The Reformers and Their Stepchildren

Leonard Verduin

In the introduction Verduin succinctly explains who the stepchildren are. The stepchildren are those, who, during the reformation break away from not only the Roman Catholic “church,” but also the reformers. They were also known as the “second front” due to their rejection of the reformers doctrine and ecclesiology. The reformers coined derogatory terms for the stepchildren, this enabled the reformers to fully express their disdain. Verduin uses a new name per chapter and he expounds upon it. Verduin’s method did not allow him to write history in a chronological manner; when I first started the book I found this to be a little unusual and difficult at times. But, it was not altogether a problem and the book was not overly difficult to understand. There was some difficulty reading and understanding the footnotes since not all were written in English. I found the book to be an enjoyable read and was left wandering what Verduin would think of our current ecclesiastical methods.

The first term Verduin writes about is “donatisten.” The reformers were not the first to use this term. There was a group up believers in the fourth century known as the Donatists who resisted the Christianity of Constantine. Augustine recognized them as rebels, and as such he persecuted them for their refusal to join with the Roman Catholic “church.” By calling the stepchildren Donatists the reformers associated them with previous rebels and therefore considered them a rebellion. Verduin writes, “there can never be such a thing as a Christian culture; there can only be cultures in which the influence of Christianity is more or less apparent.” (p. 24) The Donatists rejected a Christian culture, or state Christianity on the grounds that claiming to be Christian does not make one a Christian. In this chapter Verduin refers to proof texts used by the reformers and notes that they were primarily derived from the Old Testament, yet he did not give examples. Slightly frustrated I continued to read. He did provide proof texts throughout the book, but neglected to provide examples in the first chapter, after such a dogmatic statement this seemed to be an oversight.

The second chapter titled “stabler” means “staff carriers;” The stepchildren carried staffs in order to express disapproval to those reformers and Roman Catholics who carried the sword. Carrying the staff became synonymous with heresy. The staff represented the rejection of coercion by violence and the sword. They believed that you could not force a person to become a “Christian.” Verduin writes, “we have discovered anew that voluntaryism is of the essence of the Gospel.” As I read this chapter I could not help but think about all of the civilians who are so eager to bear arms against radical Islamic terrorist. And, I was also reminded of those who like to force the Sword (Word of God) down people’s throats. We must evangelize, yet we cannot force people to make decisions. A forced or manipulated decision can hinder the Gospel.

Catharer is a term that refers to conduct. Verduin writes, “if the church become inclusive, so that “all in a given locality” are in it, then all this has to change; than a leveling-off takes place. Then the “world” is no longer something that lies around the church but it has become identical with the Church.” (p. 95) It would be interesting to know what Verduin would think of our current mega-churches. He continues, Christian behavior and ordinary human behavior become indistinguishable, he coins this “conductal averagism.” (p. 96) Ironically the reformers testify one moment to the holy living of the stepchildren and then later accuse them of wife swapping and orgies (communal living). The reformers clearly are inconsistent in their opinions.

The fourth chapter concerns the term “sacramentschwarmer” and refers to the stepchildren’s rejection of the of sacramental salvation. The stepchildren believed in the Gospel as the means by one is saved. Verduin writes, “the true Christian is one who stands in tension with the world as it exists apart from the redeeming act of God.” (p. 133) The reformed churches (reformers), just like Roman Catholicism, wanted to Christianize the world and used the same method of force. They forced others to partake in the sacraments in order to become a part of the church. The stepchildren became avid students of the Bible and their memorization and awareness of it frustrated the reformers. There was even the “implication that those who became intimate with the Book deserved to die.” (p. 153)

Winkler, another term that referred to the stepchildren means “a corner or an out-of-the-way place” (p. 160) For their own protection the stepchildren were meeting in hiding places and rejecting the communal gatherings of the recognized church. These meetings were considered heretical and were described as public cults. Another term “wiedertaufer, is a term meaning Anabaptists, which in turn means rebaptizers.” (p 189) This term was not a creation of the reformers, the Donatists were also known as Anabaptists. The recognized churches made it a law to baptize children and would even take children against their parents will for the purpose of baptism.

Chapter seven is titled “kommunisten” and refers to community. Some of the stepchildren practice the collection of belongings and resources for the common good. The Roman Catholic church and the reformers demonstrated a lack of concern for the people in contrast to the kindness and provision of the step children. As mentioned before the reformers accused the stepchildren of immorality in order to explain away their lack of social help.

The last term “rottengeister” means faction. The stepchildren were unwilling to take oaths. Just like baptism, and the Lord’s table, taking oaths was forced upon the people.Verduin explains the contrast of the reformers to the stepchildren. The reformers broke from the Roman Catholic church, but never broke from the methods and philosophies. The stepchildren suffered at the hands of both the Roman Catholic church and the reformers. They were branded because of their unwillingness to associate with the majority. Verduin helps the reader to understand the complexities from every party.

As I read the book I am forced to evaluate my own tradition and treatment of others, which is why I believe Verduin wrote the book. It was not written chronologically because history is cyclical and Verduin’s historical record is a reminder that although many have been oppressed through the years there has always been a true church. I would have preferred the book to be chronological (for ease) but, his method makes sense as he proves the tremendous pressure of each generation to follow a status quo, and the persecution of those who do not comply with the larger community (which is normally not doctrinally sound). His account of the reformers and their stepchildren forced me to think of my own history as well as the history that I will be making. We may not experience persecution in the same way as the stepchildren, but one can clearly see the division and judgment practiced within the modern church. The Roman Catholic church wanted to control the people, the reformers wanted to control the people. We must be alert to any person or philosophy that wants to control people, or offers salvation apart from the work of Christ. As I finished the book I evaluated my own ecclesiology. And, like most of the other books I read, I feel like I need to read it again to fully appreciate Verduin’s efforts and passion.