The Anabaptist Vision—Synchro Blog
A few weeks ago, someone who has been worshiping at a Mennonite church for nearly a year, and who had no prior exposure to or experience with Mennonites, remarked to me that, while they had deeply appreciated their time with the community, it seemed to them that Mennonites were basically people who did lots of good stuff and liked to do things together. It is a common enough sentiment. Many expressions of Anabaptist faith can come to seem like little more than an ethical system designed to produce Christ-like behaviour and character with little, if any attention, paid to the indwelling presence of Christ and the ongoing power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.
This, in large part, is the argument set forth in a 1993 article by Stephen Dintaman in the Mennonite Brethren Herald entitled “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision”—an article that is the subject of a synchro-blog that I am pleased to be a part of this week. Are Anabaptists all about behaviour at the expense of belief? What are the costs of emphasizing a Christian ethic at the expense of meaningful relationship to the God who makes the ethic possible and whose future these ethics point toward? According to Dintaman, the answer to the former question is, “yes,” and to the latter is, “high indeed.” We are delivering an impoverished and unsustainable vision of faith to future generations.
There are three problems with “the Anabaptist vision” as often conceived and practiced, according to Dintaman:
- This vision gives us little insight into human behaviour—it doesn’t offer much help in understanding the psychology of sin and bondage and how human beings change.
- This vision gives us an inadequate awareness and experience of the liberating work of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus—the Christian life is reduced to a program of behaviour modification according to the teachings of Jesus with insufficient attention paid to why his death and resurrection were necessary.
- This vision gives us a meagre sense of the ongoing spiritual presence and power of the risen—it offers, as Dintaman puts it, a “Pre-Pentecostal discipleship” which fails to acknowledge that the church only began to “succeed” after the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The combined effect of these three problems is, essentially, a bunch of people who are really, really, really convinced that we ought to do the things that Jesus taught, and try really, really, really hard to do them, but succeed inconsistently, experience frustration with their efforts, and have little patience with others who do the same. Perhaps even more worryingly, these three problems lead to the conclusion that faith is mostly about, well, us. Faith is about me screwing up my will and effort and living like Jesus did. It is an impossible standard made even more difficult by a dim experience and awareness of the spiritual resources available for the journey.
To cite but one example, many Mennonites believe strongly that the gospel of Christ is a gospel of peace—so much so, that some equate practice and advocacy of nonviolence with the gospel itself. Dintaman says this:
Peace and justice activism and engagement in conflict mediation can be authentic expressions of faith in Jesus Christ, but for many they have become more of a substitute for faith. Mennonite academics, especially, are embracing a program of peace and justice activism that puts them in the mainstream of liberal, socially-aware academia. It does not require them to proclaim a specifically biblical, scandalous message of which the academic world knows almost nothing.
I am not calling us to forsake work for social change, but just reminding us that all this is not the gospel! The good news is not that Jesus has given us peace ideals and we are called to implement them nonviolently. That would make God passive and us the central actors in the drama of redemption.
This is, perhaps, the central problem with the “Anabaptist vision” as Dintaman sees it: it makes the life of discipleship about us and not God and is, consequently, a life doomed to failure and frustration. We can never, after all, do enough on our own. And setting forth the life of faith as an ethical system devoid of spiritual renewal and resources is a difficult place from which to evangelize. How can we invite others to a life of joyful following after Jesus if we have not personally experienced the liberating power of Jesus from sin and struggle? If we have not personally been touched by the forgiveness and grace of Christ? If we do not personally know what it means to live in the ongoing joy of the Spirit’s sustaining, guiding presence? If the Christian life proclaimed by our actions seems mostly to be about the more-or-less grim exercise of religious duty?
According to Dintaman,
Until we can think and talk as passionately about receiving and being as we do about strategizing and doing, until we get as passionate about praise and prayer as we do about social-political analysis, we will remain spiritually-impoverished.
Sobering words indeed. And, I would say, words whose accuracy has been borne out in the intervening two decades since the article’s first publication. In my experience, Anabaptists tend to veer off into one of two directions. Either, 1) They uncritically embrace the spiritual experiences, beliefs, practices, and liturgies of mainstream American evangelicalism at the expense of core Anabaptist convictions about peace, discipleship, and sacrificial community; or 2) They tend to reduce Christianity to the practice of peace and social justice at the expense of the life of the spirit, prayer, worship, etc. We don’t seem to be very good at consistently and compellingly emphasizing both.
If ever there was a time where such a two-pronged witness was necessary it would be in the twenty-first century post-Christian West. If ever there was a time when a compelling articulation and expression of faith as a Spirit-infused, prayer-soaked, joyful, liberated and liberating following after the person and work of Jesus Christ, it would be now. If ever there was a time and a place, in other words, for a spiritually vital Anabaptist vision, it would be now.
Find Dintaman’s short article HERE.
Find the other synchro-bloggers through these links: