Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Anabaptism Without The Boundaries

I had an email exchange with a friend and we sort of stumbled on a concept: Anabaptism without boundaries. To understand that you need to understand the lay of the land of Anabaptism where we live. Our immediate community has an enormous and well established population of Anabaptists, from Amish to conservative Mennonites to really conservative Mennonites to really, really conservative Mennonites to former Amish to Beachy Amish and everything in between. It is a fascinating area in that respect and we have really started to get to know the different groups. We also have seen the way that these rich traditions and unique practices can create barriers that are unhealthy and I believe unnecessary.

When I write about Anabaptism it is important to note that I am speaking of the conservative wing of modern Anabaptists. Conservative Anabaptists are usually easy to spot. They tend toward very conservative clothing, the women all cover their heads, their buildings tend to be very spartan. Having said that, the conservatives do not have a monopoly on Anabaptism. There are many people who would declare themselves to be Anabaptists that look and often believe very differently from conservative Anabaptists. The more liberal or "progressive" wing of Anabaptism is largely absent in the area where I live and carries it own set of baggage, namely that in my humble opinion it tries too hard to rebel against the rules of traditional Anabaptism and ends up abandoning any semblance of standards. I am sure that will offend some but I call 'em like I see 'em.

I consider myself to be an Anabaptist, at least in the sense of someone who sees themselves within the wide tradition over the centuries of radical reformers that have carried the name "Anabaptist". That may strike some as odd. I am not a Miller or a Yoder. I didn't grow up in an Anabaptist church. We don't really look or act much like what Anabaptists are supposed to look like. In fact I am a pretty odd candidate to identify myself as an Anabaptist having spent so much of my Christian walk in the Reformed tradition (listening to the White Horse Inn where every ill in the church could be tied back to those Anabaptists and fixed by "word and sacrament"). Regardless, when I look at what I consider the "core tenets" of Anabaptism, in other words what set them apart from the Magisterial Reformers and got so many of them killed, I find myself firmly in that camp.

What are those core tenets? To look around the world of conservative Anabaptism you might think that it was a particular style of dress and a love for baking but I prefer to look back at what got Anabaptists in trouble in the first place. I think Dave Black puts together a nice list in his essay Why I Love The Anabaptists but here is a condensed version that I normally reference:
  • A simple reliance on the Bible as sufficient for matters of faith and practice
  • A distinction between the church and the state
  • Non-resistance esp. as it pertains to killing on behalf of the state
  • Non-conformity with the world (and I would add the religious establishment)
  • Believer's Baptism
  • As a result of believer's baptism the church as made up exclusively of regenerate individuals with an emphasis on church discipline
That is not exactly a comprehensive list but it hits the big issues. That list alone, while it has some a few pretty distinctive teachings in our religious culture especially the non-resistance one, is not enough to create major barriers between Anabaptism and the rest of the church but in practice the gap is pretty wide and unfortunately virtually unbridgeable. This also has major implications for evangelism. Generally when someone witnesses to someone who then subsequently comes to Christ they become part of the group but for conservative Anabaptists the issue is that someone who is a new Christian is going to have a very difficult time adapting to their culture. It is a troubling situation.

That is a pretty roundabout way to get to my point but I think it is important to set the groundwork. So why is it so difficult to bridge the gap? Why do people who come from more mainstream evangelical backgrounds have such a hard time integrating into Anabaptist groups?  I think there are two major issues in play: persecution and fear.

Over the more than four hundred years since the advent of the Radical Reformation, Anabaptism has faced persecution almost continually, even in "the land of free and the home of the brave", and that persecution has made Anabaptists understandably cautious and insular. When other "Christians" have historically been the ones wielding the instruments of torture or lighting the fire under the stake one can perhaps forgive them being a little cautious.

The other factor, and the far stronger one I believe, is the fear of "liberalism" that manifests itself in viewing every other Christian who is not a "plain" or "conservative" Anabaptist as a potential heretic looking to infiltrate and liberalize the church. I understand the impulse. The news is full of stories of various groups that used to, at least on the surface, reflect Biblical teaching that have gone completely off the rails. One need look no further than a man who divorced his wife and "married" another man that is called "Bishop" in the Episcopal church. There is even some of this among traditional Anabaptist groups. What ends up being the result is an unfortunate "all or nothing" stance where non-Anabaptists are conditionally welcome but only in the most cursory sense unless they are willing to go all in with the culture and tradition. So we are left with conservative Anabaptists viewing the rest of the church with suspicion, fearful that they will sneak in and start cutting women's hair, and the rest of the church looking at conservative Anabaptists as a tourist attraction, a throwback to a bygone era, neat to look at but little else.

This uneasy state of affairs between conservative Anabaptists and the rest of the church leaves the totality of the church poorer as a result. Anabaptists have so much to teach the church about living outside of the mainstream and apart from the acceptance of the culture, a state of affairs that the entire church is going to find itself in sooner rather than later. The broader church has made, in spite of the many flaws, some real strides in evangelism and service that Anabaptists could learn from. Even more intimately the conservative Anabaptist population could desperately use some new blood but that is awfully hard when outsiders are perceived with suspicion. I still remember one evening when we were out with the family of an elder in a local Anabaptist group and my wife asked if they considered our kids someone they would be OK with their kids marrying. There was a lot of dodging and stuttering on that question but the answer was pretty clearly "no". Kind of hard to feel welcome when you are not permitted to share the Lord's Supper and your kids are viewed as unfit to marry into the family.

The challenge becomes embracing the core tenets of Anabaptism while allowing, perhaps even encouraging, others to explore what that means and how that is lived without predetermined barriers. Giving others room to grow and perhaps even giving yourself room to grow is vital for a healthy church life. While Anabaptists are not unique in their theological in-breeding (for example Plymouth Brethren on dispensationalism, Reformed churches on ecclesiology, etc.) it is certainly rampant among them. Like conservative Anabaptists we practice headcovering but a sister in Christ sitting next to us that is not covering doesn't strike me as a threat just as I don't think that a teacher expounding on libertarian free-will in salvation is cause for me to get up and leave. My brothers in Anabaptist groups need to lay off the whispered talk of churches that "went liberal" as a bogeyman to scare people. If you are teaching what the Bible teaches and allowing yourself in turn to be teachable we will all be healthier. We all have so much to learn from one another but we can't learn from those we reject nor can they learn from us.

From the earliest days Anabaptist were an evangelistic people who challenged the status quo. Being an Anabaptist doesn't demand insularity nor conformity. I would argue that it demands just the opposite.

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