Eric A. Kouns
Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship
The contemporary evangelical community is not without flaws and limitations. Neither is the contemporary Anabaptist community. Living and working together in harmony and cooperation, however, they create a potent force for good and right and they raise a clear and distinct voice offering the only real hope to a love-starved, self-indulgent, valueless, lost society--the good news of God's grace and love, expressed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
When I hear from those who fear that an alliance between Anabaptist Christians and evangelicals will weaken, dilute or distort our identification as Anabaptists and our appreciation for historical Anabaptism, my first response is, "Whose version of historical Anabaptism are you advancing? Which particular Anabaptist distinctive do you feel is threatened by identification with the evangelical community?" There is tremendous variety among groups and individuals who claim to follow in the train of the early Anabaptists and considerable difference as to which particular distinctive of historic Anabaptism ought to be emphasized.
Sixteenth century Anabaptists stood out from the rest of Christianity precisely because they insisted that life in the kingdom of God was different from life in the world in some fundamental ways. Different values. Different goals. Different ways of setting priorities and making decisions. There are many across the varied mosaic which makes up contemporary Christianity who share that kind of commitment.
Building Bridges, Not Walls
Instead of dividing the body of Christ further by undue emphasis upon those beliefs and practices which distinguish Anabaptists from the broader evangelical community, we should be looking for those areas of common conviction that point up our unity as brothers and sisters in the household of God. When we do, we'll find that, on the essential matters, things like the authority of scripture, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the nature of human sin and God's provision of salvation by grace through faith, there is far more to unite most of us with the evangelical community than to separate us from them. When we make the kingdom our goal we'll find there are multitudes of believers from other traditions who want to join us in that pursuit.
The time has come for Christians who appreciate the Anabaptist commitment to practical discipleship and, at the same time, share a commitment to evangelical distinctives with a significant portion of the Christian community, to take the initiative to enlarge our circle of fellowship and identification. We have much to share with these who are, like us, citizens of the kingdom--much out of our heritage which can enrich their experience of faith.
Likewise they have much to teach us, much in their heritage from which we can benefit. For example, Christians from the Wesleyan tradition can teach us a good deal about personal holiness. Pentecostal/charismatic believers can enlighten us and increase our awareness of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit. Christians from the Reformed tradition have something to say to us about the sovereignty of God and the importance of orthodoxy as a foundation for orthopraxy (i.e. right belief as a basis for right behavior). And we can benefit greatly from association with Christians, like those of Greek Orthodox heritage, whose tradition is far older than our own.
If, as some contemporary Anabaptist scholars have noted, the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement was largely "anti-theological," that is, not marked by a need to codify doctrinal formulations in a systematic fashion, then might not the dynamic of Anabaptism, the insistence upon changed behavior that is consistent with inner faith, have something positive to say to Christians, whatever their tradition? After all, Anabaptists desired only a "walk" that measured up to one's "talk" about personal belief. Surely that emphasis is needed in all segments of the Christian church if we are to make an impact in our world for the kingdom of God.
Different Era, Different Attitudes
The late twentieth century is not the sixteenth century. The world has changed. The sociopolitical climate is different. The shape and character of the Christian community is vastly different. I wonder if our Anabaptist forebears, concerned as they were for the advancement of the kingdom, would approve of the extremes to which some contemporary Anabaptists go to separate themselves and their tradition from the rest of the Christian community, especially evangelicals. Might they have something to say to us about the potential for arrogance and pride that such theological isolationism engenders?
The question for contemporary Anabaptist Christians is not "Can we reproduce sixteenth century Anabaptism, and its particular expression of obedience and discipleship, in the twenty-first century?" Rather, it is "Can we recapture the spirit of Anabaptism, the all-consuming desire to know God and to live as though that knowledge has made a profound difference in our lives?" Or, to put it another way, "How can the history of sixteenth century Anabaptism and the dynamic which brought it about -- emerging as it did from the Protestant Reformation -- continue to have an impact upon the entire Christian community in the twenty-first century?"
As Mennonites we can claim certain ties, special ties, perhaps unique ties, to the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. But we cannot, and we must not, suggest that we are the sole heirs of the spirit, the dynamic, which gave rise to that historical movement. That original spirit, to the extent that it continues to exist, must belong to the body of Christ, to the entire Christian community, to the degree they wish to embrace it.
First and foremost, we are Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ, sinners redeemed through the work of Christ on the cross, recipients of God's grace through faith in Jesus. That identity supersedes all other labels, including "Anabaptist" and "evangelical." Our primary concerns are to exalt the Lord, proclaim the gospel, and advance the influence of the kingdom of God in the world. We must be willing to look at our tradition, noble as it is, without feeling threatened or becoming defensive, and ask the hard question: To what degree does this tradition assist us in the pursuit of our primary goals?
Anabaptism was an historical movement. It emerged out of a set of circumstances, unique to that era, which cannot and will not be duplicated. We have attempted to preserve the character of that movement by establishing institutions. But we cannot institutionalize a movement without sacrificing something of the vitality and spontaneity and conviction which marked the movement in its first generation.
The Anabaptist Vision has served the Christian community well as an important part of Anabaptist historiography. It has helped us gain a better understanding of a particularly dynamic period in church history. It has deepened our appreciation for Christians who exhibited the courage of their convictions even when it cost them their lives.
I'm convinced, however, and I think H. S. Bender would agree, that the value of his paper will be significantly reduced if it focuses our attention on that historical movement exclusively. Faithfulness to the Anabaptist vision requires that we recognize what the first Anabaptists were actually attempting to accomplish--not the creation of a new phenomenon in the sixteenth century but the recovery of the spirit of the Christianity of the first century. Church history began with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon believers in Jerusalem, not with the baptism of Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock in Zurich.
The kingdom of God was the goal for Anabaptist Christians in the sixteenth century. It should be ours. The glory of God was their driving force. The body of Christ was their context for service and growth. Changed lives resulting in a changed society were the fruit they yearned for their spirit-empowered labors to produce. This is the heart of the Anabaptist vision, and it is the vision which empowers and energizes faithful Christians everywhere, in every era.
Since this is the vision which empowers and energizes much of the evangelical community, I conclude that evangelicalism and Anabaptism are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, exceptionally compatible. More than that, when each is properly understood, they enrich and enlighten each other. For this reason I see not the slightest inconsistency in declaring my commitment to both Anabaptism and evangelicalism and my intent to pursue the distinctives of Anabaptism while maintaining close fellowship and affiliation with mainstream evangelicalism.
As an evangelical Mennonite, I suggest the following five key marks of Evangelical Anabaptism.
Do I nurture the hope that my perspective will prevail and that the new MC-USA will take concrete steps to identify with the evangelical community? Not really. But I am encouraged to see signs of a resurgent Anabaptism of the sort I have described in this paper. I don't know yet what form it will take, but I pray that God will touch this communion with a fresh sense of His majesty and His power and His presence. And I pray that evangelical Anabaptism may be blessed with renewed fervor and faithfulness that will bring great glory to Jesus the King until He comes again.
Soli Deo Gloria!
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