Proto-Anabaptist Meetings

At present, many define Anabaptism in a fashion that essentially parallels Protestant Evangelicalism.  Looking at the nature of the average “church service” or “worship service”, the barebones order consists of the following.

  1. Opening Song
  2. Welcome and announcements
  3. Continued worship set
  4. Prayer
  5. Sermon
  6. Receive tithes and offerings
  7. Closing song

You also must include the Sunday school and the very questionable “children’s church service”.[1] That’s just the rudimentary worship service order, that’s not counting the various trappings that has been adopted over the centuries. Commenting on this matter in The New Republic, Ed Kilgore observes:

[T]he single most notable trend in mainline American Protestantism in recent decades has been the adoption of liturgical practices associated with Catholicism, such as frequent communion and observance of liturgical seasons, particularly since Rome reformed its own liturgy during and after the Second Vatican Council Catholics and most mainline Protestants have long since adopted a common “lectionary” of scripture readings for use during worship services throughout the year. At the same time, the radical theological experiments that were once so fashionable in liberal Protestant circles have been subsiding; mainliners are far more likely to recite the historic Nicene or Apostle’s creeds during worship than are evangelicals. In other words, a growing number of mainline Protestants now worship much like Catholics.[2]

In contrast, I would like to highlight the nature of the prototypical Anabaptist’s “worship service”. That is how the group that began on January 1525 in Zollikon, Switzerland now known as the Swiss Brethren formally the Brüder in Christus (Brothers in Christ). Harold S. Bender tells us that the “service began with the reading of a passage from the New Testament and ended with baptism of such as desired it, and with a general participation in the Lord’s Supper. Baptisms took place at any time and at any place, in the morning or in the evening, in the house or at the stream.” [3] Regarding the Lord’s Supper and its observance Bender continues to relate that the “ceremony was made as simple as possible. The one who was conducting the service simply broke or cut a loaf of bread and pronounced over it the words of consecration, whereupon whoever desired was permitted to take a portion with the wine.”[4]

Their meetings basically consisted of the reading of God’s Word, observance of the ordinances and an open invitation to baptism. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online states in “contrast to the general Reformation doctrine that the church comes to expression when the Word is preached and the sacraments properly observed, the Anabaptists believed that the “true church is raised up” where “faith, spirit, and power” result in “repentance and change of life” and obedience to the truth. Hence the Anabaptists placed little emphasis in formal public worship or ceremonies, and rejected all liturgy.”[5] Ecclesial discipline was implemented as well; the Anabaptists called it the “Rule of Christ”.

Some argue that the Anabaptist primitive meeting style existed because of persecution. That is the Brethren was limited in what they could do otherwise they would have emulated those around them. The truth of the matter is that persecution did not determine the nature and structure of their meetings instead persecution “which made meetings difficult and often dangerous, gave added support to this basic attitude.”[6] The oppression they underwent only enforced an attitude that was present from the launch of the movement. One can summarize thus:

In such worship a common searching of life was involved, and discipline naturally resulted, often carried through as a supplement to the regular worship. The fact that several ministers served the group in Bible reading, admonition, and prayer, and that services were not held in large church buildings but in homes or barns, in forest retreats, or even caves, in addition to the understanding that every member was a responsible adult who had chosen to follow Christ and shared fully in the life of the brotherhood, added to the intense sense of participation by all. Hence, Anabaptist congregations were not “audiences” in attendance upon a worship service furnished by a clergyman in a building belonging to the state and used for nothing else, but a genuine brotherhood sharing in Bible study, prayer, and mutual admonition. The high authority of the Bible of course placed it in the very center of the service, and the reading and exposition of it, or admonition from it, was the most important element. In a sense life was more important than worship.[7]

The above quote does a superb job of contrasting the past with the present, however I must point out far more said there then one truly realize. Perhaps this will be addressed in a future post.


[1] This is not the norm but some find it very appealing.

[2] Ed Kilgore, “The Widening Political Divide between Catholicism and Mainline Protestantism,” The New Republic, April 30, 2012, accessed March 13, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/103027/ross-douthat-response-religion.

[3] Harold Stauffer Bender, Conrad Grebel, C. 1498-1526: The Founder of the Swiss Brethren Sometimes Called Anabaptists (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 138.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Harold S. Bender et al., eds., Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1989), s.v. “Worship, Public,” accessed March 13, 2014, http://www.gameo.org/index.php?title=Worship,_Public#1959_Article.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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