Who are the evangelicals? Part 3 of 8

Who are the evangelicals? Part 3 of 8


By Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh
Special to The Alabama Baptist

During the European Reformation, a group of radical Christians began to reject the close relationship between Church and State and started to speak about the importance of a believers’ church where individuals were baptized because of their faith, thereby rejecting infant baptism. The movement became known as Anabaptism, which meant to be “baptized again.” The Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites are direct descendants of the early Anabaptist movement. The combined membership of all three groups in the United States is around 450,000.

Arnold Snyder has described Anabaptists as “an outpost of the kingdom of God,” a counter-cultural movement that “proposed an alternative understanding of the meaning of the Christian faith and an alternative model of society.” Anabaptist groups proliferated throughout Europe in the 16th century, each movement emerging within its own historical context. It arose in Switzerland, South Germany and the Netherlands — independently of each other for the most part. Early Anabaptists shared many core beliefs and practices — values which continue to challenge their descendants in their daily lives of discipleship.

One great emphasis of the Anabaptist movement was that of discipleship. They were dissatisfied people, frustrated by the way in which many mainline Reformers such as Martin Luther, Martin Bucer and Huldrych Zwingli held back from implementing the slogan of “Sola Scriptura.” They were convinced that a high view of Scripture was irrelevant if it never functioned authoritatively in a life of radical discipleship. They had a vision of the Bible as a deeply subversive text that corrects and reproves, builds up and encourages, enabling believers to be equipped for service within society.

Grace and gratitude

Their story was one that stressed grace and gratitude. The Anabaptists emphasized the generosity of God’s grace being shown to humankind, demonstrating the necessity of personal faith being expressed in believer’s baptism. The heart and soul of their theology was the integral linking of the inner and outer lives of believers so that saving faith was expressed in works of love. They were not so concerned with winning converts and recording decisions, but in the formation of Christian character and daily discipleship. For Anabaptists the life of faith was a life of obedience and part of that was seen in the outward witness and commitment to believer’s baptism and commitment to Christ’s teaching in the gospels. Anabaptist author Dirk Philips spoke of water baptism as the outward seal that “one has committed oneself and united oneself with God and all the saints, no longer to live for oneself, but as a person obedient to God and his community, insofar as God gives grace.”

Living out convictions

The Anabaptists were willing to live out their convictions, no matter what the cost might be. For example Balthasar Hubmaier reconstituted his parish church on the basis of personal profession of faith and believer’s baptism in 1525. At Easter, Hubmaier and 60 other citizens were baptized by a visiting Anabaptist evangelist, Wilhelm Reublin. The next day Hubmaier baptized, by effusion out of a milk pail, 300 persons. Three years later in March 1528 he was condemned to death by burning, his wife accompanying him to the stake, praying for him and encouraging him to remain faithful. Three days later she confessed the Lord in her martyrdom by drowning in the Danube River.

The Anabaptists generally had a high view of Scripture, although they tended to stress the teaching of Jesus. That led them to view discipleship as a lifestyle of obedience to His words. They believed that the priesthood of all believers allowed the community of faith to be the best place where the text of Scripture was interpreted, as each believer had something to contribute out of their own experience in discerning the mind of Christ. They had a willingness to learn from one another as fellow pilgrims.

Daily discipleship

For Anabaptists it was the love of Christ in the hearts of believers that provided the crucial measure of daily discipleship, a love that escaped the bondage of legalism and empowered believers to read the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, and to live out its implications in everyday life. Thus their vision of the spiritual life was that of a walk, a progression, a pilgrimage of growth which was first and foremost about a relationship with Jesus, a discipleship of the heart and not a rigid adherence to an external legal code.

Anabaptists believed the most effective environment in which they could be encouraged to live as disciples was in the context of a community. Apart from the Hutterites, most Anabaptists did not live in “communes,” but they did believe that commitment to Christ could only be effective within the fellowship of sisters and brothers in Christ who cared for one another. Baptism and community were closely connected in their understanding of spiritual growth. Baptism was baptism into the Church, and not a private transaction between the believer and God. The life of the community was the family into which the baptismal candidate was received as a member of the body of Christ. The Christian life involved a commitment to the family of God which strengthened and encouraged the believer to live the life of discipleship. Thus the Church became the workplace where “apprentices” in faith could develop the habits of godly living.

The Anabaptist vision of the Church as a covenant community was a commitment to the idea of the priesthood of all believers, where each was seen to be a “priest” to his fellow sisters and brothers, ministering the grace of God. It was a community where women as well as men were committed to lives of costly discipleship, on occasions contravening common societal restrictions on their gender in both the Church and society of their times. Hans Goertz suggests that “the notion of the priesthood of all believers” was “enacted with particular zeal. … The laity, both men and women, began to take over priestly ministries, preaching, celebrating communion and baptizing. … Women engaged in corner preaching and evangelism.”

Active faith

Anabaptism also was based on an active faith in the ministry of the Spirit to initiate and sustain the life of faith, to illuminate and provide a proper understanding of Scripture, to give an enthusiastic experience of the Spirit within their lives. The radical nature of their vision of a Church renewal movement would not have been possible without their expectation of the Spirit’s presence and power in their midst. They saw themselves as a Spirit-endowed, Spirit-empowered and Spirit-led community which was called to follow Christ on costly paths of discipleship. Moreover their stress on the ministry of the Holy Spirit had implications for the wider needs of society, of those who were beyond the walls of their own faith community. They shared a passion to spread the good news of God’s love and to make an impact on the surrounding society.

Christ’s return

Most Anabaptists were convinced they were living in the last days, and Christ’s return was imminent. They believed the Church was the present realization of the kingdom of God within society, a representation of the coming of God’s kingdom to this world, a symbol of hope. This led them to develop political, economic and social goals no less than religious and theological hopes. They brought the critique of Scripture to bear upon the existing economic arrangements in Europe which they said were exploitative, advocating a better way of life through their own communities which became prototypes of a more just society. They called people to love their enemies, renounce selfishness and violence. Many of these groups became pacifists and maintain that tradition in the 21st century.

Because Anabaptism was a lay and not a clerical movement, they emphasized the part that each and every believer had to play in communicating their message. They realized that the division of the Church into clerical leaders and lay followers was a distortion of biblical truth. Although monks, priests, priors and even one bishop joined the movement, it was not the clerical classes which spread the word most effectively but simple brothers and self-confident sisters. The latter, in particular, were effective in spreading the Anabaptist message in their local communities. The impact of their witness led to reports of entire communities being converted to Anabaptism.

They were convinced that their communities were outposts of the Kingdom, where God’s rule would be embraced. They realized the kingdom of God challenged the patterns and structures of public life as well as the lives of individuals. They longed for a restructuring of society along more biblical and egalitarian lines and because they did not believe that economic and social issues were peripheral to God’s kingdom, they believed that the whole of life should be regulated by the norms of the kingdom of God. Although they differed in their interpretation of Acts 2 in relation to the sharing of possessions, they all agreed that Christians should be concerned about the poverty they saw around them, particularly when the poor were members of the body of Christ. Anabaptists were convinced the Church had a responsibility of social concern for the needs of those within and outside of the family of God.

Mission of the Church

For Anabaptists there was no dichotomy between the spiritual and social needs of humankind. They shared a broad vision of what constituted the mission of the Church. Although they belonged to an age which has long disappeared from the stage of world history, the principles which shaped their “being” and “doing” continue to challenge the Church of the 21st century to become more loving, more committed to Christ and more interested in every aspect of the mission of God through the life of the Church for the sake of the world.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh is professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham and serves as pastor for preaching and teaching at Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham.