How the Courageous Ideas of the Radical Reformers Restored Congregational Polity For Baptists Today
Friday, December 13, 2013
A study of the history of congregational polity shows that three courageous individuals of the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century were instrumental in restoring this long-lost biblical polity for the modern Baptists.
The term Baptist is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary to be, “A member or adherent of an evangelical Protestant denomination marked by congregational polity and baptism by immersion of believers only.” So conventional is the idea that Baptist polity is congregational polity that the terms have been often indistinct. The reason for this correspondence is stated, “The vast majority of Baptists have historically practiced congregational church polity.” One modern Baptist author writes, “Baptist polity is classified as congregational democracy. The chief characteristic of congregational democracy is the autonomy or self-government of an individual church.”
To a contemporary Baptist, congregational polity may be taken for granted because of the extent and magnitude of the Baptist faith. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church found the Baptists to be, “One of the largest Protestant and Free Church communions, to be found in every Continent. Its total membership in 2002 was over 45 million, with a much larger community strength.” Alister McGrath, speaking of the pervasiveness of congregational polity and its interdependence to the Baptists in America states, “The most significant manifestation of a congregational polity today, however, is found in the Southern Baptist Convention, which represents a voluntary association of individual Baptist congregations, each retaining its own identity and sovereignty.”
A cursory survey of the history of the Christian church reveals that this has not always been the case. A more attentive inspection of the history of congregational polity reveals that the Baptists of the world and all those who enjoy the right to an ecclesiastical democracy have a small group of courageous, intelligent, and prolific men of the sixteenth century to thank. These men all gave their lives to restore from a millennium of decay the idea of congregational polity.
CONGREGATIONAL POLITY LOST
Before congregational polity was a radical concept it was the norm. Daniel Akin definitively states, “New Testament churches were basically Congregational in their government and polity.” James Garrett wrote, “We conclude that Matthew 18:15–17 grants the authority of Jesus to such congregational decision-making and endorses such congregational governance.” Thus the first reference of the word church in the New Testament being taught by Jesus Christ himself was tethered to instruction concerning congregational polity. When the first church faced its first internal problem, the resolution was achieved by means of congregational polity according to Norman. Many more valid insights could be cited to prove congregational polity in the early church but let it be sufficient here to establish the fact that its members governed the church from its formation.
The first three centuries of the Christian church was an interval of both consistent growth and discrimination. The church was not guarded or supervised by the state. However, with the rise of Constantine all of that would change. “We therefore announce,” declared Constantine in the famed Edict of Milan in 313, “that all who choose that religion (Christianity) are to be permitted to continue therein, without any let or hindrance, and are not to be in anyway troubled or molested.” License promptly turned to approval. Another disclosure was made in the same year saying, “Since we have been pleased that in all the provinces of Africa, Numidia and Mauretania some subsidy towards their expenses should be granted to certain specified ministers of the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion.” Schaff noted, “The patriarch of Constantinople enjoyed indeed the favor of the emperor, and all the benefit of the imperial residence.” Thus the state commenced to compensate the clergy from its funds and virtually acquired the church. The offices of pastor, bishop, and elder immediately became desirable for quick access to money and power.
Along with the congregation’s right to choose its leader when any other semblance of autonomy. By 424 Schaff wrote, “The popes gladly undertook to interfere for a palpably unworthy priest, and thus sacrificed the interests of local discipline, only to make their own superior authority felt.” The freedom of local congregations was completely lost by 445 with the Edict of Valentinian III which said concerning the pope in Rome, “The peace of the churches will only then be everywhere preserved when the whole body acknowledge its ruler.” No lowly member would be allowed a vote for a millennium without buying it at a high price.
A ray of hope flared across the German sky in 1517 when Luther sparked the Reformation with the nail that secured his Ninty-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. After the rescue of soteriology, the matters of baptism and church polity would be faced by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin after they broke with the long corrupt Catholic church. Schaff writes, “Four ways were open for the construction of an evangelical church polity.” These ways were two forms of Episcopal polity, one Presbyterian polity, and lastly congregational polity. Schaff continued, “Congregational independency was once suggested by Luther, but soon abandoned without a trial.” Calvin would develop the Presbyterian form of church polity while Zwingli would decide all matters of church business through the city state rulers of Zurich. So while soteriology would forever be restored and the ultimate power of the pope had been forever debased, the authority in the local church had still not been restored to its regenerate members operating under Christ alone.
CONGREGATIONAL POLITY RESTORED
A thousand years of simony wreaked havoc on the biblical church organization until in the sixteenth century when a group of martyrs would rescue the church of God and the world itself with their own blood. Three former Catholic clergy called Anabaptists by their enemies began to think, write, preach, and baptize. Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528), Michael Sattler (1495-1527), and Menno Simons (1496-1561) promoted a radical polity that had not been seen in a millennium. “In the final analysis, then,” concluded Estep, “it is the view of the church that distinguishes the Anabaptists from other contemporary reform efforts.”
Furthermore, it must be clarified before moving forward why those three Anabaptist individuals are chosen for there are differing strains of Anabaptists. First, when referring to the term Anabaptist, it is not meant in agreement with Bax who said, “We may regard Anabaptism as the culminating effort of mediaeval Christian Communism, which saw in the communisation of worldly goods.” Others “concocted a strange mixture of spiritualism, derived Christology, and Anabaptism” yet were known all as Anabaptists. Such were Melchior Hofmann, Michael Servetus, Thomas Muntzer and other who would be described fundamentally by Reformers and Anabaptists alike as heretics and criminals. For present purposes those men were indeed radical but were not in doctrine or in practice responsible for the resurgence of biblical congregational polity.
The congregational polity of the Anabaptists, it will be seen, was only in germ form but was based on their insistence on a free church consisting of Baptized believers. Littell thus defines an Anabaptists completely on the basis of his unremitting biblical ecclesiology. “The Anabaptists proper were those who gathered and disciplined a ‘True Church’ upon the apostolic pattern.” It was this doctrine that stripped the politically powerful of their power over spiritual matters in the church. “Neither Church nor State,” the Anabaptists believed, “should compel men into uniformity of belief and practice, or torture them in the supposed interests of their eternal salvation.”
Schaff commented, “Zwingli extended the hand of brotherhood to Luther, and hoped to meet even the nobler heathen in heaven, but had no mercy on the Anabaptists, who threatened to overthrow his work in Zurich. After trying in vain to convince them by successive disputations, the magistrate under his control resorted to the Cruel irony of drowning their leaders (six in all) in the Limmat near the lake of Zuerich (between 1527 and 1532).” Ernest Payne remarked, “It is not a coincidence that Anabaptism was the only religious movements the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles explicitly referred to as heretical, not even Catholics managed that accolade!”
Of the hermeneutically sound Anabaptists, Hubmaier, Sattler, and Simons have been credited here for the rebirth of congregational polity because of their prolific writings that continue to influence Baptists today. Many good and notable Anabaptists were martyred for the same beliefs so quickly after their conversion that no time was spared them to study and write. Such were Grebel, Manz, and Baurock the original Anabaptists in Zurich who declared boldly, “We were listeners to Zwingli’s sermons and readers of his writings, but one day we took the Bible itself in hand and were taught better.” These all died as martyrs in the earliest days of the Radical Reformation. These and other later martyrs could be accredited for their part for the preaching and hence martyrdom that spread the understanding of the free church to their generation. However, with few written documents their influence was not felt directly by men of preceding generations.
MICHAEL SATTLER AND THE ORGANIZATION OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
Baptized in the summer of 1526 and martyred in Austria in May of 1527, it only took Michael Sattler, the former Catholic monk, one short year as a legitimate Anabaptist to leave his mark forever on the church. Sattler’s contribution came in the form of a relatively short document known as The Schleitheim Confession, a document drawn up in February 1527 by a number of Anabaptist leaders with Sattler as the chair. According to Leonard Gross, the Schleitheim Confession “brought structure and focus” to the Anabaptist movement. Yoder said of the conference, “early 1527 must be recognized as the coming-of-age of a distinct, visible fellowship taking long-range responsibility for its order and its faith.”
In that Sattler would pen and distribute teaching on the organization of a free church of baptized believers in the climate of sixteenth century Europe was both extraordinarily courageous and immensely consequential. Estep points out, “With the formation of the first Anabaptist congregation was revealed the genius of Anabaptism; it implemented what others only contemplated.” Luther and others contemplated congregational polity but viewed it as impossible if, for no other reason, how dangerous it was.
The Schleitheim Confession contained only seven short articles. Though it does not use the term “congregational polity” explicitly, it does suggest a very clear congregational polity among autonomous churches in two of the seven articles. First, article five concerning the local congregation’s pastor states, “He shall be supported, wherein he has need, by the congregation which has chosen him, so that he who serves the gospel can also live therefrom, as the Lord has ordered.” Thus a local congregation was supposed to elect their own pastor and support him by their own giving. Given the great amount of persecution, a provision was also made were the elected pastor to be killed, “But if the shepherd should be driven away or led to the Lord by the cross, at the same hour another shall be ordained to his place, so that the little folk and the little flock of God may not be destroyed, but be preserved by warning and be consoled.” Sattler clearly establishes the congregational aspect of the Anabaptist churches for generations to come in their manner of choosing and supporting pastors.
Second, article two upholds the method of church discipline previously referred to from Matthew 18 as the first biblical reference to the local church and congregational polity. “Those who slip and fall into sin,” states the confession, “should be admonished twice in secret, but the third offense should be openly disciplined and banned as a final recourse.” Article one upholds believers baptism in the local congregation, the most basic of Anabaptist beliefs. These were the baptized members who could be banned from the community.
Estep confirmed that the confession “was not intended to be a doctrinal formulation. The articles are concerned with order and discipline within congregations.” Sattler’s convictions concerning local congregational polity, it will be seen, would be studied and referenced for centuries to come. Churches that follow his articles closely would come up with a local, self-governing, self-supporting congregation that disciplined and chose leadership from within its own membership. Michael Sattler gave of his own life in the most painful of ways to give modern churches a biblical organization that would support truth and shine light to the world.
BALTHASAR HUBMAIER AND THE FREE LOCAL CHURCH
Balthasar Hubmaeir, baptized in April 1525 and martyred in March 1528, survived a full three years after his baptism. He was the most prolific of writers for the Anabaptists writing tracts such as Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them explaining the limits of magisterial power while in his native Waldshut, Germany, Twelve Articles of Christian Faith while in prison in Zurich, and On the Sword explaining a revolutionary concept of the separation of church and state just before his death while in Leichtenstein. “Hubmaier’s pamphlets and books enjoyed a circulation far beyond the borders of Moravia.” Hubmaier was more than just a writer. His preaching resulted in the largest number of adult baptisms by any one local church in the history of Christianity.
As was the case in those days, success in ministry makes for a short physical life. Ferdinand I attempted to end his influence by burning him at the stake and drowning his beloved wife in Vienna. Hubmaeir wote, “Truth is Immortal.” This statement would be both famous and exemplified in his own influence on the world after his death.
The Magesterial Reformers and the Radical Reformers agreed in their opposition to the Catholic Church. The difference, however, was that the Reformers sought to purify and reestablish a Catholic or Universal Church while the Radical Reformers focused their attention on the local church. True congregational polity would be impossible until churches operate autonomously without the interference of a church hierarchy or the state. Hubmaier’s book On the Sword is the earliest document teaching such a separation.
Instrumental in Hubmaier’s understanding of the church was his historical understanding of when the church actually fell. Calvin placed the fall of the Catholic church in 590 with the papacy of Gregory the Great. Luther believed that the church fell in the early seventh century with the Popes Sabinian and Boniface III. Zwingli chose a much later date in the eleventh century under Pope Gregory VII. “However, for the Anabaptists, it was the usual procedure to date the fall with the union of church and state under Constantine” in 313 and the damnable doctrine of infant baptism. This obviously differed from the Reformers as they had no difficulty accepting either baby baptism or the union of the church and state. “Separation of the two was barely mentioned by Luther, as a private opinion, we may say almost as a prophetic dream, but was soon abandoned as an impossibility.”
According to Estep, Hubmaier’s greatest contribution to congregational polity may have been his writings on the free, local, and visible church. He wrote, “Hubmaier’s treatment of the idea is more extensive than that of most other Anabaptists. According to him there are two meanings for the word “church” in the New Testament – the universal and the local.“ Hubmaier was credited with the radical statement, “Baptism is the door into the visible church.” About Hubmaier, Potter says, “Like nearly all the Reformers, he was a Biblicist, utterly convinced that the sacred and inspired words of the Old and New Testaments were the sole, sure guide to belief and conduct.” Hubmaier further stated, “As says Paul: no other foundation can any man lay, except what is laid, which is Christ Jesus. (1 Cor. 3) . . . The church is based on this our faith and profession; not our faith in the church. But on the proclaimed Word of God, that God Himself is, and has become man.” Thus Hubmaier revived and promoted the biblical teaching on the local, visible church.
MENNO SIMONS AND THE ROLE OF THE PASTOR
Menno Simons lived the longest of all of the mentioned Anabaptists writers having been baptized in 1536 and martyred in 1561. Gonzalez wrote, “Although the Mennonites suffered the same persecution as other Anabaptists, Menno Simons survived, and spent years traveling through Holland and northern Germany preaching his faith and encouraging his followers.” Simons was influenced soteriologically by Luther and Brucer but came upon the teaching of believer’s baptism “through the illumination of the Holy Ghost, through much reading of the scriptures, and meditating upon them, and through the gracious favor and gift of God.”
In Simons’ prolific writing he wrote books or letters entitled Sending Preachers, The Doctrine of Preachers, Of the Mission or Calling of the Preachers, Description of a True Preacher, and The Reason Menno Simon does not Cease Teaching and Writing. Simons, himself having been a Catholic priest before his conversion, served in the role of pastor and preacher for local congregations while on the run his whole life as he evaded authorities.The job of a preacher, Simons said, was to preach the Word without seeking any earthly gain and “with Christ, the chief shepherd, gather together and feed his lambs.” So, according to Simons, the job of a preacher was to establish local congregations of baptized believers by the means of preaching the Gospel to the lost.
Simons believed that the Word of God is “the true sceptre and rule by which the Lord’s kingdom, house, church and congregation must be governed.” Because of this conviction, he was supremely concerned with the leadership in the church from the pulpit. He admonished his readers “to examine the sending, calling, doctrine and conduct of the bishops, pastors, and preachers of your churches.” Thus he believed and promoted the idea that each local congregation was to hold their pastor accountable by the rule of the Word of God. Congregation polity rests on the Word of God and is faithfully upheld by a congregation who holds their leader to it as a standard. This was a total foreign idea to the Catholics and Protestants of all kinds.
A summary of Simons’ immense writings on the subject finds that he believed in a complimentary system of pastoral care and congregational polity. His following grew steadily and unceasingly despite much persecution by reason of this very practical idea that pastors should start churches with those believers who would then be equally passionate to hold him accountable to continue to faithfully teach and preach the Word by which they were saved. Simons’ contribution to the modern practice of congregational church polity had to do with a great amount effort to motivate and train by his teaching and writing preachers for local, responsible congregations.
CONGREGATIONAL POLITY TODAY
Just two short decades after the martyrdom of Simons and over fifty years after Hubmaier and Sattler, Robert Browne’s crucial 1582 document Reformation Without Tarrying for Any was distributed domestically in England saying, “We affirm the principle of the gathered church, its independence from bishops and magistrates, and its right to ordain its own ministers. By locating power within the church firmly in its membership, the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” can be upheld.” As H. N. Brailsford said, “The English Puritan Left can be understood only when we realize ‘that it drew much of its inspiration directly from the Swiss, German and Dutch Anabaptists.” Speaking of congregational polity, Schaff said, “It appeared in isolated attempts under Queen Elizabeth, and was successfully developed in the seventeenth century by the Independents in England, and the Congregationalists in New England.
A century later it can be definitely seen that the distinct emphasis of local church autonomy and congregational polity were firmly entrenched in the Baptist mind in England. The text from a document called the London Baptist Confession of 1689 reads, “The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself.“ Concerning autonomy the same document is quoted as saying, “To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe.”
As authors trace back congregational polity from the modern day Baptists of the United States they sometimes mistakenly attribute its origins with the English as McGrath does when he writes, “Although congregationalism had its origins in England, it has been most significant in the religious life of the United States. The Puritan congregations in the Massachusetts Bay area in the early seventeenth century generally adopted a Congregationalist church polity because they were anxious to avoid the problems with authority they had experienced in England.” It is apparent that the English Congregationalists were instructed by the German Radical Reformers just one hundred years prior and thus ultimately owe their free church to the sacrifice of Hubmaier, Simons, and Sattler.
Furthermore, the Radical Reformers can by reason of following the succession of ideas be similarly accredited for the most significant freedom of America. “The first article of the amendments to the national Constitution, guaranteeing religious liberty (offered in 1789),” states Harper’s Encyclopedia of the United States, “was introduced chiefly through the influence of the Baptist denomination.” Samuel and John Adams were from English Puritan instruction as members of the Old South Congregational Church in Boston. They would be instrumental in integrating legislation for the future freedom of local congregations in the United States and world by being signers of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Massachussettes, and president of the United States, respectively. It was said of Samuel, “In his views on church government he adhered to the congregational forms, as most friendly to civil and religious liberty.”
Much more could be acknowledged of the connections between the German Radical Reformers, the English Puritans and Separatists, and the twenty-first-century Baptists of America but let it suffice to say that all those enjoying the concept of religious freedom in community today have these three radical individuals to thank as the originators. These men were courageous enough to assemble and promote the Biblical pattern for church polity though it cost them their lives knowing that only Christ has the authority to organize His own institution in His own way. It is now crucial that Baptists, in keeping with their biblical tradition, is to courageously extend the Gospel by training preachers for the establishment of local, autonomous congregations as the Lord has ordered.
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Bax, E. Belfort. The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists. Charleston: Bibliobazaar, 2009.
Bettenson, Henry; Maunder, Chris. Documents of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Brailsford, H. N. review of The Concern for Social Justice in the Puritan Revolution by W. Schenk, The New Statesman and Nation, (July 1948).
Brand, Chad; Norman, Stan. Perspectives on Church Government. B&H Publishing, 2004.
Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Estep, William Roscoe. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995.
Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. Grand Rapids: HarperOne, 2010.
Littell, Franklin H. The Anabaptist View of the Church. The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1958.
Lossing, Benjamin John. Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History. Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library, 2011.
McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. Grand Rapids: HarperOne, 2008.
Merriam-Webster, I. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.
Payne, Ernest A. The Anabaptists of the Sixteenth Century and their Influence in the Modern World. Everard Press, 2011.
Potter, G. R. “Anabaptist Extraordinary Balthasar Hubmaier 1480-1528,” History Today Vol. 26, Issue 6, 1976.
Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
Simons, Menno. The Complete Works of Menno Simon. New York: Forgotten Books, 2012.
Norman, R. Stanton. The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church. B&H Publishing Group, 2005.
Tidwell, C. Church Administration: Effective Leadership for Ministry. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1985.
Various. The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. Pavlik Press, 2012.
Yoder, John Howard. The Schleitheim Confession. Herald Press, 2012.
Yoder, John Howard. Legacy of Michael Sattler. Herald Press, 1973.
 Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
 Chad Brand and Stan Norman. Perspectives on Church Government (B&H Publishing, 2004), 26.
 Ibid, 86.
 C. Tidwell. Church Administration: Effective Leadership for Ministry (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1985), 20.
 F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.) (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 155.
 Alister McGrath. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. (Grand Rapids: HarperOne, 2008), 283.
 Perspectives on Church Government, 26.
 Perspectives on Church Government, 160.
 Stanton R. Norman. The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (B&H Publishing Group, 2005), 89.
 Henry Bettenson, Chris Maunder. Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 435-436.
 Ibid, 449-450.
 P. Schaff, & D. S. Schaff. History of the Christian Church. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910) 110.
 Ibid, 115.
 Documents of the Christian Church, 541.
 History of the Christian Church, 44.
 History of the Christian Church. 23.
 William Roscoe Estep. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995) 239.
 E. Belfort Bax. The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists. (Charleston: Bibliobazaar, 2009), 61-62.
 The Anabaptist Story, 22.
 Franklin H. Littell. The Anabaptist View of the Church (The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1958), 47.
 History of the Christian church, 35.
 Ernest A. Payne. The Anabaptists of the Sixteenth Century and their Influence in the Modern World. (Everard Press, 2011), 24.
 The Anabaptist Story, 20.
 Ibid, 57.
 John Howard Yoder. The Schleitheim Confession. (Herald Press, 2012), 28.
 John Howard Yoder. Legacy of Michael Sattler. (Herald Press, 1973), 29.
 The Anabaptist Story, 237.
 The Schleitheim Confession, 145-149.
 Ibid, 150.
 Ibid, 150.
 The Anabaptist Story, 65.
 Ibid, 81.
 Ibid, 101.
 The Anabaptist Story, 99.
 The Anabaptist Story, 102.
 Ibid, 98.
 The Anabaptist Story, 241.
 History of the Christian Church, 120.
 The Anabaptist Story, 240.
 Ibid, 246.
 G. R. Potter, “Anabaptist Extraordinary Balthasar Hubmaier 1480-1528,” History Today Vol. 26, Issue 6 (1976): 381.
 The Anabaptist Story, 243.
 Menno Simons. The Complete Works of Menno Simon. (New York: Forgotten Books, 2012), 206.
 The Story of Christianity Volume 2, 144.
 Menno Simons- His Life, Labors, and Teachings, 219.
 The Complete Works of Menno Simons, 208.
 Ibid, 208.
 Ibid, 210.
 Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 24.
 H. N. Brailsford, review of The Concern for Social Justice in the Puritan Revolution by W. Schenk, The New Statesman and Nation, (July 1948).
 History of the Christian Church. 110.
 Various. The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (Pavlik, 2012), 1205.
 Ibid, 1205.
 Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 283.
 Benjamin John Lossing, Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library 2011).
 George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent. (Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library, 1853) 194.