Healing the Divide II – Grace and Works

Grace

This is the 2nd in my series “Healing The Divide”. Find Pt 1 here

As a young, impressionable Pentecostal, one of the things that was drummed into my head about Jesus and his fractious relationship to certain people groups recorded in the Gospels – Pharisees and 1st century Jews in general – was that these people groups tried to gain their salvation through “works”, whiles Jesus came to bring us salvation through “grace”. As I grew up, I realized that this wasn’t just the teaching of the church I grew up in, but rather the standard teaching in myriads of Ghanaian churches, and indeed in the wider body of Protestant churches worldwide. The cardinal proof-text for this has been Eph 2:8-9.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph 2:-9

And yet over the last century or more, there has been quite a change among scholars about the relationship between grace and works, especially with regards to how 1st century Jews at the time of Jesus understood them. It began with 3 friends, C.H Dodd, David Daube and W.D. Davies. It was taken up further by Krister Stendahl, a Swedish scholar, but was set out in full swing by E.P. Sanders, a student of W. D. Davies. And it focused simply on applying a rule that any intelligent, honest person who wants to know the truth about any other people group or religion can universally agree with.

When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies. (Rule 1 of Krister Stendahl’s 3 Rules of Religious Understanding)

In simple terms, if you want to learn the most about Islam, you should ask a Muslim, not a Buddhist or Christian. Applying this maxim to Judaism i.e. studying Jewish sources to understand what “grace” and “works” meant to them and not what Christians (who can be considered “enemies” in this case) thought they meant, they found out an astonishing truth – that many Christians, especially since the Protestant Reformation, may have misunderstood Paul when he spoke about the relationship between “grace” and works. Today of course, many others like James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright , Scott McKnight (belonging to a school of scholars collectively referred to as “New Perspective(s) on Paul”) have taken up that challenge and have done further research to improve our understanding of 1st century Judaism and therefore these matters of salvation, grace, works etc. But it seems it will take a few light years before this knowledge trickles down to our churches, as many still talk in the same old ways about grace and works. So here’s my attempt to help the process along by bringing them together in the whole that they need to be held in.

Grace and Salvation in the OT

I begin by examining the relationship between grace and salvation from the New Testament’s own historical context – the context of 1st century Israel. And what better place to learn about salvation than the events of the exodus?

The first recorded use of the word “salvation” or “redemption” is used by Moses in his song written to commemorate God’s work of saving Israel from Egypt in Exodus 15.

The Lord is my strength and my defense, he has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2).

After saving them, Yahweh then enacts a covenant with them, and in that process, explains why he saved them.

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deut :7-8)

In other words, God’s salvation of Israel was also by grace – they didn’t earn it. They didn’t work for it. God chose them because of his special promise made to their fathers. The only “problem” is that they didn’t use the word “grace” to describe their salvation in the Old Testament, but if “grace” means unmerited favour like we Christians trumpet everyday, then this fits perfectly with what happened between Yahweh and ancient Israel. For them, works was a means of showing faithfulness to the covenant the God had entered to with Israel, not a means to get saved. As Michael Gorman points out in his book on atonement (which is now my favourite on the subject), the whole point of Jesus’s death as well as God’s previous engagement with the people of Israel was about covenant relationship, which covenant always required both partners to keep the terms of the covenant, whether with Israel or with the church.

This debunks one of the greatest caricatures that many Christians make of Judaism i.e. Pharisees and Jews in general were trying to get “saved” by works. Nothing could be further from the truth, as modern scholarship is discovering.

Having broken this covenant and received God’s punishment for doing so in the form of exile to Babylon, the people of Israel at the time of Jesus were now waiting for Yahweh to re-enact a new covenant with them, by first forgiving them of their previous unfaithfulness or “sins”, as captured by Jer 31:31-34. And this Jesus enacted through the shedding of his blood, though this time he opens the floodgates for others who are not Jews to also be part-takers of God’s new covenant. This was expected to be another work of “salvation”, as expressed by the prophets. The return of Yahweh to enact this new covenant and to “save” them is what Isaiah describes in chapter 52 as “good news”.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns! Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.” (Is 52:7-8)

Grace and Salvation in the NT

In Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, Paul realized that God’s promise to enact a new covenant and to also include the Gentiles in that covenant had been fulfilled. He therefore dedicated his life to letting the world know this, especially the Gentile world. But some Jews were still under the impression that even if Gentiles were now part of the new covenant, they needed to show their faithfulness to Yahweh in the old way – by keeping Torah just as they did. These Jews expected the Gentiles to at least observe the key commands which usually set Jews apart from others – circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, observance of the holy days and eating “kosher” i.e. observance of food laws (Col 2:16). These, scholars point out, are what Paul describes as “works of the law”. This became a point of disagreement between Paul and these people he called “Judaizers”.

Paul argued in his letters, especially in Romans and in Galatians, that the Gentiles do not need to show their faithfulness to Jesus by observing Torah (the Law), but simply by faith in Jesus and faithfulness to Jesus alone. Part of the problem was that Torah itself was meant to separate Jews from Gentiles, therefore keeping it would break the new union between the two that Jesus now provided. Paul was at pains to show then that in Jesus, the Law was no longer in effect, and this he did with his letters.

This is why the same Eph 2, expounds what “saved” means – “saved” means being made eligible to be part of God’s covenant people.

Therefore, [picking up from arguing that salvation is by faith, not works] remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done by human hands) – remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11-13)

In effect, just as God rescued Israel by “grace” based on his love for their father Abraham – the faithful one, in the same way God is now rescuing the whole world based on his love for Jesus – the faithful one.

So What About Works Then?

So if keeping Torah was bound to bring back the divisions again, does that mean the people of the new covenant do not have any law to guide them? Far from that, I say. In the same Eph 2, Paul makes a very profound statement, stating the REASON why we are saved.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10)

A 1st century Jew reading this would not have been surprised at all, because as in the old covenant, covenant membership MUST always lead to covenant obedience. The salvation of the people of Israel from Egypt was for a purpose – that by obedience to Yahweh, they may show the world his design for human existence. Hence the expansion of that salvation to cover the Gentiles is still meant to achieve the same thing – that they may do “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”.

It is here that Jesus’ life and commands in the Gospels take their place of pride. The “good works” are not a vague term that we can define for ourselves (as I often hear some preachers do). Peter explains exactly what “good works” means by referring to none other than the life of Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good …” (Act 10:37-38)

This is also why I really appreciate the Epistle of James – because he makes the linkage very clear – faith without works is dead. Being a Jew, he know that faith without works is what led to the Babylonian exile, and Paul like James, knows that our works will be judged in the end for faithfulness.

their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light” (1 Cor 3:13)

In fact I thank God everyday that Martin Luther’s attempt to have the Epistle of James and the book of Hebrews removed from the Protestant canon failed (because it somehow advocated “works” according to his definition of it). It would have been a great disservice to the church.

Reflections

The God of the Bible has shown himself to be a God of covenants. Christian understandings of salvation, grace and works must be primarily taught of as a means for us to enter into and stay faithful in God’s covenant relationship with his nation – which in the Old Testament was Israel, but which in the New Testament is Israel expanded to include Gentiles.

However, this way of understanding salvation, grace and works is not the typical way it is taught in churches today, because it is at variance with the way Protestant Christianity has first and foremost misunderstood ancient Judaism as a “works-righteousness” religion, and thence constructed itself as a “grace-only” religion. Some in this Christian tradition have taken this “grace-only” language to such extremes even beyond the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, and any hint that Martin Luther or John Calvin et al may have been mistaken in their understanding of Judaism (which should be normal, since they didn’t have access to the knowledge we have today) is met with accusations of heresy. But for me, an understanding of the New Testament based on a proper, contextual understanding of the Old Testament is vital and yields the following benefits.

  1. The current modes of speaking of “grace” and “salvation” lend themselves to individualism. Salvation is a call to each individual to participate in God’s covenant purposes he has already established before the foundation of the earth. Thinking in this mode expands our vision of God’s purposes beyond “me, myself and I” to “what has God done and is doing with me, and with these brethren of mine”.

  2. Current teaching in Protestant circles tends to not know exactly what to do with the church. We quote the terms “body of Christ” with very little effect, because our gospel and our understanding of salvation is very individualistic, we don’t see the covenant, corporate nature of this people we gather together every Sunday are meant to achieve a goal that no other group on this earth can achieve.

  3. An understanding of “grace” as God’s means of reconciling all forms of ethnic, racial and socially diverse people into one united body through the death of Jesus would have empowered the church to stand against 400 years of slavery in Europe and America (heavily engaged in by “Christian” nations), colonialism and its abuses (same here) , apartheid in South Africa (openly supported by the Dutch reformed church, whose members were the political leaders), anti-semitism and Christian participation in the killing of 6 million Jews in Germany (again, whose political leaders where either Catholic or Lutheran), and participation in countless wars with fellow Christians and non-Christians alike. Instead, the church would have behaved like Andre Trocme and his church in Le Chambon in France, who harbored Jews at the peril of their lives during World War 2 (when confronted by the authorities about habouring Jews his response was “I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings”). I was indeed surprised when I got to know that during the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther unfortunately supported the killing of Jews. Reflecting on it, I realized that if his understanding of “grace” didn’t involve God’s reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, but was focused on how people got a ticket to heaven, then it was bound to happen.

  4. Because of the denigration of “works”, Christians have tended not to pay attention to Jesus’s own life and examples – preferring to see them as “too hard” and meant for heaven, or reading them as nice Sunday school stories from which moral platitudes may be obtained. Any attempt by Christians to take Jesus seriously is met with the charge of “trying to gain salvation by works”.

  5. Talk of the Holy Spirit is again, individualized. Instead of the Spirit being the means by which the church is guided to reach its goal, it is spoken of largely in terms of how a particular person can have the Spirit as a genie in the bottle – rub it the right way and say all your wishes, and it will be done.

Conclusion

These days, even the New Perspective on Paul is becoming old news, as others are building on that work to further expand our understanding of Jesus. Certainly, salvation must lead to works. God accepts us by looking at the sacrifice made by Jesus – but he always had a goal – to co-rule this world with his covenant people. This is what Adam and Eve failed at – without dependence on God (in a covenant of obedience), they were bound to follow their own way of claiming to “know good and evil”. In the same way, without faithfulness to God in covenant relationship as modeled by Jesus, the church will go wrong, and do all that it was rather supposed to stand against.

Grace and works cannot be separated. The former must lead to participation in the latter. Thank God for the New Perspective(s) on Paul, and may others take what they’ve done and open further insights in faithfulness to Yahweh, just as the Protestant Reformation did 500 years ago.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has Conquered, Let us Follow Him.

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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.