Thursday, September 18, 2014

Romancing the Anabaptists

I love me some Anabaptists. I first got turned on to them thanks to Dave Black, and it is quite an accomplishment and a testament to Dr. Black's infectious enthusiasm that I gave them serious consideration after years of listening to the White Horse Inn where every ill in the church could be traced back to the Anabaptists (and every ill could be solved by applying more "word and sacrament"). So I am of course as pleased as anyone that these Reformation era brethren are experiencing a major revitalization of interest in the church.

Having said that....

I am concerned that many Christians are romanticizing the Anabaptists and turning them into something they were not. In doing so they risk completely missing the very important lessons that Anabaptists can teach the church today by trying to make the Anabaptists fit into a contemporary model that really has nothing to do with what they believed. Yes they believed in and practiced non-resistance but there is a lot more to them than that. As a result of their persecution the Anabaptists rarely had time to sit down and pen lengthy theological treatises and I am afraid that has given license to many contemporary thinkers to "fill in the blanks". This pop culture "Anabaptism" where Anabaptist becomes a word that means whatever I want it to does a disservice to the Anabaptists and the contemporary church alike.

The Anabaptists were a people under constant persecution, not for being too lax with the Scriptures but being too literal. Far from being unorthodox or disinterested in orthodoxy they were a people deeply concerned with right belief and right practice. They weren't especially ecumenical (read Menno Simons speaking about the pope and Roman Catholicism). They held to some pretty traditional ideas on doctrines like hell. They certainly were not loosey goosey about doctrine, in fact they were just the opposite. They suffered persecution because of their refusal to compromise.

Fast forward four hundred years or so and you get a pretty divided manifestation of "Anabaptism". On the one hand you have the traditional Anabaptist groups like the Amish, the Mennonites, the Hutterites and other groups that are visibly recognizable by their dress and manner (usually plain, coverings for women, often technologically averse). I believe that these historically Anabaptist groups would be more recognizable to the original Anabaptists than the second group although I think they (the original Anabaptists) would be troubled by the insularity and general disinterest (or outright aversion) to evangelism their progeny exhibit.

The second group, what I and many others call "neo-anabaptism", includes a smorgasbord of beliefs that are all over the place but (and this is a pretty broad generalization) tend to fall way to the left on the theological scale. Most prominent voices promote "egalitarianism", reject substitutionary ideas of the atonement, advance ideas that border on (or leap right over the border) of universalism or at least a rejection of a literal hell. In spite of my general dislike of these sorts of fanciful notions and the time-space continuum paradox they would cause I would hazard to guess that Menno Simons and company would be bewildered by the positions held by many of those who claim a contemporary affinity with them. When many contemporary Christians talk about Anabaptism what they are really talking about is a romanticized, and perhaps hijacked, version of an important movement in the church that bears little practical resemblance to what their forefathers believed and practiced. It seems like neo-Anabaptists define Anabaptism by definitions that have nothing to do with the Anabaptists other than Anabaptist non-resistance, which looks very different from militant political pacifism (pun intended). I am sure that characterization will rub many in the neo-Anabaptist camp the wrong way but I call 'em like I see 'em.

Some of this is the fault of evangelicalism. There is not really a home for peacemaking in what passes for the church loosely defined under the umbrella of evangelicalism, whether you are talking Reformed denominations or charismatic groups or run of the mill Baptists to non-denominational churches. The idea of practical peacemaking simply doesn't get any sort of consideration, leaving only the fringe left of the theological spectrum as a home for those who eschew redemptive violence. Ideas like redemptive violence, "just war" and the myriad hypothetical situations and geo-political rationales we invoke to excuse or even celebrate our rejection of peacemaking are so deeply entrenched in mainstream evangelicalism that peacemaking rarely gets even a cursory examination. This leaves a lot of Christians without many options. Peacemaking is not a new concept and it certainly is not a "progressive" or liberal idea. It is deeply embedded in the foundations of the Gospel.

Anyway, back to my point. We stand on the cusp of a seismic change for the church in America. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that it will have a similar impact, although a very different one, that the Reformation had on the church. As we look to the past to help us face the future there are few historical manifestations of the church that are as potentially valuable as the Anabaptists. We risk missing the timely and critical lessons they have to teach us if we remove the real people who suffered for standing firm for the truth in a hostile culture and replace them with neutered, politically correct shills for a cornucopia of "progressive" ideology. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of great people who fall into the category of "neo-Anabaptist", many of them Christians doing great things for God. They have some worthwhile things to say and I am not saying they can't call themselves Anabaptists. I just wish they would study more of the actual Anabaptists to understand what made them uniquely valuable to the contemporary church rather than the romanticized version we so often see today.


Robert Martin said...

So... which group do I belong in? Considering that I have an ethnic heritage dating back to the 1600's outside Bern, Switzerland, with an ancestor who was held prisoner in Trachsewald Castle for crimes against the state and the church... I could be in your first group... but I'm not.

OR... I could be one of your "loosey-goosy" neo-Anabaptists with all this new-fangled theologizing, etc. But I'm not...

No... you see, what Anabaptists were with guys like Blaurock, Grebel, Manz, etc., were a bunch of guys who, while studying the Bible and thinking outside of the bounds of the "acceptable" church teachings, decided that what Christianity was, and always has been, about is following Jesus, looking at what Jesus said, how he said it, who he said it to, living as Jesus did, using Jesus as the example... and took a very radical, very risky step and got "re-baptised" in a subversive, dangerous, rebellious ceremony.

It wasn't about taking the Bible literally... it was about following Jesus, radically.

And see... that's what I am. I'm an Anabaptist, not because I'm following some sort of creed, some sort of literal reading of Scripture, some sort of set of religious rules and laws and morals as if, somehow, if I do the right behaviors, I'll actually "get in good" with God... no, I'm an Anabaptist because I recognize is what I need to do is lay all that other crap aside, lay aside all my assumptions about what "church" should be like, and look at the man who ate with prostitutes, empire collaborators, drunkards, gluttons, the scum of the earth, and declared to them that this God person was not distant... never was... and that this God person simply wants them to come home and be in relationship with him again.

I'm sorry I don't fit your nice neat categories... but see, you fall in that second category more than the first yourself... you are a "neo-Anabaptist" who has blended fundamentalist conservatism with Anabaptism and called it are just as guilty.

how about, next time, you actually ask an Anabaptist who has the pedigree of blood and death in his history.

Arthur Sido said...

I actually talk to Anabaptists who have the pedigree of death and blood in their history all the time. Like every day. You will also note that I don't consider myself to be an Anabaptist, neo- or otherwise. I do find their teaching to be profitable in many areas, just as I find the teaching of many of the Reformed profitable, but I am not an Anabaptist.

The point of my post which you seem to have missed entirely is that Anabaptism as it was historically understood and practiced as a persecuted subversive element in a religious culture has a lot to teach the church today. You won't find that element in very many of the teachings of popular contemporary "neo-Anabaptists" who deliver sermons from the comfort of institutional churches. I don't see that many of the "neo-Anabaptist" teachers that many people breathlessly quote have much to say that is of any use at all in a church that will be on the outside looking in very soon.