My Debt To Anabaptism

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?”)

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 Pic 1infants.  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 Pic 5more 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. In May 2011, I was ordained to the Anglican priesthood, although I am not currently active in that role. When I was preparing for Anglican ordination, I took a course called Anglican Heritage at an Anglo-Catholic seminary in Wisconsin. One day, well into the course curriculum, I found myself responding, yet again, to what I perceived to be an unwarranted and misguided criticism, from one of my fellow-students, of some aspect of the Free Church tradition (which includes Anabaptist denominations such as the Mennonites), where I had spent more than thirty-five years in vocational ministry.

After several minutes of “spirited” exchange, the professor waded into the fray. After confirming that my learned opponent was indeed misguided in his critique, at least on that particular point, the instructor leaned across the lectern and looked directly at me. “You’re Pic 8not an Anglican,” he said. It wasn’t a judgment or an accusation, and there was not one note of rancor in his voice. He was simply making an observation. “You’re not an Anglican,” he repeated. “You’re a liturgical Anabaptist.”

He later explained that he wasn’t challenging my commitment to Anglicanism nor suggesting that I should not be preparing for Holy Orders. Rather, he was voicing his opinion that my Anabaptist convictions were so deeply ingrained that they naturally informed my response to criticism of the Free Church tradition and infused it with passion. I have to say I think he was right.

I am a liturgical Anabaptist. I might still be a Mennonite if I could have found a place, within the particular group of Mennonites with whom I was serving, where my growing convictions regarding the importance of the liturgical tradition would be acknowledged and appreciated. Finding no place like that, I had no choice but to turn in another direction. I became an Anglican with Anabaptist convictions instead of an Anabaptist with liturgical sensibilities.

I love Anglican worship, and I don’t think I could ever feel at home again in a setting in which the celebration of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) was not the pinnacle of the Pic 9church’s corporate worship. At the same time, I miss a lot that I came to love and appreciate as an Anabaptist. Yes, I miss the tradition of a capella congregational singing which some Mennonite churches still cherish. And, oddly enough, I miss the sense of “family-ness” which pervades much of the Mennonite community, even though I always felt that I was a guest at the table and not really a member of the family.

Here’s what I miss most about Anabaptism, however. I miss the serious conversation I used to engage in with other Anabaptists, many of them my colleagues in ministry, concerning the interface between the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, their interpretation by Paul and others in the NT Epistles, and their practical application amidst the contemporary culture. I didn’t always agree with my fellow Anabaptists, but I always respected their viewpoint (even though I’m certain that more than a few of them would be surprised to hear me say that).

Like most traditions, and like me when I was serving among them, Anabaptist Christians talk a better game than they play. But I miss talking that game with them, and I’ve concluded that, at least sometimes, the more you talk about something the more likely you are to do something as a result.

My experience among Anabaptists sharpened my sensitivity to injustice in the world and strengthened my convictions regarding “biblical nonresistance.” (See Matthew 5:43-48.) That is a perspective almost completely absent from the circle of colleagues among whom I moved as an Anglican. I missed it terribly. Whatever the context of my future ministry, whether as a pastor or a writer or a teacher or some combination of those things, I will be making it clear that the shape of my commitment to the liturgical tradition will be strongly informed by my Anabaptist convictions.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote that “what’s past is prologue.”  I am totally convinced that my pilgrimage has not been a series of disjointed meanderings. I don’t know how long I still have to serve Christ and His Kingdom, but whether it is two weeks or thirty years, I Past is Prologueplan to serve it as one who has been enriched and empowered by my exposure to these two traditions—Anabaptism and Anglicanism—into which God has providentially guided me over the past thirty-five years. They are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, mutually beneficial, and I am grateful to God for allowing me to experience the benefits of both communions… separately in the past and blended in my future ministry.

If you’d like to read more about my pilgrimage from evangelical Christianity through Anabaptism to the liturgical tradition, I have written the entire story as an autobiographical novel called The Long Road from Highland Springs: A Faith Odyssey. Click here for the book’s Amazon listing or here for more information on another page on this blog. For some specific descriptions of ways in which this union of Anabaptism and Anglicanism may manifest itself it my future ministry,–particularly in the possibility of a new church in the Columbus area–stay tuned to my future blog posts. Thank you for reading, and as always…

Soli Deo Gloria.



1 thought on “My Debt To Anabaptism

  1. Pingback: What’s the difference between “Anabaptists” and “Baptists”? | the Jesus Event

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