My Debt To Anabaptism

This past Saturday marked the 487th anniversary of the beginning of a movement, which arose as part of the Protestant Reformation, known as Anabaptism. I grew up as a Baptist, and I knew a little about the historical connection between my tradition and Anabaptism. For example, I knew that the “Ana-” prefix did not mean “anti.” Anabaptists were not “Baptist-haters.” (Don’t laugh. An Anglican priest, who really should have known better, once said to me, in all seriousness, “What a terrible name for a movement. Why would they want to be known as people who hated Baptists?”)

As a student at Wheaton (IL) Graduate School in the early 1980s, I began to look seriously at sixteenth-century Anabaptism. I was intrigued and challenged by the testimony of these Christians who endorsed the theological convictions of the magisterial reformers but insisted that orthodoxy (correct belief) should issue in orthopraxy (correct behavior).  They believed that the nature of the Christian gospel demanded changed lives as evidence of its reality.  Becoming a Christian was not merely a matter of believing the truth.  Authentic faith should produce a genuine transformation in the life of the believer.

The history of Anabaptism is the story of people with the courage of their convictions.  When these faithful Christians concluded, from their study of the Bible, that baptism should be administered only to those who had made a public confession of faith in Christ, they “re-baptised” (which is what “anabaptist” means) those who had been baptised as infants.  As a result many were subjected to torture and even death at the hands of other Christians who misunderstood the motives and intentions of the Anabaptists.  I admired that kind of courage and determined that my testimony would reflect a commitment to faithful Christian discipleship, whatever the cost, like that of the Anabaptists.

Through my study of historical Anabaptism, I learned that groups such as the Mennonites traced their origin to that sixteenth century movement, but I did not feel compelled to identify officially with them. As an evangelical Christian, I was convinced that American evangelicalism could be enriched by exposure to the examples of authentic faith in historical Anabaptism.  A renewed emphasis on faithful discipleship, including a commitment to peace, justice, and simplicity, might very well serve as a needed corrective for an evangelicalism which had become too comfortable in its accommodation to contemporary American culture.

Even after I decided to complete my MDiv degree in a Mennonite Seminary, I did not expect to find a place of ministry among Anabaptists.  I still believed that my exposure to historical Anabaptism would enhance my effectiveness among evangelicals and help to bring a measure of needed corrective to that tradition.  In the summer of 1982, however, following my first year of seminary, I was called to the pastoral staff of a large Mennonite congregation, and the Anabaptist/Mennonite community would be the primary context for my ministry for the next twenty-six years.

I was baptized at age eight. Until I was in my mid-twenties and a Bible college graduate, my perception of Christian faith and practice was mainly shaped by protestant fundamentalism.  As a young pastor in Ohio, my horizons were expanded, and I came to understand the Kingdom of God as a far broader and more inclusive reality than I had previously been taught. I moved from fundamentalism to the “kinder and gentler” experience of American evangelicalism.

Then, as a student at Houghton College and later at Wheaton Grad School, I came to believe that evangelical Christianity had imbibed too deeply of American culture and looked more like the prevailing culture than the Kingdom of God.  I began to look for a community of Christians who believed that the discipleship to which Jesus called us was of a more radical and counter-cultural character.  I was encouraged by the historical example of the Anabaptists, the “radicals” of the Reformation, who had strongly influenced my own Baptist tradition, and whose legacy was preserved, at least in theory, in groups such as the Mennonites.

About ten years ago I began moving into yet another stage of my continuing pilgrimage… a further step in my relentless pursuit of authentic faith.  My soul hungered for something  my sojourn among Mennonites had not provided.  I began to read the early church fathers and to explore the character of Christian worship in the first centuries of church history.  I gained a new awareness of the place of mystery and reverence in worship.  I found meaning in the Daily Office and in the seasons of the church calendar.  I gained a fresh appreciation for the importance of the Eucharist (Communion) in the church’s worship, and I began seeking an experience of holistic spirituality which was not focused on conversion alone or doctrine alone or ethics alone.

In short, I became an Anglican and, in May 2011, was ordained to the Anglican priesthood. I have told that story in another context, and I will continually refer to it in future blog posts. I am happy to be where I am now. In many respects I really do feel like I have come home. But I will never forget the opportunity I had to serve among Anabaptist Christians, and I will always owe them a debt of gratitude for what their tradition taught me about how to live faithfully as a follower of Jesus Christ.

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