Excerpted from Fire and Spirit, the fourth volume in Inner Land: A Guide into the Heart of the Gospel. The Pentecostal spring of the first Christian church contrasts sharply with the icy rigidity of our Christianity today. Everyone senses that at that time a fresher...
The Anabaptist Tradition
A Living Witness
Forged in the revolutionary tumult of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, the Anabaptist tradition is known less for its preachers than for its martyrs. Indeed, outside the Bible, the most significant text within the Anabaptist tradition is the Martyr’s Mirror. And yet, in the New Testament the word from which we derive “martyr” also carries the connotation of “witness.” The early Anabaptists not only offered their lives for their faith but also, through their lives and speech, provided a witness to a Kingdom that challenges the pretensions of state and empire.
This is not to say that Anabaptists deemphasize the art of sermonizing. For many Anabaptist groups, the title used for a pastor or elder is simply preacher. According to the 1527 Schleitheim Confession, a foundational document for Anabaptists, the role of the pastor is “to read, to admonish and teach, to warn, to discipline, . . . and in all things to see to the care of the body of Christ, in order that it may be built up and developed, and the mouth of the slanderer be stopped.” This was the task Menno Simons assumed for himself as he shepherded the fledgling Anabaptist movement through his itinerant preaching in the first half of the sixteenth century. Known as the “evangelical preacher,” Menno preached a distinctly Christocentric message, adopting as his life motto Paul’s words: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11 NRSV).
Drawing on Menno and other Radical Reformers, twentieth-century Anabaptist historian Harold Bender identified an “Anabaptist Vision” that encompasses three emphases: Christianity as discipleship to Jesus, the church as a “brotherhood” or fellowship of believers, and the Christian ethic as love and nonresistance. This vision still guides Anabaptist preaching, which tends to focus more on the practical aspects of discipleship, community, and peacemaking than on more cerebral or doctrinal aspects of the faith.
Traditional Mennonites, Amish, and other Anabaptist groups are sometimes known as “the quiet in the land” as they focus on discipleship and peacemaking within their own communities and leave state governments to govern as they please. Sermons in these communities are often simple and extempore, as preachers are traditionally selected from within the community and lack formal theological training. But the Anabaptist vision has also influenced some of the most culturally significant, rhetorically eloquent, and prophetically radical preaching in the United States. The great Baptist preacher Walter Rauschenbusch was inspired by his study of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists to spark the social gospel movement in the United States and later to speak out against the United States’ involvement in World War I. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1967 Riverside Church speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” was penned by historian Vincent Harding, an adult convert to the Mennonite faith.
At its best, Anabaptist sermonizing continues to call Christians to simple lives of discipleship, community, and peacemaking, while maintaining a prophetic witness toward societies bent on materialism, individualism, and violence.