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2014-03-01 issue:

Dutch Mennonites and unity of the Spirit

Global Anabaptism

by John D. Roth

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In the summer of 1660, leaders of various Mennonite churches in the Netherlands met in Leiden to discuss a theological controversy over the nature of the church. Several years prior, two young ministers from Amsterdam, Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan and David Spruyt, had presented a statement to their co-ministers denying that any church could claim to be the "true" church of God.

Moreover, they argued vigorously that no one's conscience could be bound by the authority of a church office—whose bearers were fallible human beings—or by doctrines formulated by humans or by a church discipline that was always administered by humans. The conference convened to address the matter, led by Thielemann Jansz von Braght, disagreed with de Haan and Spruyt, declaring they should retract their claims or be removed from their ministries.

The men refused to do either. In the next decade, the widening rift between the two sides found expression in a bitter, public exchange of polemical tracts that onlookers from the Reformed Church derisively labeled "The War of the Lambs."

In the midst of the painful controversy, however, word reached the church in the Netherlands that the Swiss Brethren—spiritual cousins of the Dutch Mennonites, living in villages around the cities of Zurich and Bern in Switzerland—were facing a new wave of persecution.

In many respects, the Swiss Brethren differed sharply from their Dutch counterparts: whereas the Dutch were largely urban, wealthy, highly educated and skilled in the arts of rhetorical exchange, the Swiss Brethren were an agrarian people, led by an unschooled, unpaid lay ministry, living at the very margins of Swiss society. The two groups spoke different languages, had different histories and differing theological orientations.

Yet despite these differences—and despite their own internal controversies—the churches in the Netherlands joined in their support for their sisters and brothers in the faith. Ministers in various congregations began to communicate directly with the Swiss Brethren through letters and personal visits, learning more about their unjust imprisonment and impoverished conditions.

Throughout the 1660s, Dutch Mennonite leaders interceded with Swiss authorities, arguing vigorously for religious toleration. In 1672, the Dutch churches took up a formal collection to provide financial assistance to refugees who had been forced to flee to the Palatinate. In the decades that followed, congregations in the Netherlands joined to form a Committee on Foreign Needs to channel their support to brothers and sisters beyond their borders, who they barely knew.

In the meantime, the theological controversies in the Netherlands continued. To the end of his life, de Haan insisted that unity in the church could be grounded only on the unity of the Spirit, not on a formal confession of faith or a fixed list of moral principles. And from the broad perspective of Dutch Mennonite history, his was the voice that eventually prevailed. When most of the various branches of the Dutch Mennonite church merged in 1811, the basis of the union was a general appeal to the unity of the Spirit and the explicit assurance that "every congregation kept its freedom to make such decisions about doctrine as it wished, without the right to bind others to their convictions."

The Mennonite church in North America today is facing a host of significant challenges. The impulse toward division and toward more congregational forms of polity could easily incline us to turn inward, focusing our primary energy on our own local issues and particular identities. Yet we know that we are also connected to a global fellowship. We are part of a larger Anabaptist-Mennonite body that includes groups who speak other languages, embrace distinctive cultures, enjoy their own worship styles and express their faith in unique ways. Moreover, many of those brothers and sisters are living in settings of political instability and economic insecurity.

In July 2015, our churches will host the 16th global assembly of Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, Pa. Indeed, preparations for "Pennsylvania 2015" are well underway. Meanwhile, the issues we are facing within Mennonite Church USA cannot be ignored. But even amid our differences, might it be possible for us, like the Dutch Mennonites three centuries earlier, to join in a generous and full-hearted support of brothers and sisters from around the world who need our support?

As you prepare church budgets for the coming year, and as you plan your family vacations and personal giving, please consider the work of Mennonite World Conference and how you might contribute to the well-being of our global family of faith.

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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