Who is interested in Anabaptism today?

After centuries of neglect and dismissal, evaluation on the basis of statements from their opponents, and misinterpretation, Anabaptism has been rediscovered as a potent source of renewal and a highly relevant historical movement. The “Anabaptist Vision” has been glimpsed afresh, not just by the Anabaptists’ lineal descendants, but by Christians from various traditions. The following examples demonstrate the indebtedness of many to the vision, example and writings of the Anabaptists.

The influence of Anabaptism on contemporary Christianity is mediated partly through the direct descendants of the Anabaptists (primarily the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren the Brethren in Christ and the Hutterites) and partly through their indirect descendants. By this is meant those groups that have either some lineal connection with the Anabaptists, or major features that were derived in some way from Anabaptism. The Baptists are an example of the former. The Methodists and the Arminian wing of Dutch Calvinism are examples of the latter.

It was calculated in 1948 that these groups could account for almost a quarter of the membership of the World Council of Churches. The influence of the Baptists and the Mennonites on the thinking and practices of churches across the world has been significant, especially through their missionary activities. If the rapidly expanding Pentecostal movement is included among the descendants of Anabaptism (and it has been suggested that Pentecostalism is its closest contemporary equivalent), then these descendants form a major force in contemporary Christianity alongside the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant streams.

Furthermore, the Anabaptist vision has functioned in recent years as a renewing model for these groups. Mennonites have become aware of the extent to which they have adopted ideas and practices from Protestantism and in many places they have consciously returned to Anabaptist emphases. Among Baptists, also, there is growing interest in their hitherto embarrassing Anabaptist roots and a readiness to explore the implications for their church governance.

Contemporary movements exploring the radical implications of Christian discipleship have drawn on the Anabaptist vision. Among these are Radical Evangelicals in North and South America and some sections of the House Church Movement in the United Kingdom. Other influential free church writers also identify themselves as Anabaptist in perspective, whatever their denominational allegiances.

Perhaps more surprising is the recognition within Catholic, Anglo-Catholic and mainline Protestant circles of the contribution that Anabaptism might make to the contemporary church. Michael Novak, in a famous article entitled “The Free Churches and the Roman Church”, interpreted Vatican II and its developments as moving in the direction of the Anabaptist vision in several areas. Theologians such as both Kenneth Leech and Jürgen Moltmann have urged the recovery of the idea of discipleship found among the Anabaptists but neglected by the Reformers and their descendants. Peter Wagner used the Anabaptists in his writings on church growth as an example of a structure that combined church and mission agency. Rodney Clapp, former associate editor of Christianity Today, has drawn on Anabaptist perspectives in his analysis of the role of the church in a post-Christian society. Popular journals are now prepared to devote considerable space to Anabaptism.

Usually there is no intention of adopting the Anabaptist vision in its entirety, but there is considerable interest in many of Anabaptist perspectives:

• Witness to peace and enemy-loving as an integral part of the gospel

• Concern about discipleship and “doing the truth”

• Commitment to religious liberty and tolerance

• Antipathy to institutions

• Commitment to community and economic sharing

• Witness to the potential of counter-cultural alternatives

• Rejection of Christendom

Some have also made suggestions about the significance of Anabaptist perspectives in wider society. Modern ideas about democracy, the separation of church and state, and consensus decision-making can be traced to various sources, but Anabaptism is one influential source of these now widely accepted concepts.