Kriss: What does it mean to be Anabaptist?

Jun 10, 2019 by

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Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society’s recent research expanded the pool of groups included under the Anabaptist umbrella. The Community of Christ has moved toward declaring itself a peace church. Increasing numbers of Mennonite congregations are removing the Mennonite name from their titles.

Stephen Kriss

Kriss

What it means to be Anabaptist or Mennonite is hard to discern.

This is not new to our movement, which was often more a collection of disparate communities than a clearly defined organizational system.

I’m in the polygenesis camp of understanding Anabaptist origins. And I believe in the movement’s adaptive messiness.

Current numbers suggest the largest Anabaptist group is the Amish. Their communal structure is noninstitutional. The Church of the Brethren is the next largest. Its origins are different from Mennonites, but we share much in common, including an identity as Historic Peace Churches.

Third largest is Mennonite Church USA, with its ever-decreasing footprint. MC USA has been my home since it formed in 2002. It’s been the primary way I’ve understood Anabaptism. It’s also not the only story.

Increasingly, I recognize my arrogance in assuming the MC USA viewpoint and institutions are the primary lens of understanding Anabaptism. While much of the rest of the Anabaptist world increases, we are decreasing. We will need to find new ways to situate ourselves and to honor the stories of the other groups.

As a conference leader, I want to perpetuate the Anabaptist movement rather than simply tend its existing institutions. I’m increasingly comfortable with the less-is-more framework of Palmer Becker’s Anabaptist Essentials and Mennonite World Conference’s Core Convictions.

Who defines our movement? Who gets to say who is in or out? Do neo-Anabaptist communities count? Baptist? Pentecostals? Does Anabaptism require a commitment to nonresistance, nonviolence, peace and justice?

Those who study rhetoric say the one who controls the definition wins the argument. But it’s also true that ambiguous definitions reinforce the advantage of those in powerful positions.

In his work on bounded and centered sets, Paul Hiebert showed the significance of permeable barriers and centered messaging in order to extend the Good News. Anabaptism is an ongoing conversation with open-ended and bounded systems, clarity and ambiguity.

By definition, Anabaptism is a willingness to be rebaptized, a voluntary act of offering the whole of one’s life to Christ. What does it mean when I’ve only been baptized once? And when Anabaptist communities recognize the child baptisms of other Christian traditions?

In North America we’ve become comfortable in a Christendom mindset, which assumes a Christian culture. Anabaptism never was intended for that level of comfort.

Cultivated in chaos, disruptive by nature, Anabaptism is a reform movement, likely not at its best once institutionalized.

The Spirit continues to be poured out on the children of God. We are finding comrades in surprising places. At the same time, some of our historic communities are compromised by acculturation and wandering.

The definition of Anabaptism might be just beyond our reach. Boundaries may stretch to include those we wouldn’t have previously understood as part of our movement.

We’ll keep trying to define. The Spirit will continue to disrupt. Christ’s movement to reform the church will whirl and surprise.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.


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