Unpacking the Core Convictions (4)

by Stuart Murray Williams

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 fourth conviction reads:

[i]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.[/i]

The previous article in this series reflected on the implications for the church and its witness of the ‘Christendom’ system (where church and state shared power). Whatever the advantages of this system, the church underwent a startling transition during the fourth and fifth centuries. No longer a powerless, deviant, marginal community subject to intermittent persecution, the church through the following centuries accrued status, wealth and power as a central institution within European society.

The impact was evident in all kinds of ways. Bishops were wealthy and influential civil servants, with ceremonial robes that befitted their new status. Most church leaders came from the aristocracy and promoted the values of their class. Huge basilicas and cathedrals were designed to be awesomely impressive and were adorned at huge cost. The laity were disempowered as the clergy dominated liturgical spectacles and singing was prohibited except to trained choirs. The poor became increasingly alienated from the churches.

The institutional church could now impose its beliefs, values and morality through legislation rather than modelling and commending alternative possibilities. Dissidents could be punished by imprisonment, confiscation of property, torture and execution. And the church’s influence could be extended through conquest under the sign of the cross, through crusades and enforced baptisms. It was little comfort to the victims of this oppression that the state undertook the less pleasant activities at the behest of the church!

The demise of Christendom over recent centuries has pushed the church back onto the margins and gradually eroded its status, wealth and capacity to impose its will. This is a cause of celebration rather than regret, however we feel about diminished influence and shrinking congregations. In post-Christendom we have an opportunity to recover our calling to be good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, to identify with those at the bottom of society rather than the top, to develop ‘trickle-up’ strategies, rather than ‘trickle-down’ approaches.

But the Christendom legacy lives on – in the church and in society. Despite its reduced size and influence, the church is still perceived by many as a reactionary institution that embodies and promotes establishment values – more concerned about social order than social justice. Many churches and denominations remain wealthy property-owners and are much stronger in affluent areas than poor communities. Although the church may no longer be able to coerce those with whom it disagrees, it still often speaks and acts as if it occupies the moral high ground and ought to be able to dictate to the rest of society. Many continue to promote top-down mission strategies (to engage with the ‘movers and shakers’). The strong impression is that the loss of status, wealth and the power to exercise control is a result of historical circumstances, not renunciation or repentance. We hanker after past power and glory rather than seizing the opportunity to relocate ourselves where we belong – in solidarity with the poor, powerless and persecuted.

The Anabaptist tradition, rejecting the Christendom system while it was still dominant and subjecting its values and priorities to rigorous scrutiny, has long challenged this prevailing and persistent misunderstanding of the church’s calling. As a movement of the poor and powerless in the sixteenth century, Anabaptism made common cause with the peasants of Central Europe, calling for social justice and economic reform. This economic radicalism provoked great fear in many places, including England, where the thirty-eighth of the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England (1571) countered this with the statement: ‘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.’

Anabaptists were also deeply concerned about issues of coercion and marginalisation. Their own experience of powerlessness and persecution made them sensitive to other minorities; they not only denounced warfare, violence and coercion as unchristian but championed the cause of religious liberty for all – including Jews and Muslims.

Their approach to the Bible undergirded these convictions: their approach has been described as a ‘hermeneutic of justice’ rather than a ‘hermeneutic of order’. Rather than interpreting the Bible in ways that supported the wealthy and powerful and did not disturb the status quo, Anabaptists challenged conventional interpretations and advocated ways of following Jesus that prioritised the poor, powerless and persecuted. Their testimony and legacy can inspire and guide us as we struggle to divest ourselves of inappropriate assumptions, values and loyalties that damage our witness.

For many who are drawn to the Anabaptist vision, the so-called ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ (Luke 4:18-19) challenges us to a deeper identification with the mission priorities and values of Jesus:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

With Christians from many other traditions – most of us now on the margins of a post-Christendom culture – we hear the call of Jesus to explore new ways of identifying with others on the margins and being his faithful witnesses.