The “essence” of Anabaptism

Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2014

[On the evening of July 20, I spoke as part of a panel of four on theme of the meaning of Anabaptism, at Morning View Mennonite Church. I was assigned two general questions and given first five minutes and then ten minutes to speak. It was a great experience. It was challenging because it was a rural, quite conservative congregation (having split from Virginia Mennonite Conference because the conference was too “liberal” about the same time my congregation split from Virginia Conference because it was too “conservative”). I focused on finding common ground with other panelists—I was the only one who is now part of Mennonite Church USA. It’s a good exercise, I think, to reflect on our core identity.]

What are the core elements that define historic Anabaptism?

The Anabaptist movement emerged in the 1520s as part of the Protestant Reformation and, because of its radical call to return to the gospels, came to be known as the Radical Reformation. Anabaptists built on the work of mainline reformers such as Martin Luther who taught a direct appropriation of biblical teaching over church tradition. They took things a step further, though, and zeroed in on the message of Jesus. They affirmed following that message for all Christians—no matter what the cost. So, the core of the core in naming the essence of Anabaptism, I would say, is recovering Jesus’s way as the heart of Christian faith.

To say more than that gets complicated. There were many early expressions of the Anabaptist movement—some branched off the first group in Zurich, Switzerland. Some sprang up spontaneously—a revolution in the understanding of Christian faith was in the air. The Anabaptist movement was decentralized. When we talk about historic Anabaptism, we should acknowledge quite a bit of diversity. But I believe, in contrast to the recent generation of academic historians, that we may still affirm a sense of coherence in the movement—even if it didn’t take the form of a centralized organization or official creeds and dogmas.

Anabaptists believed Jesus to be more central than church tradition, the nation-state, institutional hierarchies, or top-down operated rituals. Because of this, Anabaptists got into trouble—to the point that thousands were killed for embodying their convictions. So I suggest if we want to flesh out our sense of the essence of Anabaptism in the 16th century—and of a usable Anabaptist vision—we should look at why all these diverse Anabaptists got into trouble (recognizing of course, that each group had its own distinctive way of embodying these core convictions).

Four key convictions

Let me mention four key convictions that I see as reasons why they got in trouble—and convictions we who see ourselves as Anabaptists may in our own ways try to embody today:

(1) The most obvious reason was that Anabaptists baptized only those committed to following Jesus—that is, they rejected infant baptism. This was not so much a theological sin, though, as a political one. Infant baptism had political meaning. It was an act of the state church —and meant that the infant was claimed by the state as an obedient citizen. To say no to infant baptism was to say no to giving highest loyalty to the nation-state. This was a crime against the state—a symbol of the denial of national loyalty. Baptism, for Anabaptists—then and now—means affirming that Jesus, not Caesar, Jesus, not the nation-state, is Lord.

(2) One particular outworking of embracing Jesus as a higher authority than the state that came to be central for Anabaptists and their Mennonite descendants was the rejection of participation in warfare. We see this early on in the trial that led to the execution of Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler—he explicitly refused to support wars against the Turks. Jesus calls us to love our enemies—that means we can’t take up arms against them.

(3) German Mennonite scholar Hans-Jürgen Goertz argues that what characterized the Anabaptists in all their diversity was “anti-clericalism.” The way I say this is that they rejected top-down power structures—certainly in the church, but also more generally. Power rests with the community, the weak are given voice, decisions are made by people together. And the structures, church and state, that depend on domination and coercion are rejected.

(4) Finally, the Anabaptists all practiced an economics of sharing as opposed to an economics of possessiveness. The most famous and extreme expression of this was the Hutterites, who already in the 1530s (and down to the present) practiced a strict community of goods and rejected private ownership. Other Anabaptists weren’t so extreme—but all of them rejected the dynamics in their societies that were part of the emergence of capitalism and the glorification of wealth accumulation and competition for scarce resources.

What are the most serious current threats to historic Anabaptism?

I will respond to this question as an American, even more specifically as a white, middle class American—and with regards to the types of Mennonites I have been and continue to be around. There is a genuine question of how much Mennonites who are in, say, Mennonite Church USA, or other white, middle-class Americans actually can embody historic Anabaptism at all. It was a movement that existed, in many ways, in much more tension with its dominant culture than Mennonites like me do. But I do want to be an Anabaptist Christian. What are the things that make this the most difficult—the “most serious current threats to historic Anabaptism” insofar as I might be part of communities that embody it?

In a slightly different way from my earlier effort to define the essence of Anabaptism, I would say here that the key commitment of the Anabaptist Christian—characterized by a desire to follow Jesus as closely as possible—is to love our neighbors. This is the core commandment that Jesus gave his followers. He linked love of neighbor directly with eternal life and then told the parable of the Good Samaritan as a response to the question, who is my neighbor. With this parable, Jesus showed that love of neighbor means loving even our enemies.

So, I would like to reflect on the most serious current threats to historic Anabaptism by reflecting on some things that most keep us from loving our neighbors.

One current threat, then, is nationalism. I don’t think the founders and namers of Mennonite Church USA meant to be nationalistic with this name for the new denomination fifteen years ago—but it is profoundly unsettling for me to be part of a church that names a nation-state as part of its title. This does, I suspect, reflect a lessening of awareness of how we do identify with our nation in ways that can diminish the sense that Anabaptist Christians have a birthright of resistance to national identification.

From my experience with young people at EMU, I get the sense that many Mennonite youth do have a pretty strong sense of nationalism as part of their way of viewing the world. Mennonites seem more and more comfortable using the term “we” when talking about, say, US foreign policy. We are more and more comfortable paying taxes that feed our empire of military bases around the world and the arms that support those bases.

I have done a lot of research into World War II. One sobering learning was how many American Christians in the 1930s were against war and vowed not to go to war if called upon to do so—the numbers of such supposed pacifists then is unimaginable today. But when the nation issued the call to fight—almost all of these Christians answered in the affirmative. I believe the main reason was that, professing pacifism or not, most American Christians were socialized to identify extremely closely with their nation—more so than with Jesus. When the nation called, Jesus’s message was set aside. I fear this might increasingly be the case among present-day Mennonites. Fewer seem to see a strong tension between Christian faith and nationalism.

A second threat to Anabaptist faith is the pervasive consumerism of our society. In my Mennonite context, young people are inundated with the message that happiness comes from possessions—the most creative work, in many ways, in our society is being done by advertising agencies. I grew up in a small town in western Oregon. My family was not closely connected to the church. My parents placed no restrictions, really, on my access to the media. They didn’t teach me to be critical. But my exposure to the gospel of consumerism was so minimal compared to what young people get today—even young people in Mennonite families who do teach a critical attitude toward that “gospel.” This consumerism may be the most powerful influence that shapes middle class Americans today—and it contradicts the early Anabaptist practice of an economics of sharing, voluntary poverty, and service.

A third threat follows from the one I just mentioned. That is the growing dominance of corporations in our society—certainly corporations fuel the emphasis on consumerism. But the impact is much more pervasive. Corporations as “persons” shape our lives in decidedly impersonal ways—exploiting nature of the sake of profit, funding the hollowing out of participatory democracy, driving a lot of the dynamics of popular Christianity, benefiting from militarism, and on and on.

Fourth, and finally, let me mention a more theological threat. I believe that the genius of the Anabaptist movement at its best was how it embodied the gospel message of the inextricable linking together of faith and practice. Faith without works is dead. Works without faith is dead. There is no separation. Theologically, this means that Jesus is our model and Jesus is our savior. It means that Jesus shows us what God is like and shows us what God wants human beings to be like. Jesus is divine—but that means that Jesus shows us that God is like the human being Jesus, loving, compassionate, peaceable, and welcoming.

Mennonites don’t have a tradition of a lot of careful thinking and writing about theology. The genius of the tradition has been an emphasis on living out the faith, we could say on practicing christology rather than writing books about it. And this worked great when Mennonites lived in fairly isolated communities without a lot of influence from other Christian traditions that were more comfortable separating practical life from doctrinal beliefs.

In our current day, though, Mennonites are more directly in contact with other Christians—and this is true for both “liberals” and “conservatives.” I fear that we don’t have as many intellectual defenses against what I would see as more dualistic perspectives. The threat I see is that modern day Anabaptists may be drifting away from the integrated sensibility of the original Anabaptists (who so powerfully embodied Jesus’s sensibility) where love of God and love of neighbor simply were two sides of one coin.

How to counter these threats

What might we do to counter these threats? This is most of all a question for particular faith communities, I think. Where we think of practical strategies for countering nationalism, consumerism, and theological dualism—and where we help each other to put those strategies into practice.

But let me make a couple of general points from the book of Revelation. Revelation is my favorite book of the Bible—the book I have studied more than any other. I don’t mean to open a can of worms about end times issues. I suggest that no matter whether you think of Revelation as being mostly about the future or not, if you read it carefully you will see its heart is not giving information about how things will end up but rather is a call to action and faithfulness for its readers. Revelation is not for spectators but for active disciples. The book is telling us—in a world dominated, it seems, by the Dragon and the Beast, this is how you should live.

And, here’s the main point: In a world of suffering and trauma, persecution and severe temptations to worship the Beast instead of the Lamb, this is what you do—you follow the Lamb’s way no matter what. As Paul mentions in Romans eight—there are many Powers that seek to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (analogous to the Dragon and Beast in Revelation). Paul affirms that they cannot do this, and that’s Revelation’s message too.

The Dragon cannot defeat us, cannot separate us from God’s love, cannot prevent us from showing the world God’s love—so long as we follow the Lamb wherever he goes. And where does the Lamb go? He goes on a path of persevering love, that recognizes each person as loved by God, that names as lies nationalism, consumerism, and theological dualism. Revelation teaches that actually defeating the Dragon is God’s work—we can trust that it is happening even when we feel surrounded by trauma and defeat. All we need to do is trust in God alone, love our neighbor as ourselves, and say no to the Dragon’s temptations to give him the loyalty we owe to God. Simple, but, of course, not easy.

Anabaptist faith, at its best, matters because it provides resources for such faithfulness. I affirm this tradition because it has a theological perspective, and historical and present-day examples, and communal resources (inadequate as they sometimes seem) that might empower those who believe that Jesus’s way is the truth.

 [More of my writings on Anabaptism]

14 thoughts on “The “essence” of Anabaptism

  1. Hey, Tim! You might be interested in what Bruxy Cavey is doing at The Meeting House in Canada. It’s a BIC congregation so it is in our Anabaptist stream, but he’s been preaching a series this summer that is put forward as a kinda “Anabaptist Systematic Theology”. It’s careful thinking and processing through basic Anabaptist and Christian beliefs… you might enjoy it. 🙂

  2. What a beautiful post, Ted! It’s clear that you indeed are communicating the essence when your presentation resonates with such a wide spectrum of Anabaptists. Sort of a “mere Anabaptism.” And you even powerfully brought in the book of Revelation without stepping into eschatological minefields!
    Well done, and thanks for sharing it.

  3. I like this, Ted. Given your audience as you described it, I would be interested in hearing more of what you are willing to share about how your observations were received.

    1. Thanks, Phyllis. It was quite an interesting experience for me. People were very nice. I had not expected it to be an “ambush,” and it wasn’t. It very much felt like we were thinking together. I’m sure some of the things I said would be controversial in some settings, but I didn’t expect them to be there and they weren’t.

      I’m sure it helped that I was on the panel with three trusted leaders, two of whom have been my EMU colleagues. All three spoke only positively in response to my comments.

      Now, I know that it’s the case, as one of my friends once said, that with Mennonites it’s hard to tell the difference between praise and condemnation. I don’t know that I felt praised, but I did feel respectfully listened to.

      1. “Respectfully listened to.” If this is sometimes under-practiced, I think it’s also often under-valued. Sometimes we super-responsible folk when someone expresses an opinion or shares a problem feel that we must immediately engage that opinion or suggest a solution to the problem. Sometimes just “respectfully listening” is the best option, and all the other person really wanted/needed, whether aware of it or not. “Respectful listening” is an important aspect of love. Especially in times of intense disagreement.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Ted. I love the questions of: “What got them (the first Anabaptists) in trouble? How can (contemporary Anabaptists) get in trouble?”

    You may recall (yeah right) from my EMS capstone two years ago my using the term “narrative-ethical looping” to describe Anabaptist hermeneutics and ethics, looking as we do back to Anabaptist forebears (diverse as they were) who were themselves, in the spirit of sola scriptura, looking back to the pattern of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life – and to the first communities in The Way as a pattern for communal life.

    I totally resonate, too, with your naming of nationalism and consumerism as contemporary threats to radical Christian faith (or just Christian faith, period).

    1. I appreciate the kind words, Brian.

      Of course I remember this point from your capstone. Where do you think I got my ideas? I just didn’t think “narrative-ethical looping” would be a very accessible term. 🙂

      It is nice that we are on the same page—I think it’s something theology should pay more attention to.

  5. As a Reformed Baptist seeking to understand my Anabaptist roots I found this article refreshing and inspiring. It is easy to agree with my brethren on the harms of consumerism and nationalism in theory, but translating the gospel into pacifistic thought and separation from the dragon as described above results in rejection. I often times feel quite alone but Praise God for saints who articulate the gospel so well and encourage me to remain faithful to our great God and Father while living out the two greatest commandments.

  6. Basically we have only the choice between nationalism (particularism) and imperialism (globalism). And I think that it is extremely dangerous to criticize nationalism so strongly, because it opens the way to imperialism.
    Of course an empire could be harmless if there’s at the same time a culture of mutual understanding and negotiating conflicts. BUT: If there was a culture of mutual understanding and negotiating conflicts, a bunch of particular nations would be just as harmless,.
    Remains the fact that Anabaptists were a particular/sectarian/separate association, just as nations. They were a self-administered “people”, so they are in no position to deny other people’s right to peoplehood or self-administration.

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