In the West, it’s often assumed that there are two types of Christians—Catholic and Protestant. As an Anabaptist, I’m frequently called a Protestant.
This isn’t so surprising. After all, Anabaptists believe that Christian doctrine should be based on Scripture. We also reject many of the traditions and developments of the Roman Catholic Church, as Protestants do. And after all, the Anabaptist movement originated around the same time as the Protestant movement did.
However, most traditional Anabaptists wouldn’t consider ourselves Protestant. Why not?
Differences of belief and practice
First, the Anabaptists, from the very start, held that the church must be made up of believers. They rejected the idea of a state church to which everyone belonged. However, the Protestants were all primarily interested in reforming the state church—and keeping it a state church. That meant that they had the protection of the state, while Anabaptists had no nations or armies to back them up.
Protestantism was very political—in fact, the name “Protestant” was first used of German princes who refused to bow to the Roman Catholic Church’s political demands. Protestantism is still quite political—Protestants in the West feel that it is very important to take part in government. However, the Anabaptists have traditionally taught that Christians must stay away from serving in government.
Anabaptists taught that the key to being a Christian is discipleship—following Christ. This includes the necessity of obedience to the New Testament commands. While Protestants have traditionally taught that obedience is important, they consider it not to be a necessity but more an effect of being saved.
Anabaptists are most defined by our insistence on nonresistance—we believe Christians should never do violence. However, Protestants have always been okay with Christians taking part in violence when it appears to be necessary, such as in war.
It could be noted that there are other groups that didn’t arise along with the Protestant Reformation that are still considered Protestant. This could include the Baptists and Wesleyans. But these groups arose out of Protestantism and didn’t differ from it to the extent that the Anabaptists historically have.
It’s interesting to note that at least some of the Anabaptist doctrines arose first before the Protestant Reformation. For example, nonresistance predated even Luther as a doctrine, since at least some Bohemian Brethren seem to have taught it. Some Waldensians were also nonresistant, and they can’t historically be called Protestants, since they arose long before the Protestant Reformation.
Protestantism is in some respects closer than Catholicism than to Anabaptism, and Anabaptism is in some respects closer to Catholicism than to Protestantism. So calling Anabaptists “Protestants” is misleading. However, if you do use the term, it would be good to note the major differences between Anabaptism and the major Protestant traditions (Lutheranism, Calvinism, Zwinglianism, or Anglicanism). Of course, there are so many major differences between those different traditions that, even if Anabaptism were a form of Protestantism, one wouldn’t expect them to conform to a particular stereotype of Protestantism.