Unpacking the Core Convictions (6)

On the inside back cover of Anabaptism Today are seven “core convictions” that summarise the values, principles, commitments and concerns of many who are part of the Anabaptist Network. They represent an Anabaptist way of understanding what it means to follow Jesus at the start of the 21st century. In a series of short articles we are unpacking these convictions, exploring their implications for faith, mission and discipleship.

The sixth conviction reads:

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.

In our article on the fourth conviction we noted the reference to Anabaptists in the thirty-eighth of the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles (1571): ‘The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.’

It was not the Anabaptists’ insistence on baptising believers rather than infants or their supposedly heretical theological beliefs that most worried English ecclesiastical authorities. What was most disturbing was their economic radicalism, challenging notions of private property, modelling communal ownership, implicitly and often explicitly criticising the wealth of the churches and their failure to respond to the needs of the poor. Good Anglicans, this Article goes on to insist, should certainly be generous in sharing their resources, but they should not be misled by this kind of radicalism. They should continue to assert the importance of private ownership, which was such a foundational principle of English society.

Having ‘all things in common’ was not, in fact, the normal expression of economic discipleship among Anabaptists. The Moravian Hutterites developed ‘common purse’ communities, initially through necessity and increasingly on the basis of theological conviction and biblical interpretation (especially of Acts 2-4). The short-lived and disastrous Anabaptist uprising at Münster, which so alarmed English and other authorities, also imposed common ownership. But Swiss Brethren, Mennonites and most other Anabaptists practised ‘mutual aid’, continuing to own property but gladly making their resources available to brothers and sisters in need.

This sounds quite similar to what the Thirty-Eighth Article advocated, so why was Anabaptist economic radicalism so troubling in the 16th century? And what are the implications of Anabaptist thinking and practice at the start of the 21st century?

Wholehearted commitment to ‘mutual aid’ (and even more powerfully to ‘common purse’ community) did, in fact, result in much more radical sharing of resources than the Thirty-Eighth Article normally inspired. Over the centuries, though not always consistently, Anabaptists have been distinguished by their simple living, contentment, community ethos, resistance to consumerism and practical service to others. There have certainly been some who have been seduced by individualism and consumerism (as in all Christian traditions), but overall the Anabaptist tradition offers perspectives and practices that may continue to be helpful in our struggle against these powerful twin temptations.

Anabaptism (in common with some other Christian traditions) has generally insisted that theology and practice cannot be divorced: orthopraxy is as crucial as orthodoxy. Spirituality and economics are interwoven. Love for God is demonstrated in love for brothers and sisters, expressed in very practical ways (cf. 1 John 3:17). Lifestyle matters. Living simply and being content with enough demonstrates faith in God and an orientation towards the kingdom of God.

One of the aspects of the Anabaptist tradition that attracts others is the practice of community that offers a counter-cultural way of living in an individualistic culture. This is multi-faceted but certainly includes ‘mutual aid’, from the barn-raising of the Amish to creative alternatives to mortgages for house purchases to the deployment of church planting teams that mutually support their members.

Another very disturbing feature of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement was its opposition to paying tithes. This state-church tax was experienced by the poor as oppressive and provoked frequent protests (for example in the peasants’ movement of 1524-1526), but it was foundational to the Christendom system and defended by both church and state with determination and increasing desperation. Anabaptists, in common with other radical groups, rejected the state churches’ approach to tithing as unjust and based on bad biblical interpretation.

The re-emergence of tithing during the 20th century, especially among some evangelicals, who promote this as a form of economic radicalism, would have surprised and appalled 16th-century Anabaptists. Tithing is highly individualistic, does little to challenge global or local injustice or the power of consumerism, continues to disadvantage the poor and does not build community. Those drawn to the Anabaptist tradition today are much more interested in exploring other biblical concepts such as jubilee in the Old Testament (the proper context for the tithe) and koinonia in the New.

Two areas contemporary Anabaptists have been exploring in recent years that 16th-century Anabaptists were either unaware of or unable to engage with are caring for creation and working for justice. Anabaptists were no more ecologically aware than their 16th-century contemporaries and, as a powerless and persecuted minority, they had little opportunity to work actively for a more just society. But the principles of simplicity, contentment, community and service that have imbued the Anabaptist tradition are increasingly inspiring Anabaptist Christians to explore the connections between spirituality, caring for creation and actively working for justice.