Stuart Murray Williams
Unpacking the 1st Core Conviction
Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
Unlike the classical creeds, which begin with a statement about God and are set in a Trinitarian framework, we start with a statement about Jesus. The Anabaptist tradition is unapologetically Trinitarian but its distinctive emphasis has been on the human life of Jesus and on his centrality for understanding God, history and humanity. The concern of the early Anabaptists (like many radical movements before them) was that European Christians were giving inadequate attention to the life, example and teaching of Jesus. The story of Jesus as told in the Gospels and his challenging call to discipleship seemed to have been obscured in the creeds, doctrinal debates, ecclesiastical traditions and liturgical practices of the mainstream churches.
Anabaptists urged recovery of a Jesus-centred approach to faith that impacted every aspect of discipleship. They challenged the Christendom tradition, which had found it hard to cope with the radical Jesus in a world that Christians now controlled and had shifted the emphasis from following Jesus to worshipping him. They challenged the medieval lay piety that was devoted to Jesus but tended to spiritualise and privatise encounters with him. And they challenged the Reformers, who thundered the centrality of Jesus for salvation but seemed reticent to make Jesus normative for lifestyle, church and mission.
“Following Jesus” is a strong motif within the Anabaptist tradition. One of the best known 16th century statements is Hans Denck’s assertion: “No one can know Christ unless he follows after him in life.” All claims to spiritual experience and theological
knowledge are to be tested against lived discipleship. Is this salvation by works, as the opponents of the Anabaptists charged? The second part of Denck’s saying is less well known but indicates that obedience and encounter are interwoven: “and no one can follow him unless he first know him.” Anabaptists actually had a stronger experiential emphasis than their contemporaries on the work of the Holy Spirit, but they were not interested in either doctrinal correctness or spiritual experiences that did not result in changed lives, faithful discipleship, authentic church and courageous mission.
In a postmodern world that is deeply sceptical about truth claims, living out the radical and surprising message of the gospel is crucial.
In a post-Christendom world that is heartily sick of institutional Christianity, there is still a fascination with the person of Jesus if we tell his story.
Taking seriously the example and teaching of Jesus calls us to re-examine many accepted Christian practices and explore more radical options.
Jesus-centredness poses questions about the way we do church – our authority structures, the songs we sing, our priorities and what we don’t do.
Jesus-centredness challenges the ways we participate in society, the values we espouse, the basis on which we engage with social issues.
- Reflect quietly on this conviction and then (if you can) share with one or two others your response to any of these questions:
How (if at all) does this differ from what you have known and believed before?
Who do you know who lives out this conviction and commitment?
How does this conviction inspire your imagination?
How does this conviction challenge or empower your faith?
How might this conviction impact the way you live?
- Read the article on the Anabaptist Mennonite Network website that explores this conviction:
What questions does this article raise for you?
What aspects of the core conviction does it not address?
Are there elements of the article or the conviction with which you disagree?
Are there elements that you strongly affirm?
- What evidence is there – in your life or your church – that the teaching of Jesus has been taken seriously rather than being marginalised?
- Verna Dozier has written: ‘When the church chose to worship Jesus rather than follow Him, we lost much that was threateningly radical about this disturbing person.’
How do you react to this claim?
- How can those who want to follow the example of Jesus avoid legalism and counter the charge that this is ‘salvation by works’?
- Does the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ help or hinder those who want to follow Jesus?
- If you endorse this conviction and the commitment it contains, in what fresh way will you follow it through in the next month?
- What liturgical resources – songs, prayers, poetry, icons, rituals, etc. – do you know that might enable you or your church to express and celebrate this core conviction and renew this commitment?