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What do Scot McKnight, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Shane Claiborne all have in common? Certainly they don't agree on everything and no one's views can automatically be imputed to anyone else. But I would argue that they are all Neo-Anabaptists. I'm not suggesting their ideas originated by reading Anabaptists. They would claim Scripture in support of their beliefs, not some 16th century reformer. What I am suggesting is that the low church, counter-cultural, prophetic-stance-against-empire ethos present in the emergent and evangelical-left conversations is a contemporary form of the Anabaptist tradition.

The Anabaptists of the 16th century, associated with men like Andreas Karlstadt, Conrad Grebel, Hans Denck, Michael Sattler, and Thomas Muntzer, were the "left-wing" of the Protestant Reformation. Obviously, these men didn't see eye to eye on everything and the Neo-Anabaptists don't embrace everything these men espoused (most of the Neo-Anabaptists have probably read very few Reformation Anabaptists). But there are a number of striking similarities between past and present iterations.

In his thorough (and gently pro-Calvin) book Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, Willem Balke explains that Conrad Grebel, for example, from the Swiss Brethren "supported the practice of believers' baptism, voluntary membership in the church, and a strong emphasis on the commands of the Sermon on the Mount. He rejected the use of the oath by Christians, opposed going to war, and denied the rights of Christians to use the civil courts. He also required a far-reaching, mutual sharing of goods among Christians" (2-3). The Hutterites "established communities based on common ownership of goods. They rejected the authority of the magistrates and refused to pay taxes for the waging of war" (3). The Mennonites, unlike the violent Munster Anabapstists, "placed strong emphasis on pacifism, strict discipline, and separation from the world" (3). Again, some of these traits are shared by various streams of Christianity and some are not particularly emphasized by the Neo-Anabaptists, but for anyone who has studied the Emergent-New Monasticism-Sojourners conversation, the themes of pacifism, communalism, and placing stress on the ethical commands of Jesus will sound familiar.

Familiar Sounds

In the second half of the book, Balke highlights a number of disagreements between Calvin and the Anabaptists. These disagreements also sound familiar.

• “There was a deep chasm between Calvin and the Anabaptists in their respective concepts of the state” (262).

• “The Anabaptist view of society flowed directly out of their longing to form a holy communion in this world. It was characterized by a certain dualism. The Anabaptists were optimistic about the extent to which the Christian is able to keep the law. They wanted to restore original Christendom, which, they felt, had been derailed by various forms of worldliness and Constantinism. They were committed to live in accordance with the spirit and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. They aspired to seeing the kingdom and its righteousness become visible. These concepts of the Anabaptists brought basic questions about human society to the surface…For Calvin, the Anabaptist model of society was , of course, wholly unacceptable. He rejected their dualism and did not think highly of their perfectionism as a goal for Christian achievement on earth” (265-66, 267).

• “Calvin charged that in his day the Anabaptists shouted loudly about all this, because they seemed to think that the church did not exist unless all possessions were thrown together and everyone was free to grab what his heart desired. According to Calvin, this was the misconception of communistic spiritualism” (271).

• “Calvin's strong emphasis on the divine institution of government was definitely conditioned by his controversy with the Anabaptists. Calvin felt that anarchism lurked behind the anti-government position of the Anabaptists” (278).

Michael Baylor, in his Introduction to a book of Radical Reformation texts, summarizes another key difference.

The strategic differences between magisterial and radical reformers were symptomatic of a more fundamental difference in their politics, especially in their attitudes toward the authority of existing secular rulers. Above all, what gave the radicals their coherence as the Reformation's "left wing" was their rejection of a hierarchical conception of politics in which legitimate authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical, devolved from the top down. Instead the radicals' vision of politics [and I would add church life too] was rooted in notions of local autonomy and community control which also implied an egalitarianism (xvi).

I'm not trying to argue for specific political or ecclesiastical positions with these quotes. Nor am I assuming that Reformed people don’t give a rip about the poor and Anabaptists don’t care about doctrine. I only mean to demonstrate that the same sort of issues that vexed Calvin and the Anabaptists continue to percolate in our day.

And the Point Is?

So how does any of this information help us? What are the take home lessons? Let me suggest a few.

1. Both the Neo-Reformed and the Neo-Anabaptists can do more to study their own tradition. Don't settle for a superficial understanding. Read the primary sources. Get to know dead writers. Learn from them, and be honest about the mistakes and blind spots of your own tradition.

2. Both the Neo-Reformed and the Neo-Anabaptists should take great pains to argue their points by appealing to Scripture, not chiefly by appealing to political possibilities or confessional tradition.

3. Let's do some good, hard thinking on the areas where we disagree. Don't give in to the intellectual laziness that says, "Well, we all have our own tradition. I guess that settles that." At times, parts of our traditions are wrong and need to be corrected. Some traditions are more biblical than others. And sometimes traditions hold to mutually exclusive points of view. Honesty demands that we don't pretend that we are all right when we completely disagree.

4. The Neo-Anabaptists should make their theological commitments as clear as their social commitments. Helping the poor is an important biblical concern, but without a manifest glorying in Christ's substitutionary sacrifice and an equal concern for the eternal destinies of men and women, concern for the poor will devolve into political posturing.

5. To the degree that Neo-Anabaptists espouse orthodox, evangelical theology (e.g., Dan Kimball's, Erwin McManus', and Scot McKnight's support for the Lausanne Covenant), the Neo-Reformed should not too quickly dismiss their distinctive ideas. The Neo-Anabaptists ask a different set of questions. We can learn from their example in caring for the poor and be challenged by their arguments in so far as they come from Scripture, even as we disagree on other significant matters.

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20 thoughts on “The Neo-Anabaptists”

  1. Stephen Ley says:

    This is excellent and very fair. I was raised in the conservative holiness movement. Although they definitely wouldn't have considered themselves on the left, they had a lot in common with the 16th century Anabaptists.

  2. Andrew Walker says:

    Good post.

    Aside from their theological dexterity at times, I believe that the so-called, "Neo-Anabaptists" are a wonderful group to coordinate with and in turn, call the Neo-Reformed into alternate ways of thinking. All that to say, both groups need each other.

    While I agree with your category of "Neo-Anabaptistic" I would at the same time say that these individuals are more indebted to postliberal theology, which in turn, espouses a neo-Anabaptist social/political theology.

    Do you agree?

  3. ZSB says:

    Good stuff.

    Just to clarify for your readers, Anabaptists and Baptists are not the same. They do not have the same origin (Baptists come from English Puritan Separatism) nor the same theology. We have been confused with them from the beginning, though.

    The London Confession (1644) begins, "The Confession of Faith of Those Churches Which Are Commonly (Though Falsely) Called Anabaptist…"

  4. MSG says:

    Kevin, from this new category, it appears that (notwithstanding other previously noted differences) Neo-Anabaptists are Anabaptists who have a Christ OF culture view instead of the Christ AGAINST culture view.

  5. Kevin DeYoung says:

    ZSB, good clarification.

    MSG, in my estimation they have a Christ against culture view when it comes to issues of economics and the military, but not in the separatist sense of the early Anabaptists.

    Andrew, certainly most of the men I mentioned are not directly influenced by the first Anabaptists. They probably get their social/political views through Sider, Yoder, Sine, and some of their theological views of empire from Wright, and missiological views from Bosch, Hirsch, and Newbigin. These are only surmises though. And as I said in the post, I'm sure these men would say their ideas come from Scripture.

  6. Jake says:

    Kevin – Great post, really helpful. I've spent the better part of the past year studying the 16th century reform movements and I found this enormously helpful in making sense of contemporary movements.

    Out of curiosity, have you seen Bob Robinson's post analyzing the Neo-Reformed and putting them into the categories of Neo-Puritans (primarily Reformed Baptists) and Neo-Calvinists (primarily Presbyterians)? I feel like your post fits really well into his discussion.

    Also, on reading primary sources in order to better understand our own traditions, AMEN!


  7. Fusion! says:

    Thanks. I have a friend who definitely straddles both sides as he is reformed but missional. The conversations we end up having are always insightful. And indeed, it has been sad to see that reformed people at times only come off as the doctrine police and not the ones who care about the "least of these". So in that sense I hope they start thinking about that. If we ever see these kinds of things being talked about at a DG or TFG conference, that would be great progress. I should also add that my only qualm is that McMannus teaches at Golden Gate Seminary, but apparently he's leaving the SBC and rumor is he's joining Foursquare. More so, he has given an endorsement of an open theistic books. Kimball on the other hand, is more the kind of guy I trust.

  8. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Fusion, thanks for the post. The DG pastor's conference was on money several years ago. Randy Alcorn was challenging and Piper was great on Mueller. Bethlehem also does a lot with their global diaconate to meet needs. T4G probably won't be doing something on the least of these, because their focus is explicitly on the gospel itself, more than the implications of the gospel. I was at The Gospel Coalition this year and attended a breakout session on social action and mercy ministry. Keller has done some fine work on mercy ministry too. So the Reformed world does talk about these things, just not in the same way or to the same degree as some other groups.

  9. Terry says:

    I did not realize that John Piper spoke on the topic of George Mueller. As I understand it, Mr. Mueller came from an Anabaptist background (Brethren, if I'm not mistaken).

  10. Douglas Kofi Adu-Boahen says:

    As I understand, while Mueller was from the Plymouth Brethren, he did affirm unconditional election and persevering grace.

    Here's an excerpt from Mueller's own autobiography on this:

  11. David Reimer says:

    This is a helpfully provocative post. I hope that readers will not succumb to a confusion that is implicit in it, however. These so-called "Neo-Anabaptists" are not in continuity with Anabaptist tradition (Sider excepted)! Consider these quotes:

    1. "I'm not suggesting their ideas originated by reading Anabaptists."

    2. "Obviously, these men [the radical reformers] didn't see eye to eye on everything and the Neo-Anabaptists don't embrace everything these men espoused (most of the Neo-Anabaptists have probably read very few Reformation Anabaptists)."

    3. "Both the Neo-Reformed and the Neo-Anabaptists can do more to study their own tradition." (some emphasis added!)

    Now, I have no idea what the empirical evidence is for the claims made in ##1 and 2; perhaps they are simply surmise. At least they express Kevin's take on the matter, though. Given that, the counsel given in #3 is very odd. Those labelled "Neo-Anabaptists" here (given ##1 and 2, above!) do not stand within that tradition, so it makes little sense to send them "back" to it! There are Anabaptists who stand within that tradition, and look explicitly back to its founders and signficant voices to sustain and inform their faith and theological vision. But they are not (mostly) Kevin's "Neo-Anabaptists"!

    Perhaps I'm simply being pedantic, and Kevin is urging his so-called "Neo-Anabaptists" to connect with the tradition with which they (unwittingly?) resonate. (Harumph! I'm off to read a bit of John Howard Yoder's Politics of Jesus! :)

  12. humanitasremedium says:

    Really thoughtful post. The historical similarities are striking. Addtionally the comments were a joy to cruise. Thanks for the encourgement to know the history of your faith family and to use scripture to judge.

  13. Matt Stone says:

    I embrace the neo-Anabaptist tag at, possibly a lot more consciously than others you've listed above. I would agree we espose a certain dualism between the church and the world, but its not absolute. I prefer the 'in the world but not of the world approach'.

  14. folk notions says:

    I can certainly see some similarities between the "Neo-Reformed" and the "Neo-Anabaptist" in the spirit of what you are saying. I am someone who was baptized in a Mennonite church yet consider myself Reformed in a number of areas in my doctrine.

    One thing that distinguishes guys like, say McLaren and Claiborne and Wallis, from the Mennonite movement, is that the Mennonites were very clear on what they believed (as were the Hutterites). McLaren doesn't really say what he believes. Imagine McLaren saying something like this:

    The apostle Paul says that God who has loved us from the beginning through his eternal love, has chosen and destined us to salvation (Eph. 1:3-5) and called us in Jesus Christ. He has justified us out of grace without merit through the redemption that has taken place in him (Rom 3:21-25)…and has included all those under sin in order that he alone may be justified and in turn justify all who have faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:19-26). However, such faith is a work of God in us whereby we are inwardly transformed and renewed….faith brings with itself true divine righteousness, makes us spiritual and mindful of heavenly things, desirous of and prepared for every good work".

    That's Dirk Philips, one of the leading theologians of Dutch Anabaptism and co-founder of the Mennonite Church with Menno Simons. You would never hear guys like McLaren teaching like that!

  15. Jan says:


    I was referred over from Ref21. As a former "young restless reformed" seminarian, until exposed to other Christian traditions, I would encourage you to not make it quite so easy to call the emergent guys "Neo Anabaptist". Indeed, to some degree the lines of the past can be read into the present – I wonder, though, why you make no mention of the actual Anabaptists of today. The Mennonites are alive and kicking. They do have blogs and write books – why not at least include the real Anabaptists in your thoughts? To present McLaren as their "heir" (your words!) does not do justice to the Anabaptist story, or to their complicated relation to Reformed folk over the centuries.

    Balke's book, by the way, is quite dated, the scholarly debate about Anabaptist origins quite diversified since he wrote his work. I recommend C.A. Snyder and Hans Juergen Goertz' writings for starters.

  16. David Reimer says:

    In blogging terms, this post is ancient history! :) But it continues to rumble along in the back of my thoughts from time to time, so it must have touched a chord … or perhaps a nerve!

    (Btw, I appreciate the contributions of "Jan" and "folk notions" in the two preceding comments. They articulate well things I was sensing at a more intuitive level. Using the label "neo-Anabaptist" falls foul of two problems: (1) implicitly denying the living heritage of the historical Anabaptists; and (2) failing to reckon in any case with the diversity of thought and movements usually placed under the "Anabaptist" umbrella in any case!)

    But on to the point of this comment: I have been reading Carter Lindberg's The European Reformations (Blackwell, 1996), and ran across a scenario that reminded me again of this post.

    After describing the rapid change of fortunes for Calvinism in the Netherlands in the latter part of the 16th C., Lindberg writes of the so-called "Libertines" who "did not hesitate to use Reformed slogans", but chafed at authority and were interested in a higher "spiritual" plane, expressed in a more vague (or, put positively, wider-ranging) piety. (By contrast, Anabaptists were seen to be much more "rigorous" in their community life.)

    Perhaps this is a more promising place to look for a Reformation-period parallel to the Emergent figures mentioned in the original blog post.

    For further reading, if anyone cares, here are two articles dealing with the "Libertines" (the first of which is cited by Lindberg):

    Benjamin J. Kaplan, "'Remnants of the Papal Yoke': Apathy and Opposition in the Dutch Reformation", The Sixteenth Century Journal 25/3 (1994), pp. 653-669.

    Mirjam G. K. van Veen, "Spiritualism in the Netherlands: From David Joris to Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert", The Sixteenth Century Journal 33/1 (2002), pp. 129-150.

  17. Joseph Pfeiffer says:

    Hello Kevin,

    I am just about to graduate from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, with an MA in Church History.

    Let me just say how joyful it makes me to see your name come up for this blog entry under the search query “Neo-Anabaptist.” I write this as I am currently finishing up my Masters Thesis on Neo-Anabaptist movements in history, with particular focus on one 19th century Neo-Anabaptist renewal movement.

    I would probably self-identify as a “Neo-Anabaptist” of sorts, in the sense that I draw inspiration from the Anabaptist type movements of history (covering of course, radical movements such as the pre-Constantinian early church, the Waldensians, Hussites, Mennonites, etc.) in the formulation of my own faith in the context of the 21st century world of globalization and American imperial aspirations.

    I want to affirm your observations of a recurring Neo-Anabaptist phenomenon in the present, especially among the key names and movements that you reference. Of course, I would also like to point out (as I am sure that you are aware) that any “neo-” movement involves a process of selective historical retrieval. Of course, most of us “neo-[fill in the blank]’s” do not simply want to copy the exact forms of the original movements from which we draw inspiration, be it “neo-Reformed,” as you self-identify, “neo-Anabaptist,” neo-Evangelical, etc. We are inspired by certain aspects of these movements because we consider that they have somthing that we see a need for in our current contexts. Reformed types seem to have been quickest to articulate this, especially in their ongoing battle with postmodernism, it would seem.

    At AMBS, where I am currently a student, I find myself in the middle of the Neo-Anabaptist crossroads. We have more and more students each year come through here who identify as new Anabaptist in one way or another, and enroll here to understand Anabaptist History and Theology in a well informed and articulate manner as they work through their own faith. One guy left the military to come study here, because reading John Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus” convinced him to be a Pacifist. He is now drawing from Anabaptist theology to renew similar impulses in his own Stone-Campbell Restorationist tradition. Some of them join the Mennonite Church, others are simply seeking resources for their own innovative movements within other denominations or churches.

    I am also located in a context where I see the dialogue and negotiations raised between “Neo-Anabaptists” and traditional Mennonites as the former seeks to engage the latter, and even join in fellowship with them. There are several radical type churches that have joined or are seeking to join the Mennonite Church. Greg Boyd and his congregation in Minnesota is one example.

    I fit the description of a Neo-Anabaptist in many ways, in that I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian Right leaning, American nationalist, war hawk type environment, and have since come to deeply question many of the underlying assumptions of that movement. Many Neo-Anabaptists have similar narratives.

    I want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book “Why We’re Not Emergent.” I drew upon it in a presentation that I gave in my “Cultural Hermeneutics” class last Spring, in which I dealt with the Emergent Church as only one response to cultural shifts, and took note of your “neo-Reformed” as another. I also gave a presentation at the Student Session of the American Society of Missiology on that topic as well.

    I particularly enjoyed the book because I have many of the same concerns about the Emergent Church movements as you do. Even though I am a Neo-Anabaptist, I identity with the strongly evangelical and biblicist, and church-centered strains of that tradition, in a way that other “Neo-Anabaptists” might not. Many are attempting to rework Anabaptist Theology (especially from a selective reading of John H. Yoder) to work into non-foundational post-modern types of theology and ecclesiology.

    I thought from the time that I read your book and saw that you lived in Lansing, that I should try to contact you sometime. Now that I see you are posting on a topic that has become dear to my heart and labor, and are trying to engage in critical cultural hermeneutics, I am even more convinced. I live in southern Michigan, in Cass County. I would love to drive up to Lansing, and chat sometime about these issues in person – if you are still interested nearly a year after your blog post here. If you are interested, send me an email. I hope it will work out.

    Blessings and Peace,

    Joe Pfeiffer

  18. Johnny Appleton says:

    This was a helpful overview Pastor Deyong. Thank you.

  19. Greg D says:

    As one of those crazy radical, Anabaptist-type, red letter Christians, I can emphatically declare that our emphasis on a social gospel comes from a very tightly-knitted and informed doctrinal and theological stance of the teachings of Christ. In other words, we’re not just about peace, anti-establishment, helping/loving the poor, just because it seems like the right thing to do. It is based on a careful reading and understanding of scripture. Obedience and putting into practice what is understood from Jesus and the early church. On the contrary, we don’t place as much of an emphasis on doctrine and theology as perhaps the Young, Restless, and Reformed, hyper-Calvinist bunch do. It’s just not an ongoing debate or issue for us. It just seems blatantly simple to me that there are more important things to concern ourselves in life… than quibbling over his/her and their theology.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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