Most of my readers know that I grew up a Southern Baptist. I went to a Baptist university for my undergrad, and served in two SBC churches. Seven years later, I can say that I no longer think of myself as a Southern Baptist, for several reasons.
Primarily, it’s because I have found that I’m more closely aligned with another historical tradition in theology and church practice—Anabaptism.
I first encountered Anabaptism in college. I learned that the Baptists actually have historical roots going back to the 16th century Anabaptist movement.
John Smyth was an English separatist who planted the first Baptist church in Amsterdam. Before his death he had moved to receive believer’s baptism by the Mennonites, an Anabaptist group named after Menno Simons.
Smyth’s friends, Thomas Helwys and John Murton would return to their homes to form the first Baptist church in England. For my Baptist friends, the Baptist church was a mix of Protestant and Anabaptist ideas. It was Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Menno Simons all under one roof.
Roger Williams was responsible for planting the first Baptist church on American soil. He rejected the theocratic view of the Calvinistic pilgrims, detested the idea of a Christian nation, and argued for religious liberty and separation of church and state––an idea that the Anabaptists had been ruthlessly persecuted for a century earlier.
So who were the Anabaptists? And what is Anabaptism?
The Anabaptists were a scattered and diverse group of 16th century separatists who first originated in Switzerland. The self-identified “Swiss Brethren” called for a “radical reformation” of the church that went far beyond the reform movements known as Protestantism.
The early Anabaptists rejected infant baptism as a civil rite, which denied the church’s relationship to the state, and called for strict adherence to the teachings of Jesus following a believer’s baptism.
Since it appeared they were being baptized a second time, their opponents called them Ana-baptists (re-baptizers).
These radicals claimed that Protestants only wanted a “half-way” reform because they refused to put down the sword and follow Christ in non-violence. They posited that the Reformers only rested in grace, but did not walk in resurrection life. Obeying Christ is the evidence of a changed life.
The Anabaptists denounced the emperor Constantine as “the great dragon” for fusing the cross and the sword in the 4th century. They called for a restoration of NT church life. This undermined the very foundations of Christendom (church militant and triumphant), and made them enemies of both Protestants and Catholics who held to the power of the sword.
Many Anabaptists were martyred during the 16th century. Their ideas would live on in the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Brethren in Christ.
The Naked Anabaptist
Enter Stuart Murray, chair of the Anabaptist Network and PhD in Anabaptist hermeneutics. Stuart is the founder of Urban Expression, a pioneering urban church-planting agency, and has spent the last fourteen years as an urban church planter in East London.
His recent publications include: Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (2004), Church after Christendom (2005), Changing Mission (2006), and The Naked Anabaptist (2010).
In his book, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith, Stuart sets forth a fresh vision of the core convictions held by Anabaptists today.
Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills in St. Paul, has written the forward to The Naked Anabaptist. [It’s worth mentioning that his church is presently considering aligning themselves with an Anabaptist denomination.]
Stuart says that Anabaptism is being (re)discovered by folks from many different traditions. In fact, you might be an Anabaptist and just not know it.
“We believe that the Christendom era has bequeathed a form of Christianity that has marginalized, spiritualized, domesticated, and emasculated Jesus. The teaching of Jesus is watered down, privatized, and explained away. Jesus is worshipped as a remote kingly figure or a romanticized personal savior. In many churches (especially those emerging from the Reformation), Paul’s writings are prioritized over the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. And in many Christian traditions, ethical guidelines derived from the Old Testament or pagan philosophy trump Jesus’ call to discipleship.” The Naked Anabaptist p. 55-56
What does Anabaptism look like stripped down to to the bare essentials? Listen to Stuart discuss the core convictions of the Anabaptist Network.
Stay tuned for a Q&A with Stuart Murray next month on Anabaptism.
Suggested Anabaptist Reading:
- The Anabaptist Story by William Estep
- Secret of the Strength (ebook) by Peter Hoover
- Following in the Footsteps of Christ by Arnold Snyder
- The Reformers & Their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin
- The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder
- A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology by Thomas Finger
D.D. Flowers, 2013.
February 22nd, 2013 at 4:56 pm
Thanks for posting this David. I certainly agree with the Christo-centric hermenuetic and the emphasis on the life of Jesus as our example, rather than the evangelical tendency to emphasize only his death and resurrection. That emphasis really goes all the way back to the historic creeds of the church, which say very little about the human life of Jesus, but instead just focus on the death/resurrection/ascension series of events.
In addition, learning more about the Anabaptists reminds me of that wonderful book, “The Torch of the Testimony” by John W. Kennedy, which I think you reviewed a couple of years ago. Kennedy chronicles the development of small community-based churches that met in various places in Europe before and after the reformation and which were never aligned with the “state” protestant churches. Their emphasis was on the life of the community and the functioning priesthood of all believers. I highly recommend Kennedy’s book to all students of church history. It is a neglected gem.
February 22nd, 2013 at 5:15 pm
I consider myself a Protestant that still protests! Martin Luther, who should be venerated for a great deed he did concerning “justification based of the faith of Jesus alone”, fell short, and others, namely the Anabaptists, took it further. I applaud them and am glad to call them brethren.
I am curious about this quote from the book mentioned above, “…Paul’s writings are prioritized over the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.” I am not sure what the author meant by “prioritized” but, for the Gentile, Paul’s writings should be prioritized over the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Jesus did not come but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Why would a Gentile look to Jesus of Nazareth? Jesus, nor the Twelve, left the borders of Palestine by commandment. Paul had a two-fold ministry following his “severance” in Acts 13 until the close of the Acts preaching to Jew and Gentile Proselyte. After the Jew’s final rejection of Christ and the Kingdom, it was the ressurected and enthroned Jesus who purposefully sent Paul to the rest of the nations with a gospel not known or preached by the Twelve. What would Jesus of the Gospels have for me?
February 22nd, 2013 at 5:16 pm
I’m a secret Anabaptist in spirit undercover in Southern Baptists. Is that allowed? I feel if I distance myself, then how will they change to align more with Anabaptist ideals? Ultimately it’s not a matter of denomination for me, but a matter of following Jesus. I will not give up on those who disagree me, but I will keep encouraging them to follow Jesus and not Anabaptist or anything else. While Anabaptists are closer to understanding the NT better, I still think they were wrong in their spirit of exclusivism. They were very to themselves and were not willing to work with other traditions. However, the other traditions wouldn’t work with then either. I guess what I’m getting at is I hate divisions, which I believe the gospel is supposed to mend. I’m a little bit of everything, is that too pluralistic? I’m part southern baptist, part high church anglican, part Anabaptist, part charismatic, par mystical, and a bunch of other stuff lol
February 22nd, 2013 at 7:47 pm
Hey Phillip, you’re right… it’s about following Jesus wherever you find yourself.
Murray discusses the shortcomings of Anabaptists. While there certainly have been separatists among them, not all Anabaptists have displayed a sectarian spirit. The same goes for many other great movements of church history.
And it’s important to remember the context of the 16th century. I believe it was right, considering the circumstances, to separate themselves from Christendom. The challenge is to move forward while holding your distinctives in grace toward others.
Murray also makes the point that Anabaptists are a mixed breed of folks. I have seen this even today. However, I do believe that it benefits us to partner with historic groups and learn, even build, from their legacy of radical discipleship. I think one of the mistakes of young evangelicals today is to make-it-up-as-you-go and leave behind beliefs and practices of historic Christianity.
Thanks for sharing, bro.
February 22nd, 2013 at 8:55 pm
I remember looking into the Anabaptist history a few years back, and found that I identified myself with a lot of their doctrine. I still attend a Southern Baptist church, but I don’t label myself under that name. Two good things I like about SBC is 1. the cooperative program (pooling of resources from many churches to fund missionaries where most small churches would never be able to support one on their own), and 2. most SBC are autonomous or “self-governing” – that is to say, they don’t answer to a higher man-made authority or office. This has some advantages and disadvantages, mainly, that many churches can all be SBC and have a wide range of doctrines and traditions. Some churches are near decadent, while others are very scripturally oriented. This makes it difficult to find a “good one”, but also makes it possible for there to actually be some “good ones” in the bunch. Anabaptist has its good parts and some troubled parts in its history as well. So, ultimately, I avoid all labels as much as possible.
February 22nd, 2013 at 10:40 pm
Welcome to the anabaptism!
February 23rd, 2013 at 1:26 pm
I read Murray’s book a couple of months ago and had this sense of, “Oh, so that’s what has been happening to me over the last three years.” I was very refreshed and encouraged by his book, having known little to nothing about Anabaptism before I read it, but identifying strongly with what is written therein.
Just curious, with which Anabaptist denomination is Boyd’s church aligning?
February 23rd, 2013 at 8:42 pm
Very cool, Dustin.
Greg and WH haven’t made that decision just yet. They will decide between Mennonites USA or Brethren in Christ (BIC).
February 23rd, 2013 at 9:26 pm
Cool! Are the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonites USA the same denomination? I was looking over the USMB website a little while back and liked what I saw. Their nearest church is a few hours away from me, though.
February 23rd, 2013 at 11:06 pm
They’re not the same. I believe the USMB church is closer to conservative evangelicalism. I’m thinking of partnering with the Brethren in Christ to do a church plant. The closet BIC to me is about 500 miles away. 🙂
February 24th, 2013 at 12:13 am
Thanks for making the distinction!
Makes it hard to make a Sunday visit, huh?? 😉
February 24th, 2013 at 12:40 am
Ha! Just a little. 😉
February 25th, 2013 at 12:56 pm
Hey David, I thought you would find this amusing, though it isn’t directly related to the topic of this post. Did you know that Paige Patterson considers himself a “scholar” on the Anabaptists? Recently a festschrift was also announced in his honor to be published in October of this year. I find him and his ilk to be extremely far from historic Anabaptists. I would laugh about this if it were not so disgustingly skewed. Especially given his political takeover of SWBTS and practices of throwing faculty out it strikes me as particularly nasty. That he finds a common bond with the Anabaptists just makes no sense to me! How deluded!
February 26th, 2013 at 11:00 am
Thanks for the post man! I just recently read the same book. I’ve been very curious about the Anabaptists for awhile and found the book to be insightful. I would consider myself a Southern Baptist, holding to Anabaptist ideas. I think the Baptist are distant cousins of Anabaptists, however, we have lost the core convictions which Roger Williams embraced.
Could you explain the differences between the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and the Brethren in Christ?
February 26th, 2013 at 12:27 pm
Yes, distant cousins… but not embracing the whole of Anabaptism, especially non-violence.
In a nutshell… “Anabaptist” is really an umbrella term used to describe those who embrace the core convictions of Anabaptism. I discuss this in my latest post, “Anabaptist Core Convictions.” The Anabaptist groups began to splinter into separate traditions during and after the 16th century. Mennonites are named after Menno Simons, an Anabaptist who helped to organize the movement early on. The Mennonites today splinter into conservative (plain) and moderate traditions. The Brethren in Christ are Mennonites that embraced bits of Methodism (liturgy & organization) around the time of the American Revolution. The Amish are the most conservative among them. They are locked into a specific cultural expression of Anabaptism and are separatists today, though friendly to outsiders.
Thanks for reading, bro.
February 26th, 2013 at 12:45 pm
I agree…distant cousins.
Just wondering if you have heard or know of any Anabaptist group that holds to reformed theology? I know that you don’t, yet I’m just curious if you are aware. That may be an oxymoron. It just seems like the trend is you’re either 1.) neo-reformed or 2.) neo-anabaptist. I’ve yet to see any combination of both.
Thanks man for the reply!
February 26th, 2013 at 12:49 pm
I’m not sure. It is a bit of a contradiction, historically. Kurt Willems tells me there are Mennonites today that look a lot like conservative evangelicals, but I don’t know if they are reformed in theology. I think they’re called Mennonite Brethren.
May 15th, 2013 at 5:30 pm
Being a Mennonite Brethren I can assure you that we are not reformed (at least not the good ones!). OK, all joking aside if any group is likely to be reformed it is probably us MB’s. Without getting into too much history we have generally tried to walk the line of embracing Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. I don’t think we do it very well and have tended too much to the Evangelical side and not enough to the Anabaptist side. As a person with both historical, but more importantly the theological heritages of Anabaptism, this has been something that I have lamented. Murray’s book is a true gem for Anabaptist faith. Glad to have you join our discussion and theological family.
May 15th, 2013 at 6:59 pm
Hey Justin, thanks for sharing your insight! Where do you live?
May 15th, 2013 at 7:00 pm
May 15th, 2013 at 7:02 pm
I saw a Mennonite church in Littleton needing a pastor a few months ago? That wasn’t your church was it?
May 15th, 2013 at 7:04 pm
Nope. But it is a sister church that I know well. Last pastor is still there but getting into coaching full time. Great church with a heartbeat of Missional Anabaptism.
May 15th, 2013 at 7:06 pm
So are they still needing a pastor or do they have one lined up? I’m currently in the process of entering into the Mennonites USA, and looking at pastoring a church soon.
May 15th, 2013 at 7:10 pm
They haven’t filled it yet but aren’t accepting any more applications. They are down to 3 or 4 people.
May 15th, 2013 at 7:12 pm
OK. I emailed them a month or two ago, but never received a response. Thanks.
May 15th, 2013 at 7:16 pm
Yeah it’s been closed for awhile. It was only open a couple of weeks. I think it’s been closed more than a month.
May 15th, 2013 at 7:20 pm
That’s too bad. Well, if they aren’t feeling the 3 or 4 they have… tell them to give me a call. Tell them I’m just like a Greg Boyd, only younger and with a southern accent. 😉