Anabaptism: Two Kinds of Obedience

A dualistic view of the world permeated Swiss Brethren thought. The things of God and Christ in contrast to those of Satan, spirit versus flesh and light versus dark. In their estimation there was a correct way to do something and an inaccurate way.  How one demonstrated obedience was posited by the Brethren, as in other areas there was a wrong and right way to not only show but view obedience.[1] This is seen in a tract of Swiss Brethren origin entitled Two Kinds of Obedience believed to have been written by Michael Sattler.

No time is wasted by Sattler he begins the tract by stating the whole premise which is where the title originates. Sattler writes:

Obedience is of two kinds, servile and filial. The filial has its source in the love of the Father, even though no other reward should follow, yea even if the Father should wish to damn His child; the servile has its source in a love of reward or of oneself. The filial ever does as much as possible, apart from any command; the servile does as little as possible, yea nothing except by command. The filial is never able to do enough for Him; but he who renders servile obedience thinks he is constantly doing too much for Him. The filial rejoices in the chastisement of the Father although he may not have transgressed in anything; the servile wishes to be without chastisement although he may do nothing right. The filial has its treasure and righteousness in the Father whom it obeys only to manifest His righteousness; the servile person’s treasure and piety are the works which he does in order to be pious. The filial remains in the house and inherits all the Father has; the servile wishes to reject this and receive his lawful (gesatzten) reward. The servile looks to the external and to the prescribed command of his Lord;-the filial is concerned about the inner witness and the Spirit. The servile is imperfect and therefore his Lord finds no pleasure in him; the filial strives for and attains perfection, and for that reason the Father cannot reject him.

The filial is not contrary to the servile, as it might appear, but is better and higher. And therefore let him who is servile seek for the better, the filial; he dare not be servile at all.[2]

From the offset dual forms of obedience is posited, the “servile” and the “filial”. Sattler’s tract does not address what to do in its entirety but rather the attitude one is supposed to possess concerning obedience unto God and Christ. The opening form is an unquestioning slavish disposition, the individual does it because of fear, laziness and selfishness. They dread the consequences of disobedience and they will only do what is required of them by their master and nothing more. The other is has a familial attachment to God as a father and the individual is obedient out of love for their Creator. The filial wants to do the will of God because it brings him or her joy to do so. They desire nothing out of it but the satisfaction of knowing they have been obedient to their Lord and their Father.

Also the servile variety of obedience is not favored by God because He knows the reasons for the servile’s compliance. That is the servile only seeks what he or she desires and to look virtuous in the eyes of onlookers and nothing else thus it is imperfect. The actions may be appropriate but the longing that perpetuates the actions fall short in the eyes of God. It should be the aim of the servile to transcend their current state of mind in order to acquire the mindset of the filial or not attempt to serve in any fashion whatsoever.

The servile is Moses and produces Pharisees and scribes; the filial is Christ and makes children of God. The servile is either occupied with the ceremonies which Moses commanded or with those which people themselves have invented; the filial is active (sehefftig) in the love of God and one’s neighbor; yet he also submits himself (unterwindet er sich) to the ceremonies for the sake of the servants that he may instruct them in that which is better and lead them to sonship (kindschafft). The servile produces self-willed and vindictive people; the filial creates peaceable and mild-natured persons; the servile is severe (schwer) and gladly arrives quickly at the end of the work; the filial is light and directs its gaze to that which endures (die were). The servile is malevolent (ungünstig) and wishes no one well but himself; the filial would gladly have all men to be as himself. The servile is the Old Covenant, and had the promise of temporal happiness (seligkeit); the filial is the New Covenant, and has the promise of eternal happiness, namely, the Creator Himself. The servile is a beginning and preparation for happiness; the filial is the end and completion (volkomenheit) itself. The servile endured for a time; the filial will last forever. The servile was a figure and shadow; the filial is the body and truth.[3]

Here Sattler likens the mental disposition of the servile with Moses who represents the behavior found in the Old in contrast with filial that parallels Christ and the conduct found in the New. A servile mindset only creates legalists while the filial manifests Spirit filled heirs of God. The servile’s focus is on the minutest details of traditions and liturgies while the filial’s motivation is loving God and their neighbor. The filial will submit him or herself to “ceremonies” not for the reasons that the servile would do so. The filial does so in order to show the sevile the path to what is better. A servile mentality only produces egotistical and vengeful individuals in contrast to the peaceable filial. One may start with a servile outlook but they should not remain in that state perpetually. Their view should not be happiness that only exist in the present but happiness with eternity in view. Sattler continues with his “familiar Anabaptist distinction between the lower ethical standards of the Old Testament and the higher law of the New.”[4]

According to the Old Testament only he who murdered was guilty of judgment; but in the New, he also who is angry with his brother. The Old gave permission for a man to separate from his wife for every reason; but not at all in the New, except for adultery. The Old permitted swearing if one swore truly, but the New will know of no swearing. The Old has its stipulated punishment (roach), but the New does not resist the evil.

The Old permitted hatred for the enemy; the New loves him who hates, blesses him who curses, prays for those who wish one evil; gives alms in this manner that the left hand does not know what the right has done; says his prayer secretly without evident and excessive babbling of mouth; judges and condemns no one; takes (zeuget) the mote out of the eye of one’s brother after having first cast the beam out of one’s own eye; fasts without any outward pomp and show (misszierung) ; is like a light which is set on a candlestick and lightens everyone in the house; is like a city built on a hill, being everywhere visible ; is like good salt that does not become tasteless, being pleasing not to man but to God alone; is like a good eye which illuminates the whole body; takes no anxious thought about clothing or food, but performs his daily and upright tasks ; does not cast pearls before swine (sewe)y nor that which is holy before dogs; seeks, asks and knocks; finding, receiving and having the door opened for him ; enters through the narrow way and the small gate; guards himself from the Pharisees and scribes as from false prophets ; is a good tree and brings forth good fruit ; does the will of his Father, hearing what he should do, and then doing it.[5]

The Swiss Brethren’s above “description of Christian faith and life” is comprised of “Biblical phrases taken from the words of Christ”.[6] The reason being that to the Anabaptists Christ was the center of their faith. He was the exemplar in which they were to strive after and emulate. His words illustrate the filial form of obedience. The filial does not just seek the barest minimum in what is required of him or her but they go above and beyond. It is not enough not to physically commit a homicide but a person with a filial disposition will endeavor to rid their hearts and minds of any negatives feelings and thoughts that could compel them to murder.



[1] The tract is also a condemnation on soterianism.

[2] John Christian Wenger, “Two Kinds of Obedience: An Anabaptist Tract On Christian Freedom,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 21, no. 1 (1947): 20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid., 19.


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