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).

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