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Anabaptist church ordinances

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The Anabaptists*, like other church reformers in the 16th century, wanted to base their reforms entirely on the Word of God. On the basis of their study of Scripture, the Anabaptists came to believe that a church should practice at least three basic church ordinances: baptism of believers, church discipline and the Lord’s Supper.


Baptism of believers (Matthew 28:19-20)

The baptism of believing adults was the most visible identifying mark of the true church, and could not possibly apply to newborn infants. Infants and small children cannot understand teaching about salvation, nor can they believe it, repent and promise to live lives of obedience after their baptism. For the Anabaptists, baptism was not a sacrament to be used by priests; it was an external sign of interior faith.

The early Anabaptists very often spoke of a “three-fold baptism”, by which they meant that one was first baptized by the Holy Spirit, then in water and finally in blood.

Baptism of the Spirit

The Anabaptists rejected the idea that water could become a sacrament that conveyed grace. They maintained that “the water was just water”; in itself, it was not holy or really very important. It was the inner baptism of the Spirit that was primary and essential. It was this spiritual baptism that led believers to repentance, faith and commitment. It was this baptism of the Spirit that regenerated believers and granted them the spiritual power to become obedient disciples.

Baptism in water

Water baptism was secondary, but this did not mean that water baptism was optional or unimportant to Anabaptists. Water baptism was a necessary outer witness to the inner spiritual change. Baptism in water also had a crucial role to play in establishing the visible Body of Christ on earth. When believers accepted water baptism, this was their public commitment to the church, “the pledge of a good conscience” before God and the congregation (I Peter 3 :21). Water baptism could not be ignored or lightly set aside.

Baptism of blood

The phrase “baptism of blood” rightly brings to mind martyrdom, which was a terrible reality for more that 4,000 Anabaptists in the 16th century. But the phrase had a less fatal meaning as well.

The Anabaptists believed that after the baptism of Spirit and water, they would still face a constant struggle against “the flesh” and “the world”. There were human failings that had to be resisted constantly, and the power of the Spirit had to be invoked with the same constancy. This “killing of the old Adam” was a third, painful and continuing “baptism”. The Anabaptists expected the life of faith to be a continual-but successful struggle against temptation.

If believers were eventually called to witness to the truth by accepting death as martyrs, they had already prepared because of the “burying of the old Adam” that was supposed to occur daily. The baptisms of Spirit, water and blood fell to women and men alike. Approximately a third of all Anabaptist martyrs were women.

Church discipline

The three-fold admonition (Matthew 18:15-18)

Baptism was also important because it was a sign to the congregation that new believers bound themselves to church discipline. Matthew 18: 15-18, said the Anabaptists, provided the proper, biblical order to be followed for church discipline.

Confession and absolution

In the first place, church discipline, which the Anabaptists called “the ban”, provided a way for church members to confess sin, receive forgiveness and be re-admitted into the congregation.

The pure church

A second function of the ban was to maintain a vital and reformed church. The Anabaptists were convinced the true church would be made up of those who had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and had become spiritual sons and daughters of God. Such “members of the Body of Christ” would live visibly new lives. Just as Christ was pure and holy, so also His members were to be pure and holy. The ban provided a way to maintain holiness and purity in the church.

Of course, this high calling was not always attained. Nevertheless, the Anabaptists soon gained a reputation for being sober, upright and honest people. There were actually several cases of people arrested on suspicion of being Anabaptists simply because they had stopped cursing, gambling and getting drunk.

They were not released from jail until they had proven that their tum for the better had nothing to do with joining the Anabaptists.

The Lord’s Supper

A Memorial (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)

All Anabaptists rejected the idea that there was a real, bodily presence of Christ in the bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper. The bread, they said, was just bread, and the wine was just wine. The Lord’s Supper was a memorial to be celebrated by baptized and disciplined believers, not a re-creation of Christ’s sacrifice performed by priests on behalf of sinners.

The key words of Scripture supporting this understanding of the Supper are found in I Corinthians 11 :23-26. For the Anabaptists, Jesus’ words “Do this in remembrance of Me” indicated that the celebration of the Supper was a remembrance of Jesus’ death and sacrifice.

Celebrated worthily (1 Corinthians 11:28-29)

Believer’s baptism and submission to church discipline were prerequisites for partaking in the Lord’s Supper. Since the Lord’s Supper was a celebration of unity in the Body of Christ, each member was to do a careful self-examination to ensure that the Supper was being celebrated “worthily”. In this way, the ban prepared the way for the Lord’s Supper, since unworthy members were disciplined and called to repentance before the church celebrated together. The Supper, the Anabaptists said, was meant to be celebrated by those who had a living faith and who demonstrated their faith in their daily living.

Recommitment to brothers and sisters

In Anabaptist congregations in the 16th century, celebrating the Lord’s Supper was a powerful sign of renewed commitment to the fellowship. By sharing the loaf and the cup of the Lord, members were signifying their willingness to give their lives for one another. In the 16th century, this was not taken lightly. Anabaptist prisoners were almost always tortured and asked to give the names of their fellow church members. In this context of persecution, celebrating the Lord’s Supper together was a powerful symbol of common commitment and purpose.

Consequences of Anabaptist church ordinances

Church ordinances can be thought of as doctrines made visible. Anabaptist church ordinances provide an outline of Anabaptist theological emphases:

A church of born-again believers

Baptism lay close to the heart of Anabaptist belief, and it gave shape to a particular kind of church. It was a church that would be made up of persons who had answered God’s call in a conscious and visible way.

A visible church

A church composed of people who agreed to the Anabaptist understanding of baptism would not be a church of a whole territory, or an “invisible” church, known to God alone. This church would be visibly composed of those who were prepared to make a public commitment to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. It was a church whose visible holiness was maintained by discipline and strengthened by the Lord’s Supper.

A church relying on the Holy Spirit

The Anabaptist church ordinances make it clear how much the Anabaptists emphasized the spiritual dimension of the Christian life. The authority for adult baptism in water was granted by the Scriptural command of the Lord, but the actual inward baptism was granted by the living Spirit of God. The power to become disciples and to persevere on the narrow way was a power granted by the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who made it possible for believers to resist temptation and to live new lives. It was the same Holy Spirit that enabled thousands of Anabaptists to persevere even unto death.

C. Arnold Snyder is a professor of history at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ont. This article was originally published in the Mennonite World Conference Courier and has now been published as part of the book From Anabaptist Seed: The Historical Core of Anabaptist-Related Identity (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press/Herald Press, 1999; Web site www.pandorapress.com ).

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