What I Have Learned from the Anabaptists (Conclusion)
Today I come to my final essay in our series on Anabaptism. A question may legitimately be asked by those who have had the patience to complete the reading of the preceding sketches in this series: Why should a committed Baptist so vigorously promote Anabaptist ideals? The answer is that Anabaptist principles can be applied to many modern problems of church life – restoring church discipline to our nominal memberships, fostering the ministry of the “laity,” furthering religious liberty, promoting global missions – to name but a few.
I must insist that I did not produce these essays because I am in favor of belittling the work of the Magisterial Reformers. For clarity’s sake I must repeat that I am thus indicting the Reformers only because they were inconsistent with their own principles of reformation. Here, of course, I am not alone in my thinking. As far back as 1914, Henry C. Vedder, in his book The Reformation in Germany (p. 345), had this to say about the Anabaptists:
They were the only party among those protesting against the errors of Rome who were logical and thoroughgoing. They alone accepted in absolute faith and followed to its necessary consequences the principle avowed by the leading reformers, that the Scriptures were the sole source of religious authority…. The Anabaptists alone had penetrated beneath the surface of traditional Christianity and comprehended the real Gospels of Jesus…. In a word, the Anabaptists were the real reformers, and the only real reformers, of the Sixteenth century.
Now, I hope no reader will suppose that Anabaptism is here put forward as an alternative to the pure milk of the Word of God, as if any man-made movement is preferable to the testimony of inspired Scripture. The record of Anabaptism is by no means a spotless one. Like every movement of the Holy Spirit, it is the story of a weak, stammering church that moved over a field of ecclesiastical rubble. By writing this series I am not condoning everything in the movement or offering pious panaceas. If I have left an overly positive impression, it is because I believe that an appreciation of Anabaptism can prove fruitful in many areas of Christian life and witness. The important point to register here is this: Anabaptism was a valid, if incomplete, representation of Christ’s Body – nothing more, nothing less. I also hope that these essays might have a mollifying effect on those modern-day traditionalists who view dissent as inherently misguided and dissenters as mere Schwärmer. (The parallel with Luther and Zwingli will not escape the reader.)
I suspect that church institutions as they are now known are incapable of thoroughgoing renewal. It is my view that new church plants are the most likely bodies to reflect early Christianity rather than the proud establishments of Christendom. I would like to think that at least the weekly observance of the breaking of the bread and the ministry of all believers could be restored to church practice, if not also a stronger congregational discipline (done in love, of course). I think that everyone would agree with me if I said that Luther and Zwingli were not averse to using the state as an instrument to achieve their own purposes. In the Anabaptist perspective, the leaders of the Reformation were no less tyrants than Constantine because they also enforced religious conformity by civil power. The pomp and display, the ambition and the pride of Christendom, seen in both their Roman Catholic and Protestant forms, were the precise opposite of the submissive humility that characterized Anabaptism. One does not have to be a biblical scholar to recognize the parallels that exist with today’s American form of God-and-Country evangelicalism. I hardly need to point out that just as Martin Niemöller unflinchingly told crowds in Nazi Germany to follow the “Jewish rabbi, Jesus Christ,” so those who are called to follow Christ in the midst of a statist church will need tremendous courage. If there is perhaps a side benefit of the current imbroglio in Iraq, it is that it is providing the crucible and training ground for a new generation of Christian thinkers who are willing to question the status quo vis-à-vis church-state relationships.
This is one reason why I cannot agree with those who say that Anabaptism represented a “wing” of the Reformation. If it was a wing, it was one that the bird tried desperately to sever from its body. Excluding fanatical groups such as the Münsterites and the Antitrinitarians, the mainstream Anabaptists rejected out of hand the organizational form of the state-church system. Membership in the Body of Christ was based solely on a voluntary confession of faith in Jesus and a commitment to walk in Christian discipleship according to the pacific and brotherly teachings of Christ. No one was automatically a Christian by virtue of being born and baptized in a particular geographical region. Anabaptism was reserved for those who confessed Christ. The church of today deserves scathing criticism for its lack of discernment in this area and its easy-believism. The essence of Christianity, so the Anabaptists taught, was obedience to Christ. High ethical standards were set and maintained by church discipline. Selfless sharing was emphasized, though not to the point that a person would give so much that he would himself need to be cared for. The Hutterites believed that individualism was a sin against God. Contrast our churches today and the way we pay lip-service to Body Life, mutual participation, and every-member ministry. I do not know a way of describing this abysmal state of affairs other than as an unhealthy dependence on professional ministers. There is very little fleshing out of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers except on certain “special days” such as Youth Sunday, WMU Sunday, and Baptist Men’s Day.
On one thing I think even the severest critics of Anabaptism would agree, however. They practiced what they preached. They were truly a family. Decision-making was based on consensus, not popular vote. Issues were discussed until the brethren agreed and could say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” What a far cry from our enslavement to Robert’s Rules of Order. They developed a true mutuality and sense of brotherhood. The Lord’s Supper, practiced weekly, was as vital to the maintenance of this fellowship as baptism was to its beginning. The Supper was a memorial of the Lord’s suffering and death and a symbol of His presence, not in the bread and the cup but in the fellowship of the faithful. Membership in this fellowship called for an obedient walk in Christian discipleship according to the teachings of Jesus, seen not least in a commitment to implement the missionary mandate entrusted by the Lord to His apostles. This commission was binding on the church and thus the responsibility of every baptized believer.
Above all, the Anabaptists taught that the church must follow the guidelines of the New Testament as to its confession of faith and its organizational patterns. For them the Bible was as ambiguous as to the doctrine of the church as it was to the doctrine of salvation. Their ecclesiology called for non-conformity to the world, the separation of church and state, and serving others in meekness in the spirit of Christ. The church is neither Catholic nor Protestant but simply Christian, they argued. Christ the King is the only Head of the church. An authoritative ministry by the elders was therefore out of keeping with the spirit as well as the letter of the New Testament.
I am well aware that I could go on and on in this vein. Instead, I want to return to the question: will anything in our churches change? How can it? The very fact that the strongest arguments, the most rigorous exegesis, the most time-tested values are of no avail is proof that we are faced with a conscious decision made in the light of thorough knowledge. Obedience, not knowledge, is our problem. As I have stated before, the church in America has reached a Rubicon, and it will either cross it or it won’t. Even though a good many thinking people regard the “system” as fatally flawed, as utterly frightful, they feel caught by an inescapable dilemma. They reject Christendom in principle, but a renewal is no longer desirable, at least in the current state of the church. Whether we call ourselves conventional, emergent, or “convergent” (which appears to be the new “in” expression), the church is rushing nowhere at an incredible rate of speed. We know the dangers of our faddish programs but we go on building them anyway. What frightful hypocrites I fear we have become, and I suppose I am the worst hypocrite of them all.
I know I am swimming against the stream, but there is no need to dwell on it any longer. I love the church. Why else would I have chosen to teach churchmen if I didn’t? I have simply tried to remind myself (and anyone who will join me in thinking through the issues) that the way forward is backward – back to the sixteenth century, and back even further to the radicals of the first century, the original generation of Christians that turned the world right side up. I believe that the old values are still worth pursuing. And – thank God! – they have not been completely forgotten. They continue to speak to believers today, hearkening back to a time when the church was Spirit-led, simple, and solidly evangelistic. If the church of today decides it knows better than the New Testament how to conduct itself, then so be it. The fact is that the modern church has sought greatness and attained power instead. And therein lies its ultimate tragedy. The astonishingly deep and balanced view of ecclesiology that Anabaptism represented and that I have tried to bring before the reader is now at its end.
It will not surprise anyone if I conclude with a story from Greek mythology. When the centaur Nessus was fatally wounded by Heracles, he persuaded Heracles’ wife Deianira to keep a saucer of his blood as a charm to preserve her husband’s love. Later on Deianira dipped one of Heracles’ robes into the blood, thinking thereby to keep him faithful to her. The robe, however, stuck to Heracles’ skin, and to remove it he had to tear away large pieces of his flesh.
What can free us from the Nessus’ robe we have woven for ourselves? It is certainly not Anabaptism or any other ephemeral movement in church history. Of that I am certain. Freedom from our bondage can only be accomplished by the moving of God, an interplay of forces and mechanisms that is completely beyond our control.
August 18, 2007
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.