Anabaptism for Baptists: a historical legacy and a theological challenge

This is a talk I gave to a Baptist denominational distinctives class yesterday.


We could look at Anabaptism in two ways.

Firstly, as a historical movement in the sixteenth century – the radical reformers. That history is a helpful counterpoint for Baptists as Anabaptists are as important to the Baptist heritage as Luther or Calvin, and yet you could grow up in a Baptist church like I did without ever hearing them mentioned.

But I didn’t become an Anabaptist for historical reasons. I became an Anabaptist when I encountered a theological framework which made me excited about following Jesus and excited about what the church is meant to be. That’s the second option for looking at Anabaptism – as a theological framework drawing on the key insights of the sixteenth century radical reformers but not captive to their particular historical and cultural concerns.

In this talk, I will give you an historical sketch of Anabaptism to orientate you. I will then discuss two key aspects of an Anabaptist framework – the Constantinian shift and the view of the church.

Anabaptist history

The Anabaptists originate as the third group in the Reformation. The Protestant Reformers broke with the Catholic Church over the place of the Bible, the doctrine of grace and the abuse of the priestly office. The Reformers sought to make their reforms through the magistrates and councils which ruled the city-states. The Anabaptists went further than the Reformers. They understood the church in a fundamentally different way, rejecting the alliance between church and state. For Anabaptists, being a Christian meant following in the footsteps of Christ. They refused to compromise, and like Jesus this brought them into confrontation with the authorities and led many of them to the cross – martyrdom.

In 1517, Martin Luther set off the reformation. Two years later, a priest named Ulrich Zwingli heads to the Swiss city-state of Zurich. He is convinced that the church needs to return to the Bible. He begins preaching from Matthew 1 and starts working his way through the Bible. He believes the church needs reforming. But he’s also a pragmatic man, and he wants to be effective. He has a disputation with scholars and church people to make recommendations for reform. He then implements the program of reform in consultation with the council.

Zwingli also has a small study group with some enthusiastic young disciples. Among them are Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock. He studies the Greek New Testament with them and they talk about the reform of the church. At first, Zwingli says his final authority will be the Bible. But increasingly, he becomes more pragmatic. Tensions rise with his radical disciples who don’t want him to compromise with the powers.

The radicals break with Zwingli at the end of 1523. A disputation calls for the abolition of the mass. Zwingli brings the idea to the Council, but says he will submit to whatever the Council decides. The radicals are furious that he is compromising on something they feel the Bible is clearly saying. Their disagreement with him over how the reformation of the church should proceed shows the Anabaptist idea of the Constantinian shift, a theme I’ll return to.

The radicals continue meeting without Zwingli. After further study, they come to the conclusion that infants shouldn’t be baptised. They refuse to give their infants up for baptism. The Council issues an order that all infants are to be baptised immediately. On January 21, 1525, the radicals meet to discuss what to do. They decide that if baptism without faith is invalid, none of them have been baptised yet. So George Blaurock asks for Conrad Grebel to baptise him. Next Blaurock baptises Grebel, and then they baptise the rest of the gathering.

The term ‘anabaptists’ soon came to be applied to the group, meaning ‘rebaptisers’. The Anabaptists, of course, did not believe the first baptism was valid, and the term was one of derision, having connotations of treachery and heresy.

The group spread rapidly through Europe and were persecuted wherever they went. Two main streams of Anabaptism survived – the Mennonites and the Hutterites. The Mennonites named themselves after Menno Simons, a second generation Dutch Anabaptist who re-orientated the movement after a disastrous event at Munster, where Anabaptists tried to take over a whole city. In the end, most of them were killed. This uprising gave Anabaptism a bad name and made it an easy target for critics who saw the movement simply as political rebels. Such an interpretation was common until the middle of the twentieth century.

The stream of Anabaptism that contemporary Anabaptists trace themselves back to had three central principles, laid out in Harold Bender’s important idea of the Anabaptist Vision:

1) Christianity as discipleship

2) Church as brotherhood

3) Christian ethic as love and non-resistance.

All of these themes will emerge in the theological framework later.

Many Mennonites fled persecution by migrating east until they ended up in Russia. From there they were persecuted again by Stalin in the twentieth century and many of these rejoined the large Mennonite population in the USA and Canada. Today, a lot of Mennonites resemble evangelicals in most of their beliefs and even practices. However, there is also a strong movement within Mennonites reclaiming their radical roots. Pacifism is something Mennonites have rarely compromised on and Mennonite agencies are involved in peacemaking throughout the world.

The Hutterites have continued their practice of communal living and have communal farms in different parts of the world.

An Anabaptist theological framework

The Anabaptist theological framework I’m going to present is largely drawn from John Howard Yoder. Yoder was a Mennonite scholar and a student of Karl Barth who lived from 1927 to 1997. He wrote from an Anabaptist perspective in dialogue with mainstream theology and the ecumenical movement. He forced the wider theological world to take Anabaptism seriously. We were fortunate enough to have him speak here at the seminary in the 1980s and 1990s and some of these talks can be found in the library. His perspective is not normative for Anabaptists; there are different streams of Anabaptist theologians that would differ significantly him. Yet all Anabaptist thinkers would at least agree with the basic outline of these two issues.

A. Constantinian Shift

The Constantininian shift didn’t start in the fourth century, but the critical moment in which state and church became intertwined can be traced to Emperor’s Constantine’s conversion in 313AD. Eventually, the whole empire became Christian, and for Anabaptists this is compromise is the worst thing to have happened to God’s people.

  • Suddenly, a person was a Christian by birth rather than by commitment to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
  • This meant your identity as a Christian shifted dramatically. Before Constantianism, you were called to join a diverse church which transcended cultures and nationalities. Your old loyalties were left at the door, because you were now a Christian before you were a citizen of your country. It would have been unthinkable for first century Christians to kill each other on the battlefield. Yet once a nation became Christian, suddenly the old loyalty to your country became primary again. Being a citizen and a Christian were now the same.
  • To allow a whole state to be Christian, the demands of being a disciple were watered down. It no longer meant sharing your money. It no longer meant taking the Sermon on the Mount literally. Instead, Christians were now in power and had to do what was ‘responsible’. It is irresponsible to follow Jesus by refusing to use violence.
  • The distinction between the church and the world was abolished. There was no longer a holy people showing the world a new way of life and speaking prophetically to its fallen structures. This is why Baptists have always insisted on a ‘regenerate church’, or a ‘believers’ church’.

Anabaptists believe that the church has more chance of being faithful when it is a minority and it is out of power. Living in exile and persecution is a recurring pattern of what it means to be God’s people. Anabaptists were saying this while the church was still in power. Now that we’re in a post-christendom age with the church disestablished and forced to be a minority, other Christians are finally listening to what Anabaptists were saying all along. Anabaptism could offer important insights into what it means to follow Jesus in such a context, both from its history and its theologically framework.

Disavowing Constantine is something that Anabaptists and Baptists have historically done. It is weakened in contemporary Baptist circles when we claim Australia was a Christian country or should be again. The popularity of books by Col Stringer claiming just this shows there is still a lot of confusion amongst Christians about the legacy of Christendom. Strong guidance from the pulpit to embrace a minority position could do much to better equip Baptists for mission in our current context. I think it is an insight that the emerging missional church has taken on board already, with it forming the basis for a lot of their models of engagement with society in books like Frost and Hirsch’s Shaping of Things to Come.

B. Church

If Constantinianism was a mistake, what should the church look like? I’m going to offer you an Anabaptist account of the church which draws on one of Yoder’s books called Body Politics : five practices of the Christian community before the watching world.

Yoder writes, ‘The people of God is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately’ (Body Politics, ix) For him, the church is the firstfruits of the new creation. The church shows, imperfectly and falteringly as it might be, what life in the kingdom is like. It gives a foretaste of what the world will ultimately be like when Jesus is acknowledged by everyone to be Lord.

In this book, Yoder describes five of the practices that the church does now to show the world what the new creation is like. All of them derive from the New Testament, all of them have roots in the Old Testament, and all of them have been practiced to differing extents not just by Anabaptist churches but by all churches. I’m going to present four of them, adding to them from other Anabaptist writers. These practices offer a radical option for Baptist churches, one that returns to the believers’ church heritage to find answers instead of to mainstream evangelicalism.

1. Baptism

Firstly, Yoder restores the social meaning of baptism. Baptism has important personal meanings, but we diminish it when we neglect its wider meaning. It marks a person’s entry to a new humanity. It is the ritual that brings together old enemies. It is a theme we see again and again in the writings of Paul.

Baptized in Christ, you are clothed in Christ, and there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)

Formerly there was a dividing wall of hostility between people of different races, different classes and even different genders. Now different types of people are brought into the same body, the church, and they worship together and share their lives with each other.

Even if you don’t agree that baptism is the practice that marks this new people, the idea still stands that diversity and reconciliation are part of the good news. It is central to the good news of the kingdom that Jew and Gentile eat together at the same table. It would have been easy for Paul to allow the churches he planted to separate, with one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles, another for the poor and another for the rich. But instead, he insisted that they worship together in the same church and learn to overcome their differences.

This is an Anabaptist distinctive that strongly challenges contemporary Baptist practice. It speaks against the homogenous unit principle behind both the church growth movement and the emerging missional church movement. It speaks against segregation by age or class or interest. Forget what works best. When we maintain the divisions of the world in our church, we deny the good news that the dividing walls have been broken down by Jesus Christ.

In his book The New Conspirators, Tom Sine describes a new stream of church called ‘mosaic’ which is deliberately multicultural. Another recent book with similar ideas is Bruce Milne’s Dynamic Diversity.

2. The Lord’s Supper

An Anabaptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper recovers its original practice as part of a shared meal. Yoder looks back to the table fellowship of Jesus as he and the disciples went from town to town. The disciples ate together and welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes to the table with them.

We come to the Last Supper, which would have been a full meal. Jesus says ‘when you do this, remember me’. What was the ‘this’ he was referring to? Yoder says there are two possibilities – eating together or eating the Passover meal together. It seems much more likely that meant ‘eating together’, and this is how the disciples understood him. We all know from Acts 2:42-47 the activities of the first church – as well as devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to prayer, they devoted themselves to the fellowship and the breaking of bread. They were remembering him as he instructed them to do, by eating together.

The practice of the early church was to hold a shared meal called the agape, in which Christ was remembered. We have lost the social meaning of that meal. The sharing of food made sure that no-one went hungry. The rich were able to provide food for the poor.

So Yoder reads the Lord’s Supper as a part of the economic newness of the Kingdom of God. In Acts, the disciples go on from sharing food to sharing all they have with each other – again from that same Acts 2 passage, ‘Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone who had need.’

For Anabaptists, radical generosity starts at the table by sharing food, and quickly moves to our wallets. Only some Anabaptist communities like the Hutterites practiced communalism. However, all of them stressed providing for each other as need arose. And need arose often, persecuted as they were.

Baptist churches today might do well to recover the common meal as an act of worship. It might challenge us to be generous with our money and our time. It rescues the Lord’s Supper from the individualistic and unimportant place it has come to occupy for many churches.

3. Church Discipline

Church discipline has always been a key part of the Anabaptist understanding of church. At times it’s been misused and abused, and the practice of the ‘ban’ has given Anabaptists a bad name. But the solution to bad church discipline is good church discipline – not no church discipline.

Why church discipline?

1. Anabaptists see it as a part of the process of discipleship, of shaping each other to be more like Christ.

2. Anabaptists have always been concerned with trying to maintain a holy church, and this means confronting sin.

3. As part of a commitment to peacemaking, the process of discipline is actually about reconciling people.

Anabaptists have always taken Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-20 as the starting point of their understanding of church discipline.

‘If another member of the church sins, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

The first step, of going directly to your brother or sister when they offend you, prevents gossip and the build up of bad feelings. Instead of harbouring resentments within the church, disciples are told to fix things up between themselves. All through the process, the concern is for things to be fixed up with the brother or sister who has gone wrong. Even the final step of treating the offender as an outsider is not intended as punishment but as a final drastic measure to get them to be reconciled. As Paul writes in 1 Cor 5:5 ‘hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.’

Yoder emphasises that it is the task of all disciples to be involved in church discipline, not just church leaders. He also emphasises that it’s not reserved for big sins, but is a process to use whenever there’s conflict that arises.

Church discipline speaks strongly against the prevailing consumer culture of today. Too many Christians hold church membership so lightly. If they fall out with one church, they can go to the next one down the road. A commitment to church discipline might even mean encouraging newcomers to a church to be reconciled to their brothers and sisters from their last church.

A challenge to Baptists is to take Jesus’ procedure seriously in congregational life. It means that sexual and public sins are not the only ones which will be dealt with. It means that the pastor is not the only one to go to his brother or sister when they sin. It would be a difficult and dangerous thing to attempt, but it has the potential to renew and restore congregational life.

4. Priesthood of all believers

The fourth and final aspect of the church I want to talk about is the priesthood of all believers. It’s a concept honoured in name by Baptists, but too often not in practice. Yoder talks about the priesthood of all believers meaning the end of religious specialists. That the creation of a class of people set aside from the rest to be priests is a part of the fallen world and that God has been a work through history reversing it.

But the priesthood of all believers is not the individualistic idea we often see. It does not simply translate to us all standing as individuals before God without a human mediator. That idea has more to do with Martin Luther than with Anabaptists. Instead, we need to think of it in terms of the function of the church. We also need to couple it with the image of the church as a body.

A body is organically interdependent; no part is independent of the rest of the body. Each part has a function.

Historically, Anabaptist church worship would follow Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthian 14:26 – ‘When you meet for worship, one person has a hymn, another a teaching, another a revelation from God, another a message in strange tongues and still another the explanation of what is said.’

This idea of worship is a long way from the carefully managed services we see in many churches. But if we believe in the priesthood of all believers, it’s something we need to be challenged by. Perhaps it should make us question whether large gatherings with most people saying nothing were meant to be the main way we ‘do’ church.

In the same chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us that everyone who has something to say, something given by the Holy Spirit, can have the floor and say it. In 1533, Anabaptists wrote that they refused to attend the state church services because these churches did not follow the instructions given in this passage. Yoder mentions that some British Baptists arrived at similar conclusions on their own a century later (Body Politics 66-67).

The Anabaptist pastor Wally Fahrer quotes from a job description worked out between him and one of the churches he pastored – ‘In salarying a pastor, we are not purchasing a commodity of ministry but are freeing a brother from the need to work additionally to support his family in order that he might be free to give himself to the work of ministry’ (Building on the Rock 67).


I want to end by clarifying the relevance of Anabaptism to an understanding of being Baptist. The Anabaptists has many points of contact with the Baptists.

  • The 16th century Anabaptists can be seen as the originators of a free-church movement of which the Baptists are a part. The issues faced by the 16th century Anabaptists have a lot in common with the 17th century Baptists. There was also at least some contact between the groups. As members of the same family, dialogue and mutual understanding is important.
  • The Anabaptist theological framework is particularly relevant as a challenge and option not just for Baptist theology but evangelical theology in general in a post-Christendom, postmodern context. Some of its insights have been used by the emerging missional church, but there are far more to be debated and considered.

11 thoughts on “Anabaptism for Baptists: a historical legacy and a theological challenge

  1. Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for this. I enjoyed reading it. It comes at a time when I am considering how to communicate the Constantinian shift and the difference this makes for how we live economically. Your clarity of thought is a help to me.

    I look forward to seeing you soon.

    Peace to You,


  2. Hi Nathan!
    Thanks! I always find this stuff great to read, as an encouragement and a challenge.

    I was curious how the students responded to the talk. Did they find Anabaptist thought something to explore or did they get their heckles up? The talk doesn’t come across to me as antagonistic to Baptists


    Have fun reading and writing. Remember to fit M. Night Shyamalan into the script.

  3. Hey Tim,
    I was heartened by how gracious and thoughtful the responses from students were. Some good questions, with a number focused on pacifism, a topic I deliberately didn’t focus on. I think they semed quite interested as a whole! (I just wish I still had a church to show them this stuff in action.)

    I’m glad it doesn’t come across as antagonistic to Baptists. One thing I’m realising is that the original Baptist vision is something I respect a lot. My differences with where most contemporary Baptist churches are has probably more to do with compromises with society / the influence of the worst of the church growth movement / or alternately a fundamentalist posture which isn’t necessarily Baptist.

    Shalom, Nathan.

    PS: I can’t even spell that guy’s name so I don’t like the chances of him making it in…

  4. Thanks Nathan – that’s a great summary of Anabaptism and I find myself resonating with everything Yoder says.

    Maybe I am an Anabaptist?… Can you be an unconscious anabaptist?

    I am not so sure I agree with Wally Fahrer though. I tend to think that any person installed in a paid role of ministry will automatically be elevated to a higher status than the other ‘ministers’ in the congregation.

    I reckon a paid minister is the beginning of the end for anabaptist ideals. However I can also see its necessity in our world. A difficult balance…

    The aspect I would find it hardest to sign on with is the pacifism bit. Perhaps its where the pragmatist in me is most visible. I like the idea… and I am not a fan of war, but I also see the other perspective on this one.

    It is ironic that baptists were once the true non-conformists, but now we are right in the den of conservatism.

  5. Thanks Hamo. I definitely think you can be an unconscious (anonymous? to use Karl Rahner’s term!) anabaptist.

    I have mixed feelings about paid ministry also, although I have become more positive than I used to be. I included Wally’s quote because I think if you’re going to pay someone, it should be more like that and less like a CEO or a doctor. I found his chapter on this stuff interesting, about how much a difference it makes in (traditional) Mennonite churches having the minister appointed from within churches rather than hiring a professional from outside.

    I steered clear of pacifism as much as it is a distinctive because it’s such a big topic, it might not leave any time for the ecclesiology… and yet the ecclesiology is linked to it, in terms of church discipline particularly. I understand why people aren’t pacifists, although I feel very convicted about it myself.

    If only, as you say, Baptists could recover their original radicalism! Maybe there’s a fringe that will be open to it.

  6. Nathan,
    Excellent little article. When I use to attend a Mennonite-based Bible college, I use to joke with my Baptist friend that Baptists were simply watered-down Anabaptists.
    The fact of the matter is that contemporary Baptist schools and churches have very little solidarity when it comes to theology and what it actually means to be “Baptist.” I think much of this is a direct result of the history between the Anabaptist movement and the “later” Baptist conventions.

    While I hesitate with your regret in your latest comment about Baptists recovering their original radicalism, I wonder what is happening to today’s Anabaptists. Increasingly more Mennonites are leaving the MC and MB denominations for “Alliance” and “Emergent” communities. Furthermore, contemporary Mennonites know very little of their heritage and original theology and ecclesiastics that made them so genuine. I foresee a more realistic future in which such notions of “Baptist” and “Anabaptist” are awash in the sea of reactionary plurality against the continual tide of secular humanism and religious radicalism.

  7. Nathan!
    It’s been half a year since we last chatted over email. I’m the guy who wrote the James McCledon ‘baptist vision’ blog. I loved reading this entry. I’m taking an Anabaptist Missional Theology course at Fuller right now with Wilbert Shenk and your summary is really helpful for an ‘outsider’ to Anabaptism like me [I grew up in the atraditional conservative evangelical ‘movement’ in southern Orange County…I’m quickly becoming a full-fledged anabaptist]. We read Bender’s Anabaptist Vision speech last week and Shenk noted that it was a bit lacking because he didn’t associate ‘mission’ with the original anabaptist movement. I’ll shoot you an email soon to catch up more. I want to hear if God’s got you in another house-church community out there in Perth!

  8. Apostate, thanks for your thoughts – I’ve heard similar things about the de-anabaptisation of Mennonite churches and think it’s a sad thing. The Anabaptist impulse may have to live on in other traditions. (But I do find myself wishing for a Mennonite presence in Australia.)

  9. Hey Tom, great to hear from you again! I hope things are going well at Fuller. From my understanding, Shenk’s critique of Bender is an important one – the Anabaptists were so very missional in the sixteenth century. Talk to you soon.

  10. Thanks Nathan,
    Your article on the Anabaptists was excellent, but I despair about Baptist churches in WA.

    Some of them are so conservative, both theologically and politically that I do not see much possibility of a radical discipleship perspective getting through.

    That you were able to enthuse some students is good, but I am afraid that many of them will go “native” (apologies to our wonderful indigenous people) when they return to their churches(especially those who become pastors), when pressure is brought to bear on doctinal conformity.

    Too many Baptists in church leadership positions appear to have conformed to the assumptions of Western individualism with the political and economic conservatism that goes with such a perspective and this is read into the bible.

    Nevertheless, do not give up your great work. I hope you have many more opportunities to speak to students at the college and may you inspire them with your obvious enthusiasm for an Anabaptist view of radical discipleship.

    John Arthur

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