Category: Anabaptism

Menno Simons and the influence of biography on theology

MennoSimons

I had a chance to give a lecture on the Anabaptists to a church history class last week, with the focus on Menno Simons (1496-1561) and his theology. I noticed my current interest in biography affecting the way I read Menno. Where once I would have only taken notice of the final form of his doctrines, this time I was drawn to the developments in his thinking, and the interactions between what we know of his life and what he was writing.

Menno rebuilt Dutch Anabaptism after the Munster tragedy, in which Anabaptists had seized the city and held a brief, bloody and immoral apocalyptic reign. He ministered to a scattered and persecuted people for decades.

Yet he didn’t leap into this role. He spent ten years as a Catholic priest with an uneasy conscience, reading his Bible and developing in conviction. I think of him in that long liminal period, where he was probably trying to tell himself that he could remain in the Catholic church, hoping that he would not be called to something more drastic. His theology began very individualistically, focused on the individual believer, and it was only over time that he was to develop a radical ecclesiology. As Munster raged, he wrote a tract against the Munsterites, but it was never published, only found nearly a century later when his daughter died – its authenticity questioned. I could not find much information on the execution of his brother in relation to Munster, but again – biography must have shaped his theology so strongly.

Reading some of his writings, I had a stronger sense of a man at a particular time and place, in hiding, and his preoccupations shaped so strongly by that historical situation. I was warned against the “biographical fallacy” studying literature at uni, and was steered away from biographical readings, yet what choice do we have, if we want to attempt to understand any writing in sympathy with how it was written? It can be overdone, of course, but its surely helpful.

None of this is startling; my main point is the simple one that looking at Menno with biographical eyes gave me a new appreciation.

 

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #3: Priests and Professionalisation

I spent a few years in the house church movement, and within it there is great emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Anabaptism emphasises this too; In Body Politics, Yoder writes of the idea of the religious specialist as something God is at work reversing, most profoundly in the experience of the giftedness of all believers in the early church. For a time, I was whole-hearted in embracing this thinking – to the point where the house church I was in had no formal leaders, and everything was decided on consensus. These days I’m ambivalent.

I don’t see leadership as a dirty word any longer. There clearly are designated leaders in the New Testament. Yet I remain critical of the way leadership happens in churches today; I think we’ve been too quick to embrace secular models of leadership and the pastor as CEO. I don’t believe megachurches are a good model of church, and if your church is not a megachurch you probably don’t need a CEO-style leader.

The idea of a priest in the Anglican church takes things in a different direction again. The robes and the special functions only priests can perform set them apart from the congregation. Yet perhaps no more than the professionalisation of large non-conformist churches has set their ministers apart. A layperson in a large Baptist church has little more hope of giving the sermon or officiating at the Lord’s Supper as a layperson in an Anglican church.

I see the importance of the long training and ordination process priests go through in the Anglican church, and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. (Baptists have a similar accreditation process.) The apostles’ three years of discipleship and formation with Jesus was far less structured, but today, if there isn’t a formal process, it’s unlikely to be done well.  So the house church movement’s desire to return to more ‘biblical’ models of formation (such as Timothy-Paul type apprenticeships) is unlikely to happen in reality – many house churches are led by people who have not gone through any process at all.

I think I’m happily agnostic on the question of priests and professionalisation at the moment. I accept how things are done at the church I attend, and I see the good side of it, while being aware it’s in tension with my beliefs of the past.

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #2: The Joy of Being Religious

Religion is a terrible thing, was the message I got as a child. Religion is what Pharisees – and Catholics – do. Our church is not religious – we all have a relationship with God. Being religious means trying to please God with rituals. Wearing special robes. Reciting prayers out of a book. That’s why I faithfully told other kids at school that I wasn’t religious, just born-again.

These days, I embrace the word ‘religious’, mainly in reaction to how demonised the poor word is. I don’t have a developed theology about this, but attending an Anglican church, I am experiencing the joy of being more religious. Let me explain.

Free church (Pentecostal, Baptist, Church of Christ) worship services are so often deliberately “unreligious”, especially to the extent they have been influenced by the church growth movement. In wanting to be accessible to the non-Christian, in wanting to minimise the cultural barriers, worship leaders banter about football and families. God-talk is casual, prayer is spontaneous (yet usually very familiar), God is translated into everyday language. There is a determination to make a relationship with God seem a normal part of a middle-class existence. There are good reasons for all these things, but it is a mode of worship I have never been at ease with.

For me, what is lost in “unreligious worship” is the mystery of God, the strangeness and ancientness of the Bible and a sense of connection with the two thousand years of the church. Church-growth influenced worship mirrors the complacency of our culture in its embeddedness in a perpetual present, without a sense of history, without an awareness of the wisdom of the ages – without, I suppose, a consciousness of tradition.

Thus, for me, worshipping in an Anglican church this year has restored some missing things. The prayerbook service is theologically deep and draws so deliberately from the riches of two thousand years. I am taken through repentance and forgiveness, thanksgiving and intercession. The language, while not arcane, is more exalted than everyday language. It conveys some of the mystery of faith.

Sometimes the many rituals go from seeming strange to seeming momentarily silly or tedious. But overall, the ritual and structure have been good for me, good for giving me space to encounter God in a new way. This is what I mean by the joy of being religious.

On The Road 54: Jesus is the centre of our faith

Finally finished the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand e-journal, On The Road, issue 54, “Jesus is the centre of our faith”, three months late but here at last. It’s a mix of the scholarly, the personal, and poetry. You can now choose from the traditional PDF version, or – as a trial – flowing text ebook versions from one of these links:

Some quotes as an entree:

“I suspect she just can’t be bothered with all my pharisaic like theological gymnastics just to get to a position to which she already knows in her heart to be true. She knows it to be true because she’s spent a life time trying to be like Jesus, rather than me who has spent a life time trying to wrestle with scripture.”
– Chris Summerfield

“There were many tragedies in the 20th century. Among the least spectacular but most significant was that we picked at the threads of our relationships so much, that we unravelled the entire fabric of many of our communities – and now find ourselves without the support we need from our human safety nets.”
– Dave Andrews

You can subscribe for free by emailing me – nathanhobby at gmail.com.

 

On The Road on Mennonite World Review

You probably already know this, but in case you don’t, I’m the editor of On The Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand. I was so encouraged to have an article written about our journal by John D. Roth (editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review and professor of history at Goshen) on Mennonite World Review. John writes, generously: “I am struck by the way On the Road helps to create a sense of community for its widely scattered subscribers and by the freshness that an ecumenical perspective can bring to Anabaptist themes.”

It comes out four times a year in digital format and you can subscribe for free by emailing me – nathanhobby at gmail.com. Past issues are here.

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?

On the Road 51: Exploitation in Bangkok, the story of Rachel and Leah, and Dave Andrews on Fear vs Love

I’ve just released issue 51 of On the Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand. This one is the Women’s Issue. Inside, you’ll find a personal narrative from Bessie Pereira, one of the first women to be ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia and now director of a house church network. Andreana Reale gives a succinct and punchy defence of women in ministry. Jeanette Mathews offers a close reading of the Rachel and Leah story, while Sandra Lowther-Owens reflects on faith in hard times and Jen Noonan writes about the sexual exploitation of women in Bangkok in the context of a conference on women doing theology. There is also a new article from Dave Andrews about the two narratives running from biblical times to now – fear versus love.