Unpacking the Core Convictions (1)

by Stuart Murray Williams

On the inside back cover of Anabaptism Today are seven "core convictions" that are an attempt to summarise the values, principles, commitments and concerns of many who are part of the Anabaptist Network. These have been tested in various contexts, they have been revised in light of helpful suggestions, and feedback indicates that people find them helpful and inspiring. They represent an Anabaptist way of understanding what it means to follow Jesus at the start of the 21st century.

In a number of short articles we want to unpack these convictions, exploring their implications for faith, mission and discipleship. But, before looking at the first one, it is important to explain what these convictions are not:

* They are not a comprehensive statement of faith, covering every aspect of belief and practice, but a summary of distinctive Anabaptist emphases
* They are not superior to the core convictions of other traditions, but represent an Anabaptist contribution to the ongoing journey into authentic Christian discipleship
* They are not fixed and final, but evolving as we grow in our understanding of God’s call, purposes and ways of working in the world
* They are not intended to exclude or erect boundaries, but to invite reflection, to stir imagination and to encourage initiative

On consecutive days recently I received a letter and an email responding to conviction 7. The email, from someone interested in peace issues but unsure about pacifism, asked if it was necessary to be a pacifist to join the Anabaptist Network. The letter, from a committed pacifist, asked if it was legitimate for non-pacifists to call themselves Anabaptists. My responses were ‘no’ and ‘yes’ in that order. Historic and present day Anabaptists take peace very seriously – and pacifism is embraced by many – but there is room for discussion and the core convictions invite this, rather than closing it down.

Unpacking the core convictions, then, does not mean settling issues or defining every term. It means pointing to their underlying concerns and inviting further reflection on how they might help us follow Jesus and participate in God’s mission today.

The first conviction reads:

"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."

Unlike the classical creeds, which begin with a statement about God and are set in a Trinitarian framework, we start with a statement about Jesus. The Anabaptist tradition is unapologetically Trinitarian but its distinctive emphasis has been on the human life of Jesus and on his centrality for understanding God, history and humanity. The concern of the early Anabaptists (like many radical movements before them) was that European Christians were giving inadequate attention to the life, example and teaching of Jesus. The story of Jesus as told in the Gospels and his challenging call to discipleship seemed to have been obscured in the creeds, doctrinal debates, ecclesiastical traditions and liturgical practices of the mainstream churches. Anabaptists urged recovery of a Jesus-centred approach to faith that impacted every aspect of discipleship.

They challenged the Christendom tradition, which had found it hard to cope with the radical Jesus in a world that Christians now controlled and had shifted the emphasis from following Jesus to worshipping him. They challenged the medieval lay piety that was devoted to Jesus but tended to spiritualise and privatise encounters with him. And they challenged the Reformers, who thundered the centrality of Jesus for salvation but seemed reticent to make Jesus normative for lifestyle, church and mission.

"Following Jesus" is a strong motif within the Anabaptist tradition. One of the best-known 16th century statements is Hans Denck’s assertion: "No one can know Christ unless he follows after him in life." All claims to spiritual experience and theological knowledge are to be tested against lived discipleship. Is this salvation by works, as the opponents of the Anabaptists charged? The second part of Denck’s saying is less well known but indicates that obedience and encounter are interwoven: "and no one can follow him unless he first know him." Anabaptists actually had a stronger experiential emphasis than their contemporaries on the work of the Holy Spirit, but they were not interested in either doctrinal correctness or spiritual experiences that did not result in changed lives, faithful discipleship, authentic church and courageous mission.

How does this conviction inform and inspire Christians today?

* In a postmodern world that is deeply sceptical about truth claims, living out the radical and surprising message of the gospel is crucial
* In a post-Christendom world that is heartily sick of institutional Christianity, there is still a fascination with the person of Jesus if we tell his story
* Taking seriously the example and teaching of Jesus calls us to re-examine many accepted Christian practices and explore more radical options
* Jesus-centredness poses questions about the way we do church – our authority structures, the songs we sing, our priorities and what we don’t do
* Jesus-centredness challenges the ways we participate in society, the values we espouse, the basis on which we engage with social issues

We will unpack the second core conviction in the next issue, and we welcome further comments on these convictions and how they are guiding and challenging Christians today.

Stuart Murray Williams, editor of
Anabaptism Today, lives in Oxford and works as a trainer and consultant under the auspices of the Anabaptist Network.