Disciples not Decision

We continue in this series of blogs aimed at examining what it means to do evangelization in this post-modern era (what I am calling “the transition zone”).  It is my conviction that the church of today has much to learn about “doing” Christianity from the Anabaptist tradition.  Earlier post have introduced the basic of Anabaptist ecclesiology (their doctrine of the church).  In addition, several post also examined what it means to be a part of a post-modern culture.

Today we continue examining what kind of church and theology of evangelism might emerge from an Anabaptist ecclesiology in our kind of world. 

Our most recent post looked at the goal of  the evangelization process – and how that related to the “kingdom of God.”  In this post we continue that line of thought, looking at the notion that a new convert is a disciple, not simply one who has acquiescence to certain propositional doctrines.[i]  Nor is a Christian a person who has had the subjective experience of grace as mediated through the institutions of the church.  Certainly the Anabaptists had some use for doctrines or religious experiences.  What they refused to believe was that such experiences and doctrines would necessarily lead to the transformation of life.

The Anabaptists understood discipleship to be the essence of Christianity.  This is a point made clear in The Anabaptist Vision, Harold Bender’s classic essay on Anabaptist ecclesiology.  Bender writes:

First and fundamental in the Anabaptist vision was the conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship.  It was a concept which meant the transformation of the entire way of life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be fashioned after the teachings and example of Christ.  The Anabaptist could not understand a Christianity which made regeneration, holiness, and love primarily a matter of intellect, of doctrinal belief, or of subjective “experience,” rather than one of the transformation of life.  They demanded an outward expression of the inner experience.  Repentance must be “evidenced” by newness of behavior…The focus of the Christian life was to be not so much the inward experience of the grace of God, as it was for Luther, but the outward application of that grace to all human conduct and the consequent Christianization of all human relationships.  The true test of the Christian, they held, is discipleship.  The great word of the Anabaptists was not “faith” as it was with the reformers, but “following.”  And baptism, the greatest of Christian symbols, was accordingly to be for them the “covenant of a good conscience toward God” (I Peter 3:21), the pledge of a complete commitment to obey Christ, and not primarily the symbol of a past experience.  The Anabaptists had faith, indeed, but they used it to produce a life.  Theology was for them a means, not an end.[ii]

Anabaptists do not “accept Jesus Christ as the Savior,” rather they follow Jesus Christ as Lord precisely because he is the Savior.  Menno Simons wrote, “Whosoever boasts that he is a Christian, the same must walk as Christ walked.”[iii] For the Anabaptists, discipleship is the patterning one’s life after the example set by Christ.  Discipleship, as the essence of Christianity, means obeying and following the Lord Jesus Christ.

Since such discipleship is the essence of Christianity, it stands to reason that such discipleship is also the essence of the Christian’s witness to faith.  According to the Great Commission, the primary goal of the Christian’s evangelistic witness is to make “make disciples of all nations”  (cf. Mt.  28:18-20)  The Anabaptists took the Great Commission to heart, allowing it to became the crux of their understanding of the nature and mandate of the church.  They were an evangelistic people.  The goal of their evangelistic witness was to make disciples.  The primary form of that evangelistic witness was their living the life of a Christian disciple—a follower of Jesus.  Myron S. Augsburger writes:

Evangelism is anything that makes faith in Jesus Christ a possibility for persons.  It is the loving deed in the name of Christ as well as the loving word.  Evangelism is sharing the joy of the new life in Christ in fellowship and friendship.  It is inviting persons to open their lives to the lordship of Jesus…

 When we commit our lives to Jesus we become a part of his people.  The New Testament calls his worldwide fellowship of believers “the body of Christ.”  As a person’s body gives visibility to his/her personality, so the covenant community, the church, makes Christ visible in the world.  Every Christian disciple becomes a responsible participant in this new community.  Here each lives by the Word and Spirit of Christ, expressing in love and holiness a new quality of life in the grace of God.

Evangelism is the practice of Christian community.  It is the daily experience of the presence and position of the risen love in its midst.  It is inviting persons to acknowledge him as Lord and become participants in his kingdom.  When persons respond to Christ with faith and commitment, they experience a “new birth.”  This is the beginning of a new life.  It is living with a new Lord, a new motive, a new fellowship, a new directive, and a new pattern of life. We should regard evangelism as an essential aspect of the life of the church.[iv]

 To pattern one’s life after Christ—to experience new birth as the beginning of a new life—naturally entails that one should be aware of Jesus’ life, work, and teachings.  For this reason, Anabaptists place a great deal of emphasis on the authority of the scripture as the story of God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ.  Like the Protestant reformers, the Anabaptists accepted the claim that the Bible was the final authority for Christian living—standing above church tradition and human reason.

Accepting the Bible as authoritative, the question must next be asked:  how is the Bible to be interpreted?  To this question, the Anabaptists gave a two-fold answer.  First, they began with the centrality of Jesus Christ, declaring that the entire Bible should be interpreted from the standpoint of Jesus as he is represented in the Gospels. The Anabaptists understood the advent of Jesus Christ to be the most important event in the history of Israel.  They believed Him to be the Messiah, the clearest revelation of the person of God, and the supreme teacher of God’s will and way for human life.  They correctly recognized Jesus not only as Savior—but also as prophet, teacher, and Lord.  As such, the life, work, and teachings of Jesus were understood as the starting point for understanding the entire Bible.  The 1963 Mennonite Confession of faith says:

We believe that God has revealed Himself in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inspired Word of God, and supremely in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.[v]

 A second aspect of the hermeneutical principle of the Anabaptists was their affirmation of the work of the Holy Spirit.  Like the Protestant reformers, Anabaptists wholeheartedly agreed that Christians were gifted with the Holy Spirit for the purpose of interpreting the Bible.  The difference between the Reformers and the Anabaptists was the loci of the Holy Spirit’s work in the interpretive process.

Protestant Christianity has long considered that the ordinary individual, gifted with the Holy Spirit and equipped with his or her basic intelligence, has all the resources needed to properly interpret the Bible.  The problem here is that the individual ultimately becomes “master” over the scripture.  The scripture is then forced to submit to the influence of the individual’s religious experiences, perceptions, and political ideologies.[vi]  In a sense, then, the Bible is divorced from the church and placed into the hands of individuals.

The Anabaptists rejected (and still reject) this individualistic approach to the interpretation of the scripture.  How does the Anabaptist approach the scriptures?  He or she approaches the scriptures as a member of the faith community.  The Anabaptists believe that the Holy Spirit works primarily within the community of faith as it struggles to understand the meanings of the scriptures and apply them to daily life.[vii]  The Bible is not understood to be the book of the individual Christian.  Neither is it viewed as an objective collection of propositional doctrines to be examined using the instruments of pure reason. What is the Bible?  It is the story of God’s working in human history.  It is the religious community’s source-book for Christian spirituality.  For this reason it is to be interpreted communally, from the perspective of the Christian community.  The Anabaptists realized that without the authoritative guidance of a community that honors Jesus Christ as Lord, the Bible simply does not make sense.

If discipleship is the patterning one’s life after the example set by the Christ, then it stands to reason that another (third) aspect of discipleship will be that of suffering and cross-bearing.  Art Gish writes,

The symbol of our relation to the world is the cross.  Our relation to the world is one of love, but often the reaction to that love will be separation and hostility.  The New Testament repeatedly warns us that if we remain faithful we can expect persecution.  To drink of the cup which Jesus drank from will mean suffering and death, rejection and humiliation.  The true church is a suffering church, hated and despised by the world, for those committed to the prince of darkness cannot bear to see the light.[viii]

The Anabaptists considered suffering to be an essential aspect of true discipleship.  Why?  Because they were keenly aware that faithfulness to the call of Christ would  put them at odds with the  powers and principalities of this world.  Following Jesus would make them the enemy of the societal status quo.  Whenever expectations of society contradict the call of Christ, they believed that Christian disciples are expected to remain loyal to the will and way of God.  Such is the path of cross-bearing.

The way of cross-bearing and martyrdom is recognized by the Anabaptists as the indispensable result of faithful discipleship. To the world, the way of cross-bearing seems like weakness and utter nonsense.  For the disciple, however, the way of the cross proves to be the “power of God for salvation” (cf. Romans 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18).   In the end, the faithful community will be victorious.  In the end, the truth of the gospel proclaimed by that community will be vindicated.  The Anabaptists postulated the victory and vindication of the faithful community because they believed that those who shared in Christ’s suffering would also share in his glory (cf.  Romans 8:17). 

A fourth aspect of Anabaptist discipleship involves what J. Lawrence Burkholder calls “the separated life of holiness.”[ix]  Not only were disciples of Jesus Christ expected to take up the cross of suffering for the sake of the gospel, they were also expected to cast aside all the works of darkness such as obscene conversation, gossip, conceit, debauchery, and sexual immorality.  Anabaptists held themselves to a very high standard of morality.  While others sought a reformation of doctrines, the Anabaptist sought a reformation of morals. 

Not only did Anabaptists proclaim a high standard of morality, they also held themselves to that standard, as their witness and the witness of their opponents indicate.  In Zwingli’s last book against the Swiss Brethren, we read the following:

If you investigate their life and conduct, it seems at first contact irreproachable, pious, unassuming, attractive, yea, above this world.  Even those who are inclined to be critical will say that their lives are excellent.[x]

 Roman Catholic theologian Franz Agricola wrote:

Among the existing heretical sects there is none which in appearance leads a more modest or pious life than the Anabaptist.  As concerns their outward public life they are irreproachable.  No lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating and drinking, no outward personal display is found among them, but humility, patience, uprightness, neatness, honesty, temperance, straightforwardness in such measure that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God.[xi]

 One of the strongest indications that the Anabaptists were successful in upholding a high standard of personal morality is illustrated by the fact that good moral values often became the initial reason for suspecting that a person might be an Anabaptist.  For example, Hans Jager of Vohringen in Wurttemberg, was brought to trial on the conjecture that he might be an Anabaptist essentially because he did not curse, but lived an irreproachable life.  On the other hand, Casper Zacher of Wailblingen in Wurttemberg was accused of being an Anabaptist, but court records indicate that the charges were dropped because he was shown to be an envious, quarrelsome individual known to curse and carry a weapon.[xii]

A fifth distinguishing quality of Anabaptist discipleship is its emphasis on peace.  Of course, this aspect of discipleship meant that true followers of Jesus Christ would not participate in war.  From the beginning Anabaptists rejected the call of the state into military service as contradictory to the gospel of Christ. Conrad Grebel wrote, “True, believing Christians. . . use neither the worldly sword nor engage in war, since among them taking human life has ceased entirely…”[xiii]  Felix Manz said, “No Christian smites with the sword, nor resists evil.”[xiv]  Menno Simons wrote, “The regenerate do not go to war, nor engage in strife.  They are children of peace . . . and know not of war.  Their sword is the sword of the Spirit which they wield with a good conscience through the Holy Ghost.”[xv]

Anabaptists believe that the message of peace is an essential ingredient in the gospel of Jesus Christ.[xvi]  It should be noted, however, that the Anabaptist doctrine of peace meant more than  merely the refusal to take up arms.  On the contrary, the Anabaptists emphasized a gospel of love that promotes constructive, rather than destructive, service in the world.[xvii]  Anabaptists’ concern for peace evolved out of their conviction that God had called them into a new society where Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, was recognized as Lord.  Since Jesus Christ, not the state, was lord over their conscience, it would be impermissible for them to do violence against another.

The final element of the Anabaptists’ understanding of discipleship was the belief that the task of evangelism was the central vocation of all disciples. Franklin H. Littell has indicated his conviction that nothing that Jesus said was given more serious attention by the Anabaptists than the Great Commission.[xviii] All other concerns in life—shelter, food, clothing, family—were to be seen as subordinate to the missionary task.  Nothing was more important than the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom. 

It might be said that Anabaptists were preoccupied with discipleship, whereas the reformers such as Luther were more concerned with the orders of creation.  Burkholder writes

Luther reinterpreted the medieval idea of Christian “calling” to  give the work of the world high religious significance.  He . . . shifted the locus of discipleship roughly from the order of redemption to the order of creation.  He divided the secular realms into “callings,” “offices,” and “ranks.”  The three main groups of order within the secular realm were the family, the government, and the empirical church. . . True Christian discipleship was conceived largely in terms of what makes for a stable social order rather than, as in the case of the Anabaptists, that which advances a new and different order called the kingdom of God.  As between staying home and being a good Christian father or mother within a settled religio-social system and going from village to village to preach the Gospel of repentance, Luther’s conservative and socially responsible attitude emphasized the former.  The latter was interpreted to mean social revolution, whereas Luther’s real interests lay in reinforcing traditional patterns by the broadest conceivable diffusion of Christian graces.[xix]

As far as the Protestant Reformers were concerned, the Great Commission was already fulfilled by the advent of Corpus Christianum.  The Anabaptists, however, believed that the first candidate for an evangelistic witness was the so-called great “Christian” culture. They believed that the church had gone astray from its biblical foundations.  The primary goal of the Anabaptist movement was to restore the church to its New Testament model.  The best way to accomplish this task, they believed, was for them to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything the Lord Jesus Christ has commanded…” (cf. Mt. 28:19-20).

[i] Paul M. Lederach, A Third Way:  Conversations about Anabaptist/Mennonite Faith, 77.

[ii] Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1944), 20-21.

[iii] The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, ed. J.C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1956), 225.

[iv] Myron S. Augsburger, Evangelism as Discipling.  (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1983), 7-8.

[v] Paul Erb, We Believe:  An Interpretation of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of faith for the Younger Generation, (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1969), 11.

[vi] Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture:  Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1993), 15. 

[vii] Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism:  Neither Catholic Nor Protestant,  (New York: Conrad Press, 1973), 80.

[viii] Gish, Living in Christian Community, 295.

[ix] Burkholder, “The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship,” 148.

[x] S. M. Jackson, Selected Works  of Huldreich Zwingli, (Phildelphia, 1901), 127, quoted in Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, 22.

[xi] Karl Rembert, Die Wiedertãufer im Herzogtum Julich, (Berlin, 1899), 564, quoted in Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, 23.

[xii] Quellen zur Geschichtr der Wiedertaufer, I. Band Herzogtum Wurttemberg, ed. Gustav Bossert, (Leipzig, 1930), 216-217, quoted in Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, 25-26.

[xiii] J.C. Wenger, ed. The Doctrines of the Mennonites, (Scottdale, PA:  Mennonite Publishing House, 1952), 35.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] The scope of this paper does not allow a complete examination of the Anabaptists’ understanding of the biblical teachings about peace.  Suffice it to say that as the Anabaptists sought to conform themselves to the pattern of living established by Jesus Christ, they found it impossible to take up arms against others.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his followers to be peacemakers, turning the other cheek when attacked by the evil one, and loving even one’s enemies (Matthew 5:9, 39, 44). 

[xvii] Helmut Harder, Guide to Faith, (Newton, Kansas:  Faith and Life Press, 1979), 132.

[xviii] Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church, (Chicago:  American Society of Church History, 1952), 94.

[xix] Burkholder, “The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship,” 139-40.

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