On Saturday my friends and I at SimplyChrist spent time with a group of young Christian leaders on a Ghanaian university campus talking about discipleship. It was indeed a refreshing moment helping to reorient the minds of these such young students on how integral discipleship was to being a Christian, and discussing the challenges they faced in trying to be disciples in their own setting as students on campus. Sadly though, I couldn’t shake off from my mind how much additional effort and time would be required to actually see true discipleship emerge in this Christian community. I felt like our efforts were a drop in the ocean, not because they were not relevant, but because a lot more teaching, re-orientation, practice and commitment was needed to see discipleship truly flourish amongst them. The fact that I was making an effort to convince professing Christian students that being a Christian and being a disciple were one and the same thing was just a jolt of reality for me. This feeling was further aggravated by my recent completion of Bruxy Cavey’s Frosh sermon series focusing on discipleship, completion of Scott McKnight’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and current engagement with Richard B. Hays’s “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”.
In consolation to myself, I tried to leave my discussion group with 2 points. The first was that discipleship meant following Jesus and doing so with others, no matter the cost. It wasn’t about knowing all the right things about Jesus, or the bible or the Holy Spirit etc. If all these didn’t lead us to doing as our master did, and doing it with others who were walking on that same path, we have failed to be disciples. The second was the true discipleship always showed up in love for others, including even our enemies. Jesus gave only one thing that the world may use to know his disciples – love (Jn 13:34-35).
Driving home Sunday afternoon after our home church meeting, where we spent considerable amounts of time thinking of a business we could engage in to alleviate the poverty amongst us if we had the money to do so, yesterday’s discipleship event came back to my mind, and with it, Stuart Murray’s “The Naked Anabaptist”. In this book Murray tries to distill the essentials of the history of Anabaptist Christianity and practice.
One of the distinctive characteristics of Anabaptists Christians throughout history (drawing inspiration from early Christianity and other “heretics” like the Waldensians et. al. who came before them) was their insistence on following Jesus no matter the cost. It is this stubbornness that lead them to disagree with the Protestant Reformers even though they had started off supporting and actively taking part in the Reformation. Most Anabaptists felt that the reformers were more interested in worshiping Jesus, not in following him.
Hans Denck, one of the leaders of the early Anabaptists, had this to say about following Jesus
“No one can know Christ unless he follows after him in life”.(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).
According to Murray, to Anabaptists
“All claims to spiritual experience or doctrinal orthodoxy were to be tested against practical discipleship. Anabaptists were charged with reverting to ‘salvation by works’, but they replied that their critics were well aware of the abysmally low standards of discipline in their own churches and should ask why their personally correct doctrine was producing so little fruit.”(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).
Anabaptists placed such high value on the Sermon on the Mount in particular and the portrait of Jesus and the church as painted in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) and book of Acts in general. They left the theologizing, slicing and dicing of the rest of the bible to their friends the Reformers to enjoy frothing in. Hear Murray:
“It was in the area of ethics that the teachings of Jesus seemed to have been marginalized [by the reformers] in favor of Old Testament practices. Making war, executing criminals, swearing oaths, ascribing a divinely granted status to kings, and extracting tithes could all be justified from the Old Testament, but were these practices really congruent with what Jesus said and did? The reformers appeared to Anabaptists to have a flat Bible, picking out principles from anywhere without reference to the unfolding purposes of God. The Anabaptists rejected this approach and insisted that the Bible needed to be interpreted in light of the teachings and example of Jesus” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).
The Anabaptists’ mistrust (and even ignorance) of the Old Testament was fostered by how the Protestant reformers were able to use the tool of allegory, a specific example of which I wrote about a few weeks ago here, to make the Bible support everything that these Reformers at the time wanted to find biblical basis for. As expounded by Howard Yoder in his seminal book “The Politics of Jesus”, most Protestants since the Reformation have looked everywhere else apart from the life of Jesus to find grounds for teaching and practice on political, social and economic issues, something that Anabaptists derided.
Deciding to only follow the example of Jesus as seen in the Gospels, Anabaptists paid a lot more attention to being faithful to Jesus. Being humans like everybody else, some of these attempts went too far. For example the Hutterites, even to this day, force everyone to relinquish control of their possessions, citing the example of the disciples of the book of Acts. Others like the Amish, wanting to separate themselves from the world around them in order to avoid worldly attractions, still dress and behave like 16-18th century people to this day. Thankfully though, other Anabaptists took less drastic measures, simply finding ways to make following Jesus front and center of their individual and church lives. Overall the remarkable commitment of this little known tradition of Christianity in producing committed disciples of Jesus is well documented, albeit little studied.
Nowadays though, there is a great resurgence in seeing everything about the Christian life in terms of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Modern scholarship on both Old Testament and New Testament history and ethics is breathing a new life into and placing the spotlight on Jesus as the key to understanding and living faithful lives as his followers in every sphere of life. We have better tools for interpreting the Old and New Testament, and modern Anabaptists need not mistrust its usage again. Murray writes again:
“The impact of Howard Yoder’s ‘The Politics of Jesus’ was profound, introducing Christians from many traditions to a new way of reading the Gospels. ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom’ by Donald Kraybill gently but devastatingly dismantled centuries of misinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Walter Wink, Shane Clairborne, Tom Wright, Steve Chalke, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch are just of few of those – some more influenced by Anabaptism than others – who have directed our attention to the life of Jesus and encouraged us to take a fresh look at what he taught”(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).
Today many people, looking for a different kind of Christianity, are finding that they can learn a lot from the life and sacrifice engendered by Anabaptism. There is a huge resurgence of neo-Anabaptism in both Europe and North America, with the emergent and missional church movements leading the way. People who are not originally from Anabaptist churches are finding ways to infuse the Anabaptist insistence on discipleship as the purpose of calling people into Christianity into their way of life, and are finding that it was the natural way to be Christian all along. Places like The Anabaptist Network and the MissioAlliance are becoming places for others to think of different ways to be Christians, with Anabaptism playing a very important role in sharing its lessons. If an NT scholar who recently got ordained as an Anglican deacon (Scott McKnight) can openly confess to being Anabaptist at heart, then the world is paying more attention indeed.
Watch this space for much more on Neo-Anabaptism, and it’s possible appearance in Ghana as well. Suffice it to say that if the resurgence in interest in practical discipleship is anything to go by, radical Christians like the Waldensians, Anabaptists et. al. may yet sleep well in their graves, knowing that despite all their mistakes, there is something to be learnt from their self-sacrifice, martyrdom and unbending will to follow Jesus to the end.
Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequmur – The Lamb has Conquered, Him Let Us Follow.