For over twenty years the Anabaptist Network has offered as a ‘centre of gravity’ seven core convictions, an attempt to summarise and contextualise distinctive features of the Anabaptist vision. These provide focus, inspiration and ongoing challenge. More recently, we have been concerned to identify a number of common practices. What kinds of things do communities shaped by the Anabaptist vision do, and how do these practices shape them?
As the Anabaptist Mennonite Network explores opportunities both for planting Anabaptist churches and resourcing existing churches that want to become explicitly Anabaptist, this conversation has become more significant.
We have distilled from many conversations 12 suggestions. The term ‘common practices’ is intended to convey that these are not regarded as mandatory or exhaustive – they are simply the kinds of things that are likely to characterise communities with Anabaptist convictions.
This discussion paper is an invitation to reflect on these practices and how they might be embodied in new and existing Christian communities.
1. Interpreting and following the way of Jesus
Many of us have been drawn to Anabaptism because of its emphasis on following Jesus, on the Sermon on the Mount as practical guidance for discipleship, on an approach to the Bible that starts with Jesus and interprets everything in light of his life and teaching. We believe that this starting point makes a real difference to how we read the Bible, interpret its message and apply its teaching.
Early Anabaptists profoundly disagreed with those who justified infant baptism, tithing, oaths and participation in war (among other things) on the basis of biblical interpretation that did not start with Jesus.
What issues facing followers of Jesus today might be impacted by these different approaches to the Bible?
Does ‘starting with Jesus’ run the risk of denigrating other parts of Scripture?
How does this approach work in relation to issues on which Jesus says nothing?
Some today refer to themselves as ‘Jesus followers’ rather than Christians – what are the pros and cons of this?
2. Living simply
Anabaptists are not alone in advocating and practising simple living, nor have Anabaptists always embodied this conviction. But the tradition has been marked by a spirituality of humility, an ethic of restraint, resistance to excess and uncluttered lives and communities.
How might these aspects of living simply be expressed today (a) in our communities, and (b) in our personal or family lives?
• A spirituality of humility
• An ethic of restraint
• Resistance to excess
• Uncluttered lives
How do we assess simple living – locally, nationally or globally?
Are there dangers inherent in this practice?
3. Multi-voiced worship and biblical interpretation
The early Anabaptists frequently objected to the domination in the state churches of the priest or preacher and the passivity of the congregation. They expected and encouraged all members of their communities to participate actively in worship, to contribute insights as Scripture was explored together and to use the gifts the Holy Spirit gave them. 1 Corinthians 14:26 was the biblical mandate for this, quoted frequently by them.
Most first-generation Christian communities are multi-voiced: why do most revert quite soon to mono-voiced practices?
How can congregations be encouraged and equipped to develop multi-voiced practices?
Why are preachers often reluctant to invite questions, comments and discussion? What practices can help build ‘interpreting communities’?
4. Baptising would-be disciples
Rejection of infant baptism by the early Anabaptists as unbiblical, coercive and damaging was deeply offensive to their contemporaries, as was their practice of baptising believers (whether or not they had been baptised as infants). This radical departure from centuries of tradition was innovative but is now normal in most non-conformist traditions. Convictions about baptism continue to be matters of dispute, but with nothing like the passion of 16th-century debates.
How crucial is this issue today? Can followers of Jesus with different convictions accept each other’s position without demur, or is ongoing debate helpful?
Can a community make a legitimate claim to be ‘Anabaptist’ if it continues to practise infant baptism?
What kind of preparation for believers’ baptism, if any, is appropriate?
How does an Anabaptist community nurture its children, and what place does baptism have for children who grow up in this community?
5. Communion as a peace meal
The early Anabaptists were often interrogated about their views of the Lord’s Supper. Most took the view that this was a simple memorial meal, although one or two used sacramental language – but suggesting the act of breaking bread and drinking wine, not the elements, was sacramental. They also placed much greater emphasis on the horizontal significance of this meal (which often took place in their homes), regarding it as a time to be reconciled with each other and to commit themselves afresh to the community.
Why is 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 so often read at communion in isolation? What difference does it make to read from verse 17 to verse 34?
The early Christians shared bread and wine in the context of a real meal. What difference might doing this make to your understanding and practice?
In what ways might communion enable your community to develop as a peace church?
What practices might be helpful to communities who want to experience communion as a peace meal (passing the peace, foot-washing, etc.)?
6. Non-hierarchical leadership
Early Anabaptists recognised members of their communities with gifts of leadership and welcomed their contributions, although they valued character and spirituality over official recognition or educational achievements, and generally appointed leaders from within the congregation. But they resisted traditional hierarchical patterns and encouraging all members, women and men, to participate and developed consultative processes to ensure as many views and voices were heard as possible.
What do you look for in leaders and how do you choose them? Might you explore alternative ways of doing this?
How does vision emerge in your community? How is the prophetic voice heard? What is the role of recognised leaders in this?
Are any responsibilities or activities in your community restricted to certain people? If so, why? Could this be reviewed?
What do you think about ordination? Should nobody be ordained, or many people for their different roles, or everyone as ministers of Christ?
7. Consensual decision-making
The commitment of early Anabaptists to multi-voiced communities influenced how decisions were made, and this has continued to mark the Anabaptist tradition. There has been concern to listen carefully, consult widely, allow time for reflection and aim for consensus rather than imposition by leaders or majority decisions.
What processes of consultation do you have in your community and how effective are they, especially in enabling weaker, newer or quieter members to participate?
How important to your community is making decisions quickly or making decisions after careful reflection and exploring various options?
What practices have you found helpful – or might you introduce – to help those who disagree about how the community should move forward to really hear each other?
Is consensus realistic? Does this mean everyone agreeing? Or might it mean moving forward only when everyone knows their views have been heard and valued?
8. Practising mutual accountability
Early Anabaptists committed themselves at their baptism to give and receive admonition and encouragement in a community of would-be disciples. They referred to Matthew 18:15-17 as the ‘Rule of Christ’ and encouraged this process in their communities – both in their quest for a pure and faithful church and in order to be at peace with each other. They sometimes erred on the side of harshness, rather than kindness, but they offered a non-violent alternative to the often lethal ‘church discipline’ of the Christendom era and the absence of discipline in the state churches.
Has your community ever studied this biblical passage (and the many others that refer to this process of mutual accountability) and discussed how to implement it?
What dangers do you see in this practice? What dangers do you see if communities do not practise this?
Why do you think there is no mention of leaders in this passage?
How did Jesus treat ‘Gentiles’ and ‘tax collectors’, and what does this imply for how your community engages with any who have been asked to withdraw?
9. Practising peacemaking
From very early, Anabaptist were committed to non-violence and this has been a mark of the tradition for nearly five centuries. But more recently, there has been a stronger emphasis on active peacemaking, exploring ways of pursuing justice through non-violent and creative means. This has included involvement in restorative justice, deploying peacemaking teams in areas of conflict, campaigning against the arms trade, exploring the legacies of colonialism and other activities.
Is a commitment to non-violence enough or does the pursuit of justice require followers of Jesus to be active peacemakers?
What opportunities for practising peacemaking can you discern in your own neighbourhood?
What skills do those who practise peacemaking need to learn and what habits and responses do they need to develop?
How can your church or community encourage and equip its members to be peacemakers?
10. Practising mutual aid
The economic practices of the early Anabaptists were threatening to their contemporaries, whether they formed ‘common purse’ communities or shared generously with others and relativised the notion of ‘private’ property. The Hutterites have continued to operate as a common purse community for nearly five centuries. Mennonites remain committed to the practice of mutual aid. Followers of Jesus drawn to Anabaptism have often experimented with radical economic practices.
Do you regard the practices of the early Christians described in Acts 2 and 4 as normative or exceptional? Why?
Is your church or community one in which economic issues – personal and global – can be spoken about openly and explored together?
What practices does your community have, or might it introduce, to enable it to respond to needs within and beyond the community?
Are there creative ways in which your community might subvert the power of consumerism and individualism that dominate western culture?
11. Telling the truth
Many early Anabaptists refused to swear oaths, not only because Jesus appeared to forbid this but also because they were wary of promising something they might not be able to deliver. A further reason was a commitment to telling the truth in all circumstances, not just under oath. In a ‘post-truth’ culture, communities that are known to be truthful may be distinctive and attractive.
Although swearing oaths is less common now than in the sixteenth century, there are still a surprising number of situations where oaths are used. Would you swear an oath?
Are there situations where you would not tell the truth – for example, to protect others?
How might your community encourage and equip each other to be truth tellers?
12. Witness in word and lifestyle
The early Anabaptists were passionate evangelists and all members of their churches were expected to share their faith with neighbours and friends. Many travelled all over Europe to bear witness. In time, this passion waned, partly due to persistent persecution, and Anabaptists placed greater emphasis on ‘living out the gospel’, witnessing through lifestyle and actions. Some Anabaptists today are working to reconnect these dimensions of witness.
Do you – and does your community – prioritise witness in word or witness through lifestyle? Why?
How might you emphasise and encourage growth in whichever of these aspects of witness is weaker in your community?
What aspects of your lifestyle – in your neighbourhood and in contemporary culture – are distinctive and embody the gospel?
In a post-Christendom culture, how does witness through living distinctively need to be interpreted?
The Anabaptist Mennonite Network welcomes feedback from your discussions and, in particular, responses to these questions:
• How central is this practice to your understanding of the Anabaptist vision?
• How important is this practice in the life of your church/community?
• What support or resources from the AMN would be helpful in relation to these practices?
• Can you share any ideas, resources or stories that might encourage others to explore these practices?
You can participate in our ongoing online survey HERE.