The Anabaptist Tradition and the Politics of Jesus

I have mentioned my Anabaptist influences on a number of occasions but now realise, having been asked to explain what the Anabaptist tradition is by one of you, that I really haven’t explained what that means much before now, that I have presumed too much.

In summary then, the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century was the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. Going much further in their protest than the Lutherans and Calvinists, the Anabaptists rejected the Christendom alliance of church and state outright, affirming voluntary baptism and pacifist commitment as outworkings of that.

When I embraced the way of Jesus in my mid twenties I quickly gravitated towards this tradition, and one book in particular had a major impact on me. That book was The Politics of Jesus by Mennonite theologian John H Yoder. Prior to reading Yoder I struggled to reconcile the Father of the New Testament with YHWH of the Old Testament. I was very Gnostic in some ways. In particular, I struggled intensely with the book of Joshua, with the wars of God. Yoder opened up the Old Testament for me, allowing me to see it in a new way, allowing me to see the wars in a new way. In the process I also came to understand the political implications of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and indeed, his call to the crucified life.

This goes some way towards explaining why I shifted from the Sydney Anglicans towards the Sydney Baptists within a few years of becoming a Christian. The Sydney Anglicans, well the hierarchy at least, are deeply Calvinist. And though Australia has no state religion, it is difficult to get past the fact that within Anglicanism the British monarch is styled the Defender of the Faith. I sought a church that was much less tied to the state.

Now I realise at this point that a few words should be said about how the Mennonites and Baptists relate to the Anabaptist movement. Basically, Mennonites stand alongside the Amish and Hutterites as institutional descendants of the Anabaptist movement. The Baptists, Brethren and some streams of the Emerging Church are more in the way of spiritual descendants. Though these traditions are very different in many ways, what they share is this rejection of the Christendom alliance of church and state as a corrupting influence. Of course there has been drift over time but in recent times some have called Anabaptist influenced Christians like myself neoAnabaptists. I gather what is being implied is that we are related to the older movement similar to how Charismatics are related to Pentecostals. I can live with that.

So, as the missional movement searches for ways of being Christian beyond Christendom, I say learn from those who’ve trod that road ahead of you, learn from their mistakes and from their wisdom.

Now, in the process of writing this I came across a summary of the Politics of Jesus, called the Politics of Jesus Simplified. Still pretty complex if you ask me but it does give you a bit of a window into the book.

9 thoughts on “The Anabaptist Tradition and the Politics of Jesus

  1. Matt,
    How, as a pacifist, do you dialogue with other Christians who are adamantly not without (a) negating your own values or (b) negating the other Christian?
    I know those are two pretty broad categories, but for me personally it sometimes seems to boil down to one or the other.


  2. Jeff,
    I presume you’re aware with the Calvinist / Reformed stance of Sydney Anglican leadership and that your question has more to do with what difference it makes. The difference is, both the Lutheran and Calvinist reformers looked to the state to defend the establishment of an official religion. The Anabaptists did not.
    “In the thought of Calvin, state and church were distinct, but each in its proper sphere was to cooperate with the other in their great common purpose: to serve and glorify God. By the end of his career he had achieved a complete dominance of Geneva … All inhabitants had to renounce the Roman faith on penalty of expulsion from the city … Attendance at sermons was compulsory.”
    I sit with the Anabaptists in seeing state-church alliances like that as inherrantly corrupting.
    Though there is no official religion in Australia today, Anglican spokesmen can generally be relied upon to protest against any undermining of cosy church-state relationships. Though the Calvinists are less compromising of the gospel than their Anglo-Catholic counterparts, there is nothing in Calvinist theology which procludes state-church alliances or seriously questions the Christendom arrangement. On the contrary, Calvin specifically endorsed military slaughter by Christian soldiers in his time, and in 1553 had Michael Servetus, a fellow Christian, burned at the stake just outside of Geneva for his “doctrinal heresies”. As I see it, his reformation never went far enough. He preached the way of the cross, but he was far too comfortable with the way of the sword. I was uncomfortable with a church that was comfortable with that.
    For me this goes to the heart of the gospel. We are called to repent, not just of personal sins, but also our public sins. We are called to repent, not just of sex outside of marriage, but also of racism and war. Calvin is too much of an ethical dualist for my liking. I see no family ethics or business ethics, I just see ethics. Calvinist churches, while I respect them in many ways, make me very uncomfortable in other ways.


  3. Isaiah
    That’s a tough question. I have said frequently that its important that we learn the art of respectful disagreement but I agree that with issues like this, which are both highly emotive and Christologically challenging, that is more easily said than done.
    I tend to weigh up how constructive the conversation is likely to be. For example, I find it difficult to raise this issue around army chaplains and other Christians in the military. Its likely to cut deep, so I often refrain unless I have sufficient time to work though what hurts and fears might come up.
    But more often than not, the people I find myself conversing with are more middle of the road. Not pacifists but not “adamant” hawks either. Frequently I find they are open to dialogue because my position raises questions for them, questions they’ve just never really thought about before.
    For those that do have strength of conviction though, I simply say, show me how you ground your pro-war position Christologically and I’m all ears. Because I have yet to have anyone come back to me and seriously attempt that. What I find is that, when they are pressed, it invariably turns out that their position is either grounded in the Old Testament in such a way that the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for social ethics is marginalised, or that their position is grounded in pure pragmatism. More often its a combination of both.
    Consider how that compares to the oft quoted missional formula:
    Christology > missiology > ecclesiology
    What the hawks offer us instead is:
    Old Testament + a dash of expedient “realism” > ecclesiology
    I just can’t swallow it.


  4. Hey Matt,
    Thanks for the extensive reply…I was expecting some sort of email notification of replies, but nothing came through, hence only coming back to it now.
    I am certainly aware that the majority view of the establishment in Syd Ang is reformed (I won’t use the term Calvinist as it tends to be unhelpful), though to be fair, it is a theological viewpoint which is not explicitly pushed for it’s own sake, rather it tends to inform those things which are explicitly taught.
    Honestly I am surprised you seem to be linking the things you have quoted to the current day Sydney Anglican church.
    I have been around Anglican circles for a long time now and what we know in Sydney as Anglican bears little relation to the Church of England, particularly around the issue of state based endorsement. I have never seen anyone in the Syd Ang leadership promoting or defending any sort of church/state relationship. Your argument that a reformed theology doesn’t actively proclude or speak against this sort of thing I think is unfair – I think you are equating reformed theology in general too closely with a particular individual (i.e. John Calvin). Sure he had a big influence, but not all those with a reformed view take on board everything he endorsed…the bible remains the authority, not Calvin’s institutes.
    So I guess my point is, be careful about making sweeping generalisations in this regard, as, while the Church of England quite possibly fits your description, I don’t think the Anglican’s in Sydney could be.


  5. Yet, (he says wryly) although Sydney Anglican leadership are doing their level best to extricate themselves from the wider Anglican communion, at this moment in history they’re still entwined with it.
    More seriously though, please understand, I recognise the high church links to the state are much stronger than the low church links, I know the denomination is not monolithic, nor am I seeking to be overly critical or judgemental here. Take this more as a light nudge. I am simply saying when it comes to state/church alliances, I prefer to allign myself with those who issue the most robust denials. Ironically, this is an issue where I find Calvinists too tollerant.
    As for labels – Calvanism versus Reformed – what I find problematic is the inference that other movements within the Reformation weren’t reformed in their theology.


  6. Hi Matt,
    I have no issue with your particular stance on alignment, but your post inferred, incorrectly in my view, that the Sydney Anglican Church was all for state based association and endorsement. I think this is an impression that your readers should not be left with. And again, don’t interpret silence as approval…there is no need for Anglican’s in Sydney to revile against church/state alignment…there is nothing in our context to revile against!
    For your own situation, there is currently a massive surge of calvinist/reformed (whatever label you wish to use) belief among Baptists in the states, but one could not just presume that this can be applied here locally.
    As for the labels, don’t get too hung up on those…the reformed tag applies pretty widely. It’s really just a junk draw category that pulls in the various streams from the reformation era.


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