The Swiss Brethren, Part 2: Theological Distinctions

From its establishment, the Swiss Brethren separated themselves from Roman Catholics and Protestants. Their existential form of Christianity was something that the religious community as well as the general public could not fathom. While some aspects paralleled that of the Reformers concerning belief in other areas it was quite disturbing because of their otherness to outsiders.

The means in which they achieved their doctrinal and applied otherness was nothing new in and of itself. “They had come to their convictions like most other Protestants—through Scripture. Luther had taught that common people have a right to search the Bible for themselves” (Shelley 248). They reasoned if Luther arrived at his biblical and theological conclusions through a search of scripture there was nothing preventing them from doing the same. They began to gather and probe the Bible thoroughly trying their best not to let preconceived notions prevent them from discovering what the genuine will of God was for not just them but for every believer.

When venturing on their journey through Sacred Scripture the Swiss Brethren “discovered a different world in the pages of the New Testament. They found no state-church alliance, no Christendom. Instead they discovered that the apostolic churches were companies of committed believers, communities of men and women who had freely and personally chosen to follow Jesus. And for the sixteenth century, that was a revolutionary idea” (Ibid. 248-9).

These men and women did not seek Reformation for the Anabaptists saw the futility in trying to reform something that was beyond correction or change.

Their goal was the “restitution” of apostolic Christianity, a return to churches of true believers. In the early church, they said, men and women who had experienced personal spiritual regeneration were the only fit subjects for baptism.  The apostolic churches knew nothing of the practice of baptizing infants. That tradition was simply a convenient device for perpetuating Christendom, nominal but spiritually impotent society (Ibid. 249).

They considered the undisputable church was a community made of disciples that was pursuing holiness and embraced the reality that they were called out by God and set aside for His purpose. The Anabaptists desired to influence the world by their example of “radical discipleship” even if doing so meant martyrdom.

In due course, the group codified their beliefs in order to differentiate themselves from other groups that held to the Anabaptist designation. On February 24, 1527, a conference was held at Schleitheim (Switzerland) and the Swiss Anabaptists adopted unanimously what is known as the Schleitheim Articles or Confession. Originally, it was termed the Brüderlich Vereinigung etzlicher Kinder Gottes sieben Artikel betreffend when translated the Brotherly Union of a Number of Children of God Concerning Seven Articles with Michael Sattler presiding. These articles contained seven points that was eventually dispatched to the Swiss and South German Anabaptist collectives in the form of an epistle. The seven principles addressed the following topics:

  • Baptism
  • Congregational Discipline
  • Communion or the Lord’s Supper
  • Christian Separatism
  • The selecting and function of shepeherds
  • Nonaggression
  • Taking of Oaths

The subsequent material is succinct summaries of the articles and their contents.

Baptism

To the Anabaptists baptism was a public testimony to what has previously occurred inwardly and privately between the believer and God. They emphasized that what is mistakenly called today believer’s baptism. What they actually practiced was disciple’s baptism. “The contemporary option of experiencing a conversion in one church service and being baptized in the next, a practice common in many such church circles was foreign to sixteenth-century Anabaptists. They reserved baptism for committed disciples who had shown by their steadfast faith, self-discipline and wholehearted following of the ideals of the gathered community that they were genuine disciples” (Payton 161).

The Ban

The Swiss Brethren movement maintained an exceptional standard of discipline; all adherents were held to live a life consistent with the Anabaptist comprehension of how a Christian way of living should be practiced. Those that did not maintain their walk would face expulsion or the “ban”. This was actuated in the individuals being banned from community association. The method would only occur when the wayward behavior was habitual on the part of a brother or sister in the faith and following dual warnings in harmony with the 18th chapter of Matthew.

The Breaking of Bread

The Lord’s Supper was a commemorative meal where participants would reflect on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The confessions says “all those who desire to break the one bread in remembrance of the broken body of Christ and all those who wish to drink of one drink in remembrance of the shed blood of Christ, they must beforehand be united in the one body of Christ…by baptism.” To them the ordinary bread and wine was a remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice and could only be partaken by those that have shown a genuine transformation in thinking and behavior be means of the Holy Spirit.  It was closed to nonmember of the Body of Christ.

Christian Separatism

The Swiss Brethren emphasized unity in separation, they viewed the dichotomy “good and evil” as being a reality. Only good and evil existed in the world and even within the context of the Christian faith. They saw Roman Catholics (popish) and Protestants (repopish) as being elements of a system that God did not endorse and that genuine believers should disconnect and cut off association with such organizations, for they saw those groups as endorsing worldly vices and doctrines that counter the directives of God.

Shepherds

The shepherds chosen by each congregation must be men of good standing, spiritual and earnest concern for the flock. They must “exhort and teach, warn, admonish, or ban in the congregation, and properly to preside among the sisters and brothers in prayer, and in the breaking of bread, and in all things to take care of the body of Christ”. The congregation would support them and “should a shepherd do something worthy of reprimand, nothing shall be done with him without the voice of two or three witnesses. If they sin they shall be publicly reprimanded, so that others might fear.”

“The Schleitheim Confession, which embodies mainstream opinion among the Radical reformers, suggests that the main duty of the pastor is to read the Scriptures and teach, warn and admonish in the light of what the Bible says. He (always he) leads the prayers and breaks the bread for Communion. He is also responsible for taking the lead in the disciplining the congregation and exercising the ban “in the name of the congregation”. However, he is appointed by the congregation and can be disciplined by them” (Gray 92).

The Sword

To the Swiss Brethren they held the commandments of Christ foremost; they took such things as the Sermon on the Mount literally. In light of this when Jesus said to:

“love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

They took his admonition to heart, Conrad Grebel the co-founder of the Swiss Brethren and in some estimation the “Father of Anabaptists” during the inauguration of the movement wrote:

“The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor [should] they [protect] themselves… True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptised in anguish and tribulation, persecution, suffering and death, tried in fire, and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest not by slaying the physical but the spiritual. They use neither worldly sword nor war, since killing has ceased with them entirely” (Grebel and Harder 290).

To them genuine Christians did not participate in war whether political or physical. While pacifism and nonviolence was not adhered to all that fall within the category of Anabaptists, it was a constant for the Swiss Brethren. To them all those who practiced contrary to this could not qualify themselves as being servants of Christ.

The Oath

The Swiss Brethren took the words of Jesus at Matthew 5:33-37 where he cautions, ““Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.”

As in the first century, the Swiss Brethren lived in a time where the state and the Church required individuals to take oaths or verbal commitments whether in the context of ceremony or civil matters. Protestants also had procured oath taking. Therefore, in light of Jesus’ words the Anabaptists felt that a believer should take no oaths in any form. In addition to this, they saw no scriptural justification for the practice.

The Spiritual and Civil Ramifications of the Confession

All seven articles was somewhat unique at this time in history and it also proved to be something that would cause division and through the adherence of them would require the group to separate from those that felt differently. Michael Reeves aptly describes this in The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation.

He states the “seven articles embodied separatism, as it affirmed believer’s baptism, the need to shun the sinful; that the Lord’s Supper is only for baptized adult believers; the separation of believers from unbelievers; the importance of ’shepherds’ in the church, and the people’s right to choose them; complete pacifism; rejection of oath-taking” (Reeves and Dever 88). From the political vantage point, “this separatism was almost as alarming as a revolt. Not only did it offend by suggesting that nobody else was really Christian, but refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the state and not being prepared to fight for their country looked distinctly treasonous” (Ibid).

From an Ecclesiastical perspective, the articles disturbed many purely from its theological simplicity. The confession was “concerned with practical questions, not who God is, or how we can be saved” the reason being that “Anabaptism, on the whole tended to be more interested in Christian living than theology” (Ibid. 88-9). Reeves provide details as to why this document disturbed the theologians of that time.

For the Magisterial Reformers like Luther, theology came first, informing how we then live; for the Anabaptists, holiness came first, and theology was then done to spur on Christian obedience. Luther believed that this was a disastrous step backwards, for by failing to study the gospel of grace sufficiently, the Anabaptists were regressing into a religion of works. As a result he called them the ‘new monks’, for he believed that, like the old monks, they had separated themselves off from the world only to stare at their own spiritual navels (Ibid. 89-90).

The seven Anabaptistic articles also said far more than what one sees on the surface. Things that Luther and other doctors of theology grasped effortlessly. These things challenged some of the core themes of Reformed theology.  Luther’s doctrine of justification posed a danger for pursuing holiness for the reason that many adopted a grace covers all regardless of what I do mentality. Whereas the Anabaptists in essence argued in the confession that grace does not cover all and that changes and right actions needs to be present or suffer the consequences of doing otherwise. In addition, if a person can pursue holiness and actually function in a state of it then apparently not all things are left entirely up to grace and humanity is not as enslaved to sin to the extent that the Reform would teach.

Remarks of Note:

Prior to concluding this segment of the Swiss Brethren aspect of the series, some remarks must be made regarding the Brethren’s theological distinctions. The term ‘theological’ was employed to communicate in a fashion that others are accustomed to but this term is somewhat misinforming.  The Swiss Brethren lacked a theology in the fashion that one generally understands it. The Swiss Brethren hardly ever-outlined systematic doctrine in the manner of the Magisterial Reformers and the Swiss Brethren’s doctrinal belief is more implied and always in the context of living their faith, the Anabaptists put emphasis on practical works and conduct. Whenever they addressed doctrine, it was in the context of polemics. Therefore, one could describe their belief as existential Christianity in place of cataloging it as some form of theology (Friedmann 27ff.).

The final installment on the Swiss Brethren segment will look at what can be gleaned from these men and women in order enrich believer’s Christian walk and service.

Works Cited

Friedmann, Robert. The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation. Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock, 1998.

Gray, Madeleine. The Protestant Reformation: Belief, Practice, and Tradition. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2003.

Grebel, Konrad, and Leland Harder. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1985.

Payton, James R. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2010.

Reeves, Michael, and Mark Dever. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation. Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2010.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

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One Response to “The Swiss Brethren, Part 2: Theological Distinctions”

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