Following Jesus along the Canterbury Trail

I have two semi-flippant responses when people ask me how I, reared as an evangelical, became an Episcopalian and, in 2006, an Episcopal priest. My father was a pastor for forty years in the Evangelical Free Church; I honor both his ministry and his memory, and on the whole I’m grateful for my upbringing within the evangelical subculture, if for no other reason than it helped to form my character by giving me something to push against. The Episcopal Church, however, couldn’t be farther removed from my childhood experience of faith; the first time I saw a cleric in a purple shirt, for example, I thought it was simply bad taste. Evangelicalism is part of my DNA, and much of my scholarship over the past several decades has sought to acquaint evangelicals with their own laudable history of concern for those on the margins and thereby summon evangelicals back from their errant ways: the Faustian bargain they made with the far-right reaches of the Republican Party beginning in 1980. (You can judge for yourself how successful I’ve been in those efforts!)


Despite my appreciation for the religious formation of my childhood, I began to yearn for something deeper, which brings me to the two explanations for my spiritual pilgrimage. Becoming an Episcopalian, I say, was a reaction to the aesthetic deprivation of my childhood. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but it also contains an element of truth. The second explanation is that I grew weary of the evangelical cult of novelty, where the directive every week was, “Let’s try something new!” This penchant for innovation has undeniably fueled the growth of evangelicalism throughout American history; evangelicals know almost instinctively how to speak the idiom of the culture, whether it be the open-air preaching of George Whitefield and other itinerants during the Great Awakening, the circuit riders and the colporteurs of the nineteenth century, the urban revivalists of the twentieth century or the suburban megachurches of recent vintage.

As a historian, however, I wanted to respond, “No, let’s try something old instead.” Add to all that a sprinkling of Anglophilia (I initially intended to study British history in graduate school), by the time I wandered into Trinity Church, in Princeton, New Jersey, I felt as though I had come home. I loved the music, and the liturgy suggested a connectedness to the past, to the “communion of the saints.” Even the space itself told me that something important transpired there; I wasn’t sure at the time what it was, but it seemed sacred to me and very much unlike the cavernous and (yes, I’ll say it) soulless spaces all too typical of evangelicalism.

I love the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, the reverence of the liturgy, the soaring descants of the Anglican musical tradition and prayers that typically do not include the phrase, “Lord, we jus’ wanna.” I’ve come to regard the Episcopal Church, along with museums, symphonies and the natural world, as one of the few remaining repositories of beauty in this life.

And, most important, a focus on the sacraments, especially Holy Communion. As a priest, I intentionally keep my sermons short because the homily is merely a stop on the way to the Eucharist, the culmination of the liturgy. I don’t want in any way to detract from the “main event,” the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

I’m well aware of the fact that, six paragraphs into this discursus, I’ve yet to talk explicitly about theology in the Anglican tradition. The quick explanation is that I’m a historian, not a theologian. But the larger reason is that, although Anglicanism has its share of good theologians as well as the Thirty-nine Articles, doctrine does not lie at the core of Anglican or Episcopal identity (the Anglican Church in the United States reconfigured itself as the Episcopal Church in 1789, following the American Revolution, though it remains part of the worldwide Anglican Communion).

The focus of Anglican identity is worship and sacraments and liturgy, especially as encoded in the Book of Common Prayer. That is what holds us together as followers of Jesus. Anglicans and Episcopalians can—and do—disagree on many things, but we find common ground in the Prayer Book. The Episcopal Church is by no means perfect; all institutions are human constructs, and they are remarkably poor vessels for piety. But this is my venue for following Jesus.

This deemphasis of theology exposes us to the charge of latitudinarianism, a criticism that is not entirely unfounded. But a focus on liturgy and the mysteries of the sacraments also shields us from what I will call the cult of Enlightenment Rationalism, especially the logic choppers who slice and dice and reduce the faith into tidy theological categories. The obsession with doctrinal precisionism, such as what I encountered at my evangelical seminary, is one of the factors that pointed me beyond evangelicalism and, eventually, to the Episcopal Church. My seminary professors had it all figured out, with fancy apologetic schemes and answers to every theological contingency. But where is the mystery of faith?

I’ve come to see that doubt is not the antithesis of faith; it is an essential component of faith. Besides, if we’ve got it all figured out, what need is there for faith? My favorite passage in the New Testament is the anguished cry from the father of a young child. “Lord, I believe,” he tells Jesus, “help my unbelief!”

I am drawn to the Episcopal Church in part because I refuse to allow the canons of Enlightenment Rationalism serve as the final arbiter of truth. I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at play that I cannot begin to understand, much less explain—not least of which is the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

In describing my religious pilgrimage, I’m well aware that I come off as something of a cliché—an evangelical kid who trots off to college, acquires some education and decides that he must leave behind the faith of his childhood. It’s a phenomenon that one of my mentors, Mark Noll, long ago characterized as “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.” For many of these evangelical pilgrims, the next steps along the pathway are Roman Catholicism and then Eastern Orthodoxy.

At the risk of sounding defensive, I don’t believe I fit that cliché, at least not entirely. First, I have not totally given up on evangelicalism (though I’ve been sorely tempted many times in recent years, most acutely following the 2016 election).

Second, although I’ve been encouraged to do so by people ranging from my wife to the bishop who ordained me, Jeffrey Steenson, one of my oldest friends who himself decamped to Rome, I don’t think I could ever “swim the Tiber” to Roman Catholicism. The issue for me is what I take to be a flawed interpretation of Matthew 16, where Jesus declares that his church would be built upon Peter, “the rock.” Rather than pointing to the primacy of Peter (who may or may not have been the first bishop of Rome), this passage, I believe, is one of the few attempts at humor—or irony at least—in the New Testament. Peter, as we know, was anything but solid. He was dithering and spineless, insisting that he would never disavow Jesus but caving to pressure from a young girl. And when Peter tried to walk on the Sea of Galilee, he took his eyes off Jesus and sank beneath the waves—like a rock.

Far from designating Peter as first among equals, let alone justifying papal infallibility, the beauty of this passage lies in the fact that Jesus was willing to entrust the church, his entire earthly legacy, to flawed human beings like Peter—and, by extension, to flawed beings like you and me. I mean no disrespect to my Roman Catholic friends, and I find much to admire about Roman Catholicism, but papal infallibility is a bridge too far—even one constructed over the Tiber.

For that reason, I’ll be content to follow Jesus along the Canterbury Trail.

Grateful to Respondents for Bringing Bones to Life

Summaries, as I found when delineating five values in “Amid Complexities, Five Things Many Anabaptist-Mennonites Emphasize,” leave unsettling numbers of things unsaid. So I’m grateful for conversation partners’ responses; repeatedly you brought to life precisely the “bones” of those stripped-down values. Let me respond appreciatively in the order in which you each posted.

Robert Millet, there are variations in how we view and practice baptism, but yes to highlighting mature awareness of baptism’s meaning: “Latter-day Saints are also emphatic about who should be baptized—namely, only those who are accountable and mature enough to understand why they are being baptized and why the ordinance is performed in the specific manner. . . .”

You also wondered about “a Mennonite perspective toward holy scripture—that it is ‘without error in the original writings in all that they affirm.'” Some Mennonites do hold this view, which raises complexities you point to, including what we do about Scripture’s reliability without access to the original documents. I’d expect it’s no accident that the 1995 Confession of Faith affirmed by my Mennonite Church USA denomination speaks instead of a “fully reliable and trustworthy” Bible. This is my view.

Although I’d balance your “‘holy envy’ in how these Christians live out their faith” with awareness of Anabaptist-Mennonite shadows, your thoughts on war and the love and forgiveness the Amish exemplify are heartwarming.

Farris Blount III, you movingly put flesh on dry bones of my post. You observe that “Black churches have often been subjected to violence and forced to fight back just to survive. I wonder how we might consider the Anabaptist dedication to peace in light of the experiences of a Black Church tradition that is partially defined by the violence it has endured.”

On the one hand, 1500s Anabaptist-Mennonites had to discern how to live peace as other Christians drowned and burned them. On the other hand, and here I see a crucial difference, they didn’t face centuries of systemic racism and attendant violence. As you observe, “love and nonviolence were hallmarks of Black congregations and pastors who were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. To them, Jesus was love and nonviolence enfleshed and a model for how the Black Church could advocate for changes in discriminatory policies and practices.” You rightly underscore that

the Black Church has often had to contend with real violence that has harmed its members. White “Christians” would don the Ku Klux Klan uniform and terrorize African Americans, burning their churches and lynching Black Americans for no apparent reason other than hatred. The American enslavement of Black people was predicated on violence; Black slaves were raped, tortured, beaten, and killed all in the name of maintaining control of a system that saw them as the nonhuman other, often at the hands of self-professed Christian slaveowners. . . .

I’m reminded that Anabaptists have pondered how to establish a “community hermeneutic” in which Scripture, the Holy Spirit, the teachings of Jesus, and given contexts form crucibles within which communities discern what God is saying in this place and time. Your concerns delineate key factors in Black communities of discernment which in turn inform any of us. I want to honor your insightful naming of “the complicated relationship that Black communities have with violence” and the validity of such a question as “how can we expect someone to remain committed to nonviolence when history demonstrates that the most violent, often in the name of God, have been the most successful and prosperous?”

Sarah Lancaster, thank you for articulating United Methodist and Anabaptist-Mennonite points of overlap and occasional differences. When I was dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, the second-most important student cohort was UM. To help maintain our approval to teach UM students, it was my job to report to the UM University Senate how EMS connected with the “Social Principles.” If I were still dean, I’d look for ways to quote from your insights.

Christopher Geerz, you understandably wish I had said more about Pietistism and Anabaptism. I hinted at this in describing a pastor hungry for the living presence of Christ in a book he was reviewing, but much remains unexplored. Thanks for your critical yet affirming overview of the Anabaptist-Pietist dialectic and ways you see Dale Brown offering a path forward.

David Gushee, I resonate with your sadness regarding a “dizzying array of schisms and divisions” and their causes. I also would see little reason to challenge your Baptist affirmation of a “near-total convergence”!

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, you help us all simultaneously see areas of commonality and difference between the Reformed tradition and Anabaptism. Thank you for highlighting our mutual values and ways Reformed and Lutheran traditions have wrestled with persecution of Anabaptists.

You wonder if christocentrism sets the Hebrew Scriptures aside. “Isn’t a deeper engagement with the whole Word of God required?” Here is a downside of brief expression of values. I was raised in a “what Jesus teaches trumps everything else” context. However, once exposed to more scholarly biblical studies, I came see that all of Scriptures are to be engaged. Yes to your complexifications here.

Randall Balmer, your affirmations of “those countercultural Anabaptists” are welcome. And you rightly note this “underselling”:

Mr. King mentions the importance of pacifism, but I’m afraid he undersells the point. Yes, Anabaptists faced persecution and public opprobrium during World War I and the Vietnam War, but that persecution has a much longer history. . . . Hutterites, to take one example, fled to Russia and then to North America (especially Montana, the Dakotas and the Prairie Provinces) to escape military conscription, and Anabaptists faced double taxation, distraint of goods and vigilante violence because of their refusal to participate in eighteenth-century military conflicts, the Seven Years’ War and the Revolutionary War.

Mark Ellingsen, you pose great questions about whether Lutheran dialectical thought can be an appropriate gospel witness. You highlight the appeal to you and yours of a counter-cultural witness. And you persist in having fun by “confounding the world for Jesus’ sake.” Then you wrap up with this captivating question:

I need to clarify whether a Mennonite congregation would even consider a sinful sleaze like me as a member (for counter-cultural Christian though I try to be, I am still the same selfish, concupiscent being I’ve always been) and whether I would have to renounce my baptism in order to join.  If we can get around these issues, Mennonites and Lutherans could have a lot of fun following Jesus together.

I may fail my tradition by not delving into all the “legalities” adequately. But Mark, as one who has in prior responses highlighted Anabaptist-Mennonite struggles with faithfulness-turned-schismatic-legalism, whatever it takes, we need to have this fun!

Christina Wassell, valuable comments on baptism in Roman Catholic perspective: “Because Christ spoke so clearly on the need to be baptized as a part of the normal path of salvation (making room here for Baptism by desire or by blood) Holy Mother Church flings out her arms with this sacrament, in a sense, and accepts Christian Baptism broadly.” You mention Catholic acceptance of various forms of baptism versus the “believers church” approach you experienced when told at age nine “that now that I was old enough to choose faith for myself, it was best that I be baptized again.”

I won’t respond systematically to your excellent questions, including whether sin can erase the mark of baptism or Anabaptism can honor the baptism of your age-nine self. But the possibility of falling away from Christ is present in my tradition; that’s why at nine myself I was terrified I’d fall from Jesus into damnation. I draw comfort from the it’s-not-all-on-you Catholic extension of grace.

Your youthful baptism: By age eight my own daughter wanted to mark following Jesus with baptism. Not ideal from a classic Anabaptist perspective. But there was genuine hunger. Her pastor’s conclusion: She’d mature in understanding the import of her decision, but her clarity of conviction must be honored. After age-appropriate tutoring in the meaning of following Jesus, he baptized her. She follows on.

David Ford, you cite this 1995 Mennonite confession article: “We believe that God has created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and that God preserves and renews what has been made.  All creation has its source outside itself and belongs to the Creator.  The world has been created good because God is good and provides all that is needed for life.” You say that

this tremendously positive, Creation-affirming statement could well be the basis upon which Anabaptists and Mennonites might develop a sacramental understanding of the material world and all of Creation—a view that would be in accord with the sacramental understanding of all of the material realm that the Orthodox Church has always held from the very beginning.

You open my tradition to me in ways I hadn’t thought of!

J. Terry Todd, your hints at possible responses to your questions anticipate how I might answer. I concur: at least potentially for Mennonites resistance is witness. Another example: Herald Press has issued many editions of the More with Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen. Long before climate change hit headlines, Janzen taught millions about eating that resists harming the planet.

I responded more fully on your post to your wondering about “spiritual and emotional violence at work among these peacemakers.” But I resonate, hence why most of my postings reference Mennonite shadows. I also resonate with your seeing overlaps between Mennonite and Pentecostal shadows and your take on schismatic splitting.

Mennonites: Resistance as Witness?

When Mennonites, Amish and other Anabaptists are considered in historical perspective, they are classified as radical reformers, a family of dissidents whose relentless criticisms of both church and state shaped an ekklesia that looked nothing like the late medieval Latin church, nor the developing alternatives offered by Lutheran or Reformed Protestants.  It was this Anabaptist understanding of the church as a gathering of believers that in part drove the rejection of infant baptism.  Infant baptism was no true baptism, since churches along New Testament models are composed of those who make a conscious commitment to follow Christ, even if that meant martyrdom by fire or death by drowning, the mocking mode of execution favored by Zurich authorities in the 1520s. 

If sixteenth-century Protestants and Catholics could agree on one thing, it was their hatred (and fear?) of these “heretics,” the Anabaptists. This radical challenge to state power (and to the power of state churches) was dangerous in 16th century Europe, and remains at least potentially dangerous to the principalities and powers of our own day.  (And I mean dangerous in the productive sense of resistance.)

How have elements of radical Mennonite spiritual DNA influenced the call to follow Jesus among today’s Mennonites?  Dr. King tells us something about that witness, leaving me curious to learn more.  Of the five core values that Michael identifies, two seem especially related to the radical resistance of this tradition:  God’s kingdom or realm comes first; and, as King puts it, “Anabaptist-Mennonites are committed to love and nonviolence.”  In a world that valorizes violence and warfare (spiritual and otherwise), Anabaptist-Mennonite peacemaking witness offers a powerful countercultural pathway by which to follow Jesus. Dr. King provides, by way of example, the work of the Mennonite Central Committee, a service organization that acts for “relief, development, and peace in the name of Christ,” as its website declares.  There is nothing more radical and countercultural, as Michael King reminds us, than to live the values expressed in Jesus’ teachings within the Sermon on the Mount, an aspiration for many, including these Young Anabaptist Radicals, who claim the term as part of their identity and mission. Or another case:  the abolition curriculum drawn up by a young generation of progressive Mennonites who, in the wake of police attacks against black and brown people, began to wonder about the structures of state violence and what Anabaptists might have to say about it.  

There is an irony here, at least to my outsider’s eye. Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions have taken on different and even competing institutional forms, to the point that the peacemakers seem to be engaged in intramural warfare with each other.  While I don’t know if the theological and cultural tensions within Anabaptist traditions have extended to physical violence, there seems at least to be spiritual and emotional violence at work among these peacemakers.  Dr. King gives a contemporary example of Mennonite schisms over matters of (homo)sexuality — an all-too-common battlefront in contemporary Christian traditions, but once again, especially ironic within a tradition of outsiders whose adherents have suffered so much at the hands of state power. 

[By the way, why are the discourses around (homo)sexuality so prominent not only in this intramural fighting among Anabaptists and Mennonites, but also among nearly every Christian group, and not only in U.S. contexts?  What are the theologies and values underpinning these skirmishes? To what degree are these sustained and intractable battles inhibiting the church’s witness of God’s love and justice in the world?] 

I readily discovered parallels between Anabaptists, as King described his tribe, and early Pentecostalism, arising as a hydra-headed reform movement in the early twentieth century. Some forms of early Pentecostalism challenged state power with their insistence that followers of Jesus ultimately owed allegiance to God’s coming reign, not to worldly powers, not even to so-called “Christian nations.” In our own day, some Pentecostals continue these countercultural affronts to state power as well as to the consumerist regimes of late capitalism, while others cozy up to dictators, baptize their lust for power, and preach a prosperity Gospel that is the antithesis of Jesus’s teachings, at least through my lens.  Most Pentecostals share an understanding of the church as gathered out of this world, and they also practice believer’s baptism. So, there are similar ecclesiologies and, perhaps, even similar baptismal theologies.

Finally and less productively, as with some Anabaptists and Mennonites, the call to be set apart from the world exacerbates dualistic tendencies always there within Christian traditions but especially so within Pentecostalism. This sets the children of light against the children of the Devil, where Satan’s hand (I would argue) is mistaken for the slash-and-burn of a relentlessly overbearing secularity.   

As this Respectful Conversations project unfolds, I’m struck by the ways in which tendencies to splinter seem to have accelerated in this era of lightning-fast digital communications.  Sometimes I wonder if it makes sense any longer to speak of these traditions as coherent entities with shared theological orientations, histories, and systems of value.  To recall an argument made way back in 1988 by the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow in The Restructuring of American Religion, a reshuffling of values, politics, and priorities have made denominational identities in the U.S. less powerful, and affinity group interests spread across denominational lines more prominent.  This tendency that Wuthnow noted then has seemed only to accelerate.

In terms of our project, does this mean that a “progressive” Mennonite has more in common with a left-leaning Presbyterian than with a Mennonite with wildly divergent political views, theological orientations, and spiritual values? Is our search for ways of following Jesus within respective Christian traditions helped or hobbled by the frank realities of internal divisions?  Within too many forms of Christian thought and practice, including Anabaptists and among my own beloved Pentecostals, the call to follow Jesus is so often drowned out in the seemingly endless flood of intramural bickering and posturing.  Lord, help us!

Promptings towards a Sacramental Worldview

Thank you very much, Dr. King, for your efforts to bring some order of understanding to what seems to be the very complicated and divided landscape of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in America.  Your providing the link to the 24-point statement of belief given in the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith was very helpful.

I’m especially interested in its fifth point:

We believe that God has created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and that God preserves and renews what has been made.  All creation has its source outside itself and belongs to the Creator.  The world has been created good because God is good and provides all that is needed for life.

In my opinion, it would seem that this tremendously positive, Creation-affirming statement could well be the basis upon which Anabaptists and Mennonites might develop a sacramental understanding of the material world and all of Creation—a view that would be in accord with the sacramental understanding of all of the material realm that the Orthodox Church has always held from the very beginning.  This is the foundational understanding that because the material realm was created by the Good God Who Loves Mankind, and because He Himself repeatedly called it “good” according to the Genesis account, it thereby has the capacity to convey spiritual reality and power.

The Orthodox understanding is that all of Creation is somehow undergirded by, and even penetrated, to some extent, with divine grace.  The renowned Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his seminal work, For the Life of the World, uses the phrase “the natural sacramentality of the world” to convey this understanding.

This view is reflected in the Old Testament understanding of holy places—such as when the Lord says to Moses as he stands near the Burning Bush, “Take the sandals off your feet, for the ground you are standing on is holy” (Ex. 3:5).  This understanding of holy places is later extended and expanded when the Lord commands Moses to construct the Tabernacle as a special place for the Lord to dwell in and to meet with His people—and later still, with David and Solomon building the Temple—and with the Shekinah Glory (the Holy Spirit) filling these holy spaces, and with the most sacred, inner part of the Tabernacle and the Temple being called the “Holy of Holies.”

Perhaps the most dramatic instance in the Old Testament of a portion of the material realm conveying spiritual power is when the bones of the Prophet Elijah bring a dead man back to life (2 Kings 13:21).  We see such power again in the New Testament, when Christ uses spittle and dirt to make mud to heal the blind man’s eyes (John 9:6); and when Peter’s shadow, and handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul’s skin, accomplish physical healings, as reported in the Book of Acts (5:15 and 19:12).

The sacramental worldview also is very much reflected in Christ’s words about the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, as He declares these material elements to be indeed His body and blood, which the Orthodox understand to be accomplished by the Holy Spirit in some very mysterious way (far beyond all possible human description or understanding; hence Orthodoxy does not accept the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, which attempts to explain this mystery using philosophical categories).

With Christians having this sacramental worldview from the very beginning, it’s no wonder that Baptism has always been understood as a powerful bestowal and conveyance of divine grace into the one being baptized.  For we understand that the water and oil that are used in Baptism and Chrismation, being already penetrated with grace and therefore being latently holy, become further suffused with grace/spiritual power when they are prayed over and the Holy Spirit is besought to sanctify them.

And with this understanding of the very real sanctifying and vivifying power of the water and oil used in Baptism and Chrismation, it’s no wonder that we would not want to deny our children, and even our infants, the benefits of receiving this spiritual power from their earliest days.  This also explains why the Orthodox (and Eastern Rite Catholics) commune baptized/chrismated infants and very young children at the Eucharistic chalice (that the Roman Church, except for those celebrating an Eastern rite, have not maintained this ancient traditional practice would seem to be a significant loss, from the Orthodox vantage point).

And if it’s remarked that the babies and young children don’t have any understanding of what’s happening to them as they receive these sacramental ministrations, we would reply, “Does anyone really fully understand what’s happening?  And what about mentally challenged persons—would we deny them the sacraments because they don’t have the rational capacity to understand them?”

Of course, the full expectation undergirding the practice of infant Baptism is that as they are brought up and nurtured and instructed in the communal life of the Church, these baptized, chrismated, and Eucharistically-communing children will gradually, more and more, personally appropriate this grace conscientiously, and will increasingly exert their own will in conjunction with the grace that they’ve been receiving sacramentally all along—grace which has been giving them such a wonderful “head start” in the Christian life.

Thank you again, Dr. King, for your words.  May mine be helpful to you.

 

 

Jesus, Love, & Nonviolence in the Black Church Tradition

Dr. King’s reflection on what it means to follow Jesus from an Anabaptist perspective resonated with me as the values he articulated are helpful as I consider the Black Church tradition. More specifically, Value 1 encourages me to think about the centrality of Jesus in Black churches and where these institutions might be falling short in their adherence to our Savior. However, I am struggling to reconcile Value 4 with the historical trajectory of the Black Church. While I believe in a commitment to love and nonviolence, Black churches have often been subjected to violence and forced to fight back just to survive. I wonder how we might consider the Anabaptist dedication to peace in light of the experiences of a Black Church tradition that is partially defined by the violence it has endured.

Value 1 in Anabaptist understandings has strong resonance in the Black Church tradition. Dr. King’s claim that “the starting point for Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of God, the church, and all life is the New Testament and the Jesus Christ revealed in it” is reflected in the ways that Black congregations give Jesus primacy in the worship experience and beyond. Hymns are sung that speak to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and how belief in Him can transform lives. Most prayers are concluded with “in Jesus’ name, Amen,” an indication that by praying in Jesus’ name, He acts as an intercessor between humanity and God. In the Black Church tradition, it is common to end the preaching moment with a retelling of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Dr. King’ statement about the prioritization of Jesus as seen in the New Testament can be identified in the Black Church tradition. Everything starts and ends with Jesus in most Black congregations.

With such a strong emphasis on Jesus, I struggle then to reconcile the ways that some Black churches engage on various issues, particularly when their perspective does not align with New Testament teachings about Jesus. There are those in the Black Church tradition that give more weight to the words of Paul than that of Jesus. In my reading of the New Testament, Jesus offers words of women subjugation to men, yet there are many self-professed Jesus followers who lean heavily into the words of Paul as justification for their belief that women should be subservient. In fact, if we look at the gospels closely, Jesus praises women for their faith and appears to them first following His resurrection. Jesus emphasizes the need for community care and concern for the least of these, and yet there are various Black congregations who ascribe to an individualism that consistently prioritizes the self over the other. Jesus reiterates time and time again in New Testament teachings that to follow Him would require sacrifices, but there are Black ecclesial spaces that suggest we do not have to give up much to be followers of Jesus.

To be sure, these concerns are not only experienced in the Black Church; there are multiple denominations and congregations from varied backgrounds who struggle to live into Jesus’ Way as articulated in the New Testament. Furthermore, I understand that certain theological teachings may have been coping mechanisms to help Black Christians navigate an anti-Black world. (For instance, could it be that some Black churches stressed the importance of the individual to help Black Americans see their dignity and worth when very few would?)   However, Dr. King’s work reminds me that if we in Black church spaces are going to call ourselves Jesus-followers, we must make decisions and live according to what we see in the New Testament primarily. There very well may be something useful or helpful in Paul’s writings. Paul, in fact, has helped many a Black church figure out how to structure the organization and facilitate the work of the church. However, we call ourselves Christians and not “Paulinians,” indicating that we are chiefly followers of Christ. Dr. King’s statement that the Way of Jesus should get priority is a strong reminder that we in the Black Church tradition should always be analyzing our actions and perspectives through the lens of Jesus.

While Dr. King’s first value encouraged me to think more deeply about some of the contradictions within the Black Church tradition, I wrestled with how to process his fourth value in light of the violence and harm enacted on Black churches and communities. On the one hand, love and nonviolence were hallmarks of Black congregations and pastors who were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. To them, Jesus was love and nonviolence enfleshed and a model for how the Black Church could advocate for changes in discriminatory policies and practices. Love and nonviolence were, and still are for many Black churches, emblematic of what it means to be a Christian. If Jesus, who was God made flesh, could die on a cross and forgive those who put Him there, how can we call ourselves followers of Jesus and not at least strive to embody this ethic?

On the other hand, the Black Church has often had to contend with real violence that has harmed its members. White “Christians” would don the Ku Klux Klan uniform and terrorize African Americans, burning their churches and lynching Black Americans for no apparent reason other than hatred. The American enslavement of Black people was predicated on violence; Black slaves were raped, tortured, beaten, and killed all in the name of maintaining control of a system that saw them as the nonhuman other, often at the hands of self-professed Christian slaveowners. Even today, there are “Christians” at every level of government and industry enacting policies meant to strip African Americans of economic and social opportunities. It makes sense then why Christians like Nat Turner felt there were no other options than to retaliate with violence in the face of violence. How can we expect someone to respond with nonviolence when all he has experienced is violence and oppression? Furthermore, how can we expect someone to remain committed to nonviolence when history demonstrates that the most violent, often in the name of God, have been the most successful and prosperous?

Again, I believe strongly in the Anabaptist value of love and nonviolence. I consider myself a Christian minister that tries to preach, teach, and live this ethic. But Dr. King’s reflection has reiterated to me the importance of context when we discuss what it means to follow Jesus. We may share similar beliefs about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, but our specific experiences in the world can impact how that belief manifests itself in our day-to-day lives. The Black Church tradition most certainly has a nonviolent ethos that run through its core. However, I would be disingenuous if I did not name the complicated relationship that Black communities have with violence. Even to this day, Black congregations must ask themselves: how do we remain peaceful and model the restrain of our Savior when it appears that very few, if any, offer us that same peace and restraint?

The Anabaptist-Mennonite Traditions: Inculcating and Implementing the Sermon on the Mount

I found Dr. Michael King’s essay on the Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions to be fascinating. I have known very little about these faith traditions in the past, and so I was delighted to be able to learn more.

The concept of “rebaptism” was of particular interest to me as a Latter-day Saint. From the time of the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, baptism has always been by immersion, since we are persuaded that this particular ordinance or sacrament is symbolic of the crucified Savior being buried and then rising from the tomb some three days later (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). The Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, wrote the following in an 1842 letter to members of the Church: “Herein is glory and honor, and immortality and eternal life—The ordinance of baptism by water, to be immersed therein in order to answer to the likeness of the resurrection of the dead, that one principle might accord with the other; to be immersed in the water and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves. . . . Consequently, the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another.”

Latter-day Saints are also emphatic about who should be baptized—namely, only those who are accountable and mature enough to understand why they are being baptized and why the ordinance is performed in the specific manner in which it is. We comply with the following instructions given in 1831: “Inasmuch as parents have children in Zion [the Church community], or in any of her stakes [basically the equivalent of a diocese] which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents. . . . And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands.” The laying on of the hands takes place following the water baptism. Hands are laid upon the head of the initiate and words like the following are spoken: “John Henry Brown, by the authority of the priesthood which we hold, we lay our hands upon your head, confirm you a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and say unto you, ‘Receive the Holy Ghost.’” The reception of the Spirit in this way is referred to as the “baptism by fire,” referring to the cleansing, sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

When a member of my Church has been guilty of very serious sin and even excommunicated from the faith, he or she can return and regain their membership through a period of genuine repentance and forgiveness, followed by baptism. This would be an example of a rebaptism. Also, when the Mormon pioneers crossed the plains and arrived in the Great Basin, what is now the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young, the senior leader of the Church, encouraged the Latter-day Saints to be rebaptized as an evidence of their re-commitment to the beliefs and practices of the faith, perhaps like a married couple might renew their vows after ten years of marriage. We no longer re-baptize people in this manner.

On page 4 of Dr. King’s paper, he describes a Mennonite perspective toward holy scripture—that it is “without error in the original writings in all that they affirm.” This sounds to me to be very similar or even identical to what a number of Evangelical colleagues have expressed to me over the last thirty years. I think I understand what is intended here but have questions about this particular view of scripture. Because there are tens of thousands of scribal errors on the ancient manuscripts that occurred during the centuries-long transmission of Biblical texts, it would be extremely difficult to suggest that the current Bible, as we now have it, is inerrant or without flaw. Consequently, many religious traditions have chosen to adapt their concept of inerrancy by expressing their view that it was the original manuscripts or autographs that were without error. I might be able to live with that, if we only had the original manuscripts within our possession, which we do not. If I understand properly, the earliest complete manuscripts of the New Testament date to the second and third centuries AD.

I’m thinking of a devoted Christian who is struggling with his conviction regarding the truth and validity of the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his Apostles. To say to such a person that he can have complete confidence in the Bible, since we believe that the original manuscripts were flawless, will not be very comforting. He is probably far more concerned about the Bible that he possesses now, be it the King James Version, the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Revised English Bible, or the English Standard Version. I would be interested in Michael’s response to my question here. By the way, I love the Bible with all my heart and fully believe that it contains the word of God. I am simply interested in the concept of inerrancy mentioned in Dr. King’s paper.

I was extremely interested in the five values of the Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions. Value number 4 regarding love and non-violence are deeply moving to me. One of the Presidents of our Church, David O. McKay (1873-1970, the leader during my boyhood) spoke the following at the April 1942 general conference: “War is basically selfish. Its roots feed in the soil of envy, hatred, desire for domination. Its fruit, therefore, is always bitter. They who cultivate and propagate it spread death and destruction and are enemies of the human race. . . . War impels you to hate your enemies. The Prince of Peace says, love your enemies. War says, curse them that curse you. The Prince of Peace says, pray for them that curse you. War says, injure and kill them that hate you. The Lord says, do good to them that hate you. We see that war is incompatible with Christ’s teachings. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of peace. War is its antithesis and produces hate.”

Now, I don’t know many Latter-day Saints who are pacifists or who entered the military as conscientious objectors, though I am certain there would be some. I am neither a pacifist nor a conscientious objector, but a number of my friends served in the Vietnam War. Some of them have bodies that are maimed and spirits that are broken. One friend in particular comes to mind. I had not seen him for several years but was able to become reacquainted at a reunion. We talked about our previous decades, and my friend indicated that he had served in Vietnam. In an act of genuine interest and concern, I unfortunately asked the wrong question: “What was that like?” For well over an hour my boyhood chum wept uncontrollably as he recounted the horrors of war, especially that particular conflict. A few of my buddies came home from Vietnam but never really returned. Others of my friends lost their lives.

Finally, I have been deeply moved by the Amish devotion to the Savior’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and their Christlike demonstrations of love and forgiveness that I have observed or about which I have learned. My soul was especially stirred by the reaction of a group of Amish people to the vicious murders of five of their children, perpetrated by a crazed killer in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in October of 2006. I read the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy [2007] and saw a docudrama on the horrid acts and the aftermath. The Amish made a merciful and magnanimous decision to forgive Charles Carl Roberts IV, when a huge percentage of the population of our nation would surely have demanded that justice be allowed to take its full course. I realized then how lacking in my own Christianity I was, for I couldn’t conceive of me being able to do as they did.

Reading Michael King’s essay has been very worthwhile—both informative and motivational, particularly to learn more about the Anabaptist-Mennonite faiths. I confess a bit of what the late New Testament scholar and Lutheran Bishop, Krister Stendahl, called “holy envy” in how these Christians live out their faith. What an example to the rest of us!

A Near-Total Convergence: Baptist Responds to Anabaptist

Michael King’s post found striking resonance with my understanding of discipleship as a Baptist.

These resonances include 1) a resolute focus on Jesus, with the Sermon on the Mount functioning as the locus classicus in defining the Way of Jesus. Closely related is 2) the emphasis on the kingdom or reign of God as the apocalyptic-ethical narrative frame of Jesus’ message. This is the transformation of the world from a kingdom of rebellion against God to a place where God’s will is “done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Christians are defined as those who are committed not just to belief in Jesus but to practicing his Way, which includes 3) love and nonviolence. This Way can only be followed by those conscious of its obligations and personally committed to them, thus 4) the necessity of a believers’ church. Finally, if the mission of Jesus was the kingdom of God, and the kingdom is the wholistic transformation of the world, then 5) the church’s mission can only be wholistic.

I also note with sadness the first part of King’s essay, in which he lists a dizzying array of schisms and divisions, as well as what I believe to be the deleterious effects of the modern Evangelical behemoth, which distorts the polity of distinctive Christian communities that would be healthier if the Evangelical power brokers were simply ignored.

 

The Anabaptist-Pietist Dialectic

One of my jobs at Bethel University is to help coordinate and teach Christianity and Western Culture, a one-semester general education course that takes first-year students on a sprint through over 2,500 years of history. There’s a lot to cover — we also help introduce the disciplines of philosophy and theology — so I remember being astonished that first time through the program to realize that it dedicated an entire lecture each semester to the origins of the Anabaptist tradition.

Even with its recent growth in Africa, the largest contemporary Anabaptist group, the Mennonites, accounts for maybe one in a thousand of the world’s Christians. So it may seem disproportionate to devote that much of a sprawling church history survey to telling part of the Anabaptist story. But that lecture has become one of my favorites to teach: a reminder that Christians — as Martin Luther King Jr. said of the Early Church — can be “small in number… big in commitment.”

So while I wish that Michael King had left himself more space in which to flesh out his five Anabaptist-Mennonite values, reading his summaries of those emphases reminded me again how the peaceful descendants of the Radical Reformation discomfit my too-comfortable understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.

At times, it was easy to read King’s essay and understand why there’s often been overlap between the Anabaptist and Pietist traditions. Both understand Christianity not as the result of cultural assumption, social expectation, or familial inheritance, but of “[making] an adult decision to follow Jesus.” But Pietists are more likely to frame that decision in terms of an individual conversion, rather than a commitment to collective discipleship, a costly way of life practiced within a community that (for better and worse) holds its members accountable to a baptism that was “important enough to die for when Christendom entities ordered them to stop.”

So it’s no surprise that some Mennonite scholars have been dismissive of pietistic Christianity. In his landmark summation of “The Anabaptist Vision” in 1943, Harold Bender sounded like a Pietist in critiquing any Christianity that “made regeneration, holiness and love primarily a matter of intellect, of doctrinal belief… rather than one of the transformation of life.” But he accused Pietists of mistaking the church for “a resource group for individual piety,” rather than “a brotherhood of love in which the fullness of the Christian life ideal is to be expressed.”

Even sharper criticism came a few years later from Bender’s colleague Robert Friedmann, who dismissed Pietism as a kind of “quiet conventicle-Christianity which is primarily concerned with the inner experience of salvation and only secondarily with the expression of love toward the brotherhood, and not at all in a radical world transformation.” In his 1949 study of Mennonite Piety through the Centuries, Friemann lamented how Pietism’s influence sometimes led to Anabaptists “cultivating the inwardness of the Word of God in a more static manner and thus not conflicting with the surrounding world.”

Revisionist Mennonite historians like Cornelius Dyck, Theron Gladbach, and John Roth have largely rejected Friedmann’s characterization of Pietism. And the history of groups like the Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Brethren (formed by Pietist revivals among Mennonites in, respectively, 18th century Pennsylvania and 19th century Russia) suggests how Anabaptist churches are as likely as any other to fall into the “dead orthodoxy” that tends to awaken Pietist instincts for inner experience and personal conversion.

But this Pietist still hears enough truth in critiques like Bender’s and Friedmann’s to feel like King’s essay posed convicting questions:

  • Do Pietists truly put God’s kingdom first? I fear that we tend to interpret the Sermon on the Mount in spiritual terms, as a promise of the world to come rather than a revolutionary charter for how to live in this world as citizens of God’s upside-down kingdom..
  • Do we truly love all of our neighbors as ourselves, even to the point of dying at our enemies’ hands rather than killing them? I also teach courses on both world wars, and make a point of talking about Mennonites and other Anabaptists who conscientiously objected to participation in conflicts that other Christians were quick to deem just and righteous. Indeed, this fall I’ll have our Christianity and Western Culture students read from a Mennonite statement issued amid the gathering clouds of what became World War II. “As followers of Christ the Prince of Peace,” wrote its authors in 1937, “we believe His Gospel to be a Gospel of Peace, requiring us as His disciples to be at peace with all men, to live a life of love and good will, even toward our enemies, and to renounce the use of force and violence in all forms as contrary to the Spirit of our Master.”
  • Are we truly committed to what King calls “wholistic mission”? My pietistic home denomination affirms “the whole mission of the church,” but I suspect that most Evangelical Covenanters and other Pietists have found it easier to evangelize victims of “injustice, racism, poverty, hunger, [and] nakedness” than to strive, whatever the personal cost, to transform such a world by peacefully, steadfastly resisting its evils.

I don’t have good answers to those questions. I’ve never quite been persuaded that the Anabaptist way of following Jesus is the right one, but it always leaves me feeling like my own way is to follow the path of compromise and safety.

The closest I can come to resolving that tension is when I heed the advice of the Brethren scholar Dale Brown, who helped revive American interest in Pietism in the 1970s and 1980s. (Brethren denominations like Brown’s descend from Alexander Mack, a Radical Pietist in early 18th century Germany who adopted Anabaptist views on baptism and the church. His followers began to emigrate to Pennsylvania in 1719.)

It is not accurate,” Brown said at Elizabethtown College in 1990, “to infer that the Anabaptists were without a message of salvation and that Pietists were not interested in discipleship. But we can discern a major tension between these streams by highlighting divergent emphases. Pietists generally have proclaimed the good news of what Jesus can do for you. Anabaptists have given more emphasis on being faithful to Jesus…. Pietist rhetoric calls us to be heaven bound; whereas Anabaptist admonitions would have us attempt to play heaven on this dirty earth.” But he thought that the tension could also be understood as a dialectic, working together to lead Christians to a fuller, more complex understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in this world.

I’ll have more to say about Brown’s “dialectic” in my own essay next spring. But let me close by quoting one of his examples:

The Anabaptist-Pietist dialectic calls people to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ but to maintain clarity, that when they do, they are not relating to one who invites them to be in the garden alone; rather the call is to join brothers and sisters in participating in Christ’s redeeming activity in the world. For salvation becomes personal only through personal responses to the social dimensions of the faith, which includes God, neighbor, and the rest of God’s good creation.

Can Lutheran Dialectical Thinking and Living Counter-Culturally be Considered an Appropriate Gospel Witness by Anabaptists?

      What led me to fall in love with God, Christian faith, and the church of my youth was the awareness that ours is a faith for rebels, for people who are committed to living counter-culturally – going against the grain of what society expects.  My high-school years in Pennsylvania led me to sense that Mennonites and the Amish were counter-cultural rebels too, indeed perhaps more rebellious than my Lutheran Christian way of life.  Reading Michael King’s thoughtful and helpful analysis of the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage (so neat to learn of the diversity within that heritage) has strengthened these perceptions of my youth, and I hope Dr. King will correct and amend any false impressions I have been carrying around in ignorance about his heritage.   

     Among the common values he has sketched include a staunch Anabaptist/Mennonite  Christocentrism, the prioritizing of the things of God, a commitment to love and nonviolence, as well as a wholistic sense of mission.  America does not expect this from its religiously inclined citizens.  Faith and Jesus need to be understood in light of an American worldview, politics and economic well-being trump spirituality, love and nonviolence need to take a backseat to patriotism, and spirituality is a private affair.  The counter-culturalism I sense in Dr. King’s comments is so appealing to me, and I think, for reasons I’ll make clear shortly, for a lot of Lutherans.  This is an essay to learn whether we can embrace each other in the fun of confounding the world for Jesus’ sake.   

     I come out of a heritage which at its best aims to confound the ways of the world and the “truths” of society’s latest versions of reason.  Martin Luther’s famed Theology of the Cross which he evolved for The Heidelberg Disputation is the premiere example of this approach, what Neo-Orthodox analysts have called a “dialectical” approach to theology and life (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.39-70; Heidelberg Disputation, #20-#21).  Reason and faith cannot be integrated, he says.  Reason is the devil’s whore (Luther Works, Vol.52, p.196; Vol.40, pp.174-175). 

     This is not a dialectic like Hegel posits – two contrasting items moving towards a synthesis.  Rather, Luther’s dialectical thinking entails that both elements of contrasting poles of the contrasts he posits have truth and validity, but they may not be combined, must be kept distinct, and Christians live in that tension.   Thus Law and Gospel must exist in dialectical tension (Luther Works, Vol.26, p.115).  Likewise, the Christian is simultaneously saint and sinner, 100% of each (Luther Works, Vol.30, p.69; Luther Works, Vol.69, p.101).  Most pertinent to our dialogue is the Two-Kingdom Ethic, which places Christians in both the realm of the state and of the Church, but his/her real home is not with society (Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.81-129).   Socially and politically this cashes out to entail that while as sinners Christians may participate in government, even bear arms in just wars, this in not who they really are as saints.  In Christ, their real selves are people who join Mennonites in desiring communities of love and peace, only forced to bear arms themselves to preserve peace in our imperfect world (Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.91-92).        

     My question to the Anabaptist-Mennonite family is whether these commitments are sufficiently akin to yours that we might be considered spiritual kin in holding them.  To be sure, the Lutheran Church has not always liveD7 out this commitments, most glaringly evident in engagements with Anabaptists  and indeed with the adoption of the State Church system in Europe.  I don’t want to let American Lutherans off the hook.  I have already noted the growing strand of Liberal Protestant piety in my branch of the Lutheranism (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), a segment of the membership and leadership which would embody Lutheranism in the mode of 21st-century Cultural Christianity.  But on the other hand, when Lutheranism has not been watered down by cultural influences it has been a tradition which  clearly embodies something like the counter-culturalism of Mennonite faith along with the kind of commitment to wholistic ministries Anabaptist-Mennonites aim to achieve.  For American Lutheranism sponsors more social service organizations (hospitals, nursing homes, children’s homes, etc.) in the States than any other Protestant denominational family.  For all our differences, then, don’t we really have a lot in common?  In exploring these commonalities further I close with three questions which would be crucial to Lutherans in determining if we can have fun together following Jesus.   

     First and foremost for Lutherans is the question of Justification By Grace Through Faith.  If Mennonites today can stand by their historic Confessions like The Waterland Confession (XX) and A Short Confession of Faith (21) regarding Justification, then from a Lutheran side we are and remain truly brothers and sisters.                   

     One point left out of the five values of Mennonites noted by Dr. King was an observation he had raised with me regarding the importance of Christian formation by the community in his tradition.   My personal correspondence with him addressed possibilities for convergence with Lutheranism on this point and so I share it here more publically.  My observation  was that one of my Lutheran teachers at Yale was George Lindbeck, who in dialogue thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas (whose indebtedness to Mennonites is well known), argued that the Church forms Christians like a culture or Mother (The Nature of Doctrine).  This fits Luther’s idea of the Church as our Mother, who raises us (Luther’s Works, Vol.51, p.166).  And so my point is that as long as the upbringing the Mennonite Church provides is not legalistic, if Mother Church also gives us “wings to fly,” is the kind of Mom who tells us to follow our dreams as long as they’re good, decent, and serve God’s purposes (that’s what Lutherans mean by following Augustine’s dictum of “act as you desire as long as you are acting with love’ [Enchiridion, 22,21]), then the Lutheran in me says let’s talk Christian nurture together.  If the Lutheran Church raises its “kids” with this Augustinian attitude, is that a legitimate Mennonite approach too, even Mennonites characteristically don’t do it quite the same way?  And if so, what could we do together to get our constituents talking and enjoying together the fun of the life of faith?                            

      Finally in connection with the understanding of the Church in following Jesus, there is one other value offered by Dr. King that I want to pursue, the Anabaptist-Mennonite vision of a believers’ church.  I need to clarify whether a Mennonite congregation would even consider a sinful sleaze like me as a member (for counter-cultural Christian though I try to be, I am still the same selfish, concupiscent being I’ve always been) and whether I would have to renounce my baptism in order to join.  If we can get around these issues, Mennonites and Lutherans could have a lot of fun following Jesus together.                     

 

Not Quite So Simple…Or is it?

Response to Michael King, Anabaptist Tradition
By Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Reformed Tradition

“Not Quite So Simple…Or is it?”

A Reformed response to the ways that the Anabaptist tradition tries to faithfully follow Jesus should begin with confession. The history of our relationship is blighted with deadly sin.

When I was in the process of seeking ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America, I went through examinations by my classis, which is the local body of pastors and elders in our polity holding the power of ordination. At one point I was asked if I have any reservations about the Confessions of our denomination (The Heidelberg Confession, The Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt; the Belhar Confession was added later). I replied, “Well I don’t believe in drowning Anabaptists.”

I was referring the lamentable history between these two traditions, centered in conflicts over baptism and the place of the church in relationship to the state. An infamous incident took place on January 7, 1527, in Zurich. Young believers were meeting for biblical study and reflection, including a 29-year-old leader, Frederick Manz. They concluded that infant baptism was nowhere to be found in the Bible. Rather, baptism should be practiced in response to a whole-hearted decision to be a believer in Jesus Christ, as an adult. So, they “re-baptized” one another.

Ulrich Zwingli and the Zurich city council, fully controlled by the Reformed community, were outraged. Those they called “anabaptists” were persecuted, and Manz was taken out in a boat in the Limmat River in Zurich, with hands tied, and thrown into the icy water to drown. Persecution of Anabaptists by Reformed and Lutheran authorities followed in Europe, spilling much blood.

Even five centuries later, any Reformed critique of Anabaptist ways of following Jesus should begin by remembering this deadly history and offering a word of confession. As an aside, in 2010, the Lutheran World Federation formally asked forgiveness from the Mennonite World Conference for Lutheran acts of deadly persecution in the 16th Century. It was a powerful, moving gesture not yet replicated in a similar fashion globally by the Reformed community.

Turning to today’s dialogue between these two traditions, what are the contemporary places of agreement and disagreement? Michael King has served us well in identifying five central values which characterize the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, despite its considerable diversity. It’s a useful framework for comparisons with the Reformed tradition. I’ll respond accordingly.

Value 1: The starting point for Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of God, the church, and all life is the New Testament and the Jesus Christ revealed in it.

Those in the Reformed tradition would welcome the Christocentric emphasis found here. Yet, they would be cautious. Does this suggest purposeful inattention to the whole of the biblical witness? Are the Hebrew Scriptures simply set aside when there’s a possible contradiction to the New Testament? Isn’t a deeper engagement with the whole Word of God required?

Yet, the Anabaptist’s tradition of ethics, and the ways in which the life of Jesus serves as a simple, radical, instructive example of how we should live can deeply enrich the Reformed practice of discipleship. In practice, those shaped by the Reformed tradition can slip into easy patterns of accommodation with culture and government, explaining away the direct imperatives of Jesus’ words and life in response to wealth, status, and power.

Value 2: God’s kingdom or realm comes first

It’s hard to imagine any disagreement from the Reformed tradition here, in principle. Yet, the radical quality of what the Anabaptist tradition means by this is often not understood. History, of course, has shaped the responses of both traditions. The Reformed tradition took root in places where the government was controlled, and conformed, hopefully, to Reformed views. In centuries since then, Reformed voices have focused on how government, and other spheres of public life can be shaped and structured according to Christian values.

The Anabaptist tradition arose in historical situations of persecution by civil authorities. Allegiance to God’s kingdom translated readily into disobedience to earthly kingdoms. In the centuries since, this tradition has stressed the primacy of drawing clear lines of distinction between our loyalty to Christ in concrete areas of public life and the requirements of the state. In an era when Christendom has crumbled, the Anabaptist model of the church as a radical alterative community has much to teach the wider church.

Value 3: An Anabaptist-Mennonite church is a believers church

At the heart of the original controversy between the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions, this difference remains unambiguous. For the Reformed tradition, the emphasis is on the covenant community and the nature of God’s promises. This is divorced today, of course, from the understandings of Christendom which essentially made baptism the portal to earthly citizenship in a nation, violating Anabaptist understandings so severely.

The Reformed tradition believes that the gathered community of God’s people, in the church, has the responsibility and the gift to extend God’s promises of grace to those brought into its life by birth. God chooses them before they, in response, learn to choose God. The Anabaptist firm adherence to baptism as a response to belief continues as a clear mark of distinction, but without the ramifications of mutual rejection, recrimination, and even violence that so stained our histories.

Value 4: Anabaptist-Mennonites are committed to love and nonviolence.

The Anabaptist witness here has a prophetic role to give to the wider church, including the Reformed tradition. Calvin’s concern for civil order and theological correctness, and the actions of his followers led at times to violence and the death of “heretics.” And one can’t easily dismiss the ways in which expressions of Reformed theology—however misconstrued—became a moral bulwark for the repression and violence of regimes against their opponents, such as the support for apartheid in South Africa. Further, I’ll never forget visiting one of the “slave castles” on the coast of Ghana, where those captured were imprisoned below awaiting slave ships, while one story above Dutch Reformed Christians gathered to sing Psalms expressing their love for God.

More than the classic debate between pacifism and the just war theory is involved in this value. Michael King mentions the role of Mennonites today in conflict transformation. Non-violent approaches to conflict resolution urgently need to be applied in today’s world. There is expansive common ground for those from all those traditions represented in this dialogue to work with the Anabaptist tradition in promoting creative alternatives to violence.

Value 5: Anabaptist-Mennonites embrace wholistic mission.

This value is met with a whole-hearted embrace by the Reformed tradition and beyond. Further, as is typical of the Anabaptist tradition, they practice what they preach. I’ve been privileged to see first-hand the outstanding work of the Mennonite Central Committee in many parts of the world. Often, they lead by example.

To summarize, the Anabaptist tradition tries to faithfully follow Jesus by simply following Jesus. Other traditions, including my own, spend considerable theological energy trying to explain why it’s not quite so simple. Those following the Anabaptist tradition demonstrate how, at times, it is that simple.