For The Sake of the Kingdom:
A Call for Twenty-first Century Mennonites
to Reclaim the Evangelical Heart
of Our Anabaptist Heritage

Eric A. Kouns
Executive Secretary
Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship

Part One:
Why I Am A Mennonite

Introduction: Some Personal Reflections

I am an evangelical Christian who has been profoundly and positively influenced by the tenets of historical Anabaptism. As an evangelical I believe (1) that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the only authoritative guide for faith and life; (2) that personal salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone; and (3) that the message of the gospel of Christ must be declared plainly, both by word and deed, and that every person must confess Jesus Christ as Lord in order to receive God's free gift of forgiveness and eternal life.

I am indebted to Anabaptism for heightening my awareness of the need to integrate faith and life, to look seriously at the implications of faithful discipleship, and to emphasize the ethic of love and nonresistance in all human relationships. I also appreciate the emphasis of historical Anabaptism on the inherent separation between church and state, the church as a voluntary community of baptized believers, and the need for discipline and mutual accountability in the community of faith.

I am no historian in any technical sense of that term. As a graduate of a Bible college, a Christian liberal arts college and a Mennonite seminary, I am aware of the theological issues which gave rise to the Protestant Reformation, including its so-called "radical" wing. I admit I sometimes have difficulty sorting out the various branches of sixteenth century Anabaptism, and I can't always recall how the Swiss-German Anabaptists differed from the Dutch and Hutterite strands, but I believe I understand something of the spirit of that sixteenth century movement. I cannot debate the finer points of difference between the thought of Hans Denck and that of Ulrich Stadler, but I appreciate the intensity of their devotion to Christ and their commitment to faithful discipleship. I imagine they would be astonished to learn that their writings had become the subject of academic disciplines such as Anabaptist history and Anabaptist theology.

I grew up among Baptist fundamentalists, moved to mainstream evangelicalism after graduating from Bible college, and joined the Mennonite Church while in seminary in 1982. Some would say that my "outsider's" perspective is helpful in assessing the character of contemporary Anabaptism. Others are convinced that I don't understand Anabaptist-Mennonite history and theology well enough to presume to critique the current state of the movement. For my part, as the career diplomat was wont to say, I feel strongly both ways.

On the one hand I think I can offer a helpful perspective in the current debate regarding Mennonite identity and the relationship of Anabaptist Christianity to the broader Christian community. On the other hand I do feel a bit presumptuous offering a critique of contemporary Anabaptism, particularly when my conclusions lead to criticism of an interpretation of Anabaptism which I believe distorts the spirit and soul of the historical Anabaptist movement.

Of course I realize there are many in our communion who, knowing my theological pilgrimage are convinced that "once a fundamentalist, always a fundamentalist." Well, as an ex-fundamentalist I am no stranger to holding forth on any number of issues about which I know relatively little. I suppose that is one reason why I have agreed to undertake a presentation of this sort.

Still, I am a Mennonite. I have pastored two congregations in the Virginia Mennonite Conference, and that is where my ordination credentials currently reside, at least for the time being. I have voluntarily aligned myself with this communion, and over the years I have tried to understand our traditions, our roots, our spiritual history. This paper is part of the fruit of that reflection. I have written it with the hope of emphasizing how the strengths of our tradition can impact the broader Christian community in positive ways. I also want to note some ways the strengths of the broader Christian community, particularly evangelicals, can enhance the effectiveness of our Anabaptist testimony before a watching world. My goal in reflecting upon why I am a Mennonite is not to encourage the replication of Anabaptism, as an historical phenomenon, in a twenty-first century context. Rather, it is to examine the spiritual dynamic which gave rise to the historical movement and explore the possibility that "the spirit of the Anabaptist vision" might still provide a relevant and effective motivation and model for the way we "do church" today.

Historical Overview: Revisiting The Anabaptist Vision

Historians tell us there are two important elements in the preservation of any tradition: memory and continuity. Memory entails an attempt to recall an event in its particular historical setting. Continuity describes the way the tradition expresses itself contemporarily.

Anabaptism, as an historical movement, arose out of a particular situation in the sixteenth century. Our situation is vastly different. We cannot transplant sixteenth century Anabaptism into the twenty-first century. Moreover it is impossible to institutionalize an historical movement, as has been done with Anabaptism through the development of denominations such as the Mennonite Church, without, in the process, losing something of the original movement's vitality and dynamism.

Memory changes. Interpretation varies over the years. Most historians will admit that the times in which we write history will determine what we see in that history and will affect our interpretation of it. When it comes to writing and interpreting church history, our conclusions are also influenced by the doctrinal and spiritual presuppositions and convictions which we bring to the task of historical interpretation.

In December 1943, Harold S. Bender, then dean of Goshen (IN) College, summarized his interpretation of the origins of the Anabaptist tradition in his "president's address" to the American Society of Church History, meeting that year in New York City. In that paper, which Bender called The Anabaptist Vision, he argued that, from its origins in Zurich in 1525, the Anabaptist movement swept through Europe as an essentially uniform phenomenon.

Later Anabaptist historians have challenged Bender's assumptions and have questioned his description of a monolithic Anabaptism. They have suggested, for example, that Anabaptism arose in at least three distinct areas--Switzerland, South Germany, and the Netherlands--with each group evidencing characteristics and emphases unique to its own expression of Anabaptism. The book, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Westminster, 1957), notes three main subdivisions within the Anabaptist movement: revolutionary Anabaptism, contemplative Anabaptism, and evangelical Anabaptism.

Dean Bender's summary of the major points of historic Anabaptism is probably too simple and, thus, not wholly accurate. Sixteenth century Anabaptism was, no doubt, far more diverse and varied than Bender's conclusions indicate. Still, the significance of The Anabaptist Vision can hardly be overstated, since it summarizes important elements of Anabaptist thought which lend balance and practicality to contemporary Christian living.

The Anabaptist Vision: Three Characteristics, Two Foci

According to Bender, the Anabaptist movement, which arose during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, was marked by three identifiable characteristics. They are:

  1. The essence of Christianity expressed in discipleship (Nachfolge Christi).

  2. Voluntary church membership based on true conversion and a commitment to holy living.

  3. The ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships, marked by abandonment of all warfare, strife, violence and taking of human life.
Bender further asserted that the "Anabaptist vision" addressed two specific areas of concern to serious Christians, two foci, if you will. The first of these relates to the essential nature of Christianity. As Bender reckoned it, in Roman Catholicism, grace comes through the sacramental/sacerdotal system. The Reformers emphasized an inner experience of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. To the Anabaptists, however, Christianity is essentially a new life of discipleship involving faithfulness to Christ's teaching and example.

The second focal point of the Anabaptist vision relates to the essential nature of the church. Again, according to Bender, for Roman Catholics the church is an institution. Where the priest is, there is the church. For the Reformers, the church was an instrument of grace. Where the sacraments are rightly observed and the Word is rightly preached, there is the church. For Anabaptists, however, the church is a brotherhood of love in which the fullness of the Christian life ideal is experienced.

Effects of The Anabaptist Vision

Whether by Bender's original intent or not, the publication of The Anabaptist Vision achieved at least two effects.

1. It helped to establish the view that the Anabaptist movement was a legitimate element of the Protestant Reformation. In fact, Anabaptism advanced Reformation thought to its logical conclusion. Bender wrote,

Anabaptism is the culmination of the Reformation, the fulfillment of the original vision of Luther and Zwingli, and thus...a consistent evangelical Protestantism seeking to recreate without compromise the original New Testament church, the vision of Christ and the apostles. (The Anabaptist Vision, Herald Press, 1944, p. 13)

In support he quoted a portion of a 1524 letter from Conrad Grebel to Thomas Muntzer. A few pages later he reinforced this assessment with the following statement.

The Anabaptists... retained the original vision of Luther and Zwingli, enlarged it, gave it body and form, and set out to achieve it in actual experience. (op. cit., p. 18)

2. It helped to chart a path for American Mennonites between the theological extremes of modernism and fundamentalism. The conflict between these two camps which raged throughout the broader Christian community in America during the 1920s took its toll on American Mennonitism as well.

Conservative Mennonite leaders were uncomfortable with new interpretations of the spirit and vision of sixteenth century Anabaptism which, they believed, were influenced by Enlightenment rationalism. "Progressive" thinkers, on the other hand, concluded that conservative Mennonites had uncritically adopted the dispensational eschatology and rigid Biblical literalism of Protestant fundamentalism.

H. S. Bender's 1943 presidential address to the American Society of Church History helped bring a measure of balance to the theological debate. The Anabaptist Vision reminded Mennonites that the genius of Anabaptism was its focus on ethics, not strictly on doctrine. As Al Keim wrote in Gospel Herald, April 19, 1994, "(t)he key word for the Anabaptists was not faith, but Nachfolge Christi (following Christ)."

While Bender recognized the Anabaptist emphasis on discipleship as the evidence of God's transforming grace at work in and through the life of a believer, he did not minimize the importance of a solid doctrinal foundation upon which a life of consistent discipleship must be built. And he described the character of that doctrinal foundation in unequivocal and unambiguous terms. I am convinced, as was Bender, that most 16th century Anabaptists subscribed to the heart of Reformation theology in matters such as the nature of God, the nature of man, the person and work of Christ, and the authority of the scriptures.

Now, before I move on to comparing and contrasting Anabaptist Christianity with contemporary evangelicalism, I offer the following "points to ponder" regarding the viability of the Anabaptist vision as a model for our approach to Christian ministry and discipleship in the twenty-first century.

1. While first-generation Anabaptists recognized that the new birth, God's free gift of grace, empowerment by the Holy Spirit, and other similar doctrines were the fertile soil out of which discipleship is to grow, subsequent generations have focused attention on those points where Anabaptists differed with the heart of the Protestant Reformation. They have made these secondary points the essence of contemporary Anabaptist/Mennonite religious experience. From this perspective, works of faith (a proper response to God's grace) have become works of merit by which, at least implicitly, some believe they may experience God's grace. A balanced view of historical Anabaptism will recognize and avoid this tendency.

2. If the worthy tenets of historical Anabaptism are genuinely from the Lord, and if, therefore, they have timeless application to faithful Christian living, they should be shared with the broader Christian community. The spirit of John 17 requires it. Otherwise isolationism and arrogance tend to develop, and we are seeing evidence of that within the contemporary Anabaptist/Mennonite community.

3. Anabaptist Christians should not overlook the fifteen centuries of church history which antedated the Reformation era. Nothing in the Anabaptist vision for the church originated in the sixteenth century. It was merely an attempt to recover the spirit of the first century "Pentecost" experience and its results in the lives of believers.

4. Anabaptism is not an end in itself. It is merely one means to the end, which is to lift up Jesus Christ and proclaim the kingdom, the power, and the glory of God. It offers a context within which--by both life and lip, both word and work, both belief and behavior -- the good news of salvation through Christ can be communicated to a lost world. Many Mennonites recall the famous words of Hans Denck: "No one can truly know Christ except he follow Him in life." While those words are true, contemporary Anabaptists need to recall that Denck and all the other early Anabaptist leaders assumed an experience of genuine new birth, forgiveness from sin, and the experience of new life in Christ as foundational to a life of discipleship and faithful service. What passes for Anabaptism today, in many quarters, focuses on "works of service" without commensurate emphasis on the new birth as the starting point. They advocate what Sanford Shetler called "discipleship without a beginning."

5. As the title of George Williams' classic text, The Radical Reformation (Westminster, 1962), indicates, the Anabaptists have come to be known as the radicals of the Protestant Reformation. Some who profess to follow in the train of the sixteenth century Anabaptists like to use the term "radical" to designate their brand of Christianity, which is little more than social and political liberalism dressed up in religious garb.

We need to recognize, however, that the Latin word radix, from which our English word radical derives, meant "the root, heart, or essence." When we talk about "radical" Christians, we need to emphasize the root, heart and essence of the Christian message. That "root" is not a political or social agenda. The "root" or "heart" of Christianity is the cross of Jesus Christ. And that cross is not merely the symbol of suffering or the supreme example of nonresistance, as some contemporary Anabaptists would have us believe. That cross is the only means by which the problem of human sin can be resolved, God's righteous demands can be satisfied, and sinners can come to know God's love and grace and forgiveness. That is the standard by which "radical Christianity" must be measured.

Among the myriad of denominations which make up the tapestry of modern American Christianity, only those in the Mennonite and Brethren tradition claim direct descendancy from sixteenth century Anabaptism. Anabaptists have been caricatured and misrepresented down through the years, but in the past quarter century more and more evangelical church historians have come to appreciate the positive influence of Anabaptism on the Christian community and the unique contribution of this tradition to a balanced interpretation of church history.

The Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition is a worthy one. The Anabaptist vision remains a viable and relevant framework for consistent Christian living. When it is properly interpreted, and when it has been exemplified by consistency, balance, devotion, and grace, Mennonite Christianity has made a positive contribution to the Christian community and to society at large. I am a Mennonite because I want to identify with a heritage that, despite flaws in its application at times, nevertheless has stood for serious discipleship and a faith that demonstrates itself in service. I continue to believe that this tradition and its worthy tenets still have something positive and energizing to contribute to contemporary Christianity. Granted, it may require some effort to reclaim the evangelical heart of Anabaptist Mennonitism for a new generation of believers, but I think the potential results are worth the effort.

I close this section with two quotations. The first is taken from the book, The Radical Reformation by George Williams. Here are the words with which Williams summarizes his 800 pages of Anabaptist history.

The great majority of the mighty host of men and women whose lives we have sketched communicate an overwhelming sense of their earnestness, their lonely courage, and their conviction. They were aware of a providential purpose that informed their deeds. The bleakness, squalor, brutality, and frenzy of the vast scene in which they played their parts was relieved for them -- as for us, the spectators -- by the intense assurance which these people had that, within the shadow of their crosses, God stood keeping watch above His own. The cumulative effect of their testimony is that Christianity is not child's play, that to be a Christian is to be commissioned. (op. cit.)

And then, from H. S. Bender's The Anabaptist Vision:

(T)he Anabaptist was realistic. Down the long perspective of the future he saw little chance that the mass of humankind would enter such a brotherhood with its high ideals. Hence he anticipated a long and grievous conflict between the church and the world. Neither did he anticipate the time when the church would rule the world; the church would always be a suffering church. he agreed with the words of Jesus when He said that those who would be His disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him, and that there would be few who would enter the strait gate and travel the narrow way of life. If this prospect should seem too discouraging, the Anabaptist would reply that life within the Christian brotherhood is satisfyingly full of love and joy.

The Anabaptist vision was not a detailed blueprint for the reconstruction of human society, but the Brethren did believe that Jesus intended that the kingdom of God should be set up in the midst of the earth, here and now, and this they proposed to do forthwith. We shall not believe, they said, that the Sermon on the Mount or any other vision that He had is only a heavenly vision meant but to keep His followers in tension until the last great day, but we shall practice what He taught, believing that where He walked we can by His grace follow in His steps. (op. cit., p. 35, 36)

These quotations verbalize the heart and spirit of the Anabaptist vision. They describe the character of biblical Christianity. And they fairly and aptly summarize the reason I am a Mennonite.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Download Full Document

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