Admiring Menno SimonsBy Rod White
Some people say that the amount we encounter in a week of the 2010s is like what we might have experienced in a year of time past. Menno Simons died Jan. 31, 1561. In the week of Jan. 31, 2013, Hilary Clinton was calling an unprecedented meeting of all her ambassadors to try to get a handle on the U.S. response to the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa. More than 450 years after Simons’ death, it is good to remember that many years in the 1500s were like last week in Egypt. Without social media and technology, change took longer to take hold in the past, but it was no less earthshaking. Menno Simons struggled for many years with how to respond to the new opportunities for faith and action that came to him as a priest in the crumbling Catholic Church of the Netherlands.
A delegation of Jesus followers who wanted a radical way of life, came to Menno Simons and asked him to be their leader. He became a leader in the Anabaptist movement upon request. The delegation came while the memory of Munster was fresh. Radical reformers took over that city and tried to usher in the second coming by force. Simons had a more reasoned and gentle way, and he promoted that way the rest of his life. Get the whole story here and the 90-second recap here.
He told the delegation who asked him to lead the scattered Anabaptists that he would pray about the matter of his leadership. When they came again, as he says in his writings, that he surrendered his “soul and body to the Lord … and commenced in due time … to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard of the Lord … to build up his holy city and temple and to repair the tumble-down walls.” He was re-baptized soon after his withdrawal from the Catholic Church in 1536. By Dec. 7, 1542, one hundred guilders were offered by the authorities of Leeuwarden for the apprehension of Menno, who appeared by night at different places to preach and baptize.
Menno Simons turned away from mere tradition and became Bible-centered in all his beliefs and practices. Once he had turned to the Bible, he took it for the Word of God and made it the cornerstone of all his work. His writings are filled with Bible quotations. His approach to the Bible differs from that of other church reformers in the 1500s. For Simons, everything is, above all, Christ-centered. Every book and every little pamphlet he wrote has this motto on the front page: “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). Christ-centeredness marks his theology and the practices he derived from the Bible. Discipleship, or a fruitful, Christian life was very strongly emphasized.
Also emphasized was the fact that discipleship does not take place in a vacuum or as a matter merely between the individual and his God, but rather within the congregation, the church of Christ. Menno’s faith is therefore not only Christ centered, but also church centered. His chief concern was the living in the true body of Christ. Again and again he refers to 1 Cor. 12:13, 25-27, and Col. 1:18-24. The prerequisites for being part of the church according to Menno are regeneration and willingness to bear the cross of Christ. These two are inseparable. Discipline was as natural in the church of Menno Simons as any normal function of the healthy body.
Menno Simons was one of my heroes of the faith when I was first becoming a Christian as a history major in college — I ended up being a history-of-Christianity major! As I met my ancestors in the faith, I kept meeting people in every era who seemed to “get it.” The majority of the church might be adapting to whatever political or philosophical emphasis dominated the world, but God always had someone who notably kept the true faith and fed his or her era with it. Menno Simons was one of these people.
Today, among the many things he has left us in our inheritance from him, I offer four exhortations that match his convictions:
- Pay attention to how the Lord wants us to respond to the times. Be afraid, if you must, but don’t let fear stop you from obeying your heavenly vision.
- Take the lead. Simons did not think he had it in him, either. True leadership may be less about charisma and more about consistently doing what needs to be done.
- Be Christ-centered. As the Egyptians are demonstrating, regimes and ideas come and go. What we can demonstrate is that the word of Jesus is everlasting. The word is not about “god” or “values” it is about the Lord.
- Build a real church. This is the Anabaptist genius that I appreciate the most. The majority of the reformers in the 1500s either cleaned out the Catholic Church and kept the framework, or made up an alternative wedding between state and church with better theology. The Anabaptists took the reform movement to its radical basis and tried to live it out. I’m still impressed that they were so much the church that the authorities wanted to arrest them. May our authorities see us as that real and so not them that we pose a threat.
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