Following Christ in Life:
The Anabaptist-Mennonite Tradition

by Chris Marshall

 

To say we were converted by a cook book would be going too far. But it was the More with Less recipe book together with John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, which my wife and I read as university students, that first triggered our interest in the Anabaptist tradition.

Both books were produced by Mennonites and both gave expression, in different ways, to the same fundamental Mennonite conviction: that to be a Christian means following Jesus, that following Jesus means taking Jesus' ethical teaching seriously, and taking Jesus seriously means a lifestyle of simplicity, service and peacemaking. In the heyday of student radicalism in the early 1970s, discovering the authentic Christian radicalism of this long-established but little known faith tradition was very timely.

Three decades later we count that tradition to be one of the most formative influences on our understanding of Christian faith. Our lives have been immeasurably enriched by participation in two Mennonite congregations, attendance at several Mennonite conferences, a period of sabbatical leave at a Mennonite seminary and, above all, by enduring friendships with Mennonite Christians in different parts of the world.

First Contact

After completing my initial theological studies in 1980, I was accepted for postgraduate work in New Testament at the University of London. We decided to spend three months in North America en route to Britain. Thinking this would be a good opportunity to meet some real live Mennonites, I obtained addresses of three Mennonite organisations from the US embassy in Wellington. One was near Chicago, which was on our itinerary, so we arranged to pay them a visit.

Our first few weeks in America were very unsettling. We encountered various expressions of church life, but didn't much like what we saw. Whether it was the smooth consumer religion of the mega-church we visited in Los Angeles, or the manipulative showmanship of the countless televangelists we watched, or the overt racism of the small Midwestern Presbyterian church we attended with some distant relations, the American Christian scene seemed bizarre indeed.

What we found most disturbing however was the boisterous 'God and country' nationalism that permeated church as well as society. I remember watching one well-known TV preacher, whose theology was 'thoroughly orthodox' I was assured by an American friend, commemorate the 4th of July with a sermon entitled, "I am the American flag". In return for a reasonable donation to his ministry, I could have got a transcript of his message and a lapel badge of the Stars 'n Stripes! Reluctantly I decided against it.

With all this fresh in our minds, we turned up at the Mennonite World Conference headquarters in Lombard, near Chicago. We were given a gracious welcome and spent the afternoon in conversation. At one point I asked the Director what he thought of the religious nationalism so pervasive in what we had seen of the American church. "Idolatry", was his simple reply. I recall writing in the visitors' book: "Wonderful to meet kindred spirits".

We arrived in London later that year and spent the first few months finding our feet. We visited several churches in our neighbourhood, including All Souls Langham Place, but could find nothing that really suited. One weekend I went with a friend to a conference celebrating the fifth birthday of the evangelical magazine Third Way. One of the speakers was Alan Kreider, the Director of the London Mennonite Centre. I was most impressed by him, and the following Sunday we attended the worship service of the London Mennonite Fellowship in Highgate, North London.

As strangers in a foreign land, spiritually it felt like coming home. We fitted, in a way we had not experienced before. We remained active members of that church until we returned to New Zealand four years later.

 

What was it about this small Mennonite fellowship we found so special? Many things, but the one that stands out was its wholistic, integrative theology. Here was a church that held together many of the concerns we had come to believe were integral to Christian faith, but which in our experience Christians so often set against each other: joyful worship with sensitivity to pain; thoughtful biblical teaching with openness to the Spirit; evangelism with social commitment; scholarship with spirituality; ethical seriousness with humility and gentleness; Christian community with an acceptance of people's individuality; enjoyment of cultural activities with nonconformity to the world.

These things are often seen as mutually exclusive; Christians split asunder what God has joined together. The London Mennonite community modelled a natural and attractive integration of them.

Perhaps what made it easier for this church to achieve such integration is the radical christocentrism (or Christ centredness) of the Mennonite tradition. In his own life and ministry, Jesus embodied the wholistic embrace of God's kingdom. He addressed with equal concern the spiritual, physical and social dimensions of life.

Mennonites characteristically look to the story of Jesus for their model of Christian conduct. They strive to follow Jesus' example and obey his teaching. So if Jesus displayed an inclusive wholesomeness of life, you would expect those who follow him to do likewise - although this is rare, even in most Mennonite churches.

There is a real sense, of course, in which all Christian traditions are christocentric. That's what makes them 'Christian' in the first place. But in the mainstream traditions, doctrinal christocentrism has tended to eclipse ethical christocentrism. In other words, what one believes about Christ has been more important than whether one actually obeys him.

Christ has functioned more as the central link in the doctrine of salvation than as the central model for Christian values and behaviour. Tellingly, the church's historic creeds are all but silent on ethics in general, and the strenuous demands of Jesus in particular.

It is this that has allowed the church historically to bear the name of Christ yet do the work of the devil at the same time. In the interests of doctrinal orthodoxy, the church has raised armies and waged war, tortured heretics and burned witches, persecuted dissenters and compelled conversions.

In a way, the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition emerged as a 16th century protest movement against coercive Christianity. It championed the novel idea that the Church should be a voluntary community of genuine believers, not simply the religious face of civic society.

Over against the prevailing practice of baptising every infant into the national church, be it Catholic or Protestant, the first Anabaptists insisted that baptism was a believer's rite of entry to the community of faith. It was a visible expression of an intentional commitment to discipleship.

The term 'anabaptist' means re-baptiser, and was coined by opponents of the movement. It was a term of reproach, indeed a theological-legal charge of serious consequence. But the movement's leaders denied they were rebaptising anyone. Rather they were baptising for the first time, since they claimed that "christening" - where infants are deemed Christian by accident of birth - was not true Christian baptism.

The term 'Mennonite' derives from the name of a second generation Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons, who helped regroup and strengthen a movement traumatised by persecution and dispirited by some early misadventures.

The Radical Reformation

When people today think of the Protestant Reformation, they usually think only of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. But the 16th century was a confused and confusing time, and alongside the major reform movements existed a variety of more radical groups. These groups had differing outlooks and agendas, whether mystical, apocalyptic, theological, political or just plain criminal.

Many of them were dubbed 'anabaptist' by their opponents, whatever their specific beliefs or programme. Because of this, mainstream church historians in the past often dismissed Anabaptism as the lunatic fringe of the Reformation. In reply, Mennonite historians insisted that a distinction had to be drawn between normative or 'evangelical Anabaptism' that emerged in the heart of the Zwinglian Reformation in Zurich 1525 and other, more fanatical groups which claimed (or were given) the Anabaptist tag without possessing all the necessary credentials.1

There is general agreement today that both interpretations are misguided.2 Early Anabaptism was a complex and disparate phenomenon, and it is equally simplistic to tar all groups with the same extremist brush as it is to reserve 'anabaptist' for the initial Swiss movement alone. But for our purposes, it is sufficient to note that it was the protest raised by individuals such as Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz at the slow pace and caution of the Zwinglian Reformation in Zurich in the early 1520s that provided the decisive impulse for the emergence of a 'believers' church tradition' within the reforming currents of the day.

This tradition, for all its early and long term diversity, has nurtured a distinctive vision of Christian life that differs in certain crucial respects from that sustained by the major ecclesiastical traditions.

The Anabaptist Vision

We can pick out several distinguishing features of the Anabaptist approach to faith and witness.3 These understandings are particularly relevant for the contemporary western church, as it comes to terms with the demise of 'Christendom' (by which I mean that synthesis of church and culture that prevailed in western society from the time of emperor Constantine in the 5th century until very recently).4

In characterising the Anabaptist vision in this way, I do not wish to imply that any of the features mentioned are unique to Anabaptism. Other traditions have also stressed the importance of one or more of these features, sometimes as the legacy of the Anabaptist Reformation, sometimes independently of it. What sets Anabaptism apart, I believe, is the way it combines these convictions into a single coherent conception of Christian life and derives from them certain ethical obligations, such as non-violence, not typically acknowledged by mainstream traditions.

Nor am I wanting to suggest that every Anabaptist or Mennonite community, past or present, has understood or embodied the Anabaptist vision in the same way. Like all Christian traditions and denominations, there is diversity, as well as compromise, failure and atrophy within the Anabaptist fold. Conversely there are countless individuals, congregations and communities outside the Anabaptist tradition that are better advertisements for the Anabaptist vision than are many of their Mennonite counterparts.

By "Anabaptist vision" then, I am using what social scientists call an 'ideal type'. That is, it is a generalised, simplified portrait of how the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition conceives of Christian commitment and witness, a conception that corresponds to observable reality yet which cannot be equated with any single Anabaptist community or historical expression of the tradition.

The Centrality of Jesus

I have already commented on how Anabaptism insists on an ethical, not just a doctrinal, christocentrism. It affirms that the essential mark of Christian identity is not simply a correct theological evaluation of the person and work of Christ, but a conformity to the way of life taught and demonstrated by Jesus in the gospel records.

In Anabaptism ethical christocentrism also plays a crucial role in deciding how the scriptures are to be applied today. This approach to interpretation has a twofold application.

On the one hand, whatever in scripture agrees with Jesus' teaching and example may be accepted as God's word for today. Whatever contradicts the teaching of Jesus - such as war and killing - is no longer God's word for the new covenant community. As Menno Simons put it: "All Scripture must be interpreted according to the spirit, teaching, walk and example of Christ and the apostles".

On the other hand, in order to understand what is written about Christ in scripture and what is consistent with his teaching and spirit, one must first walk with Christ on the path of costly obedience. Hans Denk, another early Anabaptist leader, expressed this memorably: "No one can claim truly to know Christ unless one follows him in life".

This has been termed the 'hermeneutics of obedience': that only those who obey Jesus' call to discipleship can know the truth of scripture.5

The Anabaptist emphasis on the centrality of Jesus' role in determining our ethics and in helping us understand and interpret the scriptures - as well as for salvation and theology - has a significant contribution to make to the contemporary church. Many Christians today look to Jesus for salvation but elsewhere (including secular consensus) for ethics.

The idea that we can only know the truth insofar as we live the truth is also relevant here. This insight has come to the fore in much recent biblical and theological scholarship. It is also peculiarly suited to the post-modern secular context in which we live, with its emphasis on experiential truth and "walking the talk".

The Essence of Christianity is Discipleship

The early Anabaptists demanded a consistency between inner experience and outer lifestyle. They were critical of the official Reformation for failing to produce true Christian living in its adherents.

Although both Luther and Zwingli intended to produce such an outcome, "the level of Christian living among the Protestant population was frequently lower than it had been before under Catholicism".6 Both Reformers expressed concern over this and both toyed with the idea of establishing a true Christian fellowship separate from mass nominal Christianity, but both decided against it. The Anabaptists however proceeded to organise churches composed solely of those committed to full discipleship.

For the Anabaptists, the heart of Christian life was not justification by faith or divine election or the inward work of grace - though they accepted such ideas - but rather the concept of 'following Jesus'.

As Karsdorf explains, "No other Christian movement between the apostolic era and the modern mission period has articulated and demonstrated more clearly the meaning of discipling than have the Anabaptists. While mainline Reformers rediscovered the great Pauline term 'Glaube' (faith), the Radical Reformers rediscovered the evangelists' word 'Nachfolge' (discipleship). People cannot, they maintained, call Jesus Lord unless they are his disciples indeed, prepared to follow him in every way. This was the message they preached, the code they lived by, and the faith they died for".7

This contention that active discipleship is the essence of Christian identity offers an important corrective to the 'cheap grace' and 'easy-believism' that afflict so much of the contemporary church. Belonging to Christ demands moral distinctiveness, not just theological orthodoxy or cultural conformity.

An Ethic of Peace and Non-Violence

Not all early Anabaptists were committed to non-violence or "non-resistance" as they called it. Some Anabaptist sects were positively militant. In 1535, a group of revolutionary Anabaptists seized the city of Münster and proclaimed the advent of God's kingdom on earth, forcing baptism on its inhabitants and putting some resisters and opponents to death.

By the 1560s, however, a principled rejection of violence had become the dominant ethos of the movement. It was considered one of the primary ways believers could imitate Christ. A corollary of this was a refusal by many Anabaptists to swear oaths, since this not only violated Jesus' command against oath-taking and devalued truth8 but also entailed acceptance of the principle of state coercion.9

This resolute Anabaptist commitment to biblical non-violence, in a day when both Catholic and Protestant churches not only endorsed war as an instrument of state policy but even employed it themselves as a method of religious aggrandisement, provoked violent repression of the movement. Anabaptists were frequently killed by the authorities for their refusal to kill others.

In a century even more bathed in blood than was the 16th century, there is an urgent need for Christians to rediscover the call to Christian non-violence. Mahatma Gandhi once said that "the only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as non-violent are Christians".10 Anabaptists, like the Quakers, are instructive exceptions to this sad state of affairs.

The Church as a Visible Believing Community

The Anabaptist vision rests on a particular ecclesiology (or doctrine of the church). It conceives of the church as a gathered community of genuine believers, living under the authority of Christ, visibly distinct from both the unbelieving world and from nominal or apostate Christianity, both of which dwell "outside the perfection of Christ", to quote the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. There are several corollaries to this understanding of the church.

The first is voluntary membership. The mainstream Reformers essentially retained the medieval idea of a mass-church, with membership of the entire population from cradle to grave, enforced by law and coercion.

The Anabaptists, however, insisted on voluntary membership, based upon individual conversion and freely chosen commitment to discipleship. Arguably the modern democratic principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion derive ultimately from the Anabaptist Reformation.11

A second corollary is believers' baptism. The first Anabaptists repudiated infant baptism because it was the primary symbol of a state church and because it denied the essential prerequisite of voluntary and personal commitment to Christian living.

Another corollary is separation from the world. The early Anabaptists insisted on such separation both because it is a biblical prerequisite for discipleship and because they judged the contemporary social order, based on violence and coercion, to be alien to the spirit of the gospel.

Under the impact of bitter persecution, this emphasis on separation hardened into a dualistic "two kingdoms" theology that effectively abandoned the world in favour of the Christian ghetto. Such a position is unacceptable for any church that proclaims Christ's universal lordship. But at its best, the notion of separation captures the familiar New Testament injunction that believers resist conformity to this present evil age and be transformed in their mindset.12

Separation carries the corollary of a suffering church. When Christians practise nonconformity to the world they become, as Conrad Grebel put it, "sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter".

Just as Christ suffered for challenging the evil structures of his day, so those who are loyal to Jesus will suffer for doing likewise, and will do so without inflicting revenge. Catholic, Lutheran and Zwinglian authorities alike strove to throttle Anabaptism by torture, banishment and grisly execution. Thousands died.

A fifth feature of Anabaptist doctrine is its radical congregationalism. From its inception, Anabaptism was markedly anticlerical and non-hierarchical. It placed emphasis on servant leadership and the responsibility of every believer for ministry, mission and discernment.

"For the Anabaptist, the church was neither an institution (Catholicism), nor the instrument of God for the proclamation of the divine Word (Lutheranism), nor a resource group for individual piety (Pietism). It was a brotherhood of love in which the fullness of the Christian life ideal is to be expressed".13

The local congregation was also regarded as the proper context for biblical interpretation. This represented an innovation in the history of hermeneutics.14 Roman Catholicism stressed the hermeneutical privilege of "the Magisterium" or church hierarchy. Mainstream Protestantism gave emphasis to the role of the orthodox theologian, the scholar-teacher. Anabaptism invested interpretive authority with the gathered community, under the leading of the Spirit.15

In all these respects, the first Anabaptists believed they were restoring the church to its New Testament condition. They sought not so much the reformation of church as its restitution, a return to its primitive, pre-Constantinian form.

It is, of course, naive to believe it is possible to reconstitute the New Testament church (if such a thing as a single, uniform New Testament church ever existed, which is unlikely). But in these post-Constantinian days, the Anabaptist conviction that the church's effectiveness is to be measured, not by the influence, power or prestige it exerts in wider society but by its faithfulness to the pattern of communal life and mission enjoined by its founding documents, and especially by its consistency with the story of Jesus, remains as relevant and as radical as ever.

 

For me, the genius, attractiveness and relevance of the Anabaptist vision lies in the way it integrates several crucial truths: the primacy of Jesus as the supreme model for Christian life, the call to a radical discipleship that touches upon ethics as well as personal spirituality, the church as a counter-cultural community, based on voluntary membership, servant leadership, mutual care and corporate ministry, and dedication to the way of peace and non-violence.

Increasing numbers of Christians today, from a wide diversity of backgrounds, would affirm many or all of these, in some shape or form, as essential ingredients of Christian commitment. For such people, Anabaptism offers a satisfying integration of them, as well as a wisdom born of long historical experience of attempting to live out this vision in a violent and hostile world.

As Christendom unravels before our eyes and the western church is forced by this fact to rethink its true role in society, Anabaptism is an idea that has found its day.

 

Notes

1 So H. S. Bender, "The Anabaptist Vision", in G. F. Hershberger, The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957), 35.

2 See J. M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, KA: Coronado Press, 19762), 1-29.

3 For Anabaptist sources and history, see W. Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline. Selected Primary Sources (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981), and C.J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1967).

4 On this, see D. W. Smith, Transforming the World? The Social Impact of British Evangelicalism (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 111-114.

5 B.C. Ollenberger, "The Hermeneutics of Obedience", in W. M. Swartley (ed.), Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Elkhart IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 45-61. See also M. Augsburger, Principles of Biblical Interpretation in Mennonite Theology (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1967); W. Klaassen, "Anabaptist Hermeneutics: Presuppositions, Principles and Practice", and J.H. Yoder, "The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists", in W. M. Swartley (ed.), Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 5-10 & 11-28 respectively.

6 Bender, "The Anabaptist Vision", 40, 42.

7 H. Kasdorf, "The Anabaptist Approach to Mission", in W. R. Shenk (ed.), Anabaptism and Mission (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1984), 53.

8 Matt 5:33-37.

9 See E. Pries, "Oath Refusal in Zurich from 1525 to 1527: the Erratic Emergence of Anabaptist Practice", in W. Klaassen (ed.), Anabaptism Revisited (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992), 65-84; Klaassen Anabaptism in Outline, 282-89.

10 Quoted in W. Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 216.

11 So P. Peachy, "The Modern Recovery of the Anabaptist Tradition", in G. F. Hershberger, The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957), 332

12 Rom 12:1-2.

13 Bender, "The Anabaptist Vision", 53.

14 Yoder, "Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists", 11-28.

15 C.J. Dyck, "The Anabaptist Understanding of the Good News", in W. R. Shenk (ed.), Anabaptism and Mission (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1984), 38.

 

Chris Marshall has taught New Testament at BCNZ for the past 14 years. He lives in Henderson with one wife, two sons, one cat, one dog and one boarder. He has recently been on sabbatical leave completing a number of writing assignments, including a major book entitled Christ and Crime: A Christian Perspective on Justice, Crime and Punishment. He is on the committee of the Australia and New Zealand Anabaptist Association.


 

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