What a wonderful time to be a Christian! What a privilege to be standing at this kairos moment! What a challenge to be able to explore fresh ways of expressing what it means to be disciples of Jesus!
Does all this excite you? Or do you feel tired, jaded, frustrated, disorientated and angry about faith in general and church in particular? I meet many Christians today who do. We stand at the threshold of the third millennium, within an arid secular culture. While spiritual hunger is driving some people to pursue a genuine spiritual quest, the vision of the majority in our culture is determined by video and their values by virtual reality. Our culture is all too eager to write us off as just another “evangelical cult”. Around the world the church is growing faster than at any time in history, but in Great Britain we don’t see much of the action! Unfulfilled promises about the spiritual impact of the church on society, made by preachers in recent decades, have left many Christians here deeply disenchanted. There has developed a popular Christian appetite for happening in preference to being. People are looking for the “next thing” – whatever that may be – rather than rejoicing in the freedom of rugged discipleship.
Our challenge is to discover what it means to be an Anabaptist Christian today. We embark on this quest because, whatever our feelings and circumstances, Jesus is the one that inspires us. He is the “dawn” (Luke 1:78) and the “morning star” (Revelation 22:16); only he has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). We are also inspired by the lives and insights of our sisters and brothers, the Anabaptists. In the turbulent days of the sixteenth century, with society and church set against them, they demonstrated the creative power of following Jesus with the anointing of the Spirit. They left an indelible mark upon their own generation and those that followed. The challenge is for us to do the same.
I have never liked the use of the popular Christian phrases such as “revival”, “renewal”, “recovery” or “restoration”. These simply are not biblical or New Covenant terms in the way most Christians use them. They each carry an inherent sense of a response to failure, and are backward-looking. The language of the New Testament looks forward and speaks about “eternal life”, “outpouring”, “fruitfulness”, and “transfiguration”. In Jesus’ day there were many renewal movements, but his work was different. I believe that Anabaptism has to do with the demonstration of truth rather than renewal. I want to stand tall, girded in truth, in the “waters of the river of life” (Revelation 22:1) and expect them to get deeper Ezekiel 47:1-5).
I have always been gripped by the words “roots”, “rootedness” and “radical” (from the Latin word for roots, radix). Here is a biblical principle that is key for the way ahead. The roots that we are to explore together can be nothing less than the roots of the Tree of Life. Roots are the life of the tree, drawing nourishment into the trunk and the branches; they provide strength and security to the whole. They are the hidden inner structure whose existence is revealed and demonstrated in the branches and the fruit. Those who feed upon the Tree of Life become like it in character, for “the seed is in the fruit” (Genesis 1:12). This is beautifully expressed by Jeremiah (17:7-8):
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by the water, sending out its shoots by the stream. It shall not fear when the heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
What then are the roots to the Tree of Life which are to characterise our lives both as individuals and communities of faith? Below are what I see as central and essential for those who are looking for Anabaptist discipleship distinctives:
The word “root” is one of many titles given to Jesus in the New Testament (Revelation 5:5; 22:16). To be Christian is to be Christocentric – not only in name, but also in practice. We live in a “Christian” culture which gives lip-service to the centrality of Jesus. But in reality he has been reduced to a theological factor with specific reference to the atonement: that he died for our sins. Too few Christians believe that the incarnation is a pattern for discipleship, that Jesus showed us how to live. The example of Jesus’ life is dismissed on the grounds that he was God, and so irrelevant because his way of living is unattainable. A primary task in bringing an Anabaptist perspective to our churches is to see people becoming disciples of Jesus in practical lifestyle terms, being obedient to his words and modelling their behaviour on his actions. This is the foundational element, in which and from which all other Anabaptist principles find their source. The task of bringing people to this point of understanding may appear straightforward, but it meets a great deal of resistance. Discipleship to Jesus begins by each of us individually making the commitment to “follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
The Spirit is the sap that flows through the whole root system of the Tree of Life. The Spirit is inseparably linked with Jesus’ call to a practical discipleship, and is that which makes such a response actually possible. Because evangelical charismatic Christianity has not been Christocentric, it has emphasised experience rather than discipleship. This has led to the pursuit of the latest phenomenon rather than the power of a consistently godly lifestyle. Biblical themes of spirituality and sanctification are too often neglected in the regular teaching of the church; holiness is usually reduced to legalism. The possibility of substantial sanctification is largely dismissed, with the resulting expectation that Christians will inevitably sin. But the New Testament appears to put no limits upon the possible work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. The person of the Spirit is a constant reminder to us that in our exploration of radical discipleship “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). The presence and anointing of the Spirit must be tangibly demonstrated in the actions of our lives.
Here is the all-embracing vision, a declaration of cosmic wholeness, integration and peace. Shalom (the Hebrew word for all-encompassing peace) sets the scene for our understanding of God’s eternal purpose for all things, a time when everything fits and moves together in perfect creative harmony in the power of the Spirit. Cosmic wholeness in the new heaven and earth is the only restoration the New Testament understands. This vision and reality is so clear that radical disciples of Jesus must by definition be “shalom activists”, working for peace. God’s peace is not on our agenda, it is our agenda. The gospel is nothing less than the proclamation of peace to the whole creation (cf. Mark 16:15; Ephesians 2:17). The shalom mandate touches everything from personal integrity to global ecology and eschatology. At every point it works to put right broken or unjust relationships.
Shalom focuses on Jesus’ call to nonviolence, nonretaliation and strong gentleness. Peaceableness is at the very heart of the gospel, but rarely on the agenda of the local church. Even people committed to a peace agenda often tend to think of it primarily in terms of war in the international sphere. But we live in a society in which there is violence at every level, expressed in a multitude of ways. It is this localised violence that the community of shalom must also creatively tackle.
Inseparably linked with shalom is the issue of justice, or putting things right. The pulsating heart and motivation of justice is found in righteousness, love, mercy and compassion. Justice stands against evil and corruption with invincible tenacity while nurturing the vulnerable and the damaged with deep tenderness.
Both local and global, justice-seeking must be the work of every disciple of Jesus. Right economics are at the heart of true holiness. Two-thirds world debt and the unfair distribution of resources must be our concern, as must be the plight of street children in the cities around the world as well as the homeless across Britain today. Justice is concerned with prisoners of conscience, with prison reform (and perhaps abolition!) and the overthrow of the death penalty. Justice means peacemaking at the heart of violence and mediation that makes enemies friends.
Religious toleration was an important theme to the original Anabaptists, and I believe it is a justice issue today. We have the privilege to live in a multi-faith yet secular society, and both facts are a source of anxiety to many Christians. Some view Islam as the new enemy and Hinduism as an alien pollutant. As witnesses to justice and truth, we must make sure that those of other faiths have freedom of worship and freedom from prejudice. True justice is a light that will enlighten through the power of the Spirit. We don’t compromise on our beliefs, but are secure amid other faiths.
We live in a church culture that stresses creed rather than character. Biblically, the essential question is not, “what is truth?” but “who is truth?” The answer, of course, is God revealed in Jesus. It is essential to express what we believe in words. Yet to embrace truth is to become Christlike in character, not simply to give verbal assent to a doctrinal statement. So often truth is seen as a set of intellectual propositions rather than a life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus through the power of the Spirit.
“What is the gospel?” is one of the most important questions to ask in these days of church growth and church planting. The gospel is not simply a call to spiritual transaction, but to a total conversion and radical discipleship. The question of Christian initiation is one of the biggest challenges to church today; it involves the message preached and the response made. What is essential is to bring together preaching the gospel, embracing baptism and receiving the Spirit as a single focus. Does our proclamation of the gospel as a call to discipleship see people make a complete break with the past? Do believers embrace new values, and have a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus through the power of the Spirit?
“How do we interpret scripture?” is the question that lies behind almost every difference between Christians. The early Anabaptists had a Christocentric approach, and recognised both unity and discontinuity between the Testaments. Anabaptists wanted the community to interpret Scripture together, and tested the quality of interpretation by the quality of life it produced. All this will help us capture the heart of Bible interpretation – along with the more technical tools of modern scholarship.
“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Freedom is something few Christians really cope with, even though it is the hallmark of truth. The emphasis of many churches is almost exclusively on freedom from (sin, death, fear, guilt); but Jesus also promises freedom to. Most Christian teaching on freedom is cloaked legalism, whereas Jesus calls us to messianic anarchy. To follow Jesus is an invitation to explore and experiment with a freedom that is characterised by truth and shaped by discipline. This is the wonderful, dangerous freedom characterised by self-control, strong gentleness, sensitive love and deep joy.
The heart of freedom is grace, the extravagant goodness of God. It is an environment of knowing God’s forgiveness and being wrapped in his love. It is the place for dealing with guilt, disillusion, anger, doubt and hurt. It is an ethos that encourages questioning and doubt as a means of working though to mature faith and security. We must all work energetically to see this liberating grace become the air that the church breathes and the ethos it expresses.
This is the ability to apply truth practically to everyday life in a way that harmonises with the kingdom of God. It is the self-expression of mature godly freedom. In a culture that is saturated with information, there is a crying need for wisdom. In a church that has both knowledge and experience, but scant ability at application, wisdom is the missing but essential ingredient. Biblically, wisdom is something you seek (Ecclesiastes 1:13), and you “become” wise. It is a gift of the Spirit, and like shalom it is something that radical disciples pursue. Wisdom reminds us that church is to be a learning environment. It is the place where we bring our questions and experiences and share them together.
Wisdom is the quality expected of a leader, reflecting experience and maturity. Instead of wisdom, today there is a great deal of insecurity in the church. This often expresses itself in narrow thinking, top-down autocratic styles, and a fear of opening the congregation up to new ways of thinking. The lack of wisdom is evident in the failure to have a true cultural and historical perspective on the spiritual phenomena currently being seen.
Somebody observed that “Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God and what appeared was the church”. Yet the church is the God-ordained means for God’s people to operate in the world. For those who are struggling with hurts and anger towards the church, this may be galling. For those who are isolated or hanging on to local church by their fingertips, this will be frustrating. The fact that most of us who want to see an Anabaptist vision grip the church are thinly scattered around the country makes the difficult task of community-building even harder. Yet church community is the environment in which roots of the Tree of Life are to be planted and fruits of the Tree are to be seen.
Local church is vital, but networking among churches is essential and an important point of nurture for both the individual and the whole church. Local church is an important starting point for those who are isolated or hurting. We need each other if we are to sharpen our faith and mature, if we are to find support as we experiment with truth. We need each other for encouragement, protection and the opportunity for celebration. We need individuals and groups to infiltrate existing local churches with radical discipleship and Anabaptist ideas; the call is to be subversive! It takes time and patience, but it can begin to happen. Truth always works on a bottom-up rather than top-down principle – as in yeast, mustard seed or dew.
We should not underestimate the power of the model. Until people see Anabaptist vision and values incarnated in local communities of faith the values will not be widely embraced; others need to be able to “see what we mean”. So the planting of peace churches is vital; make it top priority! There is no one single pattern for church in the New Testament. Rather, there are principles that can express themselves in many different ways. There is a real opportunity and vital need for people to experiment with truth. We must excite children with faith and radical discipleship; they are a central part of the body today and the voices of tomorrow. We have failed children in church and we must put it right. We must inspire them and learn from them.
For such a time as this
For Christians in Britain today it is unlikely that the doors of our homes will burst open with armed officers coming to arrest us. Is someone going to drag you in front of the local magistrate before whom you can give an eloquent defence of your faith? There is little chance that you will spend the night in prison at the hands of the torturer, or that in the morning you will have your tongue torn out and be dragged to the stake and burned as a witness for Jesus. Nevertheless, a challenge of equal importance awaits us all in bringing the joyful message of radical discipleship to our country. It is important to reflect on what we would have done in the sixteenth century, but much more important to decide what we will do today!
The call is to feed on the Tree of Life with our roots soaking up the Water of Life. Then, as Jeremiah told us, our leaves will stay green, we will not be anxious in the drought, and we will not cease to bear fruit. However lonely, hurt or disillusioned you may feel, stand tall and follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Walk as a free, joyful, holy person through the church and the world, exuding the aroma of life. As Mordecai said to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to [the kingdom] for just such a time as this!” Esther 4:14)
Noel Moules is the founder and director of Workshop, a nationwide teaching programme in Christian discipleship and leadership which more than two thousand students from all major denominations have completed. This article is adapted from his presentation at the Anabaptist Network conference in Leeds in September, 1995.