What Does It Mean To Be Anabaptist?


I’ve got some new friends who had never heard of anabaptism. So I wrote a summary of what I understand Anabaptism to be. Look it over. What would you add or subtract? What would you nuance differently?

And if you aren’t anabaptist, what questions would you have?

The Anabaptist tradition
In 1525 the reformation of the church in the West was just beginning. There was a lot of excitement about Luther’s reforms, not least of all in Zurich, Switzerland. Zwingli was leading the city leaders into a reform there based on Scripture alone, but many of the reformation’s supporters there didn’t think that Zwingli was going far enough. They noticed that when he spoke about certain issues, that he was more interested in his theological point, rather than actually brining the church back into obedience to Jesus. So they baptized themselves in the name of Jesus, making each other citizens of Jesus’ kingdom instead of any kingdom on earth. This movement grew, and they were called ana-baptists by their enemies, because it was claimed that they would re-baptize their members. But in reality, the Anabaptists affirmed that they were spreading the one true baptism—an entrance into God’s kingdom through true understanding and not just assent to the society of the church. This movement has continued to this day.

What Anabaptists Believe:
1. Jesus only
“No one knows the Father except the Son”
Anabaptists hold to no theology except that stated by Jesus himself. Even as Jesus supersedes the Old Testament law, Jesus also rules over all theology that the church itself created, whether that by Paul or by Calvin or by N.T. Wright. And the focus of our belief is not a Jesus we create—such as a glorified, theological Jesus or a model of a historical Jesus or a cultural Jesus—but the Jesus of the gospels. Thus, the four gospels lead us to interpret all things through the words and life of Jesus.
Since Anabaptists affirm the superiority of Jesus, we also recognize the weakness of all things human to achieve truth or justice. Thus, any particular denomination or creed is only in a process of getting closer to or further from Jesus, but no church could ever be complete in and of itself. Various governments may attempt to achieve justice, but they all fail. Schools attempt to teach truth, but no matter how precise they are, they fail to achieve the full truth that Jesus gives us.

2. Peace
“Have salt in yourselves and be at peace.”
Anabaptists are a peaceful people. We wish to make changes in the world, but not through violence or hate speech. Rather, we believe that we need to display the actions we want in others. If we want peace in the world, we cannot create peace through violence. Yes, dramatic change must happen for the world to have peace, but God can create the dramatic change—it is our responsibility to be the ideal community the world must become.

3. Community
“Love one another”
Following Jesus cannot be done separated from others. Jesus, again and again, commands us to “love” and love cannot be done in isolation. We must support each other in communities and our communities must reach out to others outside of our community to display our love. We must also support and provide hospitality so that no one within our community has need.

4. Believer’s Baptism
“Those who believe and are baptized are saved.”
Today, it may not seem as important as an issue, but the Anabaptist communities originally began as groups who baptized only those who could understand and be faithful to Jesus. Thus, Anabaptists don’t baptize infants or assume that everyone within a particular social group is a follower of Jesus. That is a personal commitment that each person must determine individually, and lives out in their own lives.

5. Love of Enemies
“Do good to those who despitefully use you.”
Because we will not cause others to be afraid of us, that makes us vulnerable to others. Jesus showed us that even if people do disrespectful, hateful or even violent acts, that does not mean that we should return such acts in kind. Rather, we are to display God’s love even—nay, especially—to those who do terrible things to us. In order to have security, we do not depend on our strength, but on God’s.

6. Communion with the outcast
“The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
Anabaptists know what it means to be outcast, because they have been rejected. But we are also to reach out to those who have been rejected by society. Rather than create another outcast group, the Anabaptists connect with those who are hated, and welcome them as Jesus would.

7. Assistance to the poor
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
Jesus helped the poor with what resources he had, so also do Anabaptists. We see the needs of the poor, and rather than simply ignoring their basic needs, we meet them with love in relationship. We understand that it isn’t enough just to give to the poor, but to connect with them as well, because without relationship we cannot love.

What is the difference between Anabaptist and Mennonite?
Both Anabaptists and Mennonites have the same historical foundation, and much of their understanding of Jesus and life is similar. Historically, the Mennonites have a more complex life than Anabaptists, relating to particular ethnic groups, particular nationalities, forming denominations and mission groups and going through serious cultural changes over the last fifty years. Mennonites have often tried to follow Anabaptist ideals, but as a conglomerate of human institutions, they have often gotten caught up in the concerns of the cultures around them.
Anabaptists, however, are found not just in certain denominations or ethnic groups, nor are they limited to a certain historic line. Anabaptists are people who choose Jesus over any human institution, and choose to follow Jesus’ ethical pattern as a personal choice. They may gather in any denomination or create their own, separate communities. They aren’t bound to a particular theology or ideology, but are separate from them all. There are many Anabaptists within Mennonite groups, but they usually are a minority of them. There are also many Anabaptists outside of Mennonite groups, but count all people who follow Jesus, no matter what group they are a part of, as a part of their global family.

If you want to know more about Anabaptism, then please check out the following blogs or podcasts that give different perspectives on what it means to be Anabaptist:

Anabaptist Distinctives by Steve Kimes

Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight

Across The Pond by Tony Campolo

Woodland Hills Podcast by Greg Boyd

Blog on Christarchy! By Mark Van Steenwyk

Featured Photo by Tim Nafziger of ceramic pieces by Dennis Maust. See full size on Flickr

Comments (10)

  1. Pingback: Daily Links – 10.27.09 | Community of the Risen

  2. AlanS

    Hey steve, Looks pretty good. I would have a couple suggestions on a number of paragraphs. I’ll give you the full on explanation of my thoughts and then you can figure out how to re-word it for entry level conversation. For the record, I’m a Mennonite Pastor who’s grown up in the Mennonite world of Central Kansas, so if there are certain biases that comeout, that’s why. I also don’t see myself as the ultimate authority on this, it’s just my perspective. Hopefully some new Anabaptists chime in too.

    By the way, here’s my attempt at doing a similar thing. Hope it helps


    Overall it’s pretty good. In the intro, my personal bias is that it’s worth noting that 16th ce. Anabaptism arose naturally on it’s own all over europe. Menno Simons himself was dutch, don’ forget that influence. H.S. Bender is the historian who argued that all Anabaptists came from the Swiss in Zurich. Since then, C.A. Snyder has quite successfully shown that the movement had a wide variety of originating points that emerged equally. I’m not sure how important that really is for what you’re doing, but it’s one of my pet peeves.

    On Point 1 – Anabaptists are not “Jesus only”, we’re Jesus centered. We read everything else in the Bible through the lens of Jesus. There are some groups who want to do away with the whole OT and Paul, we’re not them. That’s worth being clear on. I think you get to that point later in your description, but it doesn’t appear to start out that way.

    Point 6 and 7 might be representative of current Anabaptists, but it probably wouldn’t be very accurate to describe the 16th Ce. Anabaptists. Yes the were radical for proposing that they take care of everyone in the church, but many were still pretty self protectionist and didn’t really reach out to a lot of people outside their own group. It does help that they would have been among the poor and outcast, but they would have also been very much against Jews and other outcast groups as well. Also, along with all of the other things you’ve mentioned, early Anabaptists would have had a strong focus on the active movement of the spirit and the real presence of God in the gathered body of believers. I’ve even heard them described as the Pentecostals of the 1500’s. Modern Anbapatists are more concerned with things like discipleship than they were.

    In your last paragraph – Perhaps you’re using Anabaptist to describe something different that what I might be talking about. Your categorizing Mennonites compared to Anabaptists seems a bit off to me. From a historical perspective, the category Anabaptist means two things. First it is used to describe the groups of people who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is also currently used to describe the descendants of those groups along with others who have joined since then. Mennonites are one branch on the tree of Anabaptism, if you will. the Church of the Brethren is another branch that started in the early 1700’s, but would still be well within the larger category of Anabaptism. Currently, places like England have seen a spontaneous resurgence of Anabaptism by people who have stumbled upon that time in history and who have sought to begin again in the current day.

    My biggest issue is when you say that “There are many Anabaptists within Mennonite groups, but they usually are a minority of them” I’m assuming you mean that there are a minority of “Anabaptists in within Mennonite groups”. While I might have my theological questions about specific people, The Mennonite church, and other Anabaptist denominations, are a key part of the stream of Anabaptism and to dismiss them so easily is not legitimate. To be fair, I may not understand what you’re trying to say clearly enough. Perhaps I don’t fully understand what you mean by “Anabaptist”. The way it’s stated now is problematic though.

    Overall, I really want to encourage you in this endeavor. While I do believe that life and faith are more complicated than a bumper sticker, I also find myself struggling to concisely respond when someone asks, “so what is a Mennonite?” And I’m a pastor, it seems like I should know how to do this kind of thing. Anyways, keep up the good work, it’s desperately needed.

  3. SteveK (Post author)

    Alan– I really appreciate your critique. I think you made some good points there. As far as the historical point, you are correct, of course, and I’ve read Snyder’s work and think it’s an excellent history. I just wanted to start somewhere, so I began there. It could be just as accurate to say that our current form of Anabaptism began with a reaction to Munster as well as Zurich. Also, you are correct about the first point. I was aiming for Jesus-centric and wanted to make the point strongly because most Christians consider themselves Jesus-centric. I’ll reconsider my wording there.

    As far as the rest,you are correct, I am not talking about historic Anabaptism as a continuing stream, but current Anabaptism as it exists now, as a cross-denominational movement. Although I would argue that early Anabaptists were concerned about mutual aid and the persecution of the true church, which reflects my last two points. I understand that I might offend some Mennonites with my final paragraph, but the fact is that most Mennonites do not hold strictly to a peace stance or are really concerned about mutual aid or community. Mennonite PASTORS are, for the most part, concerned about such things, but the majority of congregants are not.

    My main point is that we do not want to lock anabaptism into a denomination, but rather see it as something that exists in many places, at many times. And, I believe, that anabaptists are almost always a minority amidst the Christian streams, even though they can focus on the biblical Jesus more than other groups.

  4. AlanS

    I think that you’ve right that you shouldn’t lock Anabaptists into any one denomination. Mennos err of thinking we’re the only Anabaptists around. I have a wife who grew up in the Church of the Brethren who often reminds me of that fact (usually when she’s upset with me….but that’s a different story) Keep broadening the definition brother.

    On the commitment to peacemaking and justice I would still challenge you on that. As a Pastor, like yourself, it often FEELS like there’s a small percentage of my church members who actually care about this stuff. The numbers seem to tell a different story though. The way Conrad Kanagy, in Road Signs for the Journey, puts is is this:

    “The findings in this chapter reveal several things about Mennonites today. First, members continue to embrace the unique witness to peace and social justice. Their commitment is also, at least at some level, connected to their understanding of Jesus. Concern for peacemaking does not seem to have eroded commitments to evangelism, outreach, and church planting as church-wide priorities. In fact, nearly three-quarters (73%) agree that both should be a priority, with only 18% believing that peacemaking and reconciliation should be a priority but not evangelism.”

    Other statistics in that chapter also bear out that the majority of Mennonites in MCUSA still hold up peace as a high priority, maybe not as high as I would like but still way higher than other denominations. Also, don’t underestimate that our entire denominational orientation is one toward active nonviolence, peace, justice, anti-racism and a whole host of other things that are the definition of what it means to be Anabaptist, in the past and currently.

    I don’t know what Mennonites you’ve been hanging around with, and I am truly sorry for the distorted impression they’ve given you, but before you dismiss the entire Mennonite church as being un-anabaptist, you might want to start hanging out with some better Mennonites first.

    Maybe the difference comes in how you and I value the impact of the organized church. It sounds like you see the organized denomination, as a concept, as a liability to the understanding and perpetuation of Anabaptism. I see it as an asset. Yes there are issues, but there isn’t a group of believers in the world who doesn’t have issues. It’s organizations like denominations who do things like create seminaries and colleges where Anabaptism can be passed on and continue to grow in the next generation. As big and slow and sometimes off target they can be, they have played a vital role throughout history.

    The other trend that Anabaptists have always had is that when two groups of people can’t agree on a particular issue, they will split into two groups rather than work through it and figure out how to live together. As you seek to get back to a better and lager definition of what it means to be Anabaptist, make sure you include people who you don’t agree with and who you might even think aren’t “real” Anabaptists. They have something valuable too.

    Again, I’m not trying to attack you. I really do think you’ve got something here and I still want to encourage this work. Keep it up. And, hey, someone else chime in here. I always hold out the possibility that I could be full of it, even when I say something as though I actually know it’s true. Hopefully ours won’t be the only two voices in this.

  5. Pingback: News, Thoughts, Theology, Teaching.. » Blog Archive » Two Tribes – More on the Anabaptist..

  6. Chris Richards

    I would add one more thing that Anabaptists believe, or should believe.

    Peace was half of a duology in the Mennonite Church in which I was raised. We were to be committed to peace and /justice./ Love of enemies, commitment to community and the poor, and communion with the outcast are all part of living a just life… but living a just life is not all there is to justice. One must also advocate for justice in the world outside the community and come to see all of society as one’s community in the same way that the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that everyone is our neighbor.

    The Good Samaritan was not merely helping the poor, but assisting a victim of a great injustice and helping to right that justice in a peaceful and personal manner.

    In my personal life, I have taken this to mean social justice and have drifted into a more Unitarian strain of Anabaptism which puts peace and justice first and proselytization a distant third or fourth. So while I identify as a Mennonite in the same way a friend of mine in Israel identifies as a ‘Jew’ despite very different religious thoughts than orthodox Judaism, I do not know if it is entirely honest to call myself a Mennonite.

    At the same time, my entire view of the world has been so heavily colored by Mennonite beliefs that it is difficult to call myself anything else. I’ve called myself a ‘Christian Deist’, ‘a Unitarian Christian’, and a ‘secular Mennonite’ and none of them fully capture what my spirituality means to me.

    Yet I don’t think I’ll ever stop seeing myself as an Anabaptist, because of that commitment to peace and justice instilled in me in the Mennonite Church and my belief that the ceremony of baptism itself is a rite that reflects a change already accepted in the heart rather than a literal act of change/

  7. Olesya

    Can someone please explain what the difference is between anabaptists and Baptists?

  8. Daniel Freysinger

    When explaining Anabaptist to people who don’t understand the word. I always start with comparing it to Protestant. It is simply an umbrella that encompasses many denominations. I would be hesitant to declare someone un-Anabaptist. This seems like a subtle way of being judgmental.

    I am a former military member who left as a Contentious Objector, so it rubs me the wrong way when I hear of Anabaptists who part from the teaching on non-resistance. Even so, I would be wrong to declare them not Anabaptist.

    I would lean toward the view that all Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, Brethren, etc are Anabaptist. It is just a title that helps define a belief structure. Hopefully our focus is more on following Christ than assigning titles.

  9. Daniel Freysinger


    Anabaptists and Baptists stem from different movements within Christianity. Most Anabaptists would be considered Armenian (ability to lose ones salvation) vs Baptists who would primarily be considered Calvanists (eternal security). There seems to be a misconception among many that the Baptists were an evolution of Anabaptism, but I have yet to seem historical evidence for this.

    There are probably others on here that can do a much better job of explaining the differences.

  10. Peggy

    Skip the historical reference what is the biblical scripture teaching on which Anabaptist stand on to practice this belief? I just see doctrine no scripture to confirm biblical teaching. Curious ~ thank you! Be blessed


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