Our neo-Anabaptists

March 11, 2015 | Editorial | Volume 19 Issue 6

So how are we doing 490 years later?

We who anchor our faith expression in what has come to be called Anabaptism over nearly five centuries now number 1.7 million all over the globe and counting. What began in Zurich, Switzerland, during the Reformation in western Europe with the baptizing of break-away religious leaders George Blaurock and Conrad Grebel (see “The birth of Anabaptism in fire and water,” March 16, 2015 issue) has now blossomed into 83 countries around the globe.

Dominated for many centuries by leadership and numbers in western Europe and North America, the demographics have now shifted dramatically in this century to Africa, Asia and Latin American countries. Our Mennonite World Conference, to convene this July for the 15th time, is now led by César García of Colombia, having taken over the reins of leadership from a long line of North Americans.

Even in North America, there has been a kind of “homecoming” to the Anabaptist expression as voiced by Stuart Murray, a Baptist minister/scholar from England and the founder of the Anabaptist Network, and by Gregory Boyd, the courageous pastor of a 5,000-member congregation in St. Paul, Minn., who lost a fifth of his membership after preaching a series of sermons on “The cross and the sword.” The cause for the membership exit, according to the New York Times, was Boyd’s insistence that the “church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a ‘Christian nation’ and stop glorifying American military campaigns.”

It is perhaps fitting, then, that we look to these neo-Anabaptists for a report card on how we are doing five centuries later. Murray and Boyd are perhaps the best spokespersons to do this as newcomers to the faith. In his widely circulated book, The Naked Anabaptist, Murray strips down the essence of Anabaptism in our modern post-Christendom setting to seven core values:

  • Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord, the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle.
  • Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation; we are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible.
  • In a culture of churches ill-equipped for mission, Anabaptism has rejected Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  • We are exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition.
  • Our churches are to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship.
  • Spirituality and economics are interconnected, calling for living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation and working for justice.
  • We are committed to finding nonviolent alternatives and to learning to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society and between nations.

In an address to pastors in January at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., Boyd echoed some of the same challenges facing traditional Anabaptists:

  • Detach our identity, values and mission from our distinctive ethnicity and culture as much as possible and, instead, anchor these in our distinctive kingdom theology, values and practices.
  • Let go of whatever vestiges remain of the isolationist mindset of traditional Anabaptism and, instead, intentionally move outside our comfort zone to forge, cultivate and nurture relationships across ethnic and culture lines. We will need to learn how to not merely tolerate, but authentically celebrate, the diversity of other ethnicities and cultures. Imagine a worship service in which an older white ethnic Mennonite happily dances to loud reggae rock while a Jamaican neo-Anabaptist with waist-length fluorescent dreadlocks joins in four-part harmony, and you have a glimpse of what traditional Anabaptist groups need to strive for.
  • Explore creative ways of connecting with the neo-Anabaptists as we assume a learning posture in dialogue with them. Traditional Anabaptists must be willing to receive a rekindled appreciation and fiery passion for the beautiful vision of the kingdom that was given to them 500 years ago, but that has for many come to be taken for granted.
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Thanks to Dick Benner for framing the state of Anabaptism in this way. I found myself energized and invigorated by Benner's summation of the views of Stuart Murray and Gregory Boyd, as well as Benner's suggestion that these might point to the future of the Anabaptist movement. A well-written call to re-engagement with our history as we prepare to set foot into the second half of the Anabaptism millennium.

Boyd's challenge is well-stated, but the Neo-Anabaptist movment is whiter than MC Canada is. Not only do they have trouble separating mainstream white North American culture from their Anabaptist expressions, they often pretend no such culture exists.

I too appreciate this editorial - this a conversation we should be having in MCCanada. It is easy to point out the lack of ethic diversity among some leaders in the neo-anabaptist movement, I would venture to say many of those churches ie Woodland hills is more ethic than many of our "anglo" churches. To insist that theology is always in a cultural context while true ignores the needed critique that too often. People have come to our churches for its theology but can make the cultural jump to being "Mennonite". If we do not see our culture as somewhat of a barrier to new people joining us we put our heads in the sand.
I have gained so much from this neo-anabaptist speakers and writers, many you can listen to on their churches web site. Another new powerful voice is Brian Zhand - who book " farewell to Mars " is easily one of the strongest calls to follow Jesus in the way of Peace in the American context. Others are Scott McKnight, David Fitch, Lee Camp, Drew Hart, Michael Hardin. And many others. We need to let go of the idea that the Mennonite's are the curators of Anabaptism - yes we have a long history and much to offer - we must lose any sense that we are special ones and seek to share and work with others in the building up of the Kingdom.

"Detach our identity, values and mission from our distinctive ethnicity and culture as much as possible and, instead, anchor these in our distinctive kingdom theology, values and practices."

Indeed this would be a great step in the right direction, but I doubt it can or will happen. As someone who was not raised Mennonite and who doesn't have the appropriate last name, I can attest to the fact that, even being part of a loving congregation (as I was) will not ensure that you are ever completely "in". That is part of the reason my wife and I moved our family to another church. We weren't Mennonite and so we didn't fit. We almost weren't allowed to fit.

At the time that we were making our decision, we came across a couple of letter in the Canadian Mennonite Magazine which confirmed that we weren't the only ones having that experience. In fact, one of the letters was written by a pastor of a Mennonite church. He wasn't leaving his church but, having served for (as I recall) somewhere in the 30-38 year range without the requisite family name, he had become convinced that he had, as he put it "hitched his horse to the wrong wagon". Despite his Anabaptist theology, he would never be completely accepted by the Mennonite church.

Another way to say it might be this. In my experience, the more conservative a given Baptist Church is, the more closely it is aligned with an equally conservative Presbyterian Church. On the other hand, the more conservative a Mennonite church is, the more it seems to separate from Scripture and other churches and becomes more culturally Mennonite.

Why? Because most denominations have become denominations because of theological distinctives and while it's true that Mennonite churches have their own theological distinctives, that's not (as I have seen it) what sets them apart.
More often it's the "Mennonite game".

I love my friends from the Mennonite church but that barrier remains.

The is a problem. A huge problem.

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