MennoNerd’s Contemporary Anabaptist Convictions

As MennoNerds, we all have found certain distinctives of Anabaptism to be central in our expression of faith.  This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog in the month of May on Anabaptism.

My fellow MennoNerd Tyler Tully devised criteria for determining contemporary anabaptism. These present-day identifiers consist of:

  • Jesus Centered- Jesus stands as the lens by which we read the entire Bible, and the exemplary by which we engage all theology. Jesus takes all precedence in matters of faith and life for us. He is the exact representation of God and the King of our Kingdom. His example, teaching, and identity matter more than anything. His values, example, and commandments often put us at odds with the laws, values, and expectations of Christendom and State. Responding to the ways of this world in a Jesus-like manner, Anabaptist communities operate as alternatives to the systems around them. Its is the centrality of Jesus above all things that defines every other particularity within Anabaptism.
  • Free Church of Confessing, Baptized Disciples- For the Anabaptist, community is essential to follow Jesus–and this practice often places us at odds with the Church-State. Although individuals choose to respond to this calling, or not, we enter into community with others through baptism. Salvation is realized in community, but so is sin.  As a matter of intersection, some Anabaptist groups draw from the Wesleyan and Liberationist wells that are also aimed at communal and economic reform in light of the Kingdom of God. Although not unique among (mostly white) post-liberal groups, post-colonial theologies continue to influence this new wave of Anabaptist expression as historically rooted Anabaptist theology has influenced them. Building upon the movement of the God through the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, the Jews occupied in the time of Jesus, the religious, cultural, political, and social identity of Jesus in the Gospels, and the history of persecution of Anabaptists during the Reformation period and beyond–Anabaptists choose to minister in, of, and amongst the marginalized. We see this as a natural expression of our commitment to discipleship in the Kingdom which stands against Christendom and the State.
  • Agents of God’s Shalom– More than merely being non-violent on a personal level (a measure that all Anabaptists will not flinch from) we are dedicated to producing God’s Shalom in our communities, and standing against violence in all of its forms (Empire, oppression, poverty, war, etc.). Shalom is more than the absence of conflict (Pax Christi), it is the peace that surpasses all understanding, as God’s Reign fosters wholeness through reconciling the hierarchies of class, race, ethnicity, age, sex, gender, sexuality, and ableism. Although there are tensions within the Anabaptist movement as to the Church’s relationship to possible political responsibilities, Anabaptists reject Dominionism in favor of persuasion. Thus Anabaptists can responsibly engage the Powers and Principalities through prophetic and non-violent witness.

It is my goal to take these distinctives and demonstrate their appearance from the perspective of Radix-Anabaptism.

Jesus Centered

Many proclaim to be Christ centered or “Christocentric” but there are distinctions and realities that must be recognized when dealing with this matter. What many define as a Christocentric approach is in reality an “Christological” perspective. Stuart Murray explains the historical origins of the positions regarding Anabaptism in relative to their Protestant contemporaries in addition to the nuances involved in owning a Christocentric or Christological model.

When we compare the Christocentric Anabaptist approach with the Reformers’ methodology, we can appreciate the distinctive nature of the Anabaptists’ approach. The Reformers’ hermeneutics can fairly be described, explicitly or implicitly, as Christological. Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God to humankind, and his death, resurrection, and ascension are God’s central acts in history. The biblical message was that through these events salvation was available to those who would believe. The whole of Scripture testified to this central truth. With this Anabaptists heartily agreed. However, the Reformers’ emphasis was less on Jesus himself and more on his salvific acts and the doctrine of justification by faith. In this sense, we might describe the Reformers’ hermeneutics as soteriological: their understanding of salvation provided the hermeneutical key to Scripture.[1]

In the Anabaptist mindset, the focus is on Jesus life and teachings thus making their position Christocentric or Christ centered whereas the Reformers put more emphasis on the soteriological aspects of Jesus’ life. All of these things factor into the hermeneutic or interpretative methods employed when looking at the Bible, which is the source of any post resurrection information one can acquire, related to Christ.  However, the Anabaptists added a second aspect by to their paradigm. Murray goes on to explain:

Anabaptist hermeneutics, however, were not only Christological but Christocentric in the sense of focusing on Jesus himself instead of on a doctrine describing the effects of his redeeming work. For Anabaptists, he was not only their redeemer but also the example they were to imitate and the teacher they were to learn from. Their Christocentrism was tied more firmly to the human Jesus than was the Reformers’ Christological approach, and their interpretations of the rest of Scripture were significantly different as a result, making their hermeneutics distinctive in the Reformation context.[2]

The Anabaptists applied an Christological perspective to their Christocentric position thus not losing any type of recognition for the acts and benefits wrought by Christ on their behalf.  However, once one has recognized the works of Christ as a Christian emulating his life and obeying his teachings was required of his followers. Thus in a genuine sense the Anabaptist community “was a community whose discernment was measured by the person and the words of Christ.” [3]  For believers then and now Jesus’ life and teachings are to be viewed as the “primary way to understand the circle-of-expression that is God, we have a living human example upon which to model our human living.”[4]  To be Christocentric begins with looking at the four detailed and intimate portraits of Jesus and his life known as the Gospels. These four accounts are consistent “in the nature of Jesus’ teaching, pronouncements and attitudes to all.”[5] When one wants to be Christocentric, they should be inclined “to adopt his attitudes and example as well as heeding his teaching directly.”[6]

Yet when one embraces a Christocentric faith the life and teachings of Jesus must stand over all others as far as ordering of priorities. The Christian should start with Jesus while not neglecting the remainder of God’s special revelation. While Protestants in general regardless of place in history, emphasize the writings of Paul to an abnormal degree some professed, Anabaptists appears to emphasize the Gospels to the point where other portions of the Bible in general seem to be neglect or deemphasized. This should not be the case; all later New Testament writers should be contemplated. All the biblical writers  was Spirit inspired by the Father to document His will in the same fashion as Christ came to declare and live out the Father’s will. Authors such as Paul and Peter did not stray from the words of Jesus but explained them or interpreted them. They took the commands, teachings and principles established by the Messiah and demonstrated the application of those things for Christian consumption.

There is no such thing as a Paul vs Jesus rivalry, Paul was a servant of Christ and he did not teach anything that would contradict his Master’s wishes. The initial point naturally leads into the second.

Free Church of Confessing, Baptized Disciples

Loosely defined the “term ‘free church’ suggests a community which arises from the voluntary association of the faithful and which on principle administers its own affairs without the aid or the interference of the temporal government.”[7] It has an emphasis on the “free will of the individual and liberty from the constraints of the authorities were thus the distinct marks of the free church, as it first appeared among the Anabaptists.”[8]The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online expands on this issue by stating:

The church (Gemeinde) . . . is a voluntary and exclusive fellowship of truly converted believers in Christ, committed to follow Him in full obedience as Lord; it is a brotherhood, not an institution. It is completely separated from the state, which is to have no power over the church; and the members of the church in turn do not hold office in the magistracy. There is to be complete freedom of conscience, no use of force or compulsion by state or church; faith must be free. In these principles the Anabaptists were pioneers and forerunners of modern religious liberty and the free church. This church concept was held in sharp distinction from the prevailing inclusive concept of both Catholic and Protestant state-churchism, namely, that of the mass church (Volkskirche) coterminous with the population of a state, into which all citizens are in effect born and are to be formally incorporated by universal and compulsory infant baptism and in which they remain until death . . . . the Anabaptist conception of the church is ultimately derivative from its concept of Christianity as discipleship, i.e., complete obedience by the individual to Christ and the living of a holy life patterned after His example and teachings, an essential idea in it is that the church must be holy, composed exclusively of practicing disciples, and kept pure. It is a church of order, in which the body determines the pattern of life for its members, and therefore has authority over the individual’s behavior. It controls admission of new members, requiring evidence of repentance, the new birth, and a holy life, and maintains the purity of the church through discipline using the ban or excommunication. Adopting the program of Christ for the church . . . as their aim, the Anabaptists sincerely sought to achieve a church “not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” They cannot however rightly be charged on this account with perfectionism, for their position expressly provided for discipline for sinning church members.[9]

Another essential aspect of the free church originally and is essential to Radix-Anabaptism is “a denial of both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant teachings about salvation and the Christian life.”[10] The reason for this being that the Anabaptists held to a dualistic worldview. There are only two realms or “Kingdoms” in which one can reside. The first being the Kingdom of the World and the other is the Kingdom of God or Heaven. Only the free church can reside in the realm of the Kingdom indicated by the visible manifestation of the Spirit’s presence in their midst. The Schleitheim Brotherly Union states:

We have been united concerning the separation that shall take place from the evil and the wickedness which the devil has planted in the world, simply in this; that we have no fellowship with them, and do not run with them in the confusion of their abominations. So it is; since all who have not entered into the obedience of faith and have not united themselves with God so that they will to do His will, are a great abomination before God . . . Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are [come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols. Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other . . . . From all this we should learn that everything which has not been united with our God in Christ is nothing but an abomination which we should shun. By this are meant all popish and repopish works and idolatry,  gatherings, church attendance.[11]

To be a free church within the context of prototypical Anabaptism meant detachment from the State and unscriptural and burdensome practices and teachings. This two is another identifier of Radix-Anabaptism.

Agents of God’s Shalom

To the ancient Hebrews the word for peace is the term שָׁלוֹם. Transliterated it is shalom; it has the lexical significance of “completeness”, “soundness” (as in mental or physical), “welfare”, “contentment” and “peace”. It denotes a full-orbed state; it “is iridescent in meaning, connoting well-being. Shalom may denote (material) prosperity . . . . ethical relations among humans . . . or eschatological (messianic) hope that brings peace among nations”.[12] The Anabaptist approached this form of peace through what is known as nonresistance, in “German, the mother tongue of most early Anabaptists, the teaching was called Wehrlosigkeit, or defenselessness. It indicated the unwillingness of the peaceful Anabaptists to carry weapons or to defend themselves. To distinguish themselves from other Christians, they called themselves die wehrlosen Christen, of defenseless Christians.”[13] This was the method sanctioned by Christ, he said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.[14]

This is identified as biblical nonresistance; this is the proper means to acquire shalom.

It attempts to make peace, or perhaps better, it attempts to offer peace in place of the natural response that man makes when thwarted or attacked. It does not have a backup position that allows it to support violent action or warfare in cases when all else fails to bring peace . . . Nor does it allow taking of human life to defend another human life in cases where that life is being threatened. It is not peace itself that is being honored, but the image of God in the other human being, as well as the commandments of Jesus. It is not earthly peace that is being sought as it was the highest possible good.[15]

Being advocates of peace requires more than talking or speaking. Agents of peace speak through their actions. The Anabaptist emphasis on obedience and works held to nonresistance of a biblical nature. When speaking they do not “speak truth to power”, for Christians was not commanded to engage any government or authoritative civil or political entity. Their message is to be shared with each other and those common ordinary people and if only the opportunity presents itself to those in power. No intentional interaction should be sought with those in power.

Concluding Remarks

While Radix-Anabaptism would not have an issue with the above, the criteria established by the MennoNerds in general, some features must be nuanced.  Personally, I feel that it is the first step in a very positive direction.

___________________________________________________

[1] Stuart Murray, Studies in the Believers Church Tradition, vol. 3, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1999), 84.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C. Arnold Snyder, From Anabaptist Seed: Exploring the Historical Center of Anabaptist Teachings and Practices (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2007), 17.

[4] Andrew Francis, Anabaptism: Radical Christianity (Bristol: Imagier Publishing, 2010), 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hans Jürgen-Goertz, The Anabaptists, trans. Trevor Johnson (London: Routledge, 1996), 86.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Harold S. Bender and Cornelius J. Dyck, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1955), s.v. “Church, Doctrine Of,” accessed May 3, 2014,http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Church,_Doctrine_of#1955_Article.

[10] James Edward McGoldrick, Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History, Atla Monograph Series (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 2000), 32:88.

[11] Micheal Sattler and John Howard Yoder, “The Schleitheim Brotherly Union,” Mennonite Church USA Archives, February 11, 2002, accessed May 4, 2014, http://mcusa-archives.org/library/resolutions/schleithiem/separation.html.

[12] Donald E. Gowan, ed., The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 354.

[13] Stephen Russell, Overcoming Evil God’s Way: The Biblical and Historical Case for Nonresistance (Guys Mills, Pennsylvania: Faithbuilders Resource Group, 2008), 6.

[14] Matthew 5:38-42.

[15] Ibid., 6-7.

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