Uncovering The Spirit of the Swiss Brethren

Four hundred and eighty years ago in the small town of Grossmuenster, Switzerland, a dozen or so men trudged through knee deep snow to the home of Felix Manz. What transpired that wintry night is called by some church historians "The most revolutionary act of the Reformation." Sadly their story lies hidden under piles and piles of eccisiological baggage. Let's give it another look, however, for therein we might find clues from the Spirit of Jesus for the church in the new millennium.

What this handful of brave men were about to do on that January night in 1525 was to get "re-baptized", but this time as adult believers. Perhaps you have heard of them: the Swiss Brethren (later called the Anabaptists). As one-by-one they were baptized, upon their confession of faith in Christ, they also covenanted together to live a lifestyle reflecting the early church. One historian noted, "They dared to form a church after a New Testament pattern."

The pattern they followed: they went from house to house and emphasized the absolute necessity of a personal commitment to Christ; they called out for laymen to get involved in witnessing, and to baptize those who put their faith in Christ; they shared a simple bread and wine as the Lord’s Supper when they met together in "house churches" throughout the week. Church for the Anabaptists was not on Sunday but everyday of the week!

The results were nothing less than those of biblical proportions! Overnight, hundreds upon hundreds were converted. From a small village in the Swiss Alps, the movement of "Re-Baptism" spread throughout much of Austria, southern Germany and later to Holland and Moravia.

All this growth in the Kingdom came not without a tremendous cost of lives, however!  Author Paul Hattaway (The Heavenly Man) writes about this issue from first-hand perspective:

It seems that change is rarely – if ever – welcomed in the Church. Church history has shown it is easier for a sleeping church to attack the messengers of change that God sends, rather than accept their teachings and possible corrections. This was the case with the Old Testament prophets whom God sent to Israel, and this has been the case throughout Church history to the present day.

In one year, 1529, more than 350 Anabaptists were martyred! This was a mere four years after those initial baptisms in Grossmuenster. Most of these dear brothers and sisters were drown in the rivers and lakes of central Europe, given a mean-spirited and mocking death by a "3rd Baptism". Thousands more died within the first generation at the hands of the Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed churches! An executioner of that time cried out exasperated: "What shall I do, the more I execute, the more they increase!"

What was the Anabaptists’ big sin in the eyes of the established church?? 

They believed in a complete separation of Church and State and that religion is an individual heart issue with each individual responsible to God. They also rejected infant baptism (believing instead in a "believers baptism"), and sought to live their new life in Christ DAILY, in a "corporate", relational way — putting them at odds with both the Catholic and Protestant institutional churches of their day.

New Wine Needs New Wineskins

Be a student of Church history. Look at those little groups who came before us. Drink deep of their experience. Learn what they went through. Read their messages. Read their history. … We will never get anywhere unless we know ahead of time what they already discovered! We are not to begin at zero. We must begin, rather, where they left off.   Gene Edwards

To really feel the heart-beat of the Swiss Brethren we have to realize that their desire for a New Testament church was born out of their passion for Jesus, not radicalism for the sake of radicalism, or reform for the sake of reform. Their constant cry to the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.) was that they had stopped short of going all the way with what the Scriptures clearly held forth as a model for church and New Testament lifestyle! "Let’s establish a free church composed of voluntary believers", they argued.

Many today are crying out for a 2nd Reformation of the church, saying that Luther didn’t go far enough. Luther changed the theology of the church but not it’s form, it’s structure. What we have today is an unlikely – and I believe unhealthy – mix of 4th Century "Constantine Church Structure" with a 21st Century "Outpouring of the Spirit". To use Jesus’ words we are "Pouring new wine into old wineskins" and suffering the results. As a church we are not healthy and often resemble a burst wineskin more than a victorious Bride.

Just as the Anabaptists fought and died trying to put new wine into new wineskins, we must battle on also!! We need to live a New Testament lifestyle and put it into a New Testament structure that "fits" into today’s world.

As Hal Miller writes: Radical church renewal seeks to transform the contemporary church according to principals of church life found in the Bible. The goal is not to imitate the first-century church, for our modern social reality is different from the first-century. The goal is rather to create a church experience that is both true to biblical principles of church life and appropriate for our modern context. (Quoted in Going to the Root by Christian Smith)

Yours for the Kingdom,

Jeff Gilbertson

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