Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: October 1987

October 1987

A Mennonite Response to Paul C. Fox

Since I myself am a Mennonite, one of that group of denominations usually considered “Anabaptist,” I immediately read Paul C. Fox’s letter (“An Anabaptist View,” July-Aug.). I agree with him that the Rev. Peter E. Gillquist’s comments are “stimulating.” As to whether they are also “disturbing,” I suppose that depends on one’s presuppositions. Certainly Gillquist’s pilgrimage from para-church evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy reveals how many different ways the argument that we ought to get back to the “true church” (which Fox himself agrees with) can be read.

But Fox ignores the basic truth which Gillquist and his fellow converts discovered, and which fundamentally contradicts the Anabaptist interpretation of history. What Gillquist discovered is that there is no fundamental discontinuity between the apostolic church and the church of the fathers.

Fox claims that after the “first four or five centuries” the church apostatized from its first purity. But his examples belie that. Neither use of the sword nor infant baptism is necessarily “essentially opposed to the teachings of Christ, the Apostles, and the earliest Fathers” (emphasis added).

The real kicker in the list is the last: “the earliest Fathers.” St. Ignatius, martyred just after the beginning of the second century, clearly advocates the episcopal-sacramental system which is at the heart of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox positions. Clement of Rome, who is even earlier, also clearly supports a hierarchical form of church government.

So, Mr. Fox, when exactly did this alleged apostasy take place? Can you date it? Can you even, perhaps, time it? The only reason your Anabaptist hypothesis emerges every now and then is because it has rarely been subjected to rigorous logical and historical scrutiny.

The facts can be summarized as follows. With the fall of Jerusalem, any attempt to hold the “Jesus movement” within Palestinian Judaism collapsed. Paulinian, Rome-centered “orthodoxy” became the norm. This Paulinian “Chistianity,” (as distinct from a “Jesus movement”) quickly developed into the hierarchical and sacramental faith expressed by Clement and Ignatius (and Justin Martyr and Polycarp and “the Didache” and Irenaeus – did I miss any of the major “earliest Fathers”?). This sacramental faith, particularly as embodied in the Eucharistic Liturgy, developed into the ecclesiastical system which “conquered” the Roman Empire.

By the time Constantine came along (the Great Apostate in the Anabaptist demonology), it was only a matter of time before the Empire and the Church became one. The Diocletian persecutions had failed to destroy the Church; the persecutions might have destroyed the unity of the Empire if they had been continued. Some emperor would have eventually recognized the Church.

Further, since separation of church and state is a modern innovation, it was but a short step from toleration to establishment. Even an evangelical reference work acknowledges that once Constantine became a Christian, the establishment of Christianity was “inevitable” (The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v., “Constantine”).

Finally, the Church hailed Constantine’s conversion as its deliverance from the Diocletian persecutions, particularly in the East (which had been ruled by Constantine’s rivals). So I repeat: exactly where did this alleged apostasy take place?

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am firmly committed to a nonresistant lifestyle, which is the expression of following Jesus to the Cross. That usually (99 percent of the time), but no: absolutely, implies abjuration of the use of the sword. The key is that nonresistance is following Jesus as Lord, not an ideologies commitment to pacifism.

I also appreciate my own tradition’s insistence that Christian commitment be voluntary and mature. But it fails to realize that such commitment comes because God’s grace calls and comes first – even, perhaps, to a newly born infant.

Finally, Fox’s closing statement that “the Orthodox Church is…where the poor in spirit have repented and believed” (as interpreted by his earlier comment that “the true Church…is never…found in positions of power”) is a contradiction in terms. “Orthodoxy” (a term Fox embraces) is by definition a “power” word. It implies that there is an authoritative church, with an authoritative embodiment of Truth, expressed in Liturgy and Dogma.

That is why Gillquist ended up with the Eastern Church. He was looking for an authoritative, orthodox church, and he naturally found it in Eastern Orthodoxy. His conclusion was consistent with his premises.

If Fox disagrees with that notion of what “Church” is, that is, on at least one level, his privilege. But he cannot do it with the premise that there is some Church which is “Orthodox” and “true” (another “power” word). If the Church is always powerless and suffering, then he cannot appeal to either the Apostles or (even less) the Fathers (witness the struggle for power between Paul and many of the Jewish, Jerusalem-centered Christians).

He might be able to do it with Jesus (the man, with motivations like us), who was probably an idealistic fellow. But he cannot appeal to “Christ,” God Incarnate, Resurrected Lord of All Creation.

Furthermore, I would very much like to see this “powerless” Church in flesh and blood terms. For example, in my own Mennonite denomination, there is presently a struggle for power between the traditional or conservative elements (more revivalist-evangelicabpand the progressive elites (who are “Anabaptists”!).

Many of the very conservative elements have long since left the denomination, believing (quite rightly, in my judgment) that their agrarian, traditionalist life style is no longer appreciated and valued by young, sophisticated, cosmopolitan intellectual radicals. In essence, “Anabaptists” use “power” too!

The reader may be curious where I myself end up. I am committed to the Universal Church, the Church of every era, including the Church of Constantine, and the (often corrupt) Church of the Middle Ages. But then, who am I to judge? We are all often unfaithful. Why judge others when their efforts to be faithful to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can illuminate mine? “Who are you to pass judgment on someone else’s servant? Whether he stands or falls is his own Master’s business; and stand he will because his Master has power to enable him to stand” (Rom. 14:4).

But on the other hand, my Anabaptist heritage, and specifically its critique of Constantinianism, helps me to be clearheaded and critical about the power games we all play. They are inevitable, but they must also be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. (Even this letter is a power game, since it expresses my own alienation from – a separation from the power of – the “Anabaptist” elites.)

In the end, I see no way to escape from the ambiguity of the necessity of using power. And I don’t see that Fox’s rigorist (note his appeal to Donatus) approach finally solves anything. Sure, the Church has often failed to live up to the purity of the Gospel. But that criticism applies even to the Church of the New Testament. If Fox wants a perfect Church, he is going to have to wait for Heaven. But I suspect he will discover that the Bride of Christ is the same Church which he spent all of his time and energy criticizing while here on earth.

David Wayne Layman

Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania

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