Showalter: Do we miss the heart of the gospel?

Jan 29, 2018 by

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“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

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.


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