Those Countercultural Anabaptists

I open with thanks to Michael King for reminding us of the virtues of the Anabaptist tradition. It is indeed a movement with a colorful and distinguished history, populated as it is with remarkable individuals, many of whom suffered for their convictions.

Because this tradition takes its cues from the Sermon on the Mount, the most glorious and challenging passage in the entire Bible, Anabaptists are countercultural – because not many people in our world turn the other cheek or believe that the meek will inherit the earth or that peacemakers are blessed. Indeed, a countercultural ethic is baked into the Anabaptist tradition.

This is certainly the case for the defining doctrine of the Anabaptist movement, adult (or believer’s) baptism. Anabaptists seized on the central tenet of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura, and in effect turned it against him. Where in the New Testament, Anabaptists asked, do we find precedent for the baptism of infants? Well, nowhere, unless you construe the baptism of the Philippian jailer – “and all his family” – in Acts 16 to signal the baptism of children.

That interpretive move set the Anabaptists (the term means “to baptize again”) from the remainder of the Protestant movement, which meant that Anabaptists were considered outcasts, even outlaws, by both Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century. It also places the Anabaptists (as well as Baptists generally) at odds with the Nicene Creed, the only ecumenical creed in Christendom, which affirms Christian belief in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

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, reaching back to the sixteenth century. 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.

If you believe, as I do, that faith functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power, the Anabaptists provide a worthy example. Jesus himself was countercultural, and Christians everywhere would do well to emulate the countercultural Anabaptists.

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