A Cloud of Witnesses

A Cloud of Witnesses

Over the last few weeks I had the privilege of travelling through Europe visiting important sites related to reformation history. The events in Europe 500 years ago not only impacted Europe but also changed the world for good. One of the key elements that instigated the Reformation and propelled the gospel with new vigour into the whole world was the conviction of the reformers. They were avid seekers after truth, took theology seriously and remained steadfast to the end.

One of the sites I visited, after a hike into the mountains, was the “Cave of the Baptists” (Tauferhoehle). It’s a secluded site around 30 kilometres southeast of the city of Zurich in Switzerland. Zurich was the birthplace of the Reformation in Switzerland with its most formidable leader, Ulrich Zwingli. Like Luther and Calvin, he spread the flame of the Reformation in Switzerland and encouraged his students to be conscientious students of the Bible. Among his students were George Blaurock, Conrad Gretel and Felix Manz. They not only followed the teachings of the magisterial Reformers (i.e., those who maintained a close connection between the magistrate and the church) but also came to the conviction that, according to the New Testament, faith is a precondition for receiving baptism (they espoused credobaptism instead of paedobaptism). Zwingli and the city council of Zurich, however, did not agree with them and prohibited the promulgation of their views. However, Blaurock, Gretel and Manz did not betray their convictions nor went against their consciences. On January 21, 1525, in a private house in Zurich, they baptised one another by immersion in water. As a result, their little group was declared to be illegal by the council authorities and they were disparagingly referred to as anabaptists (i.e., the re-baptisers). Yet, they continued to meet and worship secretly in homes, barns and caves. In 1527, Felix Manz was killed by drowning in the Limmat river that flows through Zurich for refusing to renounce his convictions. A plaque commemorating his martyrdom (and other baptists) can be seen on the western bank of the river. Despite severe persecution, the convictions of these reformed baptists concerning baptism, the church and Christian discipleship spread throughout Switzerland, Germany and Holland, and from there into the rest of the world.

Apart from the conviction that faith is required for baptism, the early reformed baptists also believed in an active church membership and in the separation of church and state. They came to the conviction by studying the newly translated New Testament that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ consists of believers who follow Him in sincerity and truth. One is not a member of the church through natural descent or because one belongs to a “Christian” nation. Rather, one must be “born again” or have a spiritual birth from above to become a child of God and be a member of Christ’s body. Therefore, the reformed baptists separated the church from the nation state. One’s relationship with Christ determines one’s primary identity, not one’s nationality or ethnic affiliation. Citizenship and church membership are two different spheres and do not necessarily overlap.

One important implication of this new or rediscovered ecclesiological perspective was that the church and state should operate separately. The church should focus on and manage the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline. Therefore, the state has no authority or say in the governance of the church. For most of the reformers, who were still part of the medieval world, such views were too radical to accept (that is why the movement of the anabaptists is sometimes referred to as the Radical Reformation). They feared that such perspectives would lead to heretical teachings and to the breakdown of society. Today, we take the idea of the separation of church and state for granted, i.e. the church and state operate in different spheres of authority and the one should not meddle in the affairs of the other. The freedoms that we have enjoyed as a result of this perspective was gained for us by the conviction of the early reformed baptists, a conviction which often cost them their lives.

As I travel from place to place here in Europe I am filled with admiration and wonder. I admire the commitment and sacrifice of these pioneers who rediscovered the gospel and the power of God’s present kingdom. Their testimonies inscribed in stone and blood proclaim that God is faithful and that He will preserve and build His church. On the other hand, I wonder how deep our convictions are today. Do we still value the truths of the Bible? Do we still take theology seriously? And how much are we prepared to suffer for our convictions? Unfortunately, for the most part, Europe has turned away from God and no longer takes the Bible seriously. However, if we stand strong and steadfast in our convictions concerning the truth of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ, our faith will continue to change the world and hasten the Day of His return. The Lord Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever!

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