Let’s Admit We Have a Problem
For hundreds of years, common wisdom assumed that the countries of the West were Christian nations.
This concept began when Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of his empire. It was reinforced with the advent of Protestant National churches. Then, beginning with John Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” sermon in 1630, civic religion and cultural Christianity became intertwined in the institutions of the United States.
The result was that Westerners were generally considered “Christian”. Individuals often had a normative level of Biblical literacy. Institutions, government, and leaders were assumed to espouse “Christian values”. In this “Christendom” system, conversion often meant claiming membership in a specific denomination and church attendance. Politicians were expected to attend Church and govern in “Christian” ways. There was little discernible difference between being a good citizen and a follower of Christ.
For decades now, these institutional structures have been breaking down. Most countries in Europe are predominantly secular and often skeptical of religion. The U.S. does not seem to be far behind. Stuart Murray defines this “post-Christendom” as:
the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist, 78).
This means that forms of churches that might have thrived under Christendom are either showing diminishing returns or have failed altogether.
Followers of Christ in the west now have the opportunity to define themselves apart from the expectations of their culture. Conversations are thriving around the word “missional,” as churches and Christian organizations seek to understand what it means to be missionaries in this new post-Christendom context.
Remember the Radicals?
The church can find guidance for this new season in many places, such as the thriving missionary church in China, dissenting historical movements like the early Franciscans, and most obviously, the early church. Within the Western church, one particular example is equipped for the challenges of this new reality: The Anabaptist tradition.
Anabaptism arose from the same cultural stew that birthed the Protestant reformation. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli spoke out against the abuses of the Catholic Church, yet they were quick to partner up with the burgeoning kingdoms of Europe. A few of these reformers went beyond reform in search of a more basic approach to Christian community.
These radical reformers taught that the choice to follow Christ should be made freely by consenting believers.
In both Catholic and Protestant nations, where church and state were intertwined, infant baptism was both a religious and a nationalist ritual. The term “anabaptism” was used to derogatorially label those who chose to be “re-baptized” as adults. In a world where their was little separation between church and state, the act was seen as both treasonist as heretical.
From their beginning, the Anabaptist movement has been an attempt to follow Jesus in spite of the surrounding cutlure and its civic religion.
Both the history and the formal groups that can be traced back to Anabaptism demonstrate that the tradition is far from perfect. However, with its genesis as a reaction to Christendom, it seems to be uniquely equipped for life in the increasingly Post-Christendom West.
The present-day Western Church needs to look to the Anabaptist tradition for clear approach to conversion, politics and its way of life.
In Post-Christendom, the church will need a robust definition of conversion.
In a culture where Christianity is assumed, practices like infant baptism and re-commitment are natural. These sacramental acts serve to support the cultural norms. However, in a missionary situation, following Christ means identifying with a way of life that is radically different from the surrounding culture.
The Anabaptist tradition, with its strong emphasis on the believer’s baptism and a uniquely Christian community life, provides a powerful framework for understanding conversion.
Anabaptists are best known or perhaps most notorious, for their emphasis on believer’s baptism. The movement’s origin stories cite stories of brave founders baptizing each other, and subsequently entire churches and cities. Menno Simmons taught that baptism was at the center of the conversion experience.
Those who believe receive remission of sins, not by, but in baptism.
They receive the good news of grace, of the remission of sins, of peace, of favour, of mercy and eternal life through Christ.
Believing this they get new minds. They deny themselves. They sincerely repent of their past life. They study the Bible diligently and obey the Gospel’s command. They trust in the merits of the blood of Christ.
Then they receive the sign of obedience, water baptism, as proof before God and his commune that they firmly believe in the remission of sins through Jesus Christ as it was preached and taught to them from the Word of God. When all this takes place, they receive remission of their sins in baptism. They receive it according to the promise of grace (The Secret of the Strength).
Ambrosius Spittelmayr described baptism as a man’s commitment to
throw himself under God and stay faithful to him in spite of prison, the sword, or whatever trial may come. . . It is to suffer with him. It is to be baptized like him, in blood” (ibid).
Baptism was both alluring and threatening because it was simultaneously something both ancient and new. It is the oldest practice or the church, beginning at Pentecost. In the context of 16th century Christendom, it was an act of both heresy and treason.
Is it possible for conversion to be as alienating and alluring today as it was then?
The challenge of the missionary in post-Christendom is two-fold. On one hand, many in the culture have no awareness of the way of Christ. On the other hand, the prevailing culture remains full of memories Christendom-era institutions.
The strength of this Anabaptist approach to conversion is in its recognition that choosing to follow Christ is a dangerous act of insurrection. In the secular West, the act of baptism itself may no longer be a threat to the empire, but choosing to follow Jesus remains full of countercultural, revolutionary acts.
Perhaps what is missing from the Church’s testimony in post-Christendom is to accept the way of Christ, and to follow him in ways that the surrounding culture will not understand.
Anabaptism also provides a theological tradition that illuminates what the convert is to become. Menno Simons summarized what many early Anabaptists thought about the similarity of baptism and circumcision.
Outward baptism with water is a seal or proof of our faith, just as outward circumcision was to the believing and obedient Abraham” (ibid).
As circumcision separated Abraham and his children as a new ethnicity, so baptism acts as an entrance into a new community.
Over the centuries, Anabaptists have developed a multifaceted theology of community. Some have focused on the economic ramifications of Christian community.
One early group, the Hutterites, inspired by the Jerusalem church in Acts 2, continue to practice a common-purse model today. For others, the focus is on egalitarianism. Michael Gaismair likens the new Christian community to a land in which the walls have been broken down, and there are
no more cities but only villages. Then there will be no distinctions among men, and no one shall consider himself more important or better than anyone else” (ibid).
Baptism then acts an entrance into what John Howard Yoder calls “the new humanity.” Drawing on 2 Corinthians 5 and Galatians 3, anabaptis theologian John Howard Yoder describes how
Baptism celebrates and effects the merging of the Jewish and the Gentile stories. They become a people with the law and a people without, a people walled off from the world and a people open to it, become a single community, melding the legacies of both…This new status is a new kind of social relationship, a unity that overarches the differences (Jew/ Gentile, male/ female, slave/ free) that previously had separated people (Yoder, The Body Politic).
Since everyone in Christendom is a Christian, churches have no need of demonstrating a unique way of being human or living in community. Instead of confusing the two, the Anabaptist tradition describes
Church and world are not two compartments under separate legislation or two institutions with contradictory assignments, but two levels of the pertinence of the same Lordship. The people of God is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.
The 21st century Western Post-Christendom world is full of inequities. The attempted movements like “Occupy Wall Street”, Marriage Equality and the digital terrorism of the group Anonymous reveal a deep cultural dissatisfaction with inequity. Sadly, the church is often cited as being more of a hindrance than a help with these issues.
While the Church will not completely embrace a culture’s understanding of egalitarianism, it cannot deny the scriptural all to value individuals for being made in the image of God, and all members of the body of Christ for their unique contribution. In its approach to conversion, the Anabaptist tradition offers theology and examples of how such ideals can be lived out that answer the question of the age.
Few issues facing the Post-Christendom Church are more treacherous than politics. From Constantine to George W. Bush, politics have been a defining element of the Church in the West. In Europe, political systems have used religion to justify the Crusades, the Protestant Wars following the Reformation, the Nazi Party, and the IRA. In the U.S., politics have become Christian’s most recognizable trait.
According to Lyons and Kinnaman
One-fifth of all American adults (21 percent) believe ‘the political efforts of conservative Christians’ are a major problem facing the country today… More than 110 million adult Americans admit they maintain misgivings about the role of ‘conservative Christians.’ (Kinnaman and Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters.)
Any presentation of the way of Jesus in the West must compete with this common conception of Christianity as a dangerous political movement.
Modern democracies of the West are different from the empires the early Anabaptists revolted against, but they still have many of the same flaws. Most obvious among these being war.
The Anabaptist witness itself is mixed on this topic. Their responses range from groups like the Amish have disavowed politics along with the rest of society, to others who seem indistinguishable from the larger Christian sub-culture.
But politics cannot avoided. Politics happen when people need to become organized. Anabaptist thought is most useful, not in defining how to interact with systems of the State, but in recapturing what politics truly is. The word politics derives from polis, often translated a city. “It means the orderly way in which they live together and make decisions, the way they structure their common life”. By this definition, the Church itself is a polis, and it “cannot do otherwise than exercise these same functions, going about its business as a body” (Yoder).
For centuries, the church has been preoccupied with how to manage the affairs of State in a “Christian” manner. In the U.S., this has led some Churches to focus on what they deem “moral” issues, and other churches to focus on “justice” issues. Neo-Anabaptist authors Fitch and Holsclaw criticize this approach, observing that while
they may differ on their version of what a Christian America should look like, they are both using the same tactic to work for God’s justice in the world.
[The problem with this approach is that] they turn the church into a recruitment center for individuals to go out and seek a justice in the world that is more conceptual than real. And the church itself, the social embodiment of the Lordship of Christ on earth, is never considered as an entity that lives God’s justice and reconciliation before the world and in the world. (Fitch & Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier.)
This image of the Church as counter-society seems to be far from the reality that non-Christians have witnessed in the United States.
According Lyons’ and Kinnaman’s data “Eighty-five percent of young outsiders have had sufficient exposure to Christians and churches that they conclude present-day Christianity is hypocritical” (Kinnaman 2007: 4). By hypocritical, they mean that Christians may have standards they try to hold others to which they seldom hold to themselves. This leads to an inability to differentiate between those who follow Christ and those who do not. “Among young outsiders, 84 percent say they personally know at least one committed Christian. Yet just 15 percent thought the lifestyles of those Christ followers were significantly different from the norm. This gap (15 to 84 percent) speaks volumes.”
The Christendom Church’s inability to present itself as counter-society is directly related to it’s political approach.
In Christendom, the Church the tools of the State should be used to enforce Christian ideals on the broader world. It should be no surprise that the result of this approach is a perception of hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy is not a Christian problem; it’s a human problem. The Christian response to all sin, including hypocrisy, is a combination of discipleship (that is working towards being less hypocritical) and grace, (an understanding that the Christian will never be fully discipled. In the relationship based context of the local church, this nuanced approach can be navigated. However, the public political public stage, does not organize itself around discipleship and grace. The inevitable result is that Christendom political groups highlight their own hypocrisy.
This Anabaptist approach would say that whether or not there is good to be done by managing the affairs of State, it is the Church’s job is to be a unique counterculture. Neo-Anabaptist theologian Stanley Hauerwas encourages the church to eschew using political systems to pursue a social agenda because
the most creative social strategy we have to offer is the church. Here, we show the world a manner of life the world can never achieve through social coercion or governmental action. We serve the world by showing it something that it is not, namely, a place where God is forming a family out of strangers (Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony).
While Post-Christendom remains in a misunderstanding of Christians as a hypocritical national political block, the Anabaptist tradition claims that the Church can simply be the Church. Without the responsibility of managing the affairs of State, the Church can turn it’s focus towards embodying and demonstrating the best that humanity can be: that is, a new humanity, formed by the persons and teachings of Jesus Christ.
It is fair to mention that it is on this exact point that the Anabaptist tradition has its most obvious shortcoming. If anything is known about Anabaptists by the larger American pop-culture, it is the image of the Pennsylvania Amish, plain dressed and driving horse and buggy. From the Schleigtheim Confession forward, many Anabaptists have taken the call of being countercultural as permission to be separatist. British Neo-Anabaptist leader Stuart Murray responds to this by pointing out that Schleightheim and other
statements need to be read in context. Persecuted communities often have little option but separation if they hope to survive. If the state is trying to eradicate you, if other churches brand you as “heretics” and neighbors are expected to denounce and betray you to the authorities, what else can you do? (Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).
Murray sees separatism as an aberration of the original vision of the movement. He points out that early Anabaptists were committed to social reform and church planting. He also points out the ways that his British Anabaptist Network is engaged in culture. To his list could be added the Mennonite Central Committee relief agency and neo-Anabaptist churches with a strong focus on evangelism. Murray admits that separatism, has no place in the post-Christendom church. However, he is hesitant to dismiss it altogether.
Perhaps separatism should not be dropped entirely, …The Old and New Testaments both call for the people of God to be distinctive, nonconformist, and separate. …As the Christendom era comes to an end and we rediscover our biblical status as “resident aliens,” maybe the Anabaptist tradition can help us discern when principled withdrawal is more appropriate than collusion, how to assess the benefits and drawbacks of participation, and whether there might sometimes be less conventional ways of being involved (ibid).
As the Church transitions into post-Christendom, politics, as well as the ghosts of past political stances, will continue to be a monumental issue. Both the strengths and weaknesses of Anabaptist theology and history provide the post-Christendom church with tools for embracing the political situations of this new era.
Way of Life
The challenge of Post-Christendom can be summarized as a general sense of confusion over what the Church should be. Formed as a rejection of Christendom, the Anabaptist tradition is particularly equipped to respond. Stuart Murray’s emerging Anabaptist movement in Britain begins their statement of seven core convictions by saying that
Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church, and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him. (Murray).
As obvious as “Christians follow Jesus example” may sound, Murray points out just how countercultural this was in the Reformation era and remains today.
He argues that focus on worshipping Jesus as a divine being has marginalized the person and teachings of Jesus. Catholics envisioned Jesus as a far off imperial figure. Luther himself appears to favor Paul over the gospels, when he states “it would be better to lack the works and the history than the words and the doctrine.” (ibid: 55). Such an approach to Christianity allows one to “worship” Jesus while avoiding the call to follow him. This has been used to justify the idea that one can “love the enemies into whom you were thrusting your sword.” (ibid: 54).
By focusing on Jesus as example, the question shifts from “What is the right way to worship?” to “How do I follow Jesus’s example?” This question, summed up by the word “discipleship”, is, according to Anabaptist scholar Harold S. Bender, “first and fundamental in the Anabaptist vision.” An Anabaptist discipleship assumes that
the life and teachings of Christ are to be duplicated in principle…Furthermore Christ’s message becomes the message of the disciple… His sweeping rejection of social and political structures,
His mobility and freedom from cultural attachments, His eschatological outlook, and His love and nonresistance are accepted as normative for all believers.
The uniqueness of Anabaptism lies in its conviction that Christianity is much more than reflection upon Christ as the divine being who has invaded time, and it is more than the appropriation of the benefits of the divine drama of the cross. Christianity is concrete and realistic “imitation” of Christ’s life and work in the context of the kingdom of God (Burkholder, The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision.)
What all is entailed in an Anabaptist style of discipleship for the Post-Christendom world?
Neo-Anabaptist writers Fitch and Holsclaw draw on Karl Barth’s interpretation of Jesus as the ideal “prodigal son,” where “the journey of the Son reveals the true nature of the parable, expressing the radical missionary nature of God, that the Father has sent the Son into the far country to redeem the world. The disciples are sent out with the promise “God is with us,” and they act as “an extension of the incarnation, as the extension of the life and ministry of Jesus” (Fitch and Holsclaw, Prodigal).
They suggest seven practices for the Church to enact this way of life together.
The Hospitality of the Table
In instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is creating a practice of humility, egalitarianism and hospitality. The act of serving and eating with people who are different brings the eschatological reality of the kingdom into the present moment, and it spills into other opportunities for service throughout the week.
Proclamation of the Gospel
Proclamation is the act of declaring a reality (or truth) that others have yet to see (the kingdom has come!) and doing so in a way that speaks into a situation (“every town and place”; Luke 10:1 NIV)”. They give the example of responding to others by reminding them “Jesus is Lord of your situation,” or asking the question “what do you think God is asking of you?
They suggest practicing the method of reconciliation provided by Jesus in Matthew 18. This extends the incarnation
because Christ has reconciled us to God, we are working out this reconciliation with one another under his reign. As we practice this reconciliation in our lives together, we are then able to practice it in the neighborhood, bringing Christ’s in-breaking authority to broken relationships and structures where we live.
Being with People on the Fringes
Jesus says that when you are truly present with ‘the least of these,’ you are also in his presence and this is a sign of what the kingdom looks like (Matthew 25: 31– 46). This means creating opportunities to connect with different types of people often across racial or economic lines, where] we relax, take all agendas off the table, listen, and pay attention in order to listen for God and discover where God is working.
Being with the Children
[Jesus taught] when we welcome children, when we are present with them in love and hospitality, Jesus becomes present with us… Only by welcoming and becoming like children can we enter the kingdom of God (18: 3)…When we refuse to make children into a separate program or ministry… We find ourselves being transformed by the love of children and the things they teach us.”
Fivefold Ministry and Gifts
Jesus is not distant, but instead is present through his offer of “gifts for equipping the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers….these gifts are not only for the internal organization of the church…rather, they are necessary for forming the kingdom in each neighborhood.
Following the model of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus teaches that Kingdom Prayer is
first and foremost about submitting our lives, circumstances, needs, wants, and struggles into God’s coming kingdom…” Such prayer creates space for Christ power and healing, removes ego and interacts with tangible issues in one’s life and community.
The Post-Christendom West is full of people who have encountered churches, Christians and Christian Institutions, but may not have encountered Jesus or any who are following his example. The Anabaptist tradition fills this gaping hole by providing a rich history of individuals and communities that testify to what this way of life could be.
Rescuing the Church from Christendom
In the Spring of 2013 a gathering of missional thinkers and practitioners convened in Washington D.C. for the inaugural Missio Alliance gathering. Among the topics that seemed to recur was the idea that following Christ must be embodied presently and in eternity.
Anglican leader Tony Bauccum noted that the questions that the world is asking today are “creational” questions, that is “what does it mean to be human?” New Testament scholar Cherith Fee Nordling described the church as a “movie preview” of the kingdom of God. Church planter Keas Keasler focused on the call of the church to live non-violently. Mennonite preacher Bruxy Cavey explained their church’s focus on being Christlike as opposed to being religious. There seemed to be a common desire to move beyond teaching what to believe and articulate a Jesus-like way of life.
Missio Alliance displayed a trend that is happening across denominations. Churches in the West, often built on the cultural Christianity of Christendom, seem to be asking the question: “What would it look like for us to follow Christ?”
The answer will be new, because it will have to respond to the cultural realities of the 21st century. If they succeed, it will be because they have created a third way that refuses collude with either the forces of secularism, paganism, or Christendom.
When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus responded by telling him “on this rock I shall build my Church.” His choice of the word ekklēsia for his Church is telling. It was a political word, used to describe citizens who had been called out of their larger community, and assembled for the purposes of deliberation.
The work of the Church in the Post-Christendom West will be to recapture this sense of being a called out people, deliberating together on how to live in the world. The result will be a movement of dissidents, carving out a new way of life together in the ruins of the old Church and the shadow of the secular and pagan world order.
The good news is that they will only be the latest in a long lineage of dissidents. Looming in history are the Anabaptists, as well as Jesuits, Franciscans, Waldensians, Moravians and untold others. Chief among them all is the King who revolted against the Empire of Rome and the religion of his people, Jesus Christ.
Burkholder, J. Lawrence. The Anabaptist Vision of Disicpleship. The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Edited by Guy F. Hershberger. Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1957.
Fitch, David, and Geoff Holsclaw. Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass, 2013.
Hoover, Peter. Scroll Publishing, “The Secret of the Strength: What Would the Anabaptists Tell This Generation?.” Accessed June 12, 2013. http://www.gw.org/Sos/.
Lyons, Gabe, and David Kinnaman. unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007.
Murray, Stuart. The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Waterloo, Ontartio: Herald Press, 2010.
Various Speakers. “The Future of the Gospel: Renewing Evangelical Imagination for Mission.” Lectures at the Missio Alliance Inaugural Gathering, April 10-13, 2013.
Willimon, William, and Stanley Hauerwas. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.
Winthrop, John. University of Virginia Library, “A Model of Christian Charity .” Accessed June 12, 2013. http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html.
Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1992.