A primer on Anabaptism
According to 2015 statistics from Mennonite World Conference, there are more baptized members of Anabaptist-related churches in Africa (736,801) than in North America (682,559) or Europe (64,610). In addition, many Anabaptist church members in North America are not from European descent. In the city of Winnipeg, for example, I know of at least three Mennonite Brethren churches where the majority of the members fit this category: Philadelphia Eritrean Church, Eglise communautaire de la Rivière Rouge, Winnipeg Chinese MB Church. In this light, it is very important that books on Anabaptist Christianity be available to Anabaptist Christians like me who was born in Haiti and has been a Mennonite Brethren church member for only eight years. I am pleased to say that Anabaptist Essentials: Ten Signs of a Unique Christian Faith by Palmer Becker is one of such books.
As I read Anabaptist Essentials, I kept thinking, “what a great primer on Anabaptism!” The 180-page book is written in a very clear and simple style which makes it completely accessible by anyone. A former pastor, church planter, missionary, conference executive and educator, Becker introduces his teaching on the Christian faith from an Anabaptist perspective (as he puts it) with three basic concepts: Jesus, community, and reconciliation. To explain these three words, the author gives us “three short sentences that have become widely used and memorable: Jesus is the centre of our faith. Community is the centre of our life. Reconciliation is the centre of our work” . Becker argues that these statements constitute the core values that have given birth to the Anabaptist movement. “They are essential to the Christian faith and central to what it means to be an Anabaptist Christian.”
Between the introduction and his discussion on the aforementioned three Anabaptist core values, Becker inserts a short chapter on the history of Christianity. There, he reminds us that “the Early Church was born on the day of Pentecost,” and over the following few centuries, many changes brought the church into the era of imperial religion called Christendom. Two prominent figures influenced these changes: Constantine, the politician, and Augustine, the theologian.
In that section of the book, Becker reminds us also of the following: after having realized inadequate practices of the Christian faith, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin attempted “to bring correction to the Christian faith and renewal to the Church.” By their actions, especially after Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg on , these three men unintentionally launched the great Protestant Reformation of which we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary this year 2017. But, because of collaboration between Protestant church leaders, political authorities and feudal lords in an attempt to maintain order following the 1524 series of German peasant uprisings, the Reformation brought very little change in the church. Believing “that the Church should be composed of those who make an adult confession of faith and who commit to following Jesus in daily life,” (page 21) on January 21, 1525, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock baptized one another and thus began the movement called Anabaptism.
In order to explain in more details the three Anabaptist core values,
- Christian is discipleship. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs, a spiritual experience and forgiveness. While affirming that Christianity includes all these things, Anabaptist Christians place particular emphasis on “following Jesus in daily life.” For them, Christianity is discipleship!
- Scripture is interpreted through Jesus. Augustine developed a fourfold approach to interpret the Bible based on his conviction that any Bible passage has a literal, allegorical, moral and prophetic meaning. Luther preached Sola Scriptura and “held that only the Bible should determine faith and life” (p. 41). More recently, four other approaches to interpreting the Bible have become popular:
- the flat or literal (“all Scripture is equal in value and authority”);
- the dispensational (God speaks differently and wants different things at different periods of history);
- the spiritualized Christ-centred (almost entire focused on the sacrificial death of Jesus while paying little attention to the way he lived);
- the ethical Christ-centred (Jesus is the fullest revelation of God’s will and therefore the key to interpreting the Bible). Anabaptist Christians have adopted the ethical Christ-centred approach to interpreting the Bible.
- Jesus is Lord! In our world there are three main forces competing for our allegiance: the self, secular authorities and God. Rejecting Luther’s two-kingdom theology (believers are to be loyal to Jesus in their personal lives and to secular authorities in their public lives), Anabaptists believe that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour and therefore deserves our supreme allegiance. This reminds me of the theme for the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba 2014 Assembly. This resonates also with what Lynn Jost writes about the Anabaptist Reformation in Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren, “The newly established church became courageous, defying opposition and persecution. “Jesus reigns!” they proclaimed. “Jesus is Lord!” they declared” (p. 3).
- Forgiveness is essential for community. Seeing the cross as a universal symbol of forgiveness, Anabaptists believe that vertical forgiveness from God is necessary for salvation and horizontal forgiveness from and of one another is necessary for community. They live by Ephesians 4:32.
- God’s will is discerned in community. Recognizing that understanding the will of God is a universal challenge for Christians, Anabaptists believe strongly in community hermeneutics (where Spirit-directed believers study a Scripture passage together and collectively determine its meaning and application for a particular situation and context). Taking neither Martin Luther’s laissez-faire approach nor the dictatorial approach of others, Anabaptists have adopted the Early Church’s practice of reading the Scripture in small groups together. There, each member both gives and receives counsel. Because early Anabaptists were forced to meet in small groups due to persecution, this practice has been part of the DNA of the movement from the beginning.
- Members are held accountable. As in early Anabaptist time, many Anabaptist churches today tend to be small-group-based in contrast to program-based. In small groups (also called care groups), members help meet one another’s needs and hold one another accountable. There, fellow believers confront and strengthen one another to confront the world.
- Individuals are reconciled to God. Anabaptists believe that, as written in 2 Corinthians 5:17–18, salvation means reconciliation to God and God’s family. Faith and joyful obedience need to stand together. “Seekers need help to decide about their acceptance of God’s grace and their willingness to follow Jesus in daily life” (p. 121).
- Members are reconciled to each other. Anabaptists are mindful of the fact that, as in any other organization, the church will also have conflict among members. However, when dealing with conflict, Anabaptists reject both the Catholic authorities’ burning of heretics and the Protestant church’s severe punishment. They have rather adopted the rule of Christ as recorded in Matthew 18 as their basic guideline for discipline in the church. There is a constant effort to reconcile those who are at odds with one another.
- Conflicts in the world are reconciled. Unlike many other Christians, Anabaptists consider peacebuilding not as an optional add-on to the gospel, but as its very heart. Taking their cues from Colossians 1:20, Jesus and the early Christians, Anabaptists take a stand against violence and make every effort to live a reconciled life and bring others to reconciliation both with God and with one another.
Becker maintains that the Holy Spirit is the one who gave the early Anabaptists a new vision for the church and the fortitude to live it out. The Holy Spirit is therefore central to understanding Jesus, community and reconciliation. Hence, a tenth characteristic of Anabaptist Christianity:
- The Holy Spirit’s work is essential. Based on their understanding of Acts 1:8, Anabaptist Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is indispensable for witnessing. He is the one who gave the early Anabaptists a new vision for the church as well as “courage and strength to face opposition and endure severe persecution” (p. 153). As they have always done, Anabaptists consider the Holy Spirit to be an essential aspect of a unique Christian life.
I am very pleased to have had an opportunity to read an advance copy of Becker’s book on Anabaptism. For those ethnic Mennonites who may have naturally internalized the history of the Anabaptist movement, this book will serve as worthy refresher. For those who are Mennonite only by faith, Anabaptist Essentials is a must-read to better understand this faith tradition they have embraced.
[Arisnel Mesidor is the Migration and Resettlement Program coordinator for MCC Manitoba. He is a member of Eglise Communautaire de la Riviere Rouge.
Updated Feb. 9, 2017: missing text added.