Anabaptist/Mennonite Group Dynamics
I used to enjoy the New Yorker magazine's "Talk of the Town," the way it generally began with something like: "Last week as we were traveling by taxi past Wall Street," or "We happened onto an old friend yesterday, in Central Park, feeding the pigeons." Or something like that. I knew it was a literary "we," a construct, yet nevertheless, it worked for me -- granting the feeling that New York indeed was a community, with fine human interaction, a place where one could spend his or her life in meaningful ways.
I think the new editor of the New Yorker made a mistake in stopping this, some six or more years ago, for I have sorely missed experiencing this meaningful literary "we" ever since. I think about it each week when I turn to "Talk of the Town," and alas, find out that New York City is no longer "we." And I think to myself, perhaps Greater New York is not the place where the "we" of close community most naturally comes into its own. Maybe it is indeed more naturally found in closely knit congregations such as Michael Sattler’s and Pilgram Marpeck’s, founded as they were, directly and indirectly, upon the deeper implications of what the two 1527 Swiss Anabaptist congregational statements were all about.
And I ask myself: What would it be like for me to be part of the actual "we" of New York City? And, conversely, what would it be like, for our purposes here, to be part of Pilgram Marpeck’s Augsburg congregation, or Conrad Grebel’s Zurich congregation, or Michael Sattler’s congregation at Horb?
Then my thoughts turn to the Pope, who, through the ages has spoken out as the Divine representative on earth, as Christ's vicar and spokesman, one capable of speaking, indeed, required to speak ex cathedra. Here, there is no room for the "we," not even the figurative "we" used as a literary construct. Only the "I" is appropriate, by definition.
Menno Simons. In this regard, my thoughts somehow turn, yes, to Menno Simons. I sometimes wonder whether Menno Simons, as former priest, may well have inherited this propensity to using the "I" form of communication, accepting as well all it entails in the exercising of both personal and ecclesiastical authority? And I ask myself: What would it be like, to be part of a congregation that had Menno Simons as my bishop?
In way of answer to this question, the following passages from Menno Simons’ own pen provide a clue as to how Menno understood his role in dealing with congregations and their ministers. These passages are all well known in isolation, as introductory statements to this and that treatise, yet it may be helpful to see them grouped together and so analyzed from the standpoint of Menno’s position on church polity. For these examples from Menno’s writings do illustrate to be sure something of Menno’s bent on proclaiming truth, out of his own, individual authority.
We begin with a treatise on shunning, where Menno begins by noting his previous views on church discipline:
Menno then goes on to say:
Much more could be said about Menno's approach to authority and leadership, the substance and spirit of which at times approaches an ex cathedra quality: one individual's view of truth, assumed to be the definitive word for all -- in this case, for all Anabaptists. This observation may be felt throughout Menno's writings in general; it is also based upon Menno's own words and the spirit behind them, of a claimed authority. We only have space for a few more such examples.
First of all, Menno dares to define Christian doctrine out of his own authority:
Secondly, of significance for the deeper question of the nature of authority and church polity, is the fact that Menno often directs his message solely to the ordained leadership, rather than to the congregation, or, to the congregation along with its minister(s) -- here, gathered from five different writings:
In his published works, Menno can also exclaim -- virtually ex cathedra: "Read and reread the words which I speak, O ye learned ones who seem to excel others in wisdom and learning. . . . " In an earlier writing Menno could utter: "Attend to my words, all people, and understand, all ye who think yourselves to be Christians . . . ." And in his Foundation Book, Menno emulates both the style and spirit -- and most important, the personal authority -- of an Apostle Paul:
It is this Menno, under whom many, throughout history, have stood in awe -- of what Menno Simons almost single-handedly accomplished for the Dutch Anabaptist cause. And there is good reason for this awe. In a very real sense, Menno’s approach to leadership was what the remnants of Anabaptists in the aftermath of the Münster tragedy were calling for. A strong hand was indicated in the year 1536 -- the year when Menno chose to become an Anabaptist -- to help restore order and balance among the misguided Anabaptist brothers and sisters, by then, scattered far and wide throughout the Low Countries.
In his early writings, Menno viewed his audience as being scattered and loosely organized. He seemed to see God-fearing disciples "somewhere out there, wherever they may be." By the 1540s and 1550s, Menno’s image of the group shifts to a more conscious awareness of gathered disciples, meeting together formally in areas known to him. Yet even here, congregational Gemeindetheologie (congregational wrestling with questions of faith) seems greatly overshadowed by the bishop’s authority from above. Menno seems to have demanded almost absolute obedience to a control from above, as the manner of dealing with individual and congregational problems, both doctrinal and interrelational. Menno, as bishop, could and did, out of his own authority, determine doctrine, interpret the nature of truth, excommunicate and proclaim avoidance, and restore and reconcile. Indeed, in the late 1550s "Menno banned all the ‘High Germans’ [that is, the Swiss Brethren] and their followers." We will later again pick up this Anabaptist thread, but first need to go to the Upper German Swiss Brethren, to describe a contrasting Anabaptist group dynamic and church polity.
The Swiss Brethren. Such a view of a quasi-episcopal polity which Menno exercised throughout his life, stands in stark contrast to the Gemeindetheologie (in recent times, also called the "hermeneutic community") of the Swiss Brethren and its concomitant congregational polity. For example, although Conrad Grebel was a leading figure in the urban group of proto-Anabaptists in Zurich, he was by no means the sole spokesman. During these months preceding the first baptism, we see an approach to searching out truth emerging from the context of mutuality, that is, from within the group itself – where Christ's spirit and message were assumed to be at hand. Such a view of "truth, emerging from the whole group," stems from the very beginning stages of Zurich Anabaptism. Conrad Grebel notes this in his letter to Thomas Müntzer in 1524, where, although he is the one writing to Müntzer, and had written to Luther, Castelberger had represented the group's thinking to Karlstadt. Here was a dynamic Gemeindetheologie in action. Of significance in Grebel's letter is his suggestion that Müntzer, too, should also practice mutuality: "If you should visit Karlstadt, and you could jointly reply, it would afford us hearty joy." Felix Mantz, too, understood his biblical interpretations to have come out of group process, when in December 1524 he gave his defense to the city magistrates: "[I] am sure that M[aster] Ul[rich Zwingli] has exactly this same understanding of baptism and that he understands it much better than we [do]" (emphasis added).
At this juncture we should carefully note that almost overnight, this first congregation was transformed into a rural setting, and the group dynamic changed, almost instantly, with a continuity in line with the original impulse at best watered down, the original impulse often very much in question and in danger of disappearing completely. The more purely religious significance behind the act of adult baptism was largely lost, thanks to the rapid explosiveness of the movement which had taken a strongly political turn.
With the wildfire nature of the sudden expansion of a movement, beginning with one small group in Zurich, and burgeoning into a widespread revolution, many of the principles, so well understood by the first, small urban group of closely-knit proto-Anabaptists, seemed to be ignored, if indeed they were even known by the growing masses of converts. Felix Mantz’s claim to be peaceful, and no threat in this regard to the state -- although solidly the foundation of all that Grebel, Mantz and the irenic, anti-war Castelberger stood for -- proved hollow for the short term. All too soon the peasant revolts, with Anabaptist participation, were reality.
Even so, Mantz’s statement is significant for an understanding of proto-Anabaptism in Zurich, namely: " ... I too have been held and accused by some as a rioter and wretch, which is however an unjust and ungracious charge that can never be raised and proved on the basis of the truth, for neither have I engaged in rioting nor in any way taught or encouraged anything that has led or might lead to rioting (which all those with whom I have ever been associated can testify of me)."
In any case, after numerous peasant revolts ran their course, in February of 1527 a meeting at Schleitheim took place, in order to reassess the nature of this young movement barely two years old. An agreement was reached, the work of many people. True, Michael Sattler was highly influential in suggesting the outline of what was to emerge, as well as much of the content. Yet it was genuinely a group agreement, and not solely the work of one person. No one person could take credit for having written the Agreement. And the false brethren mentioned therein, although not identified by name, most certainly were those not in agreement with the seven Schleitheim points.
Sattler himself demonstrated something of this same Swiss Brethren group dynamic during his trial in May 1527 when at one point, after the charges had been read, Sattler "requested a consultation with his brothers and sisters; this was granted to him. After he had spoken with them for a short time, he took the floor and answered fearlessly as follows: 'Concerning the articles which have to do with me, and with my brothers and sisters, please consider the following brief statement:'"
A few weeks earlier, while in prison at Binsdorf, Sattler had written a letter to the congregation at Horb, also acknowledging the authority of the congregation to implement the Schleitheim Agreement, and to amend it as necessary: "Be mindful of our meeting, and what was decided there, and follow its precepts carefully. And if something has been forgotten, pray the Lord for understanding."
This understanding of how the Schleitheim Agreement should be carried out is instructive. To be sure, those leaders gathered at Schleitheim had seen themselves as comprising a synod, as may be seen in the Cover Letter: "Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord; these are the articles which some brothers previously had understood wrongly . . . . Now that you have abundantly understood the will of God as revealed through us at this time, you must fulfill this will, now known, persistently and unswervingly." True, the synodal statement of Schleitheim stood, for all Swiss Anabaptists, as their Confession of Faith. It incorporated the ideas of Grebel, Mantz and Castelberger, and strengthened the idea of separation from the world -- most likely Sattler’s contribution to the Confession. Yet, importantly, it was now up to the congregation to work through and implement the Confession, whereby each and every Swiss Brethren congregation would digest the seven points from the standpoint of the local, congregational context -- even augmenting the points in ways that would be found useful for that specific congregation.
Sattler asked the Horb congregation as well to test his views, and if they corresponded to the mind of Christ, then the people should walk therein accordingly: "Dear fellow believers, note whether what I am writing to you is of the Lord, and if it is, take care to walk accordingly." As to the later impact of the Schleitheim Agreement, it is significant that in 1557 Thomas von Imbroich reminded his fellow believers to keep clear of false brethren, in line with "our [Schleitheim] Agreement."
A shorter "Swiss Order," it itself a type of confession of faith, emerging about the same time as the Schleitheim Agreement, possibly around 1527, demonstrates the same Gemeindetheologie that was in place in Zurich in 1524, which in turn led to the birth of Anabaptism in 1525. Werner O. Packull speaks to this as follows:
The Swiss Brethren congregational dynamic, where the congregation dare not be bypassed in matters of faith and doctrine, of course stood in need of appropriate leadership, tied in directly to the congregation, the group context being the seat of spiritual authority. The emphasis centered in the group dynamic of the congregation. In 1702, the Swiss Brethren editor of Golden Apples in Silver Bowls described this spiritual authority, mentioning the themes of discipleship and love, and the essential congregational quality of gathering together. The editor combined all this in the following powerful statement: "[Having] a fiery brotherly love among one another; and maintaining the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, and through taking up the cross, and the true discipleship of Christ."
A particular set of principles on group dynamics thus penetrated to the very heart of the Swiss Brethren as a whole, contrasting markedly with those elements within Dutch Mennonitism that accepted Menno Simons’ authoritarian approach to church structures and administration. (To be noted here: Modern Dutch Mennonites, to be sure, are congregational in polity.)
Pilgram Marpeck, on Polity. At this juncture, I ask myself another question: How would it have been to be in the same congregation that Pilgram Marpeck belonged to? And here I turn to Stephen B. Boyd’s interpretation for clues, as found in his 1992 Pilgram Marpeck, His Life and Social Theology.
Boyd stresses that central to Marpeck’s thought was the new Covenant, the new reality, the new order and capacity made possible to humanity through the life and death of Christ:
Furthermore, Marpeck saw the interrelatedness between individual and communal reality as being essential for fulfillment of the New Covenant:
Marpeck also believed there to be a needed and dynamic balance between the individual and the group; he also challenged the idea of a "few," exercising spiritual authority over the many:
In this regard, the "few" having spiritual authority over the many -- a position that the Marpeck and the earlier Swiss Brethren rejected -- was indeed part and parcel of Menno Simons’ approach to churchly authority. In more ways than one, Pilgram Marpeck continued within the tradition of urban Zurich Anabaptist Gemeindetheologie, as developed by Conrad Grebel, Feliz Mantz, Andreas Castelberger, and the others in that original Zurich group.
Anabaptist Group Dynamics and Polities, and the Mennonites Today. Over the centuries, most Mennonite groups and conferences continued with a congregational polity, as developed by the Swiss Brethren. Many Dutch Mennonites whose tradition went back directly to Menno Simons, also switched over time from a hierarchical to a congregational polity. Indeed, since the 1960s, even some of those North American conferences which had been strongest in keeping the office of bishop (where a bishop had jurisdiction over more than one congregation), such as the Lancaster Conference, were experiencing elements of a congregational polity, whereby a new, emerging, congregational leadership was being accepted which included both men and women.
In 1971 and following, the Mennonite Church as a whole regained much of its congregationalism. Something of an all-Mennonite vision also emerged, most visible at the first conjoint meeting of the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Church, at "Bethlehem 83," which led to a conjoint Mennonite Confession of Faith of 1995.
How this Confession came about is instructive. The process leading up to its birth was both synodal and congregational, reminiscent of the Schleitheim Agreement of 1527. Indeed, the ideas underlying the 1995 Confession came directly from any and all congregations who chose to offer suggestions. A committee worked on organizing these ideas, after which all congregations were invited to test the draft and offer suggestions for revision. These once again were organized and worked into new drafts. And apart from the word "Trinity," the whole confession reflects biblical terminology and idea -- something which many congregations also requested, as a way to attempt to be true to Scripture, as interpreted through the mind’s eye of Christ (the Christocentric interpretation of Scripture).
Consequently, what it means to be Mennonite -- for those who want to be part of the new Mennonite Church -- resides within our 95 Confession, which all of us developed, together, within the hermeneutic community, and thus, within our congregational group dynamic and polity.
Within a congregational-synodal polity, we have authority arising from the congregation, but also vested in the leadership. At the height of the time of the Great Swiss Brethren Schism which divided the group into two, Ulli Ammann, in 1720, came up with the following solution, which seems quite apropos for us as well today: Effective leadership happens where leaders grasp the initiative, creating proposals, but in every major instance, testing them with, and receiving confirmation from the congregation, before carrying out such proposals. The congregation might accept, or reject, or modify, such proposals, and the process ends up whereby leader and congregation are of one mind. But leaders also relate to other leaders in the same manner, according to Ulli Ammann, in what we might call the synodal dimension -- which keys in, today, to our conference and denominational levels of interaction.
In 1864, Mennonite leader John F. Funk and others were dreaming and calling for a general conference of all North American Mennonites "from the East and West and from the North and the South, that they might meet together and in the free interchange of views and opinions, become more united and more of one mind." Something of this vision of Christ’s Gospel of Peace still looms before us, in this, a new century of a new world.
(1999; shortened and revised, 2000)
In this essay we want to ask certain questions, in light of the times, in light of current church affairs: what has history to teach us? What have we inherited from history? How can we appropriate history (not, heaven forbid, searching for a useable past!).
And here, was Menno completely in tune with the tradition he gave himself to? Or, did he add new elements, possibly at odds with the Anabaptist tradition, heretofore? In some ways, Menno's approach is in line with Melchior Hoffman and the idea of special revelation. Some 20th century Mennonite evangelists, too, emulated Menno, in this regard, of speaking in the "I," (or "we" meaning I). Daniel Kauffman, too, fits within this mold -- bringing into the (old) Mennonite scene something brand new and progressive, at odds with the traditional Anabaptist-Mennonite spirit and thought from the time of Sattler to the end of the 19th century.
This, directly, refers to Menno's affirmation that he is, here, being true to historical fact; a subliminal note, however, may at least be read into the larger topic at hand, namely, that Menno is here giving definitive answers that others should accept and emulate.
Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons: c. 1496 - 1561 (John Christian Wenger, ed, 1956), 635. (Since the German edition, first published in 1575, was the main source for the Swiss Brethren and North American Mennonites alike, up to the latter part of the 19th century, this edition is also referred to, namely: Ein Fundament und Klare Anweisung von der seligmachenden Lehre unsers Herrn Jesu Christi, to which is appended: Eine gründliche Unterweisung, oder Bericht von der Excommunication, Bann, Ausschliessung, oder Absonderung der Kirche Christi.
Ibid., 635. See also 974-75.
True, Menno ends his missive with an "Exhortation to all the Pious," yet he is intent upon getting his message out to the elect brethren.
Wenger, 972, 979, 984, 988-89 and 997, respectively.
Menno Simons, in his "Christian Baptism," Wenger, 229.
"The New Birth," ibid, 89.
Ibid., 105. Irvin B. Horst, in his introduction to his newly translated edition of Menno Simons' "Confession of My Enlightenment, Conversion, and Calling," comes to this same conclusion: "The careful reader will detect signs in this defense of the example of the Apostle Paul. Particularly grievous to him was the slander that he derived his authority from a seditious sect." (Irvin B. Horst, tr & ed, Menno Simons, "Confession of My Enlightenment, Conversion, and Calling," [and] The New Birth and Who They Are Who Have the Promise [Lancaster, Pa., 1996: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society], 7).
See The Mennonite Encyclopedia (hereafter ME), V, "Münster Anabaptists."
I first came upon this term in 1955 thanks to Horst Penner, German Mennonite historian, who wrote Weltweite Bruderschaft: Ein mennonitisches Geschichtsbuch (1955).
As quoted in ME, III (first edition, 1957), "Netherlands," (828 -- but see the whole of the lengthy article, and esp. 827-28, for the larger context). For further insights into my interpretation, contrasting Menno Simons with the Swiss Brethren, see: my "Menno Simons' Legacy" (Mennonite Yearbook & Directory, 1986-87, 8-10); "The Swiss Brethren and the Dutch Mennonites: A Particular Study in Contrasts" (Mennonite Historical Bulletin, 53 [Jan. 1992], 1-4); Irvin B. Horst, "The Swiss Brethren and the Dutch Mennonites: How Large a Contrast?" and my response (MHB, 53 [July 1992], 9-10); "Menno, 'Doing Church'," (MHB, 57 [July 1996], 3-4).
J. C. Wenger, ed, Conrad Grebel's Programmatic Letters of 1524 (1970), 35, 39.
Leland Harder ed, The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 314. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Konrad Grebel: Kritiker des frommen Scheins, 1498-1526, (Hamburg, 1998: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein), notes that what the Grebel circle experienced was a "Gemeinschaftserlebnis. So erklärt sich auch, daß die neue Auslegung der Schrift nicht eigentlich die individuelle Angelegenheit eines jeden Christen war, sondern die kollektive Praxis der Gemeinde" (42), and "Grebel hat dem Täufertum nicht seinen Stempel aufgedrückt, er hat vielmehr gedacht und geglaubt wie seine Brüder, er hat auch gehandelt und gelitten wie sie" (141). See also pp. 73, 78, 130-131, 133, and 145, for further insights into the nature of the Swiss Anabaptist group dynamic.
Abundant literature over a period of thirty and more years has been produced, documenting the details of the effects of political and religious foment upon incipient Anabaptism, including such authors as: Heinold Fast, Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Leland Harder, Martin Hass, Walter Klaassen, Werner O. Packull, C. Arnold Snyder, James M. Stayer and John H. Yoder.
Calvin Augustine Pater, Karlstadt as the Father of the Baptist Movements: The Emergence of Lay Protestantism ( Toronto, 1984: Univ. of Toronto Press), notes that, sociologically speaking, "the acts of celebrating the Lord's Supper and adult baptism are sectarian" (136). And it was back to this sociological sectarianism that by 1527 many Anabaptists had returned.
Just as Menno Simons may have continued to reflect something of his priestly role throughout his Anabaptist years, so too Michael Sattler probably brought with him the monastic element of community and order (see C. Arnold Snyder, The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler [Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1984]). For the full text of the Schleitheim Confession, see John H. Yoder, ed, The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pa., Herald Press, 1973), 34-43.
Golden Apples in Silver Bowls (Lancaster, Pa., 1999: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society), 53.
Ibid., 51. See also Yoder, 62.
Yoder, p. 42.
See Martin Haas, "Michael Sattler: On the Way to Anabaptist Separation," in Profiles of Radical Reformers: Biographical Sketches from Thomas Müntzer to Paracelsus, (ed., Hans-Jürgen Goertz), 132-143 (esp. 141-142).
Golden Apples, 48. Also in Yoder, 58.
Ibid., 133. The combination of "false brethren" and "in accord with our Agreement," seen from the vantage point of 1557, denotes, by definition, the Schleitheim Brotherly Agreement of 1527. In this regard, we know of no other such agreement at the time. (If there had been another agreement, Imbroich would have needed to designate which one, given the centrality of Schleitheim document, by now, thirty years old and continuing to remain in print.)
Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 45. For the complete text of the Swiss Order, see Yoder, 44-45.
Later within Swiss Brethren history, Christian Plank in the 1690s reflects on the issue of the ban, and can accept a person's being "expelled by counsel of the entire congregation." (John B. Mast, tr & ed., The Letters of the Amish Division of 1693-1711  104). And another leading Swiss Brethren leader at that time, Jakob Guth, notes:
"As far as outward avoidance is concerned, I can submit to unanimous agreement, but I cannot adhere to a person who wants to exclude and banish another person on his own, and also do not advise brethren in other countries to do so." Guth also undergirds such congregationalism in his letter of 1694 where he hopes Jakob Ammann and his group will "follow their own convictions in the use of this avoidance," yet "not try to impose it on others who could not understand it with them" (Mast, 15).
Golden Apples, 248.
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), 92, 93, 95.
Two other period pieces are significant in suggesting how the Swiss Brethren viewed the Dutch Mennonites, namely, Golden Apples (op. cit.) during the time of high Pietism (1702), and an epistle of Nickolaus Wüthrich (1807), the latter, found in John D. Roth, tr & ed, Letters of the Amish Division: A Sourcebook (Goshen, Indiana, 1993: Mennonite Historical Society), 129-140.
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1996), 112 pages.
For the full Ulli Ammann text of 1720, see the Mennonite Historical Bulletin, 38 (October 1977),1-3.
Minutes of the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, 1864-1929, Compiled by order of Conference, (nd), 9.
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