As a dissident Anabaptist, may I explain, in spite of many accommodations to our culture, Anabaptists remain a unique group of people— centered on Jesus, grounded in the gospel, practicing discipleship and service—certainly that should qualify as Evangelical, yes? Or no?
Anabaptists in North America exist in a seductive culture of American and Canadian Christendom which seeks to define a Christian belief system that will: a) provide a faith-based security through a formulaic set of religious beliefs, b) assume the moral high ground on two or three issues as litmus tests of purity while overlooking major areas of unfaithfulness to the teachings of Jesus; c) attract people from a hedonistic consumer culture, d) accommodate to an imperialist, military industrial based economy. For many, Evangelicalism fulfills all of these and more.
As Anabaptists, we passionately love, live by, and share the Evangel, but we pause before we subscribe to the “isms” included in and essential to Evangelicalism. We pause because we do not care to narrow the wideness of God’s mercy to a minimal definition, especially when Evangelicals stress these selected points so hard that they are extended beyond the other equally important truths of the Gospel—such as the resurrection and the resurrected life—and radical love for neighbor that does not excuse such things as taking the neighbor’s life to protect our interests.
The most commonly accepted and quoted definition of Evangelicalism is that of historian David Bebbington who outlined four distinctive points—the four ‘isms’ that define Evangelicals.
Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a ‘born-again’ conversion experience, a dated, remembered and reported second birth crisis event that becomes a pivotal point for the rest of one’s life, an experience that certifies a secure salvation.
Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the whole Bible as the ultimate authority. The Bible in entirety and totality is authoritative, final and unquestionably without error—every promise, every word, every line—equally authoritative for life and practice.
Crucicentrism: a stress on the cross, on the substitutional sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity. The death of Christ satisfies the demands of an angry God upon us as erring and sinful creatures.
Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts. The salvation of souls is our primary mission, the alleviating of human need is a means toward that end.
Those who espouse Evangelicalism must hold these four “isms” in common to be part of the Evangelical world. Critics of Evangelicalism point out that it is also a faith shaped by the dominant “isms” of American Christendom–individualism, materialism, pragmatism, political populism, Western imperialism, emotionalism, and subjectivism. Evangelicalism is still strongly influenced by the fundamental “ism,” fundamentalism, which sold its soul by embracing nationalism, militarism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, dogmatism in use of scripture.
Evangelicals must hold to the four essential “isms” or face criticism and ostracism.
Anabaptist vision—fourfold vision
One of the best brief summaries of the Anabaptist vision (a vision, note, not an ‘ism’ we must cut the ‘ism’ off ‘Anabaptism.’ We did not choose the name) is in Palmer Becker’s three terse phrases: Jesus is the center of our faith; Community is the center of our life; Reconciliation is the center of our work. We practice this vision by being Jesus centered disciples living out the gospel in loving service. We call this practice “discipleship” realizing that it takes many forms because we do not try to nurture people as duplicate copies of one “ism” or another. God created rich variety in the universe and in the church (we are diverse members of a body, remember?)
We do not have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand.
The key question is, “Are we following Jesus? So what is this Anabaptist vision? How does it offer a focus? How is it a center? The vision is four fold: 1) discipleship 2) to Jesus 3) whose story is central 4) creates a community of servants.
A Vision of Discipleship to Jesus: “To know Christ truly is to follow Him daily in life; none truly know Him except those who follow Him.”(Hans Denck) A radical commitment to follow Jesus in all of life may begin with a crisis experience or may grow from the nurturance and support of the community of faith, but in the life of faith we are born again and again and again and again in “following Jesus,” the journey we call discipleship.
A Vision of Jesus as Christ: We look to Jesus. We live by Jesus’ incarnation, Jesus’ life, Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ suffering, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus’ living presence in our midst as His Holy Spirit . All of these are salvic, all are crucial, all are essential. He is the way; His way of non-violent, self-giving love is our way. He is truth; we cannot be false to anyone. He is life; in trust we risk all.
A Vision of Jesus as Center: We begin by meeting Jesus in the Gospels, through the lens of the gospels we read the epistles, and through them read the Hebrew Scriptures just as Jesus, John, Paul, Peter and James read and used the scripture (the Old Testament texts) which they followed. “Whatever (throughout Scripture) thrives and flourishes in light of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s inspired word by which we live and die. Whatever wilts in light of Jesus, is revelation about our human frailty and pathology.” (Manfred Brauch)
A Vision of Service in the name of Christ. Living out loving kindness is the concrete practice of imitating Christ the Servant. Following Jesus who came to serve is making our daily work an act of worship, a visible witness to love. Service validates any words of explanation we have to offer, this includes caring acts of compassion, sharing acts of giving to human need, risking acts of faithfulness in times of threat, sacrificing acts in situations of pain, loving acts in reconciling. We love each other as fellow disciples, our neighbor as fellow human, our enemy as co-humanity.
Living out such a counter-cultural vision is not easy—we lose the vision to the seductive formulaic spirituality of our culture, a culture that assumes faith is about finding a formula of “isms” —i.e. date of contract, assent to book of rules and conditions, purity on several select issues, reducing Jesus to a payment, soliciting friends and money for institutional growth. We lose it, recover it, lose it, recover it, lose it. Creating a community of visionaries who accept variety and diversity in practice while following a vision together is no easy task.
Anabaptists continue to ask, “Do you see Jesus? Are you following? Do you see life thru Jesus? Are you following?”