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Anabaptism 101: Paradoxical living

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Practical separation

Late in the third century, a novel and dangerous idea established a foothold in orthodox Christianity. It was the notion that the ideal Christian life was best lived away from society, that God was calling his champions of piety out of society into deserts and caves (and eventually into monastic communities). Christian monasticism was born.

There, in enclaves, they practiced their disciplines and lived by what they considered to be spiritual ideals.

Monasticism itself, of course, is far more ancient than this and may have forms in every culture. Even the Hebrew tradition had its ascetic branches. But until nearly three centuries of Christianity had passed, such a notion was not only considered peculiar but heretical.

Why did the Christians of the first centuries not develop monastic structures? Because they took Jesus’ command literally: his followers were to be “in…the world” (John 17:14-19). Even fleeing persecution was considered a violation of this principle.

It was understood that Christians must be embedded in society. A presupposition of Jesus’ parables of the salt and light is that the salt is mixed into the food it must preserve, and the light is placed into a dark room (Matthew 5:13-16).

However, the same parables have a conflicting presupposition: that we are “not of” that same world, that we are of a substance alien to and in fundamental conflict with natural society.

But life as a foreign entity is miserably difficult. Jesus reminds us that we will at times be viewed with utter contempt. Bodies try to expel foreign objects. Jesus was clear. “You will be hated…” (Matthew 10:22; 24:9; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17). The impulse to voluntarily isolate is understandable for anyone who has ever tried to live a kingdom life.


But escapism is not the only Christian response to the challenge of culture. The earliest Christians wrestled with an equally dangerous impulse: absorption.

The New Testament church had only minor struggles with emergent monasticism but it had profound struggles with the danger of being absorbed by culture. Paul addresses the absorption question with this blunt challenge: “Therefore, ‘Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you’” (2 Corinthians 6:17). It is not difficult to understand why physical separation from society seemed to be a biblical solution.

Except that it voids the gospel.

Jesus’ followers are commanded to live kingdom lives in the cities, towns, and communities in which they find themselves. Kingdom people are to carry on the work of commerce and culture while being salt and life in a darkening and decaying world. They will be agents of preservation in a decaying world because they are of another substance. They will bring light because they are
not darkness.

But we can’t do it if we aren’t in it. To remove ourselves from the world is to abandon the kingdom mission.

The tension of “in but not of” has followed the church since its beginning and with it the challenge to remain missionally in a culture whose identity you do not own and whose values you do not share.

So how do we live as a separated but embedded people? Jesus taught his followers to do so in three ways:

By knowing our identity. Even though the New Testament could hardly be clearer, the profound and radical nature of our separate identity comes as a shock to most of us. The fact that we wear the same clothes, speak the same languages, and engage in the same economies hides but does not change a stark reality – our kingdom is not of this world.

By knowing our ethics. The ethics of the kingdom are different from the ethics of human culture. We have freedom to live above the values of our culture with its dos and don’ts but we are bound by the awareness that the law of love restrains us.

By knowing our instructions. In the context of our proximity to our culture, our instructions are as clear as the New Testament statements about our identity. We are to remain in the world. We must not remove ourselves into gated Christian communities.

For a variety of reasons, Anabaptists have often found themselves physically separated from culture and at times have fallen into the heresy of monasticism. But biblical separatism, a pillar of Anabaptism, must live with the tension of the “in but not of.”

Next month, radical Anabaptism for today: obedience.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

Anabaptism 101 series

The problem with Anabaptism

Walking in the ordinary way of peace

You are what you eat: Biblicism applied

Craving connection: Community applied

Paradoxical living: Practical separation

Getting to the root: Radical Anabaptism for today

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