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Strange bedfellows: Anabaptism and the emergent church

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With a whole new take on the concept of denominations, the emergent church (alternately known as emerging church) is cutting across old ecclesiological boundaries. Gareth Brandt examines the remarkable similarities between core Anabaptist convictions and essential characteristics of the emergent church.—Eds.

What do Anabaptism and the emergent church – two church movements 500 years apart – have in common? The essence of the two movements is to be subversive to the prevailing empire and they both yearn for a faith that is counter-cultural and reflects the prophetic impulse of Jesus and the early church. Some new churches are identifying with both these movements and networking together under the banner “submergent.”

Anabaptist theology

Sixteenth-century Anabaptism was a “spontaneous, decentralized, grassroots, underground movement of spiritual renewal and biblical reform, carried out by ‘common people’ of no theological expertise,” says C. Arnold Snyder, professor of history at Conrad Grebel University College. Though it had no unified origin, some common theological themes can be perceived in this radical movement.

Anabaptism was neither Catholic nor Protestant, but more like a third alternative. It was also a logical extension, or radical conclusion to evangelical Protestantism. Harold S. Bender synthesized and summarized the theological ideals of 16th-century Anabaptism with three themes.
1) Discipleship, or following the way of Jesus, is central to the Christian faith.
2) This way is lived out in voluntary commitment to the body of Christ – the church.
3) Pacifism is the primary mode of living the way of Jesus.

Following Jesus in all of life is central to the Christian faith. All Anabaptists committed themselves to the “normativeness of Jesus” for their lives in some form. Early German Anabaptist Hans Denck summed it up in his motto: “no one can know Christ except they follow him in life.”

The theology of community is based first of all on the nature of God. God exists in Trinity, in community, in relationship. Secondly, it is based on the example of Christ who gave up everything for us, not only as individuals, but also as community. Jesus came not so much to save individuals, but to create people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).

Love was the primary motivation for community. God’s purpose in the Bible is to establish a community of people who will know God and witness to God’s ultimate purpose of universal shalom(wholeness and harmony for all people and all creation). God has established communities of faith so that those who have experienced God’s healing love might enter and engage the brokenness of the world as agents of reconciliation and hope.

The third theological theme completes the previous two. A faithful community of Christ refuses to participate in or support the violence of the state. However, they do believe that the kingdom of God is to be enacted in historical time in historical place. As people of faith yield themselves to God and to each other in community, the “commonwealth of love and justice” Jesus Christ inaugurated with his incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection will lead them to practice active nonviolent love.

Emergent church

Now, five centuries after the Anabaptists radicalized the Reformation, another renewal movement, dubbed emergent, is confronting the church with a strikingly similar message. Difficult, elusive, even impossible to define, the emerging church is best seen as a present movement, a conversation, a “liquid church.” Despite some strange elements and valid criticism from outside, this movement is not a passing fad and will affect all churches, not only those who are seeking to be and do church in new ways.

Just as the Anabaptist movement was neither Catholic nor Protestant, the emerging church is erasing, crossing, and transcending old modern dichotomies like conservative-liberal, evangelical-mainline. The emergent church envisions and expresses Christianity primarily as a way of life, rather than as a doctrinal system or organizational pattern. Its theology is more concerned with orthopraxy than orthodoxy, coming “from below” and “from the edges.” It’s almost like the Anabaptist movement has been submerged all these years and is finally emerging!

Churches that embrace the emergent label are diverse in style, organization, theology, and practice, but Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger of Fuller Seminary have identified three primary shared characteristics of the 50 churches in their study on emerging churches: 1) identifying with the way of Jesus; 2) living as a community; and 3) seeing all of life as sacred.

The first two are nearly identical to Bender’s characteristics of Anabaptism, and the third, while at first glance seems not to be connected, shares an important relationship. The modern church created a secular-sacred divide which the emergent church is attempting to erase. Participation in God’s redemption of all of life results in transforming secular spaces and integrating popular culture, media, and music in worship. Emergent worship makes two moves: “it brings the real world into the church, and it enables God to be encountered back into the real world.”

Cultural engagement is where the emergent church and the Anabaptist peace witness can help each other out. Too often in the past, peace theology has been insular and sectarian for Mennonites instead of challenging and engaging the prevailing culture of violence. The emergent church can rouse the Anabaptist movement out of its comfortable rural colonies and back into the urban fray from whence it came.

In turn, the Anabaptist movement can inject into the emergent church a relevant peace witness that goes beyond trite pop cultural engagement and into the systems of dominance that enslave human beings.

It remains to be seen what will emerge from the interaction between these two dynamic movements. May it be for the growth of the church and the furthering of God’s reign.

Gareth Brandt teaches practical theology at ColumbiaBible College, Abbotsford, B.C. This article was adapted from a paper he presented at the Believer’s ChurchConference in June 2008.

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