There was a time when various Christian networks or denominations liked to talk about what distinguished them from others. Arguments were had over minutia of doctrine and practice. This still happens in some places, but for many of us it has now become much more important to look at commonalities than differences. In that earlier era, though, Anabaptist writers published a flurry of books and articles trying to sum up an Anabaptist approach to the Christian faith in nice, easy lists. The push was to develop the shortest set of teachable points that somehow could speak to core issues that distinguished this segment of the Christian family from others. You can probably tell that I’m not much taken with these projects anymore. Having said that, I do know we all like lists, so below is an extract from a sermon that is my cut at listing Anabaptist distinctives. Or, put another way, these are gifts Anabaptist Christians bring to the larger family of faith:
- Anabaptists hold strongly to the conviction that baptism and joining the church are things we should do voluntarily. Baptism is something we do in partnership with God’s grace, but it isn’t something chosen by others for us.
- Anabaptists believe that being a Christian isn’t simply a thing we can say about ourselves, it is not an identity we claim simply by stating it—it is something we live. Anabaptists believe we live the Christian way of life by following Jesus’ example in serving others (especially the vulnerable), working for peace, living simply, and sharing with those in need.
- Anabaptists believe the Bible is very important to our faith, but we believe that we read the Bible best in community under the guidance of the Spirit. The preacher’s words are not God’s words; God speaks to us as we dialogue and pray with others. We need others to check our biases and hold us accountable.
- Anabaptists believe that Jesus is the clearest presentation of God. Whenever we’re trying to sort and sift various passages of the Bible or the Spirit’s guidance in our own lives, we check these things against the life and teaching of Jesus.
- Anabaptists give their loyalty to Jesus over and above a nation or a family or a profession or anything else. Though many of us love our countries, our families, our professions and groups we might be a part of, we are skeptical of nationalism and skeptical of pledging to our country or our employer an allegiance that should only be given to God.
- Anabaptists engage consistently in spiritual practices like prayer and reading scripture, yet we are convinced that we are nearest to God when we are getting our hands dirty expressing God’s love for others.
- Finally, Anabaptists have no illusions about this form of faith ever being wildly popular. We expect it will not be.
So that’s my take on this common question. Hopefully it’s more helpful than harmful. Anyone who has ever participated in an Anabaptist church knows that there’s always a gap between aspirations like these and reality. What, for instance, might mean to live simply in 2020? I once wrote a long academic article on that topic, but I’m not entirely sure and I’m not entirely sure my neighbours would use the word ‘simple’ to describe my household. But lists are fun . . . and occasionally helpful.