The Confessional History of House Churches

Perhaps the single greatest document to survive the early Anabaptist movement is an early "confession." As the Protestant and Catholic armies swept over Europe to rid the world of the Anabaptists, this document kept showing up every where they went. As best as can be determined (it was not signed for fear that it would be used as evidence), the confession was drafted by Michael Sattler during the time that he pastored a house church in Horb.

Sattler, like many of the early Anabaptist leaders, had been well trained by the Roman church and had served as a prior in the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter's in southern Germany. He had come into contact with Conrad Grabel and the other leaders of the movement in Zurich and became one of its most effective advocates. Like many of the early Anabaptists, he repudiated the rule of celibacy and took a wife, a woman named Margaretha who also had taken vows of celibacy.

The document emerged from a conference in the Swiss border town of Schleitheim, and is thus called the Schleitheim Confession. The men and women who assembled there were struggling to articulate their faith and to set down rules that would govern their conduct. They knew the path they had placed themselves would lead to persecution, and had to be sure that their decision to defy the official state church was the will of God. It would have been easy for them to give up their new beliefs and go back to living comfortable lives, but their decision to go into harms way was a corporate one, each person consenting to make the sacrifices that were sure to follow.

The details of the confession give historians an understanding of their faith, but it is the manner that the document was written that is, perhaps, the most significant aspect of this confession. It was a corporate confession, not something written by a leader and then put in place as an edict or a creedal formula. As the Anabaptists spread throughout Europe, many of their assemblies began to diverge in the details of their faith--but these assemblies took the time to write down their confessions, and a great many of these survive today.

Article five of the Schleitheim Confession listed the duties of the pastor, and ended with the words, "But should it happen that through the cross this pastor should be banished or led to the Lord [through martyrdom] another shall be ordained in his place in the same hour so that God's little flock and people may not be destroyed." Indeed, it would not be long before this provision would be invoked to replace Sattler. Captured and brought to trial in Rottenburg on May 17, 1527, just three months after the Confession was adopted. Michael, Margaretha, and nine others were convicted. They rooted their defense in Scripture, and said that they would gladly recant if their errors could be explained to them from in the Bible. It took only 90 minutes for the judges to offer up their verdict: "Michael Sattler shall be committed to the hangman, who shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, then chain him to a wagon, tear his body twice with hot tongs there and five times more before the gate, then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic."

After Sattler and three other men were burned, many attempts were made to persuade Margaretha to recant. Each time she said that she would be true to her Lord. After eight days of this, Margaretha was drowned in the Neckar River.

The Schleitheim Confession

Many of the articles in the Schleitheim Confession may seem extreme to modern eyes, but each is based on their reading of the New Testament. These were a people who wanted to live the New Testament and accept the consequences should that provoke the wrath of their head of state. Its many references to excommunication demonstrate that it had "teeth"--those who were baptized into the assembly were expected to follow through to the end. The complete confession may be found in Lumpkin (see Bibliography), 23-31.
  1. Baptism. Given to those who have "learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so they may be resurrected with him..." (Rom. 6). Infant baptisms were called "the highest and chief abominations of the Pope."
  2. Discipline. Those who had become members but who later "slip sometimes and fall into error and sin" were to be admonished privately, then in the presence of the whole assembly (Mt. 18) and then excommunicated if they did not repent.
  3. Communion. Only those who had been baptized per article 1 were admitted to the Lord's table.
  4. The World. Members were forbidden to "run with the wicked." They agreed to shun all Catholic and Protestant church services, as well as drinking houses and civic affairs.
  5. Pastors. The office of the pastor would be "to teach, to warn, to discipline, to ban [excommunicate], to lead out in prayer ..., to lift up the bread when it is to be broken, and in all things to see to the care of the body of Christ..."
  6. The Sword. Members are not to participate in war, nor are they to accept positions in government.
  7. The Oath. Members are to let their Yea be yea and their Nay be nay.


William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (revised ed.), (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969). Leonard Gross, "Showing Them How to Die, How to Live," Christian History 4:1.