Well, unless the question is “Which faith tradition in the last 1500 years looks the most like the early church?” I make no secret of my admiration for much of what the Anabaptists stood for, how they lived their lives and how they viewed the church. As with any movement, there is a real danger of going too far in my admiration. There is much that we can learn from the Anabaptists, much to glean from how they viewed things that run counter to our traditions (which is why, in my humble opinion, they get slammed so severely by so many evangelicals who have never read a thing about them). I also recognize that the Anabaptists were flawed sinners like me and every other Christian who has ever lived. The original Anabaptists and their modern progeny have much to praise but likewise they have much to be cautious about. I try to remember when praising the Anabaptists that they have their flaws and that we should not seek to “become Anabaptists”. Anabaptism is not the answer, but Anabaptism does help point us to the answer.
This is true when examining any movement in the church. History is replete with movements that spring up, often die out and are looked back at with nostalgia. It is easier to look longingly at the days gone by than it is to ask the hard questions for today, the “good old days” syndrome where the past always seems better than the present.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than among the Reformed. Ah for the glory days of Calvin’s Geneva! If we can only plant more Reformed churches, or convert existing churches to become Reformed. If only we can have more Reformed seminaries and more Reformed conferences. If only less educated Christians would just read more books by Reformed authors. If only we could just get everyone to be Reformed, things would be better. The blogosphere is chock full of evangelists for Reformed theology. What is forgotten or ignored is that so much was left “unreformed” in the Reformation, chiefly the practices and theology of the church. Now don’t get me wrong. I cherish the great Reformed theologians, past and present. What the Reformation recovered from Rome is nothing less than the recovery of the Gospel itself. It can be easy to forget that in the two thousand years since the cross, more than half of that time the Gospel was denied by “the church” and the faith was reduced to empty rituals controlled by power hungry popes. The Reformers risked not just reputation and livelihood but their very lives to take a stand and declare the Gospel of God in the face of violent Roman opposition. So there is much to learn and appreciate from the Reformed but being “Reformed” is not the goal.
How about another stream of the faith? The group we gather with is part of the Plymouth Brethren tradition although you would be hard pressed to ever hear that uttered. We enjoy meeting as we do because we love the people we gather with and because the meetings are so open and participatory. In marked contrast with the incredibly loud church services that typify evangelicalism, our gatherings are quiet and simple. Brethren Assemblies across the world meet in open, unscripted meetings where we break bread every week and every brother has an opportunity to speak. We gather in simple buildings for the most part with little of the pageantry and pizzazz of modern evangelical churches. Having said that, there are concerns in this movement. Even an unscripted meeting can become very rote. We may not have bulletins but we do things in a particular pattern each week. Not as much where we gather but there are aspects of pride and legalism that crop up among the Brethren. We are still far less of a community than we should be. There is a lot to love about the assemblies that come under the umbrella of the Plymouth Brethren but converting the entire church to this movement is not the goal.
When I say we need to be careful when looking at every faith tradition in the church, do I really mean every one? Even the early church? Yes. Recall that Paul rebuked Peter for his fear of eating with Gentiles in front of his fellow Jews. The church in Corinth had all sorts of troubles. The church in Galatia? Don’t get me started! We should not seek to emulate every aspect of the early church because there were plenty of problems. Where we should turn to the early church is for guidance in the key principles of how the church should function as well as warnings about how things can go wrong. When we read the words of Paul and Peter and James and Luke and especially Jesus Christ, we see what the church is all about and how it should behave. In this quest we can learn much from the Anabaptists and the Reformers even though they were at odds in the Reformation period and spoke pretty critically of each other. We can learn a lot from the Plymouth Brethren and from modern Anabaptist movements. The Puritans have much to teach us as well. Ultimately though all of these movements are useful only inasmuch as the help us to be more faithful to Scripture and none of these movements were perfect in that respect. We can and should be discerning and take what is helpful and discard what it not without regard to which faith tradition it comes from. Just because something was written by a Reformed writer doesn’t mean it is right and just because something is written by an Arminian doesn’t mean it is wrong.
The church would be a lot healthier if we would all look outside of our pet faith tradition and humbled ourselves to learn from those we might disagree with. One thing I have especially been blessed by over the last couple of years is exposure to authors and ideas that I would have recoiled from as not being “Reformed” a few years ago. As I have moved away from the idea that being “Reformed” is the pinnacle of the Christian experience, I have actually come to cherish the very real contributions of Reformed writers even more, in spite of their flaws.