The original Anabaptists’ intention was to attend to their Lord and their God’s will in a manner that was satisfying. However, there was an accompanying goal that is seamlessly interconnected with the initial one. This objective was to reconstitute the ekklesia in the pattern of the archetypical first century apostolic assembly. To reconstitute something is “to constitute again or anew; especially…to restore to a former condition” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. According to The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology the Anabaptists “saw the church as “fallen” and therefore beyond mere reform, and called for its reconstitution along New Testament lines” (70).
Roger Olson goes into greater detail regarding this objective in The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform when he explains that the Anabaptists were more protestant than Protestants in the sense that the Anabaptists:
“protested what they saw as halfway measures taken by Luther and the other magisterial Reformers in purifying the church of Roman Catholic elements. Their ideal was to restore the New Testament church as a persecuted remnant as it was in the Roman Empire before Constantine. To them, the magisterial Reformers were all stuck in Constantinianism and Augustinianism. These were the two main diseases of medieval Christianity that the radical Reformers wished to eradicate from their own independent and autonomous congregations, if not from Christianity itself” (415).
The Protestant Reformers desired to reform the Church, according to the above-mentioned dictionary to reform means “to put or change into an improved form or condition”. It also means, “to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses” and finally “to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action”.
When looking at the two terms highlighted one may wonder what the disparity between the two is since the overall goal is to return something to its proper state.
The divergence being that Martin Luther desired to reform the church, not divide it for to him the Roman Catholic Church was the actual Church but it had lost its way. He felt that some aspects of its practice and doctrine in the area of salvation for instance were incorrect as depicted in his 95 Thesis. Luther wanted to bring the corrupt Church at the time back into what he envisioned the Church to be. For Luther this was to be accomplished within, not through the establishment of another entity. In other words, he selected the aspects of the 16th century Church he preferred while doing away with those things he felt lacked scriptural and apostolic license. This did not solely apply to Luther but Calvin and Zwingli as well; the Magisterial Reformers in essence did not possess any yearning to forgo exhaustively every facet of the Roman system whether political, practical or theological.
The problem with this is that the Reformers was attempting to reform a contaminated and unethical institution whereas it is apparent that the Anabaptists saw the futility in trying to reform something that was far too large, powerful and unbearably unhealthy. Every facet of the Roman Catholic Church was tainted and beyond renovation. The Anabaptists recognized that the only solution was to begin afresh. Not that Christ’s ekklesia had perished from the earth but that the manifestation of it during that period was something other than what had begun in the first century and so the Anabaptists carried with them the essence and disposition of the unadulterated apostolic ekklesia, one that was detached from the Constantinian Church (Cf.Â Matthew 16:18; 28:19-20).
Presently in Neo-Anabaptist circles, you encounter much talk on the subject of Anabaptists carrying the message of the group into Christendom as to enact some form of positive influence that in principle could be considered some sort of reform. But then again would this embody the spirit of Anabaptism? In many respects contemporary Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is a carryover of the exact same sullied Church that existed in the 16th century.Â Reconstitution is needed not reform, the first Anabaptists saw this and modern-day followers of the movement needs to recognize this as well.
Allen, can you give some examples of talk about “carrying the message of the group into Christendom as to enact some form of positive influence”? I’m interested to know more about what messages you have in mind.
The question of how to engage with the broader world continues to be a crucial one for neo-Anabaptists. I’ve found Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver’s model of “socially active alternative community” to be useful. I wrote about it his framework more in depth in Patterns of this World, part 3: Patriarchy, Pacifism and Powerlessness:
The statement is not taken from any quote per’se; it is the result of when you look at modern Anabaptist writings. You have Anabaptist authors composing these polemics condemning Constantinianism and then stating such things as Stuart Murray in The Naked Anabaptist where he says:
Okay now if someone is stating that Christendom is a corrupt institution and that ancient Anabaptists are the ones for the most part that got it correct. Yet, they are not telling people to leave or where to go then said individuals is essentially telling others to remain in the institution in question. Then they are encouraging evangelism and teaching in the fashion of the initial Anabaptist. Uhh…whom will these individuals try to teach and if the answer is unbelievers then once these unbelievers come to faith will the Neo-Anabaptist with good conscience send them to a corrupt system?
In addition, will the Neo-Anabaptist sit idly by and not speak up when the pastor or someone in the church is war-mongering or telling members to vote and so forth? If the answer is yes then they are just as bad as the Mennonite Church, which is regularly criticized by Neo-Anabaptists, the only thing that would be valid, is if these contemporary Anabaptists were there to try to influence reform. But as I mentioned in my post this endeavor would be an exercise in futility.