1496 -- 1561
Menno Simons and Ignatius Loyola (see "Heritage", FM,
Sept./Oct. '95) would appear to disagree almost everywhere. Loyola was a priest of the
Church of Rome who never wanted to be anything else; Simons renounced his Roman ordination
when he despaired of seeing any reform in the Church. Loyola thought the doctrine of
transubstantiation (bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ by the
prayer of consecration) to be worth dying for; Simons looked upon it as pagan superstition
and an abomination to God. Loyola had his Jesuit followers swear a special vow of loyalty
to the pope; Simons looked upon the papacy as reprehensible.
Nonetheless, in their service of that "kingdom that cannot
be shaken" (Hebrews 12:28) they exemplified the oneness that Christ's people display
unknowingly. Both these spiritual giants possessed a singlemindedness concerning their
vocation that religious dabblers will never grasp. Both were eager to make whatever
renunciation their Lord required of them. Both knew that discipleship entails hardship.
Both saw that mission is of the essence of the church. And both suffered unspeakably in
hearing and heeding him whose word abides: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send
you." (John 20:21) While they would appear enemies to sixteenth-century observers,
before the one whose perspective is not warped and who alone searches hearts they are
Menno Simons is the most notable leader of the
"Radical" Reformation. (The "Magisterial" Reformation -- led by such
figures as Luther and Calvin -- established Reformed congregations with the help of the
"magistracy", political rulers who supported and defended the new expression of
the church in different Reformed cities of Europe. The Radicals enjoyed no such
protection, in view of their antithetical stance to civil government.)
Born to dairy farmers in Witmarsum, Holland, Menno distinguished
himself as a Latin scholar throughout his schooling. Equipped thereby to read scripture
for himself (there were no vernacular translations at this time), he nonetheless did not
become acquainted with the bible until two years after his ordination to the Roman
Catholic priesthood. His seven-year pastoral ministry found him performing customary
parish tasks, as well as achieving extraordinary feats of drinking and card-playing!
Little-by-little doubts as to the truth of transubstantiation
dismantled the theology he had held since childhood. A German preacher lent him a book
that stated believers' baptism alone to be found in the New Testament. When a Dutch
tailor, Sicke Freerks, was beheaded because he had been re-baptized as an adult, Menno
wondered what could be so important about baptism. Having ransacked the teaching of the
Magisterial Reformers on infant baptism, he concluded there were no grounds at all for it.
Baptism, he believed now, represented everything about one's understanding of the faith,
the nature of discipleship, and the Christian community's fate before the world.
Frustrated in his attempts at a gospel-renovation of the Church
of Rome, the Spirit-infused man departed in 1536. Dutch sympathizers asked him to be their
shepherd -- whereupon he was re-baptized (hence the term "anabaptist",
"ana" being Greek for "again") and re-ordained. For the next 25 years
he (like Luther before him) lived with a price on his head. While Luther at least could
exercise a ministry in a friendly political environment, Menno's ministry had to be
clandestine on account of political hostility. He and his people were harassed by Roman
and Reformed authorities alike.
The tenaciously-held tenets of the Radical Reformers were few and
- "Christian" pertains only to those possessed of
personal, self-conscious salvation;
- where there is no evidence of changed life the "old"
man or woman is still ascendant;
- what matters is what you do after you say "I
- where there is no aspiration to godly living there is no faith;
- the Magisterial Reformers' insistence on predestination is to
be repudiated (God does not foreordain anyone to eternal blessing or curse), and with it
their notion of the bondage of the will (anyone at all may respond to the
Now Menno rehearsed his "heroes of faith. Abraham left
his country and offered up his son Isaac. Moses forsook the luxuries of
Egypt and led his people out of slavery. The dying thief confessed Jesus
publicly and reproved his accomplice. Zacchaeus (Menno's favourite) "walked no
more in his evil ways."
Rightly or wrongly the Mennonites maintained that the New
Testament does not permit Christians to kill other humans under any circumstances. For
this reason they refused to bear arms in defence of their nation -- and for this they were
deemed traitorous. (In World War II Mennonites accounted for 80% of Canada's conscientious
objectors.) They refused to take an oath to tell the truth in court. (Since Christians are
to tell the truth all the time, why would any Christian promise to tell the truth on a
particular occasion?) They insisted that baptism conveyed nothing magically to an infant
but rather testified publicly to the commencement of radical discipleship.
"Fat-cat" Christians whose life-style differed not a whit from that of
unbelievers simply appalled them.
Menno's followers bequeathed to the church no outstanding
theology but much good devotional material and many fine hymns. Above all they bequeathed
a blood-wrought reminder that Jesus doesn't hide his scars in order to win disciples:
suffering born of persecution is a mark of the church, and discipleship will always entail
The crossbearing they endured must never be discounted. Hounded
out of Holland, Switzerland and Germany, they sought refuge in Russia -- only to be
savaged again and driven to the New World. In our century they have sought refuge
throughout the Americas, faring much better in Canada and the U.S.A than in Central and
South America where they have been victimized repeatedly.
Amazingly, Menno himself died of natural causes at age 66, badly
disabled by arthritis.
When political authorities were preparing Balthasar
Menno's colleague, for burning by having gunpowder and sulphur rubbed into his hair and
beard, he cried out, "Oh, salt me well; salt me well!"
His words should sear upon the mind of all Christians the
Master's insistence that every believer is to be salted with fire. (Mark 9:49)