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What hath Abraham Kuyper and Menno Simons in common?

More than you might think. Kuyper's understanding of antithesis corresponds at key points to the Anabaptist vision of the church being light in a world of darkness.

Still, it's not hard to spot the differences in approach to the church's role in society. At several points, the Dutch neo-Reformed movement (and its heirs in leaders like Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, and Tim Keller) and the Anabaptist movement (and its heirs in leaders like David Fitch, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight) stand in stark contrast to one another.

Is it the business of the church to transform the world? If not, why not? If so, how?

Contemporary Anabaptists do not always agree on the answer to these questions, but they tend to view "transformational" attempts with suspicion. They recognize that, often, the church that tries to change the world eventually becomes a church the world has changed.

The neo-Reformed tend to chide Anabaptist thinkers for their advocacy of "withdrawal" or "separatism." The latter term is more accurate than the former.

Anabaptists do not intend to withdraw from the world; they intend for their separatist identity to engage the world differently from the churches that have a Christendom outlook. When the church is pure and distinct, the visible community of faith creates ripple effects of transformation throughout the world, but these effects come through unseen and unnoticed acts of grace, not through the levers of power and politics.

I resonate with the Kuyperian understanding of the kingdom, and I worry that the Anabaptist approach toward power often resembles that of the ancient ascetics toward money: renounce it, divest yourself of it, and you'll avoid the taint of compromise! I find the New Testament's vision of power, money, authority, and so on to be radically transformed by the gospel, but I also believe the biblical assessment of creation in general (or political power, in particular) to be more positive than that described by Anabaptist thinkers.

Still, I have found treasure within the Anabaptist tradition. So much so that I've often said I always want an "Anabaptist" in my ear, simply because I think the whole Christian church benefits from some of the strengths of this tradition.

Here are three that immediately come to mind:

1. What happens in the church matters more than anything that happens in the world.

One doesn't have to come from an Anabaptist tradition to see the church as central and the world as peripheral (see Simon Chan's work in Liturgical Theology), but we can thank the Anabaptists (and their distant cousins in the Baptist churches of today) for elevating this truth more than other Christian traditions. We need to hear this over and over again.

When other Christian groups are jockeying for power and prestige or pursuing the path of politics, the Anabaptists remind us that the most important moment in a week is not in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., but in the preaching of God's Word and the sharing of Communion in gatherings of believers all across the world.

2. The church changes the world by being the church.

Lesslie Newbigin was not an Anabaptist, but he touched on a central Anabaptist concern when he claimed that the church must be an "embodied apologetic." The life of the church demonstrates its truth claims.

The Anabaptists recognize this truth and its opposite: the church that affirms the right doctrine but does not embody or enact the spirit of Jesus's love is heretical. Jesus gave the world the right to judge Christians by how they love one another.

The Anabaptists have internalized that truth. They believe in the power of a visible community of faith, living according to the teachings of Scripture, with Jesus as its focus, to be light in a world that knows only fragmentation, atomization, and selfish pursuits. The church's primary responsibility is to be the church, not change the world.

3. The church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins.

Christians are going to need the wisdom of the Anabaptists in coming years. If Christians are pushed to the margins of society, it will be good for us to get acquainted with believers who are already there, and who have long championed the importance of holiness in communities that are markedly different from the world, and who are comfortable without the levers of political power or privilege.

As Christendom crashes and the future of Christian witness will shift away from the center of worldly power to the margins of society, we will need the wisdom of brothers and sisters who have constantly called on the church to resist the temptations of power and who have showed how to flourish at the margins. Marginalization can actually be good for the church.

To see yourself at the frontier of mission, in simple communities of faith and fellowship, is reinvigorating in a time when so many assume that the church is flourishing or failing based on its ability to enact visible transformation in the world of politics.

This post is part of a dialogue with David Fitch, where the two of us are reflecting on the strengths of each other’s traditions. I encourage you to read David's post on what Anabaptists can learn from the Reformed. We are going to respond one more time to each others' posts in a few days on each others' sites. 

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7 thoughts on “3 Reasons We Need Today’s Anabaptists”

  1. Brad Wong says:

    Thanks for this. I learn so much when people are willing to put different ideas in conversation with one another. Is there a book or two that you’d recommend on this topic?

  2. Casey says:

    I really appreciate this as well, and have found myself really admiring a lot of anabaptist thought and theology. I wonder if it may be helpful to distinguish the aims and efforts f the “church gathered”, or the local body of the church as a whole as led by elders, pastors, etc. vs. the aims and efforts of the church scattered, or the work of individual Christians in their contexts in the world, as some have done. Here, I think, one can affirm both that the “church gathered” should have no aims or efforts at gaining political power but remain focused on local discipleship and procaliming the kingdom/gospel , but that its perfectly good for some of the “church scattered” to engage in politics as a way of loving neighbor and advancing justice according to their calling.

  3. Curt Day says:

    I have to disagree with the statement:

    One doesn’t have to come from an Anabaptist tradition to see the Church as central and the world as peripheral

    Whether one is selectively withdrawn from the world or one is a transformationalist, this idea that the Church is central and the world is peripheral communicates, whether intentionally or not, the idea that we are privileged above others. This idea encourages us to be insular in terms of what we study. And as a result, it promotes a church that is unable to see the beams in our own eyes as we talk to the world about the beams in their eyes.

    In addition, this statement makes addressing state and corporate sins more of an option than a necessity. That can result in our silence on the sins of those with wealth and power. And that silence can be interpreted as a kind of support. In the meantime, we are not silent about the sins individuals commit in the world. Of of that sends a mixed message.

    What is happening in the world and what is happening in the Church should be considered to be equally important. After all, we Christians live in the world. And it seems that it is only when we are content in the world that we would be tempted to minimize what is going on in the world. But what if we were one of the refugees from the Middle East? Would we say that what is happening in the world is only peripheral? Or would we say that for the Church to be central, it has to address what is happening in the world?

    Now I somewhat agree with the third statement: ‘The Church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins..’ I agree in as much as when the Church listens to others as it lives in the margins. And such is achieved neither by trying to create a Christian nation nor by withdrawing and believing that the world is peripheral.

    It seems like some conservatives are still trying to feel their way around after the Obergefell decision. And for the #nevertrump conservatives, the Trump election may make them feel like they have been knocked down to the canvas for the 2nd time. Such might tempt some to minimize interaction with the world when what is needed is a new perspective of how to interact with the World. But I am not sure if all that is being drawn from the Anabaptists which was listed above is helpful

    1. David Fitch says:

      I want to suggest two quick responses/questions to your comment here. If the church, by definition, extends Christ’s incarnational presence into the world, then this means we come vulnerable, humble, recognizing Jesus is Lord over the whole world. We do not come in power, in fact we reject coercion, all violence. The church then by its nature rejects the posture of privilege. Speaking to the state is an option? I suggest it is no more or less an option than other theologies of church and state. Instead, we now have other options, including to resist corporately through say sanctuary or conscientious objector status. We have the option to not particpate in a conversation. I suggest that there is more than one understanding of the way power works in the world? Our God refuses violence, coercion. And sometimes the ideologies of the world, the way ideology works to stoke antagonism and hate, may mean that we the church do not enter into theose antagonisms on the terms given (via hate violence). For all these reasons I respectfully disagree with two of your statements, a.) to make the church central is to make the church privileged above others. No we are the servant to others. b.) to be silent is always a sign of support of injustice. There are other ways to enter the world besides merely articulating disagreement. Sometimes we must live an alternative before we can speak the alternative.

  4. Curt Day says:

    According to Romans 13, the Church doesn’t reject all coercion and violence. The Church doesn’t exercise such violence nor does it call for the government to exercise such violence in Church disciplinary matters. But Romans 13 shows that the Church supports the state’s just use of the sword. At the same time, the Church should reject the state’s unjust use of the sword.

    By first century standards and definition, the Church rejects privilege over others. But history gives quite a testimony to the contrary after the time of Constantine. And sometimes, the Church seeks privilege by simply siding with wealth. Unfortunately, do so has often resulted in the Church being associated with tyranny. And there are at least two ways by which the Church sides with wealth: by demonstrable support and by complicity through silence. For those in the state who visit injustice on others need to hear the call to repentance just as much as those who suffer injustice need to be comforted. Silence, in the face of evil, is not golden. Sometimes, as Martin Luther King Jr. noted, it is betrayal. In fact, when we look at the Scriptures, they are clear in saying that to be silent about sin is to assume part of the guilt of those committing sin. Do we think of a doctor’s silence after coming to a life-threatening diagnosis as acceptable?

    Yes, to make the Church as central and the world as peripheral results in a privileged position for the Church, that is at least in the eyes of believers. Also, such silence can result in privilege when pointing out sin by those with wealth would result in retaliation by those with power. We should note the topics most often preached on in different parts of America. For in communities where there is a significant amount of marginalization, the world is often not seen as a peripheral. Whereas in those areas of privilege or contentment, the world is sometimes regarded as peripheral until something threatens to change the status quo.

    BTW David, thank you for your respectful note. I very much appreciate the kind of tone you wrote with.

    1. David Fitch says:

      Hey bro … Have you read any alternative and extremely careful treatments of Romans 13?
      Have you read John Howard Yoder’s ‘Politics of Jesus’ chapter 10 ? Our most recent podcast treats Romans 13
      Blessings …

      1. Curt Day says:

        I will take a look at the link you provided sometime this weekend. Just want you to know, however, that though I come from theologically reformed position, politically speaking, I come from an anti-capitalist, socialist position. That means that I view the democrats and republicans as being from the same group. Thank yo for the link.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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