Anabaptist Leanings of a ‘Kinda’ Methodist

by Philip R Meadows, Cliff College, March 2006

I am a pagan convert and a theological mongrel! I was evangelized by Pentecostals, brought to faith by evangelical Anglicans, taught the mysteries by high-church priests, encouraged by para-church ministries, befriended by independent church leaders, filled with the Spirit in charismatic worship, learned to preach under the tutelage of Methodists, married into a Baptist family, trained at a British Methodist theological college, worked at a United Methodist Seminary in the USA, participated in a Free Methodist church and an American Baptist church, started a house fellowship, and finished up at Cliff College.

I became a Methodist because they recognized my call to preach and encouraged me to follow it. This was the first step towards ordination in a Church that I didn’t know much about except that, for the most part, it seemed to be anti-evangelical and could clearly use my help! I have continued as a Methodist, however, because over the years I have found the evangelical roots of this tradition to be a constant source of inspiration. Being rooted in the life of John Wesley and the early Methodists is not merely about establishing a theological continuity with them, but discovering that I share a common spiritual journey that spans the ages.

Wesley was set upon becoming a real and ‘altogether’ Christian: holy in heart and life; perfected in love of God and neighbour. This vision was cultivated and pursued through his encounters with, and appropriation of, many different streams of Christian thought and practice: patristic sources from East and West, Anglican divines, Puritans and Pietists, Moravians, and even heretics! In short, he ‘poached’ anything that could help illumine the nature of holiness and Christian perfection. One might say that he was also a theological mongrel, and if that’s what it takes to become a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ, then I’m with Wesley.

Thinking of Wesley this way, it would be consistently ‘Wesleyan’ of me to ‘poach’ upon the Anabaptist tradition insofar as it might illumine and advance the end of evangelical discipleship and biblical Christianity. What follows are some Anabaptist leanings of this kinda Methodist. I don’t pretend to have interpreted the tradition with any kind of historical exactitude or systematic precision. I offer what I think I have learned from some Anabaptists (and others sympathetic to the tradition) in the form of cumulative intuitions, for better or worse, and what I think might be suggestive as directions for dialogue with the Wesleyan tradition.

Baptism as Initiation into a Life of Discipleship

Most students of church history first learn that the Anabaptists were those made infamous for rejecting the practice of infant baptism. Some of the reasons for their stance are very familiar to the broad evangelical tradition: the absence of clear scriptural warrant; an emphasis on personal conversion, the experience of new birth and forgiveness of sins; and the need for an intentional decision to become a follower of Jesus. What I have been fascinated to learn, however, is how the Anabaptists themselves understood believer’s baptism to be an initiation into a life of radical discipleship and into a community of discipline that would help them make good on their decision, namely, the church. At the heart of this community was a commitment to certain New Testament practices such as the ministry of reconciliation or ‘binding and loosing’ (i.e. the discipline that binds one another to the teaching of Jesus while loosing one another from the bondage to sin); ‘the ban’ (i.e. excluding people from the Eucharist who persistently refused the discipline of community and its ministry of reconciliation); the refusal to swear oaths, and a commitment to truth-telling. This tradition has constantly pressed me to think of the church as a community of moral discourse, deliberation and discernment; a place where Christian discipleship is made possible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit among those willing to be held accountable for a common way of life in Christ.

I believe that the connection between baptism, Christian discipleship and a community of discipline lay at the heart of early Methodist theology and practice. No one could evade their summons to be born-again; especially those nominal Christians who sought to rest on their baptism as infants. Apart from a life of disciplined discipleship, argued Wesley, the regenerative effects of infant baptism simply withered away leaving one in need of evangelical conversion. Those ‘awakened’ by evangelistic preaching, who made a decision to seek after the new birth, were incorporated into ‘class meetings’ (or cell groups) whose members would hold each another accountable for learning to walk in the way of Christ, according to a common rule of life. Whether as a ‘seeker’ in need of conversion, or as a believer pursuing holiness of heart and life, each practiced the confession of sin, the ministry of healing prayer, speaking the truth in love, and exhorting one another to grow in grace. It is interesting to note that Wesley himself likened the class meeting to the early church catechumenate. The early Methodists were certainly not committed to re-baptism, but they were committed to re-generation and radical discipleship. The Anabaptist tradition reminds me of the great practical-theological treasure Methodists have in their practices of disciple-making, not least the class meeting (plagiarized in large part from the Moravians) and how we have been slow to find inspiration in it.

Radical Discipleship as Civil Disobedience

The Anabaptists took a very different stance from the ‘magisterial’ Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) when it came to the relationship between church and state. Whereas the Reformers looked to the conversion of Constantine as the highpoint of church history, the Anabaptists saw it as the fall of the church! For them, the ‘Christendom synthesis’ resulted in a fatal compromise of the gospel with worldly wealth and power that all but extinguished radical discipleship from the face of the earth. The failure of the magisterial reformation to complete its protest by dismantling the gospel from its captivity to Christendom left the practice of infant baptism a mark of good citizenship. Under these conditions, the Anabaptist refusal of infant baptism and the logic of radical discipleship appeared to be a form of civil disobedience: a witness against the principalities and powers of a merely re-ordered Christendom arrangement, a heresy punishable by death. Arguably, this logic connects Anabaptists to the early church’s understanding of baptism as initiation into a way of life that took the lordship of Christ over all creation (including the Emperor) to be a truth worth living and dying for. I find it interesting, however, that radical discipleship and civil disobedience was consistent with infant baptism in the early church: as a pledge of allegiance to Christ in the midst of the Empire, and a commitment to raising children in a faith that might well cost them their lives.

I am encouraged that Wesley sided with the Anabaptists over the magisterial Reformers on the question of Constantine, although this is not without its ambiguity. It is clear that Wesley’s commitments lie naturally with the Church of England as a state church. What he regrets, however, is how the ‘mystery of iniquity’ has persistently worked through the church’s collusion with the world: to subdue its passion for holiness, and impede the spread of the gospel. He does not reflect upon the propriety of Constantine’s conversion as such, or how things might have been different had it not occurred. But he does note how the ‘vineyard of the Lord’ has continued to bear the fruit of holiness throughout church history in different movements of the Spirit, of which Methodism was then the latest. And it is also true that early Methodist discipleship often amounted to a form of implicit ‘civil disobedience’ insofar as their commitment to holiness directly and indirectly challenged the taken-for-granted nature of contemporary social life: the political conditions of poverty, the practice of slave trading, the emergence of capitalist economics, the state of moral depravity, etc. Their witness against such things certainly brought them persecution from all sides. In a post-Christendom context, I find myself challenged by the Anabaptists and early Methodists alike to welcome my place on the margins of society as a new opportunity for holiness and witness.

The Church as Intentional Kingdom Community

I deeply appreciate the Anabaptist understanding of the church as a social reality (public, cultural and political) called to embody the gospel of Christ in a world of unbelief. Under the conditions of Christendom, it is argued, discipleship gets reduced to good ‘citizenship’; the radical demands of the gospel get reduced to abstract ‘values’; Christian faith is reduced to a private spirituality; and the ministry of the church is reduced to a form of ‘chaplaincy’. On the one hand, the church acts as a chaplain to the state by seeking to Christianize the dominant social reality; while, on the other hand, acting as chaplain to the private spiritual experience of individual Christians in the hope of shoring up the lives of good citizens. Ironically, it would seem that in accepting the conditions of Christendom, the church sowed the seeds of its own marginalization. As our dominant social reality becomes increasingly secularized, the church’s former privilege as purveyor of spiritual and moral direction to the nation is withdrawn; leaving it to languish in the realm of a privatized, sub-cultural and a-political religious plurality. Against this, some Anabaptists have insisted that the church must exist as a social reality in its own right. If politics is simply about how the common life of a people is ordered, then the church is ordered by the ‘politics’ of Jesus. If culture is simply the character of a community’s way of life, then the church is a ‘culture’ shaped by the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. And if being public is simply a political-cultural reality made visible, accountable and accessible, then the church is a ‘public’ viewing of the Kingdom of God made open to all. I find it interesting that the postmodern tendency to deconstruct singular and dominant accounts of social reality (thus allowing for different publics, cultures and politics) actually makes room for the life of the church to be considered a counter-culture and counter-politics, while at the same time requiring a more robust witness of us if the gospel is to be made plausible to the watching world.

This Anabaptist thinking tempts me to take liberty with the meaning of early Methodist ‘societies’. Each society, bound by a common rule and a set of common practices, could easily be thought of as a ‘social reality’ in its own right. Their public, cultural and political life was that of striving after scriptural holiness. The ‘General Rule’ (of doing no harm, doing all the good they can, and attending to the means of grace) had the effect of holding them to a form of Kingdom living that resisted selfish ambition and accumulation in favour of good stewardship. They included admonitions against buying and selling uncustomed goods, singing dubious songs, needless self-indulgence, and borrowing without the probability of paying! He also advises them to employ one another (especially the poor), to help each other in business, and to be frugal in all things. And he guides them in the use of money to earn all they can (i.e. without injury to self or neighbour), save all they can (i.e. not wasting what they have earned), and give all they can (i.e. of that which exceeds their own basic needs). Wesley aims to describe a way of life literally consistent with the language of the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount (a text much used by Anabaptists). I am again indebted to the Anabaptists for helping me see how a Christian community that embodies the gospel does not happen by accident, but requires an intentional commitment to a form of life capable of resisting the dominant social realities of the world.

A Witness that Challenges the ‘World’

Again, the Anabaptists have helped me to learn what it means to speak of the church’s mission in ‘the world’. I have been taught how to make the distinction between the world as created in and through and for Christ, and the present condition of the ‘world’ as a fallen and rebellious creation in need of redemption (as used in John’s gospel). It is the task of the church to bear witness to the difference between a creation designed to flourish under the lordship of Christ, and a ‘world’ distorted by human projects (or principalities and powers) that usurp his universal reign. By seeking to live as an intentional Kingdom community, the church throughout the world is called to reveal God’s project to redeem all of creation. The church is what happens when the Holy Spirit gathers and strives with communities of faith to bring their worldliness under the rule of Christ: both affirming those cultural distinctives that are consistent with the Kingdom of God, and confronting those idolatrous preoccupations which tend to deny it. Anabaptists argue that this witness gets submerged under the conditions of Christendom: when the ‘world’ is supposedly Christian. At the end of Christendom, however, it is possible for the church to remember its vocation to help the world know itself as a ‘world’ in need of redemption. As the postmodern turn encourages us to think of social reality in plural terms, we have become used to thinking of what it means for us to live in multiple social ‘worlds’ or cultures. On Anabaptists terms, I am tempted to argue that this diversity of worlds represents both the richness of the created order, and the many different ways that richness can be distorted by unbelief. In terms of mission and witness, therefore, the church is called to exist in the kind of cultural and political diversity necessary to address the multiplicity of worlds in which people live today. My hunch is that there is something significant to be learned here for the (so-called) ‘emerging church’ in its attempt to give expression to cross-cultural forms of intentional community.

As a Wesleyan, the work of the Spirit to bring our lives under the rule of Christ would be another way of speaking about ‘holiness’ (which literally means being different or set apart) and sanctification. In my own research, I am trying to explain how the concept of holiness is intimately related to that of mission. The summons to holiness means understanding that our Christian lives, and that of the church, are meant to bear witness to the holy difference between the Kingdom of God and the ‘worldliness’ of the ‘world’. This is the meaning behind Wesley’s cautions against ‘friendship’ (i.e. flirting) with the world: not an attempt to preserve some kind of false purity, but to recognize that worldliness and holiness are two different ways of life with quite different ends. Under the tutelage of Anabaptist insights, I find myself concerned to go beyond the somewhat pietistic and legalistic interpretations often associated with holiness movements, to the importance of holiness as an intentional commitment to stake our hearts and lives on the truth of God as Author and End of all things, and Jesus Christ as the Lord of all creation. Such a people will necessarily be a challenge to every culture, in every time and place, until Jesus comes again.

Church Life as Orienting Concern in Mission

In recent years I have found Anabaptist ecclesiology to be increasingly influential in the fields of missiology and evangelism. The new emphasis on ‘missional’ communities has brought with it an orienting concern for the character of Christian community itself. There is a shift of emphasis away from thinking of mission in terms of what the church is doing in the world, to mission as constituting its very reason for being in the world. At least theologically, the being of the church precedes the doing of the church. To think of it another way, the church does not have a mission, it is on a mission, i.e. God’s own mission of redeeming the world. So, the church is not missional because it sends missionaries into the world, but because the church is itself sent into the world. What is sent is the social reality of a common life under the rule of Christ – a public, cultural and political embodiment of the gospel – for witness and service. This is the true meaning of our ‘apostolicity’. Put differently, to participate in the mission of God means becoming God’s social project in the world: to live as an hermeneutic of the gospel; to be a sign, foretaste and herald of the Kingdom. The church exists as ‘pulpit’ and ‘paradigm’: a prophetic word against those principalities and powers that turn creation against the rule of Christ; and a prototype or preview of creation made new in Christ.

John Wesley once said there was no holiness but ‘social holiness’. Some have mistakenly read him as advocating the kind of ‘social gospel’ which emerged in early 20th century. In fact, he simply meant that you cannot be holy on your own! On the one hand, because all the Christian virtues (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness…) are relational in nature, they must be cultivated and expressed in Christian community. Social holiness means striving with others (in context of Methodist society, classes and bands) to become Christlike in heart and life. On the other hand, these same virtues, when exercised in the world, become the medium of authentic Christian witness. Social holiness means being salt and light in the world, such that the gospel can be tasted and seen through all our relationships. Again, in my own research and writing, Anabaptist thinking has pushed me to go beyond the usual connection between holiness and the witness of individuals (the point at which Wesley’s own reflections seem to end), to the importance of social holiness as the corporate witness of a church shaped by the fruit and gifts of the Kingdom in a rebellious world.

Non-Violence as Primary Witness to the Kingdom

As I understand it, the Anabaptist commitment to pacifism belongs to the logic of the church as pulpit, paradigm and pilot-project of the Kingdom in a culture of violence. It has been this way from the beginning, and it flows from a radical commitment to the peaceable rule of Christ. The goal of a world at ‘peace’ is not enough; for it depends what kind of peace we are seeking. On the one hand, the pax Romana was a vision of the world restrained from warring through the military might of the Empire. On the other hand, the pax Christi is the vision of a world renewed in love through the self-sacrificing grace of God. The Kingdom of God is not characterized by an absence of war but an abundance of love; and the church is called to prove how the death and resurrection of Christ overcomes the violent divisions of the world in the quality of its life together. The same Spirit that conquered the death-dealing principalities and powers through the cross of Christ is at work in the church to heal the divisions that persist in the vestiges of a fallen creation. It seems to me that this vision of a people who bear witness to the peaceable Kingdom of God has never been more important than in our contemporary world. I am not simply referring to the insidious spread of Western consumer technoculture; nor the violent imposition of liberal democracy with which it is twinned; or even the reign of terror that has ensued in its wake. Rather, I have in mind that therapy of postmodern deconstruction which (despite helping to unmask the imperialistic aspirations of Western civilization) has also turned the reality of everyday life into a battlefield of suspicious minds and power-plays; a generalized ‘terrorist’ society in which trust is a liability, and we are set against one another in an endless spiral of tyranny and victimization (old and young, parent and child, husband and wife, black and white, neighbour and stranger…). The Kingdom of God will certainly not come through the imperialistic violence of a Christendom church, nor the military superiority of a vaguely Christianized liberal-modern democracy, but through the witness of a peaceable community among whom the everyday ‘terrors’ of a post/modern culture have no place.

I don’t know exactly what this means for me as a Wesleyan theologian and a pacifist. Wesley has been read as a warrant for both pacifism and just war; and Methodists as a whole remain confused about it. Wesley was, of course, a state-churchman. There is no doubt, however, that Wesley’s own vision of the new creation is one in which the rule of peace is celebrated. He can vividly describe the new creation as a place where all carnivorous appetites are no more: where the alienation between predator and prey among humans and animals alike is completely healed. (Perhaps the most persuasive argument for vegetarianism?!) This kind of healing, prefigured in the ministry of reconciliation, could be interpreted as the intention of early Methodist fellowship in both its spiritual and economic dimensions. Perhaps most significant, however, would be the logic of holiness and the pursuit of ‘perfection’ in love. To be perfected in love of God and neighbour would seem entirely inconsistent with the habits of mind, heart and life necessary to be a person of violence. It is hard to imagine how one could simultaneously strive for such holiness and yet also be trained to kill, or even to approve of killing, or even to turn a blind eye to it. If we yield our lives to Jesus, which is the sine qua non of holiness, it is hard to imagine how we could even make room for anger on these terms.

The Pursuit of Christian Perfection

Thanks to some Anabaptists, I have become a big fan of sectarianism! Of course, this has meant unlearning what has come to be the fairly standard definition of ‘sect’ as a divisive faction: a religious group set against the mainstream of both church and society; or a close-knit and inward-looking group with perfectionist views; generally dismissive, resistant, or antagonistic towards wider social realities. The history of some religious communities, like the Amish perhaps, certainly lend credence to this view. On a global scale, however, it is not difficult to think how whole nation-states are capable of adopting such a ‘sectarian’ stance towards the rest of the world. Clearly size is not the issue when it comes to being sectarian! Rather, we might say that it is an intentional commitment to living a certain way in the world, or taking up with everyday life, in the midst of other competing accounts of reality. Nation-states secure it through domestic and international violence; whereas Christians look to the cultivation of disciplined fellowship. On these terms, the pursuit of Christian perfection is not first about policing the borders of a community (though it clearly can be reduced to this) but the importance of maintaining a truthful witness to the Kingdom of God in a world of unbelief. To be sectarian means knowing that there is a competition for our souls: that there are other ways of life (of thinking, speaking, feeling, acting) which are contrary to the Kingdom of God; which are in the air that we breathe; which will shape our lives apart from a community of resistance and counter-cultural practices. To be sectarian, therefore, does not necessarily entail ‘fleeing to the desert’, or being isolated from ‘the world’, but intentionally seeking the Kingdom amidst the ‘powers that be’ as a form of spiritual struggle. Examined this way, it is not surprising that those espousing forms of Christian perfection have, through the history of Christendom, been persecuted as heretics. Even when such persons and communities have sought to live a peaceable life, their very existence is experienced as a witness against a worldly church, and must be silenced.

Wesley joined the Anabaptists in attempting to rehabilitate those who had been branded heretics for what he considered to be a commitment to the pursuit of holiness (such as Pelagius and Montanus, for example). In my estimation, Wesley raised the ire of world and church not because he broke the rules of ecclesiastical order or made a nuisance of himself in political circles, but because he formed a movement, a People, whose from of life embodied a witness against the ‘powers that be’. This was dangerous indeed, and the powers were right to be worried! Wesley’s understanding of the People called Methodists was that they were providentially raised by God to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land; and that Christian perfection was the ‘grand depositum’ of the movement. The witness of this ‘sect’ to the Kingdom of God changed the lives of the poor and challenged the institutions of poverty in many deep and lasting ways.

© Copyright 2006 Philip R Meadows (email p.meadows@cliffcollege.ac.uk)