On Being Asked “What is an Anabaptist”

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?

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12 thoughts on “On Being Asked “What is an Anabaptist”

  1. Dear Nathan, I was about to say I’m a little to the ‘left’ of you on this, but that might involve a spot of labelleing Suffice it to say that in general I think labels look better on jam jars than people. I’ll begin by saying that I posted on this last Summer: http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/prison-of-ism-towards-life-without.html.

    A label is a codified and simplified story. No label is neutral. Some are especially highly charged. We have all heard of debates where ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ are used as accusations to damn the victim by association, without the long-winded business of actual communication. This is negative labellelling.

    ‘Anabaptism’ started off as a term of abuse – like Methodist or Quaker. Through repetition the label was eventually internalized. Instances like this aren’t evidence of the acceptibility of labels, only testimony to the courage and durability of ordinary men and women who refused to be outsiders in their own story. The imposition of a label remains repressive.

  2. Good to hear from you Phil. I agree labels can be used in bad ways. It’s not actually labels I like – ‘labels’ is a pejorative term; I was stirring in the way I wrote this. But recognising traditions and influences is important. That’s what I really meant, as a digression on the topic of responding to questions about Anabaptism.

  3. Ah! Having only read radref from my RSS reader, I never knew his name. Hi Phil (:
    Labels are like categories – they are an implicitly human condition, allowing us to categorise and understand the world. In that, they are neutral. Of course in so many other ways they are not.

    1. Hi Greg, it’s great to hear from you. I agree with you that labels are fine in themselves (hence my rather tongue in cheek comments about jam jars). What I’m taking issue with is negative labelling.

  4. Hi Nathan. Interesting post. It’s always nice to come back here and read your reflections. You say that you’re not demonstrating Anabaptist ecclesiology very well at present. Does that mean the Perth Anabaptist network passed away?

  5. Do Anabaptist worship as well as fallow Jesus ? Is it wrong to be a police officer. time.Are any other Christians other than Anabaptist part of the body of Christ.? Thanks for your time . Please e-mail what you think and feel are the best answers.

  6. Virgil, Anabaptists should worship Jesus as well as follow – perhaps it’s a criticism that could be made that some don’t. And I’d make the body of Christ wide enough to include all who acknowledge Jesus is Lord.

  7. Hello,

    I just stumbled across your blog.

    I am a member of a neo Anabaptist group, started out of Switzerland in the early 1800’s. What is the difference for Anabaptism? We believe in Sola Scripture, the infalliable word of God. A christian is baptised only after deep reflection and sincere repentence, more impotartanly an adult who recognises the baptism of blood, water and fire.

    For a more detailed description of our faith visit my blog if you like.

    We have churches around thr world, including herr in Perth. Dont feel that you are the last Anabaptist, what did God tell Elijah when he thought he was the last faithful?

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