By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
Philip of Hesse was an unusual man for his time. While most governments – Protestant and Catholic alike – were violently persecuting the Anabaptists, he took a milder approach, believing that they could be convinced to rejoin the state church by discussion and softer measures.
Among the reformers, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito of Strasbourg were the friendliest to such an approach, and in 1538, when Philip wanted to make an attempt to reunite the local Anabaptists with the Lutheran state church, he invited Martin Bucer to come debate with them.
Several local Anabaptists had been arrested and imprisoned, and Philip needed help to persuade them to recant. Martin Bucer had earlier complained of his inability to persuade Anabaptists to rejoin the state church, but he nevertheless accepted Philip’s invitation and came to Hesse. From October 30 to November 3, 1538, Martin Bucer debated with several Anabaptists in the city of Marburg in Hesse, where they were imprisoned. The subjects discussed included several very familiar ones which frequently came up in discussions between Protestants and Anabaptists – church discipline, baptism, the government, separation from the state church, etc. However, in this particular disputation, there were a few surprises.
On the Anabaptist side, there were two main speakers for the debate – Jörg Schnabel and Leonhard Fälber. Schnabel discussed several topics with Bucer, although the main topic between the two was whether the Anabaptists were justified in separating from the state church. Similarly for Fälber, the main topic of discussion between him and Bucer was the validity of the calling of the Protestant preachers.
Why are you Separate?
After the opening formalities, the first question asked of Jörg Schnabel was “why they had separated themselves from our [Lutheran] church.” The record says “His answer came back, that he was repelled by false doctrine.”
Jörg then proceeded to give his testimony of how he left the Lutheran church. After reading the Bible, he realized that usury was wrong, and also came to realize the importance of church discipline. So he went to his pastor and explained his concerns, and his pastor “conceded that things were ill in the church; he would do his duty, and he, Jorg, was answerable before God that he also look to the matter.” Notwithstanding his assurance that he “would do his duty,” the pastor let the issue drop and did nothing. When Jörg mentioned something to the pastor the second time, he received a colder reply with no apparent interest in changing the abuses in the church. So, Jörg concluded, “he declared to pastor, mayor and town council that he wished to separate from them.” Following this, his pastor told the authorities that Jörg “wanted to overthrow kings and punish all evil with the sword” – which was not true. So Jörg had been arrested.
Bucer and Schnabel then went back and forth, arguing the point – were the Anabaptists justified in separating from the state church? Much of the discussion focused on usury and church discipline, since in Schnabel’s mind, these were the two most important issues leading to the Anabaptists’ separation from the Lutherans.
Unfortunately, neither of the two seemed to realize that the whole discussion was pointless, since separation was not the root of their disagreement. Rather, the root of their disagreement lay in their differing definitions of the church. If the two could have openly discussed the nature of the church, they would have understood each other’s positions regarding separation better, and would have been better equipped to critique their respective opponents. As it was, the differing definitions were stated more than once, but the nature of the church was never discussed in its own right.
Bucer twice defined the church during the debate:
Wherever there is a church which gladly hears God’s Word, that is a Christian church.
To this, Jörg replied that
if it were the church of Christ then it would have gone ahead with such an understanding; since it hasn’t done it, it is no believing church and he won’t accept it unless he is convinced by the Bible itself.
In other words, the true church of Christ would have obeyed God’s Word. Jörg further said:
A church would not be condemned which is organized according to the true order of Holy Scripture, namely, with repentance, faith, baptism, doctrine, the laying on of hands, even if it has inadequacies.
On the second day of the debate, Bucer directly asked Jörg “if he conceded it to be a church where they believe in the Word of God.” Jörg replied, “those who commit themselves to the truth and stand obediently in Christ, them he respects as a church.” Bucer contradicted him: “Where teaching is Christian, there is a church.”
Ultimately, the Anabaptists could not be reconciled with Bucer’s state church because the two had irreconcilable views of what the church was. These different views were the foundation of the entire discussion on why the Anabaptists had separated themselves from the state church. The two views stayed behind the scenes in this particular debate, although each view visibly undergirded each party’s approach to the question of separation, and each side did, more than once, clearly define the church in the debate.
To Bucer, the church was the territorial church, and a church was defined or known by its doctrine. He defined the church as the place where the Word was truly preached. The Anabaptist defined the church as that body of people which is obedient to the Word of God.
A True Christian Pastor
After Jörg’s examination was over, Leonhard Fälber was interviewed. When he came to the witness stand, “First he asked Mr. Butzer from whence came his calling to preach according to the rule of Christ.”
This is a surprise! The early Anabaptists were constantly being challenged by the Protestants as to the validity of the calling of their ministers. They were continually challenged to prove that their ministers had been legitimately called and ordained. This is a new twist – in this debate, the Anabaptist turned the tables on the state church, and asked Bucer to prove his own calling! Leonhard added further, “But he [Bucer] hasn’t thereby sufficient evidence as to who sent them.”
Bucer was probably quite unprepared for this line of questioning, and gave some vague answers. Leonhard pressed his point: “When I see you come with such signs as Christ commanded of them [ministers], namely that they should be born again, joined to Christ with the death of sins, then I will believe in you.”
Bucer rejoined that the Lutherans did not allow anyone to be a preacher who was not “at one with Christ,” to which Leonhard answered by quoting John 3:7 and stating, “Now I know none [no Protestant minister] who has been resurrected in such a rebirth through falling away of the first life; I find that they take the opposite position, do not gather with Christ but rather scatter.”
As with the discussion on separation, the discussion of the calling of the preachers was based on another, deeper disagreement – namely, the definition of a Christian. Bucer defined a Christian: “because they confess the faith we must recognize them as Christians even though they haven’t renewed the baptism.” In other words, even though they have not obeyed all of the teachings of the Word of God, they must be acknowledged as Christians based on their oral confession. Leonhard gave a stinging answer to this:
I feel that you don’t have a living word for which God sent his beloved Son to us; you have a dead word, as evidenced by your fellowship, else you would draw away from the evil.
That is, a true preacher will be known by the fruits of his followers. The Protestant ministers’ congregations were not populated by people who had “been resurrected in such a rebirth through falling away of the first life” – rather, evil abounded! Thus, the Protestant ministers, in Leonhard’s view, did not have a life-giving word from God, but rather a dead word. When Bucer counter-challenged Leonhard, asking if the Anabaptist ministers “had an act or a living word,” Leonhard responded:
They have a living word that can bring the people from evil to good and totally renew them.
Amen! Drawing people away from evil to good through a total renewal and regeneration of life is the duty of a true preacher of God. Because the Anabaptists saw this truth, and because they knew what a true Christian was, they were able to establish truly holy churches while the Protestant churches sank lower and lower in sin. Why did the Protestant churches degenerate in this way? Remember what Bucer said – “because they confess the faith we must recognize them as Christians”. Confession of faith was all that was necessary to be recognized by them as a true Christian.
This delightful discussion contains a good challenge for us today. How is it for us? How do we define the church? Is it the place where the Word is rightly preached and the sacrament rightly administered – regardless of how the people live, or whether they know God? Or is the church the body of people gathered to obey God’s Word?
What is a Christian? Is it someone who “confesses the faith” with his mouth, who may or may not be living a holy life? Or is it someone who has been drawn from evil to good, and been totally renewed by Christ?
Are we Protestants, or are we Anabaptists?
 Although Bucer did approve of some forms of persecution.
 Translation of the debate minutes in Franklin H. Littell, “What Butzer Debated with the Anabaptists at Marburg: A Document of 1538,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36(3) (July 1962):256-276. All quotations from the debate in this article are from this translation.
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