Throughout history, Christian communities have produced rules, regulations, disciplines and ordinances as a way of providing spiritual, moral and practical guidance for their adherents. Unlike confessions of faith that tend to focus on doctrinal matters, congregational orders are mostly attentive to daily moral and practical concerns. Among groups associated with the Anabaptist tradition, the Hutterites have been the most prolific in adopting congregational orders, but other Anabaptist groups have also used them to orient and manage communal affairs.
The first known congregational order in Anabaptism was adopted sometime in the 1520s by the Swiss. Some scholars have linked this Order in time and place with the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, but there is evidence suggesting that it may have pre-dated Schleitheim. As early as 1525, conditions described in the Order existed in the village of Zollikon and the region of St. Gall. Similar conditions were also present in the territory of Appenzell in 1528 and 1529.
The Order contains seven articles that may be summarized as follows: 1) Brother and sisters are required to meet 3 or 4 times a week for mutual exhortation. 2) When they read Scripture together, the one with the best understanding should take responsibility in explaining the meaning of the text. The Psalter should be read at home. 3) Proper conduct is expected at worship and in the context of the world. 4) When a brother has erred, he should be admonished according to the command of Christ, as everyone is obliged to do, out of love. 5) Christians should hold all things in common. 6) Gluttony is to be avoided. 7) The Lord’s Supper should be held whenever the community is together for the purposes of proclamation and remembering how Christ gave himself for us, so that we might also be willing to give of ourselves for the sake of Christ and others.
The over-arching theme of the Order is unity and love expressed in the context of an egalitarian community that stands in contrast to the wider world. While some form of leadership in the Order is not ruled out, it is assumed that the reading of scripture and the practice of admonition is the responsibility of the entire community. The practice of social-levelling is also extended to the economic sphere according to the example of the early church as described in Acts 2 and Acts 4, where the Christian community are said to have had all things in common.
In the past, Free-Church and Mennonite historians have tended to associate the practice of community of goods with the Hutterite movement, but the mandate to practice economic sharing in this congregational order suggests that the custom was already present among the Swiss prior to the beginning of the Hutterite movement. The Swiss received their inspiration from the New Testament, but they were undoubtedly also shaped by peasant aspirations which at the time were also advocating new approaches to economic sharing.
Not long after this first Order was produced, a second Order emerged containing a total of 12 articles. It found its way into Hutterite codices in Moravia, although the details surrounding the transmission remain uncertain. Given that it includes a unique reference to “the Gospel of all Creatures”--a teaching stemming from the writings of Hans Hut--it is possible that it was used by a group under the influence of Hut, which then established itself in Austerlitz, Moravia, in 1528. In terms of content, it is evident that this second Order is a revised and expanded version of the first. However, it assumes a more developed congregational life and leadership structure, and also adds an apocalyptic element, calling the faithful to join Christ when he returns and thereby escape the coming punishment.
A third congregational order emerged during this time period bearing Leupold Scharnschlager’s name, and like the aforementioned document, it appears to be a revision of the first Order while reflecting a more developed leadership structure. Some scholars have concluded that it came from Strasbourg in 1528; others have suggested a somewhat later date, possibly the early 1540s. Its title, “Gemeinsame Ordnung der Glieder Christ in sieben Artikeln gestellt” (“Common Order of the Members of Christ set in Seven Articles”), suggests that it provided direction for a number of Anabaptist groups. It likely embodied some of the main organizational principles of Pilgram Marpeck’s circle and may have also been used by Moravian congregations associated with Marpeck.
One of its unique features is that the practice of community of goods is no longer considered binding. Moreover, it does not mention that the community should meet 3 or 4 times weekly as the other Orders do. While the faithful are reminded that they should not neglect regular fellowship, some allowances are made for those traveling at great distances. These revisions suggest that community practices in Anabaptism during this time period were still adaptable and subject to changing social circumstances, and that they were not yet solidified by the weight of tradition.
In the north German and Dutch context, Anabaptists in 1554 also produced a congregational order, the “Resolutions at Wismar” (Besluyt tot Wismar, or sometimes Bespreck van Wismar). Several prominent Anabaptist leaders were at the conference to produce this Order of nine articles—Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens, Gillis van Aken, Herman van Tielt, Hans Busschaert, and Hoyte Riencx. The first five articles deal with matters pertaining to the practice of shunning or avoidance. The sixth article addresses the matter of whether young believers require the consent of their parents if they wish to marry. The seventh discusses whether believers have a right to demand just payment for debts. The eighth addresses the conditions and limits for bearing arms, and the final article explains the qualifications of those who preach or teach in the congregation. The articles were printed in Amsterdam in the same year, and have also been printed at various times since.
One of the overall objectives of the conference at Wismar was to resolve differences having to do with church discipline, but the resolutions were not fully embraced by all Anabaptist groups. In the Waterland district of North Holland, for example, a branch of Dutch Anabaptists, the Waterlanders, pursued a more tolerant approach. Likewise, in the 1550s, Anabaptists that met at Strasbourg articulated more lenient views.
In 1568, Anabaptists met in Strasbourg and produced a 23-article Discipline which was then ratified in 1607. It bears the name “Abrede und Verordnung der Diener und Eltesten in der Versammlung zu Straβburg.” This document, sometimes referred to in the English language as the Strasbourg Discipline, may come closest to resembling a kind of Minister’s Manual (of which there are many among the Mennonites and the Amish). The Discipline does not tell us which groups might have adopted it; we are only informed that there were Southerners at the conference. It is possible that they were Swiss Brethren and Anabaptists from the upper Rhine region.
The 23 articles of the Discipline deal with largely practical issues such as the duties and privileges of ministers and bishops, and procedures pertaining to the breaking of bread, the care of orphans, regulations at congregational meetings, and church discipline. Some articles also take up matters having to do with economics, marriage, and simplicity. One article refers to the incarnation, one addresses the matter of restricting the holy kiss to fellow church members, and another deals with rules about catching or shooting game.
Overall, the Discipline attempts to give leaders direction on a wide range of practical matters. These directives seem to have found resonance elsewhere. Over the centuries, the Discipline has been taken up by various groups. It has been transmitted in handwritten form and adopted by Swiss and South German Mennonites at Obersülzen and Offstein (1688). It has also been adopted among the Amish in North America. The extent to which this Order was in use among the Amish is an important question that has not yet been fully researched.
Packull, Werner O. Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments During the Reformation. Baltimore, Md. : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. This is the most important work for an introduction to the earliest congregational orders.
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This article is based on the original English essay that was written for theand has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at
|Date Published||May 2011|
Cite This Article
Koop, Karl. "Congregational Orders and Church Disciplines (Gemeindeordnungen)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. May 2011. Web. 29 Jul 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Congregational_Orders_and_Church_Disciplines_(Gemeindeordnungen)&oldid=102785.
Koop, Karl. (May 2011). Congregational Orders and Church Disciplines (Gemeindeordnungen). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 July 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Congregational_Orders_and_Church_Disciplines_(Gemeindeordnungen)&oldid=102785.
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