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 fifth conviction reads:
[I]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 God’s 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.[/I]
This is another core conviction that concerns the church. The previous conviction expressed certain priorities and commitments in relation to the role of the church in society, especially in the post-Christendom societies that characterise 21st century western culture. This fifth conviction gathers up several important aspects of the internal life and character of the Christian community.
Anabaptists have historically been insistent that the witness of the church (as with individual followers of Jesus) must be coherent with its lifestyle and ethos. How the church behaves matters at least as much as what it says.
Many of the aspirations and commitments spelled out in this conviction are shared quite widely by Christians from many traditions, and we are certainly not suggesting these are unique to Anabaptists. The pioneering and costly witness of Anabaptists to some of these dimensions of church life, however, has not always been accorded the respect it deserves. And some of these ways of being church remain contentious – in particular, the baptism of believers and refusal to restrict roles on the basis of gender.
Nor can we point to churches where all these elements are flourishing in exemplary ways. But we do know churches that aspire to many or all of these ways of expressing Christian community and that are working hard at ‘nurturing and developing’ their corporate life in these areas and moving from aspiration to reality.
This conviction contains too many elements to expound in any detail in a short article, but we can highlight some of the features many of us yearn for in our churches:
- Churches that are kingdom-oriented rather than self-promoting, realistic about the groaning of creation, the violence and injustice in human society and their own flawed witness, but joyfully resilient and quietly hopeful.
- Churches in which Christian baptism is the baptism of Christians, celebrating the commitment of those being baptised to following Jesus as disciples.
- Churches where we enjoy relationships that are true friendships rather than the insipid ‘fellowship’ or institutional ‘membership’ models that often replace these.
- Churches where many voices are heard in worship, prayer, teaching, prophecy, testimony, biblical interpretation and conversations about direction, and where reversion to the default position of few voices (or even one) is resisted.
- Churches where honesty and mutuality is encouraged and processes are put in place to help us put right wrong relationships, change our attitudes and follow Jesus wholeheartedly.
- Churches where young and old learn together and from one another, valuing both the enthusiasm of youth and the experience of age, and where women and men value each others’ perspectives without labelling and stereotyping.
- Churches where leadership is valued as a spiritual gift and practised gently, patiently and courageously in order to draw out the gifts and contributions of the whole community.
- Churches that recognise post-Christendom as a mission context that precludes a ‘business as usual’ approach and invites a different way of telling and living out the Christian story in a world that does not know this story.
The demise of Christendom has been marked by great uncertainty about the kinds of church life that are viable in a changed and changing society. Many Christians have left the churches in recent years, most of them still eager to follow Jesus but no longer inspired or sustained by their experience of church. Some of these identify as causes of their disillusionment issues that are pertinent to the elements described above – superficiality and failure to engage realistically with the world beyond the church, the silencing of many voices by a few dominant voices, the absence of real friendships and inability to deal creatively and graciously with conflict.
Others are exploring different ways of being church: the ‘emerging church’ scene that has attracted increasing attention can be described in various ways: diffuse, tentative, creative, desperate, missional, self-indulgent, courageous, etc. It is certainly too soon to attempt to evaluate the significance of this phenomenon or its constituent parts. But these diverse ecclesial experiments indicate both disillusionment with existing forms of church and a longing for something fresh. This is something those of us drawn to the Anabaptist tradition should be able at least to appreciate, as the sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement was motivated by similar passions. But we may be concerned that some of the experimentation focuses on form and style, rather than ethos and core values. The fifth conviction, though it will have implications for structure and shape, is primarily concerned with deeper issues of community life.
In a time of uncertainty about church life, when Christians are drawing gratefully on ancient traditions (Catholic, Celtic, Orthodox, monastic, etc.) as well as contemporary technology and culture to discover ways of being church that sustain themselves and engage with the world beyond the church, our conviction is that the Anabaptist tradition also offers resources for renewal – sometimes in areas of church life where other traditions have less to offer.