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).