Study Courses

In the UK and many other nations Christians are facing the challenges and opportunities of following Jesus in a changing culture, and churches are coming to terms with being on the margins rather than at the centre. Things look different from the margins!

In Europe the church has been at the centre of society for so long that we need help to look at things differently. One source of inspiration and guidance for churches on the margins are earlier marginal Christian groups, such as the Anabaptist movement, which for nearly 500 years has been exploring discipleship, lifestyle, mission and church life from the margins.

Growing numbers of Christians and churches (from many denominations) are drawing on the Anabaptist tradition and looking to the Anabaptist Network for resources. As well as running conferences and study groups and publishing Anabaptism Today, the network has now developed some short courses for local churches.

Click on the study courses below for excerpts and download links:

After Christendom: Following Jesus on the Margins

The After Christendom Study Course examines the current trend away from a chuch-dominated society towards one in which the church finds itself again on the margins of society. Is this a disaster? Has the church lost its way? Or is this perhaps where the church was meant to be all along? In order to understand the challenges and opportunities the church faces at the start of the 21st century, we need to travel back in time to the 4th century and trace the story of how the church came in from the margins to the centre of society. We need to examine the system known as “Christendom” by which the church became powerful, wealthy and able to impose its beliefs on almost everyone in Europe.

Was what happened in the 4th century the problem? The Anabaptists and many other radical movements were sure the church took a wrong turning at that point. In this course we will look at the Christendom years and the impact this system had on the church and its mission. Then we will be in a better position to think about how we respond to the end of Christendom.

The course also explores the more practical aspects of a post-christendom congregation. How might a church on the margins operate? This course looks mission, preaching, church discipline and bible study in the Christendom context and explores what they might look like after christendom

The full text of this study course is available in Adobe pdf format.

Download here: After Christendom: Following Jesus on the Margins (90pp, 315KB)

Some Excerpts:

From Session 1.1:The Christendom Shift

The Anabaptist tradition has been deeply suspicious of the Christendom shift and its impact on many matters of discipleship, mission and church life. Here are two examples:

  • Pilgram Marpeck (important Anabaptist leader/writer in Strasburg and Augsburg until 1556): “The early Christians to the time of Constantine exercised no temporal rule or sword among themselves. The command of their master did not allow it. He granted them only the sword of the Word. Whoever, after sufficient admonition would not listen, was regarded as a Gentile and unbeliever [Matt. 18:17]. But when at that time, the pope, as a servant of the church was married to Leviathan, that is, temporal power, but in the disguise of Christ, the Antichrist was conceived and born and has now been revealed.”
  • The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren (c1580):“At that time, however, the thirtyfourth pope, Sylvester, testified to Constantine the Great, the forty-third emperor, and won him over with many flattering words, accepting him as a Christian through baptism. With the good intention of doing God a service, the emperor obtained peace throughout his kingdom for the pope, as the bishop of Rome, and for all those who called themselves Christians. Here the pestilence of deceit that stalks in darkness and the plague that destroys at midday swept in with force, abolished the cross, and forged it onto the sword. All this happened through the old serpent’s deceit.

    “In the course of time the Roman bishops took over. They gained full power over emperors and kings, becoming the Babylonian harlot, seated in power on the sevenheaded beast, daring to rule over all peoples, giving them drink out of her cup, and daring to alter time and law. Anyone who ventured to speak against the Roman bishop or pope was soon judged a heretic and condemned to die by the sword, fire, or other cruel means. In this way the sheep took on a thoroughly wolfish nature.

    “These ungodly dealings were promoted by the emperor Charlemagne (who was chivalrous and pious in the world’s eyes) and by his son Louis and their descendants. They swore fealty to the popes to the point that they willingly did whatever the popes wished. They gave the papacy power, wealth, cities, islands, and kingdoms, with their people. In addition they endowed religious foundations, universities and monasteries, to spread the papal religion. In fact, whatever His Holiness the Pope wished for, these emperors were willing to grant, promising all kinds of privileges.

    “And so the new ‘Christ’ in Rome, supported by the emperor, sent out his apostles into all lands with his ‘gospel’” of violence. He wanted to convert mighty kingdoms and strong nations by means of war and bloodshed. His realm increased so enormously as a gathering of the wicked that hardly anyone dared oppose it. So God the Almighty left these supposed Christians to their error of serving the creature rather than the Creator.”

From Session 1.2: The Fall of Christendom:

What is the legacy of Christendom? How is the story of Constantine and the Christendom shift relevant to us today? However we evaluate Christendom, two things are becoming increasingly clear.

First, the long era of Christendom is coming to and end. There is plenty of evidence now of a second shift, the transition from Christendom to post-Christendom:

  • The percentage of the population attending churches in most European nations is now very small.
  • Frequent calls are heard, even within state churches, for separating church from state, for changes to the parish system and the practice of infant baptism, and for recognition that a new era is dawning.
  • Few now divide the world into Christian and pagan nations, and the growth of non-Christian religions in Europe is forcing us to explore the implications of witness in a pluralistic society.

Given its long history in Europe and its all-pervasive nature, the fall of Christendom is unlikely to be sudden or total. There are still many areas of life where the legacy of Christendom can be seen: bishops in the House of Lords, prayers at the start of each day in Parliament, the blasphemy laws, a favoured place for Christianity in the schools, the inscriptions on our coins, etc. And even when the official relationship between church and state is dissolved, many vestiges of this system will remain.

Some Christians long for the way things used to be, but there is no way back. Our task is to rise to the challenges of Christian discipleship in a different kind of culture. There are real difficulties in this situation, but there are also great opportunities.

Second, it is a way of thinking rather than a political arrangement that is at the heart of Christendom. For fully three-quarters of its history the church in Western Europe has operated within a Christendom framework. Only in the first three centuries, in various persecuted dissident movements between the 4th and 16th centuries, and increasingly in the last five centuries, has this way of thinking been challenged.

This way of thinking has deeply affected the way European Christians have interpreted the Bible, thought about mission and the church, made ethical decisions and understood discipleship. Among other things the Christendom mindset operates as though the church is at the centre of culture, responsible for the way history turns out, exercising a top-down influence. This was how the Christendom churches worked and how they saw the world. But in post-Christendom, the churches are not at the centre but on the margins; any influence we have is likely to be bottom-up; and perhaps we can now learn once more to trust God to make sure history turns out right while we concentrate on being faithful disciples and seeking first his kingdom.

Being on the margins rather than in the centre will require a change of perspective. It will mean re-thinking many issues, discovering the ways in which the Christendom legacy continues to influence us. It will require creativity and courage as we engage with our changing culture and wrestle in fresh ways with what the gospel means in this culture.

From Session 2: Reading the Bible After Christendom:

For three-quarters of its history, as we have seen, the European church has operated within Christendom, a system challenged until recently only by various persecuted movements, including the Anabaptists.

Those who dared to challenge Christendom usually did so because they had begun to interpret the Bible in different and (to their opponents) socially dangerous ways. This was how such movements typically developed:

  • Their protest might start because they refused to accept the traditional interpretation of the Bible on some issue.
  • As they read further, they began to ask whether it was the Christendom system itself that was the root of the problem, rather than a particular issue.
  • And once they reached the decision that the Christendom system was suspect, they became deeply suspicious that the Bible was being misinterpreted to justify this system. It was as if they were now looking at the Bible through a different lens from the Christendom churches.
  • This led to them thinking deeply about how to read and apply the Bible and to all kinds of interpretations and applications that threatened the Christendom system still further.
  • These things reinforced each other. Their different view of the Bible energised their protest against Christendom, and their protest against Christendom energised their different view of the Bible.

So there were alternatives to the official line on biblical interpretation. But these were minority voices that were quickly and often brutally silenced.

Becoming a Peace Church

What are the implications for a church that decides to take seriously its calling to be a peaceful community? How does this impact its worship, its relationships, the way it equips its members for life and work, the way it responds to global issues?

Alan and Eleanor Kreider wrote a series of articles for Anabaptism Today (you can find all three in the Anabaptism Today archives), in which they explored these issues. The response was so enthusiastic that these articles were revised and turned into a booklet published by the Anabaptist Network, entitled Becoming a Peace Church. Alan and Eleanor Kreider subsequently produced (with an Indonesian colleague, Paulus Widjaja) a further and expanded revision, which incorporates resources and perspectives from around the world. A Culture of Peace: God's Vision for the Church

The ‘Becoming a Peace Church’ course builds on the earlier booklet, offering extensive additional material and questions for reflection.

There are five short sessions and a large appendix that contains the following sections:

• Early Church Fathers on Peace
• Stories of 'God Making Peace'
• Excerpt from Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers
Why Did Dirk Willems Turn Back? by Joseph Liechty
• 'Peacemaking Imagination' Stories
• 'Peacemaking Worship' Resources
• The Just War criteria
• 'Action for Peace' Stories

You can download below both Becoming a Peace Church and the study guide.

Reading the Bible After Christendom. A Study Guide

Download a study guide for Reading the Bible after Christendom here

Study guide courtesy of Herald Press. Used with permission.

Reident But Alien

Alan Kreider presents a series of teaching sessions, exploring the life and witness of the Early Church through interaction with a range of primary sources. This series is available at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbOAx84ri7g2OzXCKZwSU5x8GQwv8mAet.

Taking Jesus Seriously

Surely all Christians take Jesus seriously? To question this seems unnecessary, even offensive. But for many centuries the church has struggled with the radical teaching and example of Jesus.

The fourth-century shift of the church from the social margins to the centre made it increasingly difficult to hear and obey what he had taught. Christians had so much invested in the new status quo (which was supposedly Christian) that it was often easier to marginalise his teaching or to interpret it in ways that were quite bland and did not threaten those in authority or their own new status.

The Sermon on the Mount was especially problematic and various devices were used to evade its disruptive and costly teaching. Through the centuries, it was marginalised groups like the Anabaptists, with far less invested in the status quo, which provoked the church to look again at this passage and many others, to take Jesus seriously.

As Christendom comes to an end and churches in western culture become accustomed to being once more on the margins, there is a fresh opportunity to rediscover the radical teaching of Jesus and to explore ways of taking him seriously in many aspects of Christian discipleship.

This study course wrestles with many practical issues and focuses on the Sermon on the Mount. The full text is available here in Adobe PDF format. Excerpts follow.

Download Course: Taking Jesus Seriously (53pp, 257KB)
An Anabaptist Network Study Course

Here are a few excerpts:

From Section 1.2: Starting with Jesus:
One of the distinctive things about the Anabaptist movement is that it has chosen to begin with Jesus' teaching and example on all kinds of issues and then to interpret other Bible passages on these issues in ways that do not conflict with what Jesus said and did. Here are four examples from the early years of the movement:

  1. Leonard Schiemer (former Franciscan, who became an Anabaptist in 1527 and
    was executed in 1528 in the Tyrol): ‘You must know that God spoke to the Jews
    through Moses and the prophets in a hidden manner. But when Christ himself came,
    he and his apostles illuminated all things with a much clearer understanding.’
  2. Hans Pfistermeyer (Swiss Anabaptist leader in the late 1520s): ‘What Christ has
    explained and helped us to understand, I will adhere to, since it is the will of his
    heavenly Father. I accept the Old Testament wherever it points to Christ. However,
    Christ came with a more exalted and perfect teaching.’
  3. Menno Simons (major Anabaptist leader and writer in the Netherlands from 1536)
    urged that both Testaments should be ‘rightly explained according to the intent of
    Jesus Christ and His holy apostles’. In his major work, Foundation of Christian
    Doctrine, Menno explained that the ‘intent of Jesus Christ’ meant the ‘Spirit, Word,
    counsel, admonition, and usage of Christ. What these allow we are free to do, but
    what He forbids we are not free to do. To this all true Christians should conform, and
    not to doubtful histories and obscure passages from which we can draw nothing
    certain and which teach the very opposite of what the Lord's apostles publicly taught.’
  4. Dirk Phillips (colleague of Menno in the Netherlands and North Germany until
    1568): ‘Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our Teacher, Leader and Guide;
    him we must hear and follow.’

From 1.4 Jesus at the centre
Read Matthew 4:18-20.
The first disciples responded to a call to follow Jesus, and this meant that he became central to their lives. Anabaptists have consistently taught that the Christian life is all about ‘following’ Jesus and that Jesus is central to a life of discipleship. Many other Christians have realised this too, of course, but all too often Jesus has been pushed to the margins. The Anabaptist movement has helped many to recognise this and rediscover what it means for Jesus to be central.
‘Jesus at the centre’ does not mean that we focus on God the Son at the expense of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists spoke often of their experience of the Holy Spirit and acknowledged their need of God’s grace if they were to follow Jesus and serve God faithfully.
But Jesus-centredness means that:

  • Jesus
    is at the centre of Christianity.
  • The human life of Jesus is vital and cannot be ignored.
  • Jesus is our model, our pioneer, our leader, our teacher, our example –
    as well as our redeemer.
  • Jesus was truly human and his humanity matters.
  • Jesus promised the gift of the Spirit to empower us to follow him.
  • The awkward teachings of Jesus are relevant and authoritative in every
    area of life – in politics as much as in family life, in social policy as
    well as church life, in economics as well as personal morality.
  • The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be lived, not just admired.
  • Christians are to take Jesus seriously.

From 3.1 Responding to Opression

The Anabaptist movement has offered an alternative perspective on conflict, warfare
and responding to oppression. Arguing that peace is at the heart of the gospel and that
Jesus calls his followers to non-violent discipleship, Anabaptists (like the Quakers
later) have taught pacifism and have attempted to develop a Peace Church tradition.
Whatever Jesus may have meant in Matthew 5, they argued, he certainly outlawed the
‘fight’ option and this applies to public and well as private conflicts.
Here are some explanations of this passage in Matthew 5 from early Anabaptist
writers:

  1. Schleitheim Confession, 1527 (Article 4): ‘Therefore there will also unquestionably
    fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force – such as sword, armour, and
    the like, and all their use [either] for friends or against one’s enemies – by virtue of
    the word of Christ [Matt. 5:39]: Resist not [him that is] evil.’
  2. Menno Simons (major Anabaptist leader and writer in the Netherlands from
    1536): ‘Peter was commanded to sheathe his sword. All Christians are commanded to
    love their enemies; to do good unto those who abuse and persecute them; to give the
    mantle when the cloak is taken, the other cheek when one is struck. Tell me, how can
    a Christian defend scripturally retaliation, rebellion, war, striking, slaying, torturing,
    stealing, robbing and plundering and burning cities, and conquering countries?’
  3. Pilgram Marpeck (important Anabaptist leader/writer in Strasburg and Augsburg
    until 1556): ‘Throughout the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, there is a joyful
    witness to, and fulfilment of, the power of the Spirit in the heart which freely gives
    love in Christ; we behave toward others in love and patience, and are ready to
    surrender our own rights in favour of the neighbour and to suffer injustice. If anyone
    wants to sue us for our cloak, we are to give him the coat as well. All sin is done
    outside of the love of God and the neighbour. Love is the New Testament command
    of Christ. All law, in both the Old and New Testaments, consists in love from a pure
    heart.’
  4. Peter Riedeman (important Hutterite leader in Moravia until 1556): ‘Now,
    therefore, Christ desires that we should act even as he did, so he commands us,
    saying, “It hath been said to the men of old, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a
    tooth,’ but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy
    right cheek, turn and offer to him the other also.” Here it is clearly to be seen that one
    ought neither to avenge oneself nor to go to war, but rather offer his back to the
    strikers and his cheeks to them that pluck off the hair – that is, suffer with patience
    and wait upon God, who is righteous, and who will repay it.’

From 3.2 Dealing with finance
Read Matthew 6:19-34
Jesus spoke frequently about economic issues – wealth and poverty, paying taxes, giving support to those in need, unjust business practices, hoarding resources and much else. In his encounters with Zacchaeus and the unnamed rich young ruler he challenged these men to change the way they dealt with their finances – one responded enthusiastically, the other negatively. In his encounters with the religious leaders he challenged their economic practices and oppression of the poor.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites his followers to a way of living that
involves a basic choice between serving God and serving Mammon (the power of
money). For many years the churches that sprang up on the margins of the Roman
Empire, as they explored life together in Christian communities, pondered his
teaching and found creative and radical ways to challenge the influence of Mammon
in their lives and to demonstrate a new way of living that depended on the provision of God.
The early chapters of Acts describe a community where resources were shared freely and generously, and where the needs of the poor were met. This example inspired generations of Christians to find similar and fresh ways of putting into practice Jesus’ teaching on the handling of their finances. Rather than adopting a rule-based approach like tithing, these early Christians responded imaginatively and sacrificially to the needs around them.

The Appendix includes the following sections

  • Anabaptist Non-violent initiatives
  • "Can Love Save the World?" by Walter Wink
  • Extract from "True Yieldedness and the Christian Community of Goods" (1577) by Peter Walpot

The Practice of Church Discipline

The practice of church discipline, though firmly rooted in the New Testament, has fallen into disuse in many churches. There are various reasons for the unpopularity of this practice, but it remains an important component of discipleship and community building. It may have even greater significance in post-Christendom churches if we are to be distinctive communities in a world we no longer control.

Church discipline has been a distinctive practice within the Anabaptist tradition through the centuries, though the way it has sometimes been practised has been problematic.

There is not much written on the subject for churches to consult who want to explore church discipline. The following books are all out of print but may be helpful if you can obtain any of them:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich: The Cost of Discipleship (SCM, 1959)
Bridge, Donald: Spare the Rod and Spoil the Church (MARC,
1985)

Coffey, David: Build That Bridge (Kingsway, 1986)

Jeschke, Martin: Discipling in the Church (Herald Press, 1988)

Lindsell,
Stuart: Relationships – Jesus Style (Word, 1992)

White, John & Ken Blue: Healing the Wounded (IVP, 1985)

Wray, Daniel: Biblical Church Discipline (Banner of Truth, 1978)

The Practice of Church Discipline (19pp, 157KB)

This study guide is based on Explaining Church Discipline, a short book by Stuart Murray. This was published in 1995 by Sovereign World but has been out of print for some years. Since there is very little on this neglected subject currently in print, we have decided to make this book available on this website. You can download the full text of the book below:


Explaining Church Discipline (Sovereign World, 1995).