Radical Anabaptism for today
“Behold, most beloved reader, thus true faith or true knowledge begets love, and love begets obedience to the commandments of God…”
For a child of the 60s, “radical” was the ultimate chic. For us, radical meant defiance of everything mainstream society deemed to be valuable. It was symbolized by long hair, well-worn jeans, and beards (for those who could grow them). Jesus travelling the countryside in his sandals, denouncing the authorities, was the ultimate radical – Jesus and Che Guevara.
Radical still has a kind of chic about it and recently it has rubbed off on us Anabaptists. It feels a little odd being fashionable but we might as well learn to
live with it.
I still remember, however, the shock when I discovered that being radical really had nothing to do with being countercultural or wearing extreme fashions; radical
was about getting to the root of the matter.
The radish (which comes from the same base word) is not named after the leafy greens that spring from the ground; the radish is a root.
Anabaptists were part of the radical Reformation. Superficially, they seemed to exemplify my childhood understanding of radical. They defied the culture of their
day and resisted its pressure to conform.
Rebaptism and the refusal to take up arms symbolized that defiance.
But if Anabaptists are radical in the true sense of the word what is the root of the matter and what are the leafy greens?
Obedience to Scripture
In this series I have tried to identify several roots but I will close with one more: a root out of which, I believe, several highly visible and important Anabaptist
distinctives grow. It is the root of obedience to the Scriptures, read through the lens of the gospel.
This obedience was the lodestone of Anabaptist theology, orienting a series of other teachings by its fields, like metal filings around a magnet.
As the Anabaptists read the Scriptures they concluded that the people of the kingdom are instructed, among other things, to visit those in prison and to look
after widows and orphans – and so they set out to obey.
On the other hand, they concluded that they were forbidden to swear oaths or to strike back when struck. To the consternation of their governments, they refused to participate in these activities.
This made life very simple in some ways and very complex in others. It made life simple because they did not need intricate explanations of God’s work in the world to understand their assignments.
The 20th-century debate about the balance between acts of charity and evangelism would have seemed bizarre to them. We are told to proclaim the good
news of the kingdom and make disciples of all the nations. We are told to love our neighbours. These are not trade-offs. They are easy commands to understand. The instructions are simple.
Responding to the sword
In some areas, however, obedience to the Scriptures made life very complex; nowhere more so than in the enigmatic matter of the sword. The world is a violent
place and Jesus gave no indication that it would cease to be such or that the breaking in of the kingdom of God would bring peace. In fact, he said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).
For Anabaptists, however, the enigma of the sword was overshadowed by Jesus’ direct command to Peter: “Put your sword away!” (John 18:11). We choose to obey or not obey that command when confronted with the choice of using the sword.
Obedience is a deep root of biblical faith. But obedience is a tough sell to any time, any culture, any people. It is tough because we love the sticky world of complicated explanations. It is tough because its implications are so very practical.
Jesus told the parable of a man who told his two sons to go work in a vineyard. One had the right words but disobeyed; the other had the wrong words and obeyed. The one who obeyed did right. Menno Simons goes on with his most quoted declaration, ” … For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant, but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love … clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, … serves those that harm it, … teaches, admonishes, and reproves with the Word of the Lord … ”
The root of visible Anabaptism, the root of visible Christianity, is obedience to the commands of the gospel. Actually committing to obey the commands of
Jesus is radical.
[James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.