C. Arnold Snyder

Mennonite Discipleship Spirituality

July 13, 2002

Anabaptist Discipleship

I have long been convinced that at the heart of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, and therefore at the heart of the Mennonite tradition, is a spirit of monastic holiness, rather than a Protestant focus on Christ’s atonement for sin. To use a drastic shorthand, I would say that at the heart of both monasticism and Anabaptism lies the conviction that Jesus Christ called out disciples who would follow him, and not simply “believers” who would believe in him.

I hope I will be forgiven by any and all Lutherans present for this simplistic formula, but I am not the first to suggest the connection. The Formula of Concord of 1580, the definitive Lutheran Confession, listed a series of Anabaptist teachings, none of which were to be tolerated, of course. The third “erroneous” Anabaptist doctrine reads:

That our righteousness before God consists not in the sole merit of Christ alone, but in renewal, and hence in our own godliness in which we walk. [Then comes the criticism]. This is based in great part upon one’s own special, self-chosen and humanly-devised holiness, and in fact is nothing else than a new sort of monkery.[1]

The fact that we are gathering in a Benedictine monastery made this particular citation irresistible. The Formula of Concord quite happily tarred both Anabaptists and cloistered religious with the same brush. It was a brush that was covered on the one side by the need for renewal (Erneurung or Renovatione) and on the other, by the necessary living of a holy life.

In typical sixteenth-century fashion, the Formula of Concord tendentiously misrepresented both the Anabaptist and the monastic understandings of renewal and holy living, characterizing them as “humanly-devised godliness,” but the placing of Anabaptism in the monastic camp was, I believe, actually quite perceptive and essentially correct.

In the few minutes left, I would like to sketch some central aspects of the Anabaptist view of renewal, and the holy life.


The perennial question of the spiritual seeker is, “what is the path to salvation?” Menno Simons answered it this way in 1536:

Take heed to the Word of the Lord and learn to know the true God….   He will not save you nor forgive your sins nor show you His mercy and grace except according to His Word; namely, if you repent and if you believe, if you are born of Him; if you do what He has commanded and walk as He walks.[2]

Here we have, in a homely nutshell, the basic outline of Anabaptist spirituality: Heed the Word of God; repent; believe; be born of God; follow the commandments; walk as Jesus walked. Although they were inspired by the Reformation call to be guided by “Scripture alone,” the Anabaptists did not hack out remarkable new trails in a spiritual wilderness. Rather, they set out on what already was a well-marked and well-known spiritual path of regenerationist, ascetic holiness.

An old Anabaptist hymn composed in the 1530s is still sometimes sung by the Old Order Amish of North America. It contains the following stanza, which could have just as easily been composed by someone in a cloister:

No one can come [to heaven]
Who does not renounce the whole world.
All creatures on earth
Must yield themselves entirely to Christ,
And offer up their bodies and lives to him.[3]

Repentance, renouncing the world, yielding body and life entirely to Christ – this is the beginning of the Anabaptist spiritual path. Central to the process is “yielding entirely to Christ.” If God is to work God’s will in us, we must “die” to ourselves, “abandon” ourselves to the divine will. Michael Sattler, the former Benedictine prior, described adult baptism as a visible sign to the community that one had died to self and risen in Christ, and now intended to follow Christ in life, in the community, under its discipline. This understanding is a close functional parallel to the monastic vow.

The attitude of yielding or Gelassenheit applies to the profound inner “yielding” to God that must take place in the heart, the external “yielding” that must take place in the daily life of the community, and finally yielding to the world and its coercion and violence: the “yielding” of non-resistance. “Yielding” or “giving way” is both the means to the end, and the end itself, Namely, the practice of daily yielding in the community eventually results in a person, willingly yielded to God. Finally, this “yielding” is done because this was the path taken by our Lord.

So we come now to “renewal,” renovatione, which is the fulcrum on which all else turns in Anabaptist spirituality, as the Formula of Concord rightly observed. Before there can be a righteous life of discipleship, there must be fundamental rebirth. I would like to point out the obvious: this all depends on a firm belief in the power and presence of the living God. Rebirth is sometimes described in Anabaptist testimonies as the birth of faith in the heart; at other times, as the birth of Christ within; or again, the working of the Holy Spirit in believers or the birth of the Living Word in the heart. Yet another image is that of a spiritual baptism, the “true” and genuine baptism, to which baptism in water will be a public witness.

The varieties of descriptive language used by the Anabaptists point to the regenerating power of God which, they were convinced, needed to define all Christians.  In 1557, in a booklet he wrote on the baptism of Jesus, Dirk Philips described the new birth in brief and pointed terms:

For what is the new birth other than the transforming and renewing of the person which God works in him through faith in Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit? Thus the person is created anew out of God, born of his seed, 1 Pet. 1:23, made in his image, Col. 3:10, renewed in his knowledge, becomes partaker of his divine nature, Eph. 4:24; new being of the Spirit, John 14[:17]; 16[:13], in holiness and righteousness all the days of his life, John 20[:22]; Luke [1:75]. Where this takes place and is in process as a pregnancy, there is the genuine new birth; there is the new creature in Christ Jesus, John 3:3; Gal. 6[:15].[4]

This process of being born again, from its beginnings in repentance to its outcome in a Christ-life that reflects the Christ-nature, was not newly-minted by the Anabaptists, but rather reflects a well-established spiritual tradition within late medieval Catholicism.[5]

Even though they spoke the “new” biblical language of the Reformation, the Anabaptists believed, emphatically, that Christ being born in the heart of every believer was not optional – they insisted that this was the truly biblical understanding of salvation by grace through faith. They believed that the new spiritual birth was a transforming power that produced actual (not imputed) righteousness. How un-Protestant this view was is evident in the words of the early Anabaptist leader Hans Denck: “Woe to the perverse, who know the will of their Lord and do it not, and yet want to be regarded as justified.”[6]

A Holy Life

Anabaptist discipleship, then, begins in repentance and submission to God, is enabled by the power of God, through a birth of Christ in the heart, and will result in a Christ-like life, since it is Christ who now lives, and not the sinner. Faithful living, we can say, peaceful living, is thus not a case of dogged determination, or of ethical heroics. The nature, mind and disposition of Christ have been born of the “living Word” in the heart, and the resulting life will correspond to the life of Christ, as witnessed to in the written Word.[7] And just what the life of Christ will look like is no secret, when it is manifested in reborn believers. Menno Simons wrote:

Christ is everywhere represented to us as humble, meek, merciful, just, holy, wise, spiritual, long‑suffering, patient, peaceable, lovely, obedient, and good, as the perfection of all things; for in Him there is an upright nature. Behold, this is the image of God, of Christ as to the Spirit which we have as an example until we become like it in nature and reveal it by our walk.[8]

All regenerate children of God are minded as Christ was minded, and will look to Christ “as an example” after whom they will faithfully walk. This, the Anabaptists said, is the meaning of Paul’s word in Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

We might summarize the central point of this talk with Menno Simons’s exuberant and confident words:

[The believer] is clothed with the power from above, baptized with the Holy Spirit, and so united and mingled with God that he becomes a partaker of the divine nature and is made conformable to the image of His Son…[10]

It is this “embodied” identification with Jesus Christ that leads the Body of Christ, his community on earth, to walk in the ways of peace, justice, and nonviolence, for that is that path that Jesus walked and on which he asked disciples to follow and walk.


To conclude, I would like to say some words about the “Mennonite peace position” as it has come to be called.

In the context of Anabaptist spirituality, non-resistance, or more poetically, Wehrlosigkeit (living without weapons), was actually a by-product of a much more inclusive “way of life.” It is this larger way of life that looks and is “religious.”

Someone said yesterday that singing was the Mennonite sacrament. This statement is perhaps true, if sacrament is understood in its worship context alone. But in a more profound sense, the Anabaptists maintained that the true “visible sign of invisible grace” — the true sacrament — is the church itself, that is, the community and communion of those who are being reborn by God’s grace and power, and who are living — incarnating — making visible — the Christ-life. Christ lives in His members, they very often said.

Loving enemies will be a visible part of this sacrament. But so will being separate from the world, not being jealous, not chasing after money, sharing with those in need, being humble and not proud, telling the absolute truth, and on and on through the catalogue of Christ-like virtues.

The body of Christ will necessarily look different from “the world” in exactly the same way the Christ looked different from the world.

But now it is time for confession. You need to know the damaged goods you are getting, and not idealize us as Mennonites on the basis of Anabaptism.

Our Mennonite churches began as separate and separated communities. Some of us still are, but none of those folks is here at this gathering. They are out gathering hay into their barns or shoeing the horses. The separated communities still retain the sense that they are the present “Body of Christ” on earth, and that their way of life as whole is a witness to the world.

These communities understand Gelassenheit or yieldedness very well indeed. They have to yield their individual wills in baptism to restrictive communities run by conservative bishops, who decide, arbitrarily, that discipleship witness means (let’s say), no rubber on the buggy tires. Spiritual growth is measured by obedience; humility; absence of a desire to assert oneself. In a word, by active Gelassenheit.

The old orders may not understand very well the “rebirth” dimensions of their spirituality — they aren’t mystics or scholars — but they have advanced degrees in the practice of obedience and humility.

The process of acculturation has left its mark on our denomination. The 1960s were decisive for large numbers of us, but the process had started long before. At about the same time that Vatican II was revolutionizing religious life, Mennonites began abandoning the visible signs of difference. It was at this point that we began doing “peace making” and critiquing “non-resistance.” When you join the world, you have to make a statement.

But our authentic peace tradition had been linked, organically, to a life form of yieldedness and visible separation from the world: a spirituality of incarnation, based on rebirth by the living God. What became of our peace witness is that, increasingly, it became an ethic; it has come to encapsulate what we want to believe and stand for. But, our peace witness is like an over-ripe fruit, clinging to a vine whose roots are in the process of being cut right off.

If there is no sap in the vine, there will be no fruit worth having. If there is no spirituality of yieldedness to the living God, no ethic in the world will produce people who understand martyrdom — which is the ultimate measure of non-resistance. This is the reason we value the witness of our martyrs: they gave the ultimate testimony of their faith and hope in God.

And this is where you Catholics come in. You are going to help us recover our authentic peace witness. I believe that Anabaptism is best understood as a sixteenth-century lay variant of the holiness piety that had been expressed in monasticism, spiritualized in Rhenish mysticism, and laicized by late-medieval renewal movements such as the Beguines, Beghards, and Brethren of the Common Life. It seems to me that there are very natural avenues for mutual understanding and rapprochement between Mennonites and Catholics indicated by this. When the spirituality of the Catholic communities (regular and lay) and Anabaptist spirituality are compared, there is considerable common ground upon which to dialogue, learn from one other, and build bridges.

Our authentic Mennonite witness is grounded in the religious life. For that reason, our natural conversation partners could well be Catholic religious and religious communities. An example of how fruitful this discussion could be today can be found in Sandra Schneiders’ book, Finding the Treasure: Locating Catholic Religious Life in a New Ecclesial and Cultural Context (New York: Paulist, 2000). We may be able to make some further progress in our conversations if we think of the Mennonite side in this dialogue as a kind of “religious order,” vowed to nonviolence in all aspects of life, in imitation of Christ.

Arnold Snyder

July 13, 2002


[1] F. Bente, ed., Concordia Triglotta. Die symbolischen Bücher der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, deutsch-lateinisch-englisch . . . herausgegeben… (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), 839 (from the Epitome or summary; see the virtually identical statement on p. 1097). Likewise, even if one were to grant that salvation was by faith and not by the merit of works, if one went on to say that works subsequent to faith were necessary for salvation, as did the Anabaptists, this was also said to be a theological error. Ibid., 945.

[2] The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. L. Verduin, ed. J.C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 92.

[3] Ausbund, hymn 51, stanza 4; translation from Songs of the Ausbund, 104, slightly modified.

[4] The Writings of Dirk Philips, ed. and trans. by Dyck, Keeney, and Beachey (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 79.

[5] To cite one example from the Devotio Moderna movement, Geert Grote (d. 1384) had written: “In all things the most pure birth, righteous life, and holy death of Christ are the only true antidotes to our impure birth, perverse thoughts, words, and deeds, so that the spiritual rebirth may radiate through our lives and the life of Christ may be made manifest in our souls and bodies through the mortification of our flesh.” John Van Engen, trans., Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 98-9.

[6] Hans Denck, “Whether God is the Cause of Evil,” (Augsburg, 1526), in George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), 106.

[7] For Christ has expressly portrayed Himself in His Word, that is, as to the nature which He would have us understand, grasp and follow and emulate … according to His life and conversation here on earth, shown forth among men in works and deeds as an example set before us to follow so that we thereby might become partakers of His nature in the spirit, to become like unto Him. Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 55-56.

[9] Ibid., 54.

[10] Ibid., 58.