by Joshua Brockway
In my work for the Church of the Brethren I increasingly find myself involved in discussions about our relevance today. Sometimes this is cast in the frame of doing workshops on Brethren Heritage, and in others it is outlined precisely in terms of relevance.
Running in circles outside of the Church of the Brethren, it is clear that we do have something to offer the wider church as it lives into the crumbling of imperial Christianity- more often called Post-Christendom. This interest often comes in the form of seeking out Anabaptist traditions- groups whose very genesis came about in a simple act of adult baptism, an act of civil and ecclesial disobedience. Now centuries later, after derision and flat out persecution, these Anabaptist traditions are hip!
It is interesting, and worth discussion, that this surge in interest falls out in varying ways. Some use the name “Anabaptist” to talk of the whole diverse tradition past and present, while others choose a more nuanced form and speak of themselves as Neo-Anabaptists. In many cases writers, including the likes of Harold Bender and Stuart Murray, have attempted to offer a kind of type for Anabaptism in order to get a handle on just what we mean by this name.
Coming from an historic tradition within Anabaptism I have found myself trying to draw lines that help make this small, yet complex, tradition intelligible. This is often complicated because the historic communities often fall into sectarian modes- playing name games with each other, working on insider topics, and occasionally dismissing those who are not “true Anabaptists.”
After many blog, face to face, and Facebook conversations I have finally (and tentatively) come to a helpful taxonomy for this rich matrix of Anabaptism- both of the neo and traditional varieties. What I offer here is by no means complete or comprehensive, but simply a frame within which we can understand just what we mean by Anabaptism. I argue below that the dividing line between Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism is to be found in the practice of baptism- that is, whether the community of referent baptizes believers or infants.
Any wisdom to this outline is due to the great conversation partners while any faults are, unintentionally, my own.
Historically speaking, the Anabaptists first emerged in the early years of the Reformation. A group of Swiss, initially connected to Zwingli, they were disenchanted with the steps of the reform to date. This group gathered together for the studying of scripture and constructed a short document outlining the central tenants to their way of life as Christians. The Schleitheim Confession, though the core values of this new group, should be set immediately within this group’s decision to baptize one another based on a conscious confession of faith. This act, and not so much the faith they professed, literally broke the law and imposed on them the name of Anabaptists- Re-Baptizers.
Though the Schleitheim Confession makes clear that Christians are not to take up arms for the state, soon after the tragedy of Munster challenged the assumption, both then and now, that Anabaptism is necessarily non-violent in posture. It was not until Menno Simons came along in the wake of armed Anabaptists that a peace testimony became part of the tradition. There, however, Simon’s emphasis on the earlier Schleitheim statements regarding violence was a posture of biblical pragmatism. Since their practice of a believer’s baptism already challenged both civic and ecclesial authorities, a “quiet in the land” posture of non-violent, non-resistance (based in part on Romans 13) was simply prudent for the survival of the group.
As with many groups, different forms of Anabaptism soon followed- even up through the 18th century. Some groups took on a more sectarian or withdrawn posture, such as the Hutterites and Amish. Still others emerged on their own, such as the Brethren (Schwarzenau Brethren) who merged their Pietist sensibilities with adult baptism.
In the 20th century, Harold Bender set out to outline just what this thing called Anabaptism looks like. His work on an “Anabaptist Vision” was clear for its day in that it offered some markers for this tradition. Most recently some have rightly dropped Bender’s vision for a more historically nuanced picture, preferring instead to talk of the many visions and forms within the wider umbrella of Anabaptism. Even the once dominant narrative of the Brethren as holding together the distinct tradition of Anabaptism and Pietism has been critiqued in favor of naming the many influences that merged into the Dunker tradition. There were just too many forms of Anabaptism to talk of it in any singular fashion. Often, then, efforts to distill the distinctive is a kind of argumentative task to speak internally to the tradition itself- saying what we should be about- and then to a wider audience- making the tradition applicable.
Most recently, this desire to articulate a clear vision for those inclined to Anabaptist thought has come by way of England. There, through a strong relationship with the Mennonite Mission Network, a group of British church leaders began collaborating in a loose network. Stuart Murray (Stuart Murray Williams) penned a summary of the network’s discussions that outlined their understanding of Anabaptism. That summary was published in the US under the title Naked Anabaptist. In that book, Murray is clear that Anabaptism, as they understand it, is a theological perspective in the light of Post-Christendom. In the decades following the ecumenical movement, the UK network is often at pains to say that affinity with these markers of Anabaptism need not institutionally convert others to the historic denominations. Rather, it is possible to be an Anglican Anabaptist, Presbyterian Anabaptist, or even a non-denominational Anabaptist.
In the United States, a similar movement of interest in Anabaptism has come by way of the prolific theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauewas’ articulation of Anabaptism is often not the product of historical research into the Anabaptists of the 15th century but is rather a working out of the theology of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Hauerwas often speaks of the rich formative culture of the church in a way that merges Yoder’s work with that of noted ethical philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre. Yoder, as a former student of Karl Barth, and Hauerwas as a part of the later Post-liberal discussions stand in stark contrast to the dominant narrative of Enlightenment Liberalism. In a way, like the UK Anabaptists, readers of Hauerwas often bring their understanding of Post-Liberalism ecclesiology to their own denominations.
What, then, is the difference between an Anabaptist and Neo-Anabaptist?
An impulse within Anabaptist circles is to talk of two groups- Traditional Anabaptists and Neo-Anabaptists. For me, this distinction feeds the sectarian bias of the historic denominations. I, myself, have been guilty of this at times when I have asked in polite conversation just what Hauerwas has to say about Anabaptism from his position as an Anglican. What possibly could he have to say about a way of life he writes about in abstraction without taking part in the existing, explicitly Anabaptist denominations?
As I interact with people who come to Anabaptist through a variety of ways and have formed their communities intentionally around the various forms of early Anabaptism, I find this distinction between Historical and Neo-Anabaptists unhelpful. Given the diversity within the history regarding forms of Anabaptism, it is simply too sectarian to say that anyone not a part of the main historical groups should be considered Neo-Anabaptist.
Instead, I want offer this brief taxonomy:
Anabaptists are groups of believers who share any of the markers of Anabaptist thought, and practice them within the context of a Believers’ Church structure (i.e. that baptism is a rite for those who have consciously confessed their faith and are baptized on the condition of this confession).
Neo-Anabaptists, then, are those groups or individuals who have found many of the ideas and practices of the Anabaptist tradition to speak relevantly to our context today, but bring this theology and practice into their existing denomination.
This distinction, based around the Believer’s Baptism, upholds the historic first rite of the tradition as the marker between the two. Hence, we can find persons, like Hauerwas or those of the UK Anabaptist Network, who continue to live and work within more magisterial traditions and not hold them outside the fold. For it is clearly a new phenomenon within wider Anabaptism to find such Anglican or Presbyterian Anabaptists. The ecumenical movement has opened the door to less sectarian forms and made it possible to even think that traditional Anabaptist thought could be at home within the very traditions that once persecuted these “Re-baptizers.”
For those of us in historic denominations within Anabaptism, wriers such as Hauerwas and Murray, to name just two, often help us to see parts of our heritage that we often overlook. This is especially the case for the Post-Liberalism of Hauerwas. It is important for those of us who resonate with Hauerwas, yet remain part of denominations like the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites- whose denominational life has come to adopt a decidedly liberal trajectory- to name just what we are claiming by calling ourselves “Neo-Anabaptists.” We are not working from the kind of ecumenical synthesis made possible in the 20th century, but are rather adopting a decidedly Post-liberal re-reading of our heritage. We should more appropriately identify ourselves as Post-liberal Anabaptists rather than muddy the waters with the name Neo-Anabaptists.
Some may think that such a distinction is mere hairsplitting. And I should confess that I hope this is not just an effort in theological abstraction. For example, many have observed that Greg Boyd’s congregation recently joined the Mennonite Church USA. I do not take this move to be a homecoming, or the movement of a Neo-Anabaptist group to becoming Anabaptist properly speaking. Instead, I think this was a move to draw together two Anabaptist groups, links that were once ideological and practical, and are now structural. Before that coming together, I would not have called Boyd a Neo-Anabaptist. Yet for the likes of Hauerwas, I think the distinction is necessary, if only to name the divergence around baptism. For it was the baptizing of believers and not infants that marked these groups in their day and context.
There are indeed a number of markers for Anabaptism that need further attention, such as a Post-Christendom ecclesiology, the centrality (or not) of a Peace witness in all its forms, and the importance of mutuality and simplicity. Still more work needs to be done in terms of Christology- especially given that many of the Anabaptist traditions have a Christ-centered ethic but do not have a explicit theology of the Incarnation and atonement. Nonetheless, we can see that the taxonomy begins to get at the current contexts of Anabaptist thought- a plurality of contexts not much different from the first centuries of the Reformation.
Joshua Brockway is director for spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren. He serves as editor for this blog and book review editor of Brethren Life and Thought. His is currently writing a dissertation on the 5th century monk John Cassian.