What Is Anabaptism, Really?

Scot McKnight has an interesting post up today on what an Anabaptist is. He takes his definition from Harold Bender, who along with other figures like Ebehard Arnold, sparked what we might call today the truly neo-Anabaptist movement. I want to quickly discuss the three main aspects of the Anabaptist vision, to show what I think are some problems with using these as distinctive marks of Anabaptist churches.

Bender is famous for three features of the Anabaptist Vision:

1. The essence of Christianity, or the Christian life, is discipleship — a committed following of Christ in all areas of life. The word on the street in the 16th Century, and this word repeated often enough by bitter enemies of the Anabaptists, was that they were consistent and devout Christians. If Luther’s word was “faith,” the word for the Anabaptists was “follow.” The inner conversion was to lead to external transformation.

2. A new conception of the church as a brotherhood of fellowship. The ruling image of a church among the Catholics and Reformers was more national and institutional and sacramental, while the ruling image for the Anabaptists was fellowship or family. Joining was voluntary; the requirement was conversion; the commitment was to holy living and fellowship with one another. Thus, the Anabaptist separated from the “world” to form a society of the faithful. This view of the church led to economic availability and liability for one another.

3. A new ethic of love and peaceful nonresistance. Apart from rare exceptions like Balthasar Hubmaier and the nutcases around Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptists lived a life shaped by love and nonviolence. They refused to coerce anyone.

Thus, for Bender, the focus was on discipleship not sacraments or the inner enjoyment of justification. The church was not an institution or a place for Word-proclamation in emphasis but instead a brotherhood of love. In addition, against Catholics and Calvinists who believed in social reform, like the Lutherans the Anabaptists were less optimistic about social transformation. But, unlike the Lutherans who split life into the secular and sacred, the Anabaptists wanted a radical commitment that meant the creation of an alternative Christian society.

I’d like to juxtapose these summaries with some excerpts from Calvin’s commentaries, to suggest that, perhaps, these are not really distinctly Anabaptist sentiments.

With regard to number 1, Calvin writes on 1Cor. 10:31:

Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink Lest they should think, that in so small a matter they should not be so careful to avoid blame, he teaches that there is no part of our life, and no action so minute, (605) that it ought not to be directed to the glory of God, and that we must take care that, even in eating and drinking, we may aim at the advancement of it. This statement is connected with what goes before; for if we are eagerly desirous of the glory of God, as it becomes us to be, we will never allow, so far as we can prevent it, his benefits to lie under reproach. It was well expressed anciently in a common proverb, that we must not live to eat; but eat to live (606) Provided the end of living be at the same time kept in view, the consequence will thus be, that our food will be in a manner sacred to God, inasmuch as it will be set apart for his service.

On number 2, Calvin writes about 1 Cor 5.2:

When he says, and have not rather mourned, he argues by way of contrast; for where there is grief there is no more glorying. It may be asked: “Why ought they to have mourned over another man’s sin?” I answer, for two reasons:first, in consequence of the communion that exists among the members of the Church, it was becoming that all should feel hurt at so deadly a fall on the part of one of their number; and secondly, when such an enormity is perpetrated in a particular Church, the perpetrator of it is all offender in such a way, that the whole society is in a manner polluted. For as God humbles the father of a family in the disgrace of his wife, or of his children, and a whole kindred in the disgrace of one of their number, so every Church ought to consider, that it contracts a stain of disgrace whenever any base crime is perpetrated in it. Nay, farther, we see how the anger of God was kindled against the whole nation of Israel on account of the sacrilege of one individual — Achan. (Jos_7:1.) It was not as though God had been so cruel as to take vengeance on the innocent for another man’s crime; but, as in every instance in which anything of this nature has occurred among a people, there is already some token of his anger, so by correcting a community for the fault of one individual, he distinctly intimates that the whole body is infected and polluted with the contagion of the offense. Hence we readily infer, that it is the duty of every Church to mourn over the faults of individual members, as domestic calamities belonging to the entire body. And assuredly a pious and dutiful correction takes its rise in our being inflamed with holy zeal through displeasure at the offense; for otherwise severity will be felt to be bitter. (271)

Now, I think that 3 is really the distinguishing mark between Anabaptists (though, I think it inaccurate to say the war-Anabaptists were somehow exceptional, but I will ignore this point since the differences between the Reformed and violent Anabaptists are not the same as the type of Anabaptist I’m considering right now). Pacifism, as an expression of  separating from the world and forming an alternative society, is the real difference between the neo-Anabaptist project and the Reformation project. But believing that the Christian religion was about all of life (which is what the priesthood of all believers, and the Reformation doctrine of vocation, was meant to affirm), or that the local fellowship ought to be like a brotherhood, is certainly not something that distinguishes Anabaptists from the Reformed, except insofar as excluding Christians from civil government, or excluding infant baptism, is made a sine qua non of the church being a fellowship of brothers.