Difference between revisions of "Ecclesiology"

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= 1955 Article =
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== Introduction ==
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Ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, focuses on how the church understands itself and its practices. An account of Mennonite ecclesiology must begin by recognizing the significant influence of the [[Anabaptism|Anabaptist]] movement, beginning in the early 1520s in and around [[Zürich (Switzerland)|Zürich]], [[Switzerland]] (Blanke, 1955). The conversion of [[Menno Simons (1496-1561)|Menno Simons]] from the [[Roman Catholic Church|Catholic]] priesthood to Anabaptism in the year 1536 serves as a benchmark for the birth, or better, the conception, of the Mennonite church. In recognition of the close relationship between the Anabaptist movement and Mennonite beginnings, we will at times refer to an “Anabaptist-Mennonite” tradition.
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Identifying an Anabaptist doctrine of the church presents a challenge. Students of Anabaptist history and theology have known for some time that the Anabaptist movement was not monogenic; the movement originated in a variety of contexts and with an array of perspectives. And yet, speaking for Anabaptism as a whole, it was the doctrine of the church that distinguished Anabaptism, and consequently the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, as a distinct reforming movement. Church historian Franklin Littell concluded that “the dominant theme in the thinking of the main-line Anabaptists was the recovery of the life and virtue of the Early Church” (Littell, 1958, 79; see Yoder, 1984, 123-134).
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Similarly, Arnold Snyder maintains that a common strand runs through the plethora of Anabaptist voices. That strand has to do with ecclesiology. Snyder says: “The doctrine of the church was central to Anabaptist theology. The church was to be the visible Body of Christ” (Snyder, 1997, 155). More specifically, for the Anabaptists, “the biblical model of Christian community was the congregation of yielded, regenerated, faithful, baptized, committed and obedient believers—a community of saints” (Snyder, 1997, 159).
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== Biblical Images of the Church ==
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The Scriptures have provided the primary orientation for an Anabaptist-Mennonite ecclesiology. This approach is reflected, for example, in the Conrad Grebel Lectures delivered by Mennonite historian and church leader [[Bender, Harold Stauffer (1897-1962)|Harold S. Bender]] in 1960 and published under the title ''These Are My People: The New Testament Church.'' Of the many biblical images of the church, Bender selected three as of central importance in Mennonite ecclesiology: the People of God, the Body of Christ, and the Community of the Holy Spirit (Bender, 1962, 1-66).
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The image of the church as People of God connects the people of the Old Covenant with the church of the [[New Testament]]. The [[Old Testament]] people of God had their origin in the Lord’s promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing, … and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). The Lord’s offer to Abraham of a [[Covenant Theology|covenant]] relationship, and Abraham’s willing response, planted the seed for the birth of a “holy nation” that would eventually spawn the church, the new people of God of whom the Apostle Peter writes: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Anabaptists and Mennonites have given high priority to their calling as the People of God.         
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The image of the church as the Body of Christ connects the church with [[Jesus Christ]], whose life, death and resurrection embody the will of God for the people of the new covenant. After receiving baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus called together a group of disciples, inviting them to commit to his teachings concerning the coming kingdom of God and to follow his way of life. With this, Jesus planted the seed for what would become his church, an extension of his life and will. Jesus made his intentions clear when he said: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). He envisioned the church as the vital and essential instrument that would uphold the teachings and the works of the kingdom of God. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul proclaimed Jesus Christ as the very foundation of the church: “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). This text became the watchword and motto for Menno Simons. In the same letter Paul depicted the church as the Body of Christ: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Anabaptist and Mennonite theology conceives of the church as the embodiment of Christ on earth.   
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A third image of the church, important for Anabaptist-Mennonite ecclesiology, is the Holy Community, or the Community of the [[Holy Spirit]]. A defining moment occurred when the risen Christ “breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:23). In short, the risen Christ empowered the disciples, through the Holy Spirit, to engage in community formation through the preaching of the good news of the Gospel of forgiveness and discipline. With the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the church began to understand itself as the new Messianic community in which the main feature was the Holy Spirit’s presence with the believers. A church community marked by the binding presence of the Holy Spirit emphasizes the relational dimension of the church. The members are there not as isolated individuals, but as constituent parts of the body. Much later the leaders of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement appealed to these epic moments in the formative days of the New Testament to undergird and guide their efforts to re-imagine the church in the context of the 16th-century Reformation. 
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It is of significance that each of these three images arises against the background of a particular section of the biblical canon. The image of the church as the People of God has its background in the Old Testament. The image of the church as the Body of Christ has its basis in the person and work of Jesus Christ revealed in the four Gospels. The image of the church as the Community of the Spirit comes to focus in the Acts of the Apostles and throughout the Letters and Epistles of the New Testament. The three images characterize the thoroughly biblical orientation of a Mennonite ecclesiology. 
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== Four Distinctive Practices of an Anabaptist-Mennonite Ecclesiology ==
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Arnold Snyder identifies four practices that were accepted by all Anabaptists, and thus became distinctive marks of the Mennonite churches (Snyder, 1997, 156-159). Each of these practices reflects the conviction of the Anabaptists that the church is a covenant community; that its faith and life is an open book to the community of believers and, indeed, to the public; and that every member of the body of believers is called to holiness. The Anabaptists based these practices on their reading of the Scriptures. To this day Mennonite ecclesiology reflects these early practices, although with some variation and modification.       
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The first and most provocative mark of the Anabaptist movement was the practice of [[Baptism|water baptism]], offered to adults on the basis of their personal confession of faith. Persons requesting baptism testified before the congregation that they had repented of [[Sin|sins]], accepted God’s forgiveness, and were prepared to commit to fraternal responsibility as faithful members of the fellowship of believers. Baptism signified a change of conduct from following the ways of the world to joining the company of those who live in obedience to Christ (Burkholder, 1957, 135-151).
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The Anabaptists’ insistence on believers baptism, even in the face of the threat of persecution, informed their ecclesiological stance in a profound way. Adult baptism gave indication of the authority of Christ over the church rather than the authority of the state. Their baptism, and the commitment it called for, symbolized the actuality and the visibility of the church rather than the assumption that the church was first and foremost a hidden mystery.     
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Second, for the Anabaptists the Christian faith implied a life of [[Discipline, Church|discipline]], including the [[ban]]. The Anabaptists took the [[Sermon on the Mount]] seriously as an ethic for this life. To follow the ethic of Jesus’ teachings was synonymous with participating in the works of the [[Kingdom of God]]. The members of the congregation were obligated to hold each other to account for faithful living. The Anabaptists found their directive for discipline in Matthew 18:15ff., according to which the church had the responsibility to encourage, to admonish, to correct, and even to ban a member from the community if necessary. The ban was intended to service the vision of a pure and holy church; to help persons mend their ways in the hope that they would return to a right relationship with God, and be restored to fellowship in the church. An article on “Discipline in the Church,” (Article 14) in a present-day Mennonite confession of faith states: “We believe that the practice of discipline in the church is a sign of God’s offer of forgiveness and transforming grace to believers who are moving away from faithful discipleship or who have been overtaken by sin” ([https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Confession_of_Faith_in_a_Mennonite_Perspective_(Mennonite_Church_USA,_Mennonite_Church_Canada,_1995) Confession of Faith], 1995, 55). In effect, this practice took the place of the Catholic rite of confession and absolution, except that the Anabaptists implemented confession and forgiveness at the "public" level; that is, in the context of the church as community. The vision of discipleship and the mutual regard for each member of the community as an "open book" was, and continues to be, essential to an Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of the nature of the church.
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Third, the practice of the [[Communion|Lord’s Supper]] was revised by the Anabaptists in accordance with their re-reading of the New Testament. They celebrated the Supper as a simple ritual of thanksgiving for the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and a memorial of his death. In addition, the Supper was a reminder and a covenant sign of binding oneself in love to the brother and the sister. Preparation for participation in the Lord’s Supper included "making things right" with the neighbor. The essential purpose of the Supper was to express devotion to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and to nurture relationships between and among them as brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ on earth. 
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Fourth, the practice of [[Mutual Aid|mutual aid]] was evident in abundance throughout the Anabaptist congregations from earliest beginnings. This mark of the church was inspired by the teachings of the New Testament, in particular the example of Jesus and of the first Christians at the time of Pentecost. The Anabaptists saw it as every Christian’s duty to help the needy, whether within the church or beyond the church circle. It became clear to Anabaptist leaders that social and economic relationship could no longer proceed as they did in the "world." The members of the faith community had the responsibility of attending to each other’s needs, including social and economic needs (Fretz, 1957, 194-199). The Anabaptists had the attitude that the members of the congregation where a family unit, where brothers and sisters were obligated to share materially with each other and with their neighbors. This is what it meant to be the church.     
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== Menno Simons’ Pure Church ==
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In 1536 [[Menno Simons (1496-1561)|Menno Simons]] left the Catholic priesthood and joined the Anabaptist movement where he became an influential leader. Over the next 20 years, he made a significant contribution to Mennonite ecclesiology, particularly in his emphasis on [[Discipleship|discipleship]], on [[pacifism]], and on an understanding of the church as a community of faith and faithfulness. Menno Simons had a deep love for the church. In one of his pastoral letters he wrote: “There is nothing on earth which my heart loves more than it does the church” (Wenger, 1956, 1055). During the course of his 25 years as an itinerant pastor, Menno brought a spirit of peace and unity to the far-flung and at times diverse Anabaptist communities.
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Menno had a deep concern for the holiness of the church. He envisioned a church “without spot or wrinkle.” In a treatise on Christian Baptism Menno wrote:
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“The holy, Christian church must be a spiritual seed, an assembly of the righteous, and a community of the saints; which seed is begotten of God, of the living seed of the divine Word, and not of teachings, institutions, and fictions of man. Yes, they are those who are regenerated, renewed, and converted; who hear, believe, and keep all the commandments and will of God; who have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Galatians 5:24); who have put on Christ Jesus, and reflect Him, and become like unto Him (Romans 8:17); and are heavenly and spiritually minded (Colossians.3:10; Philippians 2:4)” (Wenger, 1956, 234). 
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Menno’s view of the church was quite purist, perhaps unrealistically so. His hope was that through holy living, coupled with the practice of discipline and the ban, the church on earth should always pursue, and hopefully achieve, the ideal of a church without blemish. Today, the Mennonite church would be more prone to work pastorally rather than legalistically in facing the challenge of holy living. Nonetheless the legacy of Menno Simons lives on.   
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== A Mennonite Free Church Self-understanding ==
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Mennonite churches are considered part of the so-called free churches, an ecclesiological designation for a wide range of church groups that broke with the state churches and with the submission to state authority and its territorialism, especially during the time of the 16th-century Reformation. The term "free church" only came into use in the 19th century (Enns, 2007, 99f.) For the Anabaptists, the occasion for this break came, practically speaking, with their rejection of [[Infant Baptism|infant baptism]] and their embrace of adult baptism.
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In breaking with those churches that retained their territorial connection, the Anabaptists tended to avoid the use of the word "church" (''Kirche''), since the term was associated with the Catholic Church and with the churches of the Magisterial Reformation (Lutheran, Reformed, Calvinist). They preferred terms such as "congregation" (''Gemeinde''), "fellowship" (''Gemeinschaft''), or "assembly" (''Versammlung''). Their place of assembly has sometimes been called a "meeting house" or "house of prayer" (''Gebetshaus''). In time the Anabaptist groups that cherished Menno Simons as their founding pastor and teacher spoke of themselves as "[[Mennonite (The Name)|Mennonites]]" (''Mennisten''), meaning something like "Menno’s people."
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== A Congregation Centered Ecclesiology ==
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From earliest times Mennonite churches have favored a congregation-centered ecclesiology. Being a "free church" meant that (local) congregations and (wider) assemblies of congregations claimed the right to administer their own affairs "from below" (''von unten'') rather than submit to a hierarchy of ecclesial authority "from above" (''von oben''). Within the congregation decisions were made by a process of mutual discernment and Spirit-led [[consensus]]. Leaders ([[Elder (Ältester)|elders]], [[Bishop|bishops]], pastors, [[Deacon|deacons]]) were chosen by the local congregation (or by a wider community of congregations) to represent and carry out the will of the congregation. Submission to Christ implied mutual accountability to one another in congregational life (1 Corinthians 12:25; James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:16).
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Ecclesiologically, this means that the local congregation is the primary form of church. The church reality is in a given local context. It is at the local level, where persons intersect with persons on a sustained face-to-face basis, that "church" happens most significantly (Yoder, 1998, 241, 274). That does not deny the reality of the church-at-large. Local congregations and overarching denominations share mutual responsibilities. Article 9 of the ''[https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Confession_of_Faith_in_a_Mennonite_Perspective_(Mennonite_Church_USA,_Mennonite_Church_Canada,_1995) Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective]'', entitled “The Church of Jesus Christ” concludes with this paragraph: “The church exists as a community of believers in the local congregation, as a community of congregations, and as the worldwide community of faith” (Confession of Faith, 1995, 40). 
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== A Missional Church ==
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Mennonites understand the Church as missional. The Anabaptists took seriously Christ’s commission to “be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) (Friedmann, 1973, 149ff.). Following a period of self-preservation in the 17th and 18th centuries, the latter 19th century brought with it a renewal of the missionary spirit among Mennonites. Today, the Church understands its very being as missional. The call to proclaim the Gospel and to be a sign of the [[kingdom of God]] characterizes the church as such and asks each member of the church to lead a life worthy of this calling. The church seeks to engage in mission in a peaceful manner without coercion. Mission includes the ministries of evangelism, social service, and advocacy for peace and justice among all peoples.
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Under the impetus of 19th-century colonialism, Mennonite missionaries from [[Europe]] and [[North America]] brought the Gospel to selected regions of [[South America]], [[Africa]] and [[Mennonites in Asia|Asia]]. Understandably, the churches they planted and the church-related institutions they established reflected Western understandings, patterns, and practices of the church. Eventually this changed as an educated indigenous leadership assumed major responsibilities for the church. Since the mid-20th century the originally-missionized churches have entered a period of discernment aimed at developing ecclesiologies that accord with indigenous cultural sensitivities (Lapp & Snyder, 2003, 221-289). With that, the relationship between Western churches and the churches of the global south has shifted from a relationship of dependence to interdependence.
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== A Peace Church ==
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The great majority of Mennonite churches have defined themselves confessionally as peace churches (Lange, 1988; Miller, 1994, 196-207). With little exception, Mennonite confessions of faith affirm an ethic of love and nonresistance as essential to the Gospel. It belongs to the Mennonite witness to love enemies, to forgive rather than seek revenge, to overcome evil with good. From time to time and from place to place there may be differences of interpretation and application of the Gospel of peace, but with few exceptions the basic principle of nonresistance and nonviolence has stood firm from the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.
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Traditionally the peace teaching has had an inward focus, intent on preserving a culture of peace within the congregation and separating itself not only from military enterprises of the state, but from all involvement with state authorities. Today, the church witnesses against all forms of violence, including war among nations, [[Race relations|hostility among races]] and classes, abuse of women and children, violence between men and women, and [[Capital Punishment|capital punishment]]. Beginning at about the mid-point of the 20th century Mennonites have been advocates for peace and justice among all sectors of society. Furthermore, Mennonites are active today in commending a peace church identity to all Christians everywhere, since peace is understood to be a necessary component of the apostolic faith, and an essential mark of the identity of Christian churches (Miller, 1994, 196-207; Enns, 2003, 302-305). In this way advocates of a Mennonite ecclesiology seek to extend their witness beyond their own circles to the global Christian church. .     
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== Ecumenism and Mennonite Ecclesiology ==
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As we have noted, in recent decades Mennonite churches have given increased attention to ecumenical relations with the wider Christian family of churches. On the global level, Mennonite World Conference has fostered bilateral dialogue with the Baptist World Alliance, with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, with the Lutheran World Federation, and with the Catholic Church. Meanwhile there has also been a proliferation of conversations and cooperative programs in local contexts as well as on national and regional levels. It can be anticipated that inter-church ecumenical relations will have an effect on Mennonite ecclesiology. Two Mennonite theologians, Professors [[Yoder, John Howard (1927-1997)|John Howard Yoder]] and Fernando Enns, have contributed significantly to the discussion concerning ecumenicity and Mennonite ecclesiology.
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Speaking from a “free church” perspective, Yoder offers his proposals on how [[Ecumenism|ecumenical dialogue]] should proceed and what the expectations should be. The heart of Yoder’s contribution can be found in a series of lectures delivered in various settings between 1957 and 1990 (Yoder, 1998, 221-320). His proposals include the following points:
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# It is of greater importance to establish the authority of the unity we seek than to achieve consensus. The only feasible authority is Christ himself.
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# It is of far greater significance to seek unity at the place where the church as the body of Christ meets and is experienced, than to envision unity as a merger of denominations under one structure and one theology.
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# Ecumenical conversation is best conducted in a spirit of “community repentance” rather than in a spirit of Constantinian triumphalism.
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# The pursuit of Christian unity entails agreement on the essential importance of a common Christian behavior. It is of the nature of the church, says Yoder, “to be a disciplined fellowship of those who confess that, if there be one faith, one body, one hope, there must also be one obedience” (Yoder, 1998, 228). Visible discipleship is an ecclesiological mark of the church.
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# The pursuit of Christian unity, for Yoder, begins not at the level of denominations, but with the gathered congregation, which is the place where the church, understood as koinonia, experiences face-to-face encounter with brothers and sisters.
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# A truly ecumenical conversation must aspire to be broadly representative, and to include the perspective of the free churches. Yoder believes the free churches, including the Mennonite churches, have something unique to contribution to an ecumenical ecclesiology, especially by way of the style of ecumenical engagement.
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Fernando Enns approaches the matter from a somewhat different perspective. In his published doctoral dissertation under the title: ''Friedenskirche in der Ökumene: Mennonitische Wurzeln einer Ethik der Gewaltfreiheit'', Enns discusses not only what the Mennonite churches can contribute to the wider ecumenical dialogue, but also what they can learn from ecumenical interchange (Enns, 2003, 306-324). Indeed, Enns believes there to be aspects of a Mennonite peace church ecclesiology that would benefit from the corrective influence of ecumenical conversation. He identifies two areas in particular. First, Mennonite ecclesiology has an inadequate conception of [[community]] (''koinonia''). This is evident in its failure to interpret community in all its dimensions, and in particular the dimensions of the unity and the catholicity of the church (Enns, 2003, 306). Second, Mennonite ecclesiology has not as yet risen to the challenge of grounding its doctrine of the church in a [[God (Trinity), Doctrine of|Trinitarian-based theology]] (Enns, 2003, 306).
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Two Mennonite theologians, the late [[Reimer, A. James (1942-2010)|A. James Reimer]] and Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, have also made the point that a Mennonite ecclesiology needs to take a Trinitarian framework for its ecclesiology seriously (Reimer, 2001, 539; Neufeldt-Fast, 2010, 199ff.). The biblical images of the church named at the beginning of this article—the People of God, the Body of Christ, the Community of the Holy Spirit—may serve well as the theological point-of-entry for a Trinitarian foundation for ecclesiology in a Mennonite perspective.
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''This article is based on the original English essay that was written for the [http://www.mennlex.de/doku.php Mennonitisches Lexikon (MennLex)] and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at https://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=top:ekklesiologie''
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= Bibliography =
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Bender, Harold S. ''These Are My People''. Scottdale/Kitchener: Herald Press, 1962.
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Blanke, Fritz. ''Brüder in Christo''. Zurich: Zwingli Press, 1955.
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Burkholder, J. Lawrence. “The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship.” Pages 135-151 in Guy F. Hershberger, editor. ''The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision''. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957.
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''[https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Confession_of_Faith_in_a_Mennonite_Perspective_(Mennonite_Church_USA,_Mennonite_Church_Canada,_1995) Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective]''. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1995. 
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Enns, Fernando. “Believers Church Ecclesiology: A Trinitarian Foundation and Its Implications.” Pages 179-198 in Abe Dueck, Helmut Harder, Karl Koop, editors. ''New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology''. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010.
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Enns, Fernando. ''Friedenskirche in der Ökumene: Mennonitische Wurzeln einer Ethik der Gewaltfreiheit''. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003. English translation by Helmut Harder: ''The Peace Church and the Ecumenical Community: Ecclesiology and the Ethics of Nonviolence''. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2007.
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Fretz, J. Winfield. “Brotherhood and the Economic Ethic of the Anabaptists.” Pages 194-201 in Guy F. Hershberger, editor. ''The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision''. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957.
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Friedmann, Robert. ''The Theology of Anabaptism''. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973. 
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Lange, Andrea. ''Die Gestalt der Friedenskirche: Beiträge zu einer Friedenstheologie 2''. Weisenheim/Berg: Agape Verlag, 1988.
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Lapp, John and Arnold Snyder. ''A Global Mennonite History: Africa, Vol. I''. Kitchener: Pandora Press & Scottdale: Herald Press, 2003.
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Littell, Franklin Hamlin. ''The Anabaptist View of the Church''. Beacon Hill: Starr King Press, 1958.
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Miller, Marlin E. “Toward Acknowledging Together the Apostolic Character of the Church’s Peace Witness.” Pages 196-207 in Marlin E. Miller & Barbara Nelson Gingerich, editors. ''The Church’s Peace Witness''. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
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Neufeldt-Fast, Arnold. “Examining the Believers Church within a Trinitarian-Missional Framework.” Pages 199-220 in Abe Dueck, Helmut Harder, Karl Koop, editors. ''New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology''. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010.
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Reimer, A. James. ''Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatics for Christian Ethics''. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2001.
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Snyder, C. Arnold. ''Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition''. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1997.
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Wenger, John, editor. ''The Complete Writings of Menno Simons c. 1496-1561''. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956.
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Yoder, John Howard. ''The Priestly Kingdom''. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1984.
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Yoder, John Howard. ''The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical''. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998. 
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= Original 1953 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article =
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By [[Bender, Harold Stauffer (1897-1962)|Harold S. Bender]]. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from ''Mennonite Encyclopedia'', Vol. 1, p. 594-598. All rights reserved.
  
 
Church, in the English Bible is the translation of the Greek New Testament word <em>ecclesia</em>, which is translated in the Luther Bible as <em>Gemeinde</em> (not<em> Kirche</em>). <em>Ecclesia</em> is in turn the translation in the Greek [[Old Testament|Old Testament]] (Septuagint) of the Hebrew word <em>Qahal</em> meaning "people of God" or the Jewish religious congregation, and accordingly means in the [[New Testament|New Testament]] the new "people of God." In secular Greek <em>ecclesia</em> was used to mean "duly summoned assembly of the people," derived from the root meaning of "calling out the citizens from their homes." The popular etymology from the Greek word, making the church a body "called out from the world," has no basis in fact, although the doctrine of separation from the world is a New Testament teaching. "Church" in the New Testament may mean either the entire body of Christian believers as the general church, or a local congregation as a particular church. In either case the New Testament concept of the church is that of a body of disciples of Christ, united by faith to Him as Saviour and Lord, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, sharing a fellowship of mutual love and brotherhood with one another, witnessing individually and corporately for Christ in the world. The church is Christ's church, founded by Him, responsible to Him. After several centuries during which it at first maintained more or less its original character and later developed into a hierarchical institute of salvation, the church entered a new phase in which it compromised with the world and became a state church. Thereby it lost most of its original New Testament character and became a great and powerful socio-religious institution. Having at first based its faith, life, and organization on the [[Bible  |Bible]], it gradually came to base itself largely on its own tradition and the teachings of the Church Fathers, thus making the Church in effect the primary [[Authority|authority]], the Scriptures secondary. The [[Reformation, Protestant|Reformation]] of the 16th century broke off a large segment of the Roman Church in the West, in which the Bible was restored as the sole authority for faith and practice, and the New Testament Gospel largely revived, but the medieval concept of the mass state church retained. The [[Anabaptism|Anabaptist]] movement broke completely with this mass state church concept, and restored the New Testament concept of the church of believers.
 
Church, in the English Bible is the translation of the Greek New Testament word <em>ecclesia</em>, which is translated in the Luther Bible as <em>Gemeinde</em> (not<em> Kirche</em>). <em>Ecclesia</em> is in turn the translation in the Greek [[Old Testament|Old Testament]] (Septuagint) of the Hebrew word <em>Qahal</em> meaning "people of God" or the Jewish religious congregation, and accordingly means in the [[New Testament|New Testament]] the new "people of God." In secular Greek <em>ecclesia</em> was used to mean "duly summoned assembly of the people," derived from the root meaning of "calling out the citizens from their homes." The popular etymology from the Greek word, making the church a body "called out from the world," has no basis in fact, although the doctrine of separation from the world is a New Testament teaching. "Church" in the New Testament may mean either the entire body of Christian believers as the general church, or a local congregation as a particular church. In either case the New Testament concept of the church is that of a body of disciples of Christ, united by faith to Him as Saviour and Lord, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, sharing a fellowship of mutual love and brotherhood with one another, witnessing individually and corporately for Christ in the world. The church is Christ's church, founded by Him, responsible to Him. After several centuries during which it at first maintained more or less its original character and later developed into a hierarchical institute of salvation, the church entered a new phase in which it compromised with the world and became a state church. Thereby it lost most of its original New Testament character and became a great and powerful socio-religious institution. Having at first based its faith, life, and organization on the [[Bible  |Bible]], it gradually came to base itself largely on its own tradition and the teachings of the Church Fathers, thus making the Church in effect the primary [[Authority|authority]], the Scriptures secondary. The [[Reformation, Protestant|Reformation]] of the 16th century broke off a large segment of the Roman Church in the West, in which the Bible was restored as the sole authority for faith and practice, and the New Testament Gospel largely revived, but the medieval concept of the mass state church retained. The [[Anabaptism|Anabaptist]] movement broke completely with this mass state church concept, and restored the New Testament concept of the church of believers.
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The original Anabaptist movement rejected the idea of an invisible church, which was the invention of [[Luther, Martin (1483-1546)|Luther]], holding that the Christian community in any particular place is as visible as the Christian man, and that its Christian character must be "in evidence." The intrusion of the concept of an invisible church into Mennonite thought is an evidence of outside influence, usually pietistic. Nor did the Anabaptists ever move in the direction of a crypto-ecclesia. For them an essential aspect of the church is its readiness to take an open stand for its Lord and suffer for Him. In fact the idea of a suffering church is a very prominent one in Anabaptist testimonies and literature. It is correlative with the idea of martyrdom and victory through suffering. As Christ, the head of the church, conquered through the cross, so shall His church. In later (19th, 20th century) developments, after persecution was past, this courageous faith and devotion was often replaced by an all too quick compromise with the world and an easy yielding to the demands of the state, particularly in such matters as military service. 
 
The original Anabaptist movement rejected the idea of an invisible church, which was the invention of [[Luther, Martin (1483-1546)|Luther]], holding that the Christian community in any particular place is as visible as the Christian man, and that its Christian character must be "in evidence." The intrusion of the concept of an invisible church into Mennonite thought is an evidence of outside influence, usually pietistic. Nor did the Anabaptists ever move in the direction of a crypto-ecclesia. For them an essential aspect of the church is its readiness to take an open stand for its Lord and suffer for Him. In fact the idea of a suffering church is a very prominent one in Anabaptist testimonies and literature. It is correlative with the idea of martyrdom and victory through suffering. As Christ, the head of the church, conquered through the cross, so shall His church. In later (19th, 20th century) developments, after persecution was past, this courageous faith and devotion was often replaced by an all too quick compromise with the world and an easy yielding to the demands of the state, particularly in such matters as military service. 
  
= 1990 Article =
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= Original 1990 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article =
 +
 
 +
By Cornelius J. Dyck. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from ''Mennonite Encyclopedia'', Vol. 5, pp. 150-152. All rights reserved.
  
 
Scripture describes the church as the community of the people of God through whom God acts and is glorified (I Peter 2:9-10), as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16); Romans 12:5), the community of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), as both locally and universally complete (Acts 15; John 17:21); and with love as its primary mark (1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2; Galatians 5:22). The church is also a sociological reality, both human and divine.
 
Scripture describes the church as the community of the people of God through whom God acts and is glorified (I Peter 2:9-10), as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16); Romans 12:5), the community of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), as both locally and universally complete (Acts 15; John 17:21); and with love as its primary mark (1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2; Galatians 5:22). The church is also a sociological reality, both human and divine.
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Dialogue about the nature of the church was also stimulated by John H. Redekop's book <em>A People Apart: Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren</em> (1987), which described ethnicity as a barrier to witness and proposed that the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Canada call itself the "Canadian Conference of Evangelical Anabaptist Churches." It triggered discussion far beyond his own conference.
 
Dialogue about the nature of the church was also stimulated by John H. Redekop's book <em>A People Apart: Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren</em> (1987), which described ethnicity as a barrier to witness and proposed that the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Canada call itself the "Canadian Conference of Evangelical Anabaptist Churches." It triggered discussion far beyond his own conference.
= Bibliography =
+
= 1990 Bibliography =
Bender, Harold S. "The Mennonite Conception of the Church and Its Relation to Community Building." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 19 (1945): 179-214.
+
Bender, Harold S. "The Mennonite Conception of the Church and Its Relation to Community Building." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 19 (1945): 179-214.
  
 
Bender, Harold S. <em>These Are My People.</em> Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1962.
 
Bender, Harold S. <em>These Are My People.</em> Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1962.
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Handiges, E. <em>Die Lehre der Mennoniten in Geschichte und Gegenwart nach den Quellen dargestellt.</em> Ludwigshafen, 1921.
 
Handiges, E. <em>Die Lehre der Mennoniten in Geschichte und Gegenwart nach den Quellen dargestellt.</em> Ludwigshafen, 1921.
  
Heimann, E. "The Hutterite Doctrines of the Church and Common Life." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 26 (1952): 22-47, 142-60.
+
Heimann, E. "The Hutterite Doctrines of the Church and Common Life." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 26 (1952): 22-47, 142-60.
  
 
Heyer, F.  <em>Der Kirchenbegriff der Schwarmer.</em> Leipzig, 1939.
 
Heyer, F.  <em>Der Kirchenbegriff der Schwarmer.</em> Leipzig, 1939.
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Keller, A. <em>Church and State on the European Continent.</em> London, 1936.
 
Keller, A. <em>Church and State on the European Continent.</em> London, 1936.
  
Klaassen, Walter. "The Nature of the Anabaptist Protest." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 55 (1971): 291-311.
+
Klaassen, Walter. "The Nature of the Anabaptist Protest." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 55 (1971): 291-311.
  
 
Klaassen, Walter. "The Anabaptist Understanding of the Separation of the Church." <em>Church History</em> 47 (1977): 421-36.
 
Klaassen, Walter. "The Anabaptist Understanding of the Separation of the Church." <em>Church History</em> 47 (1977): 421-36.
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Kraus, C. Norman. <em>The Authentic Witness. </em>Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
 
Kraus, C. Norman. <em>The Authentic Witness. </em>Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
  
Kreider, Robert. "The Anabaptist Conception of the Church in the Russian Mennonite Environment 1789-1870." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 25 (1951): 34-46.
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Kreider, Robert. "The Anabaptist Conception of the Church in the Russian Mennonite Environment 1789-1870." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 25 (1951): 34-46.
  
 
Littell, F. H. <em>The Anabaptist View of the Church.</em> New York, 1952.
 
Littell, F. H. <em>The Anabaptist View of the Church.</em> New York, 1952.
  
Littell, F. H. "The Anabaptist Doctrine of the Restitution of the True Church." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 24 (1950): 12-24.
+
Littell, F. H. "The Anabaptist Doctrine of the Restitution of the True Church." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 24 (1950): 12-24.
  
 
Loewen, Howard John, ed. <em>One Lord, One Church, One Hope, One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith</em>. Text-Reader Series, 2. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985.
 
Loewen, Howard John, ed. <em>One Lord, One Church, One Hope, One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith</em>. Text-Reader Series, 2. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985.
  
Meihuizen, H. W. "Spiritualistic Tendencies and Movements Among the Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th Centuries." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 27 (1953): 259-304.
+
Meihuizen, H. W. "Spiritualistic Tendencies and Movements Among the Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th Centuries." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 27 (1953): 259-304.
  
 
Menno Simons. <em>The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, </em> trans. Leonard Verduin, ed J.C. Wenger. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1956: 87-102, 734-44.
 
Menno Simons. <em>The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, </em> trans. Leonard Verduin, ed J.C. Wenger. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1956: 87-102, 734-44.
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Schmidt, K. L. <em>The Church.</em> Bible Key Words II. London, 1950.
 
Schmidt, K. L. <em>The Church.</em> Bible Key Words II. London, 1950.
  
Stayer, James M., Werner O. Packull, Klaus Deppermann. "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: the Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins."  <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 49 (1975): 83-121.
+
Stayer, James M., Werner O. Packull, Klaus Deppermann. "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: the Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins."  ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 49 (1975): 83-121.
  
 
Stayer, James M. "Die Anfänge des schweizerischen Täufertums fin reformierten Kongregationalismus," in <em>Umstrittenes Täufertum.</em> 1975: 19-49.
 
Stayer, James M. "Die Anfänge des schweizerischen Täufertums fin reformierten Kongregationalismus," in <em>Umstrittenes Täufertum.</em> 1975: 19-49.
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Wach, J. <em>Church, Denomination and Sect.</em> Evanston, Ill., 1946.
 
Wach, J. <em>Church, Denomination and Sect.</em> Evanston, Ill., 1946.
  
Waltner, Erland. "The Anabaptist Conception of the Church." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 25 (1951): 5-16.
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Waltner, Erland. "The Anabaptist Conception of the Church." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 25 (1951): 5-16.
  
Wenger, J. C. "The Theology of Pilgram Marpeck." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 12 (1938): 205-56, particularly "6 , Ecclesiology," 241-53.
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Wenger, J. C. "The Theology of Pilgram Marpeck." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 12 (1938): 205-56, particularly "6 , Ecclesiology," 241-53.
  
 
Zeman, Jarold K. and Walter Klaassen, eds., <em>The Believers Church in Canada.</em> Brantford and Winnipeg, 1979.
 
Zeman, Jarold K. and Walter Klaassen, eds., <em>The Believers Church in Canada.</em> Brantford and Winnipeg, 1979.
  
Zijpp, N. van der. "The Conception of Our Fathers Regarding the Church." <em>Mennonite Quarterly Review</em> 27 (1953): 91-99.
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Zijpp, N. van der. "The Conception of Our Fathers Regarding the Church." ''Mennonite Quarterly Review'' 27 (1953): 91-99.
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[[Category:Theology]]

Latest revision as of 13:33, 26 June 2019

Introduction

Ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, focuses on how the church understands itself and its practices. An account of Mennonite ecclesiology must begin by recognizing the significant influence of the Anabaptist movement, beginning in the early 1520s in and around Zürich, Switzerland (Blanke, 1955). The conversion of Menno Simons from the Catholic priesthood to Anabaptism in the year 1536 serves as a benchmark for the birth, or better, the conception, of the Mennonite church. In recognition of the close relationship between the Anabaptist movement and Mennonite beginnings, we will at times refer to an “Anabaptist-Mennonite” tradition.

Identifying an Anabaptist doctrine of the church presents a challenge. Students of Anabaptist history and theology have known for some time that the Anabaptist movement was not monogenic; the movement originated in a variety of contexts and with an array of perspectives. And yet, speaking for Anabaptism as a whole, it was the doctrine of the church that distinguished Anabaptism, and consequently the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, as a distinct reforming movement. Church historian Franklin Littell concluded that “the dominant theme in the thinking of the main-line Anabaptists was the recovery of the life and virtue of the Early Church” (Littell, 1958, 79; see Yoder, 1984, 123-134).

Similarly, Arnold Snyder maintains that a common strand runs through the plethora of Anabaptist voices. That strand has to do with ecclesiology. Snyder says: “The doctrine of the church was central to Anabaptist theology. The church was to be the visible Body of Christ” (Snyder, 1997, 155). More specifically, for the Anabaptists, “the biblical model of Christian community was the congregation of yielded, regenerated, faithful, baptized, committed and obedient believers—a community of saints” (Snyder, 1997, 159).

Biblical Images of the Church

The Scriptures have provided the primary orientation for an Anabaptist-Mennonite ecclesiology. This approach is reflected, for example, in the Conrad Grebel Lectures delivered by Mennonite historian and church leader Harold S. Bender in 1960 and published under the title These Are My People: The New Testament Church. Of the many biblical images of the church, Bender selected three as of central importance in Mennonite ecclesiology: the People of God, the Body of Christ, and the Community of the Holy Spirit (Bender, 1962, 1-66).

The image of the church as People of God connects the people of the Old Covenant with the church of the New Testament. The Old Testament people of God had their origin in the Lord’s promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing, … and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). The Lord’s offer to Abraham of a covenant relationship, and Abraham’s willing response, planted the seed for the birth of a “holy nation” that would eventually spawn the church, the new people of God of whom the Apostle Peter writes: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Anabaptists and Mennonites have given high priority to their calling as the People of God.

The image of the church as the Body of Christ connects the church with Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection embody the will of God for the people of the new covenant. After receiving baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus called together a group of disciples, inviting them to commit to his teachings concerning the coming kingdom of God and to follow his way of life. With this, Jesus planted the seed for what would become his church, an extension of his life and will. Jesus made his intentions clear when he said: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). He envisioned the church as the vital and essential instrument that would uphold the teachings and the works of the kingdom of God. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul proclaimed Jesus Christ as the very foundation of the church: “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). This text became the watchword and motto for Menno Simons. In the same letter Paul depicted the church as the Body of Christ: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Anabaptist and Mennonite theology conceives of the church as the embodiment of Christ on earth.

A third image of the church, important for Anabaptist-Mennonite ecclesiology, is the Holy Community, or the Community of the Holy Spirit. A defining moment occurred when the risen Christ “breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:23). In short, the risen Christ empowered the disciples, through the Holy Spirit, to engage in community formation through the preaching of the good news of the Gospel of forgiveness and discipline. With the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the church began to understand itself as the new Messianic community in which the main feature was the Holy Spirit’s presence with the believers. A church community marked by the binding presence of the Holy Spirit emphasizes the relational dimension of the church. The members are there not as isolated individuals, but as constituent parts of the body. Much later the leaders of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement appealed to these epic moments in the formative days of the New Testament to undergird and guide their efforts to re-imagine the church in the context of the 16th-century Reformation.

It is of significance that each of these three images arises against the background of a particular section of the biblical canon. The image of the church as the People of God has its background in the Old Testament. The image of the church as the Body of Christ has its basis in the person and work of Jesus Christ revealed in the four Gospels. The image of the church as the Community of the Spirit comes to focus in the Acts of the Apostles and throughout the Letters and Epistles of the New Testament. The three images characterize the thoroughly biblical orientation of a Mennonite ecclesiology.

Four Distinctive Practices of an Anabaptist-Mennonite Ecclesiology

Arnold Snyder identifies four practices that were accepted by all Anabaptists, and thus became distinctive marks of the Mennonite churches (Snyder, 1997, 156-159). Each of these practices reflects the conviction of the Anabaptists that the church is a covenant community; that its faith and life is an open book to the community of believers and, indeed, to the public; and that every member of the body of believers is called to holiness. The Anabaptists based these practices on their reading of the Scriptures. To this day Mennonite ecclesiology reflects these early practices, although with some variation and modification.

The first and most provocative mark of the Anabaptist movement was the practice of water baptism, offered to adults on the basis of their personal confession of faith. Persons requesting baptism testified before the congregation that they had repented of sins, accepted God’s forgiveness, and were prepared to commit to fraternal responsibility as faithful members of the fellowship of believers. Baptism signified a change of conduct from following the ways of the world to joining the company of those who live in obedience to Christ (Burkholder, 1957, 135-151).

The Anabaptists’ insistence on believers baptism, even in the face of the threat of persecution, informed their ecclesiological stance in a profound way. Adult baptism gave indication of the authority of Christ over the church rather than the authority of the state. Their baptism, and the commitment it called for, symbolized the actuality and the visibility of the church rather than the assumption that the church was first and foremost a hidden mystery.

Second, for the Anabaptists the Christian faith implied a life of discipline, including the ban. The Anabaptists took the Sermon on the Mount seriously as an ethic for this life. To follow the ethic of Jesus’ teachings was synonymous with participating in the works of the Kingdom of God. The members of the congregation were obligated to hold each other to account for faithful living. The Anabaptists found their directive for discipline in Matthew 18:15ff., according to which the church had the responsibility to encourage, to admonish, to correct, and even to ban a member from the community if necessary. The ban was intended to service the vision of a pure and holy church; to help persons mend their ways in the hope that they would return to a right relationship with God, and be restored to fellowship in the church. An article on “Discipline in the Church,” (Article 14) in a present-day Mennonite confession of faith states: “We believe that the practice of discipline in the church is a sign of God’s offer of forgiveness and transforming grace to believers who are moving away from faithful discipleship or who have been overtaken by sin” (Confession of Faith, 1995, 55). In effect, this practice took the place of the Catholic rite of confession and absolution, except that the Anabaptists implemented confession and forgiveness at the "public" level; that is, in the context of the church as community. The vision of discipleship and the mutual regard for each member of the community as an "open book" was, and continues to be, essential to an Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of the nature of the church.

Third, the practice of the Lord’s Supper was revised by the Anabaptists in accordance with their re-reading of the New Testament. They celebrated the Supper as a simple ritual of thanksgiving for the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and a memorial of his death. In addition, the Supper was a reminder and a covenant sign of binding oneself in love to the brother and the sister. Preparation for participation in the Lord’s Supper included "making things right" with the neighbor. The essential purpose of the Supper was to express devotion to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and to nurture relationships between and among them as brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ on earth.

Fourth, the practice of mutual aid was evident in abundance throughout the Anabaptist congregations from earliest beginnings. This mark of the church was inspired by the teachings of the New Testament, in particular the example of Jesus and of the first Christians at the time of Pentecost. The Anabaptists saw it as every Christian’s duty to help the needy, whether within the church or beyond the church circle. It became clear to Anabaptist leaders that social and economic relationship could no longer proceed as they did in the "world." The members of the faith community had the responsibility of attending to each other’s needs, including social and economic needs (Fretz, 1957, 194-199). The Anabaptists had the attitude that the members of the congregation where a family unit, where brothers and sisters were obligated to share materially with each other and with their neighbors. This is what it meant to be the church.

Menno Simons’ Pure Church

In 1536 Menno Simons left the Catholic priesthood and joined the Anabaptist movement where he became an influential leader. Over the next 20 years, he made a significant contribution to Mennonite ecclesiology, particularly in his emphasis on discipleship, on pacifism, and on an understanding of the church as a community of faith and faithfulness. Menno Simons had a deep love for the church. In one of his pastoral letters he wrote: “There is nothing on earth which my heart loves more than it does the church” (Wenger, 1956, 1055). During the course of his 25 years as an itinerant pastor, Menno brought a spirit of peace and unity to the far-flung and at times diverse Anabaptist communities.

Menno had a deep concern for the holiness of the church. He envisioned a church “without spot or wrinkle.” In a treatise on Christian Baptism Menno wrote:

“The holy, Christian church must be a spiritual seed, an assembly of the righteous, and a community of the saints; which seed is begotten of God, of the living seed of the divine Word, and not of teachings, institutions, and fictions of man. Yes, they are those who are regenerated, renewed, and converted; who hear, believe, and keep all the commandments and will of God; who have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Galatians 5:24); who have put on Christ Jesus, and reflect Him, and become like unto Him (Romans 8:17); and are heavenly and spiritually minded (Colossians.3:10; Philippians 2:4)” (Wenger, 1956, 234).

Menno’s view of the church was quite purist, perhaps unrealistically so. His hope was that through holy living, coupled with the practice of discipline and the ban, the church on earth should always pursue, and hopefully achieve, the ideal of a church without blemish. Today, the Mennonite church would be more prone to work pastorally rather than legalistically in facing the challenge of holy living. Nonetheless the legacy of Menno Simons lives on.

A Mennonite Free Church Self-understanding

Mennonite churches are considered part of the so-called free churches, an ecclesiological designation for a wide range of church groups that broke with the state churches and with the submission to state authority and its territorialism, especially during the time of the 16th-century Reformation. The term "free church" only came into use in the 19th century (Enns, 2007, 99f.) For the Anabaptists, the occasion for this break came, practically speaking, with their rejection of infant baptism and their embrace of adult baptism.

In breaking with those churches that retained their territorial connection, the Anabaptists tended to avoid the use of the word "church" (Kirche), since the term was associated with the Catholic Church and with the churches of the Magisterial Reformation (Lutheran, Reformed, Calvinist). They preferred terms such as "congregation" (Gemeinde), "fellowship" (Gemeinschaft), or "assembly" (Versammlung). Their place of assembly has sometimes been called a "meeting house" or "house of prayer" (Gebetshaus). In time the Anabaptist groups that cherished Menno Simons as their founding pastor and teacher spoke of themselves as "Mennonites" (Mennisten), meaning something like "Menno’s people."

A Congregation Centered Ecclesiology

From earliest times Mennonite churches have favored a congregation-centered ecclesiology. Being a "free church" meant that (local) congregations and (wider) assemblies of congregations claimed the right to administer their own affairs "from below" (von unten) rather than submit to a hierarchy of ecclesial authority "from above" (von oben). Within the congregation decisions were made by a process of mutual discernment and Spirit-led consensus. Leaders (elders, bishops, pastors, deacons) were chosen by the local congregation (or by a wider community of congregations) to represent and carry out the will of the congregation. Submission to Christ implied mutual accountability to one another in congregational life (1 Corinthians 12:25; James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:16).

Ecclesiologically, this means that the local congregation is the primary form of church. The church reality is in a given local context. It is at the local level, where persons intersect with persons on a sustained face-to-face basis, that "church" happens most significantly (Yoder, 1998, 241, 274). That does not deny the reality of the church-at-large. Local congregations and overarching denominations share mutual responsibilities. Article 9 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, entitled “The Church of Jesus Christ” concludes with this paragraph: “The church exists as a community of believers in the local congregation, as a community of congregations, and as the worldwide community of faith” (Confession of Faith, 1995, 40).

A Missional Church

Mennonites understand the Church as missional. The Anabaptists took seriously Christ’s commission to “be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) (Friedmann, 1973, 149ff.). Following a period of self-preservation in the 17th and 18th centuries, the latter 19th century brought with it a renewal of the missionary spirit among Mennonites. Today, the Church understands its very being as missional. The call to proclaim the Gospel and to be a sign of the kingdom of God characterizes the church as such and asks each member of the church to lead a life worthy of this calling. The church seeks to engage in mission in a peaceful manner without coercion. Mission includes the ministries of evangelism, social service, and advocacy for peace and justice among all peoples.

Under the impetus of 19th-century colonialism, Mennonite missionaries from Europe and North America brought the Gospel to selected regions of South America, Africa and Asia. Understandably, the churches they planted and the church-related institutions they established reflected Western understandings, patterns, and practices of the church. Eventually this changed as an educated indigenous leadership assumed major responsibilities for the church. Since the mid-20th century the originally-missionized churches have entered a period of discernment aimed at developing ecclesiologies that accord with indigenous cultural sensitivities (Lapp & Snyder, 2003, 221-289). With that, the relationship between Western churches and the churches of the global south has shifted from a relationship of dependence to interdependence.

A Peace Church

The great majority of Mennonite churches have defined themselves confessionally as peace churches (Lange, 1988; Miller, 1994, 196-207). With little exception, Mennonite confessions of faith affirm an ethic of love and nonresistance as essential to the Gospel. It belongs to the Mennonite witness to love enemies, to forgive rather than seek revenge, to overcome evil with good. From time to time and from place to place there may be differences of interpretation and application of the Gospel of peace, but with few exceptions the basic principle of nonresistance and nonviolence has stood firm from the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.

Traditionally the peace teaching has had an inward focus, intent on preserving a culture of peace within the congregation and separating itself not only from military enterprises of the state, but from all involvement with state authorities. Today, the church witnesses against all forms of violence, including war among nations, hostility among races and classes, abuse of women and children, violence between men and women, and capital punishment. Beginning at about the mid-point of the 20th century Mennonites have been advocates for peace and justice among all sectors of society. Furthermore, Mennonites are active today in commending a peace church identity to all Christians everywhere, since peace is understood to be a necessary component of the apostolic faith, and an essential mark of the identity of Christian churches (Miller, 1994, 196-207; Enns, 2003, 302-305). In this way advocates of a Mennonite ecclesiology seek to extend their witness beyond their own circles to the global Christian church. .

Ecumenism and Mennonite Ecclesiology

As we have noted, in recent decades Mennonite churches have given increased attention to ecumenical relations with the wider Christian family of churches. On the global level, Mennonite World Conference has fostered bilateral dialogue with the Baptist World Alliance, with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, with the Lutheran World Federation, and with the Catholic Church. Meanwhile there has also been a proliferation of conversations and cooperative programs in local contexts as well as on national and regional levels. It can be anticipated that inter-church ecumenical relations will have an effect on Mennonite ecclesiology. Two Mennonite theologians, Professors John Howard Yoder and Fernando Enns, have contributed significantly to the discussion concerning ecumenicity and Mennonite ecclesiology.

Speaking from a “free church” perspective, Yoder offers his proposals on how ecumenical dialogue should proceed and what the expectations should be. The heart of Yoder’s contribution can be found in a series of lectures delivered in various settings between 1957 and 1990 (Yoder, 1998, 221-320). His proposals include the following points:

  1. It is of greater importance to establish the authority of the unity we seek than to achieve consensus. The only feasible authority is Christ himself.
  2. It is of far greater significance to seek unity at the place where the church as the body of Christ meets and is experienced, than to envision unity as a merger of denominations under one structure and one theology.
  3. Ecumenical conversation is best conducted in a spirit of “community repentance” rather than in a spirit of Constantinian triumphalism.
  4. The pursuit of Christian unity entails agreement on the essential importance of a common Christian behavior. It is of the nature of the church, says Yoder, “to be a disciplined fellowship of those who confess that, if there be one faith, one body, one hope, there must also be one obedience” (Yoder, 1998, 228). Visible discipleship is an ecclesiological mark of the church.
  5. The pursuit of Christian unity, for Yoder, begins not at the level of denominations, but with the gathered congregation, which is the place where the church, understood as koinonia, experiences face-to-face encounter with brothers and sisters.
  6. A truly ecumenical conversation must aspire to be broadly representative, and to include the perspective of the free churches. Yoder believes the free churches, including the Mennonite churches, have something unique to contribution to an ecumenical ecclesiology, especially by way of the style of ecumenical engagement.

Fernando Enns approaches the matter from a somewhat different perspective. In his published doctoral dissertation under the title: Friedenskirche in der Ökumene: Mennonitische Wurzeln einer Ethik der Gewaltfreiheit, Enns discusses not only what the Mennonite churches can contribute to the wider ecumenical dialogue, but also what they can learn from ecumenical interchange (Enns, 2003, 306-324). Indeed, Enns believes there to be aspects of a Mennonite peace church ecclesiology that would benefit from the corrective influence of ecumenical conversation. He identifies two areas in particular. First, Mennonite ecclesiology has an inadequate conception of community (koinonia). This is evident in its failure to interpret community in all its dimensions, and in particular the dimensions of the unity and the catholicity of the church (Enns, 2003, 306). Second, Mennonite ecclesiology has not as yet risen to the challenge of grounding its doctrine of the church in a Trinitarian-based theology (Enns, 2003, 306).

Two Mennonite theologians, the late A. James Reimer and Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, have also made the point that a Mennonite ecclesiology needs to take a Trinitarian framework for its ecclesiology seriously (Reimer, 2001, 539; Neufeldt-Fast, 2010, 199ff.). The biblical images of the church named at the beginning of this article—the People of God, the Body of Christ, the Community of the Holy Spirit—may serve well as the theological point-of-entry for a Trinitarian foundation for ecclesiology in a Mennonite perspective.

This article is based on the original English essay that was written for the Mennonitisches Lexikon (MennLex) and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at https://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=top:ekklesiologie

Bibliography

Bender, Harold S. These Are My People. Scottdale/Kitchener: Herald Press, 1962.

Blanke, Fritz. Brüder in Christo. Zurich: Zwingli Press, 1955.

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. “The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship.” Pages 135-151 in Guy F. Hershberger, editor. The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957.

Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1995.

Enns, Fernando. “Believers Church Ecclesiology: A Trinitarian Foundation and Its Implications.” Pages 179-198 in Abe Dueck, Helmut Harder, Karl Koop, editors. New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010.

Enns, Fernando. Friedenskirche in der Ökumene: Mennonitische Wurzeln einer Ethik der Gewaltfreiheit. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003. English translation by Helmut Harder: The Peace Church and the Ecumenical Community: Ecclesiology and the Ethics of Nonviolence. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2007.

Fretz, J. Winfield. “Brotherhood and the Economic Ethic of the Anabaptists.” Pages 194-201 in Guy F. Hershberger, editor. The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957.

Friedmann, Robert. The Theology of Anabaptism. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973.

Lange, Andrea. Die Gestalt der Friedenskirche: Beiträge zu einer Friedenstheologie 2. Weisenheim/Berg: Agape Verlag, 1988.

Lapp, John and Arnold Snyder. A Global Mennonite History: Africa, Vol. I. Kitchener: Pandora Press & Scottdale: Herald Press, 2003.

Littell, Franklin Hamlin. The Anabaptist View of the Church. Beacon Hill: Starr King Press, 1958.

Miller, Marlin E. “Toward Acknowledging Together the Apostolic Character of the Church’s Peace Witness.” Pages 196-207 in Marlin E. Miller & Barbara Nelson Gingerich, editors. The Church’s Peace Witness. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

Neufeldt-Fast, Arnold. “Examining the Believers Church within a Trinitarian-Missional Framework.” Pages 199-220 in Abe Dueck, Helmut Harder, Karl Koop, editors. New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010.

Reimer, A. James. Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatics for Christian Ethics. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2001.

Snyder, C. Arnold. Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1997.

Wenger, John, editor. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons c. 1496-1561. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956.

Yoder, John Howard. The Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1984.

Yoder, John Howard. The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998.

Original 1953 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

By Harold S. Bender. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 594-598. All rights reserved.

Church, in the English Bible is the translation of the Greek New Testament word ecclesia, which is translated in the Luther Bible as Gemeinde (not Kirche). Ecclesia is in turn the translation in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) of the Hebrew word Qahal meaning "people of God" or the Jewish religious congregation, and accordingly means in the New Testament the new "people of God." In secular Greek ecclesia was used to mean "duly summoned assembly of the people," derived from the root meaning of "calling out the citizens from their homes." The popular etymology from the Greek word, making the church a body "called out from the world," has no basis in fact, although the doctrine of separation from the world is a New Testament teaching. "Church" in the New Testament may mean either the entire body of Christian believers as the general church, or a local congregation as a particular church. In either case the New Testament concept of the church is that of a body of disciples of Christ, united by faith to Him as Saviour and Lord, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, sharing a fellowship of mutual love and brotherhood with one another, witnessing individually and corporately for Christ in the world. The church is Christ's church, founded by Him, responsible to Him. After several centuries during which it at first maintained more or less its original character and later developed into a hierarchical institute of salvation, the church entered a new phase in which it compromised with the world and became a state church. Thereby it lost most of its original New Testament character and became a great and powerful socio-religious institution. Having at first based its faith, life, and organization on the Bible, it gradually came to base itself largely on its own tradition and the teachings of the Church Fathers, thus making the Church in effect the primary authority, the Scriptures secondary. The Reformation of the 16th century broke off a large segment of the Roman Church in the West, in which the Bible was restored as the sole authority for faith and practice, and the New Testament Gospel largely revived, but the medieval concept of the mass state church retained. The Anabaptist movement broke completely with this mass state church concept, and restored the New Testament concept of the church of believers.

One of the most characteristic features of Anabaptism is its church concept. The church (Gemeinde), according to the Anabaptists, is a voluntary and exclusive fellowship of truly converted believers in Christ, committed to follow Him in full obedience as Lord; it is a brotherhood, not an institution. It is completely separated from the state, which is to have no power over the church; and the members of the church in turn do not hold office in the magistracy. There is to be complete freedom of conscience, no use of force or compulsion by state or church; faith must be free. In these principles the Anabaptists were pioneers and forerunners of modern religious liberty and the free church. This church concept was held in sharp distinction from the prevailing inclusive concept of both Catholic and Protestant state-churchism, namely, that of the mass church (Volkskirche) coterminous with the population of a state, into which all citizens are in effect born and are to be formally incorporated by universal and compulsory infant baptism and in which they remain until death.

This church concept was held by Anabaptists universally, beginning in Switzerland in 1525, when the Swiss Brethren separated from the Zwinglian Reformation, then also among the Dutch-North German group in 1530 ff., and by the various Tyrol-Austria-Moravia groups, including the Hutterites. There were some minor variations however. The Hutterian Brethren, beginning in 1528, modified this concept by establishing a communal brotherhood in which all private property is abolished, and in which the church includes and orders the total life of its members. The opposite tendency, the spiritualistic one, in which the place of the church is minimized and the chief weight is placed upon the individual and his autonomy within the brotherhood, also appeared in the early days of the Anabaptist movement, but found no permanent place in it, except in the later Dutch Mennonites. The representatives of this spirit either died early (e.g., Hans Denck, who died in 1527, expressing regret that he had baptized anyone), or withdrew (e.g., Christian Entfelder of South Germany, who was in the movement only one year, 1529-30, and Obbe Philips of Friesland, who withdrew in 1540), or never actually joined any local congregation. In fact, modern scholarship now carefully distinguishes the Spiritualists from the Anabaptists as a distinct movement, a distinction which Alfred Hegler (d. 1902) first clearly stated. Later the spiritualistic tendency exerted more influence among the Dutch Mennonites, although Menno Simons and Dirk Philips, the outstanding early leaders, were strongly of the opposite position. According to S. Hoekstra (Beginselen en leer der oude Doopsgezinden) the Dutch Anabaptists' theology is centered in the New Testament ecclesia. Some modern Dutch Mennonite scholarship does not agree with this interpretation, although according to Cornelius Krahn, it is in error in doing so. Krahn says: "Kuhler constructs the theory that the genuine Anabaptism is that of individual piety, which throughout Mennonite history struggles with the strictly supervised and disciplined ecclesia. According to Kuhler, therefore, the martyrs, the Waterlanders, and other liberal factions represent genuine Anabaptism, while the strict and conservative followers of Menno Simons have deviated from it. Thus the liberal Doopsgezinde religious beliefs of the 19th century are conjectured into the sixteenth century Anabaptism" (C. Krahn, "Historiography of the Mennonites in the Netherlands," MQR 18, 1944, 195-224). Krahn says further in the same place, "The Dutch Mennonites have been [were] most consistent in establishing a church without spot or wrinkle. They practiced the principle of nonconformity to the world more rigidly than any other Mennonite church." The only full length Anabaptist treatise on the church, that by Dirk Philips, Van die Ghemeynte Godts, hoe die van den beginne gheweest is, waer by die bekent, ende van alle Secten onderscheyden wert, Een corte Bekentenisse (published separately, then as a part of his Enchiridion in 1564, reprinted in B.R.N. X, 1914, pp. 377-414), fully supports Krahn's views. F. Pijper, the B.R.N. editor of Philips' works, says of the Enchiridion, "No second work exists, wherein the teachings of the oldest Doopsgezinden are expounded with so great clarity and many-sidedness."

Since the Anabaptist conception of the church is ultimately derivative from its concept of Christianity as discipleship, i.e., complete obedience by the individual to Christ and the living of a holy life patterned after His example and teachings, an essential idea in it is that the church must be holy, composed exclusively of practicing disciples, and kept pure. It is a church of order, in which the body determines the pattern of life for its members, and therefore has authority over the individual's behavior. It controls admission of new members, requiring evidence of repentance, the new birth, and a holy life, and maintains the purity of the church through discipline using the ban or excommunication. Adopting the program of Christ for the church (Ephesians 5:27) as their aim, the Anabaptists sincerely sought to achieve a church "not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." They cannot however rightly be charged on this account with perfectionism, for their position expressly provided for discipline for sinning church members. It must also be remembered that they took their position in opposition to the Lutheran and Zwinglian churches, who did not at first attempt any discipline except for heresy. Actually the introduction of a certain amount of discipline in the Swiss Zwinglian churches, as well as in Hessen, Strasbourg, and elsewhere, can be attributed at least in part to the direct challenge of the Anabaptist critique which was outspoken, vigorous, and continuous. Repeatedly, when Anabaptists were questioned by state church leaders either in free discussions or in court trials, as to the reason for their separation from the official church, they cited the lack of discipline. The state church could not be the true church of Christ because it tolerated in its midst all kinds of sin. Menno Simons sets forth this point clearly in a classic statement (in A Brief and Clear Confession, 1544) where he says: "Secondly, cleanse your church also. Exclude, according to the Word of God, all adulterers and fornicators, drunkards, slanderers, swearers, those who lead a shameful and inordinate life, the proud, avaricious, idolatrous, disobedient unto God, whoremongers and the like, that you may become the holy, Christian church which is without spot or blemish, which is as a city built upon a rock. In case these are truly observed and found with you, and besides, a free Christian doctrine, the true ministration of the sacraments of Christ, not according to the opinion of men or of the learned but according to the true doctrine of Christ and his apostles - again, the fear and love of God, and an unblamable life, according to God's Word, then you will ever have us as your brethren; for it is such we seek. But if you remain as you are, then I say publicly, better to die than to enter into your doctrine, sacraments, life, and church, as was said above" (Complete Works, Elkhart, 1871, 11, 345). Pilgram Marpeck (d. 1556), the outstanding leader in the South, takes an identical position. His great work, the Verantwortung of 1544 (edited by Loserth in 1929), deals at several places with the concept of the church, particularly on the need for the organization and operation of a visible church, willing to stand openly for the Gospel in spite of persecution, this in opposition to Schwenkfeld's doctrine of suspending the actual organization of the church until a more favorable time. "The Church of Christ, inwardly as spiritual, and outwardly as a body before the world, consists of men born of God; they bear in their cleansed flesh and blood the sonship of God in the unity of the Holy Spirit with cleansed minds and dispositions" (Verantwortung, 294).

This stress upon the holy and pure character of the church is so strong throughout the Anabaptist movement that it may well be taken as their decisive mark of the true church. Menno Simons, however, lists six marks of the true church: (1) unadulterated pure doctrine; (2) Scriptural use of baptism and the Lord's Supper; (3) obedience to the Word of God; (4) unfeigned brotherly love; (5) candid confession of God and Christ; (6) persecution and tribulation for the sake of the Word of the Lord (I, 301; II, 83). Littell (Anabaptist View of the Church, 1952) holds that the controlling idea in the Anabaptist concept of the church was the restoration of the primitive (apostolic) New Testament church. Certainly this was an important element in their doctrine; however, it is seldom directly and systematically set forth. Max Göbel (Geschichte des christlichen Lebens . . . , 1848) focuses the Anabaptist doctrine of the church somewhat differently as follows: "The essential and distinguishing characteristic of this church is its great emphasis upon the actual personal conversion and regeneration of every Christian."

The Anabaptist concept of the church, whatever may be its precise definition, was one of the most powerful ideas in the whole range of Anabaptist doctrine, and in subsequent centuries in Mennonite doctrine. Cornelius Krahn even speaks of the theology of Menno Simons as "ecclesiocentric." For Anabaptists-Mennonites the preaching of the Gospel was to issue finally in a redeemed community. Hence, in contrast to the Lutheran emphasis on the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments, the Anabaptist-Mennonite emphasis always fell on the establishment of the true church through the adherence of true believer-disciples (the term believers - Gläubige - is seldom used in the earlier Anabaptist-Mennonite literature), through its separation from the world, and through its right discipline. Admission to this church was theoretically possible only on the basis of true personal faith and conversion.

The history of the practice of the Anabaptist-Mennonite church concept reveals that although the ideal has been continuously asserted down to the present in confessions, catechisms, sermons, and doctrinal writings, actually it was often obscured or even lost in practice. The problem became most acute in the closed Mennonite settlements or colonies in East and West Prussia and Russia (but only slightly less so in all the congregations in Europe and America), where the brotherhood constituted a distinct community of families sharply separated, even culturally, from the surrounding society, and strongly under the influence of tradition. Increasingly church membership was based on family connection and catechetical instruction, and became conventional, with much of the original idea of conversion and vital personal experience lost. It became customary for all children to be baptized at a traditional age, 15-18 (in Russia more commonly 20-22, as among the Amish also). In Russia, Mennonites were commonly thought of as a "people" as well as a church, and a cultural Mennonitism developed. The extreme form of this in the early 1950s was probably found today in the Old Colony Mennonites of Manitoba, Mexico, and Paraguay, but it also existed (and still exists?) among some better educated elements who consider themselves to be Mennonites though not baptized or in any real way vitally connected with the church. In other areas in North America, particularly in the Mennonite Church (MC), the age of baptism in the 1950s became so low (numerous cases of ten years and below) that, in spite of the outward form of voluntarism and even profession of conversion, the actual practice tends toward child baptism. In Holland in the 1950s the contrary tendency raised the age of baptism (many baptized at 20 years and upward) and emphasized exclusively adult commitment. In those circles in Germany and Switzerland as well as in America where pietistic influences and religious awakenings have been strong, the dangers of traditionalism have been largely or in part overcome by the development of more vital personal experience and vigorous teaching and practice. The rise of the Mennonite Brethren group in Russia (1860 ff.) can be viewed as an attempt to restore the lost original ideal of the church of converted believers, which in turn had a wholesome effect on the total Mennonite brotherhood in that country.

Another aspect of the Anabaptist-Mennonite church view is the concept of the church as a brotherhood. On the one hand this carries an anti-hierarchical emphasis, minimizing the clerical character of the church offices (elder, preacher, deacon) and maintaining a lay ministry over against a professional and salaried ministry, or at least emphasizing lay responsibility and lay participation. On the other hand it emphasizes responsibility for mutual aid in economic life. Here again the brotherhood idea has often been obscured. In some cases hierarchical development has taken place, in which the office of elder-bishop secured great prestige and power and in effect produced a rule by bishops; in other cases a professionalism has come in, with little to distinguish the Mennonite minister from the parson of the established church and with a reduction of lay participation in the life of the church. The mutual aid idea has at times also almost vanished under the rise of wealthy classes with a typical "business" or capitalistic attitude toward their less privileged fellow members. Note, for instance, the plight of the landless in the Russian Mennonite settlements in the 19th century.

In church polity, the original Anabaptist movement was strongly congregational, although the synodal idea was not altogether absent (Schleitheim conference of 1527, meetings of elders under Menno Simons' leadership such as Wismar in 1552, the Strasbourg conferences of 1555, 1557, etc.). Later the synodal idea became much stronger with the rise of the "conferences" in the 19th century in almost all countries. In some Mennonite groups - e.g., the Mennonite Brethren and the Mennonite Church (MC) - the synodal idea conquered by the 1950s; authoritative government by conferences was the rule. The General Conference Mennonite Church retained the congregational polity. In Holland, after a period of variation in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the equivalents of conferences (Sociëteit) had much power in the various factional groups, the congregational polity was fully restored, and the autonomy of the local church is now universally practiced.

A study of the fifteen significant Mennonite confessions of faith produced before 1800 (1527, 1538, 1545, 1577, 1578, 1591, 1600, 1610, 1627, 1678, 1702, 1749, 1773, 1792), including two unprinted Hessian confessions of 1538 and 1578, and including all the historic confessions still in use in America, reveals the following material on the church. Eleven of the fifteen have an article on the church - all except 1527, 1538, 1591, 1627; thirteen have an article on church offices - all but 1538 and 1578 (the two Hessian confessions); and all fifteen have an article on church discipline (ban or shunning). All these confessions teach substantially the same doctrine on all three points. Emil Händiges, who has carefully studied the teaching of the confessions on the doctrine of the church (Chapter 5, "Die Lehre von der Gemeinde im besonderen nach den Bekenntnisschriften dargestellt," in his book, Die Lehre der Mennoniten in Geschichte und Gegenwart 1921), says, "All the confessions of the 17th century (he cites 1600, 1626, 1630, 1632) adhere closely to Menno Simons' and Dirk Philips' [views on the church]. The 1702 confession by Gerhard Roosen contains nothing unique. The first later confession to have something characteristic is the 1766 Cornelis Ris, which is more tolerant. . . . The later confessions and catechisms furnish no new points of view. The specifically Mennonite position (in addition to the general Christian description of the church) is always [to hold] as marks of the true church; the emphasis on repentance, conversion, and the new birth as prerequisites for membership; the Scriptural practice of baptism and communion; the requirement of the ban; the rejection of military service and the oath, and occasionally also the requirement of feet-washing. Also the priesthood of all believers and the autonomy of the local congregation are held as an indispensable heritage of faith from the fathers."

As to the "offices in the church," the confessions regularly, from 1577 on, call for a threefold ministry namely, bishop-elder, preacher, and deacon. Only the Dordrecht (1632) Confession also speaks of the office of deaconess. The Schleitheim (1527) Confession has a strong article on the office of shepherd (Hirt) only; apparently the threefold ministry had not yet developed. The same is true of the Peter Riedemann's Rechenschaft of 1545, although here reference is made to assistant ministers and other officials of the Hutterite Bruderhofs. The Schleitheim definition of the function of the shepherd (later bishop-elder) is characteristic: "This office shall be to read, to admonish and 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 broken, and in all things to see to the care of the body of Christ, in order that it may be built up and developed."

The confessions are unanimous in the requirement of discipline by the use of the ban or excommunication (shunning or avoidance, Meidung, was added in the Dutch-North German confessions) to keep the church pure of transgressors. They uniformly base this on the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. Conrad Grebel called for the ban on the basis of Matthew 18 as early as 1524 in his letter to Thomas Müntzer. The practice of strict discipline on this basis was generally maintained by all Mennonite groups (except Holland) until into the 19th century, and was still maintained in the 1950s by most North American groups. In Holland and Northwest Germany it has been completely abandoned, but in Russia, Southeast Germany, Switzerland, and France discipline has been maintained until the 1950s, with some variation in degree.

In spite of considerable variation in application, Mennonites round the world still unitedly hold to the concept of a believers' church and the brotherhood idea, and still emphasize the central importance of the church in Christian faith and life. The range of concrete practice is still wide, from the Hutterite communal brotherhood, to the strongly disciplined, more authoritarian standard synodal groups (Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren, Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, Badischer Verband) and on to the loosely associated denominational type (General Conference Mennonite, South German Conference) and the highly individualistic Dutch Mennonites, with many degrees of variation in between these major types. In some quarters the church concept itself has been obscured, and no clear line of theology or practice is maintained. The increasing tendency, particularly in the less conservative groups, has been to move from the brotherhood type to the denominational, whereas the more conservative groups as a whole succeed in perpetuating more faithfully the original brotherhood concept.

The original Anabaptist movement rejected the idea of an invisible church, which was the invention of Luther, holding that the Christian community in any particular place is as visible as the Christian man, and that its Christian character must be "in evidence." The intrusion of the concept of an invisible church into Mennonite thought is an evidence of outside influence, usually pietistic. Nor did the Anabaptists ever move in the direction of a crypto-ecclesia. For them an essential aspect of the church is its readiness to take an open stand for its Lord and suffer for Him. In fact the idea of a suffering church is a very prominent one in Anabaptist testimonies and literature. It is correlative with the idea of martyrdom and victory through suffering. As Christ, the head of the church, conquered through the cross, so shall His church. In later (19th, 20th century) developments, after persecution was past, this courageous faith and devotion was often replaced by an all too quick compromise with the world and an easy yielding to the demands of the state, particularly in such matters as military service. 

Original 1990 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

By Cornelius J. Dyck. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 150-152. All rights reserved.

Scripture describes the church as the community of the people of God through whom God acts and is glorified (I Peter 2:9-10), as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16); Romans 12:5), the community of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), as both locally and universally complete (Acts 15; John 17:21); and with love as its primary mark (1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2; Galatians 5:22). The church is also a sociological reality, both human and divine.

The Mennonite Encyclopedia article on the "Church" by Harold S. Bender (above) is a powerful and comprehensive statement which need not be repeated here. The following paragraphs identify new developments which have occurred in understanding the nature of the church in 16th century Anabaptism and in Mennonitism since the 1950s in theory and, to some extent, in practice.

A variety of new, in part revisionist, interpretations of the origins of Anabaptism have been proposed since the 1950s. The earlier account of Zürich as the only place of origin has been superseded by studies showing the multiple roots of Anabaptism in mysticism (Packull), asceticism (Davis), monasticism (Snyder), and peasant unrest even in Switzerland (Stayer). While the Anabaptists were not the outgrowth of the Peasants' War of 1525, as many historians have thought for centuries, they were influenced by its primary ideological leader, Thomas Müntzer. They also owed a great deal to Martin Luther, in part through his former colleague Andreas Karlstadt, who has been called ". . . the Father of the [Ana]Baptist Movements" (Pater).

All of these influences helped to shape the early Anabaptist understandings of the nature of the church. These Anabaptist self-understandings are now seen in the broad social context in which they lived. The movement was quite diverse, but there was also a common core. Without intending in any way to restore the prerevisionist image of a purely peaceful movement trying to "complete the Reformation," one may note that the overwhelming evidence still is that most Anabaptists, in most places, most of the time were, in fact, peaceful, missionary, and willing to suffer, seeking to shape their life together after the New Testament church.

According to studies since the 1950s this church did not intend to separate itself from society (Klaassen, Haas, Stayer). It was expelled from church and society because of its call for a church of believers only, separate from state authority, a people who had experienced conversion to Christ and committed themselves to obedience, which came to be called discipleship.

Separation and persecution heightened discipline to achieve the pure body of Christ "without spot or wrinkle" (Menno; cf. Eph 5:27). Discipline, in turn, tended to look for perfection in the disciple rather than in Christ, leading to many schisms. Political, economic, social and, eventually, religious tolerance came first in the Lowlands in late 16th century but not until the 19th century in Switzerland. Consequently, migrations to escape persecution occurred in all directions (frontier). In new locations and cultures reliance on traditional ways of doing things and of believing often led to sterile spirituality and worship. Old forms provided needed security and protection against the new.

The proliferation of groups originally caused by historical, geographical, and theological factors in the 16th century was fostered further through migrations. The Amish schism of 1693-97 added a new separate group. Numerous confessions were written later by the 16th-century Dutch groups to promote unity, and they were helpful to that end, but they thereby also alienated others. The first major union of all national Mennonite (Doopsgezinde) bodies occurred in The Netherlands in 1811 (Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit). In the 19th century renewal movements in Russia led to further divisions,

Proliferation of Mennonite groups continued in the North American environment into late 20th century, because of historical, cultural, geographic, doctrinal, and polity factors, though there were modest unitive signs in the late 1980s. Most of these divisions were also transplanted onto mission fields globally. Considerable erosion of 16th-century Anabaptist values did occur through acculturation. The charismatic movement provided freedom to form new fellowships without serious disunity. Mennonites found it easier to work together in Mennonite Central Committee than to worship together. Mennonite World Conference illustrated clearly the preference for spiritual unity over organizational unity.

While some Mennonite groups had joined the National Association of Evangelicals in North America and two European groups had joined the World Council of Churches, most Mennonite groups joined neither of these, nor the National Council of Churches, though in 1988 the Conference of Mennonites in Canada seriously considered joining both the Canadian Council of Churches and the Evangelical Federation of Canada and later became "observers" of both.

Mennonites played an active part in facilitating a series of meetings known as the believers church conferences, of which the first was held in Louisville in 1967. The fifth of these conferences was held at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg in 1978, sponsored jointly by Baptists and Mennonites. The report of the findings committee for the 1967 conference lists numerous characteristics and problems, of believers church congregations in some detail under four general headings: (1) ". . . the most visible manifestation of the Grace of God is His calling together a believing people," (2) ". . . the particular local togetherness of the congregation is the primordial form of the church , " (3) ". . . the Word of God creates, judges, and restores the church," and (4) ". . . the mission of the church in the world is to work out her being as a covenant community in the midst of the world."

This report is followed by a "Summary of Believers' Church Affirmations," under eight categories, prepared by Donald F. Durnbaugh, secretary of the conference: (1) lordship of Christ, (2) authority of the Word, (3) restitution (restoration) of the church, (4) separation from the world (nonconformity), (5) living for the world (service), (6) covenant of believers (church membership, discipline), (7) fellowship of saints, and (8) relation to other Christians (Garrett, 322-23). Other volumes in the Believers Church Conference series, listed in the bibliography (Strege; Zeman/Klassen), provide further materials on the themes considered.

Questions about governance (polity) continued to be central agenda for Mennonites. The more hierarchical pattern of the Mennonite Church, and the congregational pattern of the General Conference Mennonite Church, both seemed to move to more common ground. The authority of bishops and regional conferences was being replaced by overseers and a General Assembly in the Mennonite Church, while General Conference Mennonites were ready for more conference authority and direction, particularly in Canada. The question of leadership and authority including the role of women (feminism), continued to engage most congregations and conferences. For some reason the nature of worship seemed to be less of an issue. A new hymnal, to be released in 1992, was being prepared jointly by several conferences. The Amish, Old Order Mennonite, and Old Colony groups continued with strong centralized leadership as before.

Dialogue about the nature of the church was also stimulated by John H. Redekop's book A People Apart: Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren (1987), which described ethnicity as a barrier to witness and proposed that the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Canada call itself the "Canadian Conference of Evangelical Anabaptist Churches." It triggered discussion far beyond his own conference.

1990 Bibliography

Bender, Harold S. "The Mennonite Conception of the Church and Its Relation to Community Building." Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (1945): 179-214.

Bender, Harold S. These Are My People. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1962.

Burrage, C. The Church Covenant Idea. Philadelphia, 1904.

Clasen, Claus-Peter. Anabaptism: a Social History, 1525-1618. Ithaca: Cornell, 1972.

Davis, Kenneth R. Anabaptism and Asceticism. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1974.

Dillistone, F. W. The Structure of the Divine Society. Philadelphia, 1951.

Driedger, Leo. Mennonite Identity in Conflict. Queenston, 1988.

Durnbaugh, Donald F. The Believers' Church. New York; Macmillan, 1968; Scottdale, 1985.

Durnbaugh, Donald F., ed., Every Need Supplied: Mutual Aid and Christian Community in the Free Churches, 1525-1675. Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 1974.

Dyck, Cornelius J., ed. The Lordship of Christ: Proceedings of the Seventh Mennonite World Conference. Elkhart: MWC, 1962.

Garrett, James L., ed. The Concept of the Believers' Church. Scottdale, 1969.

Haas, Martin. "Der Weg der Taufer in die Absonderung," in Umstrittenes Täufertum. 1975: 50-78.

Handiges, E. Die Lehre der Mennoniten in Geschichte und Gegenwart nach den Quellen dargestellt. Ludwigshafen, 1921.

Heimann, E. "The Hutterite Doctrines of the Church and Common Life." Mennonite Quarterly Review 26 (1952): 22-47, 142-60.

Heyer, F.  Der Kirchenbegriff der Schwarmer. Leipzig, 1939.

Hillerbrand, Hans. "Andreas Bodenstein of Carlstadt, Prodigal Reformer." Church History 35 (1966): 379-98.

Hoekstra, S. Beginselen en leer der oude Doopsgezinden. Amsterdam, 1863.

Jeschke, Marlin. Believers Baptism for Children of the Church. Scottdale, 1983.

Juhnke, James C. Dialogue with a Heritage: Cornelius H. Wedel and the Beginnings of Bethel College. North Newton: Bethel College, 1987.

Kauffman, Daniel. "The Doctrine of the Church," which is Part VI, pp. 311-439, of Doctrines of the Bible. Scottdale, 1929, contains besides a chapter on "The Christian Church," pp. 319-32, one on "The Ministry" by D. H. Bender, pp. 333-62 and one by the same author on "The Congregation,": pp. 363-77, followed by a discussion of "The Christian Ordinances" by Daniel Kauffman, pp. 378-439. This book represented the standard position of the Mennonite Church (MC) in the 1950s, and is the only extensive modern Mennonite publication in this field.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of FIve Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1975.

Keller, A. Church and State on the European Continent. London, 1936.

Klaassen, Walter. "The Nature of the Anabaptist Protest." Mennonite Quarterly Review 55 (1971): 291-311.

Klaassen, Walter. "The Anabaptist Understanding of the Separation of the Church." Church History 47 (1977): 421-36.

Klaassen, Walter. Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant. Waterloo: Conrad Press, 1973.

Klassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources. Classics of the Radical Reformation, 3. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1981.

Krahn, Cornelius. Menno Simons. Karlsruhe, 1936, especially "Mennos Gemeindebegriff im Rahmen seiner Theologies, 103-76.

Kraus, C. Norman. The Authentic Witness. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

Kreider, Robert. "The Anabaptist Conception of the Church in the Russian Mennonite Environment 1789-1870." Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (1951): 34-46.

Littell, F. H. The Anabaptist View of the Church. New York, 1952.

Littell, F. H. "The Anabaptist Doctrine of the Restitution of the True Church." Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950): 12-24.

Loewen, Howard John, ed. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith. Text-Reader Series, 2. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985.

Meihuizen, H. W. "Spiritualistic Tendencies and Movements Among the Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th Centuries." Mennonite Quarterly Review 27 (1953): 259-304.

Menno Simons. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed J.C. Wenger. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1956: 87-102, 734-44.

Minear, Paul. Images of the Church in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

The Nature of the Church, Papers Presented to the Theological Commission Appointed by the Continuation Committee of the World Conference on Faith and Order. London, 1952; the papers in this last volume report the views of the nature of the church held by each of the leading Catholic and Protestant churches.

Packull, Werner O. Mysticism and the Early South German-Austrian Anabaptist Movement 1525-1531. Scottdale, 1977.

Pater, Calvin A. Karlstadt as the Father of the Baptist Movements: the Emergence of Lay Protestantism. Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1984.

Pauck, W.  "The Idea of the Church in Christian History." Church History 21 (1952): 191-214.

Philips, Dirk. Van die Ghemeynte Godts. n.p., n.d., after 1559, reprinted in Enchiridion, n.p., 1564.

Redekop, John H. A People Apart. Winnipeg, 1987.

Sawatsky, Rodney J. Authority and Identity: the Dynamics of the General Conference Mennonite Church. North Newton: Bethel College, 1987.

Schmidt, K. L. The Church. Bible Key Words II. London, 1950.

Stayer, James M., Werner O. Packull, Klaus Deppermann. "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: the Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins."  Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (1975): 83-121.

Stayer, James M. "Die Anfänge des schweizerischen Täufertums fin reformierten Kongregationalismus," in Umstrittenes Täufertum. 1975: 19-49.

Stayer, James M. "The Anabaptists," in Reformation Europe: A Guide to Research, ed. Steven E. Ozment. St. Louis: Center for Reformation Studies, 1982: 135-59.

Stayer, James M.  and Werner O. Packull, eds., The Anabaptists and Thomas Müntzer. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1980.

Strege, Merle D., ed., Baptism and Church: a Believers' Church Vision. Grand Rapids: Sagamore, 1986.

Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Grand Rapids, 1964.

Wach, J. Church, Denomination and Sect. Evanston, Ill., 1946.

Waltner, Erland. "The Anabaptist Conception of the Church." Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (1951): 5-16.

Wenger, J. C. "The Theology of Pilgram Marpeck." Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (1938): 205-56, particularly "6 , Ecclesiology," 241-53.

Zeman, Jarold K. and Walter Klaassen, eds., The Believers Church in Canada. Brantford and Winnipeg, 1979.

Zijpp, N. van der. "The Conception of Our Fathers Regarding the Church." Mennonite Quarterly Review 27 (1953): 91-99.


Author(s) Helmut Harder
Date Published May 2019


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Harder, Helmut. "Ecclesiology." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. May 2019. Web. 23 Jul 2019. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ecclesiology&oldid=164253.

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Harder, Helmut. (May 2019). Ecclesiology. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 July 2019, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ecclesiology&oldid=164253.




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