Anabaptist Approaches to Church: A Missional Community

Gerrit Hasepoot, 1556by Joe Baker

In this series of posts on we have so far looked at being a and being a . The third theme is about being a missional community.

The series of woodcut illustrations in these posts have been taken from the , a book written at the time to record the huge number of deaths of Anabaptist believers who were killed because of their faith. The full text of the Martyrs' MIrror and all 104 Martyrs' Mirror illustrations are avaiable online. The reason for including them is to illustrate the incredible dedication they had for their understanding of Christian discipleship. Today's illustration is of Gerrit Hasepoot, a tailor, who was sentenced to be executed in 1556. With an infant in her arms, his wife came to bid him farewell. When Gerrit was placed at the stack of wood, he kicked his slippers from his feet, saying, 'It were a pity to burn them for they can be of service to some poor person.' When the rope that was being used to strangle him slipped he said, 'Brethren, sisters, all, goodbye! We must now separate, 'till we meet beyond the sky, with Christ our only head.' (Source: ThirdWay.com)

The story of Gerrit Hasepoort is not unusual. The Anabaptist believers took the so-called Nazareth Manifesto very seriously: for them the Gospel was good news for the poor and the marginalised. In the Europe of the day, governed as it was by the vestiges of feudalism, there were many peasants struggling to exist, and, since Anabaptism was outlawed, most Anabaptists were exceptionally poor. In this adverse social climate, they depended on eachother in order to survive. As we have already seen, taking a leaf out of the story of the church in Acts 2 they lived in a sharing community, a eucharistic community symbolised by the sharing of the Meal, holding things loosely and frequently holding things in common. In a few communities this economic sharing took the form of community sharing of goods, where members gave up all claims to property. But even in the more numerous non-communal Anabaptist groups there was a 'common purse' to help the needy. Just as they had freely received and benefitted from this sharing, they also freely gave. Just as there was none among them who was in want, so there was many they encountered who were provided for.

The Anabaptists, believing that the walk of Christian discipleship was a voluntary one, chosen as an adult rather than baptised into involuntarily as an infant, would result in a visible church, comprised of those who had made a public commitment to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. It was a church whose visible holiness was to be maintained by an attentive discipline and strengthened by the Lord's Supper and footwashing, and they became increasingly sure that among the visible fruits of the Spirit of Christ they would find truth-telling (i.e. refusing to swear oaths but rather letting their 'yes be yes, and no be no' after Matt. 5:34, 37), economic sharing and pacifism.

Gentleness was and is the key characteristic of the Anabaptists' understanding of mission. Preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, releasing the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favour was not a trivial task that could be done by edict, by aggression or by the sword. For them, the frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force was inappropriate for followers of Jesus, and so they were committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.

The contemporary Anabaptists share this focus. The core convictions of the UK Anabaptist Network are deeply challenging:

  1. 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.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of GodÕs revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek GodÕs kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  6. 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.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Whilst it is specifically mentioned in point 5, mission saturates the whole set of value statements because it is about harmony with God and the way that God is active in creation.