Early Distinctions in Absonderung or Separation

It is correct to say that Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz did not desire to separate from the church but instead they desired to “try to win Zwingli and the Zürich government for a re-establishment of the apostolic church”.[1]  This imagined apostolic church they desired would take the form of a “tortured church state structure, led by a decidedly Christian government and by Zwingli, to which the majority of the population would belong.”[2]

This is seen shortly following the first disciples’ baptism in January of 1525 when “the churchgoers Zollikon . . . gathered in the church for worship. Their pastor, Niklaus Billeter, is about to mount the pulpit, when” Georg Blaurock entered the church.[3] Then between:

the two an excited conversation takes place before the congregation. Blaurock asks the pastor the rhetorical question of what he intends to do. Billeter answers as a good Zwinglian: “I will preach the Word of God.” Blaurock replies: “Not you, but I have been sent to preach.” Billeter calls his attention to the fact that he has been sent, namely, by his superior at the canon seat of the Grossmünster Church in Zürich, which for ages had engaged the clergyman for Zollikon.

Blaurock was not satisfied by this information and continued to talk. Meanwhile, Billeter had mounted the pulpit and had begun to preach. But Blaurock was still disturbing, and Billeter interrupted his sermon, came down from the pulpit and turned toward the door, certainly not to vacate the place in the pulpit for the disturber but to shorten the tumult.[4]

Then the congregants made it clear that they did not want the pastor to stop the sermon so Billeter returned to the pulpit and continued while telling the audience that “if anyone wanted to show him his errors he should do so privately in the personage, but not . . . in the church”.[5] In response Blaurock interrupted the sermon again saying “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers.”[6] He then took a stick he had with him and rapped it against a church pew four times ultimately ending with “Deputy Bailiff Wuest, who was present in the church, arose and threatened the disturber with jail if he did not immediately desist.”[7] Six months later in the town of Hinwil we see a similar incident in the church pastored by Hans Brennwald. When the people arrived:

to the regular Sunday morning service of the church and awaited the pastor. But before he . . . appeared, that is, before the service began . . . Blaurock stepped up into the pulpit and preached, introducing himself with the explanation: “Whose house is this? Is this God’s house where the Word of God should be proclaimed? Them I am here as an ambassador from the Father to proclaim the Word of God” . . . Brennwald came too late; he was not able to expel the intruder and had to call on the bailiff for help.[8]

These incidents reveals two things regarding the perspective of the proto-Anabaptists. For Blaurock “the development of Anabaptist movement in Zollikon was too slow. He wanted to attempt to convert the population, if possible, at one stroke through preaching in the church.”[9] Even though the movement began just months earlier Blaurock felt that he had a role to play in the purposes of God and his role was to set God’s house aright.  Thus his continued reference to Matthew 21:13 suggesting that the state Church was connected to God but was corrupted and needed cleansing.

Early on there were two kinds of separation or Absonderung, the first being “separation from the world and its evil works”.  It consisted of shunning the unbiblical and immoral teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. This calls back to Georg Blaurock’s thinking and behavior. The other form is full “separation from the church”.

Generally when addressing Absonderung people will reduce it to something as simple as saying that the early members of the Brethren in Christ (Brüder in Christo) later the Swiss Brethren (Schweizer Brüder) sought to remain attached to the state church until they were left with no alternative. As seen with Blaurock it can be argued that the Anabaptists embraced “separation from the world and its evil works” universally from the initiation of the movement. For instance when one looks at the one many people hold as the ‘father of Anabaptism’ Conrad Grebel. Grebel felt that every:

reminder of the Roman mass must be eliminated. In its place a simple Supper was to come, in which only the installation words were to be read, and which would not be taken in the church but in the homes of believers, without clerical dress, with ordinary bread and ordinary drinking cups, as a symbolic meal demonstrating the fellowship of Christians with each other and with Christ . . . Baptism should not be given to children but, according to the usage in the early church, to adults who have become believers, and should signify that we have washed from sin . . . Baptism and Lord’s Supper therefore . . . lacked sacramental character.[10]

This conception of the community of God was founded on Grebel’s Biblicism. That is, it was on “the basis of their interpretation of the authority of the Scriptures.”[11] And it was this hermeneutic that led Grebel and his companions “to withdraw from the Reformed folk church in Zurich and set out to establish a church form to correspond to the pattern of primitive Christianity, namely, a church of the few who have come to personal faith in Christ and have been baptized on the basis of their faith . . . . But Grebel did not preach withdrawal only from the folk church, but also from the life of the state.”[12] Before commenting on the contents of Grebel’s position, one more account needs to be considered.

The Zollikon congregation was granted permission by the Zürich Council “to hold private gatherings had been granted to the Anabaptists on February 7, 1525, at the same time when they were prohibited from maintaining a separate church.”[13] In addition to this they “were not to baptize any more, but among themselves they might meet for Bible study.”[14] Georg Blaurock appeared and the baptizing of adults commenced once again leading to more sanctions by the Zürich Council in March regarding “baptizing, that is, against founding their own church.”[15]

The Anabaptists obeyed the Council’s demands and they created their conventicles or “Bible groups” and “ignored the church services and the pastor” based on the directive given them back in February.[16] This was not what the Zürich Council desired, they “had intended such gatherings to take place within the church; that is, the participants in these Bible groups should also go to church and regard themselves as members of the state church.”[17]

In August the Zürich Council forbade them from gathering privately and they were required to “go to church and there hear the word of God”.[18] Upon receiving this order the Zollikon Anabaptists gathered to decide how best to respond this this new mandate. The congregation arrived at the decision “to give up baptizing, simply live the Christian life together, and be obedient to my lords”.[19]  To put it another way, the “plan to organize an Anabaptist free church in Zollikon was buried; also the gatherings in the houses here and there were discontinued; the brothers would still remain bound to each other in the Christian spirit, but without an independent organization; they would render obedience to the regulations of the Council in regard to church attendance and membership in the state church.”[20]

In this instance we see that the Zollikon group began holding the same position as Grebel, a short while later they tried their best to maintain their autonomy within the parameters established by Zurich Council. When this was not enough they abandoned any thoughts of creating a community of genuine believers and began again to attend the Reformed state church. While this behavior seems out of character with the fearlessness and martyr’s spirit the Anabaptists are known for the reader has to be mindful that this was during the formative first year of the movement. With that being said while they conceded to the state church it was only in the areas of baptism and separation from the Reformed Church. No one are we told that they changed their views on any other matter.

From all of this we see that Conrad Grebel and the earliest Anabaptist community held to a position analogous to what is found in the Brüderlich Vereinigung or Schleitheim Brotherly Union that was drafted later in 1527. The Brotherly Union defined Absonderung in the following fashion. It says:

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.[21]

Therefore two years later the concept of Absonderung or separation comprised of a melding of separation from the church and separation from the world and evil works. But also at this time the accounts featuring Georg Blaurock and the fate of the Zollikon congregation demonstrate that separation in both areas was not universally and simultaneously held. They held both and one position

Another point worth looking at is how Anabaptists related to the state Churches varied by location. Blarock’s and the first Anabaptist congregation’s actions initially occurred in Zollikon then in Hinwil. But when you look at the city of Therwil you will get a different picture.

The Anabaptists relationship with the state church in the city of Therwil was a remarkably divergent from what occured in Zollikon and Hinwil. The Anabaptists actually thrived and functioned in the midst of the state church during the year of 1526. The reason being was that the priest that served there was considerate towards the Anabaptists and their message. This was evidenced by his benevolently opening his home to the Anabaptists for their meetings at the risk of his own welfare and life.[22] Thus from this chronicle it posits the fact that the state churches’ in an area response to the Anabaptist message early on determined how the Anabaptists viewed it and associated with it.






[1] Fritz Blanke, Brothers in Christ: The History of the Oldest Anabaptist Congregation, Zollikon, Near Zurich, Switzerland (Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005), 20.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 29-30.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid., 15.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 67-8.

[14] Ibid., 68.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 69.

[20] Ibid.

[21] John Howard Yoder, ed., trans., The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 12.

[22] Johannes Gast, De Anabaptismi Exordio, Erroribus, Historijs abominandis, Confutationibus adjectis, Libri duo (Basel; 1544), 360.



Response to “Mennonites and “separation”: More ruminations”

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.

Separation (Absonderung)

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.”[1]

“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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

The Circle ends their admonition with “No more of this.”[5] 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.”[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.







[1] 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.

[2] Ervin A. Schlabach, “The Rule of Christ Among the Early Swiss Anabaptists” (diss., Chicago Theological Seminary, 1977), 59.

[3] Conrad Grebel, “Conrad Grebel: Letters to Thomas Muntzer,” The Anabaptist Network, February 3, 2008, accessed May 8, 2015, http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/grebel.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Howard Yoder, ed., trans., The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 13.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ervin A. Schlabach, “The Rule of Christ Among the Early Swiss Anabaptists”, 61.

[9] 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.