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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God Worshipers, or Jesus Followers?

follow-jesus-meme

In my last post “Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives”, I made the following statement about how historical Anabaptists viewed the Reformers that surrounded them, which I quote here:

Most Anabaptists felt that the reformers were more interested in worshiping Jesus, not in following him.”

Interestingly, the more we thought of this statement at my church, the more we realized that we in Ghana are facing the same problem

Most Ghanaians Christians are more interested in worshiping God than in following Jesus.”

Why Do I Say So?

Well, you only need to ask a few questions and take a look at both the liturgy and the music of most Ghanaian churches to realize what is going on.

Ask A Ghanaian Christian

Ghanaians are a very religious people, probably one of the most religious nations in the world. 98% of the population claim a religion, and 70% or so of them claim to be Christian according to census information. If you ask a typical Christian in Ghana why they go to church, they answer that they go to worship God. Some say that as a human being one must acknowledge that there is God in this world, so one must worship him so everything goes right for you. Some will even quote Heb 10:25, saying that even the bible says we should not stop going to church. The fact that not only that verse but the one before it speaks of encouraging one another to love and good deeds (aka following Jesus) is lost on them.

Interrogate Ghanaian Christian Music

When you listen to most Ghanaian “gospel” music, there is very little mention of Jesus. Most of the songs, (even the very old ones we used to sing when we were kids) talk about God and most people when asked will refer to the trinity, claiming talking about God is talking about Jesus anyways. However, much of the “God” songs are simply focused on praising God for putting food on the table or for saving them from their “enemies”. There are very few references to the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Songs about following Jesus are almost non-existent. Songs speaking of Christian community, about resurrection, about the new heavens and the new earth, about suffering for Jesus’s sake, about carrying each other’s burdens etc suffer the same fate. Our music is centered on a falses sense of humility and praise to “God” for not having rocked the boat, and in more recent times with the sweep of penteco-charismatism, songs about the Holy Spirit, prosperity and bare-faced individualism. The least said about songs connecting contemporary Christianity to it’s Israel heritage, the better. Whenever there is mention of Jesus, its only probably to refer to his death on the cross and the forgiveness of sins we receive. In fact I’ve seen many Ghanaian Muslims actually sing many Ghanaian gospel songs, simply because there’s very little in our “God music” that cannot fit in Islamic theology about Allah, whereas early Christian teaching about Jesus actually contradicts Islam or any other religion and so theologically sound songs about cannot be co-opted by any other religion without questioning itself.

Observe a Service doing “Worship”

As with most Christians elsewhere, the word “worship” is now associated with singing slow songs in a somber mood, mostly in an attitude of submission towards – guess who – God. The songs that accompany this activity again hardly mention Jesus, and focus on “glorifying God”. In Akan, one of the terms for this is “making God big”. The fact that “worship” as Paul mentions it in Rom 12:1-2 is about the community offering itself as a sacrifice is totally co-opted by the individualistic sense of being prostrate before God in awe of his might. It is now high fashion to have huge “Worship Concerts” with big name singers, who promise to lead us into a certain atmosphere of “worship”, making Ghanaian Christians think that worshiping God in the right way (aka via the right musical environment) is the pinnacle of Christian experience.

Observe the Life After the Service

After all this work of making sure we’ve done the right things vis-a-vis God, most Christians then go back to their week to do the same old things which is sinking the nation into the pits of corruption, poverty and injustice, and only come back on a Sunday to “give God the praise and worship”. There’s very little sense and very little intentional organization to make visible the fact that our neighbourhood and our country needs to see Jesus being displayed day in and day out in the ordinary lives of Ghanaian Christians. The cycle only repeats itself. Of course once in a while the cycle is interjected with a “mega” event with many invited guests to vim us up, but all in the same direction.

Indeed much Ghanaian Christianity is not interested in the things that make for love, justice, mercy and peace. Worshiping the right God is all that matters. Even our local languages use the same terms when speaking of being a Christian. Akans say “Nyame Som”, Ewes say “Mawu Subosubo” all meaning “worshiping God”. And when one actually does an in-depth analysis of what most Ghanaians mean by “God”, you will find that it’s more a cultural “God” than the creational monotheist Yahweh of the people of Israel.

How Did We Get Here?

In a sense I don’t blame Ghanaian Christians alone. Some of the blame lies with the missionary efforts laid down by the European missionaries who came to Ghana. These missions were supported by European churches which were themselves quite Christendom oriented in their outlook, whose secondary goal was to “civilize” the African and push them to abandon their old Akonedi, Antoa, Yewe etc gods. The focus was on changing the God they served, not necessarily leading them to question the social, economic and political structures that existed in the light of the knowledge and following of Jesus. If that wasn’t the case, we should have seen the early churches founded by these missionaries bent on following Jesus would have been quite diametrically opposed to colonialism and exploitation of the African nations. But as history shows, it was about getting Ghanaians to worship God and not challenging their fellow European, largely Christian, colonialists in their perpetuating of injustice and oppression.

As a result, Ghanaian Christianity is now much more of a syncretism of “God worship” and a host of cultural baggage, mixed with European culture. Imagine the difficulty that Ghanaian Christian young couples have to go through to get married. Most have to go through 2 wedding ceremonies with all its attendant bank breaking costs because the cultural marriage ceremony has been deemed not enough, and whether overtly or covertly, a European white wedding needs to be appended. Ghanaian Christians have to endure high costs of conducting funerals of their loved ones because we have been more worried about “worshiping God” than we are about the tragedy of spending so much money on the dead, when the living cannot afford to pay their school fees. Ghanaian Christians are caught up in building bigger churches “to the glory of God”, when the poor in their midst suffer in squalor. Who cares about questioning Ghanaian culture regarding marriage and funerals, who cares about questioning how we use our money, if “worshiping God” is all it is about?

What Was the Call of Jesus?

And yet Jesus didn’t seek people who will worship him. He sought people who will follow him. That’s why his followers are called disciples – a word which connotes apprentice, not worshiper . When he called his first disciples, he told them to follow him, so he will make them fishers of men (Mt 4:19). He told them to take up their crosses and follow him (Mk 8:34-35). When stating his manifesto in the Sermon on the Mount, he challenged his listeners to not just be people who call him “Lord, Lord”, but actually do the will of his father (Mt 7:21). When he was leaving his disciples, he gave them a task – to make more disciples who will be obedient to him, not just worship him (Mt 28:18-20). It is no surprise that his disciples, before being called Christians, were called FOLLOWERS of the way (Act 9:2;19:9;24:14).

The Time for Change Is Now!!

And so my church, The Jesus Community Agbogba, knowing that it is madness to do the same things and expect a different result, has decided that we are going to place the emphasis where it should be – on following Jesus, and doing so together. And this we intend to do not by talking, but by action with the help of the Holy Spirit. Although our small community is dominantly poor and we already do place high value on supporting each other, we’ve recommitted ourselves to “not get tired of doing good” (Gal 6:9), but rather continue to practically show love for one another. We’ve decided that music is an integral part of shaping our thinking, and therefore we will write and sing songs that reflect our desire to place Jesus, Christian community and the pursuit of his kingdom as the center of our lives. There are many other things that the Christian culture around us does as part of church practice which we believe do not innure the benefit of discipleship and community, and these practices we’ve already rejected and will continue to hold our ground on. We haven’t got it all figured out, but we know that it is only when we are intent on following Jesus he reveals himself to us and that we see where we need to improve, and we are committed to doing so with the help of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

The question I’ll like to ask many Ghanaian Christians is: Are we God worshipers, or Jesus followers?

Vicit Agnus Noster, EUM SEQUAMUR – The Lamb has Conquered, LET US FOLLOW HIM

Once Saved, Always Saved? Of Course!!

Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc

A few days ago someone asked me a question that I’d been asked quite a few times before, and this time I couldn’t bring myself to give him a direct answer to his question. This is because over the years, my own understanding of the issue had grown beyond “is it this or that” to questioning the assumptions behind that question. Since my alarm deceived me and made me wake up at 3 am instead of 5am this morning, I thought to make good use of the time and share here the question and how I now approach it.

The Question

Is it possible to lose one’s salvation or is it ‘once saved always saved’?”

This is typically asked by someone who tends to be worried that a fellow brother or sister may be taking their “salvation” for granted and not living according to what the questioner expects them to live as a Christian. The legalist in us then seeks to warn the “sinner” that they may loose their salvation as the New Testament would seem to suggest in different places, whiles the “sinner” will also strongly hold to the libertine stance of “there is no condemnation for me” also found in so many other places in the NT.

How to resolve it? Challenge the assumptions.

The Assumptions

One of the greatest achievements of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was to put grace front and center of the Christian life and doctrine, and we can all be thankful for that. However, this achievement was not without a fair amount of “demonization” of 1st century Judaism by interpreting the letters of Paul in a certain angle.

The Roman Catholic church had taken up the payment of penances and indulgences as a means of giving one’s favourite dead grandmother a quick passport to heaven instead of her spending a few hundred years in purgatory (after all who doesn’t love their adoring grandmother). This practice became an issue of concern to Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other leaders of the protest movement, and to buttress their arguments against an obviously wrong practice, they harnessed Paul’s writings on grace against law to finally break away from the Catholic church. In this scheme of things, the Roman Catholic church were cast as Paul’s 1st century “Judaizers” who thrived by “works” aka penances and indulgences, whiles they the reformers represented Paul, wielding one thing only – grace. The rest as they say is history.

Unfortunately this has coloured the way a lot of us read the Old but especially the New Testament, and even the gospel itself has been reduced to a question of grace as opposed to what it is about – that Jesus is Lord of the world.

What the past century is teaching us though is that Judaism was not quite the “works” religion that we thought it was (or at least not as defined by the Reformation). And in fact if we are to pay better attention, we might realize that Christianity and 1st century Judaism have a lot more in common, and maybe we have been asking the wrong question about salvation being lost or not for quite a while.

The Reality – Grace In the Old Testament

A closer attention to the Torah seems to yield the fact that Israel was a chosen nation by grace. They didn’t work for it, they didn’t have to pay any penances or indulgences to be a chosen people of God. They were chosen because their forefather Abraham had shown faith in God’s promise to remake the world through him. Simple and short.

In fact, Moses had to remind them how they become a chosen people: because he loved their ancestors.

Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 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 …”

Deut 10:14-15 “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today.”

Do you realize the similarities between this and Paul’s statements about being chosen, being saved, grace etc not because of our “works” but BECAUSE GOD LOVES JESUS and Christians who are in Christ are also loved and saved?

Rom 8:1 “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

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 3:6 “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

These similarities should tell us 2 things.

  1. There is very little doubt that the principle of favouring a people because of someone else’s status before God is what runs through both the Old and New covenants and these 2 people are Abraham and Jesus Christ. In the case of the Old covenant, being born an Israelite was all it took, in the case of the New covenant, being born of Christ is all it takes.

  2. The point about grace is about election – who are the chosen people of God. An individual may be added to the people of God (aka saved by grace), but the covenant is not just about their individual selves but about God’s intent for the corporate entity called “the people of God”. In the latter, it is Israel, in the former it is the church.

Therefore if the old covenant only required being born an Israelite, then one needed to somehow declare oneself not an Israelite anymore for one to be outside the grace of God. I believe the same applies to a Christian. Once saved, they are indeed “under grace” forever unless they choose not to be.

The Caveat – Covenant Faithfulness

But the point of being the chosen people of God was always meant to achieve something beyond themselves. The point of being a chosen people was so they could point the rest of the world to Yahweh. To enable them do this, Yahweh gives them a set of laws to obey which if they obeyed, it will be well with they themselves as well as draw others to be attracted to this god called Yahweh.

Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”

The above harkens back to God’s promise to Abraham

Gen 12:2-3 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; … and all peoples on earth will be blessed THROUGH you.”

What was the consequence of covenant unfaithfulness? Not that they will no longer be considered God’s chosen people (people of grace), but even whiles still being considered so, will suffer judgment, great loss and ultimately exile, as documented in Deut 28-30. Of course we know that these judgments did come upon them with the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and the evidence for that is well documented in the stories of the kings and prophets.

What do we find in the New covenant? Jesus launches his ministry and calls many to follow him. He tells people that being children of Abraham is no longer enough, but rather following him is. Behaving strikingly like Moses giving the law to Israel, he also takes his place on a mountain and delivers what most scholars refer to as his Torah in the Sermon on the Mount. Even while delivering it he places down his warnings as well, just like Moses.

Mt 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Elsewhere in John 15 he says he is the vine, and his followers are the branches. But they will be judged if they don’t bear fruit.

John 15:5;16 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last”

The Answer To The Question

It would seem then that although the covenants may be different, the intended goal was and has always been the same. God chooses a people out of his love (grace) and not because of what they’ve done (works), and sets them on a journey beyond themselves to do WORKS because of his redemptive plan for the whole world. The same Ephesian letter says it quite succinctly.

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

Grace always goes with covenant faithfulness, and the disciples being normal 1st century Jews (and not 16th century Europeans) didn’t pretend about this at all even in the new covenant.

Its sad to note then that Martin Luther in his unfortunate attempt to demonize works, was actually in favour of removing the book of James from the Protestant bible because James said things like this

James 2:14 “Faith without works is dead”

That would have been a grave loss to the Protestant church if the other Reformation leaders had agreed to this proposal.

Salvation then (as put in the original question. Salvation means much more but we’re sticking to the above usage) is about inclusion into the people of God through the person of Jesus Christ. God has no intention of taking that inclusion away from you if you don’t exclude yourself. After all what shall separate you from the love of God (Rom 8:35)?

However, it is a recruitment call of those who are glad to participate in God’s redemptive work for the world. Non-participation, or false participation, will always go with severe judgment. The old covenant had it, the new is not getting rid of it anytime soon. Not even if Martin Luther wants to.

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

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.