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Spring 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 1 · pp. 20–27 

An Anabaptist/Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith

Abraham Friesen


In this age of rapprochement between Evangelicals and Mennonite Brethren (MB), it has become common in Mennonite circles to speak of “Anabaptist distinctives” with respect to those issues that still divide us. 1 Increasingly, some regard the latter as adiaphora—things indifferent to the faith. Sacrificing them in order to join the mainstream of American Evangelicalism would therefore not be a significant loss, for they would be more than compensated for by the gains in numbers and cultural acceptance. Such a view may have been encouraged by the 1975 MB Confession of Faith; it may become a reality in the changes now under contemplation.

If the Anabaptists were correct that the apostles understood Christ’s Great Commission to involve obedient discipleship, our recent faith confessions may be giving up something of central importance.


When the German Mennonites began to sacrifice their “Anabaptist distinctives” in order to become part of the German “Volk” in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, they made the above argument explicit. 2 Their confession of faith, they argued, should contain those aspects “that unite us to all Christians, i.e., to the foundations of the Gospel, and then [we come] to our Mennonite distinctives (mennonitische Besonderheiten).” 3 They began to sacrifice the latter in the mid-nineteenth century, starting with nonresistance. By the time Hitler appeared on the scene they had even begun to criticize their Anabaptist forefathers {21} because of these “mennonitische Besonderheiten” in order to become an accepted part of the new political order. 4 The German Mennonite experience of this past century demonstrates only too clearly the slippery slope we begin to tread upon once we have embarked upon this path.

Through the research for my recently published study, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission, and my forthcoming major essay on “Menno Simons and the Beginnings of Dutch Anabaptism,” 5 I have arrived at very different conclusions with respect to these so-called “Anabaptist distinctives.” I no longer regard them as “distinctives” but as an integral part of the Anabaptist position, the heart of which I have found reflected in a whole host of Anabaptist/Mennonite confessions of faith—even the 1902 MB Confession of Faith. As a result, I have come to regard the latter confession as superior, perhaps far superior, to any that have followed or are in the making.

At the birth of the MB Church in 1860 there appear to have been at least two non-Mennonite influences present: the evangelical Pietism of an Eduard Wüst, and the German Baptist influence of an August Liebig and a J. G. Oncken. P. M. Friesen tended to downplay the latter, asserting that the confluence of evangelical Pietism and Menno Simons’ theology—which he described as “very serious [and] somewhat melancholy”—had formed an “apostolic balance.” 6 But he failed to give the same importance to an ostensible Baptist influence, for example as manifested in Abraham Unger’s 1876 confession of faith. 7


If these forces were indeed at work within the emerging MB Church after 1860, by the time the MBs came to write their “official” 1902 confession of faith, these influences were not in evidence, at least not in the confession. The writing of that confession appears to have coincided with an awakening interest in Anabaptist/Mennonite history in Russian Mennonite circles and may have been influenced by it. It is an interest that is clearly reflected in an 1897 letter from a young Russian MB student at the Hamburg-Horn German Baptist seminary, Heinrich J. Braun, to Ludwig Keller, author of a number of books on Anabaptist history. 8 There Braun wrote:

It is my goal, while in Germany, to learn as much as possible about the historical origins of the Mennonites. Since you have written so extensively on the Reformation era, I would very much like to be in possession of your books. But I am not in a position to purchase them. So I come to you with this request: Most honored Herr Keller, would you be so {22} generous and kind as to send me the following of your books . . . 9

Many another young Russian Mennonite studied in Germany or Switzerland during these and subsequent years. They too must have pursued an interest in Anabaptist/Mennonite history. This interest is reflected in the increasing number of articles on Anabaptist and related subjects in the periodicals Friedensstimme and Botschafter. In the MB Church, of which young Braun was to become a prominent leader, this searching interest bore fruit in the 1902 confession of faith.

Though there is no historical preface to this 1902 confession of faith—it almost immediately begins with a statement about God—

Menno is referred to in the section dealing with Christ. The reference is not taken directly from his works, however, but from an earlier Mennonite confession of faith. Apparently the MBs modeled this confession on such earlier Anabaptist/Mennonite confessions. They obviously saw no contradictions between what they believed and what was contained in these earlier confessions; their quarrel was with the nonobservance of what was contained in them.


A little later, with reference to the Holy Spirit, they cite Menno twice, both times from a German translation of his complete works, probably the 1870 edition by John F. Funk. Again they cite Menno on regeneration and sanctification, on the election of ministers, and then also on baptism. It is this latter passage that is of critical importance; it was drawn directly from the section on baptism in Menno’s “Foundation of Christian Doctrine.” The passage reads:

47. The practice of baptism consists in this, that all that hear the Gospel and in repentance of heart and living faith accept it, on their confession of a new life from God (Col. 2:12-13) are baptized (immersed) in water according to the command of Christ: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world. Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; John 3:22. {23}

48. This command of the Lord the apostles have carried out and thereby many have been brought into the faith and have been baptized, both men and women, as especially on the day of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, {24} on the day of Pentecost at Jerusalem [Acts 2]. And they which gladly received the words of Peter and the other apostles were baptized; and the same day were added unto them about three thousand souls. Acts chapters 2, 8, 10, 19 . . .

51. The believers are bound together through baptism as having died unto sin to walk in newness of life as taught by the apostle Paul [Rom. 6:4]: How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? . . . They shall carefully guard the holy privileges of divine citizenship and duties received of Christ their head and be subject to all the commandments of their King and obedient to them according to His Word: Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you. Matt. 28:20, etc. 10


Why, the reader may well ask, does the author consider this passage so important? First, because Christ’s Great Commission—as given in Matt. 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16—became the locus classicus for the Anabaptist argument in favor of believers baptism in the age of the Reformation. Repeatedly these texts—as in the above confession of faith—stand at the outset of the Anabaptist justification for believers baptism.

But there is more. The Great Commission, secondly, consists of some very terse statements which beg to be explained and elaborated upon. For example, what was one to teach at the very outset of this ministry? And should baptism follow such teaching? And why had Christ, at the end—at least in the Matthean version—spoken of a second kind of teaching? This was “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”

We cannot here deal with the intellectual source of this Anabaptist interpretation. 11 But this much needs to be said: The passage in the confession immediately following the quotation of Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16 gives us the clue to how the Anabaptists interpreted Christ’s Great Commission. That passage reads: “This command [the Great Commission] of the Lord the apostles have carried out . . .” Where? “. . . especially on the day of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost at Jerusalem.” What is it that the Anabaptists are doing here? They are interpreting Christ’s Great Commission through the baptismal texts in Acts (2, 8, 10, 19), but especially through Peter’s Pentecost sermon. 12 For it was on that Pentecost day that Peter had carried out this command of the Lord.

How did he do it? Peter began by telling his listeners who Christ, whom they had just crucified, really was. The first teaching, then, the teaching that was to take place before baptism, had to do with the proclamation of the Gospel, the “good news,” and dealt specifically with Christ. This is repeated throughout the book of Acts.

The emphasis on Christ becomes even more clearly evident in the Acts 8 text where Philip is asked by the Ethiopian eunuch who it was that the prophet Isaiah was speaking of in chapter 53. Acts 8:35 says: “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” But the preaching about Christ of necessity must elicit a response from the hearers—as it did both in Acts 2 and from the Ethiopian eunuch. That response led to either an acceptance or a rejection of Christ; the former—acceptance—led to repentance and conversion.

Only after one had accepted the risen Christ as Savior, repented of one’s sins, and was ready to follow Christ, was baptism in order. Peter’s Pentecost sermon made this sequence very clear. It was even clearer in Acts 8 where the eunuch, after hearing Philip expound on Christ, asks to be baptized. Philip responds, “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.” The eunuch answers, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” The proclamation of the good news of the Gospel, faith in it, and repentance of past sins had therefore to precede baptism. Infant baptism was therefore wrong and believers baptism the only biblical form of baptism.


But there was still Matthew 28:20: “Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” This was a different kind of teaching than that which had preceded faith, repentance, and baptism. This was a teaching of obedience to Christ’s commands—to Christian discipleship. Anabaptism’s emphasis on Christian discipleship therefore fits into this larger Anabaptist interpretation of the Great Commission and is possible only if the previous three stages have been accomplished.

To be a disciple of Christ is possible only if what Paul says in Romans 6:4 is true—that we have died to sin and been raised to newness of life. For that is what baptism symbolizes. Discipleship, therefore, does {25} not deal with “Anabaptist distinctives,” with “mennonitische Besonderheiten.” It is an integral part of Christ’s Great Commission, and it entails keeping “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” These are not Anabaptist “options.” They are commands of Christ that we are to obey.

It is for the above reasons that the 1902 confession reads:

As true members of the household of God and children of the kingdom, they [the baptized] shall carefully guard the holy privileges of divine citizenship and duties received of Christ their head and be subject to all commands of their King and obedient to them according to His Word: Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded to you. Matt. 28:20.

This interpretation, present in virtually every major sixteenth-century Anabaptist writer, is especially clearly laid out in Menno’s “Foundations of Christian Doctrine” in the passages dealing with baptism. And, like the 1902 MB Confession of Faith, it is the passage on baptism where this configuration is invariably found. Whether the framers of the 1902 MB Confession of Faith took it directly from Menno, or whether they found it elsewhere—perhaps in other Anabaptist/Mennonite confessions of faith—their confession very clearly reflected the Anabaptist, and especially Menno’s, position on this central aspect of Anabaptist theology.


Added to this Anabaptist interpretation of the Great Commission through Peter’s Pentecost sermon, came an emphasis on missions. Of all the Reformation groups, the Anabaptists alone went out—all of them, not only the professional preachers—to win others for Christ. And they justified this, even against the condemnation of the state and its church, by quoting Christ’s words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” This earth was not the possession of kings and princes, not even the possession of the pope and church: it belonged to God and his Christ. And the Anabaptists were commanded in the introduction to this passage, which became so centrally important to them, to reclaim it for Christ! And they tried.

But their reward was persecution and martyrdom. As the early MB Church recovered this vision and this emphasis on the Great Commission, did it not also recover an emphasis on missions? If not from here, then from where? From within this context comes also Menno’s emphasis on the centrality of Christ, when he repeatedly uses 1 Corinthians 3:11 as his motto: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one {26} already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” From this passage and his own experiences comes his emphasis on repentance and regeneration, his powerful defense of believers baptism, and his tireless attempt to teach all believers to become Christ’s disciples—to teach them to obey everything Christ had commanded.

Menno himself was a tireless missionary, seeking to win the lost, the stray and the fainthearted. He wrote, he preached, he admonished and withal had no place to lay his head until late in life. And somehow between 1860 and 1902 the leaders of the MB Church in Russia appear not only to have recovered what he taught, but to have renewed within their community what he lived. Very few in the sixteenth century would exemplify the veracity of Christ’s following statement more fully than Menno: “Whosoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”


If one now turns to the 1975 revision of this confession of faith, one finds not only that all but one reference to Menno have been removed; one also finds that this unique interpretation of Christ’s Great Commission has been lost. And with this loss comes a concomitant loss of the Anabaptist position as an organic whole where Christian discipleship is an integrated part of the process of becoming a Christian. That makes any talk of “Anabaptist distinctives” un-Anabaptist; it is based on a faulty understanding of what they were all about.

The only reference to Menno and the Anabaptists in the 1975 confession of faith comes in the preface. There one reads:

Our forefathers agreed with Menno, after whom Mennonites are named, that “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). Numerous confessions in the Anabaptist tradition were used in the preparation of the first Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith.

One must ask at this point whether our theologians did us a service in 1975. How about in 1998? Did they not know that the Anabaptist interpretation of Christ’s Great Commission through the baptismal passages of Acts—and especially Peter’s Pentecost sermon—is absolutely unique? And that by removing all substantive references to Menno and this Anabaptist interpretation they lost the context within which Anabaptists thought theologically?

If the Anabaptists were correct in their belief that Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, demonstrated how he and the other apostles interpreted {27} Christ’s last will and testament, and if that interpretation was recovered only by the Anabaptists, has not the 1975 MB Confession of Faith—and by implication also the latest revision—given up something of central importance? Perhaps it is time that theologians allow their theology to be informed by the historian!


  1. I was struck by the pervasive use of the term “Anabaptist distinctives” again at a recent conference on Mennonites in North America. It is a term apparently used by all Mennonite groups. But I do believe it is not Anabaptist. I hope in the near future to discuss the problem of Anabaptist/Mennonite confessions at greater length.
  2. See Hans-Juergen Goertz, “Nationale Erhebung und religiöser Niedergang. Miszglückte Aneignung der täuferischen Leitbildes im Dritten Reich,” in Umstrittenes Täufertum 1525-1975: Neue Forschungen, ed. Hans-Juergen Goertz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1975), 267-268.
  3. Ibid., 268.
  4. Ibid., 276-280.
  5. Abraham Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); idem, “Menno Simons and the Beginnings of Dutch Anabaptism,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 1998.
  6. P. M. Friesen, The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910) (Winnipeg: Christian, 1978), 212.
  7. Glaubens-Bekenntniss und Verfassung der gläubiggetauften und vereinigten Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde im Südlichen Russland (Einlage, 1876).
  8. On Keller, see my History and Renewal in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1994).
  9. Ibid., 1.
  10. Confession of Faith of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America (Hillsboro, KS: MB Publishing House, 1917), 12.
  11. See my Erasmus for a full discussion.
  12. All of these Acts passages deal with baptism. And they are cited in this fashion in virtually all Anabaptist writings. These cite Matt. 28:18-20, along with Mark 16:15-16, at the outset. Then to show how these passages were interpreted, they cite Acts 2, 8, 10 and 19. On occasion they will also cite Acts 9, the conversion and baptism of Saul.
Abraham Friesen is professor of Renaissance and Reformation History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Chair of the Historical Commission of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

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