“I can neither teach nor live by the faith of others. I must live by my own faith as the Spirit of the Lord has taught me through His Word.”
-Father Simons, November 12, 1556
Father Simons was born in 1496 in what was then the Holy Roman Empire (today Netherlands). He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1515 or 1516 and a few years later was appointed chaplain in his father’s village. Simons, however, had an intelligent and inquisitive mind that soon put him at odds with the church.
Around 1526 or 1527 his concerns about the doctrine of transubstantiation led him to an in-depth study of scripture, something he admitted that he had never really done before, even as a priest. He continued his studies and around 1531a renewed search of the scriptures left Menno Simons believing that infant baptism is not in the Bible. He discussed the issue with his pastor, searched the Church Fathers, and read the works of Martin Luther and others on the subject. While still pondering the issue, he was transferred to Witmarsum. There he came into his first direct contact with Anabaptists, preaching and practicing “believer’s baptism”.
In 1535, his brother Pieter was among a group of Anabaptists killed because of his participation in the violent takeover of a Catholic monastery known as the Oldeklooster, which had been seized at the end of March by about 300 Anabaptists of Friesland, both men and women. A little more than a week later the monastery was finally stormed after a severe battle. 300 Anabaptists were killed. Of the ones not killed in the storming, 37 were at once beheaded and 132, were taken for trial where 55 were subsequently executed.
After the death of his brother Pieter, Menno experienced a spiritual and mental crisis. He said he “prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ, He would graciously forgive my unclean walk and unprofitable life”. Menno Simons rejected the Catholic Church and the priesthood in January 1536 and soon became a well know supporter of the Anabaptist. He also rejected the faction if his brother due to the violence advocated by the that movement, believing it was not Scriptural. His theology was focused on separation from this world, and baptism by repentance symbolized this.
By 1544, he was so associated with Anabaptist theology that his first name, Menno, became synonymous with the group; and the term Mennonite or Mennist was used in a letter to refer to the Dutch Anabaptists.
So, why this discussion of the founder of the Mennonites (which would take more explanation to get a good picture of what they are today)?
Two reasons both related to the quote at the top of the page and his biography.
In reverse order, “As the Spirit of the Lord has taught me through His Word.” This is a profound point of view, even if we hear it a lot now. One of the things I tired to impress upon my students when I taught in seminary and at the community college was that the Bible is separate from your tradition of what the Bible says. It doesn’t matter whether that tradition is personal, familial, local, denominational, or cultural. No true understanding of the Bible can come without an honest effort to know what it says, setting apart what we have been told and looking for our own conclusions. Not that we rely solely only our own judgment, but we must be capable of judging both our tradition in light of Scripture and our understanding of Scripture in light of tradition. Menno did and came to some very different conclusions than the faith he had been taught.
Second, “I can neither live nor teach the faith of others.” Stop letting other people tell you what it means to be a Christian. A Christians does this or a Christian does that. I find my self struggling, frequently, on how to deal with the actions of my fellow Christians and the positions they advocate. I try to teach foundational principals rather than address specific issues when I can, avoiding the quagmire of politics that has so infected us. It can be hard, but I must remind myself to stick to my faith and let others judge their own but also not be cowed by their recalcitrance. Menno faced both a tradition, the Catholic Church, and a radical new option, his brother’s version of the Anabaptist movement, and found them both wanting in the eyes of God.
Menno lived in a time of unprecedented change within Christianity. His only recourse was deep dives into scripture and soul searching prayer.
So it ever is.