Anabaptist readings: Christ the center

Jul 15, 2014 by

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Each and every person is formed by something. Our history, family, culture and life decisions (both good and bad) shape us to be who we are today. We don’t get to choose whether we are formed. But we do get to choose who and what it is that forms us.

Menno Simons

Menno Simons

I want to take a deeper look at the ancestors of my faith who continue to have profound effects on who we are today. What did they believe; and how did those beliefs make them distinct then and now?

Anabaptism is more than distinct theology. Anabaptism is people, living people. And stories, lifestyles, dreams, beliefs and radical obedience. We are people who come from El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Ukraine, California, central Europe, Africa and from nearly every religious background and socioeconomic category. And yet we are all drawn together by Jesus Christ, who forms us and whom we long to be formed by.

One of the Anabaptist core convictions which stand unshakably front and center to the Anabaptists is a Christ-centered approach to the Bible.

Christ is the Center of our Faith

“Jesus stands as the lens by which we read the entire Bible, and the exemplary by which we engage all theology. Jesus takes all precedence in matters of faith and life for us. He is the exact representation of God and the King of our Kingdom. His example, teaching, and identity matter more than anything. His values, example, and commandments often put us at odds with the laws, values and expectations of Christendom and State. Responding to the ways of this world in a Jesus-like manner, Anabaptist communities operate as alternatives to the systems around them. It is the centrality of Jesus above all things that defines every other particularity within Anabaptism.” — Tyler Tully, a Mennonite from San Antonio

The genius of Anabaptism is its relentless insistence on radical obedience to Jesus as the center of our faith. Every aspect of life is called to connect with Christ: work and vocation, discernment, church order, personal piety, politics, economics, etc.

We’re called again and again, with various metaphors and urging, to place Christ as our foundation.

Menno Simons, the namesake of today’s Mennonites, repeatedly quoted 1 Cor. 3:11 in defense of this novel position, “No one can lay any foundation other than that which has already been laid: Jesus Christ.”

Christ for the Anabaptists was the center of faith and of life. Simons wrote:

He has thus delivered and freed his chosen, his saints, his brethren and children from servitude and the penalty of the law; from the judgment of sin, and from the fearful terrors of the threatened death in such a manner that their human weaknesses and involuntary mistakes, for his sake, will no more be counted against them as sin, if they will but walk before him with penitent believing hearts, and will steadily cling to his word with positive, assured consciences.

He famously invites us to “suit ourselves to Christ,” in other words, to align and orient our entire selves to the life and teachings of Jesus. In the same longer passage we are to “conform our life to the gospel,” be renewed “after the image of God,” and turn our “minds after Christ.”

In short, they suit themselves, in their weakness, to all words, commandments, ordinances, Spirit, rule, example and measure of Christ, as the Scripture teaches; for they are in Christ and Christ is in them; and therefore they live no longer in the old life of sin after the first earthly Adam (weakness excepted), but in the new life of righteousness which comes by faith, after the second and heavenly Adam, Christ; Paul says, I do not now live, “But Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me,” Gal. 2: 20.

In between her husband’s execution and her own, Maria Deventor writes to her four children, encouraging them, “Let your life be conformed to the gospel of Christ.”

Early leader Hans Denck does a fantastic job of poetically capturing the tension of all Anabaptists between the inner life of trusting Jesus (spirituality) and the public living of a Jesus-centered life (ethics): “No one can truly know Christ unless you follow him in life; and no one can truly follow him unless first you have known him.”

Hans Hafner, an early Hutterite leader, used the Anabaptist spiritual idea of Gelassenheit to call Christians to a Christ-centered faith: “When we truly realize the love of God we will be ready to give up for love’s sake even what God has given us.” We are to give up all worldly gifts in order to be able to love God and neighbor fully.

David Augsburger wrote in 1970 about Anabaptists then and now:

From the beginning in 1525 through the present, Mennonites have dreamed that it is (as aired originally on The Mennonite Hour, 1970, and reprinted in leaflet form):

  • Reasonable to follow Jesus Christ daily, radically, totally in life.
  • Practical to obey the Sermon on the Mount, and the whole New Testament, literally, honestly, sacrificially.
  • Thinkable to practice the way of reconciling love in human conflicts and warfare, non-defensively and non-resistantly.
  • Possible to confess Jesus as Lord above all nationalism, racism, or materialism.
  • Feasible to build a church which is voluntary, disciplined, and mutually committed to each other in Christ.
  • Conceivable to live simply, following the Jesus-way in lifestyle, in possessions, in service.

Finally, here’s a 2-minute video clip by contemporary Anabaptist leader Ron Sider called “Letter to the Future Church” in which he calls the church to a Christ-centered spirituality:

Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount. This post is part of a series on readings exploring Anabaptism. The series can be found on his blog, The Peace Pastor, where this post originally appeared.

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