Outside interest

Who wants to learn about Anabaptism? Diverse Christians claim a piece of the tradition

Oct 21, 2019 by and

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An organization related to the United Methodist Church has created an option for people from any Christian tradition to get a little more Ana­baptist with a new online course.

“Elements of the Anabaptist Tradition for Non-Anabaptists” is being offered by the ecumenical Richard and Julia Wilke Institute for Discipleship, based at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., in November. It’s taught by Craig Morton, a co-pastor at Emmaus Christian Fellowship, a Mennonite Church USA congregation in Meridian, Idaho.

Morton

Morton

The course covers the 1527 Schleitheim Confession — Anabaptism’s first outline of shared principles — and considers how Anabaptist practices such as prioritizing peace and discerning Scripture in a group can be developed in non-Anabaptist denominational contexts.

Morton said the seeds for the concept began germinating about two decades ago when he and his wife, Karla, started a Mennonite church in Idaho. They contacted Mennonite colleges to get information about alumni in the area.

They discovered people who had experience going through an Anabaptist institution and were attending another church that best fit their social or cultural needs.

Some even called themselves Anabaptist-Episcopalians, or Anabaptist-Methodists.

“We found people who were doing that hyphenation themselves. They would say they are Episcopalian but still Anabaptist,” Morton said. “And we found these people out there who claimed a piece of the tradition without being fully part of an Anabaptist denominational organization, whether it is Brethren in Christ or Mennonite Brethren or whatever.”

Other times, individuals or groups have encountered Anabaptist tenets through reading works by John Howard Yoder or Stanley Hauerwas. Newer, less denominationally affiliated “neo-Anabaptists” find themselves attracted to a strong peace stance combined with group scriptural discernment.

Morton, who has worked in church consulting for several years with other denominations, began to notice he was surrounded by a “stew” that happened to taste Anabaptist.

“With all these different groups, there were pieces they would claim,” he said. “It just seemed it was one of those pieces of Anabaptism getting attached to other communions. Rather than saying that is a problem and we need to keep these lines pure, I think this is an exciting thing, that we can learn from each other.”

The pendulum swings

The course’s host, the Richard and Julia Wilke Institute for Discipleship, has served nearly 14,000 learners with 1,376 courses over 13 years. Although it does offer some courses in partnership with Wesley Seminary, it is designed to reach out beyond the United Methodist Church and bridge denominations.

“I think the pendulum is swinging away from the denominational church movement,” said Meg Calvin, the institute’s director of engagement. “No offense to that, it’s all well and good, but the pendulum is swinging back to looking back at Christian history and exploring these pieces of faith we may have missed and ask, ‘How did this movement start? Oh, this is different from my Anglican experience.

“The pendulum is swinging back, and that might be drawing interest to his course.”

Radically life-changing

While not being critical of traditions centered on pastoral authority, Morton builds his Anabaptism courses on his work as a consultant in Churches of Christ congregations to encourage church communities to read the Bible together and let the Holy Spirit guide communal discernment.

“When I was working in the Churches of Christ, they were used to the strong preacher tradition: that was it, that was the official interpretation, and the role of the congregation was to support and get behind it and do whatever the preacher said,” he said.

Morton was working with a consulting group at that time out of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. One of their key consulting tools was “dwelling in the word,” a practice of communally discerning biblical passages.

“Now, ‘dwelling in the word’ is pretty familiar in a lot of places, but when we were doing it, it was radically new for a congregation to say, ‘Wait, you want me to tell you what the text is telling me?’ ” he said. “That’s so much a part of my experience as an Anabaptist, but for churches that really grab on to this, it’s radically life-changing.

“In Presbyterian and some Lutheran churches, it was an incredible renewal of faith — that the Scripture is alive and speaks to us now.”

The courses are based on written lectures, discussion-board questions for group input and a weekly face-to-face component by video.

The three-week course will run Nov. 4-23 and can be found at beadisciple.com/online-christian-courses. The deadline to register is Nov. 3.

Meanwhile, Morton will continue simmering more servings of his Anabaptist stew.

He’s designing four other courses for the program, mostly coming from a peace-church perspective on topics like facilitating difficult conversations, false but popular cliches attributed to the Bible, and working through forgiveness and reconciliation.

“All the truth isn’t contained in any tradition,” he said. “We can learn from one another.”


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