Not too long ago I ran across an interesting article posted on Facebook by the professor of Theology and Peace Studies at Eastern Mennonite University and author Ted Grimsrud. It was a blog article he had written named Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations. We had a brief but interesting exchange that could not really go the distance because of other commenters on the thread. So I asked him if it was possible for him to turn his comments into a blog article so we could dig deep into the issue uninterrupted. This is my response to his article Mennonites and “separation”: More ruminations.
To begin let me make this clear, while I am not a member of the Mennonite denomination I can say that I am a friend of many Mennonites and while I can’t speak from the perspective of someone who is experiencing many of the events Ted Grimsrud speaks about I can say that I can comment on the behaviors, practices and perspectives expressed.
It is true the Anabaptists didn’t desire to establish a separate faith community initially. They strove to persuade the Reformed and Roman Catholics to cast-off their unbiblical doctrines and practices and experience genuine renewal. For the reason that they felt that the reforms initiated by Luther did not go far enough, that Luther and others fell short of ameliorating to the fullest extent possible.
The use of the word “separation” without qualification can be misleading when looking back during the formative years of the movement. There are two types of separation during that time. The first is found in the Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren which contain the recollections of George Blaurock regarding how the first Anabaptist Gemeinde came into existence. In the retelling there is an arresting statement that is vital in understanding Absonderung or separation from the Anabaptist perspective. Following the first disciple’s baptisms the Chronicle says “[t]hus they together gave themselves to the name of the Lord in the high fear of God. Each confirmed (bestätet) the other in the service of the gospel, and they began to teach and keep the faith. Therewith began the separation from the world and its evil works.”
“Separation from evil did not initially denote separation from the church. The Anabaptists only disassociated themselves from certain practices within the church which they found offensive.” The second form is “separation from church” which forbade the participation in all aspects of the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.
The Anabaptists saw themselves as being a part of something which had many corrupted facets and their shunning of those things and antagonism towards them was their means of protest. The programmatic epistles of Conrad Grebel to the German radical Reformer Thomas Müntzer (1488/9-1525) had already demonstrated separation from the world and its evil works as found in the ecclesiastical powers that was extant at that time in 1524. In the first of the two letters Grebel and his fellow members of the Zürich Circle said that at some point in the past people fell away from sound Christian teaching and practices and had taken up:
useless, unchristian practices and ceremonies and supposed they would find salvation in them but fell far short of it, as the evangelical preachers have shown and are still in part showing, so even today everyone wants to be saved by hypocritical faith, without fruits of faith, without the baptism of trial and testing, without hope and love, without true Christian practices, and wants to remain in all the old ways of personal vices and common antichristian ceremonial rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, dishonoring the divine Word, but honoring the papal word and the antipapal preachers, which is not like or in accord with the divine Word. In respect of persons and all manner of seduction they are in more serious and harmful error than has ever been the case since the foundation of the world. We were also in the same aberration because we were only hearers and readers of the evangelical preachers who are responsible for all this error as our sins deserved.
In the above passage we see a denunciation of “useless, unchristian practices and ceremonies” while at the opening of the correspondence he refers to Thomas Müntzer as “Dear Brother Thomas” and he is asked to “Consider us your brethren”. Yet in the very same letter the Zürich Circle explained to Müntzer:
Moreover, the gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor [should] they [protect] themselves, which as we have heard through our brother is what you believe and maintain. True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptized in anguish and tribulation, persecution, suffering, and death, tried in fire, and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest not by slaying the physical but the spiritual. They use neither worldly sword nor war, since killing has ceased with them entirely, unless indeed we are still under the old law, and even there (as far as we can know) war was only a plague after they had once conquered the Promised Land.
The Circle ends their admonition with “No more of this.” The reasoning behind this is that Thomas Müntzer spoke of violent revolution that eventually led to him becoming a “rebel” leader in the Peasants’ War whose life ended in torture and decapitation in 1525 following his being captured. Even though the Zürich Circle that eventually became the group known as the Swiss Brethren rebuked violence under any circumstances they still saw that Thomas Müntzer as a spiritual brother which is a surprising contrast to their stance years later as seen in Article VI of the Brüderlich Vereinigung (Schleitheim Brotherly Union) which addresses the “Sword” and if you look back at Article IV on “Separation” which demonstrates a connection between it and the Sword. It says “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.”
Ultimately the crystalized form of Absonderung appeared in in 1527 in the aforementioned document and article. Absonderung is defined as:
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.
The Swiss Brethren’s desire to separate from evil was in place at the onset but separation from the church occurred later in its definitive manifestation. All this could be summarized by saying that many within (and outside of) the scholarly community:
conclude that separation was not always, or even generally, the position of the early Swiss Anabaptists because they equate separation from evil with separation from the church. They recognize the Anabaptist desire for radical reform within the established structures, but confuse the issue somewhat by their use of the term “separation.” Trying to determine when the Anabaptists became separatist tends to overshadow the fact that the concept of separation from evil was a part of the Anabaptist concern for moral improvement from the beginning. When that desire led the Anabaptists to reject attendance at the preaching was dependent upon the receptiveness to their message.
The Ban (Bann)
I find all this talk of “trauma” problematic in relation to the Bann. Now while how one executes a certain practice can be potentially traumatizing, that does not make the practice wrong in and of itself. Also many times people become distressed because they did not get to do or acquire what they desired and have everyone accept it then in response these individuals or even groups claim they have been traumatized or experienced some psychological event from the response they received. The ban (whether exclusion from communion or exclusion from membership), excommunication, disfellowshipping or whatever name people prefer it is all biblical mandate Jesus specifically expressed that exclusion in some fashion for those that went beyond the strictures of the ekklesia. Matthew 18:15-20 reads:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.
The Swiss Anabaptists called the ban the “Rule of Christ”, it was called the “Rule” because it was the authoritative direction Jesus prescribed to regulate the Christian community. It is to maintain a state of holiness in the context of the ekklesia. The relationship with God and Christ involves discipleship which in turn requires a clean ekklesia. Balthasar Hübmaier wrote in the year 1527 in his work Fraternal Admonition:
such admonition and exclusion is not only good for one according to the nature of the case, but it would also be much better for him that a millstone be hung around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than that he should give the very least offense or scandal in the church and pile sin upon sin . . . Now since fraternal admonition and the Christian ban proceed from such inner, heartfelt and fervent love, which one Christian should have daily toward another in true faithfulness, therefore he must be a most ignorant, wild and godless monster, yea a grim Herod . . . who would not accept such admonition from his brethren in a friendly and kind way, and with thanksgiving.
Fraternal admonition and the ban are loving practices to not only maintain the sanctity of the Gemeinde but assists believers to preserve their virtuous standing before God. Therefore the person that is being admonished should take it as something for their benefit and not their detriment. Thus when done properly there is no trauma involved at all.
Stories of Past Traumas
As a side note the Martyrs Mirror (1660) was not compiled by Thieleman J. van Braght “to rekindle the passion by collecting stories of past traumas”. Van Braght was carrying on a practice that started almost 100 years earlier. The first compilation of (Dutch) Anabaptist martyr stories occurred in the year 1562 entitled Het Offer des Heeren. It went through 11 editions with additional content by the year 1599. So this was not something new brought on by “trauma” but it was done as a means for those who suffered and died for the Anabaptist faith as it were to be remembered and see those brave men and women as examples of authentic Christians to be emulated.
 George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, 1957), 44.
 Ervin A. Schlabach, “The Rule of Christ Among the Early Swiss Anabaptists” (diss., Chicago Theological Seminary, 1977), 59.
 John Howard Yoder, ed., trans., The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 13.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ervin A. Schlabach, “The Rule of Christ Among the Early Swiss Anabaptists”, 61.
 Balthasar Hübmaier, Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, ed. and trans. H. Wayne Pipkin and John Howard Yoder, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 5:380.