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Menno Simons 1496-1561, Radical Reformer

Menno Simons and Ignatius Loyola (see "Heritage", FM Sept/Oct '95) would appear to disagree almost everywhere. Loyola was a priest of the Church of Rome who never wanted to be anything else; Simons renounced his Roman ordination when he despaired of seeing any reform in the Church. Loyola thought the doctrine of transubstantiation (bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ by the prayer of consecration) to be worth dying for; Simons looked upon it as pagan superstition and an abomination to God. Loyola had his Jesuit followers swear a special vow of loyalty to the Pope; Simons looked upon the papacy as reprehensible.

Nonetheless, in their service of that "kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28)" they exemplified the oneness that Christ's people display unknowingly. Both these spiritual giants possessed a single-mindedness concerning their vocation that religious dabblers will never grasp. Both were eager to make whatever renunciation their Lord required of them. Both knew that discipleship entails hardship. Both saw that mission is the essence of the church. And both suffered unspeakably in hearing and heeding him whose word abides: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you (John 20:21)." While they would appear enemies to sixteenth-century observers, before the One whose perspective is not warped and who alone searches hearts, they are brothers.

Menno Simons is the most notable leader of the "Radical" Reformation. (The "Magisterial" Reformation, led by such figures as Luther and Calvin, established Reformed congregations with the help of the "Magistracy"—political rulers who supported and defended the new expression of the church in different Reformed cities Europe. The Radicals enjoyed no such protection in view of their antithetical stance to civil government.)

Born to dairy farmers in Witmarsum, Holland, Menno distinguished himself as a Latin scholar throughout his schooling. Equipped thereby to read Scripture for himself (there were no vernacular translations at this time), he nonetheless did not become acquainted with the Bible until two years after his ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood. His seven-year pastoral ministry found him performing customary parish tasks, as well as achieving extraordinary feats of drinking and cardplaying.

Little-by-little, doubts as to the truth of transubstantiation dismantled the theology he had held since childhood.

Little-by-little, doubts as to the truth of transubstantiation dismantled the theology he had held since childhood. A German preacher lent him a book that stated believers' baptism alone to be found in the New Testament. When a Dutch tailor, Sicke Freerks, was beheaded because he had been re-baptized as an adult, Menno wondered what could be so important about baptism. Having ransacked the teaching of the Magisterial Reformers on infant baptism, he concluded there were no grounds at all for it. Baptism, he believed now, represented everything about one's understanding of the faith, the nature of discipleship, and the Christian community's fate before the world. Menno believed that public baptism put one at the forefront of the world's hostility.

Frustrated in his attempts at a gospel-renovation of the church of Rome, the Spirit-infused man departed in 1536. Dutch sympathizers asked him to be their shepherd, whereupon he was re-baptized (hence the term "anabaptist," "ana" being Greek for again) and re-ordained. For the next 25 years he (like Luther before him) lived with a price on his head. While Luther at least could exercise a ministry in a friendly political environment, Menno's ministry had to be clandestine on account of political hostility. He and his people were harassed by Roman and Reformed authorities alike.

The tenaciously-held tenets of the Radical Reformers were few and stark:

  • "Christian" pertains only to those possessed of personal self-conscious salvation;

  • where there is no evidence of changed life the "old" man or woman is still ascendant;

  • what matters is what you do after you say "I believe;"

  • where there is no aspiration to godly living there is no faith;

  • the Magisterial Reformers' insistence on predestination is to be repudiated (God does not foreordain anyone to eternal blessing or curse) and with it their notion of the bondage of the will of anyone.

Rightly or wrongly, the followers of Menno, later to be called Mennonites, maintained that the New Testament does not permit Christians to kill other humans under any circumstances. For this reason they refused to bear arms in defence of their nation and for this they were deemed traitorous. In World War II Mennonites accounted for 80% of Canada's conscientious objectors. They refused to take an oath to tell the truth in court. Since Christians are to tell the truth all the time, why would any Christian promise to tell the truth on a particular occasion? They insisted that baptism conveyed nothing magically to an infant but rather testified publicly to the commencement of radical discipleship. "Fat-cat" Christians whose life-style differed not a whit from that of unbelievers simply appalled them.

They refused to take an oath to tell the truth in court.

Menno's followers bequeathed to the church no outstanding theology but much good devotional material and many fine hymns. Above all they bequeathed a blood-wrought reminder that Jesus doesn't hide His scars in order to win disciples: suffering born of persecution is a mark of the church, and discipleship will always entail rigorous cross-bearing.

The cross-bearing they endured must never be discounted. Hounded out of Holland, Switzerland and Germany, they sought refuge in Russia—only to be savaged again and driven to the New World. In our century they have sought refuge throughout the Americas, faring much better in Canada and the USA than in Central and South America where they have been victimized repeatedly. Amazingly, Menno survived persecution and died of natural causes at age 66, badly disabled by arthritis.

When political authorities were preparing Balthasar Hubmaier, Menno's colleague, for burning by having gunpowder and sulphur rubbed into his hair and beard, he cried out, "Oh, salt me well; salt me well!" His words should sear upon the mind of all Christians the Master's insistence that every believer is to be salted with fire (Mark 9:49).

Rev. Dr. Victor Shepherd is author of five books. He is professor and chair of Wesley Studies at Ontario Theological Seminary, Toronto.




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