The Anabaptists are not a simple group to write about. The name covers an enormous variety of beliefs and practices, and a simple distillation of these is impossible. This is mainly because of geographical reasons: branches in Switzerland, Austria and Southern Germany were quite isolated from each other in the 16th century. They were united in their opposition to the Roman Catholic church which had a monopoly in religious affairs in those days. They wanted to think for themselves, and as that was an offence punishable by death they were constantly persecuted.
The 7 Schleitheim Articles of 1527 give us a taste:
- separation from the world
- strict discipline
- leaders to be elected by congregations
- no swords
- no oaths
- adult believers’ baptism, no infant baptism
- a memorial form of the Lord’s supper
- voluntary sharing of goods
- scriptures to be interpreted by congregations (i)
A brilliant account of Thomas Müntzer, Jan van Leyden and other militant medieval preachers is to be found in the novel “Q” (ii). The same authors have just released a paperback of Müntzer’s sermons (iii). These guys and their tens of thousands of followers fought to the death against the Catholic princes of central Europe in the 16th century – and lost; but their spirit lives on, and there are groups of practising Anabaptists e.g. the Mennonites, the Hutterites and the Amish around today, including a couple of churches in London (in Wood Green and Bloomsbury). I was made to feel very welcome in both of them when I popped in for a visit.
Here are the 7 core convictions that spell out what it means to be an Anabaptist today: (v)
1/ 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.
2/ Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern its implications for discipleship.
3/ Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped or mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
4/ The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
5/ Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability, and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
6/ Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. in an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
7/ Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals , within and among churches, in society and between nations.
The 39 Articles:
The Church of England seems to have gotten into a tizzy over the Anabaptists too, even though there weren’t any on our shores. In the Book of Common Prayer, dating from 1549, we read in Article of Faith no. XXXVIII. “Of Christian men’s Goods, which are not common. The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.”
There are some readable books about their beliefs and practices in the past and now. (iv) (v)
I shall be doing a blog on “Post-Christendom”, a concept much favoured by contemporary Anabaptists. (vi). See the Zingcreed Post “Red Christians #1: Thomas Müntzer 1491?-1525” [May 2013]
(i)”Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology” ed. Bagchi,D. & Steinmetz, D. CUP (2004) p.194 Packull, W.O. “An introduction to Anabaptist theology”
(ii) Blissett, Luther “Q” Arrow Books (2003).
(iii) “Wu Ming presents Thomas Müntzer Sermon to the Princes” Verso Revolutions series (2010)
(iv) Francis, Andrew “Anabaptism. Radical Christianity” Antioch Papers (2010)
(v) Murray, Stuart “The Naked Anabaptist. The bare essentials of a radical faith” Paternoster (2011)
(vi) Pietersen, Lloyd “Reading the bible after Christendom” Paternoster (2011)
Related Zingcreed Posts:
ZINGCREED . Commentary on line 8 ‘his will’
Red Christian documents #4: The 7 Anabaptist core convictions (Britain & Ireland 2006)
Now that’s what I call practical Christianity #5: Travis
Red Christian documents #8: Muntzer’s programme