The Prophet as Both Lion and Lamb: the Example of Menno Simons

Menno Simons (1496-1561) was so significant a figure in Anabaptism in the Low Countries that the movement could be divided into three phases: “before Menno”, “under Menno” and “after Menno”. His travels in the church’s service took him from the Rhineland across the Baltic lands to Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland, always in danger, with a price on his head – and accompanied by his wife and children! Records show that he won followers wherever he went – some of whom died as martyrs, refusing to renounce the truths he had taught them. In the judgement of the Mennonite Encyclopaedia:

“Menno’s significance lies in the fact that he prevented the collapse of the northern wing of the Anabaptist movement in the days of its greatest trial and built it up on the right Biblical foundation. He did this as its leader, speaker, and defender, through his preaching as he journeyed from place to place, and through his simple and searching writings. Particularly the Foundation-Book did much to restore the original Anabaptist concepts and principles, which were in grave danger of being lost.

“His writings were effective not so much because of their superior and logical qualities as a theological system, but because behind them stood a man formed according to the Scriptures who sincerely and honestly wanted to give all for the Christian church and the glory of God. Through Menno’s courageous and devoted life a distinctive witness in the Reformation movement, representing a Christian brotherhood and a Christian way of life, was preserved.”

He knew full well that he could be arrested at any moment. He also knew the crucial importance of unity among the scattered groups of Anabaptists who claimed allegiance to him. He had to mediate and be diplomatic, yet set a tone that others could follow. He called leaders’ conferences, he encouraged debate, he urged brotherly grace. This has led to Menno being treated in the history books as a moderate among the Radical Reformers. Given the tight line he had to keep, this would hardly be surprising. Many of his writings restate the root principles and doctrines of Anabaptism and plead for wholesale acceptance of them.

Menno's grave at Bad Oldesloe, Germany

Menno’s grave at Bad Oldesloe, Germany

Thus far we have the lamb-like side of a true prophet of God – a nature drawn from Jesus the Lamb himself. But what of the lion? A prophet is more than a skilled counsellor and pastoral guide. There is the cut of the two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12) to prophetic ministry, again drawn from Jesus (Revelation 19:15).

Certainly, Menno was no lamb! One of his writings can serve as our example: ‘The Reason Why Menno Simons Does Not Cease Teaching And Writing’, written in the 1540s, is outspokenly hard-line in its exposure of sin, its naming of idols, and its call to repentance and a holy life.

“When I look to find a magistrate who fears God, rightly performs his office and uses his authority properly, I find, as a general rule, nothing but a wine-sodden Lucifer. Again, when I look to find true pastors and teachers, such as are sent of God, quickened by the Holy Spirit; who sincerely seek the salvation of their brethren; who are not earthly-minded, but preach the saving word of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, in purity of heart, and who are blameless in their doctrine and life – I find instead nothing but robbers of the glory of God, and murderers of souls; deceivers, blind watchmen, mute dogs, masters of sects who are carnally, earthly and devilishly minded; enemies of the cross; serving their bellies instead of serving God; false prophets, idolaters, vain talkers, liars, and tricksters.

“If any person does not believe my words, let him prove their walk by the word of the Lord; let him compare their doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life with the doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life of Christ, and even common sense will teach you who has really sent them, and what fruits their teachings bear!”

Menno would not be the first apostolic radical to be accused of being kindly when present and tough when writing from afar – St Paul had the same thing levelled at him [2 Corinthians 10:1]. Perhaps the underlying principle here is to show grace and understanding to open hearts, while slicing into falsehood and self-centredness in backslidden or blind hearts, with a view to winning them. We see Jesus Christ Himself doing this, so we may safely conclude that this is the heart of the true radical. And yes, where necessary, it is obnoxious!


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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

9 responses to “The Prophet as Both Lion and Lamb: the Example of Menno Simons”

  1. loz says :

    Great stuff; what an inspiration

  2. Trevor Saxby says :

    Thanks, Loz 🙂 I see Menno as a special kind of 'hero of the faith': understated, more hidden, having to hold back at times and explode at others. Not easy! And certainly not easy to learn that people who were found to have given you lodging in secret were hanged or decapitated for it!

  3. dyfedwyn says :

    At a time when Christendom is crumbling all around us it is people like Simons who will offer us a vision of how things could be for the church in this new landscape.

    • sch0larly says :

      He is, to me, a good example of the kind of apostle that Paul said he hadn’t got enough of: Timothy, a man “who will truly care for your souls” (Philippians 2:20).

  4. philwood1961 says :

    Trevor, I enjoyed your fresh perspective on Menno. 16th and 17th Century Anabaptism always turns up surprises. I wonder what would have happened had Obbe Philips not departed the movement:

    • sch0larly says :

      Thank you for drawing my attention to the Obbe Phillips question. I will have to track down his “Confessions”. Mind you, from quotations I have found, I wonder whether there is a flavour of “sour grapes”. That can so easily accompany, even unwanted, the genuine disappointment and pain at leaving a movement.

      • philwood1961 says :

        It’s one of those tantalising hypotheticals. History tends to be told by the winners. From what we have I think there’s enough to infer that Obbe and Menno offered a different approach. We don’t have a fully fledged alternative narrative from Obbe. He was no Procopius, writing his Secret History.

  5. John MacArthur says :

    Perhaps I’m swimming against the tide (as usual) but it seems to me there’s more than a hint of judgmentalism here. Public accusations of robbery, murder and deception is unlikely to endear the writer to other than a few like minded acolytes. Using the cover of apostolic radicalism is disingenuous, I think.

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