At church recently, I got asked, ‘What is an Anabaptist?’. It’s a recurring question that I’ve come to slightly dread, because I don’t think I can give a satisfactory answer concisely. I should work on this. But also because it is asked with varying degrees of seriousness. And because this time someone else in the room let out an exaggerated groan, and I’ve always feared that’s what someone’s doing.
The person who let out the groan really meant it, from what I can gather. The sense I get from him is that he believes ‘labels’ and doctrines are what is wrong with Christianity, and that my obsession with Anabaptism represents both. He’s right; I think labels are extremely helpful, especially when they are used intelligently to understand different believers better. Most thinking comes from somewhere, and it’s good to know its source; it’s what gourmands like to do with food. As for doctrine, well it’s used too often as a hammer or a brick wall, but I think Rob Bell’s right in Velvet Elvis and it can be a trampoline.
In terms of answering the question, I decided to avoid the historical angle altogether, because it never seems to help particularly. (It might be worth mentioning that it’s a nearly five hundred year old tradition, but explaining the roots in the Radical Reformation goes so far over people’s heads.) So this time I said that it’s a movement which believes our faith should be more centred on Jesus and his life and teachings. The Bible should be read with Jesus as the norm. Our lives should attempt to live out Jesus’ teaching, including peacemaking, which means Anabaptists are pacifists.
I’ve recreated it better than I said it, and it still falls flat. No mention of ecclesiology, which was is what drew me to the tradition in the first place. But I think you have about one minute of someone’s attention normally. And ecclesiology is the part of Anabaptism which I can’t demonstrate in my life very well any more.
Any explanation of Anabaptism should consider the person asking. How much do they already know about Christianity and theology? What aspect is likely to matter most to them? It’s a contextual exercise, a mix of translation and if not salesmanship, at least apologetics.
What do you think?