When I first became a Christian while in elementary school (though not yet a follower of Christ), I began attending a Pentecostal church. Why? Because it was the closest church within walking distance of my home, and it was the one that my dad (not yet a believer himself), chose for us to go to. So, growing up seeing people speaking in tongues, or falling on the floor “slain in the Spirit“, or just sitting and crying because of conviction (though I never experienced these latter two myself) were all a normal part of Christianity to me. In my area in Southern Ontario there were also a lot of Old Order Mennonites, similar to (but even stricter than) the Hutterites here in Manitoba.
Anyway, fast forward a few decades, and you find me attending a Christian and Missionary Alliance church (Winnipeg Chinese Alliance) for the last eight years, and a Mennonite Bible school (Canadian Mennonite University). Fast forward to today, and I’m working at a Baptist General Conference church. So needless to say, without even considering my reading habits (with a healthy dose of Catholic saints/mystics and Orthodox ancients) I’ve had a fairly diverse Christian life*.
Near the end of my time at CMU they had a great sale in their bookstore, and one of the books I picked up on the cheap was Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith, from the “Classics of the Radical Reformation” series (and incidentally translated & edited by one of my profs, John J. Friesen). It’s not a book I would’ve searched for, and not normally the type of book I read, but I thought it would be interesting – and I was right!
Since this morning I finished the book, I thought I’d give a brief review here.
But first, some basics: Peter Riedemann was a disciple of Jakob Hutter and an early missionary for and leader in the communalist Anabaptist Hutterites. He wrote Confession of Faith while in prison between 1540-1542, and it has survived to this day as a key document for practicing Hutterites the world over.
While this edition of the book is abundantly blessed with notes, histories, indexes, maps, and the like, the document itself is divided into two main sections: Part 1 is the confession of their faith, and Part 2 is on why they separate themselves from the rest of society.
Part 1, titled “Now Follows the Confession of Our Faith, Teaching, and Way of Life,” is a series of short treatises on various Hutterite beliefs and practices ranging from the Apostle’s Creed to Baptism, sin, the community of goods , and even shaking hands and embracing. For me this was the more interesting of the two parts, and I found myself overall surprised at how ‘evangelical’ the teaching is. They affirm the Apostle’s Creed, have orthodox views on the Trinity, Jesus as both fully God and fully human, and the like. I continually found myself being encouraged and energized as I read this section. I was also surprised to learn that they baptized through sprinkling (as opposed to full submersion), and that Riedemann often referenced the Apocrypha (though I think it safe to assume that most if not all of the Reformers, Anabaptists and Radical Anabaptists did at the time). While I enjoyed it overall immensely, two of the standout chapters from this section for me (though for different reasons) were the chapters The Community of Goods, and Marriage.
The Community of Goods deals with not owning anything individually (or at least, not considering anything actually individually owned as “owned” by the individual), but like the Early Church, holding all things in common. Riedemann writes
“All believers have fellowship in holy things, that is, in God**. He has given them all things in his Son, Christ Jesus. Just as Christ has nothing for himself, since all he has is for us, so too, no members of Christ’s body should possess any gift for themselves or for their own sake. Instead, all should be consecrate for the whole body, for all the members. This is so because Christ did not bring his gifts for one individual or the other, but for everyone, for the whole body.”
He goes on to talk about how these gifts are not just spiritual, but include temporal and material gifts too. While I’ve always been attracted to communal living (or something like it in a modern context), or even just opening my home to strangers in need (and not just merely giving them money on the street), I find myself too attached to my belongings, something Riedemann warns against when he says “The more a person is attached to property and claims ownership of things, the further away he is from fellowship of Christ and from being in the image of God.” -Ah! Cuts to my heart, because I believe he’s right.
Marriage, according to Riedemann, is an extremely spiritual thing, and so he spiritualizes it in a way that is very foreign to me. He describes three stages of marriage (God to soul, spirit to body, and one person to another), and counts marriage between a man and woman to be the lowest of the three stages. This is because everyone can see it, and it’s meant to point us to God. He goes on to propound a thoroughly ‘hard’ complementarian view of marriage, saying things like when a women fails to look up to her husband and seek his counsel in all things, “she rejects her God-given place in the order of Creation and encroaches upon the lordship of her husband” and that the husband “as one in whom something of God’s glory is seen, should have compassion on the woman as the weaker instrument.” Interestingly, failure in either of these is considered adultery. As someone wavering between soft complementarianism and soft egalitarianism, I found this chapter rubbing me a bit the wrong way, and generally confusing.
Part 2, titled “The God of Grace and His Separated People” deals with why Hutterites live in colonies separate from the rest of society.
These chapters were quite a bit longer than the previous ones, and quite a bit more tedious to read. I think I can fairly sum up this section by saying ‘God separated the Israelites from other nations in the Old Testament, so we’re doing it too.’ At least, that’s all Riedemann seemed to be saying, multiple times and in various ways. He writes
“When God the Almighty in his grace wished to show that he had pleasure in the faithful but not in the unfaithful, he separated for himself one people from all other peoples, one people in whom he was pleased… Here it is clear that God does not want his people to associate with the heathen in their disorderly conduct, nor to take part in their ceremonies, nor to go to the places where they practice idolatry. What the heathen seek is different from what the faithful seek.”
Makes me wonder how they interpret Jesus in the New Testament, what with him being charged with associating with drunkards and having prostitutes touch him! But of course Riedemann is right, Christians need to be separate from the world; I just prefer Jesus’ take on it – “in, but not of” (see John 17: 14-19).
But Riedemann goes on to discuss non-Hutterite churches as being both in and of the world. He uses much stricter language than this even, using terms such as “so-called Christians,” “deluded people,” and “deceived and corrupted” (along with the usual “heathen”). While most of it is directed towards the Catholic church, as one would expect for that time and place, he gives a specific shout-out to the Lutherans. He says of them
“They continually profess to love and serve God and yet will not give up evil, sinful practices and the whole service of the devil. They continue that way from generation to generation; as their fathers did, so do they, and even worse. John clearly states in what way they walk in the truth! (1 John 2:4; 4:20)”
This isn’t modern Lutheranism, mind you, but Riedemann is writing this a mere 20 years after Martin Luther’s excommunication in 1521.
This exclusivity to truth really frustrated me, and whenever I hear it coming from people in the modern Church I get upset (for example the whole Strange Fire debacle got me pretty worked up). Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about “universal truth”, but when one Christian sect, denomination, or stream (to use Foster’s term) claims that they have the “right” truth and all other Christians are wrong (Protestants vs. Catholics are a typical example of this), that sends up red flags right away. But maybe this is my post-modern side coming out.
I enjoyed reading this book overall, and it made me want to be more disciplined with the time, resources, and gifts that God has blessed me with, and to keep digging in to the scriptures regarding how followers of Christ should live while in this world. I learned a good deal about Hutterite beliefs and practices, and would love to visit a colony to see how they practice these today. According to the above map, living in Manitoba this shouldn’t be a problem.
It’s easy to see why this is an important document in the history of the Western Church, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself referring back to it from time to time.
*I highly recommend Richard Foster’s “Streams Of Living Water: Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of Christian Faith”
**I’ve omitted the copious Biblical references in quotes, since Riedemann has them almost every sentence, sometimes multiple times.