Ten years ago today…

Ten years ago today I started my first (and, so far, only) sabbatical leave. I spent three months in England resting and reconnecting with friends and family, as well a spending time with the good folks from the Anabaptist Network in the UK. It was certainly a transformative time for me and I look back on it as one of the best experiences of my life. I left Edmonton on the evening of Tuesday April 15th 2007 and arrived in London the next day. Here’s the post I wrote after arriving at the London Mennonite Centre:

Hello from the London Mennonite Centre in Highgate, London, England.

Nick and I flew over on Monday night and arrived at Heathrow airport about 11.00 a.m. on Tuesday morning. After clearing customs we traveled by Underground and got here to the LMC early afternoon. We were warmly welcomed by Ed and Phyllis, the hosts, and the other staff and volunteers here. A lot of the people who work here seem to be from Canada or the United States – in fact, English accents are a distinct minority! The director, Vic Thiessen, and his wife Kathy are actually members of Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, a congregation which is very familiar to Marci and me.

My time so far has been made up of (a) getting started on my study and (b) doing little housekeeping jobs to help my stay in London and in the UK in general run more smoothly. The latter include things like: getting an ‘Oystercard’ to make travel on the Underground and the bus system more reasonable; getting a ‘mobile phone’ (i.e. cell phone) (haven’t successfully done that yet, although there have been a couple of false starts); and negotiating the mysteries of cyberspace to get my Canadian laptop hooked up to the wireless network here at LMC.

As far as study goes there is plenty of material in the library here and a wonderful book service from which I can buy the stuff I need to continue when I leave here on the 30th. I will be spending my mornings reading Anabaptist history and source material from the 16th century, and then another study period each day (afternoons or evenings) on contemporary stuff, especially the issue of the end of Christendon and the insights Anabaptism has to offer about Christian mission in the new situation we find ourselves in today. My first study book is C. Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology, and although I’ve only just begun he’s already helped me make sense of the mass of tenuously connected movements that make up 16th century Anabaptism. I didn’t have a second study period today (owing to a little adventure I had on the Underground – a long delay when the Northern Line was closed for two hours), but when I begin that period tomorrow I’m going to be working with Stuart Murray Williams’ book ‘Post-Christendom’. I’m also really looking forward to Stuart’s book ‘Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition’. All Christian traditions have interpretive grids to help them make sense of the Bible; we all tend to assume that ours is the ‘correct’ grid, and I think it’s really good to check out someone else’s grid and see what we can learn from them.

It was good to spend a day with Nick; he and I sat out in the yard (or the ‘garden’ as they call it here) last night and said Evening Prayer together, and today we had tea out there. We took some pictures too, which I’ll post below. I put him on the train this afternoon, and he is now up in Manchester spending a week with my brother.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre; here are a few pictures for you.

Nick in the ‘garden’ at the London Mennonite Centre.


Me having a cup of tea in the ‘garden’ behind the LMC. The house used to belong to a doctor and incorporated his surgery; it was built in the 1850’s and is four stories high.


Getting down to work in the library here at LMC. 
 

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More About the Beliefs of the Sixteenth Century Anabaptists

This article first appeared on my blog early in 2007, a couple of months before my sabbatical leave. I have slightly revised it here.

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncsAnabaptism 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 on new 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. In the 16th century, 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 evangelize Europe. Evangelists like Hans Hut (1490-1527) traveled widely, preached in homes and fields, interrupted state church services, baptized 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.

Most (but not all) of them 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.

Some Anabaptists talked about the three baptisms a follower of Jesus must undergo: the baptism of water (which, in their belief, must be a conscious, adult decision), the baptism of the Holy Spirit (for regeneration or the new birth), and the baptism of blood (meaning the persecution that followers of Jesus were to expect).

These are a few of the most important beliefs of the sixteenth century Anabaptists.

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

What is Anabaptism?

jesus12-follow-jesus_footsteps_beachNine years ago this month, I travelled to the UK to begin a three-month sabbatical leave, the first and only sabbatical I have ever taken. I made the decision to spend my time continuing my reading and exploration of Anabaptist Christianity. A lot of people were surprised that I elected to do that in England (rather than, say, Goshen, Indiana), given that there is no ethnic Mennonite tradition in England. But I did this deliberately, because I was not interested in learning about ethnic Mennonite culture per se, but rather in Anabaptism as a spiritual tradition, a tradition of discipleship.

As it happened, in the course of the sabbatical I became less confident that generic Anabaptism and Mennonite history and practice can be separated – generic ‘Anabaptism’, ungrounded in the real practice of a real, flesh and blood congregation, can easily become a mirage rather than a movement made up of flawed and fallible human beings – but I remain grateful for the time I spent in the UK. It was through the website of the Anabaptist Network in the UK that I had first been captivated by Anabaptist thought, and I relished the opportunity to meet the people involved in the Network, to spend time at the London Mennonite Centre (now The Mennonite Trust) reading in their library, and to continue my reading and pondering over the course of the three months I was in England.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that I knew nothing of Anabaptism before that day some time in 2005 when I first (accidentally) clicked on the website of the Anabaptist Network. I’d had Mennonite friends for years, I’d read some of the novels of Rudy Wiebe, and I’d read about the Anabaptists in church history classes in college. But, of course, I’d read about them from the perspective of people who disagreed with them – never allowing the Anabaptists themselves to explain their convictions to me. Now I did, and immediately I felt at home.

I did not become a Mennonite – although I came close for a while – and so it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Anabaptism was a ‘phase’ I went through. That would be a wrong conclusion. I continue to this day to think of myself as an ‘Anabaptist Anglican’. Many of the key emphases of Anabaptism – discipleship as the controlling paradigm of the Christian life, the centrality of the life and teaching of Jesus, reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus, the separation of church and state and the primary loyalty to Jesus as Lord and King above any allegiance to the state, a distrust of clericalism, every-member ministry, a preference for simple worship and simple living, pacifism and nonviolence, reconciliation – have continued to be central to my understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be ‘church’. The Anabaptist in me continues to challenge the Anglican, just as sometimes the Anglican continues to challenge the Anabaptist. I know that I am no longer entirely comfortable as an Anglican (if I ever was), but I am sure I would not be entirely comfortable as a Mennonite either. And maybe that’s a good place to be.

Still, the seven ‘Core Convictions‘ of the Anabaptist Network continue to express some of my deepest ideals of what being a Christian is all about – even if I am not in entire agreement with every single detail of them. Stuart Murray Williams has written a fine book exploring them – ‘The Naked Anabaptist‘ – and that book has been an inspiration to me as I continue on this journey as an Anabaptist Anglican. I have no idea where that journey will lead, but one thing I am sure of is that it’s not ‘just a phase’ I’m going through.

Early in 2007, before I went to England on my sabbatical leave, I wrote the following article on Anabaptism. I continue to stand by it for the most part, and republish it today to introduce people who’ve started reading my blog since then to the spiritual riches of the Anabaptist way.

*****

 

“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 a short answer to. In this post, I’ll say a little about the early history of the Anabaptist movement.

I should say at the outset that 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.

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 the mainstream Reformation leaders who often appeared to be more interested in 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 their rejection of war and violence, or the oath, or the idea that a king could decide the religion of his subjects, or the idea of priests being intermediaries between God and the people (the list could go on).

Anabaptists emphasized the difference between church and state, or church and society. Since the fourth century when the Roman emperors first tolerated Christianity, and then made it the official religion of their 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).

Sabbatical Report #8: Book Review

Note: This is part of a series of reposts from my sabbatical leave from mid-April to mid-July 2007. This piece was originally posted on May 15th 2007.

Stuart Murray: Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition

My book this past week has been Stuart Murray’s excellent Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. I suspect it is the most important book I have read so far on my sabbatical leave; I think that everything else in the Anabaptist tradition flows logically out of their approach to biblical interpretation. Stuart does not claim that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists had a completely developed and logically consistent approach to biblical interpretation; this would have been an unrealistic expectation of a largely uneducated and vigorously persecuted movement. However, he identifies a surprisingly coherent approach across the various sixteenth century Anabaptist streams, while acknowledging differences of emphasis and admitting shortcomings.

He points out six general principles:

1. Scripture is self-interpreting.
Statements from Anabaptists show their confidence about the clarity of Scripture and its sufficiency without external additions. They strongly affirmed the right of private interpretation of Scripture, insisted that Scripture was clear enough to be understood and obeyed, and rejected the imposition of an interpretive grid on Scripture to force passages into consistency with preconceived theological systems. Statements from Anabaptists on trial show that their leaders’ attitudes had enfranchised the membership and produced tremendous faith and confidence in the ability of the ordinary Christian to understand and apply the Scriptures to their lives.

This principle has to be understood in the light of the historical situation of the Anabaptists. They were concerned that the 16th century Reformers such as Calvin and Luther were paying lip service to the plain sense of Scripture and the right of private interpretation but actually hedging these around with many qualifications. They suspected that priests and scholars were using their learning to find sophisticated reasons why simple obedience to Scripture was impossible and unnecessary.

Criticisms of this principle include the fact that Anabaptists failed to appreciate textual difficulties that cannot be resolved without good scholarship. What many readers assume is the plain meaning of the text may actually bear little resemblance to the original intent of the author when understood in a different cultural setting. Also, the disagreements and divisions about biblical interpretation within the Anabaptist movement would seem to indicate that the plain meaning of the text is not as plain as they assumed! However, for thousands of Christians, during the formative years of the Anabaptist movement, this approach was genuinely liberating. Whatever its shortcomings, it enfranchised people in ways the Reformation promised but often failed to deliver.

2. Christocentrism
Confidence that Scripture was clear and that all Christians could understand it applied pre-eminently to the passages containing the words and actions of Jesus. The belief that Jesus clarified what was previously obscure appears frequently in Anabaptist writings; it meant that Jesus’ words took precedence over all other words of Scripture.

Christocentrism meant that the Bible was not ‘flat’: some passages had greater authority for doctrine and practice than others. The New Testament took precedence over the Old, and Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching were the pinnacle of God’s revelation and primary in all questions of interpretation. Christocentrism meant that the whole Bible pointed to Jesus. It meant that his teaching was authoritative for ethics as well as doctrine; it meant that he was the authorised interpreter of the Old Testament, and that a living experience of him was a prerequisite for biblical interpretation. The Anabaptists focussed on Jesus himself rather than doctrines about him, and saw him not only as Saviour but also as Example to imitate and Teacher to obey.

3. The Two Testaments
Within Christendom many issues were decided on the basis of Old Testament texts. In contrast, Anabaptists emphasized the discontinuity between the Testaments and saw the New Testament as primary; the Old had validity only where Christ had not suspended it and only where it agreed with the New. This view led the Anabaptists to oppose practices they felt were grounded only in Old Testament texts (e.g. war as a legitimate option for Christians, the swearing of oaths, persecution, infant baptism).

Stuart points out that neither Reformers nor Anabaptists handled the Old Testament well. The Reformers insisted on the unity of Scripture, but in practice tended to justify practices from Old Testament texts in ways that marginalized the teaching of Jesus. Anabaptists challenged this, but in overreaction some tended to jettison the Old Testament altogether.

4. Spirit and Word.
Stuart sees the early sixteenth-century Anabaptists as a proto-charismatic movement and cites passages where a living experience of the Holy Spirit appears prominently in their writings. He points out that their expectation was mainly that the Spirit would transform them so that they could live obedient lives, although ecstatic experiences of the Spirit were not absent either.

The relationship between Spirit and Word was a major issue at the Reformation, and on this subject the Anabaptist movement did not speak with one voice. Some (the Swiss Brethren and the Hutterites) tended to emphasise the literal word of Scripture and of Christ, while others (the South German Anabaptists) emphasized following the inner guidance of the Spirit. Excesses in the latter movement led to an eventual reaction in a more literalistic direction. However, the Anabaptists’ Christocentric approach meant that they were never fundamentalists in the modern sense.

Reliance on the Spirit was expected to check naïve and legalistic interpretation of Scripture. Openness to the Spirit was preferred to reliance on education and scholarship. Approaches that polarized Spirit and reason were normally unwelcome. The Spirit’s work included conviction and persuasion so that the interpreters acted on what they had learned, and also included openness to correction and fresh insights. It should also be noted that the Anabaptist emphasis on the gathered congregation as the primary interpretive authority often helped to check individualistic interpretations of Scripture.

5. Congregational Hermeneutics
The Anabaptists took a communal approach to biblical interpretation and resisted tendencies to restrict the teaching office to recognized leaders. They rejected both the Catholic emphasis on the authority of ecclesiastical traditions and the Reformers’ practice of replacing priestly tyranny with the tyranny of the preacher. Their view of the congregation as the interpretive community presupposed a congregation of believers, which was not the experience of the Christendom churches with their view of the Church as a mixed community of believers and unbelievers.

The Swiss Brethren explored congregational hermeneutics extensively, allowing multiple participation in services, discussion of Scripture texts, and communal judgement. Some Dutch and German groups also developed this approach. Congregational hermeneutics does not require that every contribution carry equal weight, but it does require that every contribution be weighed.

In practice, this approach tended to die out in later years and was replaced by reliance on church leaders and received understandings of Scripture. Criticisms of this approach point out that if every congregation is an autonomous interpreter of Scripture there is no objective authority which can prevent division. Mistakes, disagreements, and poor interpretations would also suggest that Anabaptists underestimated the difficulties involved. Another limitation was the virtual exclusion of Christian wisdom from prior centuries; the focus was on present consensus, and little attention was paid to the consensus of the past.

There were obvious weaknesses in the Anabaptist congregational approach, but it also had significant strengths, especially in its conviction that every member could contribute to the interpretive task, its openness to correction, and its willingness to consider fresh interpretations rather than squeezing texts into conformity with set doctrinal positions.

6. Hermeneutics of Obedience
Anabaptists often complained that biblical interpretation was divorced from application. They saw the Scripture as plain enough to call for radical obedience, and the congregation as the interpretive community best placed to apply it to daily life.

Anabaptists saw obedience as a crucial prerequisite to biblical interpretation; ethical qualifications took precedence over intellectual abilities or official appointments. Only those actively committed to discipleship could be trusted to interpret the Scriptures. Obedience to one’s present understanding of Scripture, and openness to new understandings were essential for true interpretation. Interpreters must also be free from the influence of secular power and vested interests, as these would limit their ability to interpret in ways that challenged the status quo.

Reformers and Anabaptists disagreed about what norms to apply in their ethical application of Scripture. For the Reformers, social stability was crucial. For Anabaptists, obedience to Christ’s specific teachings and imitation of his lifestyle outweighed this, as they committed themselves to establishing in their churches a new social order rather than preserving the existing one.

Conversations
In the last chapter of the book Stuart proposes that Anabaptism be seen as a conversation partner with contemporary Christian traditions and the way they interpret the Bible. He gives two examples of how this might work, discussing the similarities and differences between the Anabaptist approach and that of Liberation Theology on the one hand, and the charismatic movement on the other. In each case he points out things that the traditions have in common and things they could learn from each other.

I would be delighted to have Stuart outline a similar dialogue with the Anglican tradition. I think some of the characteristics of Anabaptist biblical interpretation which he outlines are very congenial to our approach. Liturgically we have always emphasized the Incarnation and the gospels, although some of our traditions have perhaps been more Pauline in the way Stuart identifies with the Reformed approach. We also believe strongly that the Bible is the Church’s book and needs to be read and interpreted in the community of the Church.

Other characteristics of the Anabaptist approach would be more of a challenge to us. We have often been wary of the right of ‘private interpretation’, observing how this often leads to multiple divisions over little points of disagreement. We have a strong sense of the authority of tradition (meaning the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living!) and tend to defer to past voices in our biblical interpretations, believing that the Spirit has guided the Church as Jesus promised. And ‘Congregational Hermeneutics’ has been almost unknown to us.

However, a conversation with Anabaptism might help us to identify some of our weaknesses here. We believe that the Bible is the Church’s book and that the Church has authority to interpret it – but, in practice, does this actually mean ‘the priests and scholars of the Church’ rather than ‘the whole Church’? Anabaptism would remind us – helpfully and awkwardly – that in the New Testament ‘the Church’ means the whole people of God, and that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul expected every member to bring a prophecy or an interpretation or a psalm etc. Does the way in which the Bible is taught in the Anglican tradition actually encourage our members to read it for themselves? Or do we communicate the message that it’s really only a book for scholars?

Stuart himself suggests that the ‘congregational hermeneutic’ approach could easily be extended in two ways to compensate for its innate weaknesses. The first way would be to include scholars in the conversation – not as authoritative voices above the rest, but as partners in the conversation, offering their insights alongside those of the other members. The second way would be to include past generations as conversation partners as well. In this way the voice of tradition could be included in the work of biblical interpretation.

This has been a fascinating book for me, and one that I would recommend without hesitation to others interested in exploring Anabaptist approaches to biblical interpretation.

Sabbatical Report #7: Book Review

Note: This is part of a series of reposts from my sabbatical leave from mid-April to mid-July 2007. This piece was originally posted on May 8th 2007.

Donald Durnbaugh: The Believers’ Church

My book for the past week has been Donald Durnbaugh’s The Believers’ Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism. This book was written in the late 1960’s and so reflects the conditions and viewpoints of an earlier era. Also, some of the summaries toward the end of the book seem to me to give a rather rosy view, as Durnbaugh lists the positive achievements of various ‘believers’ churches’ but is perhaps a little less forthcoming about their weaknesses. Nonetheless, the book has been an interesting and enjoyable read and gives a good overview of the ‘radical protestant’ tradition.

The book falls roughly into two halves. In the first part, Durnbaugh traces the history of believers’ churches from medieval times to the present, beginning with the Waldenses and the Unitas Fratrum and then taking two representative movements in each century up to the twentieth. In the second half he explores certain common characteristics of the various groups he has described.

What does ‘The Believers’ Church’ mean? The author is using this title to refer to denominations and movements which historically have been composed of Christians who have voluntarily chosen to come together on the basis of their common faith in Christ, in distinction from churches in which everyone is considered to be a member of a geographical parish simply by virtue of being born within its boundaries. Although Martin Luther did not begin a ‘Believers’ Church’ by this definition, he nonetheless wrote a good definition of it in 1526, which Durnbaugh quotes. Luther, he says, wrote that what was truly necessary was an ‘evangelical order’, held privately for those who ‘want to be Christians in earnest and who process the gospel by hand and mouth’.

They should sign their names and meet in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and do other Christian works. According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ, Matthew 18. Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example, 2 Corinthians 9. Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing. Here one could set out a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and centre everything on the Word, prayer, and love.

Durnbaugh draws out the following elements of Luther’s definition:

  1. The church is a voluntary community of those freely confessing Jesus Christ as Lord (for this reason infant baptism as a rite of entrance, or membership by virtue of citizenship in a state or territory, are both rejected).
  2. The believers freely covenant with God and each other to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ – therefore a mixed assembly of believers and unbelievers (as was often the reality in the past in the state church parish system) is rejected.
  3. They perform Christian works – as regenerate Christians they know they are expected to maintain a higher level of life.
  4. They accept that being a disciple means being under a discipline, and that according to Matthew 18:15-20 this includes faithful admonition of one another, not just easy tolerance.
  5. They practice mutual aid, ‘benevolent gifts willingly given and distributed to the poor’.
  6. There is neither complete formalism nor complete spontaneity; however, forms of worship evolve from within the group and can be changed if need be.
  7. The Word given in the Scriptures and apprehended through the Holy Spirit provides the sole authority. Tradition must bow if the clear statement of the Word as understood in the covenant community so demands.

Not every element of this definition is found in every ‘Believers’ Church’ surveyed in the book (Methodists, for instance, continued the tradition of infant baptism), but on the whole they are an accurate representation of the movement. Durnbaugh summarises as follows:

‘The Believers’ Church, therefore, is the covenanted and disciplined community of those walking in the way of Jesus Christ. Where two or three such are gathered, willing also to be scattered in the work of their Lord, there is the believing people’.

Having defined the ‘Believers’ Church’ movement, Durnbaugh then goes on to trace it through history, beginning in the middle ages. He examines the following movements:

The Waldenses were a movement begun in Lyon in the 12th century under the leadership of Peter Waldo (1140-1218?). Arrested by the text ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me’ (Mt. 19:21), Waldo set himself to practice this way of life. His innovation was that he applied these counsels of poverty and discipleship not just to monastics but to all true Christians. His followers went out two by two to preach, and this aroused the opposition of the local archbishop, as they were ‘unauthorized laymen’. In 1184 the Waldenses were officially condemned as heretics and the persecution began; nonetheless, the movement spread through France and Italy. They translated the scriptures into the vernacular and memorized them, especially the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount. They lived exemplary lives, practiced nonresistance and took no oaths; some accepted infant baptism, some did not.

The Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) were a Czech group inspired by the teachings of a yeoman with no formal education, Peter Chelcicky (1390?-1460?). He taught the law of love (which has become the basis of all Christian life since its explanation and example by Jesus Christ), nonresistant pacifism, dissolution of class distinctions, the authority of the New Testament, and a radical separation of church and state. In 1457/58, in an isolated village in Bohemia, a group was organised with Peter’s writings as their guide. They soon took the name ‘Unity of the Brethren’. In 1467, in response to persecution, they set up their own church structures; church membership was divided into ‘the beginners’, ‘the proficients’, and ‘the perfect’, and they followed a strict discipline according to Matthew 18:15-20. They were viciously persecuted through the years. In 1722 a small group crossed the German border to seek refuge and religious liberty on the estate of Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf. From the community of settlers there emerged in 1729 the Renewed Moravian Church.

The Anabaptists. This group began in Zurich in the early 1520s. They felt that the mainline Reformation was not radical enough and wanted a church patterned on the New Testament and free from the control of the city council. The breaking point was their adoption of believers’ baptism in 1525. Most of the early leaders (Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and later Michael Sattler and Balthazar Hubmaier) died young, mostly through persecution. In 1527 they produced a statement of faith called ‘The Schleitheim Articles’, in which they described their belief in believers’ baptism, the Ban (i.e. church discipline according to Matthew 18:15-20), the Lord’s Supper as a memorial to be celebrated by believers, separation from the world, the work of the pastor, the sword as being ‘outside the perfection of Christ’, and the non-use of oaths. Related movements spread through south Germany, Austria, northern Germany and the Netherlands. The early Anabaptists were mainly illiterate and were enthusiastic evangelists. An early disaster for the movement was the seizure of the city of Munster by radical (non-pacifist) Anabaptists in 1534; after the city was retaken and the Anabaptists slaughtered, a Dutch priest named Menno Simons emerged as the major leader of the north German and Dutch movement and laid the foundations for the continuing Mennonite tradition, emphasizing pacifism, active discipleship after the teaching and example of Jesus, and church discipline.

The Hutterites emerged from the Anabaptist tradition in Nikolsburg in Moravia. Under the leadership of Jacob Wiedemann, they were expelled from Nikolsburg, and formed a community of disciples in which all goods were held in common; this was their distinctive characteristic within the wider Anabaptist movement. They settled in Austerlitz in 1529 where they founded the first Bruderhof. They took their name from Jacob Hutter (d. 1536), a strong early leader who helped to define the traditions of the movement. Like other Anabaptists they were persecuted, but from 1565 until the end of the century they experienced a ‘golden period’ during which at least a hundred Bruderhofs were founded. They were great evangelists and sent their missionaries all across Europe. Their definitive statement of faith was written by Peter Riedemann in 1540. Successive persecutions drove them in turn to Slovakia, Transylvania, Romania, Russia, and finally North America.

The English Baptists emerged within the Puritan movement in the early seventeenth century. Thomas Helwys (d. 1614) was the leader of the first English Baptist congregation, established circa 1611-1612; he had learned his convictions from a group in the Netherlands which may have been influenced by some local Mennonites. However, the group that developed in England believed Christians could serve as magistrates and take oaths, which the Anabaptists would not allow. By 1644 they numbered 47 congregations and became known as the General Baptists because of their Arminian theology. Another group, the Particular Baptists (who were Calvinists) arose in 1638-1640 and later became predominant. The Baptists were not pacifists and indeed many served in the Roundhead army during the civil war. Their most famous seventeenth century figure was John Bunyan (1628-1688), the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. A later leader was the shoemaker William Carey (1761-1834), who helped found the Baptist Missionary Society and went himself as a missionary to India. Baptists have spread around the world and are now the largest non-Roman Catholic religious body in existence.

The Quakers, or ‘Society of Friends’, began around 1652, and their early leader was George Fox (1624-1691). They rejected creeds, ceremonies and cultic practices and sought an experiential contact with God in simplicity and silence. The tireless efforts of Quaker evangelists spread the movement rapidly in Great Britain, Europe, Asia Minor, North America and the West Indies throughout the seventeenth century. As usual for dissident groups they were persecuted; before 1689 about 15,000 had been jailed and 450 died either in prison or as a result of their imprisonment. The Quakers were pacifists, and their recognition of ‘that of God in each person’ led them to early convictions about the evil of slavery.

The Church of the Brethren grew out of German Pietism in the early eighteenth century (Pietism was a reaction against sterile Protestant scholasticism; it was experiential, emotional, individual, biblically-centred and ethically-minded. Instead of inquiring about the relationship of the individual to the institutional church and its clergy, Pietism asked about the personal relationship with Christ, about conversion). In 1708 a group of eight German Pietists led by a miller named Alexander Mack (1679-1735) established a covenant of discipleship together and sealed it with believers’ baptism. Their group grew and called themselves ‘Brethren’, though they were known by their peers as ‘New Baptists’. Their meetings were simple, consisting of singing, reading the Bible and discussing it, and praying together. The movement spread, but early persecution led to forced relocations. Between 1719 and 1735 the majority of the Brethren migrated to Pennsylvania. Today the Church of the Brethren is found mainly in North America and is recognized as an expression of the Anabaptist movement.

The Methodists grew out of the labours of John Wesley (1703-1791). A strict high church Anglican, he had a crisis of faith as a result of a failed missionary experience in the American colonies, but at a Moravian meeting in 1738 came to an experiential understanding of justification by faith and found the peace he was looking for. He and his brother Charles preached as they had opportunity in London, but George Whitfield invited him to preach in the fields with him, and so began his life’s work. The response to his preaching was often dramatic and emotional, but Wesley formed his converts into classes and introduced them to a disciplined system of Christian growth. The lack of ordained clergy for the movement led him to employ lay-preachers, a controversial step. His insistence on converted, committed, regenerated Christians tightly organized into voluntary societies was in direct opposition to the prevailing church culture, and his ordination of Thomas Coke to ordain others in North America was seen as a direct challenge to the Anglican system. The movement grew rapidly in North America, spread by the labours of circuit-riding preachers; their doctrines of free grace, Christian perfection and active piety seemed to resonate well with ordinary people.

The Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) are a coming together of several small groups, which had in common a desire to restore what they saw as ‘primitive New Testament Christianity’, including separation of church and state, a plurality of elders rather than a single paid pastor, and a weekly observance of communion. Believers’ baptism was also adopted very early. In 1832 two of the groups (‘Disciples’ and ‘Christians’) united; their church grew rapidly in the nineteenth century and they were often in the forefront of bringing the gospel to newly-settled areas.

The Plymouth Brethren were a British group with similar convictions to the American Disciples, including especially the weekly breaking of bread and the ministry of all believers. Two early groups joined together in 1829; any member could speak in their meetings, which were held Quaker style except for the hymns that were sung. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) became the outstanding theologian of the movement, which spread rapidly throughout the nineteenth century; George Muller of Bristol was another well-know member. The Brethren practiced church discipline and abstained from political involvement. Their best-known theological idea was Darby’s ‘Dispensationalist’ system, which was popularized by the Schofield Reference Bible.

The Confessing Church was a protest movement against the way the majority of German Christians co-operated with Hitler in the 1930s. In late 1933 a group of pastors led by Martin Niemoller formed the Pastors’ Emergency League and drafted a pledge which, within four months, had been signed by almost half the pastors in Germany. However, pressure from the Nazis prompted many to back down. In May 1934 a synod meeting in Barmen produced a confession of faith (largely drafted by Karl Barth). The Confessing Church saw itself as the one true Christian Church in Germany in distinction from those who had surrendered control to Hitler. A well-known early leader was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the very beginning they were persecuted; Karl Barth was expelled from his chair of theology at Bonn and went to Switzerland, and Niemoller was arrested, imprisoned in 1938 and held throughout the war. After the war Niemoller became an early leader in the World Council of Churches and a convert to pacifism.

New forms of church in the 20th century include the Church of the Saviour, founded by Baptist former military chaplain Gordon Cosby in Alexandria, Virginia in 1946, a community which requires a very high level of commitment from its members. Another example is East Harlem Protestant Parish, initiated by Don Benedict to do mission work among the poor in the inner city after World War Two.

Having described these movements, in the last section of the book Durnbaugh focuses in on some of the characteristics they have in common. He singles out five subjects for special comment:

Discipleship and Apostolicity. Mennonite scholar Harold Bender saw the idea that discipleship is the essence of Christianity as the first principle of the Anabaptist movement, and this same orientation is demonstrably evident among other expressions of the Believers’ Church movement, as also is their conviction that this quality was lacking within Christendom where lip-service to the faith rather than life-service to Jesus Christ seemed common. Most of the Radical Reformers felt that this ‘Fall of the Church’ had occurred in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (John Wesley expresses this view very strongly). Apostolicity, to these radicals, meant simply living in the manner and virtue of the first followers of Jesus Christ, and to do this they tried to pattern themselves on the way of life of the New Testament Christians. This often included church discipline after the pattern of Matthew 18:15-20 as a means of restoration of wayward members.

Mission and Evangelism. Strangely, most mainline Protestants in the early years did not evangelise; they saw the Great Commission as having already been accomplished in the establishment of Christendom. It was the Believers’ Church groups which showed the way; the Waldenses, the Unitas Fratrum, and the Anabaptists were all great evangelists, and one writer points out that ‘the astonishing thing about Anabaptism is not so much the activity of the ordained leaders as the missionary commitment of the ordinary members’ (although sustained persecution later prompted them to be much less vigorous in this). Quakers, Pietists, Moravian Brethren, Baptists and Methodists have all been enthusiastic missionaries and evangelists.

Church and State. Believers’ churches advocated a clean separation of church and state, in contrast to the Constantinian situation which was accepted by the mainline Reformation tradition. Peter Chelcicky was one of the first to make this point, and the first Anabaptists followed the same line when they would not accept the authority of the Zurich City Council over the church. For many members of Believers’ churches (but not all) this separation of church and state has included a refusal to participate in military service, a view which they see as an integral part of following the teaching and example of Jesus. Quakers and Anabaptists are best known for this view today. The issue of how Christians ought to be involved in the affairs of state is a live one in many Believers’ Church traditions.

Mutual Aid and Service. It has been the tradition in many Believers’ Church traditions that a member will not be left to their own devices; if help is needed, it will be given by the other members. For example, in 1557 candidates for baptism at a Swiss Anabaptist congregation were asked whether, if necessity required it, they would devote all their possessions to the service of the brotherhood and would not fail any member in need if they were able to render aid. In the Anabaptist tradition the Hutterites have of course taken this as their guiding principle with their practice of complete community of goods. Members of Believers’ Church traditions have also been active in reaching out beyond the community. The early Quakers were amongst the first advocates of the abolition of slavery and were also active in prison welfare and in the care of the mentally ill. The early Methodists were active in care for the poor. The Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee are in the forefront of this work today.

Sectarian and Ecumenical. The history of Believers’ churches is checkered with divisions (although they are not alone in this in the Christian world). Ecumenism sees this as a scandal robbing the church’s testimony of its credibility. Others take the view that the presence of many Christian bodies is a witness to the vitality of the Christian faith and a way to reach more people; new groups tend to emerge from a fresh surge of conviction and devotion, rather as monastic orders did in the Catholic tradition. Many Believers’ churches have been ‘leavers’ churches’, to use George Williams’ phrase – groups wanting to be separate from not only the world but also mainline church groups they saw as contaminated by it. But many of these groups have willingly worked together, although not all have joined recognized ecumenical institutions. A difference in emphasis, however, has been that whereas many in the ecumenical movement have concentrated on unity in church order (such as Anglicans with their concern for proper forms of ordination in the apostolic succession) or a unity of doctrine (such as Lutherans and many Reformed Christians), Believers’ Church traditions have tended to focus on unity in service together.

Conclusion.
Durnbaugh’s book is a helpful introduction to the Believers’ Church tradition, although I would maintain that it is in dire need of being updated in the light of developments over the past forty years. The book left me with several impressions.

I was impressed by the stories of the Christian groups he describes, especially in their early stages. Many of their early members were gripped by a passion for the gospel and for Christian discipleship, and a desire to create forms of church which clearly exhibited New Testament Christian convictions, unencumbered by the chains of the state-church connection or by centuries of traditions which had long since passed their ‘best-before’ dates. Because of my own convictions I was most impressed by the stories of the Waldenses and the Unitas Fratrum, by the Anabaptists and the early Pietists and Methodists.

I must confess to being skeptical about the connections Durnbaugh draws between some of these groups. United they may have been in their desire for separation of church and state and the establishment of New Testament church order, but the convictions which guided the Plymouth Brethren, for instance, are very different from those which led to the Anabaptist movement. I would argue that the Plymouth Brethren are far more doctrinally-motivated than the Anabaptists with their emphasis on following Jesus as he is seen in the gospels, and that the English Baptists with their easy acceptance of military service (and their descendants, the American Baptist tradition with its loyalty to American militarism) are different again.

I am also doubtful about Durnbaugh’s easy acceptance of the multiplication of Christian bodies which the Believers’ Church movement has promoted. Most of these groups have had as their aim the restoration of a New Testament form of church life. Whilst one ought not to idealise the New Testament situation (divisions are clearly reflected in Acts and in Paul’s letters, for instance), nonetheless the visible unity of the Body of Christ is a major concern in the early church. How to combine this emphasis on visible unity on the one hand, with the Believers’ Church desire for the freedom to structure their worship, ministry, and church discipline in ways outside the accepted norms of mainline Christianity on the other, is an issue not only for the Believers’ Church tradition, but also for those of us today who are attracted by its vitality and yet choose to remain within mainline denominations.

Sabbatical Report #2 (a repost from April 23rd 2007)

Note: this is the fourth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago. This post was originally posted on April 23rd 2007.

My first week of sabbatical has flown by quickly and it seems I haven’t got in anything like as much study as I had hoped. But I’m trying not to get too discouraged about that. I had to get here, get established, get over jet lag, get Nick off to Manchester, get my cell phone set up etc. etc. Not surprising that life was busy.

At present I’m still working on two books: Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology in the mornings, and Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom at some other time during the day. Snyder’s book is a superb historical study of Anabaptism and gives a good summary of the stories and ideas of all the early people in the movement. It’s also good in that it flags worthwhile books for further reading. I’m about half way through it now (it’s about 400 pages), but when I’m done I’ll need to go back and make some notes.

Snyder has been particularly good in identifying the historical and sociological background of early Anabaptism. He notes how in the sixteenth century in Europe there was a huge amount of discontent amongst the peasant classes, and how the established churches were seen as being in league with the ruling classes and landowners. Two common church-related themes emerge at the time: the lower classes wanted the right to appoint their own clergy (and thus have some control over the morality of their pastors, which apparently was very lax), and they wanted the right to keep their tithes in their own communities and use them to help the local poor rather than having to send them off to pay some canon in a distant cathedral.

Some of you probably know that in the 1520s there was a peasant uprising in south Germany and Austria, the ‘Peasants’ War’. At this time not all of the early Anabaptists were pacifists, and several of them supported the peasants and fought in their army. The mainline denominations, however, overwhelmingly supported the landed gentry and aristocracy. Snyder believes that much of the appeal of early Anabaptism lay in the fact that it was seen as a people’s movement. Something for us to learn there, I think.

Stuart Murray’s book is covering a lot of ground I’m familiar with, but he has a good way of summing things up and fitting them together into a coherent whole. His theme is ‘Post-Christendom’, and he defines the shift from Christendom to Post-Christendom as follows:

  • From the centre to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
  • From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Chrisendom we are a minority.
  • From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christans felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aiens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
  • From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
  • From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
  • From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
  • From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must again become a Christian movement.

In the first half of the book Stuart is telling the story of Christendom (it has several tie-ins with Snyder’s work, actually). One very telling point he makes is that when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire it changed dramatically, and one of the changes was (as he puts it), that ‘in order for the church to come in from the margins to the centre, it had to banish Jesus from the centre to the margins’. What he means by that is that Jesus said some things that were very uncomfortable for a church in league with an empire – things about loving your enemies, about selling your goods and giving to the poor and so on. This didn’t sit well with a church newly allied to power and prestige. He points out that in the early years of Christianity, ethical instruction of converts was almost always based on the teachings of Jesus, but after the Christendom shift Old Testament norms like the Ten Commandments became more prominent.

Lots to think about, and I’m really looking forward to getting into these books again today.

I had a weekend that was mainly fun, though. On Friday I went out to Maidenhead, west of London, to spend the weekend with my old high school friend Steve Palmer and his family. Steve and I played music together when we were teenagers and have been best friends for thirty years. On Saturday we took his kids to an open day at the Berkshire College of Agriculture (donkeys, parrots, tractor rides, bricklaying, sheepdog shows etc. etc.). On Sunday I went to church with them at St. Mary’s Maidenhead, an evangelical Anglican church that is wonderfully free from tradition (!). Steve drove me back to London Mennonite Centre at lunch time, and in the afternoon I joined in the worship of Wood Green Mennonite Church. More about these two worship experiences in a day or so – they were both very enjoyable in different ways and I want to reflect on them a bit. Afterwards some of the folks from WGMC came back here to the Centre for wine and snacks on the patio. There was another folk-singing guitarist here, and they asked the two of us to play. We ended up trading songs back and forth for a couple of hours while it got dark – very enjoyable.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre. Talk to you all again soon.


More about the beliefs of the sixteenth century Anabaptists

Note: this is the second in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago.

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 on new 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.