What do Anabaptists believe, and who are they?
I’ve frequently commented to several friends that it seems most missional communities align themselves with the Anabaptist tradition. The usual response is “Huh? Who are Anabaptists?” Great question.
The name “Anabaptist” simply means to “baptize again,” or “re-baptizers,” and was originally used as a pejorative term. No one agrees exactly on their origin, but they are are Christians of the Radical Reformation of 16th-century Europe, and their direct descendants today include the Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites. They got their name by being the first major group to insist on what is known as credobaptism (“believer’s baptism”), which is being baptized following a confession of faith. At the time, all of Christendom primarily practiced paedobaptism (“infant baptism”), which generally was believed to be a saving Sacrament of grace. They went so far as to consider infant baptism as invalid, and insisted that believer’s must be re-baptized as adults, following a confession of faith, in order to be saved.
That’s how they got their name, but there’s a lot more to them than that. Here’s a few of their distinctives:
- They wished to restore the Church to primitive Christianity (much like many today!).
- They believe in the priesthood of all believers, and do not emphasize a heavy distinction between “clergy” and “laity.”
- They do not take oaths.
- They do not believe in taking other believers to court.
- They are pacifists, and thus believe that Christians should not bear arms or practice self defense.
- Civil government is a worldly institution, so Christians should not hold any public office nor hold any rank under government, they should only passively obey its authority. They thus believe in complete separation of church and state. They have always been active supporters of Communism and socialism throughout history, and were very instrumental in the formation of several European Communist/Socialist governments.
- They believe that God’s order of authority as stated in His Word is: God, Christ, man, then woman, and that God has established unique roles for man and woman when praying or prophesying, symbolized by man’s uncovered head and by woman’s veiled head.
- They take excommunication more seriously and exclude unrepentant sinners from being participants in their communities and lives, they also believe more seriously in being separate from the world and nonconforming to societal norms. This notion of excommunication as the punishment for heresy was revolutionary at the time, because the standard method of dealing with heretics was torture and execution.They denied that the state had a right to punish or execute anyone for religious beliefs or teachings, which was very countercultural at the time.
- They tend to be more charismatic in their faith and worship, and many manifestations existed in their fellowships that today might be considered “Pentecostal.”
- Anabaptists give much emphasis to spiritual experience, practical righteousness, and obedience to divine standards. They have no tolerance for those who claim to be justified by faith while living unfaithful lives. Anabaptists are quick to point out that Scripture says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).
- They historically have refused to participate and attend mainstream and/or state churches because they feel that only listening to one man speak stifles the operation of all believers’ gifts in a congregation (1 Corinthians 14).
- Many (but not all) Anabaptists believe that Jesus did not derive his humanity from Mary, which is one of Marcion’s teachings from the 2nd century that the majority of Christians at that time refuted.
- Some Anabaptists deny the concept of a Trinity. Today this teaching has spread to some Pentecostal and charismatic groups who use the term “manifestations” instead of “persons” to disguise this teaching. This doctrine was originally called Modalism, or Sabellianism, and was rejected throughout the history of the Church.
- They stress the community aspects of sharing the Lord’s Supper, which is largely viewed as a symbolic meal, and many also practice the rite of feet washing.
They are one of the most persecuted groups of Christians in church history, and were mass-murdered by both Roman Catholics and Protestants for over a century following the Radical Reformation. They are actually thought to be the originators of Anarchist thought since at the time religious freedom apart from the state was considered to be unthinkable. Unfortunately, it didn’t help the Anabaptists’ cause that many of their communities became extremely radical (such as the Munsterites) and formed what we might today call “doomsday cults.” Many of these radical communities rebelled against the government and attempted to establish communal theocracies. These radical groups also often practiced polygamy and many other cultish practices. After most of these groups were crushed by governments worldwide, the majority of remaining Anabaptists were Swiss, and they were more strictly pacifists. This pacifism tends to be the majority view today, although there is no shortage of anti-government dissent among modern Anabaptists.
Many of the above Anabaptist distinctives are very appealing to me and also to many within the missional, organic, and emerging church movements. But there is one problem I have, which I have yet to address: Anabaptists have historically rejected the Lutheran/Reformed understanding of justification by faith alone. They deny the forensic nature of justification and insist that the only ground on which sinners can be acceptable to God is a “real” righteousness wrought within the justified person. It is only fair to note that the Anabaptists thought they detected a tendency toward antinomianism (belief that the law no longer applies to Christians) in the Lutheran/Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. That was what they argued against. But in doing so they undermined the very foundation of the biblical doctrine of justification. They left people to try to devise a righteousness of their own derived from the law, rather than trusting the perfect righteousness of Christ which God imputes to those who believe (see Philippians 3:9 and Romans 4:5-6).
Overall, there are a lot of good things about Anabaptists, but there are also a lot of things that deserve caution. My friend Luke pointed out to me that many missional communities most likely align themselves with Anabaptists because their view of ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) is far more compatible with missional thinking than conventional denominational theology, which is a valid point worth noting. But we also cannot compromise the Gospel for the sake of ecclesiology, lest we forsake the entire point of our gatherings.