Why Ghanaian Christianity Will Die A Slow Death … Like is Happening in the West

Iconic Frauenkirche Church of Munich
Iconic Frauenkirche Church of Munich

I know that this is a provocative headline, and I have no qualms in putting it this way. I’m forced to pause my next post in the series “Understanding the NT from the OT” because certain recent events seem to have conspired to put this post on a higher priority.

I have at least traveled to or lived in 4 European countries for various short times. And in all that time, I’ve always noticed something that saddened me – the blatant disregard (and sometimes downright ignorance) of Christianity. I remember climbing up a small hill to go into the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral opposite the Lincoln Castle, one of the most majestic medieval church buildings in the UK (and for about 2 centuries, the world’s tallest building in the world). I remember a trip with my friend Gerhard to the Frauenkirche Cathedral, one of the landmarks of the city of Munich (in fact a lot of gifts from Munich feature a picture of that church with it’s 2 beautiful domes, and by law no building within the area can be taller than Frauenkirche’s domes). Whenever I visit these places, I’m struck by the beauty and meticulousness of the work, but I’m also saddened by what they have become today – tourist attractions during the weekdays, and attended by only a few old men and women on Sundays who were probably born into the church and have no other place to meet their old friends. Today Christians in Europe are in the minority, and a small one at that. In the US, the same is happening, though the rate of decline is slower. The interesting thing though is that survey after survey has shown that the majority of people still believe in God, they just don’t believe in the church as an agent of his anymore.

Therefore the people who brought us Christianity are now in need of evangelism. I know that our leading men of God do travel and therefore know of the receding numbers of Christians in these places, but I wonder how many of them have done any analysis of the problem and strategized on how they and their church may act to prevent this inevitable decline that will come. Because if we sit here thinking that we are fine, I can confidently tell you that we are heading in the same direction in Africa and Ghana in particular (you can call that statement whatever you want, and quote me anywhere as well).

This state of affairs in the West has now lead to a resurgence of interest in a particular kind of Christianity which has been in the minority for a very long time in the hopes of learning lessons from them on how to live faithfully as a witness to a world that no longer believes in the church. I’m currently on the last chapter of “The Naked Anabaptist – The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith” by Stewart Murray. Last week, New Testament scholar Scott McKnight posted on Anabaptism here (he self identifies as one, though he’s not in any of their congregations). Other evangelical and emergent church thought leaders have identified with or stated that there are huge lessons to learn from Anabaptism to navigate this difficult time for Western Christianity (Brian McLaren, Frank Viola, Greg Boyd, David Fitch, Alan Hirsch, Howard A. Snyder, Shane Clairborne, etc. etc.).

The question therefore is who were/are the Anabaptists, and what lessons could the church in the West have learnt from them to prevent this drastic decline, or the Ghanaian church learn from them so we don’t have only 20% Christian population in Ghana in the next 50 years, mostly populated by old men and women from our generation?

 

A Short Historical Survey

Before the 16th century in Europe, everyone was or assumed to be 1) A Christian 2) Could only attend the Roman Catholic church. However, in 1517 the German priest and academic, Martin Luther, posted a document on a church door in Wittenburg (called the 95 Theses) , criticizing some of the practices of the Roman Catholic, and thence began the struggle for the soul of the church in what is now called the Protestant Reformation (or simply the Reformation). This struggle spread all across Europe due to the recent invention of the printing press and the ability to quickly circulate subversive printed material easily (including copies of the Bible, previously only available to priests). In Switzerland, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli picked up the fire of rebellion and spread it, and when the dust finally settled Europe had been split between Roman Catholic cities or countries, and Protestant cities or countries.

However, some of the followers of the Protestants, began initially criticizing Ulrich Zwingli for certain beliefs that they felt that the reformation should have also placed on high priority. This new protest spread again back to Martin Luther’s Germany, and the group of people in this protest are those referred to as the Anabaptists. Their fellow Christians in the Catholic and Protestant camps however couldn’t understand them, and so feared their impact that Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwignli themselves are on record for ordering the execution of these Anabaptist “heretics”. As Stewart Murray records, the Catholics did so by burning at the stake, and the Protestants did so by drowning or decaptitation. Fearing for their lives, most Anabaptists fled from mainline Europe into the US, and those who remained went underground and lived their Christian lives in the quiet, for the last 500 years.

What were they protesting about that the Protestant church didn’t want to listen to (and mostly haven’t listened to since then)? And how is that related to the decline in Western Christianity, or ours? Well, it will surprise you that these are not any far fetched accusations, but it’s implementation and prioritization is where the meat is. Here are some of them

 

Jesus Is Not Only To Be Worshiped, But Also To Be Followed

One of the cardinal characteristics of Anabaptism was an insistence on discipleship. To them being a Christian meant one was turning away from the world and it’s standards, and living by following Jesus. Not only was Jesus the saviour, he must be followed as an example, teacher and friend. The Anabaptists accused their contemporaries of reducing Jesus to just some remote Lord which people go to worship on a Sunday morning, but who has no impact on the rest of the 6 days of the week left. As a result, they placed a very high premium on how they can follow Jesus in every situation, and the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, John) was their beloved yardstick, as opposed to the Protestants who loved to quote and debate Paul’s epistles (with much misunderstanding, as today’s knowledge is showing).

In fact this insistence of theirs on whole life transformation by following Jesus, not just worshiping him was evident even to their enemies. Hear Franz Agricola, a 16th century Roman Catholic priest express his befuddlement:

As concerns their outward public life they are irreproachable. No lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating and drinking, no outward personal display is found among them, but humility, patience, uprightness, neatness, honesty, temperance, straightforwardness in such measure that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God”

Of course they had the Holy Spirit in them, he just couldn’t believe it of such “heretics”.

The Church Was Where the Action Was

The Anabaptists believed that the church must be a community of disciples, a place of friendship, a place of accountability and a place where everyone was allowed to speak what the Spirit of God had put on their hearts, as per 1 Cor 14:26. To them church wasn’t just a place for people to come and watch the showmen (musicians and preachers) perform a show and go home to live their lives as they pleased. Church was the place where they ate together, encouraged one another, struggled together, helped one another, learned from each other, queried those that needed to be queried and corrected. It was the place to display a foretaste of the kingdom of God to the rest of the world around them.

The bible was primarily supposed to be read, shared and interpreted by the church together, preventing one person’s personal interpretation from dominating the community. Leadership was not hierarchical, leadership was multiple and accountable to each other, not just to one “founder/head pastor/general overseer”. Teaching in the church was to be multi-voiced, so that others could also share their thoughts on the subject, ask questions or bring in something totally different, allowing the Holy Spirit the opportunity to interject whenever he so desired.

Because of this high level of commitment that was required of each disciple, one had to declare their intent to be submissive to these requirements through the action of baptism (and not the saying of a “sinner’s prayer”). This is where the Anabaptists gained their names from (the word means “re-baptize”). Both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants baptized babies because everyone was assumed to be a Christian. But Anabaptists insisted that being Christian was a conscious choice one had to make because of the commitments involved, and decried any attempt to force people to be Christians by birth through the practice of pedo-baptism (“child baptism”). We have the Anabaptists to thank today for sowing the early seeds that led to our modern insistence on freedom of religion and association at a time when such freedom was frowned upon at the pain of death.

In contrast, the Protestant/Roman Catholic churches seemed the Anabaptists to be just a voluntary association of the saved. People were born into the church, and there was very little insistence on discipleship – on following Jesus and not just worshiping him. Church activities were dominated by the “clergy”, and all that the rest of the church did was just to follow their lead. There was very little concern for the needs of members, and therefore comparatively poverty abounded much more in those churches as compared to the harassed and persecuted Anabaptist churches. To the annoyance of his accusers, when Menno Simons, one of the Anabaptist leaders was arrested and accused of insisting that all Christians must forcibly share their goods (based on Acts 2), he corrected them by saying that it was supposed to be voluntary, and that though they (the Anabaptists) have been able to do this to reduce poverty amongst them, the same could not be said of the churches of his richer accusers who had much more access to money.

 

The Church’s Constant Desire for Wealth, Status and Power is a Snare

The Anabaptists decried any attempt to use the church in support of the state’s agenda, and refused to be just another department of the state’s governmental arms. To them, the church was called to be a witness of the fallenness of human governments, and so they totally rejected any loyalty to any political leader. Theirs was supposed to be a counter-cultural community of people who were good news to the poor, the powerless and the persecuted (as per Jesus in Luke 4:16-21), and who were willing to die in defense of the lives and well-being of others. They refused to focus their energies on being the dispensers and enforcers of moral platitudes to the rest of the world, but rather focused on their communities being the light, showing the alternative way of being human beings in any society.

Again the same could not be said of their Protestant/Roman Catholic brethren, who are on record all throughout history of compromising the witness of Jesus by aligning themselves with one political institution or the other, even against their own fellow Christians at home or abroad. One of the means by which they did this was by finding support for their activities from their flawed interpretation and application of the Old Testament, which is where they could find examples from the kings of Israel and the prophets who prophesied to them. They tended to forget that the Church was now the expanded Israel, and that it’s king was already declared (Jesus Christ) and that prophecy must be targeted at improving and correcting the church, not the world.

As for the desire for wealth and the display of it – culminating in the accumulation of wealth by the church institutions and the use of such wealth in such beautiful buildings as the Lincoln Cathedral that I mentioned above, it is evident for all to see. It is on record that in centuries before the Reformation, when a certain king of France was abducted and ransom was demanded, the treasury of France (a whole country) was so broke at the time they had to fall on the mercies of the Roman Catholic church to be able to pay the ransom. Now that is what I call wealth – and yet the poverty in medieval Europe was phenomenal.

Spirituality and Economics are Inter-connected

I’ve said enough about wealth already in the context of the church as an organisation. In the individual context as well, the Anabaptists insisted that a person’s attitude to personal wealth reflected on a person’s attitude to Jesus. To them, Christians needed to place a high priority on helping others, not accumulating wealth. They placed high premium on the sermon on the mount in this regards, so they might help bring relief to others.

Their accusers on the other hand encouraged the hording of wealth, mostly because the church institutions (not the church members) would then be able to benefit from it through “tithe” and all sorts of cajoling on “giving” to extract money to run it’s agenda of further display of wealth. To soothe their consciences, passages like the sermon on the mount were either spiritualized, or placed on a pedestal for when Jesus returns.

 

Conclusion

There are more accusations I could give than these, but I’m running out of space already. Suffice it to say that the Protestant/Roman Catholic brothers in the 16th century persisted in the activities of which the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists) protested about in Europe, and we see the end results today. Economic and intellectual empowerment meant that people began to ask serious questions of the church in Europe, and it didn’t seem to have the answers to these questions. Most people saw through the hypocrisy and a departure began which still continues today.

Anabaptism was itself not perfect (after all, they are also human beings), but throughout history it has been very difficult to accuse them of not desiring to pursue Jesus authentically, with their life, their wealth and ultimately their blood. Even if you disagree with their methods, their conviction was palpable.

I shook my head when the head of the Presbyterian church in Ghana (a historically Protestant church) was lamenting the abundance of Christianity but persistence of corruption. Maybe he needs to learn from the mistakes of his own tradition, as pointed out by the Anabaptists.

Because a time will come when many will see through the hypocrisy, and that will be our death knell. As a neo-Anabaptist, I implore the church to learn from history because as the famous Spanish philosopher George Santayana said

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, known as George Santayana

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Interpreting the Bible – Lessons I Have Learnt

Many people sometimes wonder how I come to certain conclusions in my articles about Christianity, because I seem to be interpreting the bible in different ways to arrive at different positions than most have always had. So I decided to write this down as a bit of an explanation of what I’ve learnt in my short life reading the bible and being a Christian, and how that has influenced what I’ve written, taught and lived over the years, and what I’ll be writing, teaching and living going forward. If there’s one thing I know though, applying these lessons to the way you look at the word of God will change your life, as it has mine (and will make you less susceptible to all the numerous deceptions blowing to and fro every day). So I’ll start with some that I’ve mentioned already elsewhere, and move to some more difficult terrain.

 

Lesson 1: Chapters and Verses

The chapters and verses in the bible are not “inspired”. They are man-made, an effort began by a certain Prof. Stephen Langton of the University of Paris in 1227. God didn’t put the chapters and verses there. Therefore it is possible that these demarcations may prevent you from seeing the full picture that the divine inspirer of Scripture himself intended that the authors of the books of the bible communicate. As a result, the mantra has been “never read a bible verse on its own”. This I think is the number 1 sin of most Christians with regards to the bible, and we seriously need to repent from this attitude. We need to ensure we read whole chapters to get the full meaning of what is being said, not pick individual verses and twist them to our delight. Examples of such abused passages are Jer 29:11; Ps 105:15; 3 John 1:2;

 

Lesson 2: Audience and Context

The second lesson I learnt was that it was important to know who the audience of a book is, and what motivated the writing of the book. This is of huge importance when we look at the New Testament, especially the Epistles (of Paul, of Peter etc.). In the first century when Paul wrote his letters, they were meant to be delivered to churches, not to individuals (except letters like Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus etc). These letters were read and deliberated upon when everyone was gathered at a meeting, and the Apostles knowing this was the practice always addressed themselves to the church, not to a person. Unfortunately, our individualistic culture today has inadvertently worked to erase this corporate nature of the epistles, and we read it with a “letter to me” mindset every day (as someone said, they are not God’s “love letters” written to us). And for English speaking readers the matter is further aggravated because we don’t have a different word for the plural “you” and the singular “you”. And therefore every occurrence of “you” is taken to be “me”, not “us”. A clear example is Col 1:27, where the phrase “Christ in you” should be read in our minds as “Christ in us”, not “Christ in me”.

 

Lesson 3: It’s contains Stories about Israel and God

Lesson 2 becomes increasingly important when we begin to see what the Bible is truly about – how God intends to save the world through a people called Israel. God’s intent has always been that Israel will be blessed, and the nations of the world will be blessed through them, that Israel will be the light that shines for the nations of the world to see (these are mostly what the NT calls “promises”). Jesus coming and his work sought to show that Israel had failed in that task, and that he was now creating a new people in whom those promises of God will be fulfilled i.e. the church of God. This is what Paul says is the mystery of Christ in Eph 3:10-11  – “His [Gods’] intent was that now, THROUGH THE CHURCH, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (my emphasis). Therefore the Apostle’s ministry was centered on how “the church” as a people will stand out, not necessarily how “I” as an individual will. It is the same as God desired that Israel as a nation will stand out, not necessarily how a particular prophet or citizen of Israel e.g. “David” as a person will. If we don’t get that the bible is about Israel’s destiny (and therefore the church’s destiny), the current winds of individualism, consumerism, selfishness etc. will drown us, because we’ll only look at the bible as some motivational tool for “quick verses” to pursue our personal ambitions, instead of seeking to understand the story of Israel, and how the church together can achieve it.

 

Lesson 4: Worldview is Critical to Understanding the Bible

There is a phrase I grew up with in my life and always believed till now, but which I now find inadequate – “Scripture must interpret scripture”. One of the hardest and rudest awakenings that I had to humbly accept at some point was that without an understanding of the worldview of the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the bible, I will definitely get some things wrong, no matter how much I apply the principles above, no matter how much I want scripture to interpret scripture. For me it was ok if I didn’t pay attention to the right principles of exegesis (interpretation of the word), and got it wrong. But this thing called worldview was totally new to me. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When my old car used to give me a lot of trouble, I would take it to the mechanics, and when they told me I needed to buy a spare part, they always preferred to buy a second hand one (what we call “home used” parts) instead of brand new ones. I never understood this, until I realized later that they recommended this because our spare parts importers were more interested in profits than in solving customer’s problems, so they imported inferior and cheap replacement parts, and sold it at exorbitant prices. Therefore the mechanics had lost faith in the supposedly “brand new” parts, and preferred parts from chopped down cars which were brought from Europe and US.

Now imagine that I’d kept good records of all my repair activities, and I was dead and gone and my grandchild came upon these records. They’d realize that their grandfather always had receipts for “second hand” parts, and they’ll probably come to the conclusion that their grandfather was a miser who preferred to buy “home used” instead of brand new, when in his day brand new parts always worked the best.

This is the problem that ignorance of my worldview and that of the mechanics in my time has brought to my grandson. The reasons behind my actions, he doesn’t understand. He only analyzes what he sees on paper, what he sees in text.

This is the same challenge we are confronted with today. Its 2000 years since Jesus Christ, and all we have as records of him is the bible. And yet we are very confident and cocksure that with the text alone (aka Sola Scriptura), we can understand the people of Israel, Jesus and the 1st Century Christians very well so that we become experts at interpreting the bible. But we forget that a lot of water has passed under the bridge, and we are better off acknowledging our deficiency and beginning a search into their worldview to understand them, before we even attempt to interpret what we see on paper.

And so my world has been rocked to the core by my personal studies in New Testament history and historians, who have moved me off my lazy bum and who are challenging me to acknowledge my ignorance, to sit up and open up to learn more. Until yours is rocked in this way, I’m sure you will be very satisfied with what you know, probably to your own peril.

Let’s go on to 2 more seemingly disturbing facts about the bible and its interpretation.

Lesson 5: The Bible Itself Has Changed

Knowing that we always defend the word of God as “same yesterday, today and forever”, I’ll advise you not to freak out just yet with my above lesson, but read along with me. The Bible has indeed changed over the centuries, and for good reason. Let me explain how it has changed.

The versions of the Bible we have are always written from translations of handwritten copies (or manuscripts) that we have obtained over the centuries. Because the manuscripts were handwritten (because the printing press was invented in the 16th century), the copiers make mistakes, or sometimes intentionally or unintentionally add content that they feel should have been added to the manuscript at their discretion. Therefore, to get the best translation, it is important to use the oldest manuscript, since it will have less errors and “insertions” than the latter ones. And so here is Prof. Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, on the subject.

“Despite what fundamentalist will have us believe that the King James Version of the bible dropped from the sky onto us in 1611, it [the Bible] was not written in English, but in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. It was not written in Western tones, nor in user friendly language for Western peoples. It was a Middle Eastern product … [but] the good news is this. We are closer today to the original text of the NT than at any time in the previous 18 and half centuries. Why? Because today we have over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek NT, just a 100yrs ago, there were only 300 to 400 known copies of the manuscript. “

 Now I know some people who religiously defend the KJV as the only usable, “correct” bible interpretation. All I can say to them is that relying on a bible translated from only 400 manuscripts which are 10th century copies of copies of copies, rather than one based on 5000 manuscripts ranging from as eaerly as 2nd, 3rd and other earlier centuries is pure and unadulterated folly. So, if you are truly serious about a clearer, truer interpretation of the bible, take my advice and find a more recent one. I know some people’s churches even go ahead to print their own version of the KJV and put their names on it, but I’m sorry, that ship sailed a long time ago, and you better get with the times.

 

Lesson 6: The Bible Alone is not Enough

Now I’m definitely going to be hanged for heresy for saying this, but again let’s wait till I unveil my argument before you stone me like the Jews stoned Stephen.

Since the Reformation, we Protestant Christians (non-Roman-Catholics) have always sworn by the statement that “The Bible is all we need to know the Truth” and that any Tom, Dick and Harry should be able to pick it up and by the “the Holy Spirit’s guidance”, be able to understand it. This doctrine is typically referred to as “Sola Scriptura”. And yet, it seems this insistence on “bible alone” has rather led to more divisions in the Protestant church than any other branch of Christianity, and there’s no end to this canker. Interestingly, those who led the separation from the Roman Catholic Church themselves came to the conclusion even before their death that this was an untenable position, yet we their ancestors still hold to our tunnel vision on this subject. Hear Christian Smith concerning the foremost leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther.

“Martin Luther himself assumed that the Bible clearly demonstrated the theological beliefs he championed. However, as the Reformation began to spin out of control (in his viewpoint), he backed away from the perspicuity of only one “correct” view and said ‘I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from Scripture that beer is better than wine”. (Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible).”

One of the easiest trick questions I’ve tried to use to draw people’s attention to this problem is 1 Cor 14:34 – “ Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”. I typically ask the question “where in the law does it say so”, and I’m yet to receive a satisfactory answer to that question. This is because this is not specified anywhere in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), which is what most Christians know as “the law”. However, scholars like John Zens will point out clearly to you that this is contained in the Talmud, or the oral traditions of the Jewish people which they also held in quite high esteem alongside the Torah.

Now, in what way is “Sola Scriptura” able to answer this question, without invalidating itself? Should we not be opening our minds to the fact that this “bible alone” mantra is a dead one (and has been dead for 500 years since the originators themselves gave up on it?). Are we not limiting ourselves in the ways in which the Holy Spirit can use us in pursuit of the kingdom of God?

 

Lesson 7: The Gospel is not as Simple as the 4 Spiritual Laws

I have spoken at length on this subject, so I’ll leave this for another day.

 

Conclusion

There’s much more lessons I’ve learnt that I’d like to share, but we don’t have all the time. Suffice it to say that these leave me feeling quite worried for those who choose to live their Christian lives by feeding on daily devotionals (Daily Manna, Daily Bread, Rhapsody of Realities and such. Seriously?). I feel quite worried for those whose Christianity revolve around TV evangelists (who are so many I won’t bother naming). I feel extremely harangued by those who only listen to and live by what their pastors have taught them. I also worry for the Christian apologist and evangelists who continue not to see the monumental impact of worldview analysis of the life and times of Jesus to the message we preach about him, continuing in the old mold of “come and receive Jesus for forgiveness of sins so you can go to heaven”. It’s so 1611.

Today we have much clearer knowledge of the Bible, of Jesus and of the early Christianity, but we are more satisfied with the quick fix that will give us prosperity, wealth, and emotional satisfaction. Contemplative, questioning and thinking Christian are a rare species, and yet we think we are “free” and the rest of the world is “enslaved”.

If we are going to grow in Christ (and be faithful to him and his purpose for the church), we have to go beyond these comfort zones. My worry is that the literate Christians amongst us who can show the way are sitting in comfort drinking the Kool-Aid, how much more the illiterate amongst us, whom we have a huge responsibility to guide into the truth from the many false sharks around us.

 I can’t end without a quick note from Ben Witherington on this subject

“I once had a student approach me in frustration. He came from the more Pentecostal end of the spectrum and he was one of those people who actually considered too much learning about and of the Bible and its contexts as possibly getting in the way of being a good preacher.  He said to me “I don’t know why I need to learn all this stuff, I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.” 

My response was “yes you can do that, but it’s a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with. Don’t use the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device.” (Ben Witherington, “The Problem with Preaching- Pt 3“)

 

 

 

 

 

In the World, But Not Of the World

Today, we will take a detour down history lane, to learn of how Protestant Christianity has fared over the last 500 years, since it burst unto the scene in the 16th century. You might wonder why you should be interested in this historical discourse, but I’ll encourage you to hold your horses. It seems that human beings never learn from their mistakes, so if we’ll do any better then it’s imperative that we also learn from our own history, rich as it is. Most people find history boring, but if we don’t learn from the past, we are bound to commit the same mistakes of our forefathers. I will plead with you to have patience and analyze most of the concepts raised carefully, as to help you see where I’m headed towards.

When the Ephesians were confronted with a preaching of Christ by Paul in Ac 19, the silversmiths’ reaction to it was quite interesting. They did not seek to challenge this new teaching that Paul was bringing and show how their worship of the Greek goddess Artemis (Romans call her Diana) was superior to the one whom Paul preached – Jesus Christ. No, their attack was based more on their loss of economic livelihood as a result of people abandoning their shrines which they the silversmiths used to make for them. Why is it interesting, you ask? We’ll get to that soon enough.

By way of background and not to bog you down with the details, the Protestant Reformation is deemed to have began in 1517 thereabouts, when the German Martin Luther posted his “Nintey-Five Thesis” on the doors of the “All Saints Church” in Wittenberg, Saxony, where he criticized a lot of the Roman Catholic church’s practices. Some of these included the fusion of the church and the state, clerical celibacy, devotion to saints and the authority of the Pope amongst numerous others. Others like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin both of Switzerland, joined the crusade. It must be said that a lot of Europeans joined this effort of rebellion from Germany, France, Scandinavia, England, Scotland, Netherlands and so on. However, most historians note Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin as the foremost leaders of the Protestant Reformation. This rebellion led to a lot of wars in Europe, until finally some compromise was reached which virtually was a victory for the Protestants. As a result a lot of European nations subsequently adopted the ideals of the Protestant Reformers (whom I’ll heretofore refer to as the “Reformers”).

But then, another group of people began to voice out discontent with the Reformers. They felt that the Reformers had not gone far enough in their reforms, to the extent that some of them accused the reformers of replacing the papacy with their own papacy. Paramount among the leadership of this counter accusers is Conrad Grebel, Menno Simmons and Felix Manz. It is the relationship between the reformers and these second group, mostly known as the Anabaptists, that is of interest to us today. The rallying cry of these Anabaptists was this reminder from Christ – “we are in this world, but not of this world”. Let us now look at the accusations of the stepchildren against the reformers, and whether history has vindicated them or not. We will do so with the help of a Christian classic by Leonard Verduin titled “The Reformers and their Stepchildren”. And before you accuse Verduin of bias, know that he himself is of the Reformed tradition, not of Anabaptism. His choice of the word “Stepchildren” to refer to the Anabaptists is quite appropriate in my opinion.

Separation of Church & State

In medieval times (as we see in the OT), societies were very mono-religious. Every country was bound together by only one religion, and this religion was essentially determined by whatever choice of religion that the ruler of the land preferred. Therefore, it was important in the days of Israel to ensure that the king served Jehovah God alone, so as to ensure that the whole nation also followed. There was very little room for serving a different god than the one the king of your land served, because there was the fear that this could lead to disunity and chaos in the land. This was why the prophets of old directed a lot of their attention at criticizing the kings of Israel. Remember the relationship between kings like Saul, David, Ahab, Hezekiah, Zedekiah and prophets like Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah? It is important make a brief note here that because we don’t understand this background, contemporary Christianity still views the ministries of these prophets only in the light of personal ministry towards these leaders, not in the fact that it was more to safeguard the nation from departing from God through their king.

However, when Christ came, he didn’t concern himself with trying to change the people at the top. Au contraire, he focused on anyone and everyone he met in the street, and sought to create an alternative society of people who existed in their current societies, but lived a different kind of life from everyone else around them. This however, was a threat to the comfort of the ruling elite, who felt that this must be stopped. As a result, we see all the persecution that first Christ, then his apostles and the church encountered as a result of they wanting to be in the world, but live differently from the rest of the world. In fact, the treatment meted out to them is worth many volumes, and we are all familiar with some of them one way or the other.

However, when the Roman Emperor Constantine finally decided to join the church (seeing that the Romans themselves were joining Christianity and living lives which were quite well commended by others), he did what every king of their time knew how to do – nationalize Christianity. To a large school of thought, this was the beginning of the end to simple, Christ centered Christianity, an assertion that I personally agree with. The church now had the powers of the state to coerce everyone to become Christians, and in effect the whole society was assumed (and forced) to be Christian. If you ever come across the term “Christendom”, this effect is what is being referred to. In addition, the attempt to align Christianity with political power is what is mostly termed “Constantinianism” or sacralism, All sorts of people with all sorts of leanings, with totally heathen mindsets and unrepentant lifestyles entered into Christianity, simply because they were under pain of death to do so. Those who believed this was wrong stood with their leader Donatus against it, but with the power of a whole Roman Emperor behind them, the Roman Catholic church persecuted and chased out any strains of Donatism remaining in the empire.

Fast forward to 1517 and the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers aligned themselves with certain political leaders to be able to either gain support against the Roman Catholic church or to even be considered a religion in their own right. In the end, Protestantism was again made the religion of certain geographical locations or even countries. These political powers are what is referred to as “magistrates”. Even though Luther, Zwingli and others had stood against the fusion of church and state, saying that the state had no right to determine the affairs of religion and church, they turned round having formed these alliances, to now say that they were a necessary part of the church and were even God-ordained. In effect, the church needed the “arm of flesh” to survive. Hear John Calvin:

As the magistrates have the duty of purging the Church of offences by bodily punishments and coercions, so do the ministers have the duty of assisting the magistrates by reducing the number of those who offend”

To the reformers, the only way for Christ to triumph was for Christianity to be the religion of everyone. John Calvin states here that if the Church sets upon itself the task of making itself open to the world :

Then he [Christ] will convert the hearts of Princes and their lieutenants, to the casting down of idolatries and the restoration of the true service and worship of God”

This the Anabaptists did not agree with and knew that even the leader of the Reformers Martin Luther himself did not agree with that in the beginning, but now had turned his back to it. From an Anabaptist:

In 1519 Martin Luther began to write against the frightful abominations of the Babylonian Harlot and to disclose her wickedness … but as soon as he joined himself to the secular rule, seeking protection there against the cross … then it went with him as with a man who in mending an old kettle only makes the hole bigger, and he raised up a people altogether callous in sin”.

Against this backdrop, people who refused to submit to this were labeled “heretics” and burnt (“under small fire” which took 2-3 hours before one died. Just imagine that!!). Property was seized and people were banished, repeating the same evils of the Roman Catholics.

Fast forward to today, and the stepchildren have been proven right. Now, we believe in freedom of religion and a separation between the State and Religion in our democracies, even the Ghanaian one. Though most Americans do not want to admit it, their First Amendment which guarantees this freedom came about because of the background of those who first drafted their constitution. They were mostly made up of descendants of Puritans and people with Anabaptist leanings, people who had suffered religious persecution in their European countries before migrating to the New World. They knew by experience what religious freedom was worth and did not want any sacralism of any shade in this new land. It must be noted that sacralism was the root of a lot of other issues raised by the stepchildren against the Reformers, and we’ll see why as we continue.

Leaving Church Discipline to the Church

Because Church and State were now one, there was very little room for discipline, and therefore very uncomplimentary Christianity. How? Well, the Reformers themselves knew that there was the need to insist on discipline in the church, but according to the New Testament, the most severe form of discipline that could be exacted is being sacked/excommunicated from the church. Here was the case however, that they had bound themselves to the state and made it compulsory for everyone to be a Christian, therefore the only other option left to discipline a person was to either banish them from that geographical jurisdiction or to kill them. And because this was such a drastic option, the Reformers were reluctant to do this (especially because there were very few committed Christians amongst them. Most church members were just there for being there sake). This lead to all sorts of vile and sinful lifestyles, and the stepchildren used to point out how hopeless the Christianity of the Reformers were. Interestingly, the Reformers did not hesitate to exact the aforementioned punishments on their critics, and many were persecuted, killed or banished for this. Such double standards.

And yet all the Anabaptists were asking for is that the Church be made up of people who voluntarily wanted to follow Jesus. That way, if they continuously (emphasis please) practiced some sinful behaviour and were not ready to repent, they could just be excluded from amongst them, just like the NT envisages. This was very effective amongst the Anabaptists. Just look at what even a Roman Catholic priest (who we can consider unbiased because they hated the Reformers anyway) wrote about the Anabaptists:

Among the existing heretical sects there is none that in appearance leads a more modest or pious life than do the Anabaptists. As to their outward life they are without reproach – no lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating or drinking, no outward personal display; but humility, patience, uprightness, neatness, honesty, temperance, straight-forwardness, in such a measure that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God.”

And yet, Martin Luther could see these defects in the churches of the Reformers, but was helpless to take any action and rather thinks that God will excuse and forgive them. Below he writes

When they look at us and see the offensive defects with which Satan distorts our churches they deny that we are a Church and they are unable to lift themselves over this … whatever remains of sin this verily offends those spiritual Donatists .. but it does not offend God, seeing that for the sake of faith in Christ He excuses it and forgives it”.

In fact, he know full well that the Reformed Churches were full of unbelievers, and yet didn’t support bringing any discipline in churches as captured below in a letter he wrote to a church in Zwickau:

Such reprimanding of specified persons is not in place except in the gathering of the Christians …, in a public preaching where Christians and non-Christians alike sit together, as in the case in our churches, there the rebuke is to be general”

Interestingly in another breath he planned on how to fix this problem. He wished to create a church within the general church, one made of people who truly want to follow Christ voluntarily. This is where the term “visible and invisible church” came from. He penned this in one of his writings in 1526:

They who seriously want to be Christians and want to confess the Gospel in word and deed, these ought to inscribe their names in a book and assemble in a house by themselves for purposes of prayer, the reading of Scripture, the administration of baptism, the reception the sacrament and to engage in other Christian activities … but I neither can nor may as yet set up such a congregation; for I do not as yet have the people for it. If however the time comes that I must do it, so that I cannot with a good conscience refrain from it then I am ready to do my part.”

It is needless to say that this never came to pass. For how will the State Church now permit a church within a church? Therefore the Anabaptists always accused Martin Luther of turning coat, reminding him of the times when he used to preach these things, yet has now turned around against his own words. Of course most Protestants today now believe in individual decision to be a Christian, but have forgotten or are blissfully unaware that they owe it to the Anabaptists who their forefathers persecuted for advocating such a state of affairs.

The Mindset about The Sacraments & The Priesthood

One of the accusations that was laid at the feet of the Roman Catholic church by the Reformers was their notion of sacrifice attached to the taking of the Lord’s Supper. There is a reason why Roman Catholicism calls their service “a celebration of the Mass” – it was centered on the taking of the Lord’s Supper as some sort of re-sacrificing of Christ. You’ll notice there’s very little emphasis on the word of God in their service.

Because of the pagan backgrounds of most of those who had come into Christianity by force and their familiarity with sacrifices, the Catholic church had placed the whole emphasis of the meeting into focusing on the performance of the ritual of sacrificing Christ and offering him to the congregation in the form of the blood and the body that is offered at such a mass. In fact, the word “hocus pocus” which magicians chant whiles performing their magic acts comes from the priests speaking the words “hoc est enim corpus meum” (“for this is my body”) in Latin. Worse still most of the service was always conducted in Latin, not in the native German, Swede, French etc, probably to maintain that aura of authority and “magic”. And instead of it being something that was shared, it became the right of the Priest to put it into the receiver’s mouth. All these things elevated priests to a certain unwarranted mystical status. Interestingly enough, because people didn’t really need to be true Christians to become members of the church, it also follows that people didn’t need to show any spiritual maturity to be made priests in the church, contrary to the provisions of the epistles of 1 Timothy and Titus. It is no wonder then that such priests were well versed in the rituals than they were in the word, and attaining to priesthood was more a political than a spiritual exercise.

The Anabaptist of course held no such view, and placed no emphasis on the ability of the sacraments to bring salvation to men. They rather held to a personal voluntary acceptance of Jesus, and a strong emphasis on the word of God. They followed the pattern of their dissenting “ancestors” the Waldensians as described below by someone sent to arrest Waldensians.

They know the apostles creed excellently in the vulgar tongue; they learn by heart the Gospels and the New Testament … and repeat them aloud to one another … I have seen some lay-folk so steeped in their doctrine that they could repeat by heart great portions of the Evangelists, such as Mathew and Luke .. so that they could repeat them without a halt and with hardly a word wrong here or there.”.

Interesting complement from one’s enemy, I’ll surmise. And in addition as specified above, they denounced the separation of the lay and the clergy, claiming that everyone was a priest and had every right to carry out all the functions of one. There were frequent occurrences of lay administration of the Lord’s Supper, lay preaching, lay marriages, lay burials etc. Because they believed in people hearing the word and believing, their focus was not on learning how to perform the sacraments, but how to preach the word to convince a non-believer. It is striking to note that the leading Reformer Ulrich Zwingli himself said the Anabaptists were so knowledgeable in the word that it was dangerous to meet them in any debate. This is very obvious because most of the Reformed and Catholic priests just weren’t men of the word. They were politically appointed men, men of the ritual and human tradition. Obviously the only other means to beat someone who wielded the sword of the word skillfully is to use some incongruous human argument, which the Reformers excelled in doing. Even an Anabaptist layman was likely to floor them.

The Reformers did not seem to take a clear stand on the sacrificial mindset attached to the Lord’s Supper, and actually seemed to gravitate more towards it. However, their main point of divergence with the Anabaptist even till this day, is the denial of the authority of a lay member of the church to perform any of the functions of the priest. And to be a priest, you had to be a Reformed priest, not an Anabaptist one. So in effect, they banned all preaching that didn’t originate from a Reformed church’s pulpit, at the pain of death. This unfortunately is one of the traditions left to Protestants by their forefathers which we can’t seem to get our heads around – that we are all priests and have equal rights to every activity that a priest has a right to. Just maybe, we’ll come around to opening our eyes on that sometime soon, as is a lot that the Anabaptists taught.

The Meetings

Because of this continuous fear that if all people do not conform to one practice of serving God then there will be confusion in the society, the Reformers were very wary of meetings held outside the church. In fact, laws were made about having any form of meetings related to religion, failing which one will be put to death. All sorts of ideas were formed about what these men do when they have their secret meetings, to the extent that the precursors to the Anabaptists, the Waldenses, were accused of witchcraft in the ff:

When the Waldenses wish to go to their conventicle they first rub an ointment on their palms .. as well as on their stick, an ointment supplied them by the devil. Then they straddle the stick and fly to whatever place they wish to go … they congregate about tables decked with wine and bread. Devils in the form of billy goats, or dogs … are present; … they worship these. They then present their buttocks to the sky in derision of God”.

All of this simply because they met in the forests and houses in darkness, which made it difficult for their pursuers to find them. But of course they had no other choice, for they met at the peril of their lives. When however a Catholic Priest visited one of their meetings and came back saying that he’d been preaching the wrong thing all along, he was made to publicly denounce what he said.

It is said that 19 men of Anabaptist leanings were ordered to appear at a Reformed church to hear preaching intended to “correct their error”. Of course, they didn’t show up. Their excuse? “God does not dwell in temples made by the hands of men”. Stephen the martyr would definitely stand with them for this response, for it’s the last thing he said which infuriated the Jews to stone him to death. When others were asked why they gather in “fields, forests or private homes”, they shot back “One of your own prophets, Martin Luther, wrote about that kind of meeting (in a booklet entitled Deutsche Messe), saying that men ought to gather behind closed doors to treat of the word and ordinances of God – but added ‘I am not courageous enough to make a beginning, lest it be looked upon as a faction-fomenting business.’”. Martin Luther’s own words were now being used to attack him. Instead of acknowledging that he’d gone back on his own word, Luther wrote in 1530 that such men should be condemned to the punishment of hanging:

Winckelpredigten [lay preachers] are in no case to be tolerated … These are the thieves and murderers of whom Christ spoke in John 7 … And a citizen is obliged, if and when such a Winckelshleiser comes to him, before he listens to him or lets him teach, to inform his civil magistrate as well as the pastor whose parishioner he is … Therefore let everyone ponder this, … if he wants to preach or teach let him exhibit the call or commission that drives him to it or else let him keep his mouth shut. If he refutes this then let magistrate consign the scamp into the hands of his proper master – whose name is Meister Hans [or the hangman]”

Today, Protestants do not forbid their followers meeting anywhere and in some measure encourage others to also share their faith with those not Christian. However, the mindset that a church is only legally gathered when its meeting in the church building is still very much alive in the Protestant mindset. Though most will deny this in theory, in practice it is very easy to prove. To this day, anyone who purports to be having any Christian meeting without the presence of a pastor and some formalized building is looked at with disdain.

Rebaptism

Perhaps the most definitive mark of Anabaptism is what their name stands for – people who believe in conscientious baptism, not child baptism. Why was this such a problem? The argument against infant baptism was not so much the act of baptizing a child as it is the act of forcing Christianity upon people, culminating in sacralism. Just like we mentioned the facts about the fusion of the Church and State, if every child were baptized, then everyone will by definition be a Christian, whether of their own choice or not. This would again “ensure” a homogenous society according to the medieval mindset, since everyone subscribed to that one religion. In fact, the Reformers actually believed at the onset that infant baptism was wrong, as described by Zwingli in the ff:

Nothing grieves me more than that at the present I have to baptize children., for I know it ought not to be done.

At another point, he said the ff:

I leave baptism untouched. I call it neither right nor wrong; if we were to baptize as Christ instituted it then we would not baptize any person until he has reached the years of discretion; for I find it no where written that infant baptism is to be practiced”

But then he gives us the dreaded end result if he tries to do it “as Christ instituted it”.

If I however were to terminate the practice then I fear that I would lose my prebend [daily bread]”

Why would this happen? Because it would mean then that people now would have the right to decide if and when they wanted to get baptized, which would mean creating a society of choice. This the Reformers and especially their magistrate supporters could not allow, coming from their mindset that “choice is bad”.

And so the Reformers did what they knew how to do best at the time – persecute the Anabaptists who didn’t practice infant baptism. In fact, Felix Manz, the earliest Anabaptist leader and martyr was tied up and dumped in a river, to “have his fill” of all the baptism that he wanted. Here is Luther’s rash about face, condemning the Anabaptists for rebaptising adult believers only:

How can baptism be more grievously reviled and disgraced than when we say that baptism given to an unbelieving man is not good and genuine baptism! … What more blasphemous and offensive doctrine could the devil himself invent and preach?”

Today however, most Protestants have accepted the stance of the Anabaptist as the right stance, with the exception of Lutheran and Orthodox Protestants (mostly Presbyterian). The latter now continue to justify this practice of “christening”, appending to it some other attachment called “confirmation” which has no New Testament basis or example. There are many attempts by these traditions to use the Scripture to justify their continuous hold on these traditions, an activity even their forefathers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli could not defend using the New Testament, but only by appealing to sacralist arguments.

Caring For Each Other

We cannot conclude this short discourse of Protestant history without looking into the accusation thrown at the Reformers by the Anabaptists concerning the hording of wealth by the church and mostly the clergy, when the rest of the church folk were living squalid lives. This again was one of the things that the early Reformers had spoken against the Roman Catholic church of. Just like Mobutu of Zaire who had more money than his country, certain priests had amassed such obscene wealth it was amazing. A case in point is presented below:

when Pope John XXII died in 1334 he had amassed a fortune of 25,000,000 florins. For purposes of comparison we may observe that at about the same time, the ransom demanded by the ruffians who had abducted the King of France was set at 800,000 florins, a sum which his subjects had difficulty raising”

The Anabaptists however, believed in members of their congregations helping each other as and when the need arises and the ability is there. Felix Manz, epitomized this when he said – “A good Christian shares with his neighbour when the latter is in need”. This however was misconstrued as everybody being forced to submit all their property to the church. This charge can only be laid at the descendants of the Anabaptists called the Hutterites, but the vast majority of Anabaptists never practiced this. Their idea was simply giving to your brother as he had need and as you had capacity. Menno Simmons was charged by the Reformers with practicing this “community of goods”, to which he responded:

This charge is false and without truth”, he said. He went on by quoting Scripture, as follows: “If there be among you a poor man, one of your brethren, within your gates … thou shalt not harden thine heart or shut thy hand from thy poor brother.” Then he added … that although his people had an abnormally large number of indigent ones, thanks to the prosecutions and confiscations, ‘yet not one of the devout who have joined themselves to us, nor any of their orphaned children, have been left to beg their way … If this is not Christian practice then we might as well abandon the whole Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ..”

If this was our practice of Christianity today, wouldn’t poverty be a thing of the past wherever Christ is named? He then turns round and accuses the Reformers thus:

Shame on you … you who have been unable with your Gospel and sacraments to remove your needy ones from the streets, even though the Scriptures say plainly enough: ‘whosoever hath this world’s goods and seeth his brother in need and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’”

Unfortunately, as in the days of Jesus and the Pharisees, the eyes of the Reformers were too blind to see their own hypocrisy being pointed out to them by the accused. They only heard what they wanted to hear, and after listening to such scripturally sound arguments, still went ahead to kill Menno Simmons.

“ … he was stretched; he prays God to give him grace to bear the torture. He is told to confess in plain language why he has left the pure teachings as taught by Martin Luther and others … And even though you say that this community of goods is meant for you and your people only, yet your heart and ambition are far different, in actuality to have the goods of all men in common.”

In fact, it is quite shocking the following contradiction recorded below by a committee of clergymen in Bavaria in 1528, when they said of the Anabaptists:

That they have their goods in common and bring them together, each member voluntarily, without constraining any to bring all or even a specified portion of it, this we do not consider an intolerable thing or worthy of punishment. Nor are we able to quote Scripture that militates against it. And yet it is to be feared that where such a small beginning is allowed to go on, permitted and tolerated, then it might with the passing of time increase and attain to greater and more inclusive evil. Therefore our opinion is that also such a confessedly trivial and not very culpable plan should be met and obviated with suitable counter-measures, in view of what is likely to develop out of it”

Since when did being charitable to your brother become something dangerous in Christianity? Note again, the lack of scriptural arguments to back their opposition to this practice of the Anabaptists.

Today, this is arguably the point at which the Protestant (and in fact most of Christianity) is failing the most. We are busily enriching the clergy in the name of “doing God’s work”, and the members are left to beg in society. Today the church is everybody for himself, God for us all. We have not so learned Christ, neither have we learnt from history.

Ending This Discourse

It is obvious from above how easily a people who trample over each other in their claim to be following after Christ can be so blinded to him but rather be pursuing some other agenda. It is even more interesting to observe that the arguments raised by the Anabaptists were countered not with New Testament evidence, but either some heathen practices or Old Testament based sacralism. Therefore there is no difference between the Reformers attitude to the Anabaptists and that of the Ephesian silversmiths to Paul. This attitude wasn’t in defense of Christ and his will, but rather about their own will and benefit.

You will note especially that the Reformers started off well with the vision to change Christianity for the better. But all these problems that they themselves fell into was motivated by one thing – not relying on God to achieve his purpose with us. We are a people who are set apart. Any time we kowtow to the world’s demands or try to align ourselves with the world to be able to achieve God’s purpose, we’ll bankrupt our faith. And when it gets to that stage, our blindness tends to be very monumental. We’ll find every reason other than a scriptural one to justify our actions. If the reformers had stuck to scripture, they’ll have definitely suffered a lot of persecution, torture and death, but they’d have left us their children with a purer faith, one that is worth contending for.

As it stands today, many in the Western world have lost faith in Christianity, not because they don’t like Christ, but because they don’t like Christianity, as Ghandi put it. One of the things that stoked this fire of disbelief in Christianity in the last century can again be traced to the sacralist mindset of always being influenced by or seeking to gain the hand of the government in its affairs. The whole world is still reeling from the shock of Adolf Hitler and how the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Germany stood by (and in a lot of cases gave support – to the extent of banning Jewish pastors) whiles 1 million Jews (some even their church members) were tortured and exterminated during World War II. The likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer couldn’t fathom how Christ who wouldn’t countenance Peter drawing a sword to strike someone support such a thing, tried with others to organize some resistance but got himself executed in a German concentration camp.

As Africans get more educated, I can already see a lot of people who are seeing through our hypocrisy and denying Christianity. In fact, a lot of young adults today only attend church because there’s not much to do on a Sunday, or because they’re parents drag them to go to church on Sunday. They only attend church “to fulfill all righteousness”. And I can guarantee you that the next generation of Africans will see less faithful adherents to religious Christianity, much like we see in the Western world.

As for the Anabaptists, I salute them. They are testimony to the fact that a pearl can only be created through suffering. Oh, and I’m not talking about suffering because you have malaria. That’s not suffering, because both Christians and non-Christians alike are all targets of the mosquito. I’m talking about suffering because we believe in doing the will of Christ. There’s a lot to learn more from them.