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Fall 2007 · Vol. 36 No. 2 · pp. 247–57 

Anabaptist Liturgy: Sacramental Theology

Michelle Ferguson

In “Anabaptist Liturgy: An Oxymoron?” 1 I set out to make space for the idea of liturgy within Anabaptist/Mennonite church practice. Though some may wonder if the very terms “Anabaptist” and “liturgy” are oxymoronic, I suggest and have been encouraged by others that Anabaptism needs a robust understanding of liturgy so that it can shape and nurture present and future communities of Anabaptists living out an Anabaptist way of being for others.

The Eucharist has been an area of special interest for me, and I am convinced it is the sacrament by which Mennonites can recapture their Anabaptist vision of church and explore ways of living it out.

I imagine Anabaptist liturgy as embodied storytelling: the Gospel is our story, and we tell it with an Anabaptist voice. Our voice is our particular ecclesiology which speaks of “a community of brothers and sisters in faith who have voluntarily committed themselves wholly to a radical life of discipleship.” 2 As Anabaptists we submit our lives to be shaped by the biblical story so that we may live and usher others into the Kingdom of God. For us liturgy can be the embodiment of that story.


An exploration toward an Anabaptist liturgy cannot proceed without discussing sacrament. During the first millennium of the church, the term was applied broadly. Augustine defined “sacrament” as the “visible form of invisible grace” or “a sign of a sacred thing.” And several rites came to be known as “sacraments,” yet it was not until the councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1545-63) that the list of seven sacraments was formally accepted. Those sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Matrimony. 3 During the Protestant Reformation, Luther brought the list down to two, seeing no scriptural basis for the other five: his list included Baptism and Eucharist. 4 Early on, sixteenth century Anabaptist writers did not shy away from the use of “sacrament;” however, the preferred terms became “ceremony” and “ordinance,” the latter being the term favored by Mennonites in recent years.

I believe our use of “ordinance” hinders a move toward imagining an Anabaptist liturgy. An ordinance must be observed because it was commanded: thus, we observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper because Jesus told us to. Three concerns arise here. First, the language used in association with “ordinance” (i.e. “observe”) makes our role out to be spectators instead of participants. Secondly, our tendency toward legalism is heightened when we think about what we do together as observance of command. 5 Thirdly, “ordinance,” insofar as it is associated with law understood as an impersonal penal code, resists narrative because it is indifferent to context. If we baptize just because Jesus commanded it, we need not ask, Why? What does baptism mean to Jesus? How does this fit into the larger story? Naming what we do together in terms of rules may make us people who do what we are told, but it does not shape us into people who embody the way of Jesus. For these reasons “ordinance” is insufficient for a move toward embracing liturgy.

“Sacrament” has more potential for promoting an embrace of liturgy because of its connection to mystery 6 and openness to story. Part of the genius of narrative is the way it reveals and conceals. Mystery is part of storytelling because stories are not meant to scientifically examine, objectively report or exhaustively itemize; stories make known the Other but do not violate the Other’s otherness. Our shared practices must shape us in relationship to that Other, God. As Everett Fox’s translation of God’s name in Exodus 3:14 suggests, we know God by how He has been-there: 7 we must enter into God’s story in order to know God and thus to embrace our own identity as God’s people. “Sacrament” is at home in story, helps us by way of mystery to enter into God’s story, and may invite us to know God and ourselves in transformative ways. Thus, I propose we take up this rich term again.

In order to take up the language of “sacrament” we must enter the debate of the Reformation: what is a sacrament and what happens when we “do” it? As liturgist for the Shafter Mennonite Brethren (SMBC) 2006 Lenten series, I realized that learning to tell a distinctively Anabaptist version of the biblical story necessitated choosing a focus. The Eucharist has been an area of special interest for me, and I am convinced it is the sacrament by which Mennonites can recapture their Anabaptist vision of church and explore ways of living it out. I found the work of two Anabaptist theologians of utmost importance in developing a sacramental theology focused on the Lord’s Supper: Pilgram Marpeck (1495-1556) and John Howard Yoder (1927-1997).


Anabaptists were named for their practice of “re-baptizing,” and baptism has always centered our ecclesiology on the voluntary nature of faith and the church as a believer’s church. The Eucharist has been included but does not seem to give real shape to our ecclesiology. This may be why we have a clear understanding of the boundaries of the church but are uncertain about the nature and life of the church. The Mennonite Brethren (MB) “three-stream river” identity (a conglomeration of Anabaptism, evangelicalism, and the charismatic movement 8) sets us up to pick and choose what we do apart from a cohesive ecclesiology shaped by biblical revelation.

Marpeck, therefore, is an important voice in this discussion because he “is the only Anabaptist theologian whose circumstances and scope of thought brought the Lord’s Supper to the center of his theology.” 9 Drawing on his work, then, allows the Supper the attention usually afforded only to baptism, a move that opens the Mennonite field of vision regarding piety beyond the important elements of decision and responsibility to the oft neglected elements of grace and mystery. Baptism is the “ceremony by which the church is ordered,” yet Marpeck’s work shows us how the Eucharist can be the “ceremony by which the church is sustained” and “in the process . . . [he] laid a theological foundation for the church’s life as a participation in the life [story] of God.” 10 Marpeck’s work on the Lord’s Supper is a guide for an exploration toward a thoroughly biblical Anabaptist ecclesiology.

First and foremost, Marpeck’s theological endeavor was meant to create a sacramental theology out of the incarnation of Jesus. 11 In the incarnation we find God entering the flesh and blood of humanity, and Marpeck clings to this reality as he seeks to bring unity between spirit and matter in an understanding of sacrament.

The incarnation defined for [Marpeck] how God meets humanity. Spiritual reality takes material form . . . [Marpeck] sought to avoid the imbalances he saw within Anabaptism as well as within the larger Christian world of his era. Marpeck feared the legalism of the Swiss Brethren and the dissolution of the church evident in spiritualism. He pursued an alternative to the sacramental life of Christendom because it was not founded on the response of faith. The alternative Marpeck chose was unique in its retention of sacramental realism, the belief in a “metaphysical correlation” of the event of the Supper with the body and blood of Christ. For him, the action of the congregation with bread and wine became a communion with Christ. 12

Anabaptists tended to eliminate ceremony because they insisted that inner faith is what is real (a rejection of the Catholic ex opere operato). Marpeck, however, stressed the unity of inner and outer reality, which is truer to the Anabaptist emphasis on nachfolge Christi, 13 discipleship defined as faith evidenced by external fruit.

Marpeck defined sacrament as “an encounter between God’s grace and an existential human response of faith” that must necessarily happen within/through the material world. 14 The material event (ceremony) tells Jesus’ story and becomes “like the parables of the kingdom: by means of them we grasp the workings of God.” 15 Through them we enter into the life of God by being church visibly. For Marpeck, the church is the “prolongation of the incarnation in the ongoing community of faith.” 16 Our current MB confession of faith echoes this idea: “The church, united by the one Spirit, makes Christ visible in the world.” 17 Marpeck, however, would emphasize that the church is more than the sign of Christ: the church becomes the presence of Christ’s humanity in the world until Christ’s bodily return. 18 In this way, the church itself is a sacrament, “the paradigm for all other embodiments of the gospel.” 19

Marpeck did not use the usual term, teken (sign), because it means “an external indicator of an internal reality of which it is not a part.” Instead he used mitzeugnus (co-witness), a term deemed his “primary innovation in defining sacrament.” 20 “Co-witness” makes sacrament the union of the material and spiritual by the power of the Spirit. 21 For Marpeck, a sacrament is not something that merely signifies what occurs within us (inner faith); it is “an external reality [that] vouches for faith and becomes its medium to the internal reality.” 22 This understanding of sacrament provides us with a way to experience God as embodied persons. Our participation in Christ is not confined to an inner experience of faith; participation in Christ occurs as faith becomes bodily practice. This parallels the “following” emphasis of Anabaptist discipleship.

Because “co-witness” ontologically unites matter and spirit, Marpeck differs from other Anabaptists (though he may capture the Anabaptist vision more faithfully) in terms of time and sacrament. At a baptismal service at SMBC, the pastor stressed that the water baptism was a sign of an inner faith/conversion experience. He understood water baptism as taking place after spiritual baptism, defined as placing one’s faith in Christ. Other Anabaptists in the sixteenth century also held that “the relationship between faith and sacrament is at most sequential or concomitant” but Marpeck disagreed: he understood that “the two form an indissoluble unity, ontologically and temporally.” 23

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about the difficulty of assigning temporal order to faith and obedience, 24 an idea I have always thought brilliant and containing a particularly Anabaptist flavor. Marpeck developed this insight sacramentally: in the act of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, a person does more than express faith he/she already had; he/she experiences the meeting of the response of faith with God’s act of grace, moments that cannot be separated. Anabaptist discipleship would say that faith is not faith until it is acted out; Marpeck’s sacramental theology says that faith is not experienced in relationship to God’s grace until the two meet in the physical sacrament. 25

Because Marpeck develops sacrament as an ontological and temporal unity of matter and spirit, where something actually happens in and during the sacrament, we can regain a sense of mystery we have lost by our practice of reducing sacrament to merely symbolic ordinance. Mystery gets us moving toward liturgy as storytelling. The story Marpeck’s sacramental theology of the Lord’s Supper tells is of the church becoming the presence of Jesus’ humanity. The Supper is primarily an “act of love” whereby believers love each other and experience the presence of God through embodying the love of Christ. In the sacrament “the church is remade again and again into the body of Christ.” 26

Marpeck’s theology of the Lord’s Supper led him to a belief in the “real presence” of Christ though “real presence” for him focused on “the action of the community and its transformation” rather than the elements of bread and wine. 27

In [Marpeck’s eucharistic teaching], the Supper is a physical meeting of believers who gather in faith and love. When the believers do this they become one body, that is, they are constituted again as the body of Christ in the world. This claim, however, does not reduce Christ to the historical forms he takes on. The historical body of the church is also given a mystical communion with the ascended Lord through the meal in which bread and wine are shared in nonresistant love. In the sense that this love extends itself to enemy as well as friend, the eucharistic action expands to include the whole world. 28

A liturgy of the Lord’s Supper conceived in this way is entirely consistent with Anabaptist ecclesiology.

The debate during the Reformation concerning the presence of Christ in the sacrament focused on the elements. The Roman Catholic Church insisted that the bread and wine became the body and blood and ceased to be in substance bread and wine (transubstantiation). Luther argued that though the bread and wine physically remained bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood were present in the elements (traditional meaning of “real presence”). Marpeck shifts the focus of the debate by arguing that the change that happens occurs in the community, not in the elements, though the elements are an essential part of the sacrament. The shift in the meaning of “real presence” may help Anabaptists/Mennonites become more open to mystery in sacrament. If the mystery is that of the church becoming the body of Christ rather than the bread and wine becoming the literal body and blood of Christ, we may be able to embrace sacrament. As a result, our gathered times may be infused with greater mystery and power, with the “real presence” of Christ as we seek to live out a discipleship that demands an embodied faith. The split between matter and spirit seems to undermine our ideas of church and discipleship; Marpeck’s theology, rooted in the incarnation, may be able to help us re-imagine church, sacrament, and liturgy in a way that supports those ideas.


Yoder’s work regarding the Lord’s Supper in Body Politics 29 fits well with Marpeck’s sacramental theology and may help us align our liturgical practice of the Supper more closely with Marpeck’s theological vision and the Anabaptist concern that church be a community living into the kingdom. Yoder’s contribution to this discussion is that of moving away from a ritualistic practice of the Supper where it can be no more than sign and toward the Supper as, in Marpeck’s terms, co-witness, an actual living of the reality. Yoder calls us to do this by reminding us of the significance of the common meal in the New Testament before it was reduced to a wafer/cracker and a sip of wine/juice.

As Marpeck rejects the inner/outer or spirit/matter split, Yoder rejects the religious/political split. Luther’s emphasis on the inner life as opposed to the outer life led him to his two kingdoms idea: just as faith inhabits the inner world of a person and may not be practical externally, Christians live under the reign of God privately while Christ’s teachings (like the Sermon on the Mount) are largely impractical in the world (polis). Yoder, a theologian whose theology is always worked out ethically, rejects this split.

Theologians were concerned in the sixteenth century for a detailed theoretical definition of the meaning of certain special actions and things, called “sacraments,” within the special set-apart world of the “religious.” The underlying notion—namely the idea that there is a special realm of “religious” reality—so that when you speak special prescribed words, peculiar events happen, was not a biblical idea. It underlies the religion/politics split . . . It supports one notion of the sacraments as very special religious or ritualistic activities . . . These medieval questions have kept us away from the simple meaning of the text long enough. 30

The “simple meaning of the text” frees the Supper from centuries of ritualistic liturgy so that it might once again show us a way to practice it, as I would say, as storytelling liturgy where the participant enters the story being told.

The Last Supper is set in the context of a Passover meal, but Yoder says that though “Jesus might have meant ‘remember me whenever you celebrate the Passover,’ ” his hearers understood him to be saying, “whenever you have your common meal.” 31 Yoder fleshes out the significance of the common meal in the post-Pentecost church: the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42) was a central aspect of the life of the early church community that “extend[ed] into the formation of economic community” (Acts 4:32). 32

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul responds to requests for guidance which that congregation, soon after he had founded it, had addressed to him. Most of those requests for guidance have to do with table fellowship: with meat that had been offered to idols (Chapters 8 and 10) and with class-segregated tables (Chapter 11). If their meal failed to reflect the overcoming of social stratification, Paul told the Corinthians that the participants would be celebrating their own condemnation (11:29). In celebrating their fellowship around the table, the early Christians testified 33 that the messianic age, often pictured as a banquet, had begun. 34

Marpeck’s concern was that material and spiritual be combined in experience; Yoder’s concern is that the event be not only sign but also practice—an essential participation in kingdom living. For Marpeck the Supper sacramentally creates the church as the body of Christ; for Yoder, that body of Christ is Christ’s body (and presence of the kingdom) because it does what Christ did, namely, usher in the kingdom by establishing a new community and a new way of living defined by the reign of God. The early church communities practiced the Lord’s Supper in this way, according to Yoder, and our practice must as well if is it going to be the Lord’s Supper and not just a symbol of it.

Yoder argues that the church must practice the Supper as a common meal that actually establishes the Kingdom of God: he sees the economic aspect of the meal emphasized in the New Testament texts and so takes up that concern.

What the New Testament is talking about whenever the theme is “breaking bread” is that people actually were sharing with one another their ordinary day-to-day material sustenance.

It is not enough to say merely that in an act of “institution” or symbol-making, independent of ordinary meanings, God or the church would have said, “Let us say that ‘bread’ stands for daily sustenance.” It is not even merely that, as any historian of culture or anthropologist will tell us, in many settings eating together “stands for” values of hospitality and community-formation, said values being distinguishable from the signs that refer to them. It is that bread is daily sustenance. Bread eaten together is economic sharing. Not merely symbolically, but also in fact, eating together extends to a wider circle the economic solidarity normally obtained in the family. 35

The ethical dimension has largely been lost in the ritualization of the Lord’s Supper, and Yoder wants to revive our sacramental practice as kingdom living. One of the marks of the Kingdom of God is that “basic needs are met.” 36

The existence of believing communities as Bruderhof, as a family of brethren marked by a new economic pattern of sharing, is, for Yoder, both the participation of the church in the messianic age and the witness that “the promise of newness [is] on its way for the world.” 37 In this way the church as the body of Christ becomes for the world. Our formative practices (sacraments) enable us to extend ourselves as the ongoing incarnation of Christ to the human and non-human world: our sacraments must result in the ethical expressions Christ’s life contained, such as caring for the poor, being stewards of creation, working for justice, etc. This aspect of Yoder’s work can take Marpeck’s sacramental theology and protect it from being merely a religious ritual; Marpeck’s fusion of matter and spirit and the way that unity plays out in his idea of the Lord’s Supper can be realized in what Yoder is urging—that our sacraments shape us as the church and are acts of believing communities living out the vision of Christ.


It is my hope that “Mennonite liturgy” will no longer sound like an oxymoron. I want liturgy to mean a careful storytelling that sacramentally sweeps us up as participants in the story. Yoder is correct in saying that it is not enough to design practices (rituals) that merely represent or point to the reality of being church. Our sacraments must be actual practices of the kingdom communities we are called to be as the church. I am not satisfied with church services containing symbols detached from the essence of who we are and what we do as gathered believers. As it is, it seems that we “go to church” without being the church; we tell a story we do not live.

We must enter into God’s story, and it is my hope that we enter in as Anabaptists. Our theological identity is one that can serve the greater church. If through participation in liturgy and sacrament our communities are nurtured to become the presence of Jesus’ humanity, then we, like Jesus, will live for the world, inviting others through loving service into the biblical story. We have faith that this story is indeed gospel, and as Harold Bender writes in The Anabaptist Vision, “Anabaptists [have] faith, indeed, but they [must] use it to produce a life.” 38 I want a liturgy to shape us and propel us into that life—the new life of the inbreaking kingdom.

This essay is a revised version of part of a paper written for Dr. Libby Vincent in the course “Anabaptist Ecclesiology” at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, winter-spring 2006. Another part (“Anabaptist Liturgy: An Oxymoron?”) appeared in the spring 2007 issue of this journal.


  1. Michelle Ferguson, “Anabaptist Liturgy: An Oxymoron?” Direction 36 (spring 2007): 5-19.
  2. Ibid., 9.
  3. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3d ed., ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), s.v. “sacrament.”
  4. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol. 2, A.D. 1500 – A.D. 1975 (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2003), 713.
  5. We mimic instead of living way-ishly. See Ferguson, “Anabaptist Liturgy: An Oxymoron?”, 10.
  6. “Sacrament” comes from the Latin, sacramentum, which was used to translate the Greek, musterion, in the Latin New Testament. By way of sacrament one participates in the “mystery of Christ” (cf. Col. 1:26ff; Eph. 3:4, 9; 6:19, etc.). Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “sacrament.”
  7. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, The Schocken Bible, vol. 1 (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 270, 273.
  8. Ferguson, “Anabaptist Liturgy: An Oxymoron?”, 8.
  9. John D. Rempel, The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism: A Study in the Christology of Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, and Dirk Philips (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1993), 162-63.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 97.
  12. Ibid., 94.
  13. German for “following Christ.”
  14. Rempel, 122.
  15. Ibid., 100.
  16. Ibid., 98.
  17. Confession of Faith, Commentary and Pastoral Application (Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 2000), 66.
  18. Rempel, 133.
  19. Ibid., 148.
  20. Ibid., 120.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 121.
  23. Ibid., 144.
  24. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 64.
  25. I am realizing as I write that Anabaptists conceive of God’s act as already having been done; his grace has already been extended to us. This means that sacraments can never be more than just signs because they only represent the human action of faith and not the meeting of grace and faith. Marpeck’s idea may give us a way to conceive of the ongoing nature of salvation, something we Mennonite Brethren sorely need to grasp. Alas, this is the topic of another study.
  26. Rempel, 125.
  27. Ibid., 145.
  28. Ibid., 148.
  29. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992).
  30. Ibid., 14-15
  31. Ibid., 15-16.
  32. Ibid., 16.
  33. Marpeck’s co-witness fits here.
  34. Yoder, 18.
  35. Ibid., 20.
  36. Ibid., 21.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944), 28.
Michelle Ferguson received her B.A. from Fresno Pacific University, Fresno California, and her M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty at Fresno Pacific.

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