Toivo Pilli: The Commemoration of the Reformation as an Ecumenical Opportunity: A Free Church Perspective


Besides the major trends of Reformation the 16th century included groups of believers who emerged in the midst of rapid changes. These were Anabaptists, a movement sometimes called Radical Reformation or the third wave of Reformation. Early Anabaptists in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Holland emphasised the local aspects of the church. They saw the church as a brotherhood, and they were willing to live a life of discipleship yielding to Christ. They deliberately distanced themselves from the existing patterns of power – both ecclesial and political. They also experienced persecution. Anabaptist groups, separated from existing ecclesial structures, were formed partly because of their theological convictions and partly because the existing structures excluded them.


Nowadays, free churches admit being at least “soul-mates” with these emerging believers’ communities of the 16th century, even if the historical direct linkage cannot always be traced. In what ways do free churches – Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Brethren, and others – remember and commemorate the Reformation in the present ecumenical context?


In the following presentation I will point out three areas – ecumenical, ecclesiological and religious freedom – where free churches, from their own perspective, can contribute to the wider conversation on the meaning and influence of the Protestant Reformation.


Dimension of ecumenical relations


The approaching year of Reformation enables different church traditions to reflect upon their relationships with each other, not just upon their own identity. When 100 years ago the Reformation celebrations emphasised predominantly national and cultural contributions of Reformation then the shift towards ecumenical networking this time is to be greeted. This includes the critical evaluation of both common and confronting histories. This also includes steps towards reconciliation of the past and recognition of common missions for future. In 2010 the Lutheran World Federation published a statement .2


This document repented for violent persecution of Anabaptists and for the ways in which Lutheran reformers supported persecutions with theological arguments. It is to be noted, however, that an earlier document (2004) between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Mennonite Church USA showed a way ahead by mutual recognition and confession of wrongdoings: “Mennonites today reject the violent apocalyptic predictions associated with some parts of the earliest Anabaptist movement, to which Lutherans of that day responded harshly. Lutherans today reject the violence inflicted on sixteenth-century Anabaptists.“3 Anabaptists and free churches in general have often been ascribed a position of victims, and sometimes they have embraced this role. However, it is also obvious that they have moved towards a positive rather than negative self-identity. One could mention recent research in Anabaptist theology and spirituality, as well as Mennonite efforts in the field of conflict resolution and peacemaking.


Ecumenical relations, especially in the light of the Christocentricity of Reformation, lead today all participants in the Reformation towards self-evaluation as well as towards evaluation of historical events. Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian from a Pentecostal background, has expressed the need to learn from other churches as a method of being accountable to Christ in the fellowship of brothers and sisters: ‘In order to keep our allegiance to Jesus Christ pure, we need to nurture commitment to the multicultural community of Christian churches. We need to see ourselves and our own understanding of God’s future with the eyes of Christians from other churches...’4 These other Christians, in an ecumenical setting, help us ‘to make sure that the voice of our [church] culture has not drowned out the voice of Jesus Christ.’5 All churches, whatever role they played in Reformation, could benefit from this exercise.


Ecclesiological dimension


British theologian Nigel G. Wright, in his book Free Church, Free State, has argued that it would be possible to see two “fundamental tendencies” of the church through history as well as present day. The first eccesiological perspective “views the authenticity of the church as derived from its historical origins in Christ and prized continuity”. Here, according to Wright, belong both Catholic and the majority of Protestant churches. The second tendency finds the authenticity of the church “in the vitality of the local congregation and prizes freedom”.6 This is where free churches anchor their identity. Wright continues to argue, however, that these tendencies cannot be clearly identified with denominations or historical churches. Emphases on continuity and freedom are not contradictory but complementary. Free churches need connectedness to see themselves as part of the unity created by Christ. Those churches that emphasise continuity and unity, however, need the vitality and the sense of ownership of church life that free churches demonstrate at their best.


Approaching the year of Reformation opens up a fresh perspective for us to seek better understanding what the motto “ecclesia semper reformanda est” means in the present day world. Free churches begin their ecclesiology from the local church, where two or three are gathered, in agreement and in the name of Christ (Mt 18:19-20), and they derive their vision for the church not only from historical continuity but also from present Christ-centred and Spirit-filled relations and in eschatological hope. Indeed, free churches are painfully aware of the visible fragmentation of the Church of Jesus Christ. However, they tend to seek unity in diversity rather than unity in uniformity. In recent years models for this approach has been sought in the so called trinitarian theology.


Miroslav Volf has talked about “openness of every church toward all other churches as an indispensable condition of ecclesiality”. He says: “Since the eschatological gathering of the people of God, whose foretaste is the local church, is not identical with all churches of the past and present, the ecclesiality of a local church need not depend on the sacramental relation to them. Yet since the eschatological gathering of the people of God will include all these churches as its own anticipations, a local church cannot alone, in isolation from all other churches, claim to be a church. It must acknowledge all others churches, in time and space, as churches, and must at least be open to diachronic and synchronic communication with them.”7

If eschatological perspective plays any significant part for the unity of churches, it may offer a better language for a dialogue between Reformation churches and others, including Radical Reformation churches. This language may offer a tool for revisiting central ecclesiological concepts and moving towards mutual brotherly recognition. If eschatologically all churches are, in some sense, yet to become church, it may alleviate the pressures of historical patterns in mutual conversations and in the practice of church relations in grassroots level.


Religious freedom dimension


One of the areas where free churches have pursued a path forward beyond the conventional routes formed in the Reformation is religious freedom or religious liberty. It would be too simplistic to depict this notion as mere “voluntarism”. Rather, it is a free and willing obedience to Christ who alone has the right to rule the church. From this identity marker follows free profession of faith in Christ as well as freedom of local churches to govern themselves under Christ. This belief has consequences also for civil society and for democracy at large: freedom from oppression and from religious compulsion, and freedom to exercise one’s informed conscience.8 This dimension was already present in embryonic form in early Anabaptists and was later defended and given a verbal expression by Baptist proponents of the 17th century, such as by Roger Williams and Thomas Helwys. They offered the idea of the separation of church and state.


This heritage is closely linked with the Free Church conviction that, using a phrase formulated by Jürgen Moltmann, can be called “productive tolerance”. Productive tolerance holds in the centre not only the questions of beliefs, dogmatic positions or religious practices, but it also and with at least the same effort, focuses on the way we behave towards others who believe differently.9 Christian gospel cannot be made credible by means of coercion or exclusion but only by means of God’s Spirit.10 Five hundred years after Reformation events, this approach, deeply rooted in the Radical Reformers’ experience in the 16th century, has not lost its message.


Radical Reformation believers, who through centuries have pursued to be faithful to the Gospel while having a minority’s position in Christian societies, may add significantly to the mission efforts in Europe that is moving towards a post-Christian era. However, one may ask, if secularism and decline in membership of churches is only a tragic development or does it contain opportunities? Perhaps it may be seen as a call to revisit the experience of the primitive church of the Book of Acts and to learn how a powerless minority of Christ-followers turned the prevailing culture upside down. Coming from a country where all churches are in a minority position when compared to the majority of secular population I find the reminder that there is a “treasure in the jars of clay” (2 Cor 4:7) important – not only for personal spirituality but also for the mission of the Church.




Even if a way towards “repentance, thankfulness and hope” may not be an easy way, it is worth of taking a further step, inviting the heritage of Reformation to be part of the journey. It is our expectation, as Pope John Paul II said in 1995 in the encyclical , that “...leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church...”11


I will conclude with an illustration told by Osvald Tärk, and Estonian Baptist theologian during Communist years. There was a fleet that had a severe battle on the sea, at night and in a thick fog. When the morning came and fog was dissolved by the raising sun, the fighters realised they had been fighting against their own ships. All ships were actually sailing under the same flag. (I must apologise for my Mennonite friends for using a military metaphor.) Commemoration of the Reformation is not only a historical or academic event, but an occasion for a sincere and humble common prayer that Christ would shine more brightly on and in his Church.


1 At the seminar, the main paper „The Commemoration of the Reformation as an Ecumenical Opportunity: Towards a Joint Declaration on Church, Ministry and Eucharist“ was delivered by Kurt Cardinal Koch.

2 Available, for example,, accessed 26 April 2015.

3 Right Remembering in Anabaptist-Lutheran Relations, Report of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-Mennonite Church USA, Liaison Committee (2004), p. 8.

4 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1996), pp. 53-54.

6 Nigel G. Wright, Free Chruch, Free State: The Positive Baptist Vision (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), pp. 256-257.

5 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 54.

7 Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of Trinity (Eerdmans, 1997) p. 157.

8 Wright, Free Church, Free State, p. 206.

9 Wright, Free Church, Free State, p. 218-219

10 Wright, Free Church, Free State, 219.

11 Pope John Paul II, Ut unum sint (That They May All Be One) (1995), paragraph 96,


Pilli: Reformation and free churches

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