What do Scot McKnight, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Shane Claiborne all have in common? Certainly they don’t agree on everything and no one’s views can automatically be imputed to anyone else. But I would argue that they are all Neo-Anabaptists. I’m not suggesting their ideas originated by reading Anabaptists. They would claim Scripture in support of their beliefs, not some 16th century reformer. What I am suggesting is that the low church, counter-cultural, prophetic-stance-against-empire ethos present in the emergent and evangelical-left conversations is a contemporary form of the Anabaptist tradition.
The Anabaptists of the 16th century, associated with men like Andreas Karlstadt, Conrad Grebel, Hans Denck, Michael Sattler, and Thomas Muntzer, were the “left-wing” of the Protestant Reformation. Obviously, these men didn’t see eye to eye on everything and the Neo-Anabaptists don’t embrace everything these men espoused (most of the Neo-Anabaptists have probably read very few Reformation Anabaptists). But there are a number of striking similarities between past and present iterations.
In his thorough (and gently pro-Calvin) book Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, Willem Balke explains that Conrad Grebel, for example, from the Swiss Brethren “supported the practice of believers’ baptism, voluntary membership in the church, and a strong emphasis on the commands of the Sermon on the Mount. He rejected the use of the oath by Christians, opposed going to war, and denied the rights of Christians to use the civil courts. He also required a far-reaching, mutual sharing of goods among Christians” (2-3). The Hutterites “established communities based on common ownership of goods. They rejected the authority of the magistrates and refused to pay taxes for the waging of war” (3). The Mennonites, unlike the violent Munster Anabapstists, “placed strong emphasis on pacifism, strict discipline, and separation from the world” (3). Again, some of these traits are shared by various streams of Christianity and some are not particularly emphasized by the Neo-Anabaptists, but for anyone who has studied the Emergent-New Monasticism-Sojourners conversation, the themes of pacifism, communalism, and placing stress on the ethical commands of Jesus will sound familiar.
In the second half of the book, Balke highlights a number of disagreements between Calvin and the Anabaptists. These disagreements also sound familiar.
• “There was a deep chasm between Calvin and the Anabaptists in their respective concepts of the state” (262).
• “The Anabaptist view of society flowed directly out of their longing to form a holy communion in this world. It was characterized by a certain dualism. The Anabaptists were optimistic about the extent to which the Christian is able to keep the law. They wanted to restore original Christendom, which, they felt, had been derailed by various forms of worldliness and Constantinism. They were committed to live in accordance with the spirit and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. They aspired to seeing the kingdom and its righteousness become visible. These concepts of the Anabaptists brought basic questions about human society to the surface…For Calvin, the Anabaptist model of society was , of course, wholly unacceptable. He rejected their dualism and did not think highly of their perfectionism as a goal for Christian achievement on earth” (265-66, 267).
• “Calvin charged that in his day the Anabaptists shouted loudly about all this, because they seemed to think that the church did not exist unless all possessions were thrown together and everyone was free to grab what his heart desired. According to Calvin, this was the misconception of communistic spiritualism” (271).
• “Calvin’s strong emphasis on the divine institution of government was definitely conditioned by his controversy with the Anabaptists. Calvin felt that anarchism lurked behind the anti-government position of the Anabaptists” (278).
Michael Baylor, in his Introduction to a book of Radical Reformation texts, summarizes another key difference.
The strategic differences between magisterial and radical reformers were symptomatic of a more fundamental difference in their politics, especially in their attitudes toward the authority of existing secular rulers. Above all, what gave the radicals their coherence as the Reformation’s “left wing” was their rejection of a hierarchical conception of politics in which legitimate authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical, devolved from the top down. Instead the radicals’ vision of politics [and I would add church life too] was rooted in notions of local autonomy and community control which also implied an egalitarianism (xvi).
I’m not trying to argue for specific political or ecclesiastical positions with these quotes. Nor am I assuming that Reformed people don’t give a rip about the poor and Anabaptists don’t care about doctrine. I only mean to demonstrate that the same sort of issues that vexed Calvin and the Anabaptists continue to percolate in our day.
And the Point Is?
So how does any of this information help us? What are the take home lessons? Let me suggest a few.
1. Both the Neo-Reformed and the Neo-Anabaptists can do more to study their own tradition. Don’t settle for a superficial understanding. Read the primary sources. Get to know dead writers. Learn from them, and be honest about the mistakes and blind spots of your own tradition.
2. Both the Neo-Reformed and the Neo-Anabaptists should take great pains to argue their points by appealing to Scripture, not chiefly by appealing to political possibilities or confessional tradition.
3. Let’s do some good, hard thinking on the areas where we disagree. Don’t give in to the intellectual laziness that says, “Well, we all have our own tradition. I guess that settles that.” At times, parts of our traditions are wrong and need to be corrected. Some traditions are more biblical than others. And sometimes traditions hold to mutually exclusive points of view. Honesty demands that we don’t pretend that we are all right when we completely disagree.
4. The Neo-Anabaptists should make their theological commitments as clear as their social commitments. Helping the poor is an important biblical concern, but without a manifest glorying in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice and an equal concern for the eternal destinies of men and women, concern for the poor will devolve into political posturing.
5. To the degree that Neo-Anabaptists espouse orthodox, evangelical theology (e.g., Dan Kimball’s, Erwin McManus’, and Scot McKnight’s support for the Lausanne Covenant), the Neo-Reformed should not too quickly dismiss their distinctive ideas. The Neo-Anabaptists ask a different set of questions. We can learn from their example in caring for the poor and be challenged by their arguments in so far as they come from Scripture, even as we disagree on other significant matters.