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08.13.17 Minority Movements Problems Revelation 14 S Sermon Summary

by on August 15, 2017

The Reformation Luther inspired 500 years ago has made the church more faithful. But along the way there were some problems. Here are some of them, and how we can avoid them in the future.

Summary Points

  • The Reformation context giving rise to the Anabaptists
  • Four problematic practices of the Anabaptists
  • Two roots of the problems: Apocalyptic Millennialism and Special Revelation
  • Five ways to avoid the problems today

Martin Luther’s break from Rome was founded on the rediscovery of our justification by faith apart from works of the Law. Luther reasserted God’s Word as the highest authority in the life of the Christian and the church. It was not the Pope, nor the councils, nor tradition. For Luther, God’s Word, especially as contained in the promises of the Bible, is the sole authority. The appropriate response is simple faith in God’s promises.

The problem is, not everyone interprets God’s Word the same. We considered the case study of infant baptism. The Swiss Brethren found no justification for child baptism in their reading of God’s authoritative Word. They quoted a verse here and a verse there to make their point.

In response, Ulrich Zwingli read the verses in context, and found they were not so clear. Reading the Bible as a whole, he rediscovered covenant theology as the justification for infant baptism. Just as male infants were circumcised under the Old Covenant, so male and female children in the New Covenant church should be baptized.

In the Lutheran and Reformed (Zwinglian) traditions, we look to our founder’s writings, various faith statements (“Confessions”), and ancient commentators to guide our interpretation of scripture. Among the Anabaptists movements, by contrast, there were few who looked to these guides. This difference resulted in there being many variants of Anabaptism, some more helpful than others. Some contributed positively to the Christian church; others presented problems.

Four of the problematic forms of Anabaptism are: Armed resistance, polygamy, forced conversions, and the ban.

Some branches of Anabaptism advocated armed resistance. The Reformation was not just a religious event. It occurred during a time of general political and social unrest. In the soils also of philosophical changes, Luther added religious questions. And there were numerous other variables in play as well.

With all the traditional anchors of society coming loose, it is hardly surprising that violence would result. In 1524 the Peasants War broke out. Hearing Luther question the authority of the church and championing the freedom of the individual Christian, tenant farmers sought to overcome their indentured servitude to landlords (who often also had positions in the religious hierarchy). Up to 100,000 people were killed in the ensuing violence. Luther was horrified to see his ideas put to such service.

A decade later the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster was founded. The leaders of the movement did not recognize the authority of regional principalities, and war broke out again. When the men of the kingdom became sparse, through flight or death, the leaders invoked the practice of polygamy to maintain the population.

These Anabaptists justified their polygamy on the basis of King David having between 8-12 or more wives and concubines (see 2 Samuel 3-5), and his son Solomon reputedly having over 1000 (see 1 Kings 11). In other words, according to the way they read the Bible, polygamy was faithful practice.

Some Anabaptists also practiced forced conversions. Their motivation was two-fold. On one hand, they wanted to save people from the judgment that led to hell. The reasoning was, if you didn’t convert to their brand of Christianity, you were going to hell. Rather than allow you to continue to corrupt the world, it was better to send you to hell early. On the other hand, they wanted to ensure conformity to the group norms. One either converted, or was terminated.

Concern for conformity also led some Anabaptists to practice the less permanent solution of the ban. To help ensure the purity of the group, errant members were shunned and excommunicated. Some Anabaptists groups today still practice the ban. My grandmother-in-law’s family was excluded from Sunday worship because her sister wore shorts in the back yard one summer.

The ban was based primarily on the reading of 1 Corinthians 5:6-13. The Corinthian churches were an infamously fractious group. Paul’s preoccupation in his letters was to re-establish harmony. In his enthusiasm he wrote, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.’” Those who practiced the ban would also cite Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17.

Today we look back and wonder how the problematic practices of armed resistance, polygamy, forced conversion, and the ban could arise among the followers of the peacemaking, celibate, socially promiscuous Jesus? There are two main reasons.

The first has to do with what is called “Apocalyptic Millennialism.” The characteristics of this way of thinking are:

  • That a thousand year reign of Christ is coming
  • That it starts or ends (depending on the branch of Millennialism) with Christ’s return
  • That it culminates in the Last or Final Judgment
  • That this is known only to the special ones to whom it is revealed

Apocalyptic Millennialism is based largely on the following passages of the Bible. Revelation 7 and 14 make reference to the 144,000. “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard . . . a new song before the throne . . . No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth.” (Revelation 14:1, 3) “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14) They are contrasted by the others: “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands” (Revelation 14:9)

In Daniel 2:27-45, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a dream of a statue: “The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” (verses 32-33) The faithful Hebrew Daniel interprets the dream by identifying those various parts with kingdoms who fail on the world’s progression to the last day or judgment, when God’s final Kingdom will prevail over the fallen statue of the world’s kingdoms.

According to Apocalyptic Millennialism, the arrival of God’s Kingdom is at hand. With this conviction, those faithful who are awaiting the final demise of the worldly kingdoms eagerly cite Acts 5:27-32. There Peter and John and the Apostles are shown preaching God’s Kingdom in the Temple. They are arrested for disturbing the peace, told to stop, but then return. They are re-arrested and reminded, but they respond, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Armed Resistance, leading to polygamy and forced conversions, emerges from the theological soils of such Apocalyptic Millennialism. But there is another factor that led some Anabaptists to problematic places: the concept of the special revelation.

Special revelation was particularly powerful when it came through a single charismatic leader. Followers believed this person was guided uniquely by the Spirit. The whole concept of special revelation is by nature anti-tradition, and sometimes even anti-Bible. The charismatic Anabaptist leader Sabastian Franck, for example, referred to the Bible as a “Paper Pope.”

Special revelation together with apocalyptic millennialism have conspired to bring us problematic forms of Christianity since the beginning. They reemerged at the Reformation, carried both sides through the American Civil war, and remain particularly strong in American Christianity to this day. In the 1970s it was the Late Great Planet Earth; since the 90s it’s been the Left Behind series. It leads to the kinds of things we saw this weekend in Charlottesville, VA.

How do we avoid these problems in the church today? Here are five suggestions.

  1. Keep heart and head together. It’s of the essence of true religion to engage our hearts. But our hearts can deceive us. Both heart and head have to be engaged to discern faithfulness.
  2. Remember that God is very old, very patient, and full of grace. We can become quite ego-centric to think that history will end in our generation and exclude everyone else but us. God has been laughing about such presumptions for millennia when not crying about the horrific consequences such presumptions create.
  3. Remember the community of Scripture. One verse here and one verse there do not justify an entire movement. Like Zwingli, we have to read the Bible in conversation with itself.
  4. As in driving, we must “turn with caution”: Looking backwards and around before changing the direction of the church. What does tradition say? What are others around us saying, not just our leaders, our denomination, or even our religion?
  5. Keep in mind Jesus’ preaching and practice of Kingdom. It is true that Rome crucified Jesus as a traitor because he preached a different king and kingdom. But his preaching caught their attention because he actually lived it out. He didn’t wait for the world around him to end. He sought to transform the world around him.

Not all Anabaptist movements created problems. Most were marginalized, including those who practiced positive things. But many of those positive practices are making a comeback. That is the topic of next week.

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