The Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Life

Ted Grimsrud

[This is a sermon preached at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Arizona, December 28, 1986. I post it at PeaceTheology.net on July 6, 2020. For more of my sermons see the collection under “Ted Grimsrud Sermons.”]

It’s a real privilege to be able to share with you this morning. It has been awhile since the last time I gave a sermon—that was when I last preached here almost 2½ years ago. But I feel good about being here and very grateful to have the chance to reflect—with you—on the relationship between the “Anabaptist vision” and our lives as Mennonites in the 1980s.

A Mennonite in the city

The past 2 ½ years, I’m pleased to report, have been very good for Kathleen, Johan, and me. For all of us, our lives have been centered around our education—Kathleen doing graduate work in theology at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California; Johan beginning pre-school; me in my doctoral program in Christian ethics. And we’ve all had very positive experiences. It helps also to be in Berkeley with its beautiful scenery and wonderful climate (imagine twelve months of Phoenix Decembers).

And I would have to say that even though our environment there is definitely not a Mennonite one, I have been only strengthened in my commitment to the Mennonite church and the Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective on the Christian faith. It is certainly challenging to be thrown into a context where the faculty and students are from a wide range of traditions—many Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, evangelical Christians, not to mention Unitarians and Jews.

In such an environment, one is forced to come to terms with one’s own tradition, one’s deepest beliefs and values. I was helped to do so myself by taking a class on Anabaptist theology and ethics in which I was the only Mennonite. In this class we studied the 16th-century emergence of the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland—and looked closely at the account of this movement given by historian Harold Bender, the long-time professor and administrator at Goshen College who died about 25 years ago.

Harold Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision”

Harold Bender was responsible, more than anyone else, for turning the eyes of Mennonites and many others to the 16th century, and to the relevance of the early Anabaptist movement for understanding how 20th-century Mennonites can better be faithful Christians. In 1943, Bender was named president of the American Society of Church History and in his presidential address gave a speech that was later published with the title, “The Anabaptist Vision.” This article is still an exciting summary of that vision. In “The Anabaptist Vision,” Bender asserts that the two major emphases of the early Anabaptists were: (1) Christianity is primarily a matter of Christians experiencing and living out the transformation of life through discipleship, through following in life the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth; and (2) that this transformed life takes place in the context of the church as a fellowship of love in which the fullness of the Christian life ideal is to be expressed.

The focus of my class was to test the adequacy of Bender’s summary by looking ourselves at materials from the 16th century and at other modern interpretations of Anabaptism. This process was very helpful for me in my own reflections on Anabaptism, Mennonitism, and Christian ethics. I have been asking, what assistance can an awareness of our tradition give us as we seek to live morally faithful lives in our world today. As we are faced with complex social issues, with decisions of where we live, where we work, how we spend our money, who we spend our time with, and so on.

Of course, there are rich resources in our tradition. I finished the class being very impressed with Harold Bender’s insights and grateful for his pioneering work in making the Anabaptist vision more present. As I’ve continued my academic work, I’ve continued to try to see what is useful about the Anabaptist vision for modern-day Christian ethics, for modern-day efforts to live lives that are faithful to God and Jesus. I would like to share some of my thoughts on this with you in hopes that my doing so might stimulate your thinking a little and thereby encourage you to continue to draw upon our tradition as a source of wisdom and encouragement.

Key Anabaptist emphases: (1) Suspicion

The early Anabaptists were seen by those around them as radicals, as threats to the social order. Many men and women were martyred for their faith, for the fact that they identified with God and Jesus and their community of faith more than with the state and the state-church.

These people didn’t start out to be revolutionaries. It was not their intention violently to overthrow the government or to do anything of that sort. But they did make a fundamental and crucial move. When they asked what was true, what was right—the authorities they looked to were primarily the Bible, especially as it speaks of Jesus, and their community of faith. They would try to follow what these authorities said, these provided the channels to God’s message to them. They did not give that kind of authority to the state or to the dominant churches—which were supported and dominated by the state—or to any other of the established powers-that-be in their society. In fact, the attitude of the Anabaptists toward these latter authorities is best summarized as an attitude of suspicion.

The Anabaptists began with the assumption that the people in society with power, wealth, prestige, and the like are not to be seen as authoritative for Christians, in fact, they are not really even to be trusted. As a rule, the motivations of the powers-that-be are not to obey Jesus but to increase their own power, wealth, and prestige.

Jesus, of course, was the source of this suspicion. As Matthew 20 records: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (20:25-28).

All too often throughout the history of Christianity, the voice of God and the voice of national leaders have been seen to speak with one voice. That is how leaders hold on to their power. For people to question that, not to mention going so far as to doubt whether the powers-that-be do speak for God, was—and is—a great threat to that power. The Anabaptists, while not self-consciously revolutionaries, where a threat because they placed Jesus’s word above Caesar’s word.

As a very subtle, but crucial, contribution to our thought processes, I can think of nothing more important to us than this basic suspicion of the powers-that-be. We are being reminded once again in our nation’s present scandal over Iran and Nicaragua that the basic impulses of our nation’s leaders are not for peace, democracy, and justice—they are much more for power, greed, and military might.

However, it’s not only government leaders—who else has power in our society? Large business corporations, the mass media, the military, groups like the medical and legal professions —the point is not that these people and groups are all evil or necessarily mal-intentioned, we all know better than that. Many of us are even part of these groups ourselves. The point is to question what we hear from them, to recognize that Jesus’s way and the way of American national leaders can and often do diverge.

The Anabaptists’ notion was not so much that people in power are bad. It was rather that they are not to be trusted above Jesus, the Bible, and the community of faith. And when the powers-that-be’s messages diverge from Jesus’s message, the Christian’s calling is to side with Jesus, even when doing so is costly to us.

Key Anabaptist emphases: (2) Integrity

A second key element of the Anabaptist vision besides suspicion is integrity. The Anabaptists were simple people, generally relatively uneducated people from the middle and lower classes. They did not have complex theories and rationales for what they did. Often their accusers said to them: “You can’t know what you’re talking about; you’re ignorant and poor. How utterly presumptuous to think that you illiterate peasants can know more about God than we educated priests, pastors, and professors.”

Such charges didn’t really bother the Anabaptists. You don’t need a fancy education to know God and to follow Jesus, they said. Jesus’s commands and his way of life are simple. They would have described what they were doing as merely putting into practice what they believed. We can tell from the gospels what Jesus wants from us; we believe he is of God and thus speaks the truth—let’s just do it.

What they spoke of was integrity—no person can say they know Christ unless that person follows Christ in life; as Christians our walk must equal our talk. There’s an old anecdote about an Amishman being confronted by a street evangelist, “Are you born again?” he was asked. “Are you a Christian?” The Amishman thought for a moment, then took out a pen and piece of paper. After writing on it a bit, he handed it to the evangelist. “Here’s a list of my family, neighbors, and co-workers. Go ask them.” The point is that how people live says more about what they really believe than anything they can say with words.

This simple focus on integrity, this simple aspiration merely to put into practice what they believed became radical for the Anabaptists when their beliefs were based on taking Jesus’s life and teaching with total seriousness. In fact, it is said that in the 16th century the authorities who were hunting down the despised Anabaptists were often clued in as to who might be Anabaptists by reports as to the style of life of the suspects. People who were honest, frugal, sober, gentle, kind to their neighbors were prime suspects. Those whose lives were not exemplary were not seriously suspected at all.

The premium on integrity, on putting into practice our convictions, retains its significance for us. Ours is an age of fragmentation. In our society, we are told that our “private” beliefs can and should be kept separate from our “public” lives. We are told to always avoid imposing our values on others, that we must be careful to keep sentiments such as compassion and love out of our business practices, that we have one code of ethics for family and church, another for our business and professional world.

We are constantly bombarded with messages such as “might makes right,” “you have to look out for number one,” grab for all the gusto,” and the like. Yet when we come here to church, we hear “love your neighbor,” “care for the weak and needy,” “forgive the offender”—things that seem to have little application in the so-called “real world.” This tension between “faith” and “life,” “church” and “world,” tears at us, especially since we are no longer part of small Mennonite communities where church and world were not so different.

But we are not created to live double or triple existences. Human beings flourish best when we are in harmony with God in all aspects of life, when we live with integrity, when our deep convictions can be expressed in our day-to-day lives. Certainly, the world of the 16th century was a much simpler world than ours—but, if anything, the complexity of our present-day lives argues all the more strongly for the virtue of integrity. Our challenge as urban Mennonite Christians is somehow to work together to assist one another to overcome the inherent schizophrenia that comes from living in Phoenix, AZ (or Berkeley, CA)—the pressures to relegate our faith commitments to the private, individual personal realm and thereby to separate them from the realm of the rest of life.

Key Anabaptist emphases: (3) Empowerment

A third related notion I’ve drawn from the Anabaptist vision—along with suspicion and integrity, is that of empowerment. The point here is that faithfulness, truthfulness, following Jesus are possible; living faithfully can be done, according to the Anabaptists. In insisting on this they were separated from many of their fellow Christians, who relegated a strong possibility of faithfulness either to a cloistered elite (e.g., monks, nuns, and priests) or to the future when Christ returns.

For the Anabaptists, all Christians were expected to be able to obey the teaching of Jesus here and now. This expectation had the effect of increasing the challenge, the demands, placed on each person. Joe Blow and Mary Row in the pews had, in effect, the same expectations placed on them as John Doe in the pulpit. But this way of thinking also had the effect of making each and every person important. What mattered were not the heroic deeds of a few “saints” but the day-to-day faithfulness of the regular members, the common folk.

What were valued and expected of everyone were lives characterized by loving the neighbor, helping the hurting, telling the truth, forgiving the offender, witnessing to God’s truth and love. Together with these expectations came the notion that the power to fulfill them was there also. They had a strong sense of God’s power—a sense that the Spirit gives the strength to follow God’s will, and the insight into Jesus’s teaching to discern that will (it was crucial, and unprecedented at that time, that the Anabaptists strongly asserted that everyone, not just the church leaders, could understand the Bible and everyone could witness publicly to its message).

Another part of the empowerment that God provides, according to the Anabaptists, is the community of faith—the place where Christians are encouraged, challenged, and provided resources for discernment. Two, or, even more, 20 heads are better than one, provided we all share a common commitment to follow Jesus’s way.

Our modern world conspires to render us powerless. We learn to depend passively on technology and on so-called “experts.” We are taught that the basic unit in human reality is the isolated individual, not the extended family and the community of faith. We are given the impression that major problems are inevitable and out of our control—wars, pollution, economic disruption, poverty, world hunger. The media convince us to become observers rather than participants.

In the face of this, the Anabaptist notion of empowerment gains in relevance. The Anabaptist vision tells us that we do have the power to follow Jesus and to be agents of God’s love and power in a world where love and true power to do good seem in short supply.

This empowerment comes when we seek God together, when we encourage each other, teach each other, show God to each other. We receive power when we observe God at work in one another’s lives. I was empowered by being around when a student in a seminary class that I was teaching assistant for this Fall told me that the class changed her life. She realized that she is intelligent and gifted and wants to devote herself to being a peacemaker in the American Baptist Church. I am empowered as a parent when I am around families that work. And I also am empowered as a parent when I am around families that work. And I also am empowered by learning of and sharing in people’s hurts and defeats. And when I can share my own hurts and defeats. I learn that God is a God of valleys as well as peaks, that true power comes from God amid our weakness.

We can learn to see that we have the power to be faithful in the little things of day-to-day life. We may not be able to dramatically change the world in big ways—but we can make our contribution by caring for each other in the church; by respecting our children and our parents; by caring for our co-workers, our bosses, and our subordinates; by our small works of service to those in need; by our witness to God’s love; and by our adding our small voices protesting injustice, violence and oppression.

Appropriating our Anabaptist heritage

The Anabaptist vision is part of our heritage as Mennonites. It is historically a fact that our churches today are influence a great deal by its past. We are part of a tradition dating back many centuries. This is true, especially for those who have grown up as Mennonites, whether we like it or not. We need to understand the Anabaptist vision if we are to understand ourselves. While there is a sense in which our Anabaptist heritage is simply part of the air we breathe, there is also a sense in which we must continually test the applicability of this heritage to our lives. We must continue to apply it in fresh ways.

We test the truthfulness of the Anabaptist vision according to our ever-evolving understanding of the Bible, and we test it according to our experience—both our intuitive, inner experience of God and the living Jesus and our experience of day-to-day life. On the Anabaptist understanding of discipleship, of following the Jesus of the gospels, of suspicion of the powers-that-be, of integrity, of empowerment—do these things make sense? Do they ring true? Do they bear out in real life?

I believe that they can. They can make great sense. These elements of the Anabaptist vision can be most helpful for our understanding of how we can be faithful Christians. But they still must be applied. We live in the 20th century, not the 16th. We live in Phoenix (and Berkeley), not Switzerland or Holland. We must translate past wisdom and faithfulness into present reality.

Let’s pray: Thank you, dear God, for our forefathers and foremothers from the 16th century (and the years before and after) who sought to place your authority first, to follow in life what they believed, and to live in the power of your love and mercy. Help us to learn from them and above all to serve your truth in our hearts and lives.

[Ted Grimsrud’s collected sermons]

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