Let me begin by stating I don’t like labels. I find that my beliefs and convictions don’t tend to fall in any one particular category, rather it be theologically, philosophically or politically. That’s not to say I don’t identify with certain labels, only that I have a hard time accepting carte blanch any label to the exclusion of all others.
Having said that, I realize there regardless of my aversion for being pigeon-holed there are labels which I carry. In the religious realm, for example, I am a Christian. But that’s such a broad term it communicates very little of substance. So I’ll add that I take a literal and conservative view of the Bible. Therefore, I will reluctantly concede to the much narrower (and admittedly loaded with negative connotation) identification as a fundamentalist, at least in the original sense of the term. I’m also a missionary, which obviously entails me being evangelical. And now having got all that out of the way and am sure having made some readers cringe, let me move on to the specific topic of this post.
Because of my faith being the prism through which I view my experiences, my theological views necessarily and profoundly determine my worldview. Or, my religious philosophy is shaped by what I believe the Bible teaches. If anything, I identify most closely theologically with Anabaptism. It, like many labels, was not coined by those who believed and practiced what came to be associated with its tenants, but by those who rejected said practitioners. Anabaptist means “re-baptizer.” But more on that later.
G.K. Chesterton (who was certainly not an Anabaptist) wrote in Orthodoxy about a fictional English yachtsman who “slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” This man promptly planted the Union Jack, claimed the spot for the British Empire, and was gazed upon wonderingly by those bemused beach-goers who surrounded him, thinking he was out of his mind.
The point of Chesterton’s illustration was to describe how he had set out on a personal quest for truth and discovered that truth, as embodied in the Christian faith, had been there all along. I felt similarly about Anabaptism. As a new Christian, I didn’t begin by weighing all of the various theological views within orthodox Christianity (which would, by the way, have taken many years if not a lifetime). I began by reading the Bible and coming to my own conclusions regarding its content. As gradually I studied more church history and historical theological perspectives, I came to the realization that my convictions were most closely aligned with the so-called Anabaptists.
“So what?” you say. “You discovered that what you believe was already a belief system.” Well, yes and no. And this one of the things I find so fascinating about Anabaptism. It is not so much a belief system as a perspective. That which has bound different groups branded as “Anabaptists” together over the centuries is not a creed but more of an ethos. It is not a denomination, though denominations have sprung out of it. Until fairly recently in church history texts Anabaptism wasn’t recognized as legitimate movement within Christendom. Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy it has no “official” systematic theological dogmas. It has always been more of a movement than a recognized religious entity. And, Anabaptists have unfortunately been persecuted by both the Protestant and Catholic Church.
This, at least, is how I see it. Like any other subject, I’m sure ten Anabaptists would offer ten different definitions. However, there are certain key elements that I feel are common to an understanding of Anabaptism. Many have undertaken to summarize them, especially within the last few years as the movement has grown some in popularity among a younger generation, even spawning a new term, Neo-Anabaptism. Seeing as I’m already underway, I’ll proceed to state my own views on the matter as well. And I must say, having gotten this far I’m already tired of using the term. But for lack of any other, here goes.
By way of a brief historical survey, Anabaptism “officially” began in Switzerland in 1527 when a document known as the Schleitheim Confession was drafted. I say officially because there have always been groups of Christians since the time of the apostles who’ve adhered to what came to be recognized as uniquely Anabaptist viewpoints. The Schleitheim Confession roughly defined the tenants by which this group of Swiss Christians differentiated themselves from the Protestant and Catholic churches. The main divide, however, and what I perceive as the crux of the matter, was that these believers felt it was essential to separate from the state church. This was a big deal—a much bigger deal than we can imagine today. Both the Protestant reformers and Catholics who they reformed against were represented by state churches. Depending on the country or king, one or the other was the only church of which to legally be a member.
The Anabaptists (who simply referred to themselves as “brethren”) felt strongly that the Kingdom of God, as embodied by the church, should not be yoked with the kingdom of the world, as embodied by the state. They weren’t against the state, per say, or against the governments that were the visible manifestations of the state. They simply maintained that the church is its own separate entity. Again, to our modern ears this doesn’t seem like it should be a point of contention. But in the sixteenth century, it was a matter that people were willing to—and did in fact—die over.
The baptism of an infant was the point at which an individual was put on the state tax roll. In other words, in the lands of Christendom if you were a citizen, you were a “Christian”; and if you were a “Christian,” you were a citizen, period. The individual had no choice in the matter. The Anabaptists rightly recognized that according to the Bible, to become a Christian is a choice that should be left up to each individual. Therefore, if a person who was of age decided to follow Christ, they taught he should undergo baptism as a testimony to this resolution. Since everybody in the state was baptized as an infant, the powers-that-be considered this “adult baptism” heretical. They called those who did so “re-baptizers,” or, Anabaptists. And the church, with the power of the state behind it, persecuted them fiercely.
These re-baptizers were considered disturbers of the peace, breakers of the law and fomenters of rebellion. The terrible irony is, as Christians who took the words of Jesus seriously, the brethren refused to take up arms and defend themselves against the state. Thousand were burned alive, beheaded and drowned across Europe throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries. But rather than the movement dying out, it grew and continued to spread. Today, we in the West are indebted to those early Anabaptists. They laid the foundation for our freedom of religion. Regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, if you live in a “free” country you are able to express your religious views in whatever way you desire—in large part because of a bunch of Christians who refused to compromise their beliefs.
Now this has been a highly condensed and simplified history lesson. But before I get into the main tenants of Anabaptism in Part II, I want to re-emphasize that the church and state issue was the issue. Also, I want to state again the movement that came to be called Anabaptism is not new. Since the days of the first apostles there have always been groups of Christians who’ve maintained a clear and practical distinction between the church and the state. They’ve gone by different names—typically unflattering titles hoisted upon them by their enemies—and they have all without exception suffered varying degrees of persecution from the state (usually by decree of the state church) for their stance.
My historical novel, The Hidden Altar, delves into Anabaptism in its sixteenth-century context while paralleling a contemporary American church setting. It explores the questions Anabaptists attempted to answer centuries ago and how their conclusions might apply to us in the West today.
I’ll discuss more of the actual beliefs and distinctive characteristics of Anabaptsm in Part 2.