I was raised, and remain, in a somewhat Anabaptist faith community (Churches of Christ). Most people don’t know what Anabaptism is, even people who are a part of Anabaptist’s communities and hold Anabaptist’s commitments often don’t know. This has happened because true, historic Anabaptism hasn’t ever been terribly popular. What remains in the 21st-Century are vestiges and fragments of 16th-Century Anabaptism – Mennonites, Churches of Christ, Amish, Brethren, etc…. This is unfortunate, because I, for one, believe recovering that the heart of Anabaptism is crucial for communicating faith in Jesus as we lean into the future.
Therefore, I want to give some space to articulate the best parts of Anabaptism. I want to describe what Anabaptism is and how it differs from popular, American evangelicalism and the emerging and strengthening, hard-edged, mean-spiritedness NeoReformed movement in America.
Let’s begin with the most obvious commitment of Anabaptists: Believer’s Baptism. Anabaptist means “re-baptizers.” During the Reformation, as Martin Luther was breaking with the Catholic Church, many, particularly in Switzerland, believed Luther’s Reformation wasn’t going far enough. Thus the “Radical Reformation” was birthed.
The root issue was pedobaptism (infant baptism). Anabaptists, through their reading of scripture, determined that baptism was a practice for people who choose trust in Jesus for themselves, rather than received faith as a family heritage. In days when baptism into the church was tantamount to becoming a citizen of the state/empire (we’ll talk about Anabaptist’s views of church and state later), Anabaptists said “No,” and began to “re-baptize” one another.
At the time, the church the world over baptized infants, making them both citizens of the church and the state. Anabaptists believed this to be improper. Luther and the Reformers, for their own theological and sociological reasons, maintained the practice of infant-baptism. This simple commitment that discipleship into the way of the Lord should be volitional is what made the Radical Reformation radical.
While lots of groups now practice “believer’s baptism” this wasn’t the case in the 16th-Century. The early Anabaptists were counter cultural, bucking the established church, the emerging Lutheran church and the state all at the same time. This instinct towards anti-institutionalism remains part of me and Anabaptism. And if you think the mode of baptism isn’t or shouldn’t have been a big deal, I will only point out that many of the Radical Reformers were hunted down and killed for believing it was.
Earlier in my pastoral career I attempted, as many have, to distance my theology from the hard, sectarian stance on baptism I inherited as a youth. Fortunately I did. And fortunately, I didn’t. I maintain that God enters a relationship with a person whenever God chooses and it’s not my place to say when that is (Through the years, some Anabaptists had come to believe that baptism was somehow magical and was the only hope anyone had of knowing God). Yet at the same time, I think there is something vitally important about each person making a personal decision to take on Jesus for themselves. Faith is not something your parents can bestow.
There you have it, the beginning of what it means to be Anabaptist. What do you think?
A Snarky Note:
Oddly, many people in my tradition have come to practice a defacto infant-baptism as we press harder and harder to baptize children younger and younger. Parent’s who won’t let their kids choose their own order off the menu at Chili’s are baptizing their children at terribly young ages out of a fear that, “They might not ask again.”