Peacechurch: Anabaptist Reflections on Church

Peacechurch is an emerging church in Birmingham that is drawing extensively on the Anabaptist tradition as it develops. On its website Joe Baker has posted a series of articles in which he reflects on several Anabaptist perspectives on church life - and their contemporary significance.

We are grateful for Joe's permission to post these articles here too. For further articles and information about Peacechurch visit

Anabaptist Approaches to Church Geleyn Corneliss, 1572by Joe Baker

As discussed yesterday, the Anabaptists had an innovative approach to authority, especially the authority scripture, and one that seems all the more relevant now in the context of post-modernity and for alternative approaches to church, such as the emerging church 'movement'.

Key to the Anabaptists understanding was community. Community is a term thrown about with gay abandon in the post-modern climate, but the Anabaptists understood community very particularly. They were members of:

I'll return to each of these over the next few days, with particular reference to how I see them fitting into our faith community. But, for the time being, here's a summary.

  • A Hermeneutic Community
    A community who share the responsiblity of interpretation, especially of the Bible. Individual skills and gifts are respected and revelled in, but no one individual has the final word in defining worldviews and perspectives - it is discerned, weighed and held by the community as a whole. Hermeneutic community is about shared faith.
  • A Eucharistic Community
    The Lord's Supper, sharing The Meal together is symbolic of lives lived together. No person is in need. Eucharistic community is about shared lives.
  • A Missional Community
    The community is meant to be an open community, living and being good news for the poor and the marginalised. Missional comunity is about shared goals.
  • A Peaceful Community
    is the underlying principle to the Christian community of faith, the peace of God that surpasses understanding, peace to those on the margins and peace to those at the centre. Peaceful community is about sharing in shalom.

Anabaptist Approaches to Church: A Hermeneutic Community

Ursel van Essen, 1570by Joe Baker

In my previous post on , I discussed how the historical handled the issue of authority as the Catholic Church on the one hand and the Protestant Reformers on the other presented it.

The Anabaptist emphasis on life as persons in community was a direct consequence on their persecution by both the Catholics and the Protestants (the Catholics tended to burn them at the stake, while the Protestants usually beheaded them), but it was also birthed from their reading of the Bible.

The Anabaptists assumed that all church members had been born of the Spirit. The congregation was both the location for study of the Bible and the body responsible for the interpretation of the Bible. There is little specific or extended discussion of this practice in Anabaptist writing, but what Anabaptists believed about ethics, the nature of the church and so on required a communal approach to interpretation.

The movement was egalitarian to its core, and shunned clericalism for several reasons: in order to distinguish themselves from the Protestants and the Catholics; as a genuine outworking of their understanding of Christian discipleship; and because anyone who appeared to be an Anabaptist leader would be arrested and, in all likelihood, executed.

The Anabaptists, then, operated as a 'hermeneutic community' - a community who shared the task of interpretation of the Bible. This distinguished them from the autonomous individualism of the Spiritualists, was a rejection of the Catholic ecclesiastical hierachy and traditions, and in contradistinction to the appearance of Protestant clericalism and the sola scriptura principle.

The result was a substantial degree of local autonomy for Anabaptist communities. The imposition of creeds, traditions and professional leaders on local congregations was roundly rejected, and each community had to decide for itself on matters of doctrine, conduct and biblical interpretation. What leaders they had were chosen by the community and were accountable to them. This of course laid them open to disagreement and fragmentation, and disagreements were frequently over matters of interpretation. This was handled in conferences that brought together disagreeing parties, that resulted in joint statements such as the . Despite problems, there was a remarkable unity and coherence across the movement.

The Anabapists read and interpreted together. Most of the 16th Century Anabaptists were illiterate, but the frequency with which they heard the Bible read aloud and the value they placed on knowing the Bible meant that most of them could recite verbatim huge portions of scripture, and when arrested, as they frequently were, the lowliest member would challenge the highest state and church authorities with recited scripture.

Sharing together enabled each person to share insights the Spirit gave to all believers. Discussing these insights together and seeking a consensus would help them to discard unreliable and erroneous interpretations, as well as confirming those that seemed helpful and trustworthy. Whilst it was innevitable that contributions would vary, and the potential for domination by strong characters or those with more experience or education was very real as in any human grouping, the strength of a shared hermeneutic was its refusal to exclude even the weakest members, since the Spirit was available to all.

It seems to me that the emerging churches are standing at a similar crossroads, and the experience and approach of both the historical and the contemporary Anabaptists is vital at this moment in time. Every emerging church, leaving behind the shackles of modernity and seeking to find a more open and integrated way of being a Christian community of faith, needs to confront the questions of authority and interpretation that the Anabaptists asked and ask still. How does a community foster a sharing of experience? What can be done to jointly own and mold the community's values, worldview and ethics? How can the weakest and the marginalised among us be heard and cherished, and the strongest and most assertive encouraged to subdue and submit themselves to the whole community? How can a faith community be going somewhere without being being lead by a single person? Or, in other words, how can the tendency to clericalism be challenged and ultimately rejected?

Sources - Third Way CafŽ from Mennonite Media
Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2000).

Anabaptist Approaches to Church: A Eucharistic Community

Joris Wippe, 1558

Following on the theme of Anabaptist approaches to church, the second key aspect of the Anabaptist perspective on community is that symbolised in the Eucharist.

Christians of all traditions practice regularly something variously referred to as the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, Communion, the Meal, the Mass, and so on. As most people who have some experience of Christianity will know, it consists of wine and bread, which are meant to represent the body and blood of Jesus and remember his death by crucifixion. Christians eat and drink these elements together, and all of the Christian traditions have different shades of meaning for the Eucharist.

Significantly, for Anabaptists the Lord's Supper returned to being a meal: in particular, a memorial meal for believers remembering the sacrifice of Jesus in which the bread is just bread and the wine, just wine, and not a re-creation of Jesus's death done by priests on behalf of sinners. It is a remebrance and a 'showing forth' of his death until his return.

To the Anabaptists, the LordÕs Supper was a highly significant feast. They were persecuted by both the Catholics and Protestants for the challenges they levelled at them both. In the context of persecution, celebrating the Lord's Supper together was a powerful symbol of common commitment. By sharing the bread and the cup, members were signifying their willingness to give their lives for one another. In the sixteenth century this was not taken lightly. Anabaptist prisoners were almost always tortured and asked to give the names of their fellow church members. In our post-modern world, this is a counter-cultural challenge of selflessness that subverts the pervasive power of individualism. The symbolism of the eucharistic ritual unlocks the beauty of community.

Balthasar Hubmaier, a theologian and martyr from the Anabaptist radical reformation, was instrumental in reinvigorating the LordÕs Supper.

"The Lord's Supper is a sign of the obligation to brotherly love just as water baptism is a symbol of the vow of faith. The water concerns God, the Supper our neighbour... [The Supper is] a public sign... of the love in which one brother obligates himself to another... that just as they now break and eat the bread with each other and share and drink the cup, likewise they wish now to sacrifice and shed their body and blood for one another."
Balthasar Hubmaier, 1480/81-1528

Hubmaier formed a wonderful eucharistic service which is notable for three features.

  1. The order of service implies two services, one of preparation and one of communion, which may have well have followed on from each other. The preparation service includes a corporate prayer of confession, into which words of forgiveness and release are shaped. From the very beginning of the celebration, the emphasis is on the community together.
  2. There is an emphasis on the consequences of the supper. In eating and drinking, a commitment is made to living in a particular way, that of service and self-sacrifice.
  3. The Pledge of Love, a communal liturgical statement of devotion, was a key element in which each of those participating were asked to make their commitment explicit before they receive the elements.


Brothers and sisters, will you love God in the power of his holy and living word, before, in and above all things, serve honour and pray to him alone and henceforth follow his name; will you also subject your sinful will to his divine will which he has worked in you through his living word, for life and death?

Let each one separately say I WILL.

Will you love your neighbour and fulfil on him the works of brotherly love, offer your flesh and pour out your blood for him? Will you be obedient to father, mother, and all magistracy according to the will of God, and this in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ who also offered his flesh and poured out his blood for us?

Let us each say separately I WILL.

Will you use brotherly chastisement towards your brothers and sisters, make peace and harmony between them, also reconcile yourself with all those who have offended you, drop envy, hate and all evil will toward any; willingly desist from all actions and dealings which injure, damage or vex your neighbour, also love your enemies and do good to them? Will you exclude from the church all those who are not willing so to do according to the order of Christ?

Let each one say separately I WILL.

Do you desire, here in the Supper of Christ, by the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, to confirm publicly before the church this covenant which you have just now made and to testify to the power of the living memorial of the suffering and death of the Jesus Christ our Lord?

Let each one say separately I DESIRE IT IN THE POWER OF GOD.

Therefore eat and drink with one another in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. May he give us all power and strength that we spend the time according to his holy will, worthy of salvation. The Lord communicate to us his grace. Amen

Balthasar Hubmaier

The local church was the worshipping community in its entirety. The Supper could not start until all were there because all together enabled the event to happen. Prayers are not said on behalf of but by the gathered people. Church was not an event within the rest of life but what was lived as the whole of life; hence there was an emphasis on the importance of a proper life-style. And the communal commitment of the Pledge makes it clear that the Supper functioned significantly as a community building exercise; this was not something which was done to and for these people, but which they did together.

It was not easily possible to have bystanders in this. As with any community life, there is a demand on participation and an expectation of Christ-like servanthood. Just as Jesus took the basin and the towel to become the humblest of all in the first communion supper (John 13: 1-17), showing true meekness, so we must serve each other. There is little hierarchy in the Body of Christ, each caring for each other as servant-enablers. In doing so, every individual is encouraged and aided in their unique journey towards Christ-likeness; the consequence is a beautiful richness and diversity in a body of believers with common commitment, pledged in love to each other.

But maybe most significantly, by pledging our lives to each other, we make a commitment that none amongst us shall be in need. Frequently Anabaptist communites, but historic and contemporary, participate(d) in economic sharing: they were and are always generous, sharing resoureces and talents to ensure no-one went without; many of the historical congregations renounced personal possession and everythign was owned by the community. The modern Amish tradition of barn raising is a contemporary descendent of this approach.

In a eucharistic community, lives are shared and no person is in need. As we explore alternative approaches to church in the post-modern world, in emerging church settings, we must remember, as the Anabaptists have always known, those on the margins are those at the centre.

Anabaptist Approaches to Church: A Missional Community

Gerrit Hasepoot, 1556by Joe Baker

In this series of posts on we have so far looked at being a and being a . The third theme is about being a missional community.

The series of woodcut illustrations in these posts have been taken from the , a book written at the time to record the huge number of deaths of Anabaptist believers who were killed because of their faith. The full text of the Martyrs' MIrror and all 104 Martyrs' Mirror illustrations are avaiable online. The reason for including them is to illustrate the incredible dedication they had for their understanding of Christian discipleship. Today's illustration is of Gerrit Hasepoot, a tailor, who was sentenced to be executed in 1556. With an infant in her arms, his wife came to bid him farewell. When Gerrit was placed at the stack of wood, he kicked his slippers from his feet, saying, 'It were a pity to burn them for they can be of service to some poor person.' When the rope that was being used to strangle him slipped he said, 'Brethren, sisters, all, goodbye! We must now separate, 'till we meet beyond the sky, with Christ our only head.' (Source:

The story of Gerrit Hasepoort is not unusual. The Anabaptist believers took the so-called Nazareth Manifesto very seriously: for them the Gospel was good news for the poor and the marginalised. In the Europe of the day, governed as it was by the vestiges of feudalism, there were many peasants struggling to exist, and, since Anabaptism was outlawed, most Anabaptists were exceptionally poor. In this adverse social climate, they depended on eachother in order to survive. As we have already seen, taking a leaf out of the story of the church in Acts 2 they lived in a sharing community, a eucharistic community symbolised by the sharing of the Meal, holding things loosely and frequently holding things in common. In a few communities this economic sharing took the form of community sharing of goods, where members gave up all claims to property. But even in the more numerous non-communal Anabaptist groups there was a 'common purse' to help the needy. Just as they had freely received and benefitted from this sharing, they also freely gave. Just as there was none among them who was in want, so there was many they encountered who were provided for.

The Anabaptists, believing that the walk of Christian discipleship was a voluntary one, chosen as an adult rather than baptised into involuntarily as an infant, would result in a visible church, comprised of those who had made a public commitment to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. It was a church whose visible holiness was to be maintained by an attentive discipline and strengthened by the Lord's Supper and footwashing, and they became increasingly sure that among the visible fruits of the Spirit of Christ they would find truth-telling (i.e. refusing to swear oaths but rather letting their 'yes be yes, and no be no' after Matt. 5:34, 37), economic sharing and pacifism.

Gentleness was and is the key characteristic of the Anabaptists' understanding of mission. Preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, releasing the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favour was not a trivial task that could be done by edict, by aggression or by the sword. For them, the frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force was inappropriate for followers of Jesus, and so they were committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.

The contemporary Anabaptists share this focus. The core convictions of the UK Anabaptist Network are deeply challenging:

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of GodÕs revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek GodÕs kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Whilst it is specifically mentioned in point 5, mission saturates the whole set of value statements because it is about harmony with God and the way that God is active in creation.

Anabaptist Approaches to Church: A Peaceful Community

Dirk Willems, 1569by Joe Baker

It's taken a while to get to this last installment in my review of Anabaptist approaches to church, but here it is. Sorry folks. We have so far looked at being a and being a and being a . The fourth theme is about being a peaceful community.

The modern descendants of the 16th Century Anabaptists, the , the , the and the like, have historically been called the peace churches, particularly for their rejection of violence, their advocacy of nonresistance and their general peacemaking and pacifist perspective. Indeed, the 4 peace activists currently held hostage in Iraq are there with , which was initiated in 1984 by Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers with broad ecumenical participation, with a goal to to devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war. But what was it that gave birth to this heritage? And how valid is this perception of the Anabaptist tradition?

The most severe point of disagreement between the Anabaptists and the other Reformers was over the ethics of Chrisitian discipleship. They believed that the challenge to follow Jesus required a change of heart and a consequent change of lifestyle, not just a change of allegiance from Pope to State. This led them to question the validity of private property, as previously discussed; to ensure that those in need did not go without, both within and without their community. Indeed, the 1527 Congregational Order urged: ÒOf all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostlesÕ time permit no brother to be in need.Ó When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.

Their social deviancy stretched to a critique of the state. Many refused to swear oaths, citing Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5, which fundamentally challenged an important aspect of sixteenth-century Europe that encouraged truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. As a consequence, neither would they swear loyalty to any secular authority; many, like Felix Mantz (c1498-1527), concluded that 'no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could [they] use the sword to punish or kill anyone.'

This stance was not gained without problems along the way, however. One of the internal struggles was the place of (particularly) the Old Testament apocalyptic scriptures in the life of the Christian community. From the start there were Anabaptists who were sure that they were living in the end times, and that Jesus would return in a matter of months or years. Among these were people who prophesied that the time for turning the other cheek had passed.

These prophecies proved to be tragically false, but not before many Anabaptists had died by the sword, thinking that they were preparing for the return of Jesus. The most spectacular and terrible occurrence happened in MŸnster, Germany, which was taken by armed Anabaptists and defended for almost a year and a half (1534-1535). For further details of the MŸnster rebellion, see this Wikipedia article and this outline.

MŸnster was a tragedy, but it finally settled the question of violence for the Anabaptists. After MŸnster the Anabaptists came to agreement that in questions of discipleship, the words and the example of Jesus were final, and could not be set aside until Jesus himself set them aside.

Once this principle of discernment was accepted, it was clear to the Anabaptists that disciples of Jesus Christ must put away the sword, unconditionally, for three reasons:

  1. The example of Christ himself, who prayed "not my will, but yours be done," and who allowed himself to be crucified. Disciples of Jesus, if faced with a similar choice of resisting Caesar, will not do so but accept death instead.
  2. Jesus' clear command forbidding violence and even hatred of enemies; Jesus commanded love.
  3. Participating in violence contradicted the principles of spiritual integrity, that believers who live by the Spirit of Christ will show forth the love of God in their daily lives. Christians wield spiritual weapons, not weapons of iron and steel.

By 1540 the Anabaptists had achieved wide consensus that reborn, baptized Christians will refuse to participate in violence and their rejection of violence and advocation of peace became a defining characteristic. And it is because of this pledge to nonviolence that the descendants of the 16th Century Anabaptists have been called the historic peace churches. This however misses the wider story of their ethical commitments to what I contest can be summarised in an understanding of the Hebrew word . Shalom is discussed in more detail elswhere on the site, so I shall refrain from a full discussion here, suffice to say that shalom has three key shades of meaning: shalom as material well-being and prosperity; shalom as justice; and shalom as straightforwardness or integrity.

The Anabaptists' commitment to economic sharing, social and material justice, and purity and integrity was revolutionary in their day, and deeply challenging to us now. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that they behaved as shalom activists, not mere passive pacifists. They took on the challenge of Ephesians 2 to follow Jesus and offer shalom to those who were far away and shalom to those who were near.

The trouble with the transmission of this theological and ethical stance through time is that it has become narrowed to focussing specifically on nonviolence as the expression of shalom. For example, the website ( is owned and run by the historic peace churches, the Friends, Mennonites and Brethren. Their summary of the characteristics of a peace church is absolutely wonderful and deeply challenging. But its narrow focus on violence and responses to violence seems to limit the complexity and beauty of shalom.

The task set before us to be a peaceful community is one that calls us to share in shalom.

- What did Anabaptists believe? - From Anabaptist Seed - Pacifism

Sola Scriptura and the Emerging Church

by Joe Baker

I've noticed on several blogs recently (Wheat & Chaff; Through a Glass Darkly; Slice of Laodicea) that the question of sola scriptura ('scripture alone') has cropped up with regard to the 'emerging' churches (see my earlier comments on use of the term 'emerging church').

This is the definition of given by Wikipedia:
Sola scriptura (Latin By Scripture alone) is one of five important slogans of the in the 16th century. It meant that Scripture is the only infallible rule for deciding issues of faith and practices that involve doctrines. The intention of the Reformation was to "correct" the Catholic Church by appeal to the uniqueness of the Bible's authority, and to reject Christian tradition as a source of original authority alongside or in addition to the Bible.

Sola scriptura is still a theological commitment of many of the Protestant churches, most frequently those from more conservative branches, and is frequently appealed to by those who would describe themselves with the slogan 'Bible-believing'. However, as with most slogans, the meaning has become simplified over time from the orignal challenge of the Reformers to the Roman Catholic understanding of authority to the current common usage as the demand for interpretation of the Bible unswayed by anthing exterior, other than, presumably, the Holy Spirit.

Ironically, sola scriptura was a direct challenge to the authority of tradition, but the Anglican church has held steadfastly to the three pillars of faithful understanding: scripture, tradition and reason (with experience being tentatively added in recent times).

The Anabaptists were part of the 16th Century Reformation movement. They agreed with the that sola scriptura was a good starting point but were suspicious of the use of the word. Who is qualified to interpret what Scripture says? It soon became clear that the Reformers wanted to maintain that it was the learned theologians who were skilled enough to interpret scripture alone. To the Anabaptists, this was replacing the authotity of the Catholic church with the authority of the leaders of the Reformation.

The Anabaptists believed that the best interpreters of Scripture were those who had received the Holy Spirit. This meant that an illiterate peasant who had received the gift of the Spirit was a better interpreter of God's word than a learned theologian who lacks the Spirit. As a consequence, sola scriptura, 'scripture alone', was rejected in preference for 'scirpture and Spirit together '. In its time, this was radical in the extreme, especially as most Anabaptists were the illiterate poor. The political authorities considered this politically dangerous and theologically irresponsible. But to the Anabaptists, discerning the will of God was something that all believers were expected to do.

This was soon adapted as certain individuals had begun to prophesy and do very questionable things, claiming to be lead by the Spirit. The challenge was to discern how to test the 'spirits'?

One early Anabaptist document recommends that the brothers and sisters read Scripture together, and then "the one to whom God has given understanding shall explain it." This process of community interpretation provided one way of placing controls on the interpretation of Scripture and prophecy.

The second arose after some maverick prophets lead some Anabaptists to . In the aftermath, it was realised that all spiritual claims must be measured by the life and the words of Christ. In this way, the 'testing of the spirits' was returned to the discerning congregation, and to Jesus Christ and the scriptural witness about him.

Is this relevant to the emerging churches? What does the apparent rejection of sola scriptura herald for emergents? Is the rejection of sola scriptura in the post-modern climate a slippery slope to disaster, or the dawning of a new horizon?

As I've previously said, I'm not Anabaptist 'by birth' but have chosen to identify myself with the Anabaptist tradition. As such, I identify with the rejection of sola scriptura by faithful believers from 500 years ago, in favour of an understanding of revelation pregnant in Scripture, interpreted by all believers through the power of the Holy Spirit, discerned in community, and tested by the measure of Christ. But the Anabaptist hermeneutic approach is also a challenge to the individualism inherent in the Protestant/Anglican quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

Interpretation is a task for a community of believers full of the Holy Spirit seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.