The Swiss Brethren, Part 3: Contemporary Separatism

It is my desire in the closing segments of my contribution to this series to address an issue that is controversial in nature. That subject being Christian separatism. When the average person that shows interests in Anabaptistica surveys the writings and beliefs of the Swiss Brethren they will pause at article IV of the Schleitheim Confession and immediately find some difference of opinion with it’s content. It reads:

We have been united concerning the separation that shall take place from the evil and the wickedness which the devil has planted in the world, simply in this; that we have no fellowship with them, and do not run with them in the confusion of their abominations. So it is; since all who have not entered into the obedience of faith and have not united themselves with God so that they will to do His will, are a great abomination before God, therefore nothing else can or really will grow or spring forth from them than abominable things. Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are [come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols. Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other.

To us, then, the commandment of the Lord is also obvious, whereby He orders us to be and to become separated from the evil one, and thus He will be our God and we shall be His sons and daughters.

Further, He admonishes us therefore to go out from Babylon and from the earthly Egypt, that we may not be partakers in their torment and suffering, which the Lord will bring upon them.

From all this we should learn that everything which has not been united with our God in Christ is nothing but an abomination which we should shun. By this are meant all popish and repopish works and idolatry, gatherings, church attendance, winehouses, guarantees and commitments of unbelief, and other things of the kind, which the world regards highly, and yet which are carnal or flatly counter to the command of God, after the pattern of all the iniquity which is in the world. From all this we shall be separated and have no part with such, for they are nothing but abominations, which cause us to be hated before our Christ Jesus, who has freed us from the servitude of the flesh and fitted us for the service of God and the Spirit whom He has given us.

Thereby shall also fall away from us the diabolical weapons of violence–such as sword, armor, and the like, and all of their use to protect friends or against enemies–by virtue of the word of Christ: “you shall not resist evil.

There is a lot here to digest but each word penned is brimming with nuggets of truth that not only have biblical and theological significance but also have contemporary import. Initially we will look at what it meant to separate oneself from others to defuse any false notions circulated regardless of what later generations practiced.

The Anabaptists stressed a double separation: the separation of church and state as well as the separation of the church from the evils of the larger culture. In many ways it was a single separation because church and society were very much the same in the sixteenth century. In any event, the Anabaptists called for an unconditional adult commitment to a church that was free from the dictates of the state and separate from the values of the larger society that stood “outside the perfection of Christ (Kraybill 1).

To begin with, this separation consisted of a separation of ideals or ethics not complete isolation from the world that surrounded the Swiss Brethren. Even though this may have been the case in many instances because as mentioned “church and society were very much the same in the sixteenth century”, for after the initiation of said position the movement “soon spread into surrounding countries and encountered severe persecution” (Ibid.).” If the Brethren reserved themselves to become absolute separatists, they would not have felt the compulsion to proclaim the message of the Kingdom to others as well as put their own lives in danger while doing so.

What is spoken of here is something akin to the New Monastic movement. But it’s foremost emphasis is ‘Sacred Separation’. In the very beginning when YHWH took upon Himself a people He desired that they separate themselves or pursue holiness (Leviticus 20:7). Later the Apostle Peter harked back to this pursuit of holiness.  He admonished, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:14-16 NIV).

To be holy in its Hebrew or Koine Greek equivalent means to ‘separate’ or ‘set apart’. That is God’s people are to be unattached to sin and things that are deemed unclean. Also regarding the ekklesia they are set apart as something special for God’s use. Following this line of thinking Paul asserted:

“Don’t be tied up as equal partners with people who don’t believe. What does righteousness share with that which is outside the Law? What relationship does light have with darkness? What harmony does Christ have with Satan? What does a believer have in common with someone who doesn’t believe? What agreement can there be between God’s temple and idols? Because we are the temple of the living God. Just as God said, I live with them, and I will move among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore, come out from among them and be separated, says the Lord. Don’t touch what is unclean. Then I will welcome you. I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18 CEB).

Therefore, in light of this the Swiss Brethren was standing on a solid biblical foundation, the contents of the IV article did not introduce anything foreign to Christian belief. Corroborating this Paula Maria Cooey articulates:

The articles addressing the separatism of the communities flow logically from the rejection of normative religious and civil authority and deserve extended attention. The injunction to withdraw from interaction with the dominant culture assumes dualism of good and evil in which the wider culture, respecting both its religion and its politics, is evil, under the rule of the devil. To the authors, “truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who have come out of the world, God’s temples and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other. From the believer’s perspective the issue is to avoid the contamination of a holy people by a corrupt and sinful world. God has called such a community into existence to live in Christ according to God’s rule as revealed in scripture. Whatever is not addressed explicitly in scripture, rather than being a matter of indifference as the Protestants would have it, is in fact expressly forbidden. Thus there would be no compromise; neither should there be contact with those who believe otherwise (Cooey 100).

However, many may object to the phrase in the confession where it states to shun “all popish and repopish works and idolatry, gatherings, church attendance, winehouses, guarantees and commitments of unbelief, and other things of the kind”. Those conversant with Anabaptist thought will straightaway catch sight of their use of the labels ‘popish’ and ‘repopish’. Popish corresponds to Roman Catholicism and repopish relates to Protestantism. The objection at this point would be that denying other ‘Christians’ and their churches are unchristlike. Yes, this would be the thinking with most especially professed believers in the West.

The reason being that they are inculcated in the thinking based on what Philip Schaff described as “the watchword of Christian peacemakers” incorrectly attributed to Augustine but actually coined by Rupertus Meldenius (1582-1651) around the year 1627 (Schaff 650). Namely, the celebrated call to unanimity that is wielded whenever there is some dispute within Christendom, the watchword in question is “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity”. In addition, another protest would take the form of the Schleitheim Articles addressing the prerequisites for baptism and entrance into the Body of Christ, not those that are already present.

The response to these queries is found within the very nature of present day Christendom. The existence of denominations demonstrates that individuals separate themselves from other Christians already. Furthermore, decisions are made concerning ones religious life based on the ethnic, economic demographic of a church plus geography, styles of worship, the layout and architecture of a building and so on. John D. Roth said it best in his book Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice. In addressing Mennonite dualistic thinking in regards to the Church, he wrote:

all people–Christians and non-Christians alike–make ethical choices. Human beings are constantly making value judgments that affect our lives and the lives of those around us. Such choices of opting for “this” instead of “that” inevitably imply that we are making a judgment against the alternative. So if the Christian effort to respond faithfully to God’s call means that our action is somehow judging those who make other choices, then Mennonites must plead “guilty as charged (Roth 148).

As stated by Roth individuals make value judgments daily regarding all sorts of things and this certainly is applicable to all things religious as was pointed out formerly. There are reasons why individuals choose Presbyterians over Baptists and there exists reasons why many choose Anabaptistica over all others. When decisions of this nature are made, we are in essence saying that other forms of Christian expressions is deficient whether we believe this to be the case or not. Thus, the Swiss Brethren demonstrated a form of honesty that is terribly lacking in today’s Christian culture; many at present delude themselves into thinking that this is not a real matter of concern. To think otherwise is some form of Christian pluralistic thinking, just as not all faiths lead to God all denominations cannot be correct in their varying beliefs and praxis.

When a person repents a crucial aspect of this is the amending of his or her life. Given the plethora of false, one-time conversions and a lack of genuine mentoring, many miss the mark of genuine emendation. Many can avoid sex related sins such as promiscuity, adultery and so on but there are other issues that are neglected, things along the lines of racism and other manners of bigotry. One of the crucial areas that modern-day Christendom embraces is their intermingling with Empire that resulted in a syncretistic form Christianity viewed as being the indisputable expression of the faith.

To this note concerning the Schleitheim Confession Alister McGrath observes that the confession “taught that coercion has its place “outside the perfection of Christ”; inside the community of faith, physical force has not place. Christians should therefore not hold public office, since doing so would involve collusion with power and violence” (McGrath 257). The Swiss Brethren already took all of these matters into consideration even rejecting political office. They knew that repentance through faith and gaining entrance into the Body of Christ called for far more than what Protestantism and Catholicism necessitated. Complete resocialization was required to follow the Third Way.

In this manner, the separation that we can learn from the Swiss Brethren is not one of sequestering oneself from humanity into enclaves where ethnocentrism becomes one of the identifying marks. The separation that the Swiss Brethren taught is one firmly instituted in scripture and parallels honest everyday value judgments. It also communicated that a person not only has to separate themselves from obvious transgressions but those that are brazenly held to by those that employ the name of Christ.

Works Cited

Cooey, Paula Maria. Willing the Good: Jesus, Dissent, and Desire. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Kraybill, Donald B. The Amish Struggle with Modernity. Hanover u.a: Univ. Press of New England, 1994.

McGrath, Alister E. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution– a History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Roth, John D. Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 2005.

Schaff, Philip, and David S. Schaff. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 7, New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1882.

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