The second principle of Anabaptist teaching, “The church is a disciplined community of believers,” is closely tied to the first. As we discussed in the last post, modern-day Anabaptists attempt to consistently live as followers of Christ, allowing every aspect of their lives to be changed and directed by their faith. But they don’t do this in isolation. Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups are known for their strong, close-knit churches and communities, which exist partly because of this second principle. In this post, we will highlight three words included in the statement: disciplined, community, and believers.
A Disciplined Church
Let’s return to the 1500s for another history lesson. The first Anabaptists lived in a time when the type of church that people identified with depended mostly on where they lived and who their political ruler was, not on their own personal beliefs. As a result, churches were filled with members who attended merely for cultural reasons, and maybe to avoid being thrown in prison. Although the Protestant reformers brought about many good changes in the church, they continued the practice of recognizing only one strong, state-supported church in a given region.
The Anabaptists were one of the most vocal groups in Europe who challenged this idea. Along with insisting that the church and the state should not be connected, Anabaptist leaders argued that churches should be made up only of those who were true followers of Christ. No one should be forced to attend church, and those who are actually members of a church ought to be sincere in their commitment. Although these ideas are taken for granted by most Christians today, they were quite radical for sixteenth-century Europe! Anabaptists were forcefully opposed by both Catholic and Protestant leaders for their views on the church and other issues.
Since Anabaptist groups only accepted as members those who acknowledged Christ as their Lord and expressed a desire to follow Him in daily life, they expected those in the church to live holy lives. If someone continued to walk in sin and resisted the commandments of the Bible and teaching of the church leaders, they practiced church discipline by removing that person from the group. In fact, the Amish movement separated from the Mennonite church (way back in the 1600s) mostly over some questions surrounding this issue, and most groups of Anabaptists today continue to practice some form of church discipline.
A Community-Driven Church
Anabaptists then and now believe in building strong faith communities, united by a common desire to follow Christ. Mennonites view as their ideal the first Christian church described in the Bible, whose members participated in worship services and meals together, opened their homes to those in need, and voluntarily shared their resources. While one group of Anabaptists, the Hutterites, requires its members to live in communes and to hold no personal possessions, Mennonites emphasize a more voluntary, natural form of community. Members of Anabaptist churches today often live in close proximity to each other and interact throughout the week, not just at worship services on Sunday. Though they tend to have a strong cultural identity, Mennonites believe that Jesus is the core of what unites them, not their cooking or work ethic or humanitarian aid.
A Believers’ Church
As we’ve already seen, the first Anabaptists argued that only believers should be viewed as members of their churches. They also believed that everyone needed to make his own individual decision to follow Christ: a man couldn’t choose for his wife, or a mother and father for their children. For this reason, the Anabaptists then and Mennonites today only baptize youth and adults who first make a profession of faith in Christ. Mennonites view Christian baptism as an outward public symbol of a person’s faith and a declaration of their intent to walk with Christ and in the brotherhood of the church. Because of this belief, no Anabaptist groups practice child or infant baptism.
Many modern-day Christians agree with this view, but in the 1500s, the Anabaptists were the only ones practicing believers’ baptism. If someone had been baptized as a baby or without a personal faith in another church, Anabaptist leaders would re-baptize that person if they became a believer and desired to join an Anabaptist group. (Remember that Anabaptist means “re-baptizer”? Now we understand why that makes sense!) In fact, the Anabaptist movement officially got its start when a group of men and women re-baptized each other at a Bible study meeting in a house!
The church should only accept true followers of Christ as its members. This forms the basis for real community and enables the church to expect its members to live according to the Bible’s standards, and to discipline them when they do not. For living out beliefs like this, many Anabaptists in sixteenth-century Europe were put to death. Thanks in part to the spread of Anabaptist influence, many American churches today teach the same things, thus holding the second principle of Anabaptist faith in common with modern-day Mennonites.