Who Are the Anabaptists?

This article is a result of various people I meet who say “Anabaptist? Who are they? I never heard of them.” There are many good articles on Anabaptists: Some seem too long, some too historical and some too academic. Hopefully this one is short enough you will read it, long enough you want to know more.

First, let’s start with some unsolicited testimonials from people you might even know.

I’ve studied the Anabaptists all my life, and I believe they were right. The roots of the global missions are not in the magisterial reformers [Protestants]; they are in the Radical Reformation [Anabaptists]…Not only the concept of global missions–but the exact order of them…study the Anabaptists. They have more than you could possibly imagine. We have in these great saints and martyrs an understanding of what it means to be Christ-like that nobody else has understood so clearly.” –Rick Warren, Pastor Saddleback Church Baptist Press 2012

Millions of people are abandoning the Christendom paradigm of the traditional Christian faith in order to become more authentic followers of Jesus. From the Emergent Church movement to the Urban Monastic Movement to a thousand other independent groups and movements, people are waking up to the truth that the Kingdom of God looks like Jesus and that the heart of Christianity is simply imitating him. Millions are waking up to the truth that followers of Jesus are called to love the unlovable, serve the oppressed, live in solidarity with the poor, proclaim Good News to the lost and be willing to lay down our life for our enemies. Multitudes are waking up to the truth that the distinctive mark of the Kingdom is the complete rejection of all hatred and violence and the complete reliance on love and service of others, including our worst enemies. Masses of people are waking up to the truth that followers of Jesus aren’t called to try to win the world by acquiring power over others but by exercising power under others — the power of self-sacrificial love…The only tradition that embodies what this rising breed of Kingdom radicals is looking for is the Anabaptist tradition (which the Mennonites are heir to). This is the only tradition that consistently refused political power and violence. This is the only tradition that made humble, self-sacrificial love the centerpiece of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s the only tradition that isn’t soaked in blood and the only tradition that looks remotely like Jesus.” –Gregory Boyd, Theologian, Pastor Woodland Hills Church Reknew 2008

In Africa and Asia when I have asked, “Which relief and development organization does the best, most efficient work here?” inevitably the answer comes back “Mennonite Central Committee.” –Phillip Yancey, PhilipYancey.com April 2014

So why the rave reviews? What makes these Christians called Anabaptists so unusual?

Which Christian group kick started the idea of separation of church and state in the 1500’s?

There can be no question but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, who for the first time clearly enunciated them and challenged the Christian world to follow them in practice. The line of descent through the centuries since that time may not always be clear, and may have passed through other intermediate movements and groups, but the debt to original Anabaptism is unquestioned.” –Harold S. Bender, PhD, Anabaptist Vision

Separation of church & state, voluntary church membership and freedom of conscience sounds normal today, but when Anabaptists first suggested these ideas in 16th century Europe they were considered death worthy…by other Christians!

Which group to come out of the Reformation did not persecute & kill other Christians?


What should Christian faith & life look like?

An early leader summarized well how Anabaptists believe faith & theology do not remain a “a mere thought in the head”:

For true evangelical faith…cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it…clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it.” –Menno Simons, early Anabaptist leader, (Read more here)

Did Jesus Mean What He Taught in the Sermon on the Mount?

The Anabaptists answer is an unequivocal Yes. Many acknowledge that Jesus’ teaching is revolutionary. (Even atheist Richard Dawkin’s notes that Jesus’ ethic was 1000 years ahead of its time!) Anabaptists are among  those who live the Sermon on the Mount in daily life.

More reading:

Do You Have a Relationship with Christ?

Our relationship with Christ is all important. But what does having a “relationship with Christ” actually mean? Stephen H. Travis in the conclusion to his book “Christ and the Judgement of God” notes that he does not want to fall into the trap of using “relationship with Christ” as “a vague slogan without any precise content” and then goes on and gives a quick survey of New Testament passages that describe having a relationship with Christ. I think it is a nice,  non sectarian listing of what the NT says about relationship with Christ. I’ll just quote Travis with some formatting changes for readability.

…In all four groups of [New Testament] literature faith and deeds are connected in the closest possible way.

“Relation to Christ, then, is the criterion of judgement. Women and men are judged according to whether they respond to Christ in faith and obedience or not. Readers of this book may sometimes have wondered whether the word ‘relationship’ was being used too vaguely, as a slogan without any precise content. But it does have a defined content in all the literature we have looked at. A positive relationship to Christ is defined as:

Synoptic Gospels: ‘believing’, ‘following’, ‘becoming a child’, ‘hearing my words and doing them’, ‘saying Abba’;

John: ‘believing’, ‘knowing God’, ‘loving’, ‘abiding’, ‘you in me and I in you’;

Apostle Paul’s writings: ‘believing’, ‘being in Christ’, ‘faith working through love’;

Revelation: ‘hearing my voice and opening the door’, ‘keeping his word and not denying his name’, ‘faithfulness until death’, ‘conquering’.

And in all four groups of literature faith and deeds are connected in the closest possible way.

Hence judgement is passed not according to a rather arbitrary intellectual assent, but according to a person’s total direction of life and relation to God.”

Small Canadian Mennonite Business Shuts Down Production After Employee’s Vote to Go Union

Mennonite owned business, Gingrich Woodcraft Inc. of Devlin Ontario, shut its doors on August 17, 2015 after a majority of its 25 employees voted to join Unifor according to Fort Frances Times.

The company action was taken based on an interest in “living peaceably” as explained in an email sent to customers:

“As Christian business owners, our personal beliefs will not allow our conscience the freedom to work with a labor union, as we are required by Scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men,’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.

we are required by Scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men,’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.

“Our decision in view of developments to date was to stop production of wood products at Dev­lin, Ont., effective Aug. 17, 2015. All production employment was terminated.”

According CBCNews [1], Unifor representatives have noted that the company was cooperative with the union during voting process. Unifor’s view is that shutting down operations “is against the law”.

Mennonites have historically not participated in labor unions from an employee perspective because of the possibility of coercive measures, but this situation is unique in that it is the employer who does not feel they can move forward peaceably with the union involved in the business. While there has been less Mennonite attention given to the employer side of union relations, Mennonite Weekly Review  [2] notes that a member of the Mennonite Brethren church refused to work with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in 1996, but it does not clarify what the primary motivations were.

According to an article on Labor Unions by Guy F. Hershberger [3], Mennonites in the past have given “special attention to the responsibility of Mennonite industrial managers and their employees for mutual cooperation in the development of management-labor relations on the basis of Christian brotherhood, rather than by means of power in which management and labor were pitted against each other.”

Mennonites in the past have given special attention to…mutual cooperation…rather than by means of power in which management and labor were pitted against each other

While the ultra conservative Mennonite group [4] Gingrich Woodcraft Inc. owner Leon Gingrich is affiliated with may not have been involved in the conference mentioned by Hershberger, the sentiments of the last sentence would apply to conservative Mennonites. Various commenters on news articles have asked “How is shutting down a business an attempt at bringing peace to the situation?” A possible key to understanding how closing the business is seen as a way to bring peace is that all other alternatives are seen as merely continuing in an unavoidable and ongoing adversarial situation where “management and labor were pitted against each other.”

[Image Source] http://www.woodworkingnetwork.com/Gingrich
[1] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/fort-frances-area-gingrich-woodcraft-cites-faith-for-closure-after-workers-vote-to-join-union-1.3197723
[2] http://mennoworld.org/2015/08/31/news/ontario-business-closes-after-workers-vote-to-unionize/
[3] http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Labor_Unions
[4] http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mine_Centre_Conservative_Mennonite_Church_(Mine_Centre%2C_Ontario%2C_Canada)

Other Links

Confessions of Faith Indicate Influences & Shifts in Anabaptist Thinking About Salvation

Anabaptists have always had a view of salvation that differed sharply with Reform traditions in that it emphasized repentance and transformation of life into conformity with Jesus Christ. This is a quick look at Protestant and Anabaptist views of salvation based on confessions of faith down through the years.

In my view the “1921 Christian Fundamentals Mennonite Church” (Garden City) is the low water mark in that it seemingly copied and articulated the Reform view of salvation almost to a word.

In my view the “1921 Garden City Christian Fundamentals Mennonite” is the low water mark in that in it Mennonites seemingly copied and articulated the Reform view of salvation almost word for word. This is of continuing concern since many conservative Anabaptist groups still based their confessions of faith on the 1921 Garden City Confession.

Now, note the progression, influence and shifts.

1527 (Anabaptist) The Schleitheim Confession

This Schleitheim Confession was not an attempt to be a complete confession but it just addressed areas that were of immediate concern so it does not specifically have a section on salvation. The first article on Baptism does indirectly cover repentance, new life and faith so I have included it below.

First. Observe concerning baptism: Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with Him, and to all those who with this significance request it [baptism] of us and demand it for themselves. This excludes all infant baptism, the highest and chief abomination of the pope. In this you have the foundation and testimony of the apostles. Mt. 28, Mk. 16, Acts 2, 8, 16, 19. This we wish to hold simply, yet firmly and with assurance.


1530 (Lutheran) Augsburg Confession

IV. Justification by Faith: Man cannot be justified before God through our own abilities; we are wholly reliant on Jesus Christ for reconciliation with God.
VI. Of the New Obedience:  Lutherans believe that good deeds of Christians are the fruits of faith and salvation, not a price paid for them.
XII. Of Repentence: Repentance comes in two parts: in contrition for sins committed according to the Law and through faith offered through the Gospel. A believer can never be free from sin, nor live outside of the grace of God.
XX. Of Good Works:  The Lutheran notion of justification by faith does not somehow condemn good works; faith causes them to do good works as a sign of our justification (or salvation), not a requirement for salvation.

1632 (Mennonite) The Dordrecht Confession of Faith: VI. Of Repentence

We believe and confess, that, since the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and, therefore, prone to all unrighteousness, sin, and wickedness, the first lesson of the precious New Testament of the Son of God is repentance and reformation of life, and that, therefore, those who have ears to hear, and hearts to understand, must bring forth genuine fruits of repentance, reform their lives, believe the Gospel, eschew evil and do good, desist from unrighteousness, forsake sin, put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness: for, neither baptism, supper, church [membership], nor any other outward ceremony, can without faith, regeneration, change or renewing of life, avail anything to please God or to obtain of Him any consolation or promise of salvation; but we must go to God with an upright heart, and in perfect faith, and believe in Jesus Christ, as the Scripture says, and testifies of Him; through which faith we obtain forgiveness of sins, are sanctified, justified, and made children of God, yea, partake of His mind, nature, and image, as being born again of God from above, through incorruptible seed. Gen. 8:21; Mark 1:15; Ezek. 12:2; Col. 3:9, 10; Eph. 4:22, 24; Heb. 10:22, 23; John 7:38.

1915 (Protestant) The Fundamentals: 4. Salvation

It is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

1921 (Mennonite) Christian Fundamentals Mennonite Church: VI. Of Salvation

We believe that man is saved alone by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ; that he is justified from all things on the ground of his shed blood; that through the new birth he becomes a child of God, partaker of eternal life and blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ. Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:20-26; Acts 13:38, 39; John 1:12, 13; John 3:4, 8, 16; John 5:24; Ephesians 1:3.

1963 (Mennonite) Mennonite General Conference: Article 6. Salvation by Grace Through Faith

(short) 6. We believe that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, a free gift bestowed by God on those who repent and believe

We believe that men are saved, not by character, law, good works, or ceremonies, but by the grace of God. The merits of the death and resurrection of Christ are adequate for the salvation of all men, are offered to all, and are intended for all. Salvation is appropriated by faith in Christ. From all eternity God knew who would be the believers in Christ, and these persons foreknown as believers are elect according to the foreknowledge of God. Those who repent and believe in Christ as Saviour and Lord receive the gift of righteousness, are born again, and are adopted into the family of God. Saving faith involves the giving of the self to Christ, a full surrender of the will, a confident trust in Him, a joyful obedience to His Word as a faithful disciple, and an attitude of love to all men. It is the privilege of every believer to have the assurance of salvation. The God who saves is also able to keep each believer unto a happy end in Christ. As long as the believer lives, he stands in need of the forgiveness, cleansing, and grace of Christ. John 3:16; John 10:27-29; Romans 4; Ephesians 2:8-10; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 John 1:8-10; 1 John 5:13; Jude 24.
http://www.anabaptists.org/history/cof-1963.html Short
http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Confession_of_Faith,_1963 Long

Mennonites in the City: Clayton Shenk on Conservative Anabaptist Urban Missions

Bronze Bow Media has done a video interview of Clayton Shenk of Tidings of Peace on conservative Anabaptists and city missions. Clayton weaves his experiences and thoughts together into an invitation to urban missions for conservative Mennonites who may not initially be comfortable in that setting.

Check out Tidings of Peace at http://www.tidingsofpeace.org

Anabaptist, Protestant & Catholic Beliefs Compared

Conservative Anabaptists have deep and abiding differences with both Protestant and Catholic conceptions of what authentic Christianity looks like.

The question has been raised about how Protestant and Catholic beliefs compare to conservative Anabaptists and this caught my interest enough that I decided to try to plot differences. I thought this could be helpful for several reasons:

  • Think more carefully about Protestant/Catholic differences myself
  • Note more precisely how Anabaptist/Protestant/Catholics actually compare
  • Temper uncritical reading of Protestant & Catholic writing & help us not to unquestioningly accept theology (especially Reform axioms) conveyed in  unquestioned assumptions

[Note: The chart below is a guide and a work in progress and I would really welcome your input & corrections. (One thing that would really help is any glaringly missing major Protestant theological points that would be in agreement with conservative Anabaptists) It is has obvious generalizations for simplicity’s sake and some are judgment calls. Also, at the moment the list is a quite a will nilly order.]


Note: A bit more nuance on “Faith Alone”: Anabaptists believe in salvation through faith in Christ and maintain the NT emphasis of both Jesus, Paul & others on the importance of repentence and walking in newness of life. A classic formulation of Anabaptist thinking on faith & salvation is found in the Dordrecht Confession article IV on “Of Repentence & Newness of Life“.

Hopefully this is helpful in living in the truth.

Book Review: A Mennonite Thinks About Knowing

It is not every day epistemology is used as an argument for actually following Jesus but this is what Steven Brubaker does in his new book “A Mennonite Thinks About Knowing” published by Faith Builder’s Educational Programs. If Brubaker has done his job well the common perception that conservative Anabaptists are unconcerned with epistemology may be inverted in that they have a profound interest in “first things” (reality) and merely not as much interest as they might in “second things” (accurate descriptions of reality)

The book starts by defining truth using a widely accepted definition: “accurate descriptions of what is”. It then goes on to emphasize that Jesus & the New Testament not only define truth as a description of what is but also as “reality itself” using texts such as “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) The book notes that “our understanding of truth should encompass both the substance (the thing itself) and the accurate description”.

our understanding of truth should encompass both the substance (the thing itself) and the accurate description

The book also takes a look at different models of how beliefs relate to each other (balance, tension, knife-edge & road-ditch) and notes a useful model that avoids some problems of the others is that of first & second things. This model emphasizes which of the related items is “more basic, primary or fundamental than the other” instead of setting related items against each other as some of the other models tend to do. Using this model to compare “reality itself” with “descriptions of what is” the conclusion is quickly drawn that the former is a first thing and the latter a second thing. The examples of Jesus and writings about Jesus and being and doing are given to show the explanatory power of this model.

Instead of limiting our defense of the truth to logical arguments, we offer love as the preferred apologetic

This view of truth leads, by what might be an unfamiliar path, to a very characteristically Anabaptist insight: “Instead of limiting our defense of the truth to logical arguments, we offer love as the preferred apologetic.” The book also takes an interesting look at the problems that result when the first & second related truths are reversed, confused or separated.

What I’ve outlined are some of the ideas that stuck out to me from chapter 1 and the chapters that follow look at what reality is, coming to terms with reality, knowing by describing and participating and confidence in knowing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book on epistemology from a Mennonite perspective. It is very common for Christian apologetics to primarily focus on an accurate description of what is and it is interesting to hear a careful explanation why there might be reasons to look further for a more complete conception of truth. We can describe the agape of God and we can allow God to make agape a reality in our lives and clearly the reality is a “first thing”. The world could use more of this inversion I think. The book does an interesting and nuanced job of describing when Christians can agree and disagree with both modernists and postmodernists. This book makes the clear Christian case that Jesus is at the center of any worthwhile effort at finding truth. If epistemology is of interest to you I recommend you read this book.

If you want to read the eBook right now, below is the link.