I am a fan of Greg Boyd’s books and sermons; I really appreciate his stand against Christendom or Constantinianism. Moreover, I value how he is one of the godfathers of contemporary Open TheismÂ since I am an Open Theist as well. However, I recently heard a sermon entitled “We The Church” where his reasoning falls noticeably short. It appears that he forgoes thinking and looking at the matter all the way through because his criticism of others in this area could very well apply to himself. Let me explain the matter fully before continuing with the main point that I want to make.
In the sermon, he relates to his listeners how Woodland Hills Church identifies itself with Anabaptism. He provides a short history lesson on Anabaptistica and he focuses on the nature of the universal Ekklesia from the perspective of the Anabaptists. Eventually he addresses how post-first century Christianity in due course allowed the world to squeeze it “into its own mould” (Romans 12:2 J.B. Phillips). Resulting in the aligned Constantinian Ekklesia to become analogs of Roman and Grecian worshippers of pagan gods even adopting elaborate temples to worship their god, in other words they started to build elaborate cathedrals. Boyd goes on to admit that the Anabaptists met in homes to worship and that they viewed “the people as the Church” or God’s temple in place of a building in the same fashion as the first-century Christians (1 Corinthians 3:16).
Now we come to the problem, Woodland Hills is a 2,500-member church; technically this church would be qualified as a megachurch. A 2,000 + capacity facility hardly qualifies as someone’s living room. A megachurch is not someone’s home; it is a few marble statues or one ostentatious mural away from being called a cathedral. Just because you are not a member of some form of the Catholic Church that does not give you, a free pass if you know the truth of the matter.
This is one of things that really vex me about contemporary Anabaptism, even those that claim to be fully aligned with the renowned group of 16th century radicals treat the movement like a buffet in Vegas. They walk along and select the things they want but reject those things that may hamper his or her preferred religious lifestyle. In my opinion, it is all or nothing or just let it go!
I would reserve judgment until you know a bit more about what Boyd’s church does the other 6 days of the week. From folks I know who know, there’s a lot more that those 2500+ people do that are closer to that “ancient” Anabaptist way specifically the emphasis that being the church is certainly NOT contained solely within the Sunday morning experience… that is the core to Boyd’s story, really. Sunday morning is only a hiccup… it’s what is done the rest of the week that makes the difference.
That said, the same thing struck me in listening to that sermon… but much as we need to be discerning in what news media and such put out there and listen to what is going on behind the scenes, such is the case with sermons from pastors… the message is the message… but what they DO with the message is the key… and, as I said, from what I know, there’s a lot more “doing” going on at Woodland Hills than a podcast sermon viewed online gives hint to…
I think to look at the early Anabaptists as a buffet is the only faithful way to follow Christ. We are all called to to learn from history and to reject as necessary. After all, there are no ‘early Anabaptists’ that are a coherent whole to follow anyway. The Anabaptists have always been a diverse stream of Christians, engaged in many different ways of interpreting the gospel, and some of them were really crazy (see Muenster http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCnster_Rebellion). It is imperative that we pick and choose, that we discern the good and the bad in all traditions, and the Anabaptist temptation to schism, to judgmentalism, and to overvaluing the next world over this one are all parts of my tradition I’d like to push against. To say either all or nothing is to insist that the baby must be thrown out with the bathwater.
This is an issue of ecclesiology, Boyd recognizes how things was done in antiquity and he knows how the contemporary tradition of erecting a structure where people gather for religious association came about in the “Christian” context. The first-century Ekklesia met in homes in small groups for somewhere around the first 300 years of its existence. Yes, the Anabaptists met in homes but they did this because they rejected Roman Catholic and Protestant ecclesiological notions and practices. I would even venture to say that it was not motivated because of oppression. If anything history tells us is that Anabaptists was not afraid of martyrdom for the sake of Christ.
The point of the matter is that Greg’s megachurch arrangement is just as bad as a cathedral. People can get the wrong notions about the building and as he indicated in the sermon. He mentioned how the majority of the people that morning mentioned how they were “going to church”. When the reality is that, they are the church. Boyd and the preponderance of professed Christians have adopted the wrong model of ecclesiology in addition the Bible and history bears this out. Boyd is somewhat being a hypocrite in his sermon. I agreed with everything he stated but I felt it was not being applied in his life and that of the people.
There is a world of difference between being selective in nuanced areas and embracing and criticizing something that is evident in early Anabaptism. I am not speaking of the time frame when they became more settled and fearful which ultimately evolved them into the Mennonite Church etc. Take for instance I am an Open Theist, which in the opinion of Dr. Roger E. Olson it is a form of Arminianism. From all that I have read on Anabaptism they were Arminians and they held to libertarian free will. I have a nuanced belief but I am still within the context of Anabaptist thought.
You wrote, “there are no ‘early Anabaptists’ that are a coherent whole to follow anyway”. I would have to disagree with that sentiment. When you look at any survey of Anabaptist doctrine touching on each branch throughout Europe during the 16th century, there are core themes or distinctives that arise continually. Yes, some may have added things here in there as they became more settled in the land and began their backward evolution towards Protestantism.
Regarding the Münsterites and the Münster Rebellion, I could hardly call that group Anabaptist and their actions Anabaptistic in nature. They may have employed the designation or others identified them by it but once those individuals walked away from the dictates of Christ and the principles of Anabaptism they should not be recognized as being Anabaptists. Jesus laid down a principle in Matthew chapter; he in essence said that we would know whether someone was associated with a particular thing or acknowledged as something by their actions.
In addition, when you look at the very early groups there was incredibly little to pick and choose from, they were simple in their doctrine and practices. They were non-creedal; their theology was minimal in detail for the reason that they just read the Bible and believed it for what it stated. This in turn affected their praxes. Their ecclesiology was in harmony with the first Christians.
Furthermore, I do not see this or anyone that thinks in this fashion as being “judgmental”. Jesus advocated judging as long as it is done properly and in a non-self-righteous manner (Matthew 7 again). I think John D. Roth said it best in his book Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice. In addressing Mennonite dualistic thinking in regards to the Church he wrote:
“all people—Christians and non-Christians alike—make ethical choices. Human beings are constantly making value judgments that affect our lives and the lives of those around us. Such choices of opting for “this” instead of “that” inevitably imply that we are making a judgment against the alternative. So if the Christian effort to respond faithfully to God’s call means that our action is somehow judging those who make other choices, then Mennonites must plead “guilty as charged” (148).
While the Mennonite Church should plead guilty as charge concerning many things Roth is correct on this matter.
A reply by Greg Boyd via Twitter:
Yet I still ask why people try to modify or fix what was never broken? If it was good enough for the apostles and early disciples what is wrong with it now? The system of polity and ecclesiology that is practiced today is not what was intended no matter how you tweak it. We do not see it in the Bible and it has flaws when practiced. For instance, a cult of personality can develop and usually do among other things.
This question of what constitutes Anabaptism, both early and contemporary is an important one. I’ve always found Rodney Sawatsky’s model of four streams of Anabaptism helpful:
I also appreciate the approach the values focused approach that Anabaptist Network in the UK takes: Anabaptist Network Core Convictions
The first model highlights both the commonalities and the diversity and the second attempts to draw out a set of common values for Anabaptists outside of denominational structures.
As far as structure goes, I tend towards AllenG’s perspective that we’ve got more institution and bureaucracy than we need. I’ve written more about the tendencies in the Mennonite church especially here: Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites, Part 1
Thanks for the serious response-
first, I’d like to second Greg Boyd-it seems to me that small house groups that gather on Sunday mornings for a larger worship are a more faithful representation of the gospel than the more traditional one hundred people who vaguely know each other model.
I’m not opposed to a house church model-I love small house churches-but large gatherings of faithful people are well represented in both the Anabaptist and Biblical traditions.
Second, I just want to push further on the diversity of early Anabaptism-there were significant differences of opinion among early Anabaptists on questions about the divinity of Christ, about the role of the Holy Spirit, and about how to relate to Government. I like this quote:
“The identification by Mennonite historians of a type of ‘evangelical Anabaptism’ in the Swiss Brethren, who emerged from the circle around Zwingli in Zurich and were clearly distinguished from him after 1525, came to function as normative for the whole movement. This allowed denominational historians to practise ‘a sort of posthumous excommunication’ to exclude unacceptable elements from their own
history, most especially the Muenster insurrectionists.” http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/36-6_264.pdf The whole article is worth reading.
I don’t want to overstate my point-there are clearly some organizing themes that connect most early Anabaptists: adult baptism, interpreting the Gospels clearly and literally, and suspicion of the synthesis between church and state being most common, but if we define early Anabaptists as ‘those people that acted just as I think is right’ and then use them as a proof text ‘see you have to act like the early Anabaptists’ then I don’t think we’re getting anywhere.
Finally, I’m not against making judgments, but I think it’s pretty obvious that the primary sin of Anabaptists (early and modern) is splitting into smaller and smaller groups because of an inability to handle diversity. We have way more Anabaptist denominations than our numbers deserve, and are a less redeeming presence in the world because of it. I think this is part of our spiritual DNA, and comes from bad theology, like that of the Schleitheim Confession, which states
“Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who (have come) out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other.”
You wrote, “small house groups that gather on Sunday mornings for a larger worship are a more faithful representation of the gospel”. Could you please show me in scripture where you find the local ekklesia fashioned after the “small groups” model. When you say small groups what is meant by that? I know of 10 different models at least. In addition, how is small groups gathering under the head of one man in the context of a building a “representation of the gospel”?
You went on to say “but large gatherings of faithful people are well represented in both the Anabaptist and Biblical traditions.” Okay what period of Anabaptism are you referring to? Tim posted a chart on the different eras, point to the one that endorsed these large groups in the fashion that we see at present.
In the end, you seem to be missing the point, the building is not meant to be a constant aspect of Christian association. There was some instances where they would gather in much larger groups such as when Paul and his associates “had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9 NIV).
Nevertheless, that was a unique circumstance, originally Paul and the others was stationed in a “synagogue” until the environment became unhealthy then they availed themselves of the lecture hall (Verse 9).
I will admit they did visit the temple but that does not indicate that it functioned in the same capacity as the edifices that people meet in and call it “going to church” (Acts 2:46). In addition, one needs to note that the temple held courts where people could gather so most likely they were there for evangelism purposes and the text says they still went to their homes for Christian association. Nonetheless this was short-lived because persecution made them forgo such activity (Acts 8:1). The norm was house churches/congregations not a building even if it is used once a week (Cf. Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15).
I think Anabaptists separating themselves from the larger “Christian” population was the right thing to do. They desired to make it evident that they were different from “those other guys that use the name”. Seriously there are plenty of people and groups that profess to be Christian but their actions are totally contrary to the Bible. Separatism did not become a problem until many years later when they decided to become what is known as “Quiet in the Land”. This was done by the Mennonites because of persecution. They had lost their evangelism spirit and wanted to be left alone to themselves disappear into the background in peace, in which they was left alone but they could not disturb the status-quo in the fashion of the Anabaptists.
Concerning debates over Christ’s deity and the like, once again for the most part latter groups such as the Mennonites etc. did these things, the early Anabaptists was too busy evangelizing and challenging Roman Catholic and Protestant theology.
I just wanted to quickly point out that I think may have misread Tim’s chart. Those are not different “eras” of Anabaptist history, but different Anabaptist groups from the same era.
While its true that the groups in the 3rd column are all from the 16th century, I think its safe to say they represented different phases of early Anabaptism:
Hans Hut, was part of the very first wave. According to Wikipedia, Hut was driven from his home in 1524. He was very active for 3 years and then killed in 1527. I suppose one could argue that the Münsterites were the last gasp of the apocalyptic movement.
The Swiss Brethren were also part of this early wave, starting in January 1525 with Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier, Margret Hottinger and Felix Manz, all of whom were dead by the end of the decade. The Swiss Brethren outlasted their apocalyptic cousins and continued on. Wikipedia has a good article with more.
Menno Simons was a second generation leader. He only really emerged in the last 1530’s after the Münster because all the violent Anabaptists got killed off and he was one of the few (David Joris being the other) who stuck to pacifism during the foment and fury of the Münster rebellion. His focus was on nurturing Anabaptist churches and responding to the excesses he saw in the first generation of Anabaptists, especially the apocalyptic and more holy spirit oriented ones.
Pilgram Marpeck is one of the few to span the first and second generation since he survived until 1565 to die a natural death. As an engineer who was friendly with the emperor (before becoming an Anabaptist) he’s one of the few among the early Anabaptists who came from the elite professional class. Like the apostle Paul he leveraged his position to move more freely than others and survive some very close scrapes to plant churches all over what is now Austria, northern Italy and southern Germany.
I’d love to see more reflection on current trends among Anabaptist camp followers and Mennonites through the lens of these streams.
Thank you for responding. Perhaps you could explain a bit more what you mean by “phases?” As I understand it, that language seems to be arguing against your own language of streams (which you use in your previous two comments and in earlier articles).
Phases assumes one story or group with different identifiable phases over time. Streams seems to suggest differing traditions with differing origins that feed into a tradition.
Without doing much additional research, I think Sawatsky would argue the above groups you outline above have different origins. They are separate streams rather than different phases.
Another thing you may want to consider about Woodland Hills is that it did not start out as anything even remotely anabaptist. (And it still has not made the decision to transition to affiliate with anabaptism.) In fact, Woodland Hills started out as a church plant for the Baptist General Conference. It became a mega-church very quickly, much to the surprise of Boyd. It’s identification with the Anabaptist tradition was a fairly gradual phenomenon that started when he preached a series of sermons that resulted in writing Myth of a Christian Nation (as well as the loss of a good chunk of the congregation). So while you may look at Boyd and see a hypocrite, I see a man who has followed his heart and his convictions at every turn (sometimes at great personal expense) and is now in the odd place of retrofitting his convictions with the context he finds himself in. Does that make sense?
I am familiar with Woodland Hills and Greg Boyd’s journey, as I mentioned in the beginning of my post that I am a fan of his work. My chief issue that I have is that there are individuals that claim to be Anabaptist but thinks that it is just a title someone can pick up at a whim. It may be a Mennonite thing but it does not embody the spirit of the original Anabaptists. They truly believed Jesus when he said “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). We will have to make sacrifices even if it takes us out of our comfort zone when we discover the truth if we want true freedom (John 8:32). Therefore, the way I see it people need to make the appropriate changes ahead of time before taking that moniker upon them.