It was a beautiful summer day in 1692 in rural Switzerland. The little house in the trees overlooked some of the world’s most beautiful scenery—yellow fields of ripening grain, bordered by green forests reaching far up the slopes of the towering, snow capped Swiss Alps. In fact, to an onlooker, the whole picture was an eye-catching panorama of beauty and tranquility.
But the meeting taking place inside the house reflected little of the serenity of its natural setting.
Inside the house, grim looking men sat on hard chairs placed in a circle around the walls of a plain parlor. The meeting, apparently, had not been a pleasant one. They didn’t know it, but the aftermath of that day’s discussion would impact the lives of thousands of people over the next centuries. In fact, only eternity will reveal how many people in the past 300 years have been lost because of what came out of that meeting.
It shouldn’t have turned out that way. You see, these men were ministers—leaders of Anabaptist congregations gathered in common concern for their people. The meeting had been intended to be about the apostasy and drift of the Swiss churches, but the focus had become authority.
Since this scenario has been replayed dozens of times in the intervening years, we want to examine this meeting and its context a little closer.
First of all, the bishop addressing them was a visitor, with no authority in the local setting. He had not been invited, but had come on his own accord to share his concerns. Secondly, the local bishop had refused to come to the meeting, which had been called by the visitors. Perhaps, he resented the intrusion into his territory. Perhaps, he didn’t fully agree with their concerns and this was the easiest way to avoid a conflict. Or, perhaps he was just too busy with his farm work to come to the meeting—at least this was what he told the messenger they sent to beg him to join them.
This was one reason for the grim looks on everyone’s face. The visiting bishop insisted that the group needed to take disciplinary action against the local bishop for refusing to come to the meeting. Apparently he had anticipated that this would happen because he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket, on which he had written an indictment of excommunication against his fellow bishop.
This alone would have caused the grim faces, but the visitor didn’t stop there. He went around the circle of leaders and asked them one by one whether they supported his action. Undoubtedly many of the men faced with this ultimatum wished they had done as their bishop had, and stayed home to harvest their fields. But the visitor was inexorable in his purpose. He would break down the rebellion in these Swiss congregations and he would start at the very top. This was a no-holds-barred battle. If any leader refused to support the action, or even if he just asked for more time to consider it, the visitor excommunicated him on the spot.
Naturally the room pulsated with tension and consternation, but one man was brave enough to raise the real issue. “I can’t make this decision,” he said. “I have to bring this to my congregation.”
You’re a liar,” sneered the visitor. And he excommunicated him on the spot.
The question at the heart of the above scenario was not sin in the church. It had nothing to do with apostasy and drift in the church. Rather the question was one of authority. The visiting bishop was the final authority in his group of congregations. He had the right to handle such situations according to his personal inclination, since he was God’s representative on earth.
It is possible that he didn’t know that the Swiss congregations did not give this kind of authority to their leaders. The minister who spoke up and said he needed to take the issue to his congregation was right, even though the visitor called him a liar (this is documented history). The Swiss congregations placed the final authority for such decisions in the hands of the congregation, not in the hands of a bishop or group of ministers. According to the writings of the time, the minister who faced this dilemma actually sympathized with the concerns brought by the visitor, and would have gladly worked with him to bring about a solution. It is possible that his congregation would have agreed with him in this situation.
This, of course, is an extreme illustration. But the question has been debated ever since by Anabaptists. Who is the final authority in church life? Is it the bishop? Is it a group of bishops? Is it a local bishop, along with the ministers? Or is it the entire local body of believers, the local body of Christ?
Most conservative groups would be quick to tell you that God is the authority in their congregations. Then they would add that the Bible is final authority because it is God’s revelation. Probably they would also add that the Holy Spirit is part of this because He interprets the Bible to us. Probably most would also say that they take questions to their congregations to discuss. But finally the question still exists: When it all comes down to deciding what God wants in a given situation, and there is no direct Biblical precedent, who decides? Where is the authority vested?[i]
The Dutch Anabaptists were very similar to the illustration above. For instance, it is said that most Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th centuries were excommunicated three or four times in their lifetime, generally through no fault of their own. Leaders had the habit of excommunicating entire neighboring congregations when disagreements arose. Menno Simons tended to be less harsh in his leadership than some, but his fellow bishops, Leonard Boewens and Dirk Philips, were very stringent in their use (and abuse) of excommunication. They ended up locking horns themselves, and Leonard silenced Dirk. When Leonard died, Menno Simons reinstated Dirk.
Due for the most part to such leadership tendencies, the Dutch church splintered into various groups. Most of these divisions were caused by disagreements about unimportant interpretations of various biblical principles. The deep hurts caused by them led to years of bitterness in the church experience of many innocent people. Eventually, in spite of all the strong leaders who stood strong to the end on their personal beliefs, almost all of the Dutch churches fell into apostasy. In fact they fell away much quicker than their neighbors, the Swiss Brethren.
Most of the remnant groups that laid the foundations for the American Mennonite churches came from the Swiss Brethren congregations which we mentioned earlier. These congregations faced bitter persecution for years, and eventually died out as well. But they laid the groundwork for many remnant congregations. They did this in spite of their lack of strong administrative authority and discipline, such as the Dutch practiced. They did this in spite of their lack of church districts and conference structure, which were also very important to the Dutch. They did this in spite of their belief that the entire congregation was part of the administrative authority in the church, which the Dutch did not practice.
We are often told that strong leadership authority and strong church structure, as practiced by the Dutch churches, is the only hope for the survival of our churches. According to this, the Swiss should have apostatized much sooner than the Dutch. Yet when you look at history, you see the opposite.[ii]
What Place Does Authority Have?
God’s people are the church. And even the leaders of God’s people ignore the church at their own peril. It is true that a godly leader should obey God in all things. But if He finds himself standing alone on issue after issue, then something has gone sadly amiss. Any group kept from drifting by sheer authority has already lost its way.
In fact, I would suggest that probably it would be better for a leader to temporarily allow some things in his congregation that he is not happy with, and retain the congregation’s cooperation than to become a dictator. This will give him time to share his concerns, to teach them, and to help the congregation regain conviction. As a dictator he may temporarily win the battle, but he will do so at loss of his spiritual respect.
In general, a well taught congregation that respects its leaders will honor the convictions of its leaders. If it doesn’t the leader should probably check his own heart. The problem may well start there. If he lays open his own heart to his brethren, and asks for their help in dealing first with his own problems, and then with the group’s problems, things will begin to happen.