What I Have Learned from the Anabaptists (Part 1)
Churches today have to make a choice to follow contemporary patterns of ecclesiology or use the early church as a model, as did the Dissenters of the sixteenth century.
Although they shared many theological concepts with the Protestant Reformers, the Dissenters parted company on several crucial points including the separation of church and state (the church must reject all ties with princes and magistrate), believers’ baptism (the church consists solely of voluntary members), and restoration rather than reformation (the only valid model of church life is the early church as revealed in the New Testament).
Because of these beliefs the Dissenters endured fierce repression. What sustained them was the reality of Christian community. They truly loved and cared for each other. Like the earliest Christians, they wanted to be known above all by their love, Christian works, and mutual support. Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, criticized the Swiss Brethren for teaching that “every Christian is under duty before God to use from motives of love all his possessions to supply the necessities of life to any of his brethren.” At the very heart of the dissenting churches was the practice of Christian love and community expressed in material support and concern for outsiders. So genuine and important was the reality of community that the severest penalty was exclusion from the fellowship.
During their gatherings great care was taken that all things were done decently and in order and that all the members had an opportunity to exercise their gifts for the edification of all. Congregations were small enough so that all the members knew each other and could offer any assistance that was necessary. Balthasar Hubmeier wrote in 1526: “For we are not lords of our possessions, but stewards and distributors. There is certainly no one who says that another’s goods may be seized and made common; rather, he would gladly give the coat in addition to the shirt.” The Anabaptists believed they were required by God to care for their poor members, the ill, widows, and orphans, and that one congregation was to minister to the needs of the other. For example, the toleration enjoyed by the Mennonites in the Netherlands enabled them to use their prosperity to help their persecuted brethren in Switzerland. Now that’s “Body Life”!
Like the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, who longed for a restoration both in the structures and the practices of the church and whose vision differed from the magisterial model, so I believe it is time for an alternative vision of church and society, one that is Christocentric and follows the pattern of Jesus by obedience to His teaching and His example. More than anything we need a return to the pure Word of God as the only guide to Christian conduct and thought.
A classic case in point: today we find congregational participation in our gatherings squelched by an unbiblical emphasis on the “clergy” and a corresponding passivity among the “laypeople.” The motivation behind limiting congregational participation is undoubtedly noble (to ensure “quality,” to protect against heresies, to maintain order, etc.). Still, such motivations seem biblically unsustainable. For example, quality can be just as low in a church that practices monological preaching as in one that encourages mutual participation. Besides, the worst heresies in the Christian church have not been promulgated by laypeople but rather by professionally trained theologians. Finally, only a form of corporate ministry in which all believers are free to exercise their gifts and share their insights would seem to comport with the New Testament. Along with Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4, 1 Corinthians 14 teaches that the church is a Body comprised of many members, each of which has something important to contribute to the whole. Apparently Paul believed that God may speak or act through any member of the church for the benefit of the entire community. The result must have been a richness and diversity scarcely known today in many of our churches.
Not that every member ministry entails either the participation of all believers in every gathering or the abolishing of leadership. Rather, it involves a wide participation by those who are Spirit-led. A communal approach to ministry would seem, then, to be a core value of the church and should be encouraged by the leadership, whose role is more facilitative than dominant. Common dangers must be recognized and avoided (e.g., over-participation by some, fear of being criticized by the group, passivity). When it is felt that the conventional monologue is appropriate, it will be helpful to stop for questions and interaction with one’s hearers, if not in the middle then at least at the end. Jesus’ own teaching was frequently characterized by verbal interaction, while the apostle Paul clearly engaged in dialogue with his Christian audiences (dialegomai). Even the famous Christian orator Chysostom interrupted his discourses frequently to ask questions in order to make sure he was understood. Every believer is a priest, and although congregations certainly benefit from the theological expertise of some, the New Testament knows no cult of the expert who ignores the gifts of the people.
Yet another attractive teaching of the Anabaptists (“attractive” because it is biblical) was their belief that the Great Commission was the responsibility of every believer and could not be left to pastors or mission agencies. Jesus Himself calls us to a life of service and witness. Call this “missional” if you like, but it is clearly a scriptural concept. God’s mission agenda is at the very heart of a New Testament church, not the “Sunday event.”
There is so much I believe we can and must learn from the Dissenters: not only their theology of involvement, not only their belief in the priesthood of all believers, but many other core values as well. In the coming weeks I hope to offer a brief series of essays on what I have learned and am learning from the Anabaptists. My interests lie particularly in the area of the New Testament and the ways in which the New Testament offers us a picture of the church as it was meant to function. I do not seek the reformation of the church nor its renewal. I pray that God may restore the true church on biblical and especially Christological foundations.
Your prayers are greatly appreciated.
July 14, 2007
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.