The Anabaptist Story, Part 3 (Nelson)

III. The Doctrine of the Regenerate Church

Just as the doctrine of the fallen church emerges from the Anabaptist Story, so also does the Doctrine of the Regenerate Church. It was in 1525 that Conrad Grebel attempted to influence Zwingli and the division between the two men began to widen. As has been noted above, Grebel wrote "The Christian church is the congregation of the few who believe and live right," and Zwingli's response was "we must proceed slowly and eliminate the Catholic rites in a forbearing manner."

On that evening when Grebel baptized Blaurock, and in turn Blaurock baptized the rest of the group the Anabaptists, there was no turning back. They were going forward and attempting to implement what they believed they had found in the Scriptures at whatever cost. And the cost for most of them was to be their lives.

The church is for believers and for believers only. That is the theme of the radical reformers. They thought this was the New Testament message. They thought that they were conforming to the teachings of Christ. They were saying that the church did not need the support of culture or Empire. Even if the multitudes left the church because of Christ's difficult commands, leaving only the few, that would be all right. The Anabaptists called for a regenerate church. And it is to this doctrine that I now direct your study.

A. The Nature of the Ekklesia

This study presupposes that there is a relationship between the ekklesia and the person of Christ. Moltmann, has said, "There is only a church if and as long as Jesus of Nazareth is believed and acknowledged to be the Christ of God."31

To understand the nature of the church, I am assuming the church's relationship to Christ and will not overtly develop this theme even though it is, indeed, a needed task.

It is from three areas, and an implication from those areas, that I will attempt to develop the nature of the ekklesia--from the word ekklesia itself, from the biblical images used for the people of God, and from the Anabaptists belief of contemporaneity. These three themes give the Anabaptist understanding of the nature of the church.

1. Etymology

So the word means called out as an accomplished fact or called out as a process.

The word ekklesia is theologically neutral. Within the Scripture the word may refer to religious or non-religious (secular) assemblies. The basic meaning of ekklesia is a meeting or a gathering.

2. Old Testament Usage

The LXX uses ekklesia to translate the Hebrew noun qahal as follows:

Only in the New Testament will the term take of special significance.

3. New Testament Usage

Ekklesia is used in a similar way as in the Old Testament in Acts 7:38, ekklesia being translated "assembly."

a. Synoptic gospels

Ekklesia is used only three times and all in of Matthew.

In conclusion, we can consider this question: Is the authority of the apostles transferable? NO! What happened to the authority of the apostles when they died? Only one authority can still be valid, namely, loyalty to the tradition of the primitive witness. Since the death of the Apostles, the apostolate has validity only in one form, as the norm of original tradition fixed in writing, the norm of the original witness, i.e. the New Testament.

Eph. 2:20, "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets," emphasizes the accompanying truth that the canon alone is not the foundation of the church, but is foundation only in combination with the spiritually filled, oral exposition of Scripture, v. 21f. The canon is the successor of the apostolic authority, but spiritual interpretation is also needed.

b. Acts

P. T. Forsyth used a metaphor saying that the local church is the "outcropping of the church composed of all true believers. As the "outcropping," each ekklesia is the same nature as the formation of which it is part, so the local congregation shares the nature of the body of Christ. Even as a new sprouted tree has all the characteristics of treeness."34

Acts 2:42 gives the ekklesia's self-understanding:

c. Paul

As in Acts, Paul uses both singular and plural forms.

Observation: The more mature a Christian community is, the less use it will make of apostolic authority. Only where it was essential to assist the primitive witness in its purity does Paul make use of his apostolic authority, in order to call back the ekklesia to truth in Christ, Gal. 1-2.

d. John

John never uses ekklesia in his gospel, but in Revelation he uses ekklesia 20 times, each referring to a specific congregation. The epistles of John use ekklesia only in a singular sense.

e. The Remainder of the New Testament

The word ekklesia is absent in the ten remaining books of the New Testament--Mark, Luke, John, 2 Tim, Titus, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John and Jude. Why? They used images of the church, and these images can give us insights on how they understood the church.

4. Images

The nature of ekklesia is not learned from a word study alone. To find the nature of the ekklesia, the New Testament images need to be studied as well. The New Testament is a gallery of pictures that set forth the idea of the ekklesia.

A Manual of Ecclesiology, by H. E. Dana,35 a classic in days gone by, taught me the basics for an understanding of the ekklesia. A word study is really inadequate to understand the concept. Why do so few New Testament books contain the word ekklesia if it is so important? Paul S. Minear gives 96 images for the church. He sees these as words and pictures as channels of thought rather than receptacle of ideas with fixed meanings. From these images suggested by Minear I will set forth several, and fill out their meaning.

  1. Saints and Sanctified. Ekklesia may be viewed from the standpoint of God's action in calling and setting apart.
  2. Believers and Faithful. Ekklesia may be viewed from the standpoint of communal response. Ekklesia understood from believers--people faithing God and then being faithful to God.
  3. Slaves and Servants. Ekklesia may be viewed from the standpoint of faith's basic duties. We have been enlisted as slaves, servants, stewards, and ministers. Obedience sets out the meaning of the ekklesia.
  4. People of God. Ekklesia may be viewed as the continuation and consummation of the covenant community, both the Old Testament covenant and New Testament covenants.
  5. Kingdom and Temple. the ekklesia may be viewed in terms of the central institution of Israel's worship (Rev. 1:6, 5:10).
  6. Household and Family. The ekklesia may be understood as a gathering of God's people.
  7. A New Exodus. The ekklesia may be viewed as a continuing struggle with the world (James 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1).
  8. A Vineyard and Flock. The ekklesia may be viewed in gricultural analogies of growth and productivity (Mk. (12:1-12; Lk. 12:32; Jn. 1:1-16).
  9. One Body in Christ. The ekklesia may be described as being incorporated into its Lord (Rom 12:5; Eph. 1:2).
  10. The New Humanity. The ekklesia may be viewed as the beginning of a new creation (Eph. 2:14).

Some Old Testament parallel expressions are carried into the New Testament.

During the time between his resurrection and final coming, Jesus Christ continues his ministry in and through the community. What a gallery of pictures to interpret the ekklesia!

5. Believers' Church Uniqueness--Contemporaneity

Where the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans saw the church as continuous from the time of Christ and placed great weight on its historical development, the Anabaptists placed their emphases on the contemporaneity of the historical and the eschatological. So I will want to talk about "this is that" and "then is now" to interpret these ideas.

This is that, then is now
Figure 2. The Terms "This is That" and "Then is Now."

Tradition was important to the Anabaptists. They were humanists however, and going back to the original sources was of primary importance. Because of the Constantinianization of Christianity, the tradition must be critiqued by the Scripture and compared to the original sources. This "looping back"37 was the humanist way to gain truth.

This led the Anabaptists to a theological position that the church was not to be determined by the developmental model as used by the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans, which at this time had tradition and Scripture as equal or nearly equal. Rather, the Anabaptist felt that it was the Spirit which had guided the canon and continued to guide the church, and tradition needed to be critiqued from the norm of the Scriptures.

Nor did the Anabaptists hold to the succession model--that they could trace their origins back to the New Testament and therefore they were the true church. The Landmark and other groups attempt to trace the connecting links back to the New Testament as a proof of the rightness of their beliefs. The Anabaptists did not do this.

Instead of taking the above approaches, the Anabaptists held to a contemporaneity of the church. The church now is the primitive church. We are to see ourselves as contemporaries with the historical Jesus. His commands of old are also commands to us. For instance, the Lutherans and the Calvinists viewed the Great Commission as addressed to the disciples and not to the believers of that time, the Anabaptists took the words of the Great Commission as being addressed, and obligatory, to them. All the commands of Christ in the Scripture were addressed directly to them. They also believed that the church now is the church to come. The church, through the earnestness of the Spirit, has a foretaste of what the future is to be--it is to do the will of God as the will of God is to be done in heaven. When I was with Grandfather and Grandmother Zink, I used to look at pictures in what was called a stereopticon. In a stereopticon you would set two pictures at the end of a long staff and would let you view those pictures and give a depth dimension that you could not have otherwise. I always marveled that flat photographs could be seen in depth. Authentic Christian faith exercised in the church is like a stereopticon. One sees the present in correct perspective only when it construes the present by means of prefiguring God's past while at the same time construing the present by means of the prophetic future--God's future.38

To understand the contemporaneity of the church, I will use the two prophetic symbols of our faith--Baptism and the Lord's Supper. In each of these there is a blend of the past and future that focuses into the present. In baptism there is a remembrance--death, burial and resurrection, so in baptism that past becomes a part of the believer's present. There is also being raised to "walk in newness of life." This newness of life is but a foretaste of the future--of God's intention for the believer. The past and the present become forged together to make the present a holy moment."

a. "This is That"

Josh. 24:5-8 gives an Old Testament understanding of "This is That." Several decades had transpired between the coming out of Egypt and this event, yet Joshua says, "you came to the sea." Did they? No, absolutely not. Did they? Yes, absolutely yes.

So with Jer. 6:16--"Thus says the LORD, 'Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths. Where the good way is, and walk in it; and you shall find rest for your souls.' But they said, 'We will not walk in it.'" You can walk the ancient paths. You are to walk the ancient paths. Language about one set of events and circumstance under divine guidance can be applied to another set of events of circumstances. Let me illustrate; Joel 2 and Acts 2 illustrate "this is that." But Joel did not speak directly to Pentecost. Still, under divine guidance, it applied.

With this way of interpreting the Bible, the present Christian community became the primitive community and the commands of the past were commands for the present. The events in another time and place can display redemptive power here and now.

The Bible does not say how this is done--it only assumes it. It is done immediately and mystically. It is not enough to say we are people of the Book. We are, but we are more; we are people of the book and of the Spirit. This immediately and mystically is the work of the Spirit that makes the past the present and that shapes the present.

With this way of interpreting the Scripture, there is a vast difference between the Anabaptists and the other reformed advocates.

b. "Then is Now"

"Then is now" in baptism and the Lord's supper, is seen in the phrases "walking in newness of life" and "until the Lord comes." The future impinges on the present. Love and joy, for example, are fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22); they are experienced now but will be fully experienced in the future, cf., 1 Cor. 10:11.

The Anabaptists pictured the church as an outcropping of heaven itself, a foretaste of the "great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb ..." (Rev. 7:9). That picture governed their understanding of worship and fellowship. The church is to live as if it were the end of the world, and to manifest in their lives God's intentions for the world, as presented in Gen. 1-2.

Politicians--those who attempt to work in the world--should be able to glimpse the world the way it ought to be by looking at the local church. Anyone who makes the comparison between our present culture and a rightly constituted believers' church will see that we have a long way to go, mutual acceptance being just one example (Gal. 3:26-28).

6. Conclusions

a. Ekklesia is a fellowship

The ekklesia is a new humanity reconciled with God and by God in which all within the fellowship become brothers or sisters. Ekklesia is never conceived of as an institution, but exclusively a fellowship of persons. Institutionalizing the church is okay until it begins to impinge on this fellowship.

b. The ekklesia Is Bounded

The ekklesia exists from Pentecost to the final coming (parousia). It could not be the fellowship that Christ desired until there was the coming of the Spirit. The ekklesia is bounded--it has a beginning and an end. The ekklesia is limited.

c. The ekklesia Works Confessionally

The ekklesia did such things as decide policy, such as the matter of circumcision (Acts 15). But it had no fixed creeds, no liturgy, no permanent pastors, and no New Testament in concrete form. It was a combination of unity and diversity. Did it work? That is the miracle of the ekklesia which Paul and other Christians themselves regarded with astonishment. It worked.

It worked confessionally. In the confessional approach, beliefs were birthed--Christ is Lord. In confessing shared experiences, decisions were reached. Confession provided a fellowship in which the sharers invited hearers into a fellowship from which one could receive the word that was being shared. Today we have specialists giving authoritarian messages instead of a confessional approach. Worship, therefore, has turned to institutional goals--attendance, offerings and services--to enhance the institutions.

There will always be an institutionalizing, but the organization must stay at the service of the event which birthed it. Where an institution stands in the way of contemporary obedience to God's call to his people to move on with Him in history. If the institution stands against that, then the institution becomes sin. The priority of the event must be recognized and honored even over the institution.