XI MENNO ON CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Besides the practice of infant baptism the absence of scriptural church discipline in the state churches marked a principal point of difference between Menno Simons and the representatives of the state-church Reformation. That every person born within a given state or province should without his knowledge or consent be made a member of the Christian church by infant baptism was to Menno and his friends the first and great evil; and the second was like unto it. namely that all who had thus been "christened" should be compelled by law to hold membership in the church, be they saints or sinners, and that in Lutheran and Zwinglian as well as in Roman Catholic lands offensive sin and vice was not punished by excommunication.
Menno Simons speaks of the exclusion of unworthy members as the ornament of the church. In his opinion a society which did not practice discipline and exclusion was not worthy of the name of a church of Christ. One of the prominent state church reformers. Martin Bucer, it is worthy of notice, although the practice of excommunication was unknown in the church with which he was prominently connected, admitted: "It is true, where there is no discipline and no ban, there is no true church." (1) Both Luther and Zwingli advocated the use of the ban for a time, but after all found it impracticable in the state churches.
Menno defines the church as the assembly of those "who hear, believe, accept and rightly fulfil" the teachings of God's Word. He recognizes a difference between the invisible church which is the body of Christ and the visible or organized church which can not claim purity in the sense that those who are not right with God may not be found in it (303a; II:86a). The assertion of many church historians that Menno hoped to gather a church which was in the real sense "not having spot or wrinkle" (Eph. 5:27) must be designated a grave error. To his thinking even those who constitute the mystical body of Christ are not free of imperfection and weakness, in other words, even the invisible church is perfect only in the sense that Christ's perfect righteousness is accounted to the believer. He held that the church as an organization should be "unblamable" in the sense that its teachings are founded on God's word alone, that it stands for all its truth and is conducted and maintained throughout in accordance with it.
Unhesitatingly Menno admitted the possibility that a member of the church be not right with God although he may not give offence that could be followed by discipline. Often he refers to the fact that among the apostles there was a hypocrite He repudiates the charge that through discipline the church was supposed to be kept pure in the absolute sense, but the fact that the church, consisting of fallible men, can not claim absolute purity was to him no reason why scriptural discipline should be disregarded (305b; II:89a). He believed the church to be "the communion of the saints" in very deed but did not ascribe to it perfection in purity in the absolute sense. Many writers have advanced charges of extreme views concerning the purity of the church against Menno Simons which are quite unwarranted. He says:
"In the fifth place we teach, seek and demand that the Lord's supper be observed as the Lord Jesus Himself has instituted and observed it, namely with a church that is outwardly without spot or blemish, that is without noticeable transgression and wickedness; for the church judges that which is visible. But what is inwardly evil, but does not appear outwardly to the church, as for example the betrayal of Judas, such God alone will judge and pass sentence on them; for He alone, and not the church, discerns hearts and reins" (444b; II:243a).
It is worthy of notice in this connection that in Menno's opinion not all grievous sin need be publicly confessed. If a transgression is unknown both to the world and to the church, and the guilty one repents and confesses his sin to a brother, Menno did not believe it proper to make the matter public. He writes in 1558.
"Should it at any time come to pass that any one sin against his God in secret in any carnal abomination, from which may He through His power preserve us all, and should the Spirit of the grace of Christ who alone must awaken true repentance in us all, again touch his heart and grant him genuine repentance, of this we have not to judge, for it is a matter between him and God. For since it is evident that we do not seek our righteousness and salvation, the remission of our sins, satisfaction, reconciliation and eternal life in the ban or through the ban, but alone in the righteousness, intercession, merit, death and blood of Christ, and since now the two real objects why the ban is commanded in the Scriptures can not be sought in the instance of such an one, because, firstly, his sin is private, hence no offense can follow from it, and secondly, he is contrite at heart and penitent in life and therefore there is no need of putting him to shame in order that he may be brought to repentance, hence there is no commission of Christ, no divine command that he should be more severely taken to account, nor excluded or brought to shame before the church." (201a; I:350).
The position of the Swiss Brethren and the Huterites on the point in question is set forth in a book of the Huterites, in 1567: Refutation and Reply to the Swiss, Written Upon their Request. The last of the "Fourteen Articles Against the Swiss Brethren," contained in this treatise, is as follows:
"Some of them have a false and unchristian opinion and false conception in this, that they say: If perchance some one should have become guilty of sin and vice and if no one knew of it, he might repent of the same sin, and himself ask God's forgiveness, without telling or disclosing it to any one else. Some of them, however do not take this position."
Menno Simons taught emphatically that the ban, being the exclusion of backsliders and transgressors from the church, is ineffective if it is not used on the authority of God's Word against those who through transgression or false doctrine are already inwardly separated from the church; but if, on the other hand, the ban is rightly used, the one who is excluded from the church, is excluded from salvation. (Compare page 276). (3) He writes in 1558:
"It is to be observed in the first place that these heavenly keys are two in number, namely the key of binding and the key of loosing; even as the Lord said to Peter: I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, etc. Matt. 16:19.
"In the second place, we must observe, that the key of binding is nothing else than the word of God's righteousness, the instructing, demanding, constraining, terrifying and condemning law of the Lord, through which all those who do not by faith accept Christ, the only and eternal means of grace, and do not hear His voice, nor follow and obey His holy will, are bound under the curse, sin, death and the wrath of God.
"Again, on the other hand, the key of loosing is the joyous, sweet word of grace, the pardoning, consoling, unbinding Gospel of peace by which all who truly accept Christ as He is revealed in His word, with a firm trust in His innocent blood and death with a regenerated, new, converted, willing, confiding and believing heart, fear Him, love Him, follow and obey Him, are delivered from the said curse, sin, death and the wrath of God.
"In the third place it is to be observed that this binding key is given to Christ's ministers and His people for the purpose that through it they shall in the power of the Spirit set forth into all earthly, carnal, self-willed and impenitent hearts their great sin, unrighteousness, blindness and wickedness, together with God's righteous wrath, judgment, punishment, hell and everlasting death, and thus render them contrite, dismayed, humble, broken, penitent, dejected and sorrowful of heart before God and little in their own eyes.
"Again, on the contrary, the key of loosing is given to the end that with it the ministers and people of Christ may direct such contrite, troubled, dejected, sorrowing and broken hearts, which through the power of the first key have been brought to feel and recognize their deep mortal wounds, their defects and sores, to the spiritual brazen serpent, to the throne of grace, to the open fountain of David, to the merciful, compassionate high priest of our only and eternal offering of reconciliation, Christ Jesus, and thus heal their perilous, malignant and deadly wounds, stripes and the bite of the infernal serpent. Therefore this key is likened in its virtue to the consoling olive branch of Noah's dove, to the salve of Gilead, etc.
"Forasmuch then, that it is clearly manifest, that Jesus Christ alone has the key of David and, to the truly, sincerely penitent unlocks heaven, looses the knot of their unrighteousness and grants forgiveness of sins; and again, as it is He who, against the impenitent carnal sinners, closes heaven, binds them under His judgment and retains their sins, and we, in His name, are nothing more than heralds, ministers and messengers who can make the divine precepts neither shorter nor longer, neither narrower nor wider than is taught us by the Spirit and commanded us by His word, as heard, therefore it is fully evident that they greatly err who in the pride of their ignorance suffer themselves to think that they have power to remit or retain the sins of any man that may have been committed against God, or who with perverse, inconsiderate minds out of carnal motives, hatred or bitterness and not purely and solely through the Spirit and Word of Christ, dare to ban or exclude any one," etc. (207; I:261).
"Therefore, my brethren, no one is cut off by us, or separated from the communion of the brethren, but those who have already either by false doctrine or by a blamable life cut themselves off and separated themselves from Christ and His church. For we desire not to exclude any one but to receive; not to cut off but to restore; not to reject but to seek; not to trouble but to console, not to condemn but to save; for such is the true nature and desire of a Christian brother. Whoever turns from evil, be it from his false doctrine or from his vain life, and conforms to the Gospel of Jesus Christ unto which he is baptized, neither shall nor can ever be excluded or cut off by any brethren.
"But those who by admonition, tears, threatening, reproof or by any other Christian service and godly means can not be raised up and restored, we should, not without great regret and grief, separate from our assembly and thus, in obedience to the doctrine and command of God's Word, exclude the evil of which the erring brethren are guilty, lest we also be led astray by the false doctrine which ever eats as a canker, (II Tim. 2:17) or be influenced by the same vain, carnal life, since the flesh is ever inclined to evil. And thus the separated brother or sister whom we can not help or convert by pleasing services, may by this means of excluding be made ashamed unto repentance (II Thess. 3) and acknowledge to what he has come and from what he is fallen. Thus the ban is a very great work of love, although by those who do not understand it, it is looked upon and considered an act of hatred" (634; II:446).
"After the offending one has been duly admonished in all love, diligence and faithfulness, the exclusion shall take place in the congregation of God with the power of Christ, that is with the binding and losing key of the divine word and of the Holy Ghost. For whenever it be practiced without the word and Spirit, without love and brotherly concern, whether it be through bitterness or anger or on the basis of a false report, not conformable to the Word, or for reasons not deserving the ban, then it is not a work of God, not a medicine to the soul, nor a fruit of pure love, but a contention of Satan, a ruin and pestilence to the conscience and an obvious fruit of the flesh; in short, "before God a curse, abomination and stench. Let every person "well weigh these words of Paul and he will through God's grace learn how strictly the exclusion is commanded in Scripture and how considerately it should with the power of the word and Spirit of Christ be practiced in the church (345b; II:131b). Menno proceeds to point out that the words of Paul, I Cor. 5:5, "To deliver such an one unto Satan" do not mean that this is done by excommunication, but in the ban announcement is made to the sinner of what has already taken place. (345b; II:131b).
Upon the accusation of Gellius Faber that the Anabaptists were quick and inconsiderate in the matter of discipline Menno replies:
"I repeat: We have extended to them the faithful service of our brotherly love from our inmost hearts by entreating and admonishing them and have patiently borne with some for one or two years expecting the best (292b; II:73).
The Swiss Brethren and the Huterites, agreed with Menno on the point that "the true reason why and to what end this separation or excommunication is so earnestly taught and commanded in the holy Scriptures, by Jesus Christ and His holy apostles, is first, for false doctrine; further for sinful carnal life; further that the transgressors may be admonished to repentance, that is to say, those who would be so admonished" (634; II:446). With equal emphasis they insisted on the need of church discipline and excommunication, but differed on the question of the avoidance of the excommunicated. (4)
(1) Hansen, Geschichte der Konfirmation, etc., p. 68.
(2) Widerloeging und verantwortung den schweitzern Gethan auf ir begeren. (Manuscript).
(3) K. Vos (Menno Simons, p. 200) asserts that those who exercised the ban were supposed to "sit in the apostles' seat;" which shows, so this author thinks, that Menno had not yet outgrown Roman Catholic ideas. In the passage to which Vos refers Menno points out that the ban is ineffective and brings only judgment upon those who exercise it "if they themselves have not the spirit of Christ, do not sit in the apostles' seat, do not act from pure motives of obedience to God's Word and of upright brotherly love" (208b; II:262b). The same author says that those who passed judgment concerning the ban, must not be church members but elders (p. 200). This assertion can not be substantiated from Menno's writings; to the contrary it is obvious that as a rule the elders and ministers counseled with the congregation in deciding such matters.
(4) A comprehensive historical work giving in full the history of church discipline and the ban among Anabaptists is in preparation.