What hath Abraham Kuyper and Menno Simons in common?

More than you might think. Kuyper’s understanding of antithesis corresponds at key points to the Anabaptist vision of the church being light in a world of darkness.

Still, it’s not hard to spot the differences in approach to the church’s role in society. At several points, the Dutch neo-Reformed movement (and its heirs in leaders like Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, and Tim Keller) and the Anabaptist movement (and its heirs in leaders like David Fitch, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight) stand in stark contrast to one another.

Is it the business of the church to transform the world? If not, why not? If so, how?

Contemporary Anabaptists do not always agree on the answer to these questions, but they tend to view “transformational” attempts with suspicion. They recognize that, often, the church that tries to change the world eventually becomes a church the world has changed.

The neo-Reformed tend to chide Anabaptist thinkers for their advocacy of “withdrawal” or “separatism.” The latter term is more accurate than the former.

Anabaptists do not intend to withdraw from the world; they intend for their separatist identity to engage the world differently from the churches that have a Christendom outlook. When the church is pure and distinct, the visible community of faith creates ripple effects of transformation throughout the world, but these effects come through unseen and unnoticed acts of grace, not through the levers of power and politics.

I resonate with the Kuyperian understanding of the kingdom, and I worry that the Anabaptist approach toward power often resembles that of the ancient ascetics toward money: renounce it, divest yourself of it, and you’ll avoid the taint of compromise! I find the New Testament’s vision of power, money, authority, and so on to be radically transformed by the gospel, but I also believe the biblical assessment of creation in general (or political power, in particular) to be more positive than that described by Anabaptist thinkers.

Still, I have found treasure within the Anabaptist tradition. So much so that I’ve often said I always want an “Anabaptist” in my ear, simply because I think the whole Christian church benefits from some of the strengths of this tradition.

Here are three that immediately come to mind:

1. What happens in the church matters more than anything that happens in the world.

One doesn’t have to come from an Anabaptist tradition to see the church as central and the world as peripheral (see Simon Chan’s work in Liturgical Theology), but we can thank the Anabaptists (and their distant cousins in the Baptist churches of today) for elevating this truth more than other Christian traditions. We need to hear this over and over again.

When other Christian groups are jockeying for power and prestige or pursuing the path of politics, the Anabaptists remind us that the most important moment in a week is not in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., but in the preaching of God’s Word and the sharing of Communion in gatherings of believers all across the world.

2. The church changes the world by being the church.

Lesslie Newbigin was not an Anabaptist, but he touched on a central Anabaptist concern when he claimed that the church must be an “embodied apologetic.” The life of the church demonstrates its truth claims.

The Anabaptists recognize this truth and its opposite: the church that affirms the right doctrine but does not embody or enact the spirit of Jesus’s love is heretical. Jesus gave the world the right to judge Christians by how they love one another.

The Anabaptists have internalized that truth. They believe in the power of a visible community of faith, living according to the teachings of Scripture, with Jesus as its focus, to be light in a world that knows only fragmentation, atomization, and selfish pursuits. The church’s primary responsibility is to be the church, not change the world.

3. The church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins.

Christians are going to need the wisdom of the Anabaptists in coming years. If Christians are pushed to the margins of society, it will be good for us to get acquainted with believers who are already there, and who have long championed the importance of holiness in communities that are markedly different from the world, and who are comfortable without the levers of political power or privilege.

As Christendom crashes and the future of Christian witness will shift away from the center of worldly power to the margins of society, we will need the wisdom of brothers and sisters who have constantly called on the church to resist the temptations of power and who have showed how to flourish at the margins. Marginalization can actually be good for the church.

To see yourself at the frontier of mission, in simple communities of faith and fellowship, is reinvigorating in a time when so many assume that the church is flourishing or failing based on its ability to enact visible transformation in the world of politics.

This post is part of a dialogue with David Fitch, where the two of us are reflecting on the strengths of each other’s traditions. I encourage you to read David’s post on what Anabaptists can learn from the Reformed. We are going to respond one more time to each others’ posts in a few days on each others’ sites.