Anabaptism, Anticlericalism and the Creation of a Protestant Clergy

By Grieser, D. Jonathan | Mennonite Quarterly Review, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Anabaptism, Anticlericalism and the Creation of a Protestant Clergy


Grieser, D. Jonathan, Mennonite Quarterly Review


After baptism, perhaps no issue divided Anabaptists from their Lutheran and Reformed opponents more sharply than did different conceptions of the evangelical ministry. Whether it was agitation over the tithe, the right of local congregations to elect and depose their ministers, or the qualifications and signs of office that determined a valid minister, such conflicts ran deep in the confrontation between Anabaptists and their opponents. Indeed, the importance of these issues preceded the first adult baptisms in 1525 and were of profound significance far beyond Anabaptism. (1) Anabaptist notions of the ministry are clear in the Schleitheim Articles of 1525, which called for the minister to be of high moral caliber and ready to admonish and discipline members of his congregation. Of great importance for the contrast it provides to developing Protestant models of the clergy is its insistence that an Anabaptist minister "be provided for by the congregation that elected him; so that whoever serves the Gospel, should also live from it...." (2)

The developing Anabaptist understanding of the ministry built on an important theme in the early years of the Protestant Reformation: anticlericalism. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, anticlerical sentiment had contributed significantly to the appeal of reforming ideas and to the demands for change, especially in the early 1520s. (3) But once unleashed, anticlericalism could also rebound back upon the Protestant reformers themselves. Such was the case in Anabaptism. From the very beginning anticlerical language dominated the Anabaptist attack on the reformers and it was a significant part of the movement's appeal to the common people. (4) The Schleitheim Articles, for example, explicitly denounced the traditional economic arrangements of the clergy and insisted on the moral purity of Anabaptist ministers. As the reformers found themselves and their ministry attacked by Anabaptists, they faced a new problem: How were they to respond when they found their own language and arguments being used against them? (5)

This essay explores the effect of the Anabaptist critique on Protestant understandings of the ministry and on the emergence of new reformed institutions of ministry. The Anabaptist attack on the clergy challenged the reformers' self-understanding and forced theologians and publicists to articulate a vision of the evangelical ministry that situated Protestant clergy between the pastoral models of the past and the demands of the Anabaptists. They also found it necessary to revise their views concerning the relationship between the common people and the clergy and to rely ever more on the secular authority to order religious affairs. In the end, the Anabaptist critique of the early reformers helped to create the pastoral models and institutions that arose in the Protestant churches of the sixteenth century.

Even without the impetus from radical opponents, the reformers themselves would have had to come to terms with the role and theology of the ministry. After all, their own conflict with the traditions of Catholicism, especially with the theology and practice of the priesthood that had developed over the centuries, had pushed them to operate with an implicit understanding of the role of the minister in the congregation long before they publicly articulated such an understanding. The reformers' calls for clerical marriage and their rejection of monasticism and vows had undermined the traditional structure supporting the priesthood. Yet this criticism eventually led them into a crisis of their own insofar as their authority was largely a product of their own ordination and since many, like Zwingli, had become paid employees of the city councils after resigning their prebends, an action which opened Zwingli and other reformers to criticism that they had sold themselves for money. (6)

These issues were at the heart of the Anabaptist critique of the old church and the new reformers. …

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