Believers Church

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Believers Church is a term that emerged after 1955 to define those religious groups with direct or indirect foundation in the Radical Reformation. The term was evidently coined by the German sociologist of religion Max Weber (1864-1920) to describe radical Protestants who distanced themselves from the state-sponsored church establishments or other socially dominant ecclesial bodies. Some writers have used the phrases "Free Churches," "Nonconformists," or "Dissenters" to characterize radical Protestantism, thus emphasizing the determination of its adherents to maintain their religious beliefs independent from government control. Increasingly, however, others are preferring believers church as a more precise designation, pointing out that in the United States and some other nations, all religious bodies are technically free churches, because of the practice of separation of church and state.

Characteristics of believers churches are held to include: scriptural (especially New Testament) authority; discipleship to Christ as Lord; regenerate church membership; covenant of voluntarily-gathered believers; adult baptism (often by immersion); separation from the world (nonconformity); mutual aid and Christian service; a nonorganizational view of church unity. Among the denominational families considering themselves largely within this tradition are: Baptists, Brethren, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Churches of Christ, Churches of God, Friends, Mennonites, Pentecostals, and others.

An early study conference on the concept was sponsored by the General Conference Mennonite Church in August 1955 in Chicago, Illinois. A large and carefully planned conference at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, in June 1967 was influential in making the term known in churchly and academic circles. Leading scholars, church executives, and pastors attended the conference, the theme of which was "The Concept of the Believers Church"; it was extensively reported in the church press. The conference proceedings were published in a widely used volume edited by the conference organizer, James Leo Garrett, Jr.

The momentum created by the Louisville conference led to a series of further meetings, called at the initiatives of denominations and institutions. A loosely organized Committee of Continuing Conversations, coordinated by John Howard Yoder and Donald F. Durnbaugh, offered guidance to these successive independent initiatives during the planning processes. The next conference was held in Chicago in June and July 1970, sponsored by Chicago Theological Seminary (United Church of Christ); its themes were Christian witness and lifestyles. In May 1972 the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, convened a conference for lay members to familiarize them with the concept of the believers church. Pepperdine College (Churches of Christ) in Malibu, California, held the next in the informal series in June 1975, with the focus on restitution of apostolic Christianity.

Canadian Baptists and Mennonites sponsored an elaborately planned and well attended conference in Winnipeg in May 1978. Its proceedings were published in 1979, accompanied by a study guide. The focus of the Canadian meeting was the relevance of the believers church concept to the religious situation in Canada. Bluffton College (General Conference Mennonite). organized the next meeting in October 1980, to investigate the Christology of the believers churches. This was followed by a conference at Anderson, Indiana ( Church of God), in June 1984, at which participants reacted to the ecumenical document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, 1982), with particular attention to the issue of baptism. These proceedings were also published. An eighth conference, on ministry in believers church perspective, was held in September 1987 at Bethany Theological Seminary, Oak Brook, Illinois (Church of the Brethren).

Mennonites have been at the center of this series of meetings. One of the initiators of the series was Johannes A. Oosterbaan, professor of the Amsterdam Mennonite Theological Seminary. As a result of his ecumenical involvements with the World Council of Churches, Oosterbaan was convinced that descendants of the Radical Reformation needed to be aware of their common heritage in order to enter the ecumenical dialogue. Following the 1963 meeting of the Faith and Order Commission in Montreal, he gathered support for his vision in conversations with colleagues in Canada and the United States. This was an immediate catalyst for the landmark Louisville conference in 1967. Another precipitant was a meeting of representatives of Mennonites, Friends, and Brethren (historic peace churches) held at Richmond, IN in June 1964, the immediate forerunner of the Louisville meeting of 1967. Franklin H. Littell, the Methodist author of The Anabaptist View of the Church (1952, 1958, 1964) and The Free Church (1957), was a leading participant in both the Richmond and Louisville gatherings; in many speeches and articles he had delineated the significance of the "Left Wing" of the Reformation for modern church life. John Howard Yoder has provided incisive theological leadership in shaping the conferences and in delivering major papers at them.

Mennonites from several branches have found the concept of the believers churches helpful in providing self-understanding. They have used it as an organizing principle for curricula or courses in several academic institutions (Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Goshen College, Eastern Mennonite University, Bluffton University), and have used the term as a theological basis for Christian education materials (Foundation Series) and a series of Bible commentaries. Other educational institutions have also found the concept useful as a theme for course offerings.

Some Mennonite writers have pointed out that although the defining characteristics of the believers church correspond with Mennonite self-understandings and actual practice in many cases, there are aspects of Mennonite history which do not fit well at all. Notable here are the experiences of Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine and in Latin America. Also, those Mennonites in northern Germany and The Netherlands who became increasingly urbanized and acculturated in the 19th and 20th centuries fail to see their churches best interpreted by this phrase.

Related to the constituency of the believers churches is the work of the North American Committee for the Documentation of Free Church Origins (NACDFCO). It was initiated in 1963 (constituted in 1966 with bylaws) at the suggestion of the Täuferakten-Kommission of Germany to further that body's work of publishing sources of Anabaptism. Leading figures in the work of the NACDFCO were George H. Williams and Franklin H. Littell; Cornelius Krahn was the first executive secretary, succeeded in 1971 by Walter Klaassen. The ambitious plans of the original committee were never realized, although its work did result in several publications. The never-completed series of sources in translation, Documents in Free Church History Series, edited by Williams and Littell, resulted in two volumes: D. F. Durnbaugh, ed., Every Need Supplied (1974), on mutual aid and Christian community; and Lowell H. Zuck, ed., Christianity and Revolution (1975). A volume compiled by Clyde L. Manschreck on religious liberty was never published and a fourth in the series, titled Womanhood in Radical Protestantism, ed. Joyce L. Irwin, was published independently in 1979. The series Classics of the Radical Reformation (Institute of Mennonite Studies and Herald Press, 1973ff.) was inspired in part by the committee. In 1973 NACDFCO participants agreed to meet more informally as a fellowship of historians.


Chicago Theological Register 60 (September 1970): 1-59.

Durnbaugh, Donald F. The Believers' Church The History and Character of Radical Protestantism. New York: Macmillan Co., 1968, 1970, reprinted Scottdale, 1985.

Garrett, James Leo, Jr.The Concept of the Believers' Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969.

Gospel Herald (20 June 1972): 535-536.

Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44 (March 1976): 7-113.

Littell, Franklin H. The Free Church: The Significance of the Left Wing of the Reformation for Modern American Protestantism. Boston: Starr King Press, 1957.

Littell, Franklin H. "The Historic Free Church Defined." Brethren Life and Thought 9 (Autumn 1964): 78-90.

Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia of American Religions, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research Co. 1987: 47-67.

Springer, Nelson and Klassen, A. J., compilers, Mennonite Bibliography, 1631-1961, 2 vols. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977 II: p. 537.

Strege, Merle D., ed. Baptism and Church: A Believers' Church Vision. Grand Rapids: Sagamore Books, 1986.

Weaver, J. Denny. "A Believers ' Church Christology." Mennonite Quarterly Review 77 (1983): 112-131 [with footnote references to places of publication of conference papers].

Westin, Gunnar. The Free Church Through the Ages. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1958.

Zeman, Jarold K. and Klaassen, Walter, eds.The Believers' Church in Canada. Waterloo, Ontario: Baptist Federation of Canada.; Mennonite Central Committee Canada, 1979.

Author(s) Donald F Durnbaugh
Date Published 1987

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Durnbaugh, Donald F. "Believers Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 4 Aug 2021.

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Durnbaugh, Donald F. (1987). Believers Church. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 4 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 63-64. All rights reserved.

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