Thursday, March 12, 2015

What is the essence of Anabaptism?

I continue to read a lot of early to mid-20th century books written by Anabaptists (well Mennonites mostly as the Hutterites, Amish, Old German Baptist Brethren, etc. didn't write many books). What constantly sticks out to me is how very different historic Anabaptism is from the later 20th century to contemporary period Neo-Anabaptism. That is not in and of itself a bad thing, just puzzling because it seems to me that a lot (not all, so please save your angry retorts) of what calls itself Anabaptism today is completely unmoored from the historic reality of the people who stood for the truth and suffered for it. For example, one author who would be (in my mind) associated with the contemporary Neo-Anabaptist movement is Stuart Murray, author of the book The Naked Anabaptist ( see my review here). He wrote:
In many nations, then, not only in Britain and Ireland, there are growing numbers of 'neo-Anabaptists' and 'hyphenated Anabaptists'. Neo-Anabaptists identify with the Anabaptist tradition and are happy to be known as Anabaptists, but have no historic or cultural links with any Anabaptist-related denomination. Hyphenated Anabaptists find inspiration and resources in the Anabaptist tradition, but do not identify themselves as Anabaptists. They might be Baptist-Anabaptists, Methodist-Anabaptists, Anglican-Anabaptists, Pentecostal-Anabaptists or various other combinations.
In short, a lot of the "Neo-Anabaptists" and "Hyphenated-Anabaptists" use the word Anabaptist but don't mean Anabaptist as it is historically understood and don't really care what the historic Anabaptists thought, taught or practiced.

What seems to be the essence of Neo-Anabaptism is a combination of social justice and modern militant pacifism with a sizable dose of rejection of tradition. This combination has led to some pretty squirrelly positions and an embrace of a lot of heterodox teaching and teachers. It is a pretty big tent, a tent big enough for just about anything except conservative doctrine and practice. My point here is not to simply rail against the errors of a lot of Neo-Anabaptism, well-intentioned though they may be. Rather I am interested in, to use corporate speak for a moment, level-setting. Anabaptism is a deeply historical movement with roots that run quite deep and are simultaneously sad and glorious. Anabaptism, at least the name, is experiencing a sort of renaissance but I am afraid a lot of people don't even get what it was and continues to be all about.

So what is the essence of Anabaptism if not social justice and pacifism? It is the issue of baptism, right? That is where the name comes from and what caused the friction with the Reformers and Catholics alike.

Not really. I ran across this quote in a book I am reading, The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, in a chapter titled Anabaptism and the Reformation by Frtiz Blanke (p.60), emphasis mine:
They wanted a church free from the guardianship of the state, accepting such members as joined out of an uncoerced decision. They sought a free church in the double sense: a congregation free from the state and based upon voluntary membership. This was the first goal of Anabaptism. Their real interest was not in baptism, but in the church. They sought a fellowship of those who by God's grace had come to faith, who desired earnestly to be Christians and to testify to the Gospel in word and work. The baptism of believers was simply the most striking external manifestation of this new kind of church.
The basic essential of Anabaptism is therefore not "social justice" or pacifism,, nor is it the issue of believers baptism (or as I like to call it "baptism") . The essence of Anabaptism is the church, not an institutionalized version but the church as a fellowship of disciples. This basic fact must be viewed in light of the contrast to the state churches of Catholicism and Protestantism alike. The break between the Anabaptists and the Protestants did not really happen over baptism, baptism was the most visible manifestation of a fundamental and irreconcilable difference in the way the Anabaptists understood the church and the way that the Protestants did. Ironically there are many ways that the Protestants are closer to Rome than they are to the Anabaptists and baptism is one of them along with a coercive state church. Likewise I would argue that "infant baptism" only makes sense in the context of a state-church with a coerced membership that operates in tandem with a clerical system that makes the act of baptism and the Lord's Supper into "means of grace" to control the laity. That is a topic for another day.

That is so important to understand if we are to understand the Anabaptists. If Anabaptism means just anything you want, then it no longer means anything at all. We can get too caught up in dwelling on history, much as the Reformed tend to do with their Protestantized ancestor worship, but trying to lay claim to Anabaptism un-moored from actual Anabaptism is foolish. The very name Anabaptist, once a slur, has very specific historical meaning. Using the name today because it makes you sound all groovy and radical and hip might make for lots of blog hits but it is bordering on dishonest. If you ignore the importance of a regenerate church made of disciples in favor of emphasizing a flavor-of-the-month economic-political cause, you miss the essence of Anabaptism and in doing so neuter their historical and current (sadly diminished) witness, replacing it with yet another iteration of "progressive" mainline Protestantism. We already have too much of that going on.

To change course a bit, I see the Neo-Anabaptists a lot like the house church/simple church movement and I harbor the same concerns. I have to say that in spite of its current popularity I am very skeptical of the long term viability of the house church/simple church movement, as well as the "Neo-Anabaptists", precisely because of the tendency of the movement's leaders and by proxy their followers to reject historical orthodoxy based on its acceptance by the institutional church on the one hand and their acceptance of and even embrace of both heterodox teaching and teachers alike on the other. If you make the right statements against the institutional church you are automatically granted a certain level of credence no matter how unscriptural your doctrinal positions are. The history of religion and the witness of Scripture tell us that this is not a recipe for faithfulness.

If you are interested in the Anabaptists, stay away from most contemporary Neo-Anabaptist writers, at least initially. Read the early Anabaptists, read the mid-20th century Anabaptists, study the church and the contrast between a church of disciples and a religious group made of up people who share a zip code. You will find that  things like non-resistance (very different from contemporary militant and political pacifism) and caring for the poor (also very different from "social justice") flow naturally from the church explained in the Bible and manifested however imperfectly the Anabaptists. Get the order reversed and you get a moralistic social club where hipsters and political liberals remake the church to fit their political agenda. There are some good and profitable thinkers who fall under the umbrella of Neo-Anabaptism but there are also on the fringes (and moving closer to center every day) some out and out heretics, wolves and false teachers. Establish a baseline first, a firm foundation in the historical Anabaptism and you will be far more prepared to distinguish between wannabee Anabaptists who subvert the movement for their own purposes and profitable teachers who apply Anabaptist teachings to a contemporary setting. 

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