Anabaptist Approaches to Church: A Peaceful Community

Dirk Willems, 1569by Joe Baker

It's taken a while to get to this last installment in my review of Anabaptist approaches to church, but here it is. Sorry folks. We have so far looked at being a and being a and being a . The fourth theme is about being a peaceful community.

The modern descendants of the 16th Century Anabaptists, the , the , the and the like, have historically been called the peace churches, particularly for their rejection of violence, their advocacy of nonresistance and their general peacemaking and pacifist perspective. Indeed, the 4 peace activists currently held hostage in Iraq are there with , which was initiated in 1984 by Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers with broad ecumenical participation, with a goal to to devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war. But what was it that gave birth to this heritage? And how valid is this perception of the Anabaptist tradition?

The most severe point of disagreement between the Anabaptists and the other Reformers was over the ethics of Chrisitian discipleship. They believed that the challenge to follow Jesus required a change of heart and a consequent change of lifestyle, not just a change of allegiance from Pope to State. This led them to question the validity of private property, as previously discussed; to ensure that those in need did not go without, both within and without their community. Indeed, the 1527 Congregational Order urged: ÒOf all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostlesÕ time permit no brother to be in need.Ó When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.

Their social deviancy stretched to a critique of the state. Many refused to swear oaths, citing Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5, which fundamentally challenged an important aspect of sixteenth-century Europe that encouraged truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. As a consequence, neither would they swear loyalty to any secular authority; many, like Felix Mantz (c1498-1527), concluded that 'no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could [they] use the sword to punish or kill anyone.'

This stance was not gained without problems along the way, however. One of the internal struggles was the place of (particularly) the Old Testament apocalyptic scriptures in the life of the Christian community. From the start there were Anabaptists who were sure that they were living in the end times, and that Jesus would return in a matter of months or years. Among these were people who prophesied that the time for turning the other cheek had passed.

These prophecies proved to be tragically false, but not before many Anabaptists had died by the sword, thinking that they were preparing for the return of Jesus. The most spectacular and terrible occurrence happened in MŸnster, Germany, which was taken by armed Anabaptists and defended for almost a year and a half (1534-1535). For further details of the MŸnster rebellion, see this Wikipedia article and this outline.

MŸnster was a tragedy, but it finally settled the question of violence for the Anabaptists. After MŸnster the Anabaptists came to agreement that in questions of discipleship, the words and the example of Jesus were final, and could not be set aside until Jesus himself set them aside.

Once this principle of discernment was accepted, it was clear to the Anabaptists that disciples of Jesus Christ must put away the sword, unconditionally, for three reasons:

  1. The example of Christ himself, who prayed "not my will, but yours be done," and who allowed himself to be crucified. Disciples of Jesus, if faced with a similar choice of resisting Caesar, will not do so but accept death instead.
  2. Jesus' clear command forbidding violence and even hatred of enemies; Jesus commanded love.
  3. Participating in violence contradicted the principles of spiritual integrity, that believers who live by the Spirit of Christ will show forth the love of God in their daily lives. Christians wield spiritual weapons, not weapons of iron and steel.

By 1540 the Anabaptists had achieved wide consensus that reborn, baptized Christians will refuse to participate in violence and their rejection of violence and advocation of peace became a defining characteristic. And it is because of this pledge to nonviolence that the descendants of the 16th Century Anabaptists have been called the historic peace churches. This however misses the wider story of their ethical commitments to what I contest can be summarised in an understanding of the Hebrew word . Shalom is discussed in more detail elswhere on the site, so I shall refrain from a full discussion here, suffice to say that shalom has three key shades of meaning: shalom as material well-being and prosperity; shalom as justice; and shalom as straightforwardness or integrity.

The Anabaptists' commitment to economic sharing, social and material justice, and purity and integrity was revolutionary in their day, and deeply challenging to us now. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that they behaved as shalom activists, not mere passive pacifists. They took on the challenge of Ephesians 2 to follow Jesus and offer shalom to those who were far away and shalom to those who were near.

The trouble with the transmission of this theological and ethical stance through time is that it has become narrowed to focussing specifically on nonviolence as the expression of shalom. For example, the website ( is owned and run by the historic peace churches, the Friends, Mennonites and Brethren. Their summary of the characteristics of a peace church is absolutely wonderful and deeply challenging. But its narrow focus on violence and responses to violence seems to limit the complexity and beauty of shalom.

The task set before us to be a peaceful community is one that calls us to share in shalom.

- What did Anabaptists believe? - From Anabaptist Seed - Pacifism