Today marks the 490th 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 ordained clergyman, 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?”) Continue reading
Arthur Lough and I agreed to meet on Monday afternoon for coffee and conversation at our favorite downtown hangout. He was already there when I arrived, although I was not late. (Neither of us has patience with people who are always “running late.” In fact, during the first few minutes of our last meeting, we listed a number of people, mainly clergy, who were always late to their appointments, no matter what kind of meeting and no matter who they were meeting with. We agreed that it showed disrespect and was decidedly unprofessional.)
We had also agreed that we would each pay for our own drink whenever we met like this and thus avoid the uncomfortable whose-turn-is-it-today? moment when it was time to leave. Arthur was stirring his decaf Americano as I set my mocha latte on the table and took a seat across from him.
“It used to be that, when somebody asked me if I preferred decaf,” Arthur began, “I would always say something like, ‘Decaf? What’s the point?’ I don’t say that anymore.
“I remember the time I met right here with a guy who drank decaffeinated coffee with non-dairy creamer and artificial sweetener while wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Keep It Real’ printed across the front. When I pointed out the irony, he grinned at me, showing a front tooth with a gold heart inlaid in it, and said, ‘Only in America, huh?’ I have no idea what he meant, but we both found it endlessly amusing.”
I laughed too, not so much because the story was all that funny, but mainly because Arthur so much enjoyed telling it. That meant that he, who could be depressed and gloomy by turns, was, for today at least, in a good mood.
In the Anglican tradition, every Sunday morning immediately following the sermon, the congregation rises to its feet as the celebrant says something like, “Now let us together confess our faith using the ancient words of the historic Nicene Creed.” Near the end of that recitation, we make the following declaration:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
I know what that statement intends to convey. All people everywhere, throughout all of Church history, who have confessed Jesus as Lord, are members of what Paul called “the church which is (Christ’s) body.” Irrespective of denominational characteristics or doctrinal distinctives, and despite the plethora of groups and alliances which identify themselves as one type of “church” or another, the creed affirms that all Christ-followers belong to a single entity, under the headship of Christ, known in creedal terms as “one holy catholic (universal) and apostolic Church.”
We would surely not be surprised, however, if a non-Christian attended a Christian worship service for the first time and responded to that assertion in the Creed with a quizzical expression and questions like, “Really? What does that mean? One Church? Really?”
For most of the first half of its history, roughly 1000 years, the Church was fairly united despite being spread over a wide expanse of territory in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Then came the “Great Schism” which separated the church into Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) divisions in 1054. The Western church suffered further division in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It had barely recovered from that when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, and the Protestant Reforma- tion was born.
From that decisive moment, I submit, the most common method of dealing with conflict and disagreement in the Church has been to divide into factions with the proponents of the various points of view going their own separate ways. The result has been a continuous series of splits and splinters among the people of God on a scale that extends from worldwide communions to local congregations. Since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have mainly dealt with their differences by separating from one another, and the multiplied thousands of denominations and sects and alliances, all claiming to be a faithful representation of the true Church, are the result.
This preference for separation must break God’s heart. On the night before He was crucified, Jesus petitioned His Father in heaven on behalf of those who would come to faith through the witness of the Apostles. Here is what He said in His “High Priestly Prayer,” which John recorded for us in the seventeenth chapter of his Gospel—
20 “My prayer is not for (these apostles) alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
The purpose for this post is not to explore the issues which have caused all these divisions in the Body of Christ. Nor am I devoting any more than this line to acknowledging that divisions are sometimes sadly unavoidable. What I want to offer in this post is a way of looking at my own spiritual pilgrimage as a reflection of my anguish over this deplorable situation and my own feeble effort to address it.
Two recent incidents provided the impulse for this perspective. Last Saturday I spent time with some new friends whom I met as a result of initial contact occasioned by this blog. This couple recounted a pilgrimage in many ways similar to my own. Like me, they have been drawn into the liturgical tradition from a more mainstream Free Church background. We are not looking for the “next new thing” because we are unstable and hard to please. We are serious in our pursuit of authentic faith, and we recognize that the multiple splits and divisions among Christians over the centuries mean that no single tradition represents the complete fullness of truth and spiritual reality.
At least twice in a two-hour conversation I heard the husband say, “I have a passion for the unity of the church.” I knew exactly what he meant. I have a similar passion. There may be little that we can do as individuals to overcome centuries of discord within the church and break down the barriers to fellowship and communion which have been built and reinforced over the years. But by our example we can testify to the value inherent in virtually all Christian traditions.
Our journeys are not a repudiation of traditions we have forsaken but an embracing of new elements of truth and practice which have enriched our experience as believers by complementing what we experienced within and among those communities of faith which we once called home.
And then, a second incident which helped prompt this post. On Sunday I came upon a Facebook post by one of my former students. She and her husband, also a former student, have recently moved to Southeast Asia where they will be working in Bible translation. She had shared the link to my last blog post on her Facebook wall with the introduction, “My former professor, Mr. Kouns, and a bit of his journey.”
Below the link to my blog post, she wrote a bit more in the form of a comment. Here is part of what she wrote.
I’ve thought a lot about this professor of ours, and his journey. The churches here in (this part of the world) tend to be on the Charismatic side of life, and in church this morning I got this crazy, almost humorous, picture of Mr. Kouns adding yet another dimension to his eclectic list. What would a Charismatic Anglican Anabaptist look like? Yeah, that would be a new one! Why does it seem that God calls some of us to fit everywhere and no where at the same time? This world is not our home….
What she didn’t know then, but will now learn, is that I have deep roots in the charismatic community. In 1987, I spent an entire week at the Vineyard Church in Anaheim, CA, with Jon Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement and a leading advocate for charismatic gifts, particularly in the area of healing. I did not emerge from that experience as a convinced charismatic, but I came to appreciate that perspective in a new and fresh way.
My former student referred to the traditions I have identified with over the course of my pilgrimage as my “eclectic list.” I know what she meant, but I object slightly to the use of the term “eclectic.” To me that suggests a cafeteria-line approach to discipleship where one simply partakes of those items that he finds most appealing—a smorgasbord of spirituality, if you will. That is not my experience at all.
My exposure to a wide variety of Christian traditions has resulted in my conviction that there is far more to unite us as believers than to divide us. In a world where it is easier to fight than to work things out through negotiation, compromise, and “preferring one another,” my pilgrimage across denominational lines and through a variety of traditions may seem eclectic and unstable. I can testify, however, that I have been enriched and, indeed, humbled by the experience, and I am grateful to God for blessing me with the opportunity to benefit from the good things within the Body of Christ that I would have missed if I had not been willing to explore possibilities and expand my horizons.
My pilgrimage continues. I fully expect to die an Anglican. An Anglican with strong Anabaptist convictions. An Anabaptist-Anglican with deep appreciation for the power of God which energizes the charismatic community. An Anabaptist Anglican with charismatic sensibilities who reads Calvinists and Arminians, conservatives and liberals, young-Earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. I don’t agree with all of them. But this “eclectic list” gives me hope that, at least in the Kingdom to come, the prayer of our Lord for unity within the Church will finally be answered.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Over the course of my ministry I have been interviewed by numerous search committees when I was under consideration for a pastoral position. I have frequently been asked about my philosophy of ministry and my strategy for church growth. I have been asked about my style of leadership and approach to decision-making. I have never, never, been asked questions like, “What is your approach to spiritual formation? How will you help us to develop Christlikeness and holiness? How will you pray for us?”
In earlier blog posts, I noted that, if I were ever asked a question like that, I would answer something like this: “I will pray for you the way Paul prayed for the believers in the church in Ephesus.” In those posts I noted that there are two prayers recorded in that book, the first in chapter one and the second in chapter three, and I focused attention on the second of those prayers. In this post, I want to consider the first one.
Toward the end of chapter one of Ephesians, after he has reminded his readers of the ways in which they have been “blessed with every spiritual blessing… by the Father, by the Son, and by the Holy Spirit,” he then tells these believers how he prays for them. Here is the way that prayer is recorded in the words of Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation called The Message.
When I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the Christians, I couldn’t stop thanking God for you—every time I prayed, I’d think of you and give thanks. But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for Christians, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!
All this energy issues from Christ: God raised Him from death and set Him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with His presence. (Ephesians 1:15-23)
The church is Christ’s body, in which He speaks and acts, by which He fills everything with His presence. What a great privilege to be part of God’s cosmic purpose for the church, which is Christ’s body. Now perhaps you can see a bit better why God responds so strongly and reacts so negatively to the idea of doing things, even the right things, in the wrong way. When it comes to the church as the agent of the Kingdom of God in the world, doing church the wrong way is like performing an operation with dirty instruments… like trying to run a gasoline engine on kerosene… like trying to quiet a sick child by feeding him candy. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned or rightly-motivated we might be, the results are still disastrous.
In the sixteenth century, when the medieval church was at the height of its power and influence, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther dared to stand up and tell the authorities that they were doing the right thing but in the wrong way. The Protestant Reformation dawned, and the world has never been the same. Within a generation after Luther, a group of Swiss-German believers carried that message one step further, and Anabaptism was born.
The American evangelical church of the 21st century is in need of Reformation every bit as much as the medieval church in 16th century Europe. We put programs ahead of prayer; we value competence more than character; we pursue strategic planning instead of spiritual formation; we exalt celebrity over humility, and we are marked more by impatience than by endurance. We are more concerned with what God can do for us than what He requires of us.
We need to recognize that doing the right thing in the wrong way has left us with a diluted, watered-down version of the gospel that is something very different from the gospel of the Kingdom. It is, in fact, a false gospel. A “gospel” that adds benefits and ease to our lives but expects nothing in response is foreign to the message of the New Testament. It is, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a gospel of “cheap grace.”
I close this series of blog posts with one final quote, and that from an unusual source. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century philosopher, was known as the “Danish gadfly” for his tendency to provoke and torment the religious establishment of his day, the Lutheran Church in Denmark. He lived a short and in many ways unhappy life, his situation made all the more pitiable by the deplorable condition, the diluted character, the spiritual mediocrity of the Christianity which he saw all around him. About that situation he wrote the following words, which are as pertinent to the evangelical church of our own age as they were to his.
Imagine a kind of medicine that possesses in full dosage (the power to cure a particular ailment) but which, in a half dose (produces just the opposite effect.) Suppose someone is suffering from the ailment which the medicine, in full dosage, could cure. But, for some reason or other, perhaps there is not enough for a full dose or because it is feared that such a large amount might be too much—in order to do something, the person is given, with the best of intentions, a half dose. “After all,” we might muse, “it is at least something.” What a tragedy!!
So it is with today’s Christianity… But we Christians go on practicing this well-intentioned half-hearted act from generation to generation (persisting in doing the right thing in the wrong way). We produce Christians by the millions, are proud of it—yet have no inkling that we are doing just the opposite of what we intend to do…
The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies,… not atheists, not profane secularism—but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet. … The very essence of Christianity is utterly opposed to this mediocrity….
Today’s orthodoxy…is utterly dangerous to Christianity. (True) Christianity does not oppose debauchery and uncontrollable passions and the like as much as it opposes this flat mediocrity, this nauseating atmosphere, this homey, civil togetherness, where admittedly great crimes, wild excesses, and powerful aberrations cannot easily occur—but where God’s unconditional demand has even greater difficulty in accomplishing what it requires: the majestic obedience of submission.
(From an essay called “The Greatest Danger” in Provocations, pp. 16-17)
May God enable us to throw off the mediocrity of contemporary Christianity… to cease doing the right thing in the wrong way… and to enter into the full experience of the “majestic obedience of submission.”
To God alone be the glory.
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.