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The Naked Anabaptist 1: Jesus People

On to the first of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptists:

Introduction

Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.

One of the main features of Anabaptism, according to Murray, is the way in which it persistently calls us back to simple following of Jesus. Never mind all of this “cosmic Christ” business. The church was built upon ordinary people following the pattern of Jesus’ life. This is what the church was known for, prior to the fourth century when Constantine transformed Christianity from simple discipleship into an imperial religion.

Murray spends a lot of time talking about the Constantinian shift. The “Christendom era” comes in for major criticism from Murray, mainly because it “marginalised, spiritualised, domesticated, and emasculated Jesus.”  It turned him into an imperial figure to be worshiped, rather than a rabbi to be followed. Jesus was taken from the margins (where he lived and taught) to the centre of the Roman Empire and this was a disaster for authentic Christianity, according to Murray.

Murray also advocates the now-familiar move from calling ourselves “Christians” to “followers of Jesus.” Citing 16th century Anabaptist Hans Denck, who said “No one can know Christ unless he follows him in life,” Murray speaks optimistically of Anabaptist churches committed to following, learning, changing, growing, and moving forward as poised to play a crucial role in a post-Christian context:

Such churches may be very good news indeed to those who need time to work through the implications of the story of Jesus thay have encountered for the first time. And to those who are more interested in lifestyle issues than beliefs. And to those who use “journey” imagery to describe their search for spiritual meaning. And those of us who know we still have some way to go in following Jesus and are grateful for the support and encouragement of others who are on the same journey.

I find myself largely in agreement with Murray here on this first conviction. I have no problem with “follower of Jesus” vs. “Christian” language, even if I don’t feel as strongly about it as some. As I’ve said before on this blog, I think that in a postmodern, skeptical world like ours, actions really do speak louder than words. Many in a post-Christian society are much more interested in what we do than what we say we believe. All of this fits very well with Anabaptist emphasis upon simply doing what Jesus said, whether that be praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving sacrificially, or whatever.

My main problem with locating all of the problems with the Constantinian shift has to do with questions of providence. Anabaptists are sometimes accused of believing that there was Jesus, then the early church, followed by a few decent centuries of faithful living, and then twelve centuries of degenerate apostasy until Menno Simons came along. The obvious question is, “So was God silent for over a millennium? Was he not leading the church? Did he not see/care that the church was fundamentally in error for all that time?” Pointing to the odd fringe group that popped up from time to time to challenge the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t seem an entirely adequate response.

The Anabaptist view of history and God’s providence is a troubling one for me. While I do think that Christianity has suffered and continues to suffer when it becomes a state religion, and while I don’t think the Constantinian shift was a good one, all in all, I’m not comfortable saying that God just took his hands off the wheel for twelve centuries. Of course not all Anabaptists take this view or would put in such stark terms. But I think the questions remain.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think in liberal Christianity Jesus is likely to be seen as a teacher, but not as the central reference point, and certainly not as king. One might say that God is the central reference point, but not so much God in the Bible as God as creator and sustainer of life, or the foundation of being. I think it also makes sense to say that in liberal Christianity humanity is the central reference point – that we know God through knowing ourselves. Or I think what might even say that liberal Christianity does not have a central reference point, but is instead all about de-centering or dealing with the de-centering we face in a modern pluralistic culture.

    I don’t offer this description to criticize Anabaptists, only to describe how Anabaptist theology appears to differ from the one I have known.

    As you have summarized this core conviction here, it sounds like Anabaptist theology is closer to contemporary evangelical theology than to neo-orthodoxy.

    My impression is that in taking Jesus as the central reference point Anabaptist theology marginalizes more than Christendom.

    Re: “Murray speaks optimistically of Anabaptist churches committed to following, learning, changing, growing, and moving forward as poised to play a crucial role in a post-Christian context.”

    I notice the close similarity with the thinking of Hauerwas.

    March 5, 2010
    • I think you are right about where Anabaptism differs from liberal Christianity. Well put.

      I’m curious about this:

      My impression is that in taking Jesus as the central reference point Anabaptist theology marginalizes more than Christendom.

      What do you mean? Who does Anabaptist theology marginalize?

      March 5, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: What do you mean?

        I just mean that when something is centered, or when a statement asserts that something is centered, some polemic is involved or some ordering of things. I am thinking about the way deconstructionists and feminists sometimes use the concept of centering and marginalizing or the idea of decentering.

        Re: Who does Anabaptist theology marginalize?

        I don’t know. (Other than Catholics, perhaps.) But I was not thinking of anyone or anything in particular when I wrote that sentence.

        If Anabaptists do not ordain women, that would be an example, but I don’t know whether that is the case or not. If Anabaptists do not ordain openly gay and lesbian people, that would be an example. But I was not thinking of these things.

        I just figure if one centers theology on Jesus, the alternatives are marginalized. So, for example, theology centered on humanity would be marginalized. Neo-orthodoxy is perhaps such an example where liberal theology was marginalized and that was, perhaps, the meaning of centering theology on Jesus in their case. (I guess the Bible was also marginalized by Jesus centering in their case.)

        Who do you think is marginalized? Or what is marginalized when Jesus is the center?

        March 5, 2010
      • Ken #

        Also, let me add, I find it fascinating to hear about how Anabaptists have been around so long, developing through so many centuries separately from the rest of the western church. What an exciting thing to be part of.

        March 5, 2010
      • Yes, in the sense that Anabaptism has a more concrete view of what following Jesus looks like than “Christendom,” I suppose it marginalizes others. I’m not sure I like the term “marginalizes” in this context; as you say, every worldview has a centre, whether it is humanity or God or deconstruction, or whatever. Every worldview makes distinctions and judgments. Does that mean we all marginalize others? Perhaps…

        I think what Murray was getting at with marginalization language is the irony involved in Christianity as an imperial religion de-emphasizing the actual teachings of Jesus. The teachings and person that Christianity was founded on was literally pushed to the margins in favour of a very imperial looking Christ. One of the examples Murray uses is Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence:

        It was the startling reinterpretation of the meaning of the cross that represented the greatest triumph (or compromise) of imperial Christianity. No longer a symbol of non-violent sacrificial love, the cross was brazenly converted into a military standard. Armies marched to battle under the sign of the cross and “taking up the cross” meant readiness to kill rather than to die.

        I think this is what he means when he talks about Jesus being marginalized by Christendom. His main concern is how the two approaches view the person and teaching of Jesus.

        March 6, 2010
      • Ken #

        I see what you mean, or Murray means, now. I was thinking of centering and marginalizing in a different context, the secular liberal one that I am most accustomed to.

        In the brief Murray quote I have the impression that he may be overlooking other aspects of Christendom, other currents within it that have always been compatible with what he admires most in Christianity.

        March 6, 2010
  2. I do not think that Anabaptists discredit the power God had to work through the Constatine era, but realize that the oppressive tyranny of the Catholic and State Supported Churches suffered at more brokenness and disconnect with God’s heart and his desires for the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. We are all less in touch with God than we like to believe we are, at any moment. It is also important to notice a few things. One, Anabaptists existed centuries before Menno Simmons and the Reformation, so even if we believed as Mennonites/Anabaptists that it all went to “hell” till Menno, that would be inadequate because the movement is centuries older than that. 2. Some would argue the movement is even older then pre-reformation, because more and more people are able to trace the Anabaptist movement through the beliefs of the Waldeness people in the mountains, that ran heritage and lineage from the church of acts up through the parallel time of the Catholic Church.

    March 5, 2010
  3. one last thing……maybe quaker theologican elton trueblood said it best in regards to te first part of this blog.

    What a paradox it is that the church of Jesus Christ, the Worker, should seem alien to those who work with their Hands! After all, he was called the carpenter (Matthew 6:3) – Elton Trueblood

    March 5, 2010
    • Great quote, thanks Jeff. I think that, as you say, there have been “proto-Anabaptists” throughout church history, and this is to be acknowledged and celebrated. Still, though, I think Anabaptists have some work to do in how they think about how God has worked/works in history. The view I have sketched above is a bit of an extreme presentation, but it’s not totally foreign. I have heard Anabaptists describe history in this way. Perhaps one of the gifts the Anabaptist Network (and books like Murrays’s) could give would be a re-think of how we see God’s work in history, even the parts we consider disastrous. As you say, God can (and does) work in any context. We need to remember this, and allow it to factor into how we tell our story within the bigger story.

      March 5, 2010
  4. Great post. It occurred to me while reading the book that I would love to read an affirming study of Church history that, while acknowledging the problems caused in the Constantinian shift, could see the work of God in and through our broken expressions. The closest I have come is the appendix in Richard Foster’s “Streams of Living Water”.

    Peace,
    Jamie

    March 5, 2010
    • I’ve read some of Richard Foster’s books, but not that one. Thanks for the recommendation, Jamie!

      March 5, 2010
    • Gil Dueck #

      Lesslie Newbigin might be a voice worth hearing on this issue. He seems to have been someone who clearly saw and even welcomed the demise of Christendom without lapsing into the view that all of “Christian history” was an aberration from the purity of the first three centuries. He essentially asks the question of what exactly the church should have done with the opportunity they were given. What would it have looked like to “refuse”? Can we really blame these Christians for embracing not only the end of their own persecution but the opportunity to have a constructive role in the shaping of the broader culture?

      I also see David Bentley Hart’s recent book “Atheist Delusions” as a sort of apologetic for the value of Christendom. Hart seems to argue that the numerous horror stories (crusades, inquisitions etc.) sometimes obscure the more subtle ways in which Christendom has formed the collective moral sensibilities of the Western world. Hart does a good job of describing how revolutionary the Christian worldview was compared to the ones that it replaced.

      March 5, 2010
      • Yes, Newbigin’s is a voice that is worth hearing on almost any issue. You’re right, it’s difficult to imagine the church saying, “no thank you, Rome, keep right on marginalizing and persecuting us, if you don’t mind!” And Hart does a very good job of showing how Christendom, with all its problems, gave birth to and nurtured the world (moral, political, etc) we now take for granted. It’s voices like Newbigin’s and Hart’s (if we can understand him!) that Anabaptists need to pay attention to in order to develop a more nuanced and theologically palatable view of history.

        March 5, 2010
  5. Nestor Raul Bogoya #

    I am very interested to read this book. As a Mennonite born in Latin America I want to learn more how others see themselves as Mennonites/Anabaptists as well. There is so much bagage within North American Mennonites that make it difficuly to see the true Anabaptist. As far as Jesus’ centrality I am in the process of looking it in a different way: God is central to understand us a human beings, but Jesus is the one who show us how to be the kind of humans God wants us to be. Therefore Jesus is a guide to becoming fully humans.

    May 2, 2010

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