How to disagree like an Anabaptist

Michael Sattler’s life and death offer four principles for dealing with theological disagreements

Michael Sattler was captured by the Roman Catholic authorities in Horb, tried May 17, 1527, at Rottenburg, and was martyred May 21, 1527.

At the time of this writing, meetings are taking place that will shape how the USMB Pacific District Conference moves forward in its convictions regarding human sexuality. This pivotal moment leads me to consider the life of Michael Sattler, a “superlative witness” according to William R. Estep, for an Anabaptist approach in confronting theological disagreement. It is not only how Sattler lived but also how he died that makes him laudable of such a description. So, let’s revisit his May 20, 1527, execution at Rottenburg, Germany.

The martyrdom of Michael Sattler

Sattler’s death is described in Classics of the Radical Reformation: The Legacy of Michael Sattler. “And then on the said day, according to the content of the verdict, he was led out and they began by cutting off his tongue and tearing his body with red hot tongs. But he praised God at the place of execution, hard and strong. As he was being tied to the ladder with cords, he admonished the Schultheiss [procurator] that he should meditate on the words which he had spoken with him in love and secretly, and that he should willingly render himself to God the Lord.

“A small sack of powder was hung around his neck and thus he was thrown into the fire. When then the powder went off and one despaired of his still being alive, he cried with a clear voice often and constantly to God in heaven. When he had been crying thus for a long time, he became unbound in the fire and raised his arms high with the first two fingers on each hand outstretched [according to Estep, “to show that a martyr’s death was bearable”] and cried with a powerful voice: ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my soul!’ And thus ended his life. The Lord be eternally praised. Amen!”  

What was Sattler guilty of? Given the brutal sentencing, a modern reader might expect the most heinous acts man is capable of, like serial murder or terrorism. However, if you read the record of the trial, you will notice that all nine charges directly or indirectly relate to religious disagreements—accusations that his position on the Lord’s Supper, baptism, last rites and the status of Mary were heretical according to the Roman Catholic church.  With almost 500 years of reflection, such charges and disagreements seem foreign, even petty, to modern ears. However, what is even more foreign than these points of disagreement is the uncharacteristic way Sattler is reported to have conducted himself while on trial.

Learning from Sattler

How did Sattler respond? I see a man full of not only boldness but kindness. While imprisoned, Sattler writes to his congregation, saying “not to forget love” toward those who were persecuting them. At his execution, Sattler evangelizes and prays for his executioners. How could a person awaiting the fire have kindness, command others without bitterness to love their enemies and pray for his own enemies? The source of his confidence and love must have divine origins, for it was not Sattler but Christ at work in him according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). With Sattler’s example in mind, let’s consider how we can respond those we disagree with.

Begin with Scripture. During the trial, Sattler asks his accusers, “Would you send for the most learned [men] and for the godly books of the Bible, in whatever language they might be, and let them discuss the same with us in the Word of God. If they show us with Holy Scripture that we are in error and wrong, we will gladly retract and recant.”

Sattler appeals to Scripture alone and builds his theology upon it. What if the next time a hot topic such as—women’s roles in church, how to approach those from the LGBTQ+ community, race or politics—comes up between brothers and sisters, instead of being quick to make assertions and assumptions about each other, we would ask the seminal question together: What do the Scriptures say?

In the Christian community, little is accomplished when we are quick to share our opinions before considering what God has already said. The likelihood of a fruitful discussion increases when chapter and verse are consulted at the beginning. Even if I don’t come to common ground with my discussion partner at least I will understand how his reading of Scripture leads him to his conclusions.

Full disclosure: I am a conservative evangelical who believes in the inspiration, authority, infallibility and (yes!) the inerrancy of Scripture. Yet, I continuously notice that it is those who share my own convictions on Scripture who mistake their interpretation of Scripture as being the same as Scripture itself. The two are not the same.

I am fallible. The Scriptures are not. I err in my interpretation. The triune Lord never speaks a falsehood in his inspiration of the written Word.

The pathway to more fruitful, humble dialogue with those we disagree with begins with a posture that acknowledges our fallibility. (I am confident that my theology is wrong somewhere; I just don’t know where!) Surely a humble heart is more compelling than the smugness of our supposedly superior knowledge. This posture would reflect the same humility Sattler showed toward his persecutors when asking to show him his error from Scripture.

Charity and understanding of another’s view. This point reflects the negative example of Sattler’s accusers: those in power only provided the semblance of a fair trial to appease the crowd, while in fact they misinterpreted Sattler’s views.

One of my teachers has said: “I am not yet ready to critique my opponent’s viewpoint until I can articulate his position and he can say, ‘Yes, that is what I believe.’” We owe our dialogue partners the respect of taking the time to understand them before articulating our disagreement. What good does it accomplish to mischaracterize others and defeat a position no one holds? None.

For example, there are presently those within our denominational family who no longer agree with Article 11 of the USMB Confession of Faith regarding traditional marriage and are now LGBTQ+ affirming. Among these, some have referenced The Reformation Project, an LGBTQ+ network founded by Matthew Vines. I don’t intend to be provocative, but I encourage anyone to read Vines’ God and the Gay Christian. Immediately afterwards they should first read Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? and then (for those who wish to go deeper) Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Both works clinically expose the lack of biblical warrant in Vines’ recycled arguments.

This practice of understanding my opponent’s perspective has brought incredible peace to my soul. As suspicion is sucked out of the conversation, I come to an informed understanding of why my opponent may be wrong. Even more helpfully, I can have confidence in my own biblical convictions which have stood the test of scrutiny.

If Christians would only take the time to thoughtfully respect those who are LGBTQ+ affirming by reading their works, we would see the dearth of support their position actually has from Scripture. Further, we would know what really lies at the bottom: the question over LGBTQ+ inclusion is not ultimately a question over Christian love but over the level of authority we ascribe to Scripture.

Clear conviction. Since I entered the Mennonite Brethren world 11 years ago, I have witnessed the USMB family claim to be committed to peace. Yet, when disagreements arise, there tends to be a cultural tendency to strive for unity at all costs in the name of peace while failing to address important points of contention.

The problem is that by nature, truth is divisive. Whenever I affirm the truth, I am also negating a falsehood. For example, in the early church, to say that “Jesus is Lord” was to say that Caesar is not.

Observing Sattler, I see a peaceful man who is so unwavering in his biblical convictions that he is willing to break from the state church to advocate for a true New Testament church. What matters more to this South German Anabaptist is that he would rather be at peace with God even if that does not result in peace with man.

As Christians, our goal ought never be to appease others by telling them what they want to hear. Our goal should be to stand firm on biblical truth when we are confident of what God says. Instead of being passive, now is the time to count the cost. There may be consequences for us in this life, but we know that we are citizens of a greater kingdom. I am reminded of the words of one pastor, Adrian Rogers: “It is better to be divided by truth, than to be united by error.”

Love of enemy. Finally, consider how Sattler loves his enemies. He sees each of them as God’s image bearers, albeit confused in their thinking—hence his prayers and evangelism toward them even as he is about to be burned.

Perhaps the question we ought to ask when dialoguing with our opponents, even when we believe their convictions may have disastrous consequences, is this: “Jesus, how do you see this person today?” Oh, that the Lord would give us his perspective that would lead to love and compassion towards others! Perhaps when this happens, we will see that our “opponent” is not actually our enemy but an image bearer for whom we should be in fervent prayer.

Perhaps this would change our approach to “show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 23). Perhaps this would humble us to see that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).

If we call ourselves Anabaptists—if we call ourselves disciples of Jesus—we must follow him in this sacrificial way.


  1. Much needed truth. Reminds me of what it means to walk in Jesus’ steps, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23)

  2. Aaron,

    Well written. Your point about truth dividing is important, for no real peace can be found in a unity grounded in falsehood. That is a faux unity, one which cannot last. The natural effects on the human body alone through the practice of sinful sexual acts is evidence enough that God has spoken clearly in Scripture.

    It seems to me that your interlocutors on the “other side” of this debate will, at some point, have to deny, or drastically reduce, the authority of Scripture. After all, it is those abrasive and uncomfortable parts of God’s Word that drive us either to more fully recognize our falleness and embrace His truth or to embrace our falseness and reject His truth.

    Anthony Costello

  3. Thank you for these words. I am not an authority on the issue by any means but I appreciate the suggestions for books on the subject. God bless!


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