Ask 20 Anabaptists what they believe and you will probably get 20 different answers. This diversity stems from differences among the earliest Anabaptists, from the varied countries that played host to the Anabaptists before their migrations to North America, and from recent developments on the American scene. In addition, Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups have usually stressed living the faith, giving more weight to Christian practice than to standardized doctrinal formulations.

All Anabaptists, nevertheless, share a number of Christian convictions about belief and practice:

• Believing in Jesus as Son of God and Savior can never be separated from following him in everyday behavior.

• Baptism is reserved for those who confess their faith in Jesus Christ and commit themselves to live as his disciples.

• The Scriptures, not creeds or traditions, provide the primary standard for faith and life.

• God’s saving grace in Christ results not only in newness of life for the individual but also creates and sustains the church, a community called to radical discipleship and service.

• Discipleship in the new community obligates members to invite unbelievers to accept the Christian faith, love the enemy, reject war and violence, and seek peace in the church and in the world.

The Bible In Practical Terms

From their earliest days, Anabaptists have sought earnestly to be a biblical people. They have tended to understand biblical authority more in practical than in dogmatic terms, however, placing the emphasis on applying the message of Scripture. While the largest Mennonite and Brethren denominations in North America have all in recent decades adopted statements that acknowledge and reaffirm the Bible as inspired and authoritative for the church, Anabaptists hesitate to fasten on one set of theological concepts as the decisive test for a correct doctrine of biblical inspiration.

Anabaptists also place great stress on the church body as the locus for biblical interpretation. Scripture is not to be interpreted so much by the individual as by the body of believers. They emphasize that it is as the gathered community listens together to Scripture that God makes his purposes clear and his will known.

Therefore, Anabaptists stress that answers to questions about women pastors, Christ’s nature, the church’s response to charismatic renewal, or Christians’ social responsibility must be based on biblical truth that is tested in congregational meetings and regional conferences. Recent Mennonite meetings provide a good example. Variously called “Conversations on Faith” or “Dialogues on Faith,” these assemblies have over the years brought together persons representing different views on controversial matters to study and interpret Scripture’s teachings on concrete issues.

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At its best, this pragmatic approach to scriptural authority has nurtured a broadly based love of and familiarity with the Bible among Anabaptists. At its worst, it has turned disagreements about relatively insignificant matters into church divisions, and reinforced tendencies toward legalism. Early in the twentieth century, for example, some Mennonite groups considered radios “unbiblical” and “worldly.” By midcentury, they sponsored their own radio programs and spots.

Reactions against this “shadow side” of Mennonite biblicism have more recently contributed to a growing biblical illiteracy, which increasingly concerns church leaders and teachers.

The Church’S One Foundation

Menno Simons, the sixteenth-century Dutch Anabaptist leader, chose 1 Corinthians 3:11 as a key verse and theological motto: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (NIV). Most of Simons’s essays and his other writings carried this verse on the title page. It became the basis for the Anabaptists’ growing convictions about the centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for understanding salvation, the church, Christian ethics, and eschatology.

Anabaptists like to stress that Jesus is both the Son of God by whom we are saved through faith, and the Lord who has exemplified in his earthly life and ministry the way Christians are called to live in this world. This emphasis on Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord has usually included efforts to interpret his saving work in terms that provide the basis for both salvation and ethics.

Among several North American Mennonite groups, discussions on Christology have come center stage in the last two decades. These have produced sometimes lively debates about the continuing relevance of the Chalcedonian two-nature doctrine and its theological and ethical implications. For example, these and other issues fed into a conjoint inter-Mennonite and Brethren in Christ consultation on Christology in August 1989. Rather characteristically, the 1989 consultation focused on the relation between Christology and mission, church and ethics.

Members Of The Household Of God

Since their beginnings, Anabaptists have understood the church as the “called-out” community of believers in the midst of an unbelieving world. The church is not a mixture of nominal and serious Christians, but the visible body of those who have voluntarily confessed their faith in Jesus Christ and have committed themselves to follow him in life. This view of the church as the community of committed believers includes strong emphases upon believers’ (rather than infant) baptism, mutual admonition and correction, sharing material resources, and all members’ active involvement in the church’s ministry, witness, and service.

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The emphasis upon mutual admonition and correction has traditionally been based on Matthew 18:15–18 (“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault …”). Such correction is usually seen as essential for church renewal and congregational life. Beyond these general areas of agreement, Mennonite and Mennonite-related groups (such as Hutterites, Amish, and others) have diverged on which matters should appropriately become the subject of mutual admonition.

The Amish, and some Mennonite groups, for example, have taken clothing styles to be a matter of church discipline. Most have made the peace position a matter of mutual admonition and correction. All have considered issues such as fidelity in marriage and divorce to be important subjects of church discipline.

Anabaptists historically have practiced church discipline in different ways. At times it has been implemented almost exclusively by ministers. Recently the Anabaptist view of congregational involvement has been regaining importance. While ministers traditionally administered the standard that made divorce—and particularly remarriage—incompatible with church membership, some congregations are developing other patterns. They may appoint a small group of members to work with the pastor and the persons concerned to provide discernment, counsel, and support to both the individuals and the congregation.

Anabaptists have also understood the purposes of church discipline in different ways. Some have considered the primary goal to be restoring the erring member through forgiveness and reconciliation; others have emphasized maintaining “a church without spot or wrinkle.” Groups differ on the rigor with which they have suspended relations with unrepentant members. The Amish, for example, have maintained the practice of breaking off all social relationships (“shunning”), as dramatized in the television portrayal Silence at Bethany.

Most contemporary North American Mennonites, however, would hold up accountability and restoration rather than sanctioning as the primary purposes. Consequently, church discipline may lead in extreme cases to suspending fellowship in relation to Communion until there is reconciliation and restoration, but not to breaking off all relations. In the case of ministers, it would include suspension of ministerial privileges.

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Church discipline among Mennonites is now being complemented—sometimes replaced—by pastoral counseling. The influences of individualism and reactions against past misuses in congregations or conferences have contributed to an erosion of the practice.

Mutual aid and the sharing of material resources are also expressions of Christian community among Anabaptists. Most Mennonites have not followed the Hutterite pattern of establishing and maintaining communal life (Reba Place Church in Evanston, Illinois, and Plow Creek Fellowship in Tiskilwa, Illinois, are exceptions). But they have emphasized sharing their material resources with sisters and brothers as needed. Organizing barn raisings, harvesting together, sewing quilts, making loans with little or no interest, and giving money outright have been characteristics of mutual aid, especially in rural settings.

With rapidly increasing urbanization and professionalization, mutual aid is taking on more institutional forms. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is an example. Begun during the 1920s to provide food for Russian Mennonites in the wake of revolution and civil war, MCC has since become the major relief, service, and development agency of North American Mennonite-related groups. Started with three volunteers who were sent to Russia to provide assistance to other Mennonites, the agency today has 964 volunteers in over 50 countries around the world, working in programs and projects serving both Christians and non-Christians.

Believers’ baptism represents a third aspect of understanding the church as the community of committed believers. For early sixteenth-century Anabaptists and Mennonites, rejecting infant baptism in favor of believers’ baptism amounted to an act of civil disobedience. For centuries everyone (except the Jews) had been baptized as infants and were therefore presumed to be Christians even, in many cases, when what they believed or how they lived violated the church’s norms.

Furthermore, in that context of widespread nominal Christianity (“Christendom”), believers’ baptism meant the faithful church is necessarily a missionary community that lives by inviting people to a personal commitment of faith, baptizing them upon their confession of faith. In contrast to the mainstream Protestant Reformation, the Radical Reformation thereby unleashed a strong missionary movement.

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Since the end of the nineteenth century, North American Mennonite groups have sought to regain something of the vision of the church as a missionary community. In doing so they have also borrowed in varying degrees from the modern missionary, revival, and church-growth movements. As a result, most groups sponsor mission and church-planting efforts both in North America and in other countries. The Mennonite Church in particular has adopted several far-reaching evangelistic and church-planting goals under the rubric of “Vision 95.” The General Conference Mennonite Church has included mission and witness concerns in its current set of priorities known as the “Call to Kingdom Commitments.” The Church of the Brethren’s “Goals for the Nineties” places high priority on enlarging the community of faith through evangelism as well.

“Just the Beginning”

A favorite story among the plain people of Pennsylvania features a man who was saved when revivalism swept through their lands. The faithful gathered around a horse-watering tank on one of the farms to receive the awakened brother into the community of faith. After the third immersion, the brother surged out of the water with his arms lifted high. He shouted, “I am saved. It is finished.” Quickly the baptizing elder grabbed him by his wet shirt and positioned him more humbly on his knees. “No, brother,” the elder admonished, “it’s just beginning.”

Since this sermon illustration is claimed as a historical event in several congregations, it suggests basic Brethren and Mennonite perspectives on salvation. Without discounting the need for conversion and the promises of eternal salvation, Anabaptists have stressed that acceptance of Christ as personal Savior marks the beginning of a life of discipleship. If we truly love Jesus, we will obey his commands, follow his way, and participate in his redeeming ministry in his body and the world.

Building on Luther

In order to comprehend an Anabaptist understanding of salvation, it is helpful to position the early leaders in the context of the Protestant Reformation. Luther in his pilgrimage, for example, struggled to satisfy by acts of faithfulness the wrath or righteousness of God. He was transformed when he recognized and redefined righteousness as God’s accepting and forgiving love. Being saved by grace through faith and not by works became basic to his reformation of the doctrine of salvation. Calvin echoed this basic Protestant view of justification but added a greater emphasis on sanctification, namely, growing in grace and obedience to God. Because he placed predestination in the pastoral section of the Institutes, Calvin may have given this doctrine to comfort the anxious and encourage a life of piety. Since God determines who gets to heaven and hell, it is not necessary for us to worry. Our primary responsibility is to be doing the will of God and loving our neighbors.

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For Luther, the question was “How can I know a gracious God?” For Calvin, it was “How can we know the will of God so as to glorify him and serve others?” With other scholars, Mennonite John Howard Yoder claims that Anabaptists, though not speculating about predestination, shared Calvin’s basic concerns. Preoccupation with saving one’s life subverts Christian charity. Christians are called to lose their lives for Christ and the kingdom in order to discover them. Alexander Mack, founder of the Brethren, shared the view that though we are saved by faith in Christ alone and not our simple works, saving faith will mean that we will do what Jesus wants.

Living as pilgrims

Contemporary interpreters of the Anabaptist tradition affirm the views of the baptizing elder: “It’s just beginning.” The salvation experience is at the same time an event, a beginning, and a continuing pilgrimage. The tradition agrees that salvation promises life eternal. But the Gospel of John is cited in proclaiming that eternal life begins now. The New Birth embodies death to the old and rising to walk in newness of life. Anabaptists look foward to going to heaven, but they have accepted the challenge to live in heavenly ways on this dirty Earth.

This view of salvation is reflected in Anabaptist interpretations of the Atonement. To the good news of Christ’s death for us, Anabaptists add a note derived from Paul’s teaching in Romans 5. Christ died for us, enemies of God, even while we were yet sinners. If forgiving, suffering love was God’s way of dealing with evil in the world, then it must be our way. Somewhat uniquely in Christianity, the death on the cross is often conjoined for Anabaptists with the biblical command to love enemies. This soteriological perspective of Anabaptism sometimes leads to a radical nonconformity to the contemporary spirit of militarism and violence.

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For this reason, contemporary Anabaptists often join in critiques of any popular religion that bypasses the way of the Cross in heralding resurrection faith. In rejoicing about what Jesus had done for us, we are to be concerned with how we can be faithful to Jesus. Though not always of one mind concerning details about end times (members of the tradition include pre-, post-, and amillennialists), Anabaptists share the conviction that Christians should know a foretaste of and participate in the first fruits and signs of the promised kingdom. We serve this age as pilgrims, strangers, aliens, and sojourners because of a sense of expectancy that the future age can break into the present. As much as possible, by grace, we are to live now as if the kingdom has already come.

By Dale W. Brown.

Jesus’ “Hard Sayings”

Mennonites believe that Christian faith should therefore be understood and expressed as discipleship, as following Jesus Christ in all of life. Coming to faith includes both accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and committing oneself to follow him as Lord of one’s life.

This vision of discipleship focuses particularly on the “hard sayings” of the Sermon on the Mount. Dispensationalists interpret them as a blueprint for conduct in a future dispensation; Lutherans, as a mirror to magnify human sinfulness and the need for justification by faith alone. Anabaptists take them as standards for Christian conduct here and now. Because the “hard sayings” of Jesus frequently run counter to sinful human tendencies and to the structures of society in general, the call to follow him in life includes the call to take up our cross—that is, to accept suffering readily when faithfulness to his way leads to conflict with social structures.

Other expressions of discipleship are less visible to the broader society: prayer and worship, almsgiving and benevolence, fasting and voluntary poverty. According to Matthew 6, these things are to be done “in secret.” More visible expressions of discipleship stressed include being reconciled to an offended sister or brother before offering one’s gift on the altar, lifelong faithfulness in marriage, simplicity of language and refusal to take oaths, doing good to evildoers rather than resisting them with violence, and loving the enemy. According to Matthew 5, these things represent ways in which followers of Jesus Christ are called to be the salt of the earth and light of the world.

Conscientious objection to participation in war and military service and the commitment to a biblically based peace position have been characteristic implications of an Anabaptist view of discipleship. At its best, this position does not depend primarily on an isolated reading of the Sermon on the Mount, but also draws on a “reading” of Jesus’ life, and especially his death, where the Cross both redeems human beings from sin and reveals the way followers of Christ are called to live.

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The peace stance has in recent times contributed to concerns for peace and justice that go beyond conscientious objection to military service. Questions about appropriate ways of witnessing to and participating in the larger political and social institutions for the sake of justice and peace continue to be vigorously debated among Anabaptists in their conversations with other Christians.

Searching For Commonalities

Anabaptists’ concern for radical faithfulness sometimes has made their cooperation with other Christians and even other Anabaptist groups a thorny issue. Mennonite history includes both cooperative efforts and divisions among various Mennonite groups. Some American Mennonite groups are themselves the products of mergers between previously divided groups. The two largest bodies, the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, decided last year to give serious consideration to eventual merger.

Several Mennonite groups also work cooperatively in various ways with the other “historic peace churches” (the Church of the Brethren and the Friends [Quakers]) on peace and voluntary-service concerns.

Mennonites have occasionally been open to cooperation with interchurch and interdenominational bodies. No American Mennonite group is a member of the National or World Councils of Churches. The Church of the Brethren is a member of both, and individual Mennonites have been consultants or observers at conferences and study projects sponsored by these bodies. Only two groups, the Mennonite Brethren and the Brethren in Christ, are members of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Individuals from other Mennonite groups have participated at conferences and study projects sponsored by NAE and Lausanne.

For the most part, Mennonites think of Christian unity like they think of the Christian life in general: it is found in following Christ, in joining hands with others in discipleship and service.

As the Anabaptist denominations share their accent on living as Christ taught and modeled, the wider church can stand to learn from the Reformation’s “radicals.” Whatever their deficiencies, the Anabaptists remind us that the church must get on with the radical, risky business of being Christ’s disciples.

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