Core Convictions of the Anabaptist Network in the UK

In my last couple of posts on Anabaptism, I talked a bit about Anabaptist history. History is interesting to me, but I’m sure it doesn’t turn everyone’s crank, and the generous souls who are funding my sabbatical would be right to ask about its relevance to our vastly different contemporary situation. So let me bring these discussions to the present day.

 

 

 

One of the main reasons I am planning to journey to England for my sabbatical is because of the existence of the Anabaptist Network. The AN is made up of people from all sorts of denominations who are finding inspiration for their Christian lives in the Anabaptist understanding of discipleship. Under the ‘drawn to Anabaptism’ section on their website you will find articles by a Baptist, a United Reformed Church member, a Pentecostal, a Quaker, a ‘new church’ leader, an Anglican, a Methodist, and a leader in the ‘Jesus Army’, all telling their stories about how, while continuing to be members of their various churches, they have found a spiritual home in Anabaptism. Many more of these stories are told in the book ‘Coming Home’.

 

 

 

 

The Anabaptist Network has adopted the following seven ‘Core Convictions’, and it was these convictions, more than anything else, that cemented my interest in the Anabaptist way.

 

 

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

 

 

 

Obviously, at a couple of points these core convictions stand in tension with historic Anglican church polity (eg. ‘baptism is for believers’ contradicts our traditional practice of infant baptism). But for the most part, these convictions are compatible with membership in the Anglican Church, and they serve to sum up a way of living the Christian life that I find tremendously attractive. In my next few posts I will reflect on each of these convictions in turn, and detail some of the related questions I hope to take on my sabbatical with me.

 

 
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Love, Actually


If you haven’t seen this little gem, you need to know that it’s not a love story, it’s a story about love. There are several story lines, following the personal lives of several different characters. And, from a Christian point of view, I have to say that this really is a story about love, in the many senses of the word.

Oh, for sure, there’s lots of eros. There’s the guy who decides to go to America for Christmas (did I mention that it’s a British flick?) because he’s sure he’ll be more likely to get laid there (turns out to be right). There’s the writer who discovers that his girlfriend is sleeping with his brother, and who goes off to Europe to write, only to find love with a woman who speaks not one word of English (their ability to say what they really think to each other because they know the other person won’t understand is one of the funniest parts of the movie). There’s the Prime Minister who inconveniently falls in love with a young woman on his staff (one of the best lines in the movie is Hugh Grant’s ‘Trained assassins are only a phone call away’). There’s the rather shy couple who are (rather improbably) acting in a porn flick, who have been simulating the most daring sexual intimacies with each other for weeks, but who suddenly find they’re falling in love with each other.

But there’s also the sister who jeopardizes her chances to win the affection of the guy she’s been in love with for three years, because of her obligation to care for her mentally ill brother, who she loves with a devotion that’s heart-rending to watch. That story doesn’t have a happy ending, in the conventional sense of the word. There’s the aging rock star who realises at the end of the movie that the most important person in his life is actually the chubby manager he’s been making fun of for thirty years. There’s the businessman who makes the cardinal mistake of not getting rid of a flirtatious personal assistant at his office; he buys her an expensive necklace for Christmas, and his wife finds out about it. That story also remains unresolved at the end of the movie, and Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play it to perfection.

Which leads me to the superb cast. Rickman and Thompson take the crowns, as far as I’m concerned, for their portrayal of the typically British ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to the crisis that hits their marriage. But there are also great performances from Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Bill Nighy, Thomas Sangster, and Keira Knightley. Even Hugh Grant does his usual fine job of playing a diffident chap with a self-deprecating sense of humour (basically the same bloke he’s played in almost every movie he’s ever made…).

This movie dares to acknowledge that there are many different kinds of love, and that sometimes you sacrifice one kind to do a better job with another. It’s one of my all-time favourite flicks. I hope you get a chance to rent it.

More about the Beliefs of the Sixteenth Century Anabaptists

Anabaptism in the sixteenth century was a diverse movement; it didn’t have any strong central authority (unlike the Anglican reformation in England, which was entirely under the control of the King). But most Anabaptists would have shared the following convictions:

 

 

 

The Bible. Anabaptists agreed with the 16th Century Protestant Reformers that, under Christ, the Bible (not Church Tradition) has supreme authority in the life of the Church. However, they disagreed strongly with them about its interpretation and application. They focused on the New Testament and especially on the life and teachings of Jesus – a ‘Christocentric’ interpretation – and this radically affected the way they understood the Bible. They started from Jesus and interpreted everything else from him, and they suspected that the Reformers started from the doctrinal passages and tried to fit Jesus into them.

 

 

 

 

So, for instance, Catholics and Protestants justified their belief in the ‘just war’ theory by appealing to Old Testament passages in which God seems to command his people to go to war. Anabaptists saw this interpretation as contradicting the teaching of Jesus to ‘love your enemies and do good to those who hate you’, and so they used Jesus to interpret the rest of the Bible, rather than the other way around.

 

 

 

 

Salvation. The Protestant Reformers emphasized justification by faith (which they understood to mean that we are declared righteous by God because of Jesus’ death, not our own good works, and that we receive this as a free gift, by faith) and forgiveness of past sins. Anabaptists did not necessarily disagree. but their main emphasis was onnew birth and the power to live as Jesus’ disciples. They stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in believers, and taught that Jesus was to be followed and obeyed, as well as trusted; he was not only Saviour but also Leader and Lord. So Dirk Philips (1504-1568) wrote: “Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our teacher, leader and guide. Him we must hear and follow.” Hans Denck (1495-1527) insisted that faith and discipleship were inter-connected: “no one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.”

 

 

 

 

The Church. Anabaptists formed churches made up of committed disciples and denied that all citizens should automatically be regarded as church members (as Catholics and Protestants assumed). They insisted on differentiating believers from unbelievers, so that church membership could be voluntary and meaningful, and they resisted state control in their churches. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, forcibly imposed on children, and a hindrance to developing believers’ churches. They challenged the way clergy dominated the life of traditional churches and also the lack of church discipline. Their gatherings were informal and unstructured, concentrating on Bible study and singing. Some of them encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in church and society in their day. One of their early documents, A Congregational Order (1527), says, “when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it…when a brother sees his brother erring, he shall warn him according to the command of Christ, and shall admonish him in a Christian and brotherly way.”

 

 

 

 

Evangelism. Catholics and Protestants did not normally practice evangelism. When they had state support they relied on legal sanctions to enforce church attendance. They assumed that church and society were the same, so their policy was to pastor people through the parish system, rather than seeing them as unbelievers and evangelizing them. The Anabaptists rejected this interpretation of church and society, and so they embarked on a missionary venture to evangelise Europe. Evangelists like Hans Hut (1490-1527) traveled widely, preached in homes and fields, interrupted state church services, baptised converts and planted churches. Such evangelism, ignoring national and parish boundaries, and carried out by untrained men and women, was regarded as outrageous by the state churches.

 

 

 

 

Ethics. Anabaptists departed from the accepted norms of their society and lived in anticipation of the Kingdom of God.

 

 

 

 

They questioned the validity of private property. One group, the Hutterites, lived in communities and held their possessions in common. Most Anabaptists retained personal ownership, but all taught that their possessions were not their own but were available to those in need. The 1527 Congregational Order urged: “Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.” When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.

 

 

 

 

They rejected the use of violence, refusing to defend themselves by force. Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) described his congregation: “Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.” They urged love for enemies and respect for human life. Anabaptists accepted that governments would use force but regarded this as inappropriate for Christians. Felix Mantz (c1498-1527) concluded: “no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.” They aimed to build an alternative community, changing society from the bottom up.

 

 

 

 

Many refused to swear oaths. Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe, encouraging truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority.

 

 

 

 

Suffering. Anabaptists were not surprised by persecution. They knew they would be seen as revolutionaries, despite their commitment to non-violence; as heretics, despite their commitment to the Bible; and as disturbers of the status quo. They regarded suffering for obedience to Christ as unavoidable and biblical: suffering was a mark of the true church, as Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Their very persecution of Anabaptists showed that the reformers themselves were not building a biblical church.

 

 

 

 

Note: this post is adapted from this article on the Anabaptist Network website.

What is Anabaptism?

“Okay, Tim, so you say you’re going to study Anabaptism on your sabbatical. Now, what the heck is that?”

 

 

 

Good question, and it’s not one I can give you a short answer to. In this post, I’ll tell you a bit about the early history of the Anabaptist movement. By the way, the word ‘Anabaptist’ was not a name the early followers of this movement gave to themselves; it was a name given to them by others who disagreed with them. It means ‘rebaptizer’, and comes from the fact that the Anabaptists did not believe an infant baptism was a valid baptism; therefore they practiced adult believers’ baptism. More about that later (and don’t worry; I’m not contemplating abandoning infant baptism at St. Margaret’s – if I was, the Bishop would fire me!).

 

 

 

 

So – Anabaptism was originally a sixteenth-century radical Christian renewal movement in parts of western and central Europe. The early Anabaptists consciously put the person of Jesus (as he is revealed in the gospels) at the centre of their Christian faith, in contrast to many other Reformers who concentrated on the teachings of St. Paul. The Anabaptists believed that Christians are born again to a life of following the teaching and example of Jesus (‘discipleship’), and in this life they especially emphasized simple living and economic sharing, nonviolence and love for enemies, and truth-telling (they refused to participate in war or take oaths in court because of this). They tried to establish believers’ churches free from the control of the state, in which they attempted to restore a simple New Testament Christianity as they understood it. In this New Testament Christianity there was no distinction between clergy and laity; all were followers of Jesus, and all joined together in interpreting the Bible and in doing Christ’s work. Although the movement had similiarities with both Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity, it is best understood as being neither Catholic nor Protestant, but a distinct Christian tradition with its own vision of what Christian faith and life is all about.

 

 

 

 

The early Anabaptists came mainly from the poorer end of society, and many of them were in fact illiterate, although a few were university graduates, monks, and priests. The movement was driven underground by persecution from both Catholics and Protestants, who saw it was a threat to the order of society, in which church and state were one and the same, under the control of the powers-that-be. Many of the early Anabaptist leaders were executed for their beliefs, by burning at the stake or by drowning (a cruel parody of their belief in adult baptism). There were four main geographical branches of the movement: the Swiss Brethren, the South German and Austrian Anabaptists, the Dutch Mennonites, and the Hutterites. It was not an organized movement, and pinning down its essential beliefs is sometimes difficult.

 

 

 

 

Anabaptists were radicals who believed that the Calvinist, Lutheran and Anglican reformers had not gone far enough; they had made the Bible authoritative for doctrines, but not for ethics or the way church was organized. Anabaptists believed the Bible (and especially the teachings of Jesus) should be followed for these things as well. Hence, for instance, their rejection of war and violence, of taking the oath, of the idea that a king could decide the religion of his subjects, of the idea of priests being intermediaries between God and the people, and so on.

 

 

 

 

Anabaptists emphasized the difference between church and state, or church and society. Since the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire, the ‘Christendom’ worldview had seen church and society as one. In Christendom, people did not choose to become Christians as they did in New Testament times; rather, they were assumed to be Christians because they lived in a Christian country and had been baptized in a state church as infants. Churches were under the control of the local prince, who decided the religion of his subjects, and the churches generally refrained from emphasizing aspects of the teaching of the New Testament that threatened the prince’s power (like pacifism, for instance, or simple living). Anabaptists challenged this, and sought to re-establish the New Testament vision of the church as an alternative to society, a counter-culture, a resistance movement, an outpost of the Kingdom of God.

 

 

 

 

Anabaptism was largely a church of the poor. Anabaptists were mostly poor and powerless, with very few wealthy, academic, or influential members. They were seen as subversives and were strongly opposed by those with a vested interest in the wealth and power structures of society. Some Anabaptist views owe much to their powerless position: Anabaptists were prepared to obey the Bible regardless of social consequences.

 

 

 

 

“Well, what has all this got to do with us today, and why are you planning to spend three months studying an obscure sixteenth-century movement?” For a couple of reasons.

 

 

 

 

First, the Christendom system has largely collapsed in our time. Church and society are no longer one and the same. Society in general no longer believes or practices the Christian faith, and no longer helps people to become Christians; in fact, rather the opposite. The Church is no longer in a position of power in society; we are a marginal movement, like the Anabaptists and in fact like the New Testament Christians. How do you do Christian mission in this new situation? The Anabaptist tradition has a lot to teach us about this.

 

 

 

 

Second, the things the Anabaptists believed are highly relevant to us today. They believed that the decision to become a Christian is a free choice, not something coerced by state or family. They believed that following the teaching and example of Jesus is the centre of the Christian life. They believed that the Bible should be interpreted by the standard of Jesus, and that if parts of it seem to contradict Jesus, we should understand them according to his life and teachings. They believed that churches are fellowships of disciples who minister together and help one another –even holding one another accountable for their discipleship – rather than passive communities under the rule of a priest who alone has the authority. They believed that Christians should not accumulate excessive wealth and should share what they have with those in need. They believed that the teaching of Jesus requires Christians to love their enemies, to reject war and violence, and to speak the truth at all times.

 

 

 

 

As I said, I think these things are highly relevant for us today. I think they challenge us to base our life as a church and as individuals on the teaching of Jesus and the early apostles and not on traditions that grew up during the Christendom era.

 

 

 

 

In my next post I will say a little more about the distinctive beliefs of the Anabaptists.

 

 

 

 

(Note: this post is largely based on this article from the Anabaptist Network website).