Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives

Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives

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.

10 Christian Books That Have Shaped My Thinking So Far

Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc

Seeing as I’m not getting any younger (try as I might), I’ve been reflecting on the last 10 years of my Christian walk, and wondering what books I will recommend to a younger Christian from my library. So I thought to write down the top 10 books of the last decade of my life. Note that they are in order of when I read them, not necessarily which one is the best, a judgment that I cannot make.

1Pagan Christianity – Frank Viola

This was the book that first answered some of the doubts my church family and I already had about today’s church practices. It details how modern Christianity’s idolatrous fixation with church buildings, the history and legitimacy or otherwise of tithing for Christians, the clergy/laity divide, sermons and their origin etc. have more to do with Greco-Roman paganism than 1st century Christianity. Not safe for those who like church as it is today.

2From Eternity To Here – Frank Viola

This one unfolds God’s plan for his church which he laid out before the foundations of the earth. It discusses several images that the New Testament writers use to describe the church, including the bride, the house, the family, the temple etc. It challenges your comfort zone on why churches exist in the first place.

3The Reformers and Their Stepchildren – Leonard Verduin

A classic on the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and how those who wanted to take things further than the leaders of the Reformation would allow were hunted down, tortured and killed in all sorts of macabre ways. The beliefs that these Anabaptists aka the Radical Reformation, suffered for seem self evident now, and a lot of Christians now hold to most of them, and yet very few acknowledge those who actually died to state that these practices needed to change. Popular Christianity has a lot to learn from those who chose such narrow paths to their own detriment.

Interestingly Leonard Verduin who was a Reformed theologian made enemies in his own church tradition for drawing attention to what his spiritual forefathers had done to the Anabaptists. Sigh …

4The Politics of Jesus – John Howard Yoder

Having read about Anabaptism, it seemed only logical that the next book be one by an Anabaptist himself. This book caused a revolution in Christian by questioning how Christianity had come to view Jesus as not caring much about the socio-political environment in which he lived, by virtue of which Christians have left social and economic justice to be the purview of the “world leaders”, when in fact Jesus tasks the church to be very busy following him in this direction of being “good news” to the poor, oppressed, sick, marginalized and downtrodden. Whether Christians who were ruffled by what he said decided to take Jesus seriously or go back to the apolitical Jesus really becomes a conscious choice.

5New Testament History – Frederic Fyvie (F. F.) Bruce

My first introduction to the world of New Testament history. FF Bruce really peaked my interest in understanding the world of the 1st Century and using that as an additional tool in understanding Jesus and early Christianity. Bruce, thanks for setting me on the right path.

6Making A Meal of It – Ben Witherington III

Ben Witherington takes a good look at the meal with many names i.e. the Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist etc. He sketches out how it has been observed historically from the times of early Christianity where it was a full meal sometimes taken even before the meeting began, to the Roman Catholic and Protestant interpretations of it and how it’s observed today. He encourages us to look again at how pivotal this meal is, and yet to remove the cruft that has put so much superstition around it. A good read.

7The Bible Made Impossible – Christian Smith

Why do we have many interpretations of the same bible by different people who claim to follow the same Jesus? Could it be that the attitudes with which we come to the bible are the problem, and not the bible itself? In the light of the million and 1 divisions in Protestant Christianity, should we reconsider the notion that “a simple plain reading of the bible with the Holy Spirit’s guidance” is all we need to correctly interpret the bible? Christian Smith provides a more satisfying, balanced and humble approach to how we should approach the bible, making Jesus the centerpiece for biblical interpretation.

8Jesus and the Victory of God – Nicholas Thomas Wright

This close to 700 page masterpiece on Jesus really expanded my reading of the gospels beyond the nice, safe, simplistic stories that I had been taught in Sunday school. Laying down the background of 1st century Judaism from “New Testament and the People of God“, NT Wright lays out Jesus’s ministry by mainly seeing him as a prophet like Jeremiah, Isaiah etc. No, the parable of the prodigal son meant more than you think, the cursing of the fig tree was a proper condemnation of Israel, the cleansing of the temple was a very prophetic activity. And by the way Mk 13 and Matt 24 are not talking about some “End Times” with some great tribulation as depicted to us by the Dispensationalists – they referred to concrete actions which happened in AD 67-70. For those who don’t have the time, reading “How God Became King” by the same author will suffice, since it’s a smaller, less academic one.

9The Resurrection of the Son of God – Nicholas Thomas Wright

The 3rd in the “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series, this does a detailed survey of what resurrection meant to the cultures that surrounded 1st century Jews i.e. Greek platonism, and clearly differentiates it from resurrection as understood by Jesus and his disciples before it even happened to Jesus. I was expecting to get the arguments for why Jesus’s resurrection was historically plausible which this book has in spades (including debunking all the claims of similarity with other “resurrection myths”) but the additional content laying out the implications of Jesus’s resurrection for Christianity itself was the part I enjoyed the most. For those who don’t have the time, reading “Surprised by Hope” by the same author will suffice, since it’s a smaller, less academic one.

10The King Jesus Gospel – Scott McKnight

Over the centuries, the good news of Jesus has been reduced to many statements, but today almost universally the refrain is that the gospel is that “Jesus came to die for our sins”. Scott McKnight draws the difference between this the “soterian gospel” or “plan of salvation” and the gospel according to the New Testament. He expands our view of what the word means from a historical analysis of the word “evangelion” and its usage in the 1st century to an analysis of 1 Cor 15:1-11, and places the emphasis where it should be – on the declaration of Jesus as God’s anointed king who is calling people into his kingdom now and kingdom future.

 

Others interesting books that didn’t make the list include Howard Snyder’s “Salvation Means Creation Healed” , Dallas Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy”, Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Religion” (which I still haven’t finished fully but loved anyway and will reread all over someday).

 

And sorry, I don’t read “motivational” books. I simply don’t have the stomach for their fluffy feel-goodness.

The Kingdom of God And Education–Questioning The Ghanaian Church’s Perspective

Three weeks ago I attended the funeral of a cousin of mine in my hometown Gbi Kledzo, one of the towns of the Gbi Traditional area whose capital, Hohoe is currently under seige by communal violence. But don’t worry, today’s post is not going to be about the raging violence. Someday I will have something to say about that, but the time is not today. I’m currently reading JH Yoder’s “Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World”, and his thoughts have resonated with something that bothered me at my hometown, and I can’t rest without writing these down. So here I am this evening, goaded on by Yoder to address the attitude of the church towards education and ultimately towards poverty alleviation.

I attended the Sunday memorial service for my cousin held at the local “branch” of one of the most influential churches in the Volta Region, and I did enjoy the vim and vigour with which members sang so many theologically sound and deep songs in worship of God. In spite of the conditions of poverty that abounded in their midst, their attitude of praise was indeed miles ahead of many mega churches, I must say. This church tradition’s music is something I do admire a lot theologically, but music does not make the kingdom; actions do. And I do have a lot of friends who are members of this church so I’m not mentioning names. The point however is that this problem really goes beyond this church I attended alone.  And so, I digress.

In the sermon, the preacher urged the members to be faithful in giving their weekly donations towards the building/funding of a university being built by the leadership of the denomination, as God will indeed bless them in this wise. Of course he made the usual run-around about offering and tithes, but that is a moot point if you are familiar with my view on these matters. Though this was not the greatest sermon I’d ever heard in my life, that was my point of departure, and my deviously fertile mind began to ask questions.

Seriously?

Seriously? Given the levels of poverty in this town, how many members of this church can actually be able to pay for their children’s education all the way to the university level? How many children graduate from the local primary school and even advance to SHS? What is the quality of education being received by the children of these church members to be able to compete with their colleagues in the big cities? Are these church members by virtue of their contribution to the building of this university going to get free tuition if by some miracle their children are able to make it past JHS? Is the church more interested in the empire building antiques of having a university in it’s name, or are they actually concerned about breaking the vicious cycle of poverty through education?

I listen to the political elite spew all sorts of propaganda about education, from making SHS education free to increasing enrollment through increasing capitation grants and school feeding programs, and none of them is tackling the cold hard issue – the quality of our education, whether free or not, abundant or few is simply going down the tube. And yet it is a universally accepted fact that it is better to have a smaller number of highly skilled people who are able to turn around and create wealth for the lower skilled people to benefit from, than for everybody to be illiterate. At the pace at which the world is advancing today, we must invest in bringing higher quality education to our children to be able to compete, to be able to break the cycle of poverty that exists in our communities. Instead today, quality education is the preserve of the rich and middle class, and that is the end of the matter. As usual with politicians, they have simply lost the plot.

Top Down, or Bottom Up?

And so when I see our Archbishops, Moderators, Presidents, General Overseers etc busily competing with each other to also build universities so they can put their church’s name on it, I’m indeed saddened. Are we interested in dealing with the problems at the root, or do we want to continue with the superficial window dressing, all in the name of empire building? If we are, then we must not be tackling the problem from the top (university level where it is always the easiest to do and we can make the most money to continue feeding the church elite) but rather begin to focus on the weak foundations (which admittedly is harder to do and will cost us more in time and energy, but whose effectiveness is well proven). If not, then I wonder what difference there is between the church and the political structures of the day?

Because as Jesus showed in Lk 4:18-21, his coming is the source of good news to the poor, the oppressed, the destitute and the imprisoned. Our unfamiliarity with the history of the times of second Judaism clouds our ability to understand Jesus in these texts. For his coming was supposed to break the oppression that was being meted out by the rich Jew on his fellow Jew who was in debt and had sold himself into slavery to repay the debt. As Ex 21:1-11 and Lev 25 showed, after 6 years of service, no matter how high the debt, people were to be set free. And after 50 years, all property sold as a result of poverty is to returned to the poor. But then as it is today, the heart of the rich in this world has not been very open to obedience to the word of God regarding how to treat the poor, and it’s not about to change anytime in this age and in this worldly kingdom.

And so if Christ’s coming is good news to the poor, how is the church using education as a tool to uplift the poor? How is building a university good news to the poor and oppressed in the Kledzo church, when their children will never be able to progress academically to get there? And who says that until a person is able to attend the university, they don’t have enough education to make a change in society? As my sister Priscilla put it at our church meeting this morning, “if Jesus is the head and we are the body, then we the body act out what the head has thought up. If not, we have become dysfunctional, and might end up in a mental institution, or at worst in the mortuary.”

And So

And so I draw on a familiar story around me to make the point as to the Church’s ineffectiveness and lack of imagination when it comes to being the bearer of good news;  I refer to the ability of someone from Norway to make millions from his business and give back to society not by donating to charities unknown or giving to the corrupt politicians in the government of Ghana to fill their pockets, but actually building a school to train software entrepreneurs in Africa. I refer to Jorn Lyseggen and to the Meltwater Enterprieneural School of Technology model only because here is a person attempting to deal with problems the hard way, but definitely the more effective way. In this particular circumstance as the popular saying goes, he has been more Catholic than the Pope, an effort worth commending.

The church has the greatest capacity to bring change in EACH COMMUNITY in which it is found, if it is minded to be faithful to its king and to his kingdom agenda. This is why Jesus said he will build his church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. The kingdom of God is amongst us, and we must not collect people to fill up our pews only to build empires to fill up the elite leadership’s egos of importance. The Messianic age has already began now and the violent enter it by force (Mt 11:12) – we must not tell the poor to wait till they go to heaven to experience it. That theology is totally pagan (i.e. Greek) and has no Jewish underpinnings whatsoever.

Are we building up those whom God made in his own image and has rescued with his own blood, or are we creating empires for self-glorification?