I am a pagan convert and a theological mongrel! I was evangelized by Pentecostals, brought to faith by evangelical Anglicans, taught the mysteries by high-church priests, encouraged by para-church ministries, befriended by independent church leaders, filled with the Spirit in charismatic worship, learned to preach under the tutelage of Methodists, married into a Baptist family, trained at a British Methodist theological college, worked at a United Methodist Seminary in the USA, participated in a Free Methodist church and an American Baptist church, started a house fellowship, and finished up at Cliff College. I have continued as a Methodist, however, because over the years I have found the evangelical roots of this tradition to be a constant source of inspiration. Wesley was set upon becoming a real and ‘altogether’ Christian: holy in heart and life; perfected in love of God and neighbour. This vision was cultivated and pursued through his encounters with, and appropriation of, many different streams of Christian thought and practice: patristic sources from East and West, Anglican divines, Puritans and Pietists, Moravians, and even heretics! In short, he ‘poached’ anything that could help illumine the life of holiness. One might say that he was also a theological mongrel, and it would be consistently ‘Wesleyan’ of me to ‘poach’ the Anabaptist tradition insofar as it might illumine and advance the end of evangelical discipleship; as well as suggesting some directions for further dialogue.
Baptism as Initiation into a Life of DiscipleshipL~
Most students of church history first learn that the Anabaptists were infamous for rejecting the practice of infant baptism. Their reasons included the absence of clear scriptural warrant; an emphasis on personal conversion, the experience of new birth and forgiveness of sins; and the need for an intentional decision to become a follower of Jesus. More importantly, however, they understood believer’s baptism to be an initiation into a life of radical discipleship, and into a community of discipline that would help them make good on their decision. This tradition has constantly pressed me to think of the church as a community of moral discourse, deliberation and discernment; a place where accountable fellowship is made possible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I believe the connection between baptism, discipleship and a community of discipline also lay at the heart of early Methodism. Without a life of disciplined discipleship and accountable fellowship, Wesley argued that the benefits of infant baptism inevitably withered away, leaving one in need of evangelical conversion. The early Methodists were certainly not committed to re-baptism, but they were committed to the new birth and a life of radical discipleship. It is interesting to note that Wesley himself likened the class meeting to the early church catechumenate. In many ways, the Anabaptist tradition reminds me of the buried treasure Methodists have in their tradition of disciple-making, and how we have been slow to find inspiration in it.
Radical Discipleship as Civil DisobedienceL~
The Anabaptists took a very different stance from the ‘magisterial’ Reformers when it came to the relationship between church and state. Whereas the Reformers looked to the conversion of Constantine as the highpoint of church history, the Anabaptists saw it as the fall of the church! The ‘Christendom synthesis’ resulted in a fatal compromise of the gospel with worldly wealth and power that all but extinguished radical discipleship from the face of the earth. Their refusal of infant baptism was meant to be a form of civil disobedience: a witness against the compromise of the Christendom arrangement. I am encouraged that Wesley sided with the Anabaptists over the Reformers on the question of Constantine. He regretted how the ‘mystery of iniquity’ had persistently worked through the church’s collusion with the world: to subdue its passion for holiness and impede the spread of the gospel. It is possible to see early Methodist discipleship as a form of implicit ‘civil disobedience’ insofar as their commitment to holiness challenged the taken-for-granted nature of contemporary social life: the political conditions of poverty, the practice of slave trading, the emergence of capitalist economics, the state of moral depravity, etc. Like the Anabaptists, their witness incited persecution from all sides. In a post-Christendom context, I find myself challenged to welcome my place on the margins of society as a new opportunity for holiness and witness.
The Church as Intentional Kingdom CommunityL~
I appreciate the Anabaptist understanding of church as a social reality called to embody the gospel of Christ in a world of unbelief. Under the conditions of Christendom, it is argued, discipleship gets reduced to good ‘citizenship’; the radical demands of the gospel get reduced to abstract ‘values’; Christian faith is reduced to private spirituality; and the ministry of the church is reduced to ‘chaplaincy’. Ironically, it would seem that by accepting the conditions of Christendom, the church sowed the seeds of its own marginalization. As the church’s former privilege as purveyor of spiritual and moral direction to the nation is withdrawn, it is left languishing in the realm of privatized, sub-cultural and a-political religious plurality. Against this, some Anabaptists have insisted that the church must exist as a social reality in its own right. If politics is simply about how the common life of a people is ordered, then the church is ordered by the ‘politics’ of Jesus. If culture is simply the character of a community’s way of life, then the church is a ‘culture’ shaped by the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. And if being public is simply a political-cultural reality made visible, then the church is a ‘public’ viewing of the Kingdom of God made open to all. This tempts me to reinterpret the meaning of early Methodist ‘society’ as a public, cultural and political way of life shaped by the pursuit of scriptural holiness. Accountability to the ‘General Rules’ was to produce a form of life consistent with the teaching of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount (a text much used by Anabaptists). I am indebted to the Anabaptists for helping me see how radical Christian community does not happen by accident, but requires an intentional commitment to a form of life capable of resisting the dominant social realities of the world.
A Witness that Challenges the ‘World’L~
The Anabaptists have also helped me understand the church’s vocation of bearing witness to the rule of Christ in a fallen ‘world’ distorted by human projects (or principalities and powers) that usurp his universal reign. The church is what happens when the Holy Spirit gathers and strives with those committed to bringing their worldliness under the rule of Christ: affirming that which is consistent with the Kingdom, and confronting those idolatrous preoccupations which tend to deny it. Anabaptists argue that this witness gets submerged under the conditions of Christendom: when the ‘world’ is assumed to be Christian. At the end of Christendom, however, it is possible for the church to remember its vocation to help the world know itself as a ‘world’ in need of redemption. From a Wesleyan perspective, this would be another way of speaking about ‘holiness’ or sanctification: that is, lives which bear witness to the holy difference between the Kingdom of God and the ‘worldliness’ of the ‘world’. I find myself encouraged to go beyond fears of legalism, to the importance of holiness as an intentional commitment to stake our hearts and lives on the Lordship of Christ in every area of life. Holy people are necessarily a challenge to every culture, in every time and place, until Jesus comes again.
Church Life as Orienting Concern in MissionL~
In recent years I have found Anabaptist ecclesiology to be increasingly influential in the field of mission, with its orienting concern for the character of Christian community. There is a change of emphasis from what the church is doing in the world, to mission as its very reason for being in the world. The church is not missional because it sends out missionaries, but because the church is itself sent into the world as a sign, foretaste and herald of the Kingdom. What is sent is the social reality of its life together under the rule of Christ: a public, cultural and political embodiment of the gospel. The church exists as ‘pulpit’ and ‘paradigm’: a prophetic word against that which turns creation against the rule of Christ; and a preview of creation made new in Christ. Here is a connection with Wesley’s idea of ‘social holiness’. He was not advocating a modern ‘social gospel’, but pointing out that you cannot be holy on your own! On the one hand, all the Christian virtues are relational in nature, so holiness means striving with others to become Christlike. On the other hand, these same virtues, when exercised in the ‘world’, become the medium of witness. Social holiness means being salt and light in the world, such that the gospel can be tasted and seen through the character of our relationships. Anabaptist thinking has pushed me to extend the importance of individual witness to the role of Christian community as a witness to the social reality of the Kingdom.
The Anabaptist commitment to pacifism is a witness to the peacable rule of Christ in a culture of violence
Non-Violence as Witness to the KingdomL~
The Anabaptist commitment to pacifism is a witness to the peacable rule of Christ in a culture of violence. On the one hand, the pax Romana was a vision of the world restrained from warring through the military might of the Empire. On the other hand, the pax Christi is a vision of a world renewed in love through the grace of God. The Kingdom is not characterized by an absence of war but an abundance of love; and the church is called to prove how the death and resurrection of Christ has the power to heal the violent divisions of the world in the quality of its life together. The Kingdom does not come through violence, but through the witness of a peaceable community. It is true that Wesley has been read as a warrant for both pacifism and just war; and Methodists as a whole remain confused about it. There is no doubt, however, that Wesley’s own vision of the new creation is one in which the rule of peace is celebrated. He vividly describes the new creation as a place where all carnivorous appetites are no more: where the alienation between predator and prey, among humans and animals alike, is completely healed. The pursuit of holiness and ‘perfection’ in love toward God and neighbour would seem entirely inconsistent with habits of violence. It is hard to imagine how one could simultaneously strive for holiness and yet also be trained to kill, or even to approve of killing, or to turn a blind eye to it.
The Pursuit of Christian PerfectionL~
Thanks to some Anabaptists, I have become a fan of sectarianism! This has meant un-learning the standard definition of ‘sect’ as a divisive faction: a religious community set against the mainstream of both church and society; or a close-knit and inward-looking group with perfectionist views; generally dismissive, resistant, or antagonistic towards wider social realities. On a global scale, it is not difficult to think how whole nation-states are capable of adopting such a ‘sectarian’ stance towards the rest of the world. Size is not the issue when it comes to being sectarian! Rather, it is an intentional commitment to a particular way of life in the midst of competing claims. Nation-states secure it through domestic and international violence; whereas radical Christianity looks to the cultivation of disciplined fellowship and discipleship. The pursuit of holiness is not about policing the borders of a community, but the importance of maintaining a truthful witness to the Kingdom of God. To be sectarian means knowing that there is a competition for our souls, and that our lives easily become distorted apart from a community of resistance and counter-cultural practices. It does not entail ‘fleeing to the desert’, or being isolated from ‘the world’, but intentionally seeking the Kingdom amidst the ‘powers that be’ as a form of spiritual struggle and witness. In my estimation, Wesley raised the ire of world and church not because he broke the rules of ecclesiastical order or made a nuisance of himself in political circles, but because he formed a movement, a People, whose from of life embodied a witness against the ‘powers that be’. The witness of this ‘sect’ to the Kingdom of God changed the lives of the poor and challenged the institutions of poverty in many deep and lasting ways. May it be so again!
The Revd Dr Phil Meadows is Director of Postgraduate Studies at Cliff College
metconnexion, Spring 2008, pp.20-22