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.

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