Note: This is part of a series of reposts from my sabbatical leave from mid-April to mid-July 2007. This piece was originally posted on May 8th 2007.
My book for the past week has been Donald Durnbaugh’s The Believers’ Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism. This book was written in the late 1960’s and so reflects the conditions and viewpoints of an earlier era. Also, some of the summaries toward the end of the book seem to me to give a rather rosy view, as Durnbaugh lists the positive achievements of various ‘believers’ churches’ but is perhaps a little less forthcoming about their weaknesses. Nonetheless, the book has been an interesting and enjoyable read and gives a good overview of the ‘radical protestant’ tradition.
The book falls roughly into two halves. In the first part, Durnbaugh traces the history of believers’ churches from medieval times to the present, beginning with the Waldenses and the Unitas Fratrum and then taking two representative movements in each century up to the twentieth. In the second half he explores certain common characteristics of the various groups he has described.
What does ‘The Believers’ Church’ mean? The author is using this title to refer to denominations and movements which historically have been composed of Christians who have voluntarily chosen to come together on the basis of their common faith in Christ, in distinction from churches in which everyone is considered to be a member of a geographical parish simply by virtue of being born within its boundaries. Although Martin Luther did not begin a ‘Believers’ Church’ by this definition, he nonetheless wrote a good definition of it in 1526, which Durnbaugh quotes. Luther, he says, wrote that what was truly necessary was an ‘evangelical order’, held privately for those who ‘want to be Christians in earnest and who process the gospel by hand and mouth’.
They should sign their names and meet in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and do other Christian works. According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ, Matthew 18. Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example, 2 Corinthians 9. Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing. Here one could set out a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and centre everything on the Word, prayer, and love.
Durnbaugh draws out the following elements of Luther’s definition:
- The church is a voluntary community of those freely confessing Jesus Christ as Lord (for this reason infant baptism as a rite of entrance, or membership by virtue of citizenship in a state or territory, are both rejected).
- The believers freely covenant with God and each other to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ – therefore a mixed assembly of believers and unbelievers (as was often the reality in the past in the state church parish system) is rejected.
- They perform Christian works – as regenerate Christians they know they are expected to maintain a higher level of life.
- They accept that being a disciple means being under a discipline, and that according to Matthew 18:15-20 this includes faithful admonition of one another, not just easy tolerance.
- They practice mutual aid, ‘benevolent gifts willingly given and distributed to the poor’.
- There is neither complete formalism nor complete spontaneity; however, forms of worship evolve from within the group and can be changed if need be.
- The Word given in the Scriptures and apprehended through the Holy Spirit provides the sole authority. Tradition must bow if the clear statement of the Word as understood in the covenant community so demands.
Not every element of this definition is found in every ‘Believers’ Church’ surveyed in the book (Methodists, for instance, continued the tradition of infant baptism), but on the whole they are an accurate representation of the movement. Durnbaugh summarises as follows:
‘The Believers’ Church, therefore, is the covenanted and disciplined community of those walking in the way of Jesus Christ. Where two or three such are gathered, willing also to be scattered in the work of their Lord, there is the believing people’.
Having defined the ‘Believers’ Church’ movement, Durnbaugh then goes on to trace it through history, beginning in the middle ages. He examines the following movements:
The Waldenses were a movement begun in Lyon in the 12th century under the leadership of Peter Waldo (1140-1218?). Arrested by the text ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me’ (Mt. 19:21), Waldo set himself to practice this way of life. His innovation was that he applied these counsels of poverty and discipleship not just to monastics but to all true Christians. His followers went out two by two to preach, and this aroused the opposition of the local archbishop, as they were ‘unauthorized laymen’. In 1184 the Waldenses were officially condemned as heretics and the persecution began; nonetheless, the movement spread through France and Italy. They translated the scriptures into the vernacular and memorized them, especially the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount. They lived exemplary lives, practiced nonresistance and took no oaths; some accepted infant baptism, some did not.
The Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) were a Czech group inspired by the teachings of a yeoman with no formal education, Peter Chelcicky (1390?-1460?). He taught the law of love (which has become the basis of all Christian life since its explanation and example by Jesus Christ), nonresistant pacifism, dissolution of class distinctions, the authority of the New Testament, and a radical separation of church and state. In 1457/58, in an isolated village in Bohemia, a group was organised with Peter’s writings as their guide. They soon took the name ‘Unity of the Brethren’. In 1467, in response to persecution, they set up their own church structures; church membership was divided into ‘the beginners’, ‘the proficients’, and ‘the perfect’, and they followed a strict discipline according to Matthew 18:15-20. They were viciously persecuted through the years. In 1722 a small group crossed the German border to seek refuge and religious liberty on the estate of Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf. From the community of settlers there emerged in 1729 the Renewed Moravian Church.
The Anabaptists. This group began in Zurich in the early 1520s. They felt that the mainline Reformation was not radical enough and wanted a church patterned on the New Testament and free from the control of the city council. The breaking point was their adoption of believers’ baptism in 1525. Most of the early leaders (Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and later Michael Sattler and Balthazar Hubmaier) died young, mostly through persecution. In 1527 they produced a statement of faith called ‘The Schleitheim Articles’, in which they described their belief in believers’ baptism, the Ban (i.e. church discipline according to Matthew 18:15-20), the Lord’s Supper as a memorial to be celebrated by believers, separation from the world, the work of the pastor, the sword as being ‘outside the perfection of Christ’, and the non-use of oaths. Related movements spread through south Germany, Austria, northern Germany and the Netherlands. The early Anabaptists were mainly illiterate and were enthusiastic evangelists. An early disaster for the movement was the seizure of the city of Munster by radical (non-pacifist) Anabaptists in 1534; after the city was retaken and the Anabaptists slaughtered, a Dutch priest named Menno Simons emerged as the major leader of the north German and Dutch movement and laid the foundations for the continuing Mennonite tradition, emphasizing pacifism, active discipleship after the teaching and example of Jesus, and church discipline.
The Hutterites emerged from the Anabaptist tradition in Nikolsburg in Moravia. Under the leadership of Jacob Wiedemann, they were expelled from Nikolsburg, and formed a community of disciples in which all goods were held in common; this was their distinctive characteristic within the wider Anabaptist movement. They settled in Austerlitz in 1529 where they founded the first Bruderhof. They took their name from Jacob Hutter (d. 1536), a strong early leader who helped to define the traditions of the movement. Like other Anabaptists they were persecuted, but from 1565 until the end of the century they experienced a ‘golden period’ during which at least a hundred Bruderhofs were founded. They were great evangelists and sent their missionaries all across Europe. Their definitive statement of faith was written by Peter Riedemann in 1540. Successive persecutions drove them in turn to Slovakia, Transylvania, Romania, Russia, and finally North America.
The English Baptists emerged within the Puritan movement in the early seventeenth century. Thomas Helwys (d. 1614) was the leader of the first English Baptist congregation, established circa 1611-1612; he had learned his convictions from a group in the Netherlands which may have been influenced by some local Mennonites. However, the group that developed in England believed Christians could serve as magistrates and take oaths, which the Anabaptists would not allow. By 1644 they numbered 47 congregations and became known as the General Baptists because of their Arminian theology. Another group, the Particular Baptists (who were Calvinists) arose in 1638-1640 and later became predominant. The Baptists were not pacifists and indeed many served in the Roundhead army during the civil war. Their most famous seventeenth century figure was John Bunyan (1628-1688), the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. A later leader was the shoemaker William Carey (1761-1834), who helped found the Baptist Missionary Society and went himself as a missionary to India. Baptists have spread around the world and are now the largest non-Roman Catholic religious body in existence.
The Quakers, or ‘Society of Friends’, began around 1652, and their early leader was George Fox (1624-1691). They rejected creeds, ceremonies and cultic practices and sought an experiential contact with God in simplicity and silence. The tireless efforts of Quaker evangelists spread the movement rapidly in Great Britain, Europe, Asia Minor, North America and the West Indies throughout the seventeenth century. As usual for dissident groups they were persecuted; before 1689 about 15,000 had been jailed and 450 died either in prison or as a result of their imprisonment. The Quakers were pacifists, and their recognition of ‘that of God in each person’ led them to early convictions about the evil of slavery.
The Church of the Brethren grew out of German Pietism in the early eighteenth century (Pietism was a reaction against sterile Protestant scholasticism; it was experiential, emotional, individual, biblically-centred and ethically-minded. Instead of inquiring about the relationship of the individual to the institutional church and its clergy, Pietism asked about the personal relationship with Christ, about conversion). In 1708 a group of eight German Pietists led by a miller named Alexander Mack (1679-1735) established a covenant of discipleship together and sealed it with believers’ baptism. Their group grew and called themselves ‘Brethren’, though they were known by their peers as ‘New Baptists’. Their meetings were simple, consisting of singing, reading the Bible and discussing it, and praying together. The movement spread, but early persecution led to forced relocations. Between 1719 and 1735 the majority of the Brethren migrated to Pennsylvania. Today the Church of the Brethren is found mainly in North America and is recognized as an expression of the Anabaptist movement.
The Methodists grew out of the labours of John Wesley (1703-1791). A strict high church Anglican, he had a crisis of faith as a result of a failed missionary experience in the American colonies, but at a Moravian meeting in 1738 came to an experiential understanding of justification by faith and found the peace he was looking for. He and his brother Charles preached as they had opportunity in London, but George Whitfield invited him to preach in the fields with him, and so began his life’s work. The response to his preaching was often dramatic and emotional, but Wesley formed his converts into classes and introduced them to a disciplined system of Christian growth. The lack of ordained clergy for the movement led him to employ lay-preachers, a controversial step. His insistence on converted, committed, regenerated Christians tightly organized into voluntary societies was in direct opposition to the prevailing church culture, and his ordination of Thomas Coke to ordain others in North America was seen as a direct challenge to the Anglican system. The movement grew rapidly in North America, spread by the labours of circuit-riding preachers; their doctrines of free grace, Christian perfection and active piety seemed to resonate well with ordinary people.
The Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) are a coming together of several small groups, which had in common a desire to restore what they saw as ‘primitive New Testament Christianity’, including separation of church and state, a plurality of elders rather than a single paid pastor, and a weekly observance of communion. Believers’ baptism was also adopted very early. In 1832 two of the groups (‘Disciples’ and ‘Christians’) united; their church grew rapidly in the nineteenth century and they were often in the forefront of bringing the gospel to newly-settled areas.
The Plymouth Brethren were a British group with similar convictions to the American Disciples, including especially the weekly breaking of bread and the ministry of all believers. Two early groups joined together in 1829; any member could speak in their meetings, which were held Quaker style except for the hymns that were sung. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) became the outstanding theologian of the movement, which spread rapidly throughout the nineteenth century; George Muller of Bristol was another well-know member. The Brethren practiced church discipline and abstained from political involvement. Their best-known theological idea was Darby’s ‘Dispensationalist’ system, which was popularized by the Schofield Reference Bible.
The Confessing Church was a protest movement against the way the majority of German Christians co-operated with Hitler in the 1930s. In late 1933 a group of pastors led by Martin Niemoller formed the Pastors’ Emergency League and drafted a pledge which, within four months, had been signed by almost half the pastors in Germany. However, pressure from the Nazis prompted many to back down. In May 1934 a synod meeting in Barmen produced a confession of faith (largely drafted by Karl Barth). The Confessing Church saw itself as the one true Christian Church in Germany in distinction from those who had surrendered control to Hitler. A well-known early leader was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the very beginning they were persecuted; Karl Barth was expelled from his chair of theology at Bonn and went to Switzerland, and Niemoller was arrested, imprisoned in 1938 and held throughout the war. After the war Niemoller became an early leader in the World Council of Churches and a convert to pacifism.
New forms of church in the 20th century include the Church of the Saviour, founded by Baptist former military chaplain Gordon Cosby in Alexandria, Virginia in 1946, a community which requires a very high level of commitment from its members. Another example is East Harlem Protestant Parish, initiated by Don Benedict to do mission work among the poor in the inner city after World War Two.
Having described these movements, in the last section of the book Durnbaugh focuses in on some of the characteristics they have in common. He singles out five subjects for special comment:
Discipleship and Apostolicity. Mennonite scholar Harold Bender saw the idea that discipleship is the essence of Christianity as the first principle of the Anabaptist movement, and this same orientation is demonstrably evident among other expressions of the Believers’ Church movement, as also is their conviction that this quality was lacking within Christendom where lip-service to the faith rather than life-service to Jesus Christ seemed common. Most of the Radical Reformers felt that this ‘Fall of the Church’ had occurred in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (John Wesley expresses this view very strongly). Apostolicity, to these radicals, meant simply living in the manner and virtue of the first followers of Jesus Christ, and to do this they tried to pattern themselves on the way of life of the New Testament Christians. This often included church discipline after the pattern of Matthew 18:15-20 as a means of restoration of wayward members.
Mission and Evangelism. Strangely, most mainline Protestants in the early years did not evangelise; they saw the Great Commission as having already been accomplished in the establishment of Christendom. It was the Believers’ Church groups which showed the way; the Waldenses, the Unitas Fratrum, and the Anabaptists were all great evangelists, and one writer points out that ‘the astonishing thing about Anabaptism is not so much the activity of the ordained leaders as the missionary commitment of the ordinary members’ (although sustained persecution later prompted them to be much less vigorous in this). Quakers, Pietists, Moravian Brethren, Baptists and Methodists have all been enthusiastic missionaries and evangelists.
Church and State. Believers’ churches advocated a clean separation of church and state, in contrast to the Constantinian situation which was accepted by the mainline Reformation tradition. Peter Chelcicky was one of the first to make this point, and the first Anabaptists followed the same line when they would not accept the authority of the Zurich City Council over the church. For many members of Believers’ churches (but not all) this separation of church and state has included a refusal to participate in military service, a view which they see as an integral part of following the teaching and example of Jesus. Quakers and Anabaptists are best known for this view today. The issue of how Christians ought to be involved in the affairs of state is a live one in many Believers’ Church traditions.
Mutual Aid and Service. It has been the tradition in many Believers’ Church traditions that a member will not be left to their own devices; if help is needed, it will be given by the other members. For example, in 1557 candidates for baptism at a Swiss Anabaptist congregation were asked whether, if necessity required it, they would devote all their possessions to the service of the brotherhood and would not fail any member in need if they were able to render aid. In the Anabaptist tradition the Hutterites have of course taken this as their guiding principle with their practice of complete community of goods. Members of Believers’ Church traditions have also been active in reaching out beyond the community. The early Quakers were amongst the first advocates of the abolition of slavery and were also active in prison welfare and in the care of the mentally ill. The early Methodists were active in care for the poor. The Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee are in the forefront of this work today.
Sectarian and Ecumenical. The history of Believers’ churches is checkered with divisions (although they are not alone in this in the Christian world). Ecumenism sees this as a scandal robbing the church’s testimony of its credibility. Others take the view that the presence of many Christian bodies is a witness to the vitality of the Christian faith and a way to reach more people; new groups tend to emerge from a fresh surge of conviction and devotion, rather as monastic orders did in the Catholic tradition. Many Believers’ churches have been ‘leavers’ churches’, to use George Williams’ phrase – groups wanting to be separate from not only the world but also mainline church groups they saw as contaminated by it. But many of these groups have willingly worked together, although not all have joined recognized ecumenical institutions. A difference in emphasis, however, has been that whereas many in the ecumenical movement have concentrated on unity in church order (such as Anglicans with their concern for proper forms of ordination in the apostolic succession) or a unity of doctrine (such as Lutherans and many Reformed Christians), Believers’ Church traditions have tended to focus on unity in service together.
Durnbaugh’s book is a helpful introduction to the Believers’ Church tradition, although I would maintain that it is in dire need of being updated in the light of developments over the past forty years. The book left me with several impressions.
I was impressed by the stories of the Christian groups he describes, especially in their early stages. Many of their early members were gripped by a passion for the gospel and for Christian discipleship, and a desire to create forms of church which clearly exhibited New Testament Christian convictions, unencumbered by the chains of the state-church connection or by centuries of traditions which had long since passed their ‘best-before’ dates. Because of my own convictions I was most impressed by the stories of the Waldenses and the Unitas Fratrum, by the Anabaptists and the early Pietists and Methodists.
I must confess to being skeptical about the connections Durnbaugh draws between some of these groups. United they may have been in their desire for separation of church and state and the establishment of New Testament church order, but the convictions which guided the Plymouth Brethren, for instance, are very different from those which led to the Anabaptist movement. I would argue that the Plymouth Brethren are far more doctrinally-motivated than the Anabaptists with their emphasis on following Jesus as he is seen in the gospels, and that the English Baptists with their easy acceptance of military service (and their descendants, the American Baptist tradition with its loyalty to American militarism) are different again.
I am also doubtful about Durnbaugh’s easy acceptance of the multiplication of Christian bodies which the Believers’ Church movement has promoted. Most of these groups have had as their aim the restoration of a New Testament form of church life. Whilst one ought not to idealise the New Testament situation (divisions are clearly reflected in Acts and in Paul’s letters, for instance), nonetheless the visible unity of the Body of Christ is a major concern in the early church. How to combine this emphasis on visible unity on the one hand, with the Believers’ Church desire for the freedom to structure their worship, ministry, and church discipline in ways outside the accepted norms of mainline Christianity on the other, is an issue not only for the Believers’ Church tradition, but also for those of us today who are attracted by its vitality and yet choose to remain within mainline denominations.