Did the Anabaptist reformers ‘win’?

Nov 29, 2017 by and

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Theologian Karl Barth, a supreme definer of Christianity in the twentieth century, continues to influence Christian thinkers, notably with his admonition, “The church must always be reformed.” Not many worldlings, though secularly molded, would disagree. While Christianity is not their game, they applaud when the church is reformed—as when it promotes positive human actions: for peace, justice, equality. But what does “being reformed” mean, and how does it work in the world?

Now, at the end of this month in which celebration of the Reformation has inspired its heirs for an every-five-hundred-year-style commemoration, many are ready to admit that they are wearily “over-Reformationed,” or ready to urge, “get over it.” Here is a word of caution, however, to those who are too eager to turn the page and be done with it all for the immediate future. It is time to ask whether Protestants & Co. have given due attention to sundry versions and meanings of churchly reformation, and whether some of the overlooked styles have something to say to church and world in the next half-millennium. The case for this?

Certainly not overlooked in the year past was the Lutheran Reformation, which conveniently gave a name to a complex set of reform movements. To be fair, partners in these movements reminded publics that Reformed (Calvinist) Protestantism brought its own style and effects, as did the Anglican Reformation. Where the ecumenical spirit prospers, some even saw that Catholic change deserves attention. This was not the old “Counter-Reformation” as Protestants called it but, simply, a “Catholic Reformation.”

If the book is now to be closed after mention of those four, has anything truly significant been overlooked? The answer is yes. It is sometimes called the “Radical” or “Left Wing of …” or, more properly, the “Anabaptist” version and vision.

In a worthy article in Plough, Anabaptist Peter Mommsen claims that the Anabaptist Reformation not only “matters,” but “won,” and tells why. He knows that it is very unbaptistic to make extravagant claims that “we’re number one.” But he does point to three reforms, neglected or disdained when Anabaptist movements were formed in the sixteenth century, whose teachings and practices made them look like “losers,” or made them to be losers when the hangmen from the other four versions defeated or even killed them.

Mommsen and his fellows rightfully can claim that no other part of the sixteenth-century eruption did so much for religious freedom as did the irritating Anabaptists. (An inserted footnote here: Mommsen lists modern-day church versions of these as Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Church of the Brethren, the Bruderhof and others who make up a towering column of 0.1 percent of the 2.2 billion Christians worldwide.)

We look up from statistics to point to victory number two, however partial it is, championed by Anabaptist radicals and their kin: nonviolence. Mommsen notes how heritages such as those represented by exemplars like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day, in the peace-church tradition and spirit, get hearings in Protestantism and Catholicism in our time.

The Anabaptist vision also favored and helped produce forms of community which did not and do not depend upon the power of imposed communities ruled by empires, political states, and autocratic church bureaucracies and managers. Against all odds, many believers are promoting what Mommsen calls “thick” (but not isolationist) communities. While they may not convert all to their experiments, their witness does not go unnoticed and is often positively heeded.

Is this boasting? At the end, Mommsen acknowledges some specialty weaknesses that do not deserve to be praised or copied. This cluster of Protestants did not “win,” as Mommsen’s article claims. But its witness is heard and its effects are still seen where religious freedom, nonviolence and community are present in fresh ways.

Martin E. Marty is a columnist for Religion News Service, where this article originally appeared.


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  • Walter Bergen

    The Radical Reformation did make significant contributions as Martin E. Marty outlines. One important contribution overlooked by Marty, and our H. S. Bender was that the non-resistant Anabaptists read the Great Commission as a present and continuous calling. Anabaptists deeply annoyed civic politicians aligned with state churches because they were effective missioners. Their message was transformational, and the evidence of new life credible. The Great Commission from Matthew was the most quoted Scripture reference according to Franklin Littell in a lecture given at MCC Akron in 1946 and subsequently published in MQR
    Sadly, our own Anabaptist scholars as well as evangelical scholars overlook this important contribution of the Radical Reformation as they uphold the more fashionable aspects. A radical obedience to the Great Commission as found in Scripture shaped Anabaptism profoundly.

  • Myron Steinman

    “….being a follower of Jesus is not a secured condition that follows a single prayer; rather it is a lifelong commitment that follows a thoughtful, significant decision. That commitment will need ongoing affirmation through the various stages and challenges of life. New birth begins a process of growth and maturation — a process that does not end nor is it contained to a single act.
    It is important for Mennonite congregations to enhance their interactive activity; not to only make converts, but to initiate relationships. Within growing relationships, explaining what it means to be a follower of Jesus is an ongoing conversation of evangelical proportions, not a one-time encounter.
    The story is told of an old Mennonite farmer who was asked by someone whether he was a Christian. The old man hesitated for a moment and then with a smile answered, “Well for that question, I think you should be asking my neighbor.”
    I like that response. It presumes strong relationships with our neighbors. But it also suggests a quality of relationship where a faith commitment is obvious. It isn’t something just talked about. It is something that reverberates throughout the relationship.
    I pray that God will grant Mennonite congregations a renewed vision for the redemptive power of relationships. I pray that God will increase our yearning to build new relationships with our neighbors and coworkers — so that the people historically known as “the quiet in the land” will beam with the peaceful confidence of God’s passionate love to restore and redeem.”