Can you imagine going to a doctor who had never studied medicine? Or, hiring a lawyer who had never studied law? What about having a priest who had never read the Bible? Menno Simons was one such priest. He admitted in his own writings that he was ordained as a Catholic priest in the Netherlands in 1524 having never read the Scriptures themselves!
Menno Simons began having doubts, in his first two years of priesthood, about the doctrines he was teaching in the Catholic Church. The first doctrine he questioned was transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and the wine actually become the flesh and the blood of Christ), so Simons reluctantly began a study of the Bible to find if this teaching was true. He discovered that the Bible nowhere teaches transubstantiation, but that the Bible does teach salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
His study of Scripture led him to question the authority of the Church and caused him to examine Catholic doctrine in light of the Bible. He began to encourage people in his church to be baptized after they confessed faith in Christ, and not as an infant. After hearing of 300 ‘rebaptizers’ being murdered in 1535 Simons was faced with a crisis. He was safer remaining in the Catholic Church even though disagreeing with their theology, but he had to make a decision. Simons officially renounced his Catholic baptism and ordination and was rebaptized and reordained in 1537.
Simons immediately began preaching the gospel, teaching the Scriptures, and traveling extensively. His ministry was marked by constant dangers. He was labeled an enemy of the Catholic Church and Emperor Charles V. A reward was offered to anyone who might deliver him over to authorities. Most of his years of ministry were characterized by secret meetings of Christians, preaching at night only, and baptizing believers in out of the way lakes and streams. He was a man on the run. He confessed that he “could not find in all the countries a cabin or hut in which my poor wife and our little children could be put up in safety for a year or even half a year.”
Although the constant threat of danger hung over his head, Simons rejected any form of violence in accomplishing reform. He was a sincere advocate of pacifism and separation from any worldly power. His followers in Germany and the Netherlands were eventually called Mennonites.
Simons’ contribution to the Reformation is highlighted by his theological views in two key areas. The first was baptism. Simons affirmed three truths about baptism: baptism follows faith (not the other way around), infants are not capable of faith or repentance, and baptism is the public initiation of a believer into a life of discipleship. This view is very radical in a situation where rebaptizing people was punishable by death. The second area of theology that Simons contributed much was to the definition of the true church. Simons laid out 6 characteristics of a true church: pure doctrine, Biblical use of the sacraments, obedience to the Word, brotherly love, bold confession of Jesus Christ, and suffering for the sake of the cause of Christ.
As we go through this study of the Reformers, one constant theme keeps popping up in all their lives: danger. Standing for the Lord and standing upon the Scripture means you immediately become an enemy of the world. The question is: what will you do when the danger comes? Menno Simons, like the other Reformers, did not want to sacrifice conviction and truth for the sake of an easy life. Yes, Menno did what he could to stay alive and protect his family, but that did not come at the expense of his convictions.
- Pastor Mark Scialabba