Liberation from Burdensome Liturgy and Practices

The following is Radix-Anabaptism’s contribution to a blog tour surrounding this year’s Wild Goose Festival theme ‘Living Liberation.’

 wildgoosefest

Galatians 5:1 admonishes believers to “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”[1] In another place when denouncing the Sadducees and Pharisees Jesus said regarding them. “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46). Jesus likened the unscriptural meticulous traditions and customs of the Jewish religious community to a load of goods that one is not easily able to carry, something that taxes a person physically and harmonizing with the thought of the analogy spiritually. However, Jesus offered something different he said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).

For centuries, the historic church has adopted liturgies and practices that do not communicate the words of Jesus and Paul but in its place, it has reinstated arduous formularies for public worship. During the sixteenth century when the Protestant Reformation surfaced many things was retained and even at present it has become widespread to reach back and replant those things that was castoff. Out of the Reformation, another reformation occurred, known as the Radical Reformation and while there were, many participants in this reformation one group stood out in particular. That group was the Anabaptists.

Within Anabaptism, they adopted a simplified means of gathering for mutual edification.  While there is not that much data regarding their day to day gatherings for edification (or worship services), the extant material present reveal a simplicity that liberates one from the traditions assimilated during the post first century Church. The Anabaptists saw that Christianity is supposed to be simple in nature, it should be where it is a way of life; it should function as a part of a person’s daily routine. We are called to be obedient and produce goods works, not to put forth effort attempting observe liturgies or alien practices that did not originate from God’s Word the Bible. When one compares what we see at present to what the Anabaptists practiced, it would be hard to determine which aligns with the words of Christ and the apostolic ekklesia. Take their meetings for edification as an instance.

The Anabaptists “worshipped in forests . . . caves, barns, or mills . . . the only Anabaptist meetinghouse was built in the 16th century . . . [a] few groups bought and refurbished the interiors of buildings like warehouses, but they were forbidden to make the exteriors look like conventional churches”.[2] They also employed their personal homes for such meetings more often than the above settings.  Even when they had meetings houses in later generations, they forewent “symbols or sculptures or stained glass windows . . . [m]ost of them didn’t even have meetinghouses, and they got used to the simplicity of natural surroundings.”[3]

In larger settings, “the central element was preaching to explain the Scripture. The services included prayers and hymns, and participants also had opportunity to comment on the sermon.”[4] Contemporaneously one is almost never allowed to inquire about the sermon in a public setting. The people’s participation level is zero they are solely spectators. The minister or pastor is the sole arbiter of truth and no freedom of expression is permitted. The Anabaptists also “ate a light meal together, sometimes baptized candidates, and discussed major issues such as who among the ministers or readers would be the presiding elder.”[5] Unlike in many instances today, communal meals are not shared nor are the inner workings of the congregation decided by its members. All of these things encapsulate the sizable Anabaptists’ meeting, in other words this is more than one congregation come together on special occasions for various reasons.

Normally when they would meet in smaller groups at a more frequent basis, there was very little variation. These meetings possibly consisted of “five to 10 people”.[6] While many pastors complain about not having a sizable congregation, the Anabaptists knew that smaller was advantageous.  Low cost to maintain and in place of everyone being united at one geographical location numerous smaller communities was established over a wide geographical area for effective evangelism and missions. Their normative local or smaller meetings also parallel the larger assemblies in that they “included Scripture readings, interpretation, and prayer, but perhaps less singing than at larger, more secluded gatherings.” [7]

Oppression played a part in the Anabaptist primitive meeting style however; this did not indicate they would have emulated Protestant and Roman Catholic models for gathering if those very same groups did not persecute them. The 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.”[8] The cruelty they underwent only reinforced an attitude that was present since the inauguration of the movement.

Much more could be related but the above snapshot should model true liberty in practice if only in one area. When we take upon ourselves the yoke of Christ in order to experience the freedom found in him it is essential that we remain in him and obey. Jesus comforted his disciples by saying:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”[9]

One aspect of minding Jesus’ instructions is following those that followed Christ, Paul encouraged the Corinthians by saying “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). While the New Testament authors did not pen any direct mandates concerning all aspects of ecclesial polity they did in fact teach through their actions. They modeled authentic Christian meetings and praxis. I will conclude with the words of J. L. Dagg, he wrote in 1859:

It was made the duty of the apostles to teach their converts whatsoever Christ had commanded, and to set the churches in order. If, instead of leaving dry precepts to serve for our guidance, they have taught us, by example, how to organize and govern churches. We have no right to reject their instruction and captiously insist that nothing but positive command shall bind us. Instead of choosing to walk in a way of our own devising, we should take pleasure to walk in the footsteps of those holy men from whom we have received the word of life . . . respect for the Spirit by which they were led should induce us to prefer their modes of organization and government to such as our inferior wisdom might suggest.[10]

______________________________________________________________

[1] Authorized (King James) Version

[2] John Oyer and Keith Graber Miller, “In Forests, Caves, and Barns: Worshipping with the Early Anabaptists,” Gospel Herald, September 2, 1997, 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] 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.

[9] John 15:5-11

[10] J.L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1859), 84.

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