Reconstitution Not Reform

The original Anabaptists’ intention was to attend to their Lord and their God’s will in a manner that was satisfying. However, there was an accompanying goal that is seamlessly interconnected with the initial one. This objective was to reconstitute the ekklesia in the pattern of the archetypical first century apostolic assembly. To reconstitute something is “to constitute again or anew; especially…to restore to a former condition” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. According to The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology the Anabaptists “saw the church as “fallen” and therefore beyond mere reform, and called for its reconstitution along New Testament lines” (70).

Roger Olson goes into greater detail regarding this objective in The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform when he explains that the Anabaptists were more protestant than Protestants in the sense that the Anabaptists:

protested what they saw as halfway measures taken by Luther and the other magisterial Reformers in purifying the church of Roman Catholic elements. Their ideal was to restore the New Testament church as a persecuted remnant as it was in the Roman Empire before Constantine. To them, the magisterial Reformers were all stuck in Constantinianism and Augustinianism. These were the two main diseases of medieval Christianity that the radical Reformers wished to eradicate from their own independent and autonomous congregations, if not from Christianity itself (415).

The Protestant Reformers desired to reform the Church, according to the above-mentioned dictionary to reform means “to put or change into an improved form or condition”. It also means, “to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses” and finally “to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action”.

When looking at the two terms highlighted one may wonder what the disparity between the two is since the overall goal is to return something to its proper state.

The divergence being that Martin Luther desired to reform the church, not divide it for to him the Roman Catholic Church was the actual Church but it had lost its way. He felt that some aspects of its practice and doctrine in the area of salvation for instance were incorrect as depicted in his 95 Thesis. Luther wanted to bring the corrupt Church at the time back into what he envisioned the Church to be. For Luther this was to be accomplished within, not through the establishment of another entity. In other words, he selected the aspects of the 16th century Church he preferred while doing away with those things he felt lacked scriptural and apostolic license. This did not solely apply to Luther but Calvin and Zwingli as well; the Magisterial Reformers in essence did not possess any yearning to forgo exhaustively every facet of the Roman system whether political, practical or theological.

The problem with this is that the Reformers was attempting to reform a contaminated and unethical institution whereas it is apparent that the Anabaptists saw the futility in trying to reform something that was far too large, powerful and unbearably unhealthy. Every facet of the Roman Catholic Church was tainted and beyond renovation. The Anabaptists recognized that the only solution was to begin afresh. Not that Christ’s ekklesia had perished from the earth but that the manifestation of it during that period was something other than what had begun in the first century and so the Anabaptists carried with them the essence and disposition of the unadulterated apostolic ekklesia, one that was detached from the Constantinian Church (Cf.  Matthew 16:18; 28:19-20).

Presently in Neo-Anabaptist circles, you encounter much talk on the subject of Anabaptists carrying the message of the group into Christendom as to enact some form of positive influence that in principle could be considered some sort of reform. But then again would this embody the spirit of Anabaptism? In many respects contemporary Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is a carryover of the exact same sullied Church that existed in the 16th century.  Reconstitution is needed not reform, the first Anabaptists saw this and modern-day followers of the movement needs to recognize this as well.

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5 thoughts on “Reconstitution Not Reform

  1. The guy I mentored under during my seminary internship is pretty convinced that the current incarnation of the church (that being a centralized worship one day a week, institutional organization) is on it’s way out… not because of, necessarily, some sort of internal motivation to do so, but simply because of the necessary cultural changes. So, yes, when it comes to reforming the church in the 21st century, this is what needs done.

    However, throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the answer either. I think to just throw it all out and start over, to “reconstitute” the church radically is also a problem as there are a lot of people still within the institutional church who are strong, faithful, Jesus-followers and they need direction and a way forward. Culture shock is going to very damaging to those.

    So, when it comes to Neo-Anabaptists (like David Fitch, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, etc), while they are still operating, in part, within the existing structures, they are teaching and training people about what it means to be Jesus followers outside of the walls of the church and being the “yeast” within their own communities. The “institution” is not evil… it served an excellent purpose for a time. But it should not be held up as a sacred cow either… change will happen as it always does…as an organic, growing, living thing, not as a protest revolt.

    • Robert

      Yes, I too believe that the old way of “doing church” is on the way out but I feel that knowledge of truth on the matter is becoming readily available thanks to the likes of Frank Viola, George Barna (Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church), Steve Atkerson and Robert J. Banks to name a few. Everyone speaks of reclaiming the New Testament Church but stop short for pragmatic or self-serving reasons.

      No one ever said these individuals (David Fitch, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, etc.) were not doing any good. But there is cognitive dissonance at play here. On one hand, they teach believers that essentially Anabaptists had it correct, which is a value judgment but they happily remain within the confines of the system that they are decrying. One’s own actions can say more than any words. I remember you speaking of and pointing to the “Third Way” on someone else’s blog, well there is no Third Way if the First and Second are still valid options. Why even pay attention to the third option if where they are at is just fine.

      • Well, I think there’s a difference between saying that the First and Second options are valid and saying that we need to disciple people to understanding the third way. Throwing out the institution wholesale is not transformational leadership. All you will do to folks in those situations is alienate them and destroy your ability to minister. You need to be able to get them to understand the necessity, the reasons, and get them to actually choose, themselves, to move in that direction to get it to stick. If you just throw them into something new, it won’t stick and they’ll slide back into the old models. I’ve seen this happen and it ain’t pretty because what ends up happening is they get “innoculated” against that new way so that, the next time someone brings it up, they have the excuse of “Well, we tried that before and it didn’t work.”

        I agree that in our increasingly post-Christendom/post-modern culture the old paradigms of church are becoming less and less effective. But introducing and implementing a new paradigm takes careful guidance and work…. I don’t think Fitch, Boyd and McKnight are exercising a cognitive dissonence… I think they are actually doing transformational work, getting people to rethink things so that, when the organic change actually happens, they are ready for it…

  2. Robert

    My whole argument is why is things so different for our period? The ancient Anabaptists lived in a far more hostile environment than we do especially those of us that live in the West and North America. Yet the Anabaptists made clear distinctions between options 1 and 2 and the Third Way. My recent post on this blog demonstrates the amazing results that Anabaptism was blessed with because of their sincerity towards God’s Word and their honest proclamation to the people. Could it be that believers of today care more for networks or losing associations that would benefit them in others areas than behaving in the fashion of those whose name they want to brandish?

    • Things are different because, well… things are different. A church in a culture that is friendly to the church will, naturally, look different than a church in a culture that is hostile. The church in China looks different than the church in the USA.

      In otherwords, we’re incarnated into our culture in a way that is meaningful to our culture. When the general assumption was that EVERYONE around us is Christian and the culture is friendly to all sorts of Christian expression (unlike the 1500’s where only one “expression” was acceptable), then you’ll have a much more comfortable, institutional church… even for Anabaptists… no more running and hiding, you can actually “settle down” in one spot for a while…

      But when that general assumption changes and the society around is not just hostile but even generally indifferent, then the incarnation of the church will change as well. To say that “house church” is the only way that church has any meaning will deny all the good that more “established” churches have had over the centuries.

      House church is not THE church… nor is institutional church… because any formal structure of the church, even one “reconstituted” as a house church, is still a human construction/organization of something that goes beyond that organization. To claim one over the other is to say that MY human understanding of church is the “right” one… when what we should be doing, ALWAYS, is saying, “God, be part of where we are” and allow God’s spirit to move us as we should be moved.

      As mentioned above, I lean more towards the organic, incarnational, communal church model embedded within the neighborhoods than towards the institutionalized structured organization… but even this organic church paradigm may only be for a time until the culture around us shifts again and some other manifestation is necessary.

      The point is how do we ACT like the ekklesia 24/7… not what do we do that one day a week when we gather. THAT is Anabaptism… our 24/7 lives… what we do in our corporate gatherings, whether it is a living room or a building, a basement or a riverside, whatever… matters very little if the other 6 days and 21 hours a week aren’t spent being incarnational Christians.

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