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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Radically Emergent Church

[David Mohler is a recently made friend and co-laborer for the gospel. You will often hear him say "pusillanimous" but quickly see he is the farthest thing from it.]The Radically Emergent Church
by David Mohler

Growing up in Grace Brethren circles, one thing I do not ever recall hearing was the term, "Reformation Day". But I do recall hearing from time to time names like Martin Luther, Conrad Grebel, and Alexander Mack mentioned (more or less) in passing. As Brethren, the forging oven of the Reformation should not be understated, let alone be forgotten. Nothing less than the Truth pierced Martin Luther's soul, and the rest is history.

The Lutheran and Reformed churches of the sixteenth century were the product of spiritual renewal, a Spirit-directed course correction in the understanding of repentance and the Doctrine of Justification, at the least. Those early reformers produced the rough-draft of the evangelical Church emergent from idolatrous worship, and false teaching. Such emergence, like a baby's birth, was not without accompanying pain.

Many historians affirm that the real radicals which emerged out of the Reformation were the Anabaptists who refused to be weighed down with the yoke of religious-political compromise. Arguably, the father of those radicals was catalytic to the Anabaptist extrusion from Lutheranism. That man was Andreas Karlstadt. His writings are second only to Luther in quantity before 1530, even though he may not be as much as household name as Luther or Calvin.

Karlstadt was on the faculty of Wittenberg, and was the one who conferred the doctoral degree upon Martin Luther. Both were excommunicated on June 15th, 1520. It was under Karlstadt that the first town ordinance of the Reformation was issued, specifically directing the taking of the bread and cup by the people (with their own hands); the care of the needy in the church through dedicated funding; church discipline of adulterers; and removal of images of Mary, the saints, and crucifixes from the church. On Christmas Day, 1521 -- little more than four years after Luther's posting of the Ninety-Five Theses -- 2,000 people in Wittenberg assembled in the Castle Church to hear Andreas Karlstadt preach. For the first time in their lives, the words were spoken in their native German tongue, "This is the cup of my blood of the new and eternal testament, spirit and secret of the faith, shed for you to the remission of sins." Today, we Brethren all mumble some form of 1 Cor. 11:25 at communion without a hint that such a privilege was forbidden to the pew until 1521.

Luther had a profound influence toward emboldening Karlstadt, even though Luther was the academic underling (only by two years). But once empowered by the Truth, the break with Rome was clearly more distinct for Karlstadt than for Luther. The doctrinal seeds planted on Karlstadt's side are so significant that merely mentioning them illustrates the distinction between Brethren and Lutheran thinking to this day: rejection of infant baptism; rejection of baptismal regeneration; a teaching of believer's baptism (actually, adult repentance as an antecedent to baptism); discarding of national and territorial churches; the installment of lay ministers, including the lay administration of the Eucharist, and lay baptizers; the rejection of "reverential" titles; and plainness in dress rather than clerical robes. Karlstadt was consumed by a passion for holiness, and pursuit of piety. But Luther was not so likeminded, eventually agreeing to banish Karlstadt from Saxony. The separation was so distressful that Karlstadt called Luther a papist and a cousin of the Antichrist!

While Karlstadt did not appear to preach re-baptism of adults, it didn't take long for the logical conclusion to occur to someone. Taking cues from Karlstadt, two contemporaries became the instruments through which the Brethren Church would eventually come into existence: Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. Grebel corresponded with Karlstadt, and distributed his tracts throughout Zurich, trying to win favor with the Zurich Reformers. Favor, however, was ultimately not granted. In fact, just the opposite ultimately occurred.

The history of the Reformation interests me at this point because of the prompt martyrdom of Felix Manz in 1527 -- only 6 years after Luther posted his theses. It is one thing to marvel at the movers-and-shakers of the Reformation: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al. It is another thing altogether to recognize that our own branch in the Reformation Tree began immediately with martyrdom, approved by a man (Zwingli) who ordered several hundred copies of the Ninety-Five Theses to be distributed among the Swiss people. Continued persecution, by Reformed Christians against Anabaptist Christians, eventually drove later generations, including Alexander Mack, to America. Herein is a solemn warning that man's sinful nature is ever-present, and that Satan applies incredible pressure to disrupt the preservation of a faith once for all delivered to the Saints.

Anabaptism, sans its own two aberrations (the inspirationists, who were mystics, and the rationalsists, who rejected the Trinity) provides an incredible testimony for the 21st-century church. The Anabaptists rejected anything outside of the framework of scripture (especially anything outside of the New Testament) as authoritative. Creeds were abandoned; human reason was dangerous; methodology was suspect. Preservation and propagation of the Truth was to be accomplished at all costs, lest we find ourselves in bondage again. And that approach was anything but "popular" with the scholastic church.

Today, for whatever reason, as we appeal to a reputation of warm, inclusivism under the guise of wanting people to "know Jesus" (in spite of Matthew 7:22-23), we are rejecting cold, authoritative declarations like "the Bible, the Whole Bible and Nothing but the Bible". The scholastics and "deep thinkers" have us all befuddled. As a result, I would argue that we have allowed our collective conscience to turn faith into philosophy, trade Truth for reason, and value method over Message. Without the Truth, we are blind children searching for black toys in a room without light, running this way to pray the Prayer of Jabez, that way to be Purpose Driven, another way to be a New Kind of Christian, and then something else again as satisfaction wanes on the merry-go-round of fantasy Christianity. "But Lord, Lord, didn't we do this and that in your name?", cry the people in the pew. Just like in 1520, the people in the pew don't know any better.

The Truth for which Luther and Karlstadt were excommunicated, and for which Manz died for, was the very spark which ignited the Reformation fire. Ultimately, thousands in Europe were set free because of the Truth. But the Radically Emergent Church of the 16th century is vanishing nearly 485 years later. Our only hope against a dark age is to preach the Truth. If we shall know the Truth, the Truth shall make us free. And If the Son, therefore, shall make us free, we shall be free indeed. And the Reformation flame will continue into the next generation.


  • At 5:08 AM, Blogger ~d said…

    all i can say is, "YES!"

    ok, that's not really ALL i can say. i have read some of the histories of the reformation, specifically of those who sacrificed all for the sake of making scripture accessible and understandable to the common man, and i am profoundly grateful to them. so why i do sometimes take lightly the fact that i have God's Word in 5 different versions and two different languages right in my own home?


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