Sunday, November 13, 2011

Four Points of Anabaptist Theology: Part 4 Economic Sharing

Economic Sharing

The Anabaptists came to be in the earliest days of the German Reformation. The German Reformation was essentially a revolt of the laity against the Roman Catholic Church and the sacramentalism and sacerdotalism it represented.[1] Martin Luther may have started the Reformation through his break with Rome but the popular appeal of the Reformation was in the destruction of the old order. Between the destruction of the old order and the rise of the new churches that would later come to prominence across Europe, Anabaptism arose.[2]

It is Erasmus to which Anabaptism owes much in terms of theology, especially in the area of sola scriptura. Where Luther argued that the Roman Catholic Church was flawed in their interpretation of Scripture and their belief in the Pope’s ability to actually change the commands of Christ and the Catholics responded in kind, Erasmus asked a different question. How did the most knowledgeable followers of Jesus Christ, the disciples, understand the Great Commission? The quest to answer this seemingly simply question lead Erasmus to an even greater emphasis on sola scriptura than even Martin Luther.[3] This resulted in a very different interpretation of much of Scripture and would put the Anabaptists on a far different trajectory than the Reformers.

Under the leadership of Balthasar Hubmaier and with the Lichtenstein barons tolerating them, Moravia became perhaps the most influential center of Anabaptist activity in all of Europe.[4] People from across Europe moved into the region as persecution came to country after country. With the arrest and execution of Hubmaier, there were few voiced left to defend the Anabaptist position. One such voice that filled the void left by the demise of Hubmaier was that of Jacob Wiedemann who followed the eschatological teaching of Hans Hut. More interesting is the fact that Wiedemann subscribed to the nonresistant teachings of the Swiss Brethren.

It is to this theological background that the doctrine of the community of goods, or economic sharing, is added by Wiedemann. Coupled with sola scriptura, economic sharing would soon overshadow all other doctrines and would come to be the single thing that was the mark of the true church.[5] The doctrine of economic sharing introduced by Wiedemann was later clarified by Felix Mantz teaching that Anabaptists should practice love, unity, community of all things as the apostles in Acts 2 did.[6] Erasmus, who actually sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church, regarded the reformation lost when it went from the careful hands of biblical scholars to quarrelsome and reckless theologians.[7] Oddly though, Erasmus simultaneously complained that the world in which he lived had grown alien to the world of Christ while also lamenting that the Anabaptists for being too rigid in their desire to return the world to that very state.[8]

When Pilgram Marpeck arrives on the scene in Moravia shortly after his conversion, he is commissioned and sent to Strasbourg . It is there where he develops a variation of economic sharing that is essentially a sort of mutual aid.[9] Marpeck taught that Christians could control their possessions but must regard them as belonging to God and the needy rather than themselves.[10] Another characteristic of Marpeck’s teaching is the taking of voluntary offerings at every service as an expression of compassion. Menno Simons and his Mennonites also practice a form of mutual aid though they did not speak of it often due to past abuses of the economic sharing model.[11]

This is not to say that the community of goods approach to living was an immediate success. In fact, there were issues with this approach to living with their fellow believers as the abuses of power by Mennonites in South Russia indicate. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there arose a class system of Mennonite estates in southern Russia.[12] The owners of these large estates were about three percent of the Mennonite population yet they controlled thirty percent of the land owned by Mennonites. They also employed nearly on quarter of the Mennonite population.[13] These estate owners aligned themselves with the Russian nobility and became part of the oppressive land ownership system of Russia. It would seem that economic sharing had failed these Mennonites.

All Anabaptists believed that Christian love called them to provide assistance to the needy and at least some sharing of possessions. This sharing was far more than a utopian ideal. Rather, it was quite practical for relatively poor, persecuted people.[14] In the South Germany-Austria area, Anabaptists treated the pooling of resources as the appropriate outer expression of unity with Christ. In contrast, early Swiss Anabaptists often practiced full economic sharing though it was common for families to remain in their lands and homes. For the Swiss Brethren, Pilgramites, and Mennonites, economic sharing evolved into mutual aid.[15]

For modern Anabaptists, the vast economic inequality and poverty that can be seen in the world today cannot be ignored. Within their own churches there is a sharing of wealth to be sure but there is also a crossing of economic lines to impart a message about material goods in our lives. Globalization has increased the wealth of some at the expense of others making economic issues more pressing in church life and in mission.[16] Churches around the world are recognizing this and addressing poverty in a number of ways.

In recent years, Latin American Roman Catholics are advancing a liberation theology that claims churches should demonstrate a bias towards the poor. While certainly a noble endeavor, it is clear that such theology has been influenced by a Marxist view of history. However, it is a mistake to dismiss this view as baptized Marxism. To do so is to forget the struggles of the poor among the Anabaptists centuries ago and their own struggles to gain a voice.[17]



[1] Redekop, Benjamin W., and Calvin W. Redekop, ed. Power, Authority, and the Anabaptist Tradition. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 50.

[2] Ibid, 51.

[3] Friesen, Abraham. Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 13.

[4] Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975, 1996)127.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 54.

[7] Redekop, Benjamin W., and Calvin W. Redekop, ed. Power, Authority, and the Anabaptist Tradition. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 52-53.

[8] Friesen, Abraham. Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 28.

[9] Finger, Thomas N. A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 239.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 241.

[12] Redekop, Benjamin W., and Calvin W. Redekop, ed. Power, Authority, and the Anabaptist Tradition. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 99.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Finger, Thomas N. A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 242.

[15] Ibid, 247-48.

[16] Ibid, 242-43.

[17] Ibid, 244-45.

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