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.

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