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