October 25, 2008

In a comment on my article about the Dave Bercot seminar, Robin suggested that I offer a discussion of separatist groups such as the Amish, Mennonites, and others who similarly reject the modern culture in favor of a simple private lifestyle. While I am not an expert on these groups, I have done some reading on the history of these groups, descended from the Anabaptists in Europe. What I know of them I respect very much. Their lifestyle is a challenge to all of us who would claim to follow Jesus.

There are historical as well as biblical reasons for their choice of lifestyle.

During the Swiss Reformation in the 1500’s, Huldrich Zwingli went beyond Luther and Calvin in insisting on the scriptures only as the source of divine authority. He called for the eradication of every practice in the church that was not expressly authorized in the scriptures — including statues, musical instruments, and for a time even banning vocal singing in the church (based on his hyper-literal interpretation of “making melody in your heart.”) However, he did not challenge the appropriateness of the state-sponsored church, and that led to an unwillingness to address the biblically unauthorized practice of infant baptism. When national citizenship is by definition the same as church membership, it becomes problematic if infants are not baptized members of the church.

But a group arose in Zurich that was willing to go even farther, demanding a separation between the church and the state, rejecting infant baptism, and demanding that the church consists only of those who are born again and baptized as adults. They became known derisively as Anabaptists (re-baptizers) by their opponents. Other distinctive beliefs included: church discipline through excommunication (in contrast to the force of the sword of government, which enforced discipline in the state church) ; limiting the partaking of communion to baptized adult believers; keeping separate from worldly fellowship and influences; congregations led by a pastor selected by the members and financially supported by the congregation; pacifism, non-resistance, and non-participation in government; and refusal to take oaths. These distinctives were spelled out in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527.

Zwingli strongly opposed their positions. Conflict escalated between Zwingli and the Anabaptists, leading him to have the Anabaptists banned from the church. He declared re-baptism a capital offense, and began putting Anabaptists to death by drowning. Other Protestant groups as well as the Catholic church joined in the persecution, and thousands of Anabaptists were tortured and executed for their beliefs between 1525 and 1660.

It has been said that “Any 16th century man who did not drink to excess, curse, or abuse his workmen or family could be suspected of being an Anabaptist and thus persecuted.”

It is not difficult to understand why these people eventually fled from Europe to America, where they hoped to practice their religious beliefs in peace. Their descendents include the Amish, the Mennonites, the Brethren, and a few other groups. In addition, their strong influence can be observed in the Restoration Movement, particularly in the more conservative wing.

A biblical basis for their nonconformity is not difficult to imagine. They choose the narrow road and reject the wide road. They refuse to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. They avoid anything (drugs, alcohol, tobacco…) that would contaminate the temple of the Holy Spirit. They avoid adornment with gold and jewelry in favor of the quiet spirit. An assortment of scriptures supporting their nonconformist views can be found in Article 16 of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith.

I think churches of Christ could learn some important lessons from the modern Anabaptists. It is not comforting to admit that we are more like the world than they are. I’m sure that we like the things of the world too much. We undoubtedly enjoy some things in the world that God does not like. And we are undoubtedly influenced by our closeness to the world, often to our own peril.

2Co 6:14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
2Co 6:15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?
2Co 6:16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
2Co 6:17 “Therefore come out from them
and be separate, says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
2Co 6:18 “I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”


  1. I tend to find myself agreeing with most of the doctrines of the “separatists”. In my opinion, there is way too much love of the world and the things in the world in the Church today. This reminds me of the sermon you shared a while back that Baptist missionary gave at a teen retreat. Not only do the Mennonites and Amish shame us, but our Christian brothers in other countries shame us as well.Of course, being dogmatic about it isn’t the answer either. There’s a man in our congregation who grew up Mennonite. He even has a grandmother who is Amish and speaks no English. When he was in his late teens or early 20’s, he was excommunicated from the Mennonite church for wearing stonewashed jeans and going to a country music concert. Those things may well be worldly, and I’m sure there were many worldly people at the concert, but I don’t think it should be grounds for calling someone out from the pulpit.

  2. i was reading today Jeremiah 5 struck me,5:7 “Why should I forgive you? Your children have forsaken me and sworn by gods that are not gods. I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the houses of prostitutes.”And then later verse 12 “They have lied about the LORD; they said, “He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine”and the final line glowed at me”But what will you do in the end?”.I was reading some of the biblical agrarians (biblical agrarians are like amish in their separatism, they live in farms, many in Texas) stuff and while some of their separatist views seemed judgmental and a bit harsh, This one guy’s thoughts have stayed with me, I am paraphrasing here..’why do some question my evangelism? you think that you can only wins souls by keeping one foot in the world? do you know how many people have been affected by my website or my by farm living? a lot more he went on to say than most people who stay in the world to save the world’. And I thought about that, are we sacrificing our children/grandchildren to save souls, and if so how many do we actually save? Sure on paper in our studies we were shown the power of compounding math, but this year how many converts am I making? If I save 2 strangers but not my own 3 children, is it worth it? I am of course speaking in huge generalities here. But you get my point. I subscribed to the local paper recently and truly everyday you can see the agenda and its not an agenda of purity and goodness in the world. Its all about ‘live for yourself’, ‘do what feels good’, ‘there is no black and white’, ‘everyone is okay’ but most of all I see the intelligentsia attitude ‘if you love God you are a moron’. I don’t know, these are just thoughts I have pondering for several years, but my eyes have been opened more recently to how entrenched in a battle for good we are. Peace in Christ.

  3. giddyrobinmama,I think that guy had a good point about trying to win souls by keeping one foot in the world. That’s not what we’re called to do. We do hear people advocating things that sound a lot like that sometimes.

  4. I know several Amish and they are not a community that is to be held up. Yes, they’ve remained separate, however the typical Amish home has L.P. refrigerator/freezers, L.P. lights, (complete with bulb), L.P. washing machines. When they want lots of farm work done, they simply hire someone with the machinery to do it. When they want to go somewhere, they hire a driver with a car. When one of their own runs into poverty, if they are personally well-liked by the bishops, they get help. Otherwise, they are left to starve. If they go to the outside to get help, they are banned from the community. I am not impressed by what I have seen, what I have heard, the terrible gossip and power trips and the random rules. I have spent time in their homes and gotten to know them. Theirs is not a community that exemplifies what Jesus meant with the “be separate.”

  5. By the way Alan, I finally learned how the Amish dismiss Matthew 28 Great Commission and their lack of saving the world.They believe that the Great Commission was meant for the 12 and that it was not a command to all. Giddyrobinmama

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