As Anabaptism emerged in 1525, opponents of this new movement described those who became a part of this movement as “radicals.” They even described it as “the Radical Reformation.” Why did they describe this movement as “radical”?
In one way it seems fitting. The early Anabaptists did not seek to reform the church but to restore it to the way of Jesus–the way in which the community of Jesus was gathered and was taught. This way meant taking the teachings and life of Jesus seriously; to live according to his example. For example, given that Jesus was the Prince of Peace, it was a call for his followers to live by this same peace. When Jesus taught to love one’s enemies, it was a call to not seek ways of killing someone. Jesus, the kingdom that he inaugurated, and his invitation to participate in this kingdom is radical. Therefore to live by his example would be very radical!
There were several particular reasons why the Anabaptists were described as “radicals” in the 16th century. One reason was that to follow in the ways of Jesus required one to live according to his example. Menno Simons wrote in 1539 that “Whosoever boasts that he is a Christian, the same must walk as Christ walked.” A follower would need to make a voluntary decision to follow the way of Jesus. Second, was the conviction that to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, meant also being people of peace. This meant practicing nonviolence even if confronted by violence. “Pacifism” is the word used to describe this path of discipleship. They believed that God’s shalom (peace) would not come through violence. Third, the ways of Jesus, his kingdom, and thus the ways of the community–the church–seeking to be faithful to Jesus and the kingdom would lead to practices that would conflict with the principalities and powers. The focus of these principalities and powers was not, and would not be, the pursuit of the kingdom of God. This becomes apparent in that “the powers” normally use a top-down, authoritarian form of ruler-ship and power, whereas the Anabaptist understanding of church assumes a bottom-up, servant attitude towards the other. Also, the state could not depend on these radicals to participate in the call to war and killing. This was revolutionary. The call of the disciple of Jesus was to follow his will even if that put them into conflict with the will and desire of the state.