Diener am Wort
Diener am Wort (Minister of the Word), is the term used by the Hutterites for their preachers; occasionally they were also called Diener des Wortes or Diener im Wort, sometimes Diener am Evangelium. The Chronicle speaks of them not infrequently also as Diener des Wortes und Apostel, The leader among them was called Hirt (shepherd or pastor) and bishop; he was at the same time the Vorsteher or head of the entire brotherhood who carried the heaviest burden and responsibilities both spiritual and temporal of his church.
The duties of an Anabaptist preacher were first defined in the famous Schleitheim Confession of 1527, Article five: "His office shall be to read, to admonish and to teach, to warn, to discipline, to ban in the church, to lead out in prayer for the advancement of all the brethren and sisters, to lift-up the bread when it is to be broken, and in all things to see to the care of the body of Christ that it may be built up and developed." The Hutterites accepted this confession, too, although as a final formulation of their creed and ordinances they considered only Peter Riedemann's great Rechenschaft of 1540 as binding. In this book one chapter deals exclusively with the "differences of ministries," and another with the "election" to these offices. The Hutterites, more strongly organized than most Anabaptist groups, clearly distinguished five different offices in their body: (1) Apostles, "who are sent out by God to go through the country and establish through the word and baptism the obedience of faith in His name." They are also called Sendboten or missioners, and must be ordained ministers. (2) Bishops and shepherds, who have the same duties "except that they remain in one place." (3) Helpers, "who serve along with the shepherds, exhorting and calling people to remain true." (4) Rulers or stewards (see Diener der Notdurft). (5) Elders, who like trustees consider "the good of the church together with the preacher, helping the latter to bear the burden."
In the election of preachers, the example of the choice of Matthias (Acts 1) was followed. After searching prayers "those who have been recognized through God's counsel to be suitable are presented to all. If there be many we wait to see which the Lord showeth us by the lot." The practice is still used not only by the Hutterites but also by some Mennonite groups. "None, however, is confirmed in his office except he be first proved and revealed to the church, and have the testimony of a good life, lest he fall into the snare of the wicked." If he has been found reliable, "his appointment to the office is confirmed before the church through the laying on of the elders' hands.” The Chronicle of the Hutterites registers meticulously all elections, testings, and confirmations of their Diener am Wort, usually without comment. The number of these ministers must have been quite considerable though we have no exact figures. Each Bruderhof had at least one such Diener while others went out in the world as missioners. The fact that so many were ready to serve in this capacity, and to serve most successfully, presupposes a high standard of Bible knowledge and general education (see Education, Hutterite).
From the midst of all these men, one was chosen as bishop and Vorsteher (head) of the entire brotherhood or church. The Chronicle begins actually by listing all of these bishops from Jakob Hutter (d. 1536) to Johannes Rücker (d. 1687), 13 names in all, including Peter Riedemann, who strictly speaking, was not a bishop but was regarded by the Brethren as the spiritual co-leader with the then ruling Vorsteher. Johannes Waldner (d. 1824), the author of the Klein-Geschichtsbuch (see Hutterite Chronicles) and himself a bishop, follows in his work the same practice, listing not less than 22 bishops from Jakob Hutter to 1762; Zieglschmid, the editor (1947), adds five more names up to 1857, after which time no single Vorsteher has ever been elected. The bishop when elected is then presented to the entire brotherhood and ordained by the elders through the laying on of their hands.
A question of some significance was the livelihood of the Diener am Wort. Naturally they did not receive any compensation; on the other hand, in most cases their heavy work required abstention from manual labor. In a community organization such as that of the Hutterites this should not pose a major problem, and Riedemann has nothing to say on this point. In the Chronicle, however, we learn that this issue was thoroughly discussed with Swiss Brethren in the Rhineland before their joining the Moravian brotherhood. In 1556, Hansel Schmid or Raiffer, a most successful, later martyred Hutterite missioner, handed to the Swiss Brethren a written statement of Seven Articles (see Brüderliche Vereinigung), of which the fourth deals with Der Diener Essen und Trinken und ihres Leibes Notdurft. It says that the brethren should prepare the food and offer it "with a ready heart" to the ministers; yet not more than the body requires. "Thus the God-fearing people keep their ministers in high esteem and consider them worthy of double honors and reward" (1 Thessalonians 5:13; 1 Timothy 5:17).
The duties of the Vorsteher were of course heavier than those of the ministers in general. He carried on the elaborate correspondence of the brotherhood, mainly with the missioners abroad and with those who suffered in jails and bondship. He had to comfort all who were in tribulation and affliction; and some of the finest epistles (Sendbriefe, see Epistles, Hutterite) came on such occasions from the great bishops Hutter, Amon, Walpot and others. The bishop had further to watch the observance of the inner discipline of the church (Gemeinde), and if necessary had to write down the essential regulations and ordinances of the brotherhood for a permanent standard. It was particularly the Vorsteher Andreas Ehrenpreis, 1639-1662, who excelled in this activity, collecting old orders and adding new ones to keep the brotherhood in good condition. When a bishop feels his approaching end, he may recommend to his brethren a possible successor; more than once the Chronicle recorded such a moving farewell speech of a Vorsteher. It happened but once that the brotherhood had in effect two Vorsteher at once as mentioned above, when Lanzenstil and Riedemann directed the affairs of the church conjointly, even though the latter had not been ordained to the office of a bishop.
When a Diener am Wort had fulfilled his calling by outstanding service both at home and abroad, the Chronicle devoted elaborate words of praise and appreciation on the occasion of his death. "He was a faithful servant, he kept faithfully to the beliefs of the fathers, he taught not to practice vengeance, neither to help for war. He kept the right baptism and the true Lord's Supper." The highest regard, however, among all preachers was given to the Sendboten, the missioners or apostles who went out into the hazardous world to preach the renewal of hearts. As everyone knew, this was a task from which they most likely would never return. Thus their departure (Aussendung) was celebrated with greatest solemnity. On this occasion they would exhort the brethren at home to keep loyal to their faith, and they would ask for prayers of intercession on their behalf while away from home. Their adventures were eagerly followed by the brethren, as the detailed recordings in the Chronicle prove, taken mostly verbatim from their epistles sent home during their wanderings and perhaps from their jails and torture chambers. Hans Arbeiter was asked whether he was an apostle. "Yes," he answered, "this office has been bestowed upon me by God and the brotherhood that I may show the path of redemption to those who do not know it yet." In their great faith they were fearless and indomitable. "Faith cannot be simulated," says Veit Grünberger in 1573 to his judges; "we have to demonstrate and defend it." And Klaus Felbinger, a preacher not yet confirmed, said to his judges in 1560, "Where God opens to us a door there we go. We have committed ourselves altogether to God, and we are dedicated to go wherever He sends us, not worrying whatever suffering may come to us." They did not shirk martyrdom, in fact almost anticipated it as the consistent end of a true minister or servant of the Gospel. They knew that their example would be more effective than all preaching in the world. "Faith cannot be simulated." When, however, such an apostle returned home safely to Moravia, often after many years of absence, he was received with joy and grateful hearts, as is described many times in the Chronicle. It is obvious that these Diener am Wort represented the very backbone of the brotherhood, who kept it strong and in high spirits during periods of trial and hardship. This was true for the great century of the beginnings as well as for the period of the amazing rejuvenation of the church in Transylvania in the eighteenth century, when new leaders and ministers revived the old spirit in the face of increased suffering and all the uncertainties of a new emigration.
The title Diener am Wort was used to some extent in non-Hutterite Anabaptist and later Mennonite groups for the preacher or minister of the Gospel, though apparently never as the regular and primary title for this office. Among the Dutch and their North German and West Prussian descendants Leeraar (Lehrer) was the most common title, although Prediger, Predicant, Prediger was also used. Dienaar was seldom used. In 1729 Abraham Alders was chosen as preacher in Goch; the record says he was tot den dienst des woords verkoren. In Switzerland and South Germany, while Lehrer was used somewhat, Prediger was the most common. The Amish came to use Diener zum Buch rather than Diener am Wort.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 438 ff.
Loserth, Johann. "Der Communismus der mährischen Wiedertäufer im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zu ihrer Lehre, Geschichte and Verfassung." Archiv für österreichische Geschichte 81, 1 (1895).
Riedemann, Peter. Account of our religion, doctrine, and faith. London: Hodder and Stoughton in conjunction with Plough Pub. House, 1950: 80-82.
Wenger, John C. “The Schleitheim Confession of Faith,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (1945): 250.
Zieglschmid, A. J. F. "Concerning the eating and drinking of the ministers and their bodily needs," Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder: ein Sprachdenkmal aus frühneuhochdeutscher Zeit. Philadelphia: Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, 1943: 363, 519.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 53-54. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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APA style: Loserth, Johann and Robert Friedmann. (1956). Diener am Wort. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/diener_am_wort.