What I Have Learned from the Anabaptists (Part 6)
I want to talk in this essay about what Christians call missions. (The term does not appear in the Greek New Testament.) I want to start by saying something that I would like everyone to notice carefully. Unlike many Christians today, and unlike perhaps the majority of Reformers of the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists believed that the Great Commission was the responsibility of every believer and could not be left to pastors or mission agencies. An old Anabaptist hymn puts it this way:
As God His Son was sending
Into this world of sin,
His Son is now commending
That we this world should win.
He sends us and commissions
To preach the gospel clear,
To call upon all nations
To listen and to hear.
Anabaptist scholar Alan Kreider has described in several of his writings the phenomenal growth that took place in the church of the first three centuries. He has observed that the church grew rapidly not because of training programs in evangelism or admonitions to “share one’s faith.” Precisely the opposite was true. The pre-Constantine church grew by leaps and by bounds, says Kreider, because it had a new way of living. The same was true of the Anabaptist movement. It grew by “fascination” as well as by words – by its Jesus-likeness. A core commitment of the Anabaptists – and by “core” I mean just that – was to implement the missionary mandate entrusted to the church by Christ. And this mandate was not just the prerogative of selected professionals but the privilege and responsibility of the simplest believer.
In speaking of the missionary heart of the Anabaptists my highest hope is that it might help us to implement biblical principles in our own lives and fellowships. I believe that if we are open to a fresh leading of the Holy Spirit, at whatever cost to our present way of living, we cannot help but become more missional in the way we think and act. The purpose of the Anabaptist movement was more than to recall Christians to their biblical roots. At every point the Anabaptists sought to correct the notion of their contemporaries that the Great Commission had been fulfilled by Christ’s original apostles. It was this emphasis that explains the contempt, and even disgust, that some of the magisterial Reformers felt for the missionary program of the Dissenters.
Our own situation is much like that of the erudite Anabaptists. Today we have to strip off the false notion that missions is only for professionals. Jesus is asking His followers today to take seriously not just the gathering but the going forth. What we must learn to say to the world is: “Here we are. We are willing to make any sacrifice to see that you know Jesus. We are not asking you to come to church with us. We love you right where you are. We love you no matter what you do to us. If we have to build a hut next to you for the rest of time just to witness to the love and grace of the Lord Jesus, we are going to make that effort. We’re not going to take you out of your environment or make you a part of an institution just to keep the institution going.”
For the Anabaptists, the church meant a great deal. It was a community consisting of those who had a vital relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior. It was the brotherhood of the redeemed, purchased by Christ’s spilled blood. It was the fellowship of the regenerated who as “living stones” were being built up into a holy temple. It was the body of Christ-centered sharing where each bore the other’s burdens and thus fulfilled the law of Christ. The church was all of this to the Anabaptists. But it was much more than this. The church was the community of those who not only worshiped God and learned of Christ but who witnessed and served, proclaiming in word and deed the Lord Jesus Christ and His full and free salvation to anyone who would listen. For the Anabaptists the biblical church was a Great Commission church – witnessing, evangelizing, and ministering in love both to each other and to the outside world. For them the whole of life was to be one of service and sacrifice. Members of free churches were not to be left alone to their own devices. The New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was taken seriously. This meant that they would not only serve the needs of the brethren but carry their witness into the world.
No words of Jesus meant more to the Anabaptists than the Great Commission. They believed that the True Church was obliged to take that commission seriously. We are obliged, I think, to do no less today.
August 15, 2007
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.