A Jesus Army leader drawn to Anabaptism

By James Stacey

My first dilemma in writing this piece was simply this: what to call it. I’ve certainly been drawn to Anabaptism, but who (or what) am I? A Jesus Armyite? A sort of charismatic Baptist? An evangelical Christian communist?

Brotherhood

The fact is that for me, as for many of my brothers and sisters in the Jesus Army, becoming a member was not so much affiliating myself to a denomination or joining a stream, as entering a people, a family. It meant coming into the family heritage – which includes a great deal of inspiration drawn from Anabaptist sources. This is why I find myself instinctively thinking corporately. Asked who I am, I instinctively reply ‘We’re the Jesus Army!’

Not (as some of our detractors have tried to maintain) that this means loss of my own mind or my personal relationship with Christ. But there is a quality of ‘us-ness’ about the Jesus Army. So the story of my having been ‘drawn to Anabaptism’ will inevitably include the story of how the Jesus Army as a whole was so drawn.

I would venture to say there’s something very Anabaptist about this in itself. The first edition of Peter Riedemann’s famous Confession of Faith is described on its title page as ‘By us brothers who are known as the Hutterites’. Brotherhood, this belonging together in the call of Christ, was precious to them as it is to us. For them, this flew in the face of the individualistic soteriology of the magisterial reformers. For us it challenges an increasingly individualistic society (not to mention the individualism of much contemporary Christianity).

Background

But I run ahead of myself! I must give some background. Jesus Fellowship Church (more widely known by its ‘street’ name of Jesus Army) is an evangelical, charismatic church of the ‘new church’ type. Its roots are in the charismatic movement of the late 1960s.

Rural Bugbrooke Baptist Chapel entered a new lease of life when the pastor and a number of members were ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit’, an experience which, before the charismatic renewal, was largely confined to Pentecostal churches. Thus far is familiar territory. Many churches of various denominations ‘went charismatic’ in the sixties. What was different was that the move of the Spirit at Bugbrooke led to a mix of people-types, as many flocked to the water hole (hippies, students and villagers). This, combined with a thoroughgoing look at the New Testament and, yes, an encounter with Anabaptist writings, led to the establishment of a residential Christian community by the mid-seventies.

‘Community’ started in a very informal manner – money pooled and kept in a big old teapot – before growing into something more official. Such informal circumstances are reminiscent of the very beginnings of the Hutterite community in 1528: These men then spread out a cloak in front of the people, and each laid his possessions on it with a willing heart – without being forced – so that the needy might be supported in accordance with the teaching of the prophets and apostles. 1

For the Jesus Fellowship, a shared journey of faith, risk and at times controversy was to follow. It was a journey that led more than two thousand people to covenant themselves to radical discipleship; some seven hundred of them to living together with "all things in common”; and about three hundred to embark upon a life of celibacy in order to serve the Lord more freely. An "alternative society” was formed. The journey led to communities spreading across the UK, the launch of Jesus Army outreach in the eighties, increased networking with other Christians in the nineties. By the turn of the new millennium, Jesus Army had ‘come of age’ as a high-profile, colourful new church: a dramatic story charted more fully in the book, Fire in our Hearts.2

As for me, Christian faith had always been part of my worldview, but it wasn’t until I experienced being baptised in the Holy Spirit when I was sixteen that my life began truly to centre on Christ. I longed for full time, ‘24/7’, Christianity, and considered various options from missionary to minister.

It was around this time that some of my friends and I met a bunch of Jesus Army people. I was struck by their warmth and humility, and by the reality of their brotherhood. That day was a new beginning for me. I was left with a curious feeling of having discovered something. I started to write about brotherhood in my journal.

Was I called to belong to the Jesus Army? I stayed a couple of weekends in a community house and started to give the whole idea serious thought. On one level, the whole idea was terrifying. Yet here it was: ‘24/7’ Christianity.

It was when I went to University in the Midlands and struck up a deep friendship with the main Jesus Army leader in Coventry that the whole thing came together. I found in him a spiritual father, a mentor. Eagerly, I devoured all he shared with me about the church as a distinctive ‘city on a hill’; about brotherhood covenant; about community of goods – all as thoroughly Anabaptist as they are New Testament, as I now realise. And so, I joined the Jesus Army, moving into community three years later, after graduation. I now head up the leadership team in a community house in which I live with my wife, two children and eight others (plus the hordes that stay at weekends!).

Baptism

For the Jesus Fellowship, as for me, it all started with baptism in the Holy Spirit. At first glance, such an experience may seem to have much more to do with Pentecostals than Anabaptists. Yet if the ‘discovery’ of experiential Spirit-baptism is traced back along its historical roots via the ‘holiness’ tradition and the Wesleys, through Pietism and the Quakers and George Fox, we find ourselves back at the Radical Reformation and certain Anabaptists. Over and against the largely academic approach favoured by both Thomist Catholicism and the magisterial reformers, they promulgated direct spiritual experience of God. ‘Love is a spiritual power’ wrote Hans Denck, a mystic among the Anabaptists: ‘the lover desires to be united with the beloved.’3Yet, it wasn’t just the so-called ‘spiritual’ wing of Anabaptism that emphasised experience: ‘We experience the Holy Spirit’s work within us in truth and power in the renewing of our hearts’ wrote the evangelical Peter Riedemann.4

Whatever may be said about the historical sources of charismatic pneumatology, it is certainly the case that Spirit baptism brought a fresh sense of spiritual reality to the congregation at Bugbrooke Baptist Chapel in 1969 (just as it did to me twenty-two years later). This quickly led to a deeper appreciation of the import and power of water baptism – and here we can safely say we are in Anabaptist territory!

When I was baptised in the sea by my friends – whom I then baptised – it was, essentially, in simple obedience to what were reading in the Bible. I had been christened as a baby and had to ride some upset misunderstanding from family members at my decision to be ‘re-baptised’. On the scale of persecution this was hardly what faced Grebel, Mantz and Blaurock5, but it did cost something – and I would like to think it was a step undertaken in the same spirit of obedience as those early Anabaptist pioneers.

I became aware that believer’s baptism set me apart for God; I had died with Christ and was raised with Him to newness of life. At Bugbrooke Baptist chapel, ‘baptised in water’ was nothing new. But ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’ certainly was. It was a departure from ‘the world’, in Him, and an entry into a new order, a new creation. Baptism was transition into peoplehood, into the new brotherhood. It was this new understanding of baptism – in water and Spirit – that led directly to community.

Others have described those early days to me and how the Anabaptist influence became explicit at that time. By 1976, there was a sense of destiny and pioneering in the pursuit of radical community. The leadership wanted to find out who had trodden a similar path in times past, and how it went with them. They read of the martyrdom of Michael Sattler and others. Someone got hold of Peter Riedemann’s Confession, extracts of which were read in elders’ meetings and taught on in the congregation.

Battle

Identification with such Radical Reformers was not all theoretical. The other element was that 1977-78 saw the start of opposition to the Jesus Fellowship from the press and the anti-cult lobby. There was a sense of affinity with those ordinary yet dedicated Anabaptists in their rejection and sufferings – simply because they wanted to live New Testament Christianity.

The Jesus Fellowship became controversial and this only increased as the alternative seventies gave way to the materialistic eighties. Much as the Münster debacle was made to fit all early Anabaptists, so the Jesus Fellowship became mixed up in some people’s minds with the various sects and cults in the headlines. Yes, we were somewhat isolationist at that time; it gave us time to work out the Kingdom lifestyle we were exploring and to ‘go deep’. We learnt a few Anabaptist lessons about ‘turning the other cheek’ in those times – and it wasn’t always easy!

Aspects of our kinship with early Anabaptists were:

* being a church of the working classes,

* zeal for evangelism,

* covenantal relationships,

* believers' baptism as initiation into a life of discipleship,

* separation from the world's spirit and systems,

* real spirituality and brotherhood.

All of these became part of our ‘flavour’ as a church. For a while it seemed as though our community life was going to ‘go Hutterite’ (there was a proliferation of headscarves!) Yet in the end, we incorporated these things into our Spirit-led explorations whilst still remaining open to other influences and relationships with a range of other churches.

Breadth

And so, in the mid-90s, it was a multi-faceted Jesus Army that I came to join. We had broadened out significantly since those early years. (Notice how I instinctively use ‘we’- Jesus Fellowship history is my history – even before I was there!) Yet, breadth notwithstanding, it was those core radical values, drawn from Anabaptism, which made me fall in love with our church. And it really was falling in love: discovering the beauty of the church or ‘seeing Zion’, as we call it, was as powerful for me as my initial baptism in the Spirit. Indeed, the two were inseparably linked.

During those heady years I devoured works such as the astonishingly provocative clarion call to community of goods by the Hutterite, Andreas Ehrenpreis.6 I still find its arguments for full sharing amongst Christians absolutely compelling. In addition to such Anabaptist provocations, I was introduced to other Jesus Fellowship favourites – Watchman Nee, Francis of Assisi, Smith Wigglesworth and the Celtic saints. (The diversity of that quartet alone speaks volumes!)

Despite this eclectic approach, wise prophetic leadership has kept us from being ‘blown here and there by every wind of teaching’ and we’ve been able to chart a fairly steady course. The New Testament has been our primary guide, and it has frequently been the New Testament as viewed though an Anabaptist lens. For all the activity and busyness of the last decade or so (our latest venture is to open ‘Jesus Centres’ – centres for worship and care – in cities across the UK7),we remain at heart a brotherhood church, a Kingdom demonstrating church, a people called to lay down our lives for each other and to display the gospel – in proclamation and in lifestyle.




1 From Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren

2 To read Fire in our Hearts and find out more about the Jesus Fellowship in general, visit www.jesus.org.uk.

3 From Hans Denck's 1527 Treatise, Concerning True Love

4 From Peter Riedemann’s 1545 Confession of Faith

5 Generally regarded as the first Anabaptists to be ‘re-baptised’ in 1525. Grebel died of plague, but the other two were martyred.

6 Now published by Plough Publishers as Brotherly Community, the Highest Command of Love