cruelly tortured and killed.

Most of these people were peaceful folks who did not believe in war and who became the forerunners of today’s Mennonites and Amish. The authorities objected to their existence because these anabaptists didn’t believe infant baptism had any value, so they chose to be re-baptized as willing adults.

Wow! You can’t make this stuff up!

Being baptized outside of the government-sanctified church was their only crime, so they were sentenced to death. Men were usually burned and women were usually drowned. Some anabaptists were so bold as to proclaim Christ as the flames were licking at their feet or the water was rising that the authorities gagged them before leading them to their execution so they could not testify of what they believed and win more converts as they died.

Dirk Willems was one of the anabaptists who died in the flames. His story is especially poignant because he forfeited a real chance to escape when he turned back to rescue one of his pursuers from certain death.

Captured and imprisoned in his home town of Asperen in the Netherlands, Dirk knew his days were numbered, so he made a rope of strips of cloth and escaped over the prison wall. Of course, a guard chased him. Dirk dashed across a pond covered with a thin layer of ice and, the legend claims, he made it, but the ice gave way under his pursuer who cried out for help. Believing the Scripture that a man should help his enemies, Dirk pulled the floundering man from the icy waters.

In one version of the story, the guard wanted to allow Dirk to escape, but a chief magistrate witnessed the event and ordered him to bring Dirk back for “justice”. In another version, the guard had no conflict and brought Dirk back promptly. You can decide which to believe. I’m ambivalent.

Historical documents record Dirk was condemned to death for the heinous crimes of —

  • being re-baptized
  • allowing secret anabaptist worship services in his home
  • letting others be baptized there

Clearly a heinous criminal the world was best rid of sooner rather than later.

The record of his sentence reads:

all of which are contrary to our holy Christian faith and to the decrees of his royal majesty, and out not to be tolerated, but severely punished, for an example to others; therefore, we the aforesaid judges, having, with mature deliberation of council, examined and considered all that was to be considered in this matter, have condemned and do condemn by these presents in the name; and in the behalf, of his royal majesty, as Count of Holland, the aforesaid Dirk Willems, prisoner, persisting obstinately in his opinion, that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues; and declare all his property confiscated, for the benefit of his royal majesty.

Dirk Willem was burned to death on May 16, 1569, and his property was confiscated by the State.

And people wonder why I entertain anarchist thoughts ….

Courage in Christ   Leave a comment

Imagine Europe in the 12th century. The Roman Catholic Church was the only recognized church and attempting to be other than Catholic generally held a death sentence. The Roman Catholic Church reserved unto itself, with the weight and power of the secular authorities behind it, the right to determine what Christians could believe and how they could practice their faith. It taught dogmas that were not found anywhere in the Bible and, yet, expected dogmatic obedience. They ruthlessly persecuted any groups that deviated from its structure, no matter how peacefully the group might seek to live.

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Peter Waldo was a wealthy merchant who renounced his wealth and property around 1173. Possessed of a New Testament translated into his native tongue, Waldo came to believe he was meant to preach what he had read in the Bible and that wealth was an encumbrance to preaching. He formed a band of other similarly minded folk and they began preaching in Lyon, teaching lay preaching, voluntary poverty, and strict adherence to the Bible.

In 1179, Waldo and one of his disciples appeared by Pope Alexander III to explain their faith, which touched on issues already being debated among some Church clerics — universal priesthood, the gospel in the common language, and the issue of voluntary poverty. The Third Lateran Council condemned Waldo’s ideas, but not the movement itself and the leaders were not excommunicated.

The Waldensians continued to preach according to their own understanding of the Scriptures and by the early 1180s, they had been excommunicated and forced out of Lyon. The Roman Catholic Church declared them heretics for their contempt for ecclesiastical authority and teaching false doctrine.

Instead of giving up what they believed, the Waldensians developed a system of traveling from town to town and holding secret meetings of small groups for the purpose of confessing sin and holding service. When Peter Waldo died, the group continued and so did the persecution. In 1211, more than 80 Waldensians were burned as heretics in Strasbourge. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull for the extermination of the movement, which was very successful in scattering the group, driving many of them into the Alps.

When news of the Reformation reached the alpine regions, the Waldensians decided to seek fellowship with nascent Protestantism. In 1532, the Waldensians issued a Confression of Faith with largely Reformed doctrines. However, the group’s long history of avoiding entanglements with the government led to accusations of sedition in 1545. Nearly 30 villages were destroyed and thousands of Waldensians were killed. In 1655, the Duke of Savoy commanded the Waldensians to attend Mass or sell their lands in the lower valleys and remove to the upper alpine region. With just 20 days to obey, the Waldensians abandoned their homes and fields, waded through icy waters, climbed frozen peaks and joined their impoverished brethren in the upper valleys. By spring, the Duke recognized he’d failed to force the Waldensians to conform to Catholicism, so he tried a black flag exercise. He claimed there was an uprising and sent troops into the upper valleys to quell the populace. He required the local populace to quarter troops int heir homes and then he ordered a general massacre that involved looting, rape, torture and murder. Some 1700 Waldensians were slaughtered in what became known as the Piedmont Easter.

Despite the intense persecution, the Waldensians survived. One arm of the movement followed Henri Arnaud in fighting back against their persecutors, while another arm developed into the Swiss Brethren. More on that later.

You would need a tremendous amount of courage to go against the most monolithic organization of your time in order to obey what you recognize as a higher power – God Himself. For too often, modern era Christians compromise what they believe in order to get along with the world. The Waldensians did not. Every after four centuries of persecution, they continued to hold to their beliefs and some of their spiritual descendants went even further in clinging to what they knew to be right even when it was deadly inconvenient.

More on that in later posts.

God Uses Government Overreach to Spread the Gospel   2 comments

The New Testament, particularly Acts, makes it clear that that Jesus’ followers did not blindly obey the governments under which they found themselves. Faithfulness to God was primary for them. History records that the 16th-century anabaptists were faithful to God first and the state second. Jesus knew that His followers would be in tension with the authorities. He instructed them (and us):

You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit (Mark 13:9b-11 NIV).

These are hardly the instructions of a leader expecting His followers to obey every authority instituted among men. For the sake of the gospel, followers of Jesus will refuse to obey men when the governments of men violate the laws of God. But, also for the Lord’s sake, the followers of Jesus will submit to every authority instituted among men, and by so doing will bear witness to those authorities as Paul did in Rome. For those who don’t know Biblical history, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were both penned by Luke as a defense of Christianity in Paul’s trial before Caesar. Paul was released, perhaps in part because of Luke’s writings, and served several more years as a missionary before he was re-arrested and beheaded at the order of a subsequent, and apparently less reasonable, emperor.

Why did God allow that? John Howard Yoder explained: “We subject ourselves to government because it was in so doing that Jesus revealed and achieved God’s victory.” At least one Caesar and his court heard the gospel and we ended up with two wonderful histories of the early Christian era.

So we desire both to be faithful to God and submit to government. What do Christians do when we believe the government is asking us to behave contrary to God’s will for us? D. Edmond Hiebert offers some initial guidance:

Peter’s condensed instructions [1 Peter 2:13] did not deal with the believer’s response whenever government demands that which is contrary to the Christian faith. In Acts 4:19 and 5:29 we have the example of Peter himself concerning the Christian response under such conditions. For the Christian the state is not the highest authority, and whenever government demands that which is in conflict with the dictates of the conscience enlightened by the Holy Spirit and the Word, then the Christian must obey the Word of God and suffer the results. ‘The Church soon learned by bitter experience that there are some things which the state has no right to do, and that therefore the counsel of submission has its limitations: But under ordinary circumstances, believers should actively support civil government in its promotion of law and order.

The key here is “a conscience enlightened by the Holy Spirit and the Word”. Since anabaptists and congregationalists also believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through the body of believers another test is revealed. The Word and the Spirit speaking in concert with the body of believers will tell us when the state has overstepped its bounds and when a Christian must say “no” to the state.

Which brings the question – What shape does that holy “no” take?

A History of Contrariness   1 comment

In examining my anabaptist roots, I am struck by how often these advocates for non-violence and separation of church and state used civil disobedience as their means to protect themselves from the encroachment of the government into their faith.

For the purpose of this article, “civil disobedience” is defined as:

Purposeful, nonviolent action, or refusal to act, by a Christian who believes such action or inaction is required of him or her in order to be faithful to God, and which s/he knows will be treated by the governing authorities as a violation of law.

This article further assumes a Christian stance which rejects violence as a means to any end.

Three Scripture passages are generally cited for the proposition that Christians are to obey the government:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to the governors, who are sent by him to punish {24} those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men (1 Peter 2:13-15 NIV).

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men (Titus 3:1-2 NIV).

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities which exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Romans 13:1-2 NIV).

In my prior conversation with Becky Akers, she explained how these Bible verses have been misinterpreted and misrepresented to urge Christians to obey the government in every instance, even when the government infringes upon our right to practice our faith. This contradicts clear Biblical narratives that show that the early Christians did not always obey the government.

The tension in which Christians find themselves is shown in Acts 4 when the Sanhedrin orders Peter and John not to teach or speak in the name of Jesus, and they ask whether it is right to obey God or men. The Sanhedrin believed their authority superceded God’s in this matter. Peter and John took the opposite view.

Paul’s preaching in Jerusalem caused his opponents to incite a riot for which Paul was blamed. The Bible shows that he was quite willing to use the Roman legal system to avoid be flogged for something that was not really his fault. His decision afforded him an opportunity to witness in new ways. Simply being a Christian was a violation of Roman law until Constantine endorsed Christianity. Luther violated the law by arguing with the Roman Catholic Church over matters of Biblical doctrine versus Church dogma. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists violated the law by not baptizing their infants and by baptizing adults previously sprinkled as infants.

We tend to forget that before Jesus began to preach the Jews were certainly in tension with their rulers. Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, tells the story of Jewish resistance to Pilate’s introduction of images of the emperor into Jerusalem. A large number of Jews lay in the courtyard for five days in protest, and when Pilate ordered his soldiers to surround them and threatened slaughter if the Jews did not submit, they instead bared their necks and said slaughter was preferable to the images. Pilate relented, by the way.

Historically, tension between Christians and their governments centered upon either the government’s demand that all citizens subscribe to and follow the practices of a state religion or the government’s prohibition of Christian practices which are central to the faith. Military service became a problem for both reasons. Pre-Constantinian Roman soldiers were required to participate in emperor worship and/or sacrifice to Roman idols. Moreover early Christians understood that killing was contrary to Jesus’ teaching whether done in peace or war. Marcellus the centurion, who was martyred in A.D. 298, objected for both reasons:

I cease from this military service of your emperors, and I scorn to adore your gods of stone and wood, which are deaf and dumb idols. If such is the position of those who render military service that they should be compelled to sacrifice to gods and emperors, then I cast down my vine-staff and belt, I renounce the standards, and I refuse to serve as a soldier . . . I threw down my arms; for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it also by inflicting earthly injuries.

For anabaptists of the 16th century adult baptism and military service were key points of tension with the government. The Martyrs Mirror shows how Christians have responded to demands of the government which directly contradicted their faith. The heroic acts depicted in the Martyrs Mirror may not seem the same as what we call civil disobedience in modern times, but the only real difference is the higher cost to those who defied the government in centuries past. They paid with their lives while we pay with fines and jail time.

Henry David Thoreau developed the modern concept of civil disobedience in the 19th century. In the western world of his era, emperors did not demand worship. The concept of civil disobedience was applied to “social issues” such as slavery, child labor, women’s suffrage, and prohibition of alcohol. Thoreau’s work on civil disobedience influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence.

In reviewing church history, we need to remember that the pre-Constantinian worldview was unfamiliar with the North American understandings of individualism and personal liberty. Marcellus did not throw down his staff and belt to make a statement about who he was as an individual or to strike a blow for individual liberty. Marcellus renounced soldiering as being unfaithful to his true Lord. Anabaptists in the 16th century didn’t have those concepts either. When we talk about Christian civil disobedience we are not talking about Thoreau and his New England Transcendentalism which focused on private conscience as against majority expediency. We are talking about faithfulness to God which transcends all earthly loyalties.

Nevertheless, the scripture passages quoted at the beginning make it clear that we are to be subject to the governing authorities. How is it that one is subject to government, yet refuses to obey it? That would appear to be a contradiction. John Howard Yoder offers an explanation:

It is not by accident that the imperative of [Romans] 13:1 is not literally one of obedience. The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination. This verb is based on the same root as the ordering of the powers by God. Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, . . . is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.

Anabaptists   Leave a comment

There are reasons I’m a Baptist by membership and here is one of them.

A young man grew up in our church, the son and grandson of devout Christians. When he was 8 he walked an aisle and made a public profession of Jesus Christ as Savior and was shortly thereafter dunked in the Chena River. When he was in high school, however, he came to doubt his Christianity. He decided he liked to be in charge of himself. He held this thought through high school into college.

He didn’t exactly quit believing in God. It is hard to live in Alaska and not at least think there has to be a higher order of intelligence behind the beauty here. That’s my own take on it from having been a completely unchurched teen when Jesus reached out to me. I always believed in some sort of high power in charge of Alaska’s beauty. For want of a better term, I called it God, but I by no means believed in the God of the Bible. It was more a god of my own design.

This young man continued to believe that there was something like a god and that being a good person was a good thing, but that whole Christianity thing — well, that put someone else in charge of his life besides him and he wasn’t interested. And he carried that attitude into college.

And then a relationship he had wanted very much ended abruptly and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He realized that as much as he had thought he was in control of his life, he wasn’t really in control of his life. Through that experience, he began to question whether rejecting Jesus as Savior was really the right way to go. Last summer, through the witness of his mother, he rededicated his life to Christian living.

But it wasn’t enough, he realized. He had actively said that Jesus was not God and could not be Savior and Lord of his life. He was sure now that he is a Christian, but as he started reading the Bible, he kept running across verses that said “If you deny Me before men, I will deny you before My Father.” He he knew he had done that. He began to question if that childhood experience of walking an aisle and being “baptized” had any validity.

So today, he gave his testimony before the church and was baptized, not only to assure that he was following Jesus in the appropriate steps of salvation and obedience, but as a public testimony of the inward change he has recently gone through.

Baptists maintain that baptism (full immersion) is an outward sign of an inward change and something to be done only by believers. We don’t baptize babies or very young children because we don’t believe they can grasp the concepts needed for salvation — sin, the need for regeneration, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, repentance. Usually, the youngest candidates for baptism are six or seven and I can count on one hand the number of those very young candidates who are still in church in their 20s and 30s. I tallied up the baptisms at my current church and the majority of them  have been older than 16, which says we are either very good at reaching adults for Christ or that we encourage our children to wait until their salvation is real to them.

Baptists do not believe baptism is retroactive. If you walked an aisle when you were nine and were dunked, but didn’t accept Christ for real until you were 21, you should be baptized now as a believer. If you were sprinkled as a baby (like my husband), that was a pretty ceremony for your parents, but it didn’t mean anything to you, so if you’re 21 and you accept Christ (like my husband), you need to be baptized.

Notice that I didn’t say “re-baptized”. If the candidate that goes under the water is not a Christian, the activity was not a baptism. Only believers can be baptized. Non-believers seeking to please their parents or look good just get wet.

And that is one of the reasons I am a Baptist, because it is understood that this young man was being baptized for the first time, in accordance with New Testament teachings.

This is another one of those church discipline things that modern churches really need to look at. If we’re serious about our faith and want to reach the world for Christ, we must first make sure that we are following His example and the example of the early churches.

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