recently began the coursework for a Ph.D. degree from Regent University. I mention this for three reasons. (1) I am not one to suffer in silence. (2) I want to emphasize how serious we at EAF are about developing quality scholarship for the program we will be offering through the Center for Evangelical Anabaptism. (3) I had an interesting experience while on the Regent campus in July which leads directly into the theme for this issue of the newsletter.
The nine other members of my class come from a variety of theological traditions including Baptist, Adventist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and independent charismatic. At least one of my classmates had never heard the term "Anabaptist" until I identified myself as one. A few of the others were vaguely aware of our tradition. As you would expect, the three Baptists were most familiar with the term since they recognize a strong Anabaptist influence in their own tradition. They were less aware, however, of the connection between contemporary Mennonites and historic Anabaptism.
Over lunch one day, one of my Baptist colleagues posed the following question. "What contemporary group best exemplifies the spirit of historic Anabaptism?
Who really speaks for Anabaptism today?" Good question, I thought. Who indeed?
"Faithful-er Than Thou"
I grew up as a Baptist, deeply committed to discipleship and to the local church as a voluntary, disciplined community of faith. Some twenty years ago, quite apart from any Mennonite influence, I developed strong convictions regarding a Christian's participation in war. My interest in historic Anabaptism grew, and, fifteen years ago, I joined the Mennonite Church when I was called to pastoral ministry in a Mennonite congregation.
Over the past decade and a half I have observed the wide diversity within contemporary Anabaptism. Groups and individuals representing every point of view across the theological spectrum, from a liberalism that is more universalist than Christian to a conservatism that is virtually fundamentalist, all claim to have roots firmly planted in Anabaptism. Moreover many, perhaps most, of these groups portray themselves as the contemporary expression of Anabaptism most faithful to the spirit of the historic movement.
Early Anabaptism: A Mixed Bag
In some ways the contemporary situation mirrors the historical phenomenon. Writing in the Fall 1994 issue of The Conrad Grebel Review, editor Arnold Snyder reminded his readers that "(Anabaptism) was a movement that included not only sober evangelicals, but also apocalyptic visionaries; not only biblical preachers, but also prophetesses and prophets; not only staunch pacifists, but also wielders of the sword. All now stood next to each other as historical 'Anabaptists' in equal measure."
What tied these disparate groups and individuals together? No organization. No institutions. They surely did not perceive themselves as part of a unified "movement" sweeping across Europe like some invincible juggernaut. What they did hold in common was the unshakable conviction that their religious faith was supposed to affect their daily lives. They were convinced that medieval Christianity had lost the dynamic, life-transforming character of the church of the first century. They applauded the "reformation" of doctrine advanced by teachers like Luther and Zwingli, but it didn't go far enough. They yearned for a "restitution" ofx the spirit and power of Christianity like that modeled by believers in Acts. They may have pursued their goal of a renewed church along different routes, and the specific shape of their vision may have differed from group to group, but they shared a common goal -- a Christian community with no disparity between its belief and its behavior.