Showalter: Do we miss the heart of the gospel?

Jan 29, 2018 by

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“What are the markers of Anabaptism?” asked Nelson Kraybill, president of Mennonite World Conference, to a panel at the annual meeting of the North American Anabaptist mission agencies this winter. It is a key identity question for Mennonites and Anabaptists around the globe.

Richard Showalter


The panel responded by identifying five markers:

A believers church (serious disciples of Jesus, often in “unregistered churches” like the Anabaptists, who recognize the core of the gospel in the death and resurrection of Jesus for our sins and who “seek first the kingdom of God” as taught in the Sermon on the Mount);

Active embrace of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20, one of the two most-quoted verses in 16th-century court records of Anabaptist trials);

A theology and practice of suffering love (peace, nonresistance and bearing the cross even in the face of persecution);

Mutual aid (caring community);

Rejection of imperial forms of Christianity (avoiding ecclesiastical dependence on and connection with governmental power).

The answer evoked fascinating reflections. Are the believers church and an embrace of the Great Commission important markers of Anabaptism?

“Yes,” said one. “In the past 70 years we in North America have so emphasized peace as the core of Anabaptism that sometimes we omit the essential spiritual identity from which peace flows. We reduce our faith to political activism.”

Another said, “Harold Bender, who gave us ‘The Anabaptist Vision’ in 1945, just assumed — without stating it — that active embrace of the Great Commission was core to Anabaptist identity. Before he died, he said he regretted omitting it from his ‘Anabaptist markers.’ ”

A young international leader remarked, “I’ve lived among you for several years, but this is the first time I’ve heard someone say that obedience to the Great Commission is a core marker of Anabaptism. Is there somewhere I can read about this?”

He continued, “I believe that peace is at the core of the gospel. Peace and the gospel are inseparable, of course. Yet I have been doubting to what extent peace is actually possible outside of the gospel. I see some peace movements which do not seem integrated with Jesus’ gospel. I’m excited to hear that the Great Commission was one of the core markers of Anabaptism.”

Hearing this, I was sobered. What is the core of the gospel for North American Anabaptists? We have widely adopted “peace and reconciliation” as code words for it. When fully understood, these terms can express the core. Reconciliation with God leads to reconciliation with one another; peace with God leads to peace with one another: That gets at the gospel. The vertical and the horizontal are both there, just as Jesus put it decisively in the two great commandments from the Old Testament — love of God and love of neighbor.

Nevertheless, it is possible to use code words for human relationships yet ignore reconciliation with God, the New Testament’s “first commandment.” In so doing, we miss the heart of the gospel. Jesus proclaimed that “the kingdom of God is near.”

Of course, some Christians emphasize the vertical at the expense of the horizontal. “Christianity” can then become a fire-insurance policy or a private spiritual affair with God. Human relationships are deemed irrelevant to the gospel. But Anabaptist theology and practice has rarely veered in that direction in conservative or progressive form.

We must never embrace only half our historical and spiritual legacy, the horizontal, and forget that Jesus is Savior and Lord as well as example and teacher. Our non-Western brothers and sisters can help us remember.

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.

Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Charlie Kraybill

    Of course, students of Anabaptist history know that it was not a monolithic movement. There were varied streams and tendencies amongst the early Anabaptists, depending on location and dates of activity. For example, South German Anabaptist leader Hans Denck was viewed skeptically by the Swiss Brethren because he dissented from their views in key areas. Denck asserted that compassion and mercy are God’s defining attributes, which to him meant that every single human being, in the end, would be reconciled and welcomed into the Divine Presence. So for Denck, the “Great Commission” had a different meaning than it has for 21st-century evangelical Mennonites. Another key Anabaptist leader, Felix Manz, in his trial, said that people of other faiths should be left undisturbed to practice as they saw fit. Many Anabaptists were vigorous advocates for freedom of belief and freedom of association — for everyone. After all, if you’re going to insist on the right to practice your own religion freely, it follows that you be willing to extend that freedom to those outside your faith community. In general, proselytizing non-Christians did not seem to be part of the original Anabaptist program. When the early Anabaptists went out and invited people to join their movement, they were addressing fellow members of the Catholic community. Their goal was to radicalize fellow Christians, not convert Jews or Turks or other outsiders. It won’t do to insist that most members of the Catholic church were so far off track that we might as well consider them heathens and infidels. This would be an insult to all the well-meaning Catholic parishioners of 16th-century Europe who followed their best lights in endeavoring to practice the gospel. Is anyone here today going to say that sincere Catholics who declined to join the Anabaptist movement (for whatever reasons) were not genuine Christians? I hope not. Is anyone going to say that the Jews and Turks of 16th-century Europe will not be welcomed into the Divine Presence? I hope not.

    • Conrad Hertzler

      I will help to put your hopes at rest by saying that sincerity and good intentions are not the basis of salvation, neither by joining the Anabaptist faith. We only approach God the Father (is that who you are meaning by Divine Presence?) through Jesus Christ. His words, not mine. The outworking of our salvation should cause us to ask such questions as this panel sought to answer. These are good words from Richard.

      • Charlie Kraybill

        Really? Sincerity and good intentions count for nothing? The sincere and well-intentioned Buddhist who lives an exemplary life that parallels a sermon on the mount he’s never read is worse off with God the Father than the Wall Street bandit who lacks all compassion for others but mouths certain verbal formulations regarding Jesus? This goes against the common sense God gave us to figure things out. What bothers me most about your exclusivist salvation plan is that it leaves out every single Jewish person in history — Jesus’s own people. That fact alone should give you pause.

        • Conrad Hertzler

          I think if you go back and read my brief comment, I did not say good intentions count for nothing. However, I do believe that in the light of me being reconciled with God, good intentions count for very little. I can have all the good intentions in the world and be 100% wrong. And I would say that a well-intentioned Buddhist and your Wall Street bandit who simply mouths verbal formulations are in the same boat. They’ve both missed out on what it means to be reconciled and in right relationship with God. Why? Because they have not come to the Father through Jesus. There simply is no other way. I know you put a lot of stock in common sense and our ability to “figure things out”. However, I’m not so confident in mankind’s ability to figure things out, and I have no confidence at all that we can dictate to God the terms in which we approach Him. As for the Jews, if you sit down and study the book of Romans, you will read a good case for God proclaiming people like Abraham righteous because of their faith before Jesus came. That, as well as the sacrificial system, was the provision then. The provision now is that we come to the Father through Jesus.

          • Charlie Kraybill

            Let me see if I understand what you’re saying: The faith of the Jews who lived pre-Jesus (coupled with their bloody animal sacrifices) was adequate to save them. But all the Jews who have lived since Jesus have no hope of salvation without abandoning their Jewish faith and becoming Christians. I urge you to run that past one of your Jewish friends and watch the expression on their face. As for the poor Buddhist who missed out on being in right relationship with God through Jesus (even though his life revolved around the practice of showing compassion to every living thing), how can he be held responsible for missing out on something he didn’t know existed? Where did the Buddhist’s impulse for compassion come from if not from the same Source as the Source behind Jesus? Your salvation requirement of “coming to the Father through Jesus” is extremely exclusionary, so much so that only a small percentage of God’s creatures will make it, and most of those who won’t make it will miss out through no fault of their own (lack of knowledge). Is the God behind such a plan compassionate, or cruel? The answer to that question is obvious, to me. Using the common sense God gave me — or, as Hans Denck would put it, the “inner word” — I can deduce that a merciful and compassionate Deity wants to save everybody and will find a way to save everybody. No matter what the Bible says or seems to say.

          • Conrad Hertzler

            Yes, it is exclusionary. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God. Paul would be the first to admit that the message of the Cross doesn’t make sense in a cognitive way. The writer of Hebrews says describes Jesus as a stumbling block. His message and His work are beyond our ability to figure out because it’s not the way we would do things. And that causes people to stumble.

            You and I are approaching this subject from vastly different viewpoints. I believe that the words of Jesus as recorded in Scripture convey the message that He wanted to convey. When He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father except through me”, I think He was serious about that. It’s a pretty exclusionary statement. Does that leave me with questions? Sure it does. But if I’m to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then I have to take His words as truth, otherwise he was a raving madman.

            You’ve come to the conclusion that the Bible is flawed and needs our common sense interpretation. I haven’t. Neither have I found my faith journey as a Believer to be one that always makes common sense. But so far it’s been an incredible one!

          • Charlie Kraybill

            You quote Paul as if his words are the same as the words of God. Do you believe that? Do you think that when Paul was writing his letters he had any idea that his words would eventually be treated as holy writ, on the same level as his own scriptures? What about the places where Paul says that he doesn’t have a word from the Lord on this or that, he’s only giving his own views? Are those sayings of Paul on the same level of authority with the rest? As for the words of Jesus, I don’t believe he was a raving madman, and it’s always been a red herring to inject that line into a discussion. I think Jesus was a pretty smart guy, sensitive and intuitive, naturally wise. The question is how many statements attributed to him actually go back to Jesus. Any serious NT scholar would admit that at least some Jesus sayings were products of the people who were behind the writing of the gospels. Each gospel writer had their own agendas and their own communities to please. They were not above tinkering with the sayings to serve their purposes. This doesn’t make them bad writers or bad people. It’s just a plain factual observation. The sayings in the Gospel of John are the most suspect of all, because they differ so radically from the sayings in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). How likely is it that Jesus claimed to be the one and only exclusive conduit to reach the Father in heaven? Not very likely, in my view. It wasn’t a very Jewish thing to say.

          • Daniel Hoopert

            A few comments: ‘You quote Paul as if his words are the same as the words of God. Do you believe that?’ I believe that. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things that I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37, ESV). He goes on to say< If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized" (v. 38). 2. 'Do you think that when Paul was writing his letters he had any idea that his words would eventually be treated as holy write, on the same level as his own Scriptures?' There is a good possibility that he did. He would have recognized that a body of Scripture grew up around the first covenant that God made with Israel, and so he may well have anticipated that a new body of Scripture would grow up around the new covenant that God made (I do not remember the person who wrote this to cite him). Paul's claims about all Scripture being breathed out by God may be rather astounding. "Any serious NT scholar would admit that at least some [of] Jesus' sayings were products of the people who were behind the writing of the gospels." Whoa. I can think of quite a list of NT scholars that I think are very serious scholars who I am quite sure would not believe that the sayings of Jesus were products of the people who were behind the writing of the Gospels. Let me urge you to read some things by some scholars, especially on the matter of the canon of Scripture: Michael Kruger, Thomas Schreiner, Andreas Kosestenberer, Douglas Moo, DA Carson, John Piper, Albert Mohler, Dan Wallace. We have some in the Mennonite fold as well. "How likely is ii that Jesus claimed to be the one and only exclusive conduit to reach the Father in heaven?" Very likely. As Conrad quoted, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father except through me." Perhaps he was not very Jewish; after all, he claimed to be one with the Father, and the Jews of his time (at least the leaders) considered him to be blaspheming. On the other hand, perhaps he was very Jewish – more Jewish than the leaders who wanted to reject him. So Jewish because he saw and knew that he was the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures. It boils down to this: The primary message of the Christian faith, the primary message in the sense that it is the first message to enter the Christian faith, and is foundational to the Christian faith, is the message of the cross: Jesus Christ, as God's Son, died on the cross as the means whereby God the Father could and would forgive us for our sins against him. We have sinned against God. Whatever else might be said about sin, we have sinned against a Holy God.He has determined what will satisfy the needs for us to be forgiven. He has declared that through his apostle Paul (at least one person), as well as Jesus' own words, when He said that the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.The apostle Paul wrote that such a message was a scandal to the Jews – how could someone who claimed to be the Messiah be exposed to the ignominy of exposure on a cross, and how could the Messiah die? And for the Greeks–such a message was foolishness. It did not jive with their ideas of how things should be. But, Paul writes, 'to us who are being saved, Christ the power of God and Christ the wisdom of God.' Jesus meets me where I need to be met: I am a sinner. I need forgiveness. I need new life. I need rescue from eternal hell. That is where Jesus meets me. He meets me at the cross, where he died as the sacrifice, determined by God, to forgive me. When I accept that, then the doorway is open for me (and for all who seriously accept this message) to see and understand the great wisdom of God, wisdom that I cannot learn with my abilities because it is a mystery – mystery in two senses: It can only be known by God revealing it, and it is too far beyond human ability to conceive of it. But the starting place is to see that the message meets me where I am, a sinner in need of his great and wonderful provision for me.

          • Charlie Kraybill

            I hope you can understand that, for those of us who live outside the church bubble, we’ll not be persuaded by arguments that use Paul’s own words to “prove” that he was speaking for God. That kind of logic may work in church, but to the outsider it goes nowhere. Further, when Paul said that all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, etc., he was referring to the scriptures that he knew and used in his own place and time: the Torah, the Prophets, and some of the Writings. He certainly wasn’t referring to his personal correspondence with the fledgling churches. As for your list of scholars, I haven’t read most of them, but I think they and any reasonable person would have to admit that Matthew 16:18 is not an authentic Jesus saying. How could Jesus have told Peter that he was going to build his “church” on Peter’s shoulders when the church did not exist yet? There was no such thing as “church” during Jesus’s lifetime. “Church” came into being in the Greek-speaking world a generation or two after Jesus. Clearly this saying was put on Jesus’s lips by the early church leaders as a way of legitimizing the church’s existence. Once it is admitted that one saying of Jesus was not original with him, then all the sayings become fair game for scrutiny.

          • Conrad Hertzler

            Well articulated!

          • Conrad Hertzler

            No, it wasn’t a very Jewish thing to say. Why do you suppose the Jewish leaders got so angry with him and accused Him of blasphemy and ultimately crucified Him?

            Again, the points you raise are all ones that should be discussed. However, it’s kind of hard to reach a consensus when we don’t even start with the same basic points. I believe that Jesus was/is God incarnate, not just a smart, sensitive, intuitive guy. That, and the work that only He could do because of who He was/is, is the basis for my faith. If He is not who He claimed to be, then my faith is just me trying to believe something good and do good things. It’s not transformational at all.

            And I also believe that God in His mercy and wisdom has preserved scripture in a form that communicates to us what He wants us to know.

            It seems that there are only a few ways one can go with this.
            1. Reject Scripture 100% as being a complete fabrication. Apparently neither you nor I are there.
            2. Believe that Scripture is flawed and therefore needs our common sense interpretation. Could I say that’s where you are? That leaves the door open to create God in a way that makes sense to us. I’m not comfortable with that.
            3. Believe that God in His wisdom has preserved and passed along to us what he wants us to know through Scripture and expects us to exercise faith and ask for wisdom from the Holy Spirit for things that are difficult or impossible to grasp. And to believe that we follow a God whose ways and thoughts and character are transcendent from ours and who will not be “put into a box” by us humans. This is where I am. At least, where I am striving to be.

            Anyway, nice chatting with you. I’m sure we could go around for a long time on this. Peace.

  • Matthew Froese

    Surely there’s still room at the Anabaptist table for those who seek to be the quiet in the land. This perspective on Anabaptism may have been influenced by who was asked; it seems quite fitting that a panel of mission agencies would put an emphasis on mission.

  • Walter Bergen

    brother showalter
    thank-you for a reflection that addresses the issues we as NA Mennonites face. It was F. Littell who in 1946 published an article in the MQR with the assistance of H. Bender that identified the Great Commission as THE most quoted text by non-resistant Anabaptists. They were prepared to die for their convictions, they were not prepared to kill for them.
    I appreciate so much that these conversations are taking place. the next area to understand, is the complicity of pax-Romana and the civic virtue of post-modernity in the dissolution of a strong Anabaptist witness.
    may god guide us into truth that we may obey Christ the King

About Me