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Anabaptist Spirituality and Nachfolge Christi Belief

The Anabaptist belief in the Nachfolge Christi or “Bitter Christ" developed early in the radical Reformation movement and strongly influenced the Anabaptist approach to spirituality and their way of life.  The Nachfolge Christi concept emphasized the suffering of Christ not as a remote event that occurred in the distant past, but as a continuous process that all followers of Christ should embrace. In order to actualize this concept, the Anabaptists practiced self-abandonment in all aspects of their lives, which led to a passive surrender to dangers such as persecution and martyrdomAnabaptist Spirituality and Nachfolge Christi BeliefAs a result, the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century developed a high regard for individuals who visibly suffered for the sake of their beliefs, creating what can be viewed as theology of martyrdom martyrs that was part of the covenantal bond holding the congregations together. Because of the decentralized nature of the Anabaptist movement, the Nachfolge Christi received different interpretations by spiritual leaders and believers, which led to variable emphasis on the elements of discipleship and martyrdom implicit in the concept.

The Nachfolge Christi Belief

The term Nachfolge Christi translates as the discipleship of Christ, with the emphasis on the bitterness of Christ’s suffering.  This focus on suffering became embedded in the term through the various interpretations of the meaning of discipleship provided by Anabaptist theologians during the course of the sixteenth century.  The Nachfolge Christi concept is not precisely defined in Anabaptist belief, largely due to the large number of interpreters of the concept and the absence commonly agreed upon foundational theological writings.  The concept implies that discipleship is based on a degree of solidarity in suffering between Christ and his believers, the necessity for believers to abandon the self in order to achieve solidarity, and the need to live the Christian life as mirrored in the gospels.  In effect, the reenactment of the suffering of Christ on Calvary was seen as an ongoing process that included the daily struggle to abandon the self as well as the more direct tribulation of persecution to the point of martyrdom. Believers could not find true discipleship unless they fully embraced the abandonment of the self and joined with Christ in redemptive suffering.  To a large degree, the Nachfolge Christi belief was an extension of the traditional mysticism of the High Middle Ages, which emphasized surrender to the will of God and the transitory nature of life on earth.

The Anabaptist Movement Gains Strength

In the 1520s as the Anabaptist movement was gaining strength, the spiritual branch of the movement espoused the suffering aspect of the discipleship concept and sought to define its practical implications for believers through the development of a theology of martyrdom. The spiritualistic Anabaptists such as Hans Denck and Hans Hut who were active in Switzerland and southern Germany in the 1520s contended that there were three types of baptism, one of the spirit, one of water and one of suffering, all of which served to help the individual emulate Christ.  These theologians practiced Luther’s doctrine of Faith Alone to an extreme, holding that the inner word or enlightenment was central, which became common among all Anabaptists.  In addition, however, they believed that the Parousia was imminent, with Christ returning at any moment to judge sinners and vindicate the righteous. They also placed a strong emphasis on the merit of immediate suffering, emulating Christ to the point of martyrdom for the sake of their beliefs.  To a large degree, the belief system developed by the spiritualists was emotional rather than intellectual, with little effort made to promulgate their doctrines in writing.  Nonetheless, the spiritualist Anabaptists formally and concisely articulated their beliefs at the Martyr’s Synod held in Augsburg in 1527, so called because only two of the 60 delegates were still alive five years later. 

From the perspective of the spiritualist Anabaptists, martyrdom was the path that the people who followed God had taken throughout history.  They believed:

  • Anabaptists were heirs to the martyr tradition.
  • It was their fate and duty to follow the path of martyrdom. 
  • To reinforce the connection between the Anabaptist martyrs of the sixteenth century and the martyrs of the past, written and spoken accounts of martyrs generally progressed linearly from ancient martyrs to conclude with present day martyrs. 
  • The theology of martyrdom as it developed during the period emphasized the apocalyptic nature of the process.
  • The end of the world and the final judgment would take place very soon.

It is from this context that the Anabaptists derived their position that martyrdom itself was a kind of baptism that occurred by following the word of Christ even if it led to torment and death.  The physical baptism that occurred when a person accepted the faith was viewed as a preparatory washing for eventual martyrdom. This is evidenced by the verse in the Martyrs’ Mirror, a book that describes the persecution of Anabaptists between 1524 and 1660, which states: “Sanctify, baptism will indeed, But the martyr’s crown doth all complete.”  Thus, the baptism of water was only a prelude and a manifestation that the individual was resigned to the suffering that submitting to the will of God would bring.

To some degree, the development of the Discipline of the Nachfolge Christi concept helped to define the doctrinal boundaries of the Anabaptist movement, which separated it from the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches formed during the reformation.  While the concept of Christianity as discipleship was not an innovation, the interpretation of the Anabaptists of discipleship as a continuous process of reenacting the suffering of Christ was somewhat different than the tenets of competing Christian doctrines.  In addition, the ethic of love and nonresistance implicit in the Nachfolge Christi was somewhat novel in the context of the Reformation era, although it was part of existing tradition regarding the behavior of early Christians.   As a result, the discipleship advocated by Anabaptists included both a change in the way of life and a change in the approach to spirituality. 

The more moderate approach to Nachfolge Christi was to some degree an attempt to develop a separate economy based on Christian values. Because non-believers were not truly disciples of Christ, their politics and economies were viewed as inherently evil.  In addition, Christ had set his followers apart and told them to expect to suffer for his sake.  Although the dictates of the Gospel suggested that believers were subject to the authority of a non-believing government, the Anabaptist interpretation of the Gospel indicated that they should conform only to moral decisions made by the government.  As a result, this interpretation of discipleship emphasized separation, pacifism, and resistance to taxation.  When this resulted in suffering due to poverty or force emigration, it was regarded as the necessary consequences of following Christ.

The Nachfolge Christi concept that emphasized the suffering of Christ was instrumental in encouraging early Anabaptists to passively and even hopefully accept martyrdom.  While interpretations of the concept suggested that discipleship could be achieved by accepting the more mundane sufferings of every day life as a demonstration of solidarity with Christ, they generally indicated that martyrdom was a more perfect type of suffering. As a result, the first century of the Anabaptist movement produced a significant number of martyrs, who were viewed by later Anabaptists as examples of how the concept of discipleship should be lived.

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