Discipling in the Anabaptist Stream

Allentown PA,
September 23, 2011
I am an Anabaptist Christian! Perhaps a curious statement for an African born and raised in Kenya, given that Anabaptism dates back to the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe. I speak Luo, Swahili, and English but not the German or Dutch of the early Anabaptists. So how is it possible for me to be an Anabaptist?

Such a question assumes a particular definition of Anabaptism, associated with a specific period of time, geographical location, or even a particular ethnicity. I understand Anabaptism not as something bound by these categories, but rather as a way of reading Scripture as a community that is being formed and transformed through the work of the Holy Spirit and empowered to live as disciples of Jesus through whom God’s new life springs forth. In a North American society that is continually being formed and shaped by powerful narratives, Anabaptism offers a subversive counter-narrative that envisions a community of kingdom disciples capable of transforming our society, a community that witnesses to the world not from the center but rather from the margins.

This understanding of Anabaptism makes it possible for me an African to be an Anabaptist. I am a second generation Mennonite who was born in a Mennonite family in Kenya. I did my seminary studies at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg VA and together with my wife Jessica we taught at a Mennonite Theological college in Tanzania and have been a pastor at a multi-nations/multi-culture/multi-denomination Mennonite church outside of Washington D.C. known as Capital Christian Fellowship for almost six years. I have continued to pay attention to people from various backgrounds as they get to learn about Anabaptism.

How do we disciple people in Anabaptist stream?
Making disciples is a direct mandate from our Lord Jesus Christ who upon his resurrection commissioned his disciples to the whole world to make disciples of all peoples; to baptize them in the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20). A disciple is a student/pupil and discipling is the craft of making disciples. For Anabaptists, discipleship encompassed the whole of life; no distinction between doing and being for true disciples.

In order for this state of living to be possible for us fallen human beings, Anabaptists believe in doing life in community. Here is the place to espouse characteristics such as, simple living, following the way of Christ through love of enemy, and being agents of Christ’s peace, justice and reconciliation. To be part of this gathered community is to be shaped by the Gospel Narrative embodied through various practices such as foot washing, breaking of bread, singing and worship etc.

Recently missiologist and church planter Stewart Maury of the Anabaptist network in the U.K wrote a book with a rather controversial title, The naked Anabaptist. We all know that there is no such a thing as “the naked Anabaptist” as Stewart himself admits in the book conceding that context matters for any movement. He writes, “Anabaptist values were embodied differently in the Mennonite, Amish, and Hutterite cultures of subsequent generations in Europe and later in North America. These values are worked out in fresh ways in parts of the world where Mennonite missionaries have shared their faith and planted churches. Anabaptism looks different again in post-Christendom societies in which Christians today are re-appropriating its values and practices” (Maury 43).

Anabaptism in today’s North American context therefore might not look like the 16th century forerunners. That said, we must ask ourselves whether Anabaptism need reframing today in order to be relevant to our context? How best might we live and embody the 21st century convictions in a way that makes sense and compels others to want to join the community?

The term “Anabaptist stream” comes to us as a correction from Bender’s discovery of the Swiss origins of the movement. It has been largely argued now that Anabaptism had many different streams, which I believe, makes it even more difficult to speak of Anabaptist values succinctly. Nevertheless, since this seminar seeks to name or identify ways of making disciples within the Anabaptist stream and Anabaptist values are a common language, I would like to have a word of the term “values.”

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin writes, “If the Church is a ‘good cause’ standing for certain ‘values,’ then the important thing is to increase the number of people who support these ‘values.’ Evangelism, against a background of declining numbers, begins to look like a rather desperate effort to support this ‘good cause.’ It becomes tinged with anxiety. It loses its character as the announcement of good news, as the proclamation of truth, saving truth, truth that is true and decisive even if those who acknowledge it are a small minority.”-(Lesslie Newbigin, “Mission in a Pluralist Society,” in A Word in Season (Eerdmans, 1994), 162.z

The church is God’s bearer of the Good News not simply a place where people with common values gather. The values challenge is heightened by the consumer mentality of our day where things are presented to entice participation and ramp up the numbers. This effort translates into doing projects or setting up programs that people want rather than what God’s vision of redemption and transformation calls us to. The church in this milieu identifies with various forces in society to deliver a majority for a variety of causes including political office. Might this phenomena be behind churches catering to the desires of the already converted to keeping members comfortable? Church budgets affirm this reality. This situation makes discipling an almost impossible task because discipleship entails transformation, which means adhering to certain disciplines and lifestyle.

Stanley Hauerwas comments on this situation thus, “The called church has become the voluntary church, whose primary characteristic is that the congregation is friendly.” And here in lies the challenge to both a disciplined community as well as a community that cares and dispenses the grace of God. Having said that, it is of paramount importance that as Anabaptists we remember that Anabaptism emerged at a time of transition when religious status quo no longer sufficed. The post -Constantinian Church seemed to toe the societal line and these disciples of Jesus decided that what was going on was hardly reconcilable with the teachings of Jesus.

Today we talk of our many differences and conflicts as Mennonites, let us not forget that the early Anabaptists were not a perfect community with one voice as we were earlier led to believe, we now know of other sources and hence the term “Anabaptist stream” but they still made a difference in their society by taking their call to discipleship seriously. Steward Maury writes, “they disagreed on community practices and embraced realities of their day such as technology to disseminate their convictions and connect with each other. They were open to doing church differently. Their focus on personal and social transformation is exemplary. Like us, they were convinced that the church was not changing society” (Maury).

In what ways do we disciple new believers in an Anabaptist stream?
We do so by embodying the teachings of Jesus in the way we live our lives. The story that impacted our community deeply was the response of the Amish community in the wake of Nickel Mines shootings that took young Amish lives. That community’s response I would say spoke loudly to Anabaptist’s commitment to enemy love and peace in a clear and embodied way than any book I have read on the same.

Challenges of being a peace church:
-The threat of terrorism
-The political hot potato of the second amendment, which has become a rallying cry for American civil religion
-Many have confused the Sermon on the Mount with being a doormat to be walked over which goes against the age-old concept of human preservation not to mention the American concepts, of safety, freedom, self-defense, happiness etc
-The tendency to be dismissed as hypocrites who enjoy the protections provided by the military while rejecting the means of such protections
-Misquoting and misusing the just war tradition as a pretext for war
-Extreme Individualism

Relevant Anabaptist Commitments Today:
-Taking Jesus seriously means being consistent with his way of kingdom living, which rejects violence as a means to peace and instead embracing love as the ultimate solution to the problem of evil and violence
-The church is a visible and distinct body from the world and yet her lord is also the lord of the world.
-Commitment to enemy love and peace making
-Discipleship is a lifelong commitment
-Simplicity of lifestyle
-By embracing the biblical model of servant hood in Leadership
-Taking the bible seriously as God’s word and engaging in serious hermeneutical discernment for its application.
-The church as a disciplined community
-Worship and practices such as foot washing

Creating both invitational and practical paths of discipleship
-By being hospitable communities that accepts people as they are before
demanding that they shape us first or even believe right first.
-Embodying practices such as foot washing, breaking bread and worship
-Being willing to be stretched beyond your comfort zone
-Being vulnerable to share our stories without the fear of being judged
-Eat with people!
What are the ways we can see discipleship in our current contexts? In what ways is it shaped by our realities of being Mennonite, migrant, millenial?
• Learning the craft of both caring for people while also being a disciplined community of disciples by engaging in practices, which helps us develop virtues that enable us to live out our faith in the midst of a strange world.
• We must be willing to do ministry from the margins of society instead of from the center as the Anabaptists did. Our minority position ought to lead us to creativity rather than restrict our ministry in the same way the Jewish exiles developed the synagogues as their places of worship when the temple was no longer an option.
• The practice of reading scripture together (hermeneutical community) whose form we have recently engaged in the practice of “dwelling in the word” brought to us by church innovations enables all of us to be encountered by the Scriptures in transformational ways with the gathered community.
-Christians are resident aliens
• Our sense of superiority as Christians needs to be deconstructed because we are all sinners constantly needing God’s grace and the journey of discipleship never ends until the Lord comes to finally make all things right.

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One thought on “Discipling in the Anabaptist Stream

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on Anabaptist discipleship. I am incorporating a link to your comments here on Discipleship in a revision of LMC core values, Explore the Core, reheated. Blessings

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