Anabaptists and “the Pattern of Healthful Words”
THE apostle Paul warned that after his death, apostate Christians, like “oppressive wolves,” would enter in among the flock of God and would seek to “draw away the disciples after themselves.” How would they do this? By bringing in traditions and false teachings to distort the truth of the Scriptures.—Acts 20:29, 30; 1 Timothy 4:1.
For this reason, Paul exhorted the young man Timothy: “Keep holding the pattern of healthful words that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in connection with Christ Jesus. This fine trust guard through the holy spirit which is dwelling in us.” What was this “pattern of healthful words”?—2 Timothy 1:13, 14.
“The Pattern” Established
All the books of the Christian Greek Scriptures were completed in the first century of our Common Era. Although they were penned by different writers, God’s holy spirit, or active force, ensured that they were harmonious not just within themselves but also with the earlier Hebrew Scriptures. In this way, a “pattern” of sound Scriptural teaching was formed and had to be adhered to by Christians, even as Jesus Christ had become “a model” for them to follow.—1 Peter 2:21; John 16:12, 13.
During the spiritually dark centuries following the death of the apostles, what happened to “the pattern of healthful words”? Many sincere people tried to rediscover it, although a full restoration would have to wait until “the time of the end.” (Daniel 12:4) Sometimes it was a lone voice, and at other times it was a small group of people who were searching for “the pattern.”
The Waldenses appear to have been such a minority.* They lived in France, Italy, and other areas of Europe during the 12th to the 14th centuries. From this movement the Anabaptists later emerged. Who were they, and what did they believe?
The Anabaptists first became prominent about the year 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland. From that city their beliefs spread rapidly to many parts of Europe. The early 16th-century Reformation had made some changes, but in the eyes of the Anabaptists, it had not gone far enough.
In their desire to get back to the Christian teachings of the first century, they rejected more of the Roman Catholic dogma than did Martin Luther and other reformers. For example, the Anabaptists maintained that there could only be an adult dedication to Christ. On account of their practice of adult baptism, even for a person who had been baptized as an infant, they were given the name “Anabaptists,” which means “rebaptizers.”—Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:44-48.
“To the Anabaptists the real Church was an association of believing people,” writes Dr. R. J. Smithson in his book The Anabaptists—Their Contribution to Our Protestant Heritage. As such, they considered themselves to be a society of believers within the community at large and at the outset did not have a specially trained, or paid, ministry. Like the disciples of Jesus, they were itinerant preachers who visited towns and villages, talking to people in marketplaces, workshops, and homes.—Matthew 9:35; 10:5-7, 11-13; Luke 10:1-3.
Each individual Anabaptist was considered personally accountable to God, enjoying freedom of will and showing his faith by his works, yet recognizing that salvation did not come from works alone. If somebody transgressed the faith, he could be expelled from the congregation. Reinstatement followed only upon evidence of proper repentance.—1 Corinthians 5:11-13; compare 2 Corinthians 12:21.
Their View of the World
The Anabaptists realized that they could not reform the world. Although the Church had become allied with the State since the time of Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century C.E., to them this did not mean that the State had become Christian. From what Jesus had said, they knew that a Christian had to be “no part of the world,” even if this resulted in persecution.—John 17:15, 16; 18:36.
Where there was no conflict between the Christian conscience and secular interests, the Anabaptists acknowledged that the State should rightly be respected and obeyed. But an Anabaptist would not get involved in politics, hold a civil office, be a magistrate, or swear oaths. Rejecting all forms of violence and force, he would also take no part in warfare or military service.—Mark 12:17; Acts 5:29; Romans 13:1-7; 2 Corinthians 10:3, 4.
The Anabaptists maintained a high moral standard in a sober simplicity of life, basically free from materialistic goods and desires. Because of their love for one another, they often established settlements, although most of them rejected communal living as a way of life. On the basis that everything belongs to God, however, they were always ready to make use of their material possessions for the good of the poor.—Acts 2:42-45.
Through a close study of the Bible, especially of the Christian Greek Scriptures, some Anabaptists refused to accept the Trinity doctrine of three persons in one God, as some of their writings testify. Their way of worship was usually quite simple, with the Lord’s Supper holding a special place. Rejecting the traditional Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinistic views, they saw this act of commemoration as a memorial of Jesus’ death. “To them,” writes R. J. Smithson, “it was the most solemn act in which a Christian can participate, involving the renewal of the believer’s covenant to devote his life unreservedly to Christ’s service.”
The Anabaptists were misunderstood, as were the early Christians. Like them, they were viewed as upsetting the established order of society, ‘overturning the inhabited earth.’ (Acts 17:6) In Zurich, Switzerland, the authorities, linked with reformer Huldrych Zwingli, especially took issue with the Anabaptists over their refusal to baptize infants. In 1527 they cruelly drowned Felix Manz, one of the Anabaptist leaders, and so bitterly persecuted the Swiss Anabaptists that they were almost wiped out.
In Germany the Anabaptists were bitterly persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. An imperial mandate, passed in the year 1528, imposed the death penalty on any who became Anabaptists—and that without any form of trial. Persecution in Austria caused most Anabaptists there to seek refuge in Moravia, Bohemia, and Poland, and later on in Hungary and Russia.
With the death of so many of the original leaders, it was inevitable that extremists should come to the fore. They brought with them an imbalance that led to much confusion and a subsequent falling away from the standards that had marked earlier days. This was tragically evident in the year 1534, when such extremists forcibly took over the municipal government of Münster, Westphalia. The following year the city was recaptured amid much bloodshed and torture. This episode was out of harmony with true Anabaptist teaching and did much to discredit them. Some followers sought to disown the name Anabaptists in favor of the title “Baptists.” But whatever name they chose, they still became the victims of opposition and of the Catholic Inquisition in particular.
Eventually, groups of Anabaptists emigrated in search of greater freedom and peace. Today, we find them in North and South America, as well as in Europe. Many denominations have been influenced by their early teachings, including the Quakers, the modern-day Baptists, and the Plymouth Brethren. The Quakers share the Anabaptist hatred of war and the idea of guidance by an ‘inner light.’
The survival of the Anabaptists is most clearly seen today in two particular groups. The first is the Hutterian Brethren, named after their 16th-century leader, Jacob Hutter. They founded community settlements in England, Western Canada, Paraguay, and South Dakota in the United States. The Mennonites are the other group. They take their name from Menno Simons, who did much to obliterate the bad record left in the Netherlands following the Münster affair. Simons died in 1561. Today, Mennonites are found in Europe and North America, along with the Amish Mennonites.
“The Pattern” Today
Although the Anabaptists may have sought “the pattern of healthful words,” they did not succeed in discovering it. Moreover, in his book A History of Christianity, K. S. Latourette observes: “Originally vigorously missionary, persecution caused them largely to withdraw within themselves and to perpetuate themselves by birth rather than conversion.” And the same is true even now of those small groups traceable to the Anabaptist movement. Their desire to stand apart from the world and its ways has led them to keep distinctive modes of dress, encouraged by their often separate community life.
So, then, can “the pattern of healthful words” really be found today? Yes, but it does take time and a love of truth to find it. Why not check to see if what you believe measures up to the divinely revealed “pattern”? It is not difficult to determine what is man-made tradition and what is Scriptural fact. Jehovah’s Witnesses in your locality will gladly help you, for they themselves appreciate the way they have been helped to understand “the pattern of healthful words.”
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Jehovah’s Witnesses help many to understand “the pattern of healthful words”