Anabaptists: What, who, what?

Anabaptists: What, who, what? February 29, 2012

I am often asked “What is an Anabaptist?” and “Who are the Anabaptists?” If one listened to everyone who claimed an anabaptist connection, it would be easy to be confused. So today I want to sketch the view of the one description of Anabaptism that shaped the 20th Century the most. I refer to Harold S. Bender‘s classic essay called The Anabaptist Vision. No, it is not true that all Anabaptists agree with Bender, and No, some today (like Thomas Finger, in his big study A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, or J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist) want to frame things in a different way, but it can be said that Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 20th Century.

There are three major dimensions of the Reformation: Luther and the Lutherans in Germany, Calvin and the Reformed in Switzerland, and Zwingli-generated and then finished later by others Anabaptism. Anabaptism spread through Switzerland, South Germany, Moravia and then into the Netherlands.

Anabaptism is largely responsible for the nonconformist impulse of the church — to be sure, it has some connections to those before it, like the Waldensians of Italy, but the Anabaptists were radical in their nonconformity to the State and to State-sponsored churches — that is, the Catholic Church, Lutherans and the Reformed. All non-State churches in the USA, and that’s most, owe some debt to the Anabaptists.

They were a courageous lot — thousands were put to death. They paid their life to be nonconformists, and there’s a positive way to put this: they died in order to be faithful to their commitment to follow the Bible, the New Testament and Jesus Christ.

For Bender, the Anabaptists are the full implementation of the Reformation. Neither Luther nor Calvin went far enough. Bender’s focus is Luther, not Calvin, and he cites evidence that Luther late in his life realized his “mass church,” which was basically everyone born into the community/State would be baptized and be Lutheran, was ineffective in transforming the life of the person.  The early Anabaptists, like Conrad Grebel, observed the lack of discipleship among the Lutherans of the Reformation. So the Anabaptists carried through the Lutheran reforms and broke with 1500 years of the church.

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.



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  • Chris

    Great summary Scot. As one who is part of the Mennonites, I find you self-designation as an anabaptist and Greg Boyd’s embracing of the anabaptist vision refreshing. Many Mennonites are losing that vision and identifying more with the conservative evangelical movement or the more liberal stream of Christianity.


  • Deets

    Scot, Thank you for this summary. It confirms to me that my theological leanings are close to those of the Anabaptist.

    I have one question about you beliefs and association. I mean this as an honest probing question. Since you proclaim Anabaptist leanings, how did you come to join Willow Creek? It seems to me that WC was founded by a Reformed pastor on what seems to be an institutional foundation.

  • Susan N.

    I was half-watching the ‘American Experience’ episode on ‘The Amish’ last night on PBS. I did not know that the Amish were breakaways from Anabaptists, so when I heard the word “Anabaptist” my ears perked up. One thing that disturbed me: The Amish practice shunning of “transgressors.”

    I was going to ask, is this an Anabaptist thing (I hope not!) But I just did a quick Bing search and found a history of Lancaster County Amish which explained that because the Swiss Anabaptists refused to shun, Jacob Ammann broke away to form the Amish movement in 1693.

  • Thanks for highlighting the Anabaptist movement. I did a short blog about what I love about the Anabaptist tradition.

  • scotmcknight

    Willow Creek has a wide variety of theological perspectives. I’d not call Bill Hybels Reformed but more generic evangelicalism.

    Susan N., an element of original Anabaptism was church discipline of unrepentant sinners, and this flowed out of the baptismal pledge wherein a person committed herself/himself to the church and to its practices.

  • Susan N.

    Thanks, Scot. So I’m wondering, in a full-fledged Anabaptist fellowship today, how much of that original disciplinary practice of shunning still goes on?

    On a very practical level, I totally “get” the reality that if a wrong has been done, and the other person is not only unapologetic but continuing to do harm, a sensible person will eventually move away from the offending person. Forgive, yes. But do we need to be a martyr?

    At a church / institutional level, this is bigger than an interpersonal grievance. Aside from the ways that church discipline can go very wrong (i.e., spiritual abuse), the shunning route is especially cruel because it messes with a person’s core identity. Let’s face it, if one has been serious about their church vows at all, then belonging with your “herd” is central to who you are.

    I have actually witnessed a church (not Anabaptist) which employed all-out shunning toward a member’s son who identified himself as homosexual. I was not a member of that church, but it was so painful for me to even know about what was happening. My heart broke for the boy, whose own family was instructed to have nothing to do with him…until he repented. Dear God. It made me realize that neither of my children could ever, ever do anything to cause me to withdraw my love from them. I hate shunning! Does God shun us when we’re “bad?” I don’t think so. I think we can move away from him and not realize that he’s with us and for us, but he doesn’t go anywhere…

    So I hope that Anabaptists no longer do that kind of thing. It is a passive-aggressive loophole to non-violence, wouldn’t you say? Because otherwise, I think you Anabaptists are my kind of people. 🙂

  • Susan N.,

    Shunning still occurs in Amish communities–which is one stream of Anabaptism–particularly when those who have been baptized into the community decide to leave it. In more mainstream Mennonite communities, I do not think it is a common practice. A leading Mennonite theologian of the 20th century, John Howard Yoder, wrote about the practice of “binding and loosing” from Matthew 18 (see his little book, Body Politics), which is a form of church discipline/conflict resolution that is less severe than shunning. In fact, the Mennonite church practiced this process on Yoder late in his life when allegations of misconduct with women were brought to light. Yoder (somewhat reluctantly) submitted to the discipline process and after four years was restored again to full fellowship in his Mennonite congregation. This was in the 1990s and though it was an exceptional circumstance (since Yoder was famous in the Mennonite world), it still shows that the process does still happen. Ideally, the goal of shunning/binding and loosing is to restore the one who has broken fellowship back to full fellowship (as with Yoder). However, I agree that there can be a more pernicious side to it.

  • Susan N.

    Thanks, D.C. That Yoder “reluctantly submitted” to his own proposed, ideal disciplinary practice is sadly telling, isn’t it? “Grace for me, justice for you,” as my husband puts it. So if I am grasping the concept, shunning is like a time-out. Go sit alone, think about what you’ve done, and when you’re sorry, come and rejoin the party. That works in the sense of allowing a cooling off period, if emotions have gotten overheated.

    But, being banished is a punitive form of justice. How is it restorative to the relationship? I’m just working this out in my mind, and tell me if I’m missing something…but we don’t get healed of our “sins” by working them out on our own, and *then* come to Jesus. We have a healing encounter with him, and then experience forgiveness. If the Body of Christ is, literally, the flesh-and-blood, “lived” presence of Jesus in the world, then casting out seems backwards?

    But, D.C., as I said before, I do not deny that as human beings in relationship, even within the Church, sometimes we are at a loss as to how to mend and restore brokenness. This is the grief that I think all peace-loving Christians share. The inability, sometimes, to make everything all right. We’re flawed and imperfect in the ways we “interact” and certainly how we reflect God’s image.

    Here’s my favorite trait of Anabaptists, as described in this post: “They were a courageous lot — thousands were put to death. They paid their life to be nonconformists, and there’s a positive way to put this: they died in order to be faithful to their commitment to follow the Bible, the New Testament and Jesus Christ.”

    If you’re going to be a non-conformist, make it count! Stand up for the right things, and do it in the right way (mercifully, humbly, justly). The Story Gospel is more than proclaiming what we’re *against*, no?

  • John Inglis

    Since the whole shunning concept began with Paul’s inspired words about dealing with an unrepentant sinner, the issue becomes not “whether”, but rather “what, how, and under what circumstances”. We should not expect discipline to be painless for either the persons involved nor for the others around them. North American culture has not focussed enough on discipline in following Jesus with the result that we do not know relevant answers to these questions and so fumble the ball when trying to carry them out.


  • Scott Gay

    Discipleship, family, and non-coercive- a succint ethos. Just one addition that is rarely brought up, but has ancient/future implications, is multi-voiced worship. Google Eleanor Kreider on the topic for a good introduction.

  • Susan,

    Yoder’s reluctance wasn’t to the practice itself but rather about quibbles he had over whether it was being implemented properly (namely, the fact that he was not given the chance to respond to his accusers, which would have been difficult, since some of them were former students, etc.). But some of his good friends convinced him to submit, even if he thought there were flaws in the process. So he did.

    I think it’s important to remember that “shunning” is used in the context of radical discipleship (Bender’s point 1 above). So, it isn’t supposed to be used toward those who are simply struggling with their faith or have slipped up and sinned. It is to be used on those who have committed to radical discipleship but then in some way or another rejected that commitment. (Which I take it is part of John’s point in comment 9.) It was developed at a time when Anabaptists were being severely persecuted for their faith, so it really did take radical commitment to be “rebaptized.” Unfortunately, when this practice is then used on those born into the (Amish) community, who never had the real chance to commit to it in the first place, it can seem harsh in the ways you described.

  • Simon

    Another Anabaptist emphasis that is really important to me is (to use Alan Kreider’s phrase) “the abolition of the laity”. He puts this down in part to a theology of the priesthood of Christ alone, but also practially to the Anabaptist’s lack of formal institutions for theological ordination and training and the fact that their leaders were being killed off too quickly to maintain a separate class of clergy. This is somewhat similar to the experience of the underground church in China.

  • Richard

    Looking at those three emphases, is it possible that much of the angst of the Emerging/Emergent conversation is an expression of these anabaptist characteristics?

  • Susan N.

    John (#9) – “We should not expect discipline to be painless for either the persons involved nor for the others around them.”

    Well, that discipline should cause pain is one way to look at it.

    “North American culture has not focussed enough on discipline in following Jesus with the result that we do not know relevant answers to these questions and so fumble the ball when trying to carry them out.”

    Actually, I think that North American culture has focused quite too much on punitive justice models of discipline, and not enough on the restorative justice model. Must social control be coercive and violent?

    When you bring Jesus into it, we might meditate on this truth: “My image of God creates me.” If we have seen (known, understood) Jesus, we have seen the Father. Is he compassionate, merciful, forgiving, patient, etc., etc., or the wrathful God of smoke and thunder who reneges on his promise to be present with us on the journey, even in the wilderness?

    If I can point to any one reason that I looked up the Jesus Creed blog in the first place, after reading some of Scot’s books, it is the impression I got in the telling of the “Story” that I had encountered a person who had been transformed by the message! If Scot is representative of Anabaptist doctrine, then I think I’m a fan of it. The strong element of peace, non-violent, non-coercive discipleship is a message that is hard (painful, at times, John?) to live out, but a message that draws me in and causes me to want very much to live up to!

    I will shut up now. (I’m sorry Scot for this tangent on “shunning.” It just really bothers me, and was fresh in my mind after the ‘Amish’ documentary last night.)

  • One thing missing from the description by Bender, and which may have been added in, the Anabaptist tradition(s) was quite restorationist. The name not mentioned here is Ulrich Zwingli, out of whose reforming efforts, the earliest Anabaptists emerged. The believed that Zwingli’s nationalist reformation did not take the church far enough back — to the New Testament. Thus, baptism of believers became the focal point of their belief system. Their embrace of believer baptism, which was seen as a rejection of the linkage of church and state, was seen as subversive. Thus, many Anabaptists not only faced persecution but execution. Interestingly, both Protestants and Catholics thought it humorous to execute them by drowning.

  • Tim Hallman

    What evangelical wouldn’t affirm the three points listed about Anabaptism? Wouldn’t David Platt affirm these statements in his book radical? Yet he won’t claim to be Anabaptist, but Calvinist? Evangelicalism truly is a patchwork quilt, to use Balmers phrase.

  • Richard

    @ 16

    Point 3 is usually the major sticking point, but so is 2 because so many of the Calvinist, Lutheran, and RCC branches of the faith lean toward theocratic application of their faith and anabaptists tend to avoid that.

  • Thank you for the beautiful summary Scot. I am a reformed minister myself. When I read Calvin I wonder if the neo-Calvinist vision of Calvin did not kill the mystic and relational theology.

    Would be interesting to hear your thoughts on Bonhoeffer. Would you say he was “anabaptist’? Can there then be someone that is a secret “anabaptist” while being part of another church?

  • @16 Tim Hallman

    My thoughts exactly. These points distinguish how Anabaptists WERE different, not how they ARE different.

    “The Anabaptists lived a life shaped by love and nonviolence. They refused to coerce anyone.” Applied to today… non-Anabaptists live a life shaped by hate, violence and an eager desire to coerce everyone?

  • janie

    Can anyone give a brief summery of how Finger’s and Weaver’s definition of Anabaptist differ?

    I’ve always suspected I might be a neo-anabaptist. Is that a word?

  • Scot McKnight

    Calvyn, in no way was Bonhoeffer an Anabaptist or a Pietist. Dimensions of course, but not as an orientation.

    janie, Finger’s more theological than Bender by taking Bender into new realms of theological conversation with others; Weaver is much more progressive than Bender.

  • Cal

    To those who are asking questions about Reformed acting like Anabaptists, consider it this way:

    The Anabaptists, and groups like them (as the name is a loose affiliation, not a denomination), were the radical reformers as opposed to the magisterial reformers of Luther and to some degree, Calvin.

    So you could just say they’re radically reformed, if they share those leanings. Calvinist is a word tossed around with a lot of ignorance. Most people don’t understand TULIP and even less what Calvin actually wrote. Most make it a catchword for hyper-calvinism, which in itself, is bizarre.

  • leah

    thanks for posting this, Scot. i grew up in the anabaptist tradition (church of the brethern and mennonite) and reading this post today really just drove home how much those key emphases have become part of my own faith and theology.

    one interesting point: we were discussing pacifism/nonresistance in one of my classes and a woman who had done some ministry in africa said that the people she had worked with had taken the stance that nonresistance theology must have come from people in power, because those being oppressed would always fight against oppression. i pointed out that, in fact, nonresistance grew out of persecuted, oppressed people. the conversation just drove home to me the “foolish wisdom” that the gospel sometimes brings.

  • TJJ

    And adut baptism, obviously, was a hallmark, along with the notion of a personal aspect of salvation demonstrated by personal, adult confession of life changing faith in Christ. This is oe of the clearest threads that has made it way inhto evangelicalism.

  • scot, i have always liked the little i know of anabaptism but have wondered do they engage the more charismatic spiritual gifts at all? hearing from God, healing, etc? i know the quakers, who i believe are similar but not considered anabaptist, do listen for God’s voice in prayer. i don’t know if they believe or practicing the other charismatic gifts though.

  • Mijk V

    I hate to be cynical, but…

    All of this self-identifying based on the affirmation/adherence to abstracted ideologies, removed from their concrete setting, is problematic to say the least.

    Without rehashing the post-modern critique of the Cartesian mind, place-less ideas or rationality, etc., I will just point out the problem as it pertains to Bender.

    Bender articulated “the essence” of the Anabaptist movement–the core beliefs core to the tradition from its inception to Bender’s day. Strangely enough, “the essence” of Anabaptism just happened to look exactly like the early 20th-century Mennonite theology coming out of Goshen College. Since that time, Anabaptist studies have developed beyond the mono-genesis theory of Bender to a more poly-genesis model that (IMO) better accounts for the not-so-rare exceptions to Bender’s definition.

    It’s not that Bender was twisting the facts or anything to suit his theology. It’s that Bender was giving a definition of the tradition from inside the tradition. Bender’s definition is one of many, and sorting out definitions is an internal affair of the tradition.

    Scot, you may be profoundly influenced by 20th-century Mennonite theology (for the better!). But unless that influence actually changes the status of your belonging, you’re not an Anabaptist anymore than I am Greek Orthodox because I (a Mennonite) find myself influenced by Alexander Schmemann.


  • Paul W

    On to perhaps a more shallow oriented question. Is there a name for the type of coat/jacket in the picture?

  • CGC

    HI Scott, Mijk, and all
    I believe many people can be close theologically and have the same vision. Actually, I find many people who are evangelical in spirit, or catholic in spirit, or mennonite in spirit, and may be more living out that tradition than some of those who are actual members of those ecclesiastical bodies.

  • Richard

    @ 21

    Scot, which of the three characteristics didn’t apply to Bonhoeffer? Emphasis on discipleship and following, check. Commitment to non-violence and non-coercion, check (while he was involved in the assassination plot against Hitler, there’s also strong evidence that suggests he wasn’t convinced doing so wasn’t a sin). Emphasis on brotherhood of fellowship sounds a lot like his seminary model (almost monastic) and reflected in his writings in Life Together and even I would suggest his thoughts around religionless Christianity that de-emphasized institutional expressions while retaining the “secret confession.”

    I realize everyone group tries to claim Bonhoeffer as their own but I’m intrigued but your stance that anabaptists rightly can’t.

  • Interesting piece on Bender. As a Southern Baptist I wonder why I never hear anything about Bender in SBC circles. Southern Baptists who claim some sort of spiritual kinship with Anabaptists usually seem to point to Hubmaier.

    Anyone with any ideas why?


  • Richard (29),

    A lot of neo-Anabaptists do claim Bonhoeffer–at least as a kindred spirit. Hauerwas, for example, has written a book on Bonhoeffer (though Hauerwas, of course, is not Anabaptist, he is a committed pacifist).

    Mark (30),

    Hubmaier was a 16th century Anabaptist, who wasn’t committed to nonviolence (so Southern Baptists can have their Anabaptism without worrying about pacifism). Bender was a 20th century Mennonite from Goshen College, who would probably be seen as somewhat liberal by certain SBC standards.

  • Scot – what is the best intro to understanding Anabaptism that you would recommend? (Adequately theological without being unreadably academic!?)

  • And a kindle version too please 🙂

  • scotmcknight

    J Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist. Shades away from Bender but a helpful guide. And Estep’s history is good.

  • eleanor kreider

    I recommend as a good intro to understanding Anabaptism (not too academic, adequately theological and also a good read) as requested in comment 32:

    The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray (Herald Press, 2010)

    Author leads Anabaptist Network in the UK, and is widely respected by Christians in many countries.

  • @ Tim Hallman
    In a nuanced way, Reformed Evangelical, depending on how closely they follow Calvin, might not take up Bender’s first mark of an Anabaptist. In Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, Willem Balke described Calvin’s ecclesiology as understanding the church to be the institution wherein the Word of God was rightly preached. For this reason Calvin saw as invalid the Anabaptist rejection of the Reformed churched, a rejection driven by the Anabaptist critique of a lack of purity of life among those in the Reformed churches. The Anabaptists, as Bender indicated, took as central to the ecclesiology that the church was the institution where the true disciples of Christ gathered (if they’d use the term “institution” at all).

    Further, I suspect Bender included pacifism in order to counter the then-contemporary debate over whether Mennonites could participate in WWII. By normalizing pacifism for the original Anabaptists, he thus effectively, even if not intentionally, invalidated non-pacifism within the Mennonitism of his day. After the war, Bender wrote an article, “The Anabaptist Theology of Discipleship,” that distilled these three points to one, namely the first. The other two were labeled derivative concepts from the first. When later secular scholarship suggested that Anabaptist origins were more diverse, including non-pacifists within the fold, Mennonites accepted the plurality so readily that the primary author of pluralist origins, James Stayer, was surprised at their acceptance.

    @ John (#13)
    According to Stuart Murray, you’d be correct. Murray himself looked toward the Anabaptist tradition delineating his own list of Anabaptist distinctives. He specifically crafted them in such a way as to support an emergent trajectory, thus seeing the emergent church that embraces the Anabaptist tradition as an effective answer to the problems faced by today’s church.

    I for one believe that he is right in that Anabaptism can inform our current struggles, I’m not willing to concede that mixing that with the emergent way is the right path. Non-Calvinist Baptists, much to my chagrin, tend to call up the Anabaptist as a counter to the resurgence of Calvinism among Evangelical. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that this has been done at the cost of accurate history. Hübmaier is especially susceptible to adoption among non-Anabaptist groups since, as Brian Brewer noted in his dissertation, Hübmaier was magisterial enough to have sympathies among the Reformed, was alike enough to Baptists to earn their appeal, and retained enough of his Catholic background to merit fruitful dialogue with the Catholics.

    and @ Janie
    I don’t know enough of Finger to comment, but Weaver pushes far in identifying the Anabaptist, especially in contemporary times, with the pacifist ideal. In Becoming Anabaptist, the term “peace church” gets a lot of mileage.