Who Were (Are) the Anabaptists?

This website is about the Anabaptist faith. But what do I mean by “Anabaptist”? Since the term has been used in many different ways throughout history and today, defining it is a challenge. But I’ll try!

“Anabaptist” or “Anabaptism” can refer to any of the following:

  1. A historical movement that began in the Radical Reformation
  2. The churches that stemmed from that historical movement
  3. People who believe in the ideals of that movement
  4. The culture of the descendants of that movement today
  5. The faith, or view of Christianity, that that movement reawakened

Throughout this website, I employ the term “Anabaptist” to apply to the last definition in this list. I use it to refer to the historic faith that was rediscovered in the Anabaptist movement, not to the movement itself or to the people involved with it. However, in this article, I’ll discuss the other meanings of “Anabaptist” to help give context for that definition.

The Essence of Christianity

The core of the Anabaptist faith is that living as citizens of the Kingdom of God by obeying New Testament commands (like those found in the Sermon on the Mount) is essential to the Christian faith; holding right beliefs is also important, but not as important as holy living. (For scriptural evidence for this, see my article on salvation.)

“Anabaptist” is a Greek word meaning “rebaptizer.” Because the early Anabaptists didn’t consider infant baptism to be a valid baptism, they baptized any new members who had only been baptized as an infant, unless these Christians had already been baptized because their own choice to serve God. They didn’t believe that babies can have faith in God or choose to put on Christ through repentance and baptism. The state churches scoffingly called them “rebaptizers,” and the name stuck, even though not many Anabaptists today have been baptized twice.

I said that Anabaptism is the belief that the New Testament is our rule of life. Dean Taylor, in an Anabaptist Perspectives episode, also suggests that Anabaptism is a hermeneutic (a way of reading Scripture). Anabaptists have turned to Jesus’ example and commands as the center of their faith. We interpret the New Testament in light of what he taught, rather than interpreting the Scriptures through a theology built on Paul’s letters. And why wouldn’t we prefer Christ’s teachings? If the Son of God came to visit us, wouldn’t we hang onto every word he said? In fact, when we look at Scripture through the lens of Jesus, it all makes much more sense as a cohesive whole.

David Bercot has characterized the essence of the pre-Nicene church and of the Anabaptist faith as “an obedient love–faith relationship” with God.1See the home page of thehistoricfaith.com and the courses on that site (which are well worth signing up for!) I think that’s an accurate characterization, though not the only possible characterization, of the faith that Jesus and his apostles taught.

One of the most defining beliefs of Anabaptists is nonresistance, the practice of returning good for evil. Anabaptists were heavily persecuted in their early years, but they did not take up arms against their persecutors; instead, they blessed them. Anabaptists also believed in the doctrine of the two kingdoms, staying separate from earthly governments. Today, Anabaptists typically do not serve in the military and instead endeavor to support their local communities and the needy throughout the world.

Anabaptists in the Past and Present

Before I go on, I should confess that I’m not a historian; in fact, my lowest-graded final paper for any of my college courses was in a history class, as I recall. That’s one reason why my arguments on this blog are built around the voice of Scripture rather than historical theology. However, I’ll try to describe the Anabaptist movement as accurately as my knowledge extends.

Historically, Anabaptists have been (flawed) people who wanted to serve God. Here are some ways that they have sought to live out their faith:

  • Refusing to do violence, even in self-defense or war
  • Not swearing oaths, but instead teaching honesty
  • Refraining from involvement in human governments, but still paying taxes and obeying laws as much as possible
  • Taking care of the poor and sick among them
  • Practicing hospitality and taking care of non-Anabaptists who came to them with needs
  • Trying to keep peace with their neighbors
  • Dressing modestly and living simply, without extra finery
  • An obedient discipleship that transformed their lives to be like Christ

Throughout the years, many people have admired the Anabaptists for these qualities. For example, many Christians and non-Christians alike have a high respect for the Amish. Even though Anabaptists are ordinary people, the qualities I listed are seen as extraordinary, as indeed they are! Only the power of God can transform our hearts to live in this way (although people can try to do these things without following the spirit of the law, which is to love God and one’s neighbor).

However, if you are interested in the Anabaptists, just remember that they are human. Many of them are good-hearted, honest, caring people. Many of them are hospitable, generous, and community-minded. However, some are dishonest or greedy. Some are power-hungry and try to control their church or family. Some commit physical or sexual abuse. Some cover up sins in order to make their church look better. None of this should surprise us. Jesus warned us that there would be weeds among the wheat (in other words, evil people among those who serve him), and that the kingdom of God would attract both good and evil people.2Matthew 13:24-30, 36-33, 47-50 And even the most upright Anabaptists have their shortcomings. No matter where you are, the people around you will be imperfect and flawed, and Anabaptists are no different. But most Anabaptists are trying to live out the faith that the apostles and their ancestors have taught.

Now, Anabaptists today are often tempted to talk about the early Anabaptists as though they were all unified in believing what we hold to be true today. In those days, Anabaptism was not a singular identity. Since the Roman Catholic Church’s authority could no longer be trusted, there was much confusion, and people didn’t know yet what to trust instead. One particularly sad occurrence was the Muensterite rebellion, where a violent apocalyptic cult arose. But even though plenty of early Anabaptists were in the wrong, the consistent legacy that Anabaptism gave the world is one of peaceful obedience to Christ.

In fact, the churches that descended from the early Anabaptists are typically continuing in that lifestyle of peaceful obedience (though, as I said, they are by no means perfect). Such groups include the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, German Baptists, River Brethren, and other churches that have arisen later. Many of these churches continue, at least to a large degree, in the faith of those who went before them.

Are Anabaptists Protestant?

Often the question arises whether the Anabaptists are a Protestant group. They have been called Protestant by historians and especially by Roman Catholics.

Historically, a case could be made that the Anabaptists are a Protestant movement, since they originated in the same conditions that the Protestant reformers did. Anabaptist reformers are typically considered a part of the “Radical Reformation.” Outside of the historical usage, however, I would argue that Anabaptists are not Protestant.

Anabaptists have not typically held to Protestant theology. Perhaps the most central doctrine of Protestantism today is the doctrine of “justification by faith alone,”3See for example Wikipedia, Got Questions, Gospel Coalition) which was developed by Martin Luther and adopted by the major reformers. Many Anabaptists today say that they accept this doctrine. However, functionally, Anabaptist churches have put a fairly low emphasis on doctrinal beliefs (including people’s beliefs about how exactly they are saved) and quite a lot of emphasis on holy living. That does not square with the typical Protestant formulations of the doctrine of faith alone, which I suggest should be dropped, anyway.

In the last hundred years, Anabaptists have started to use Protestant terminology and concepts to explain their faith. That’s because Anabaptists haven’t written much about their own theology in the last few hundred years. Not having a good theological education, they aren’t aware of the serious differences between their beliefs and the standard Protestant beliefs, so they allow themselves to be defined by non-Anabaptist writings and ideas. Although I disagree with this tendency among Anabaptists to turn to Protestant theology, I’m thankful for the continued emphasis on holy living in many Anabaptist churches today. And I intend this website to be a resource for those who want to return to the Anabaptist faith.

“Liberal” vs. “Conservative” Groups

If you spend much time with Anabaptists, you’ll probably hear people use terms like “Liberal Mennonites” or “Conservative Anabaptists.” When the Conservative–Liberal distinction is used of a group, it doesn’t typically indicate their political affiliation. Instead, “conservative” groups are considered to be those who expect their members to conform to a certain set of “church standards,” or practical rules for dress and behavior. “Liberal” groups are considered to be those that don’t consider uniformity of these types to be essential. Their members may dress according to current clothing styles, they may vote, etc. The most liberal churches are similar to Protestant churches except for certain core beliefs, such as pacifism. If you walk into a Mennonite church and everyone is dressed just like they’d be in a Baptist church, you’re probably in a liberal church.

I don’t like the Conservative–Liberal designation, because it is often used disrespectfully. Some churches will pride themselves on being on the conservative end of the spectrum, and you can tell that they would be fine with swapping out the term “conservative” for words like “holy” or “faithful.” Other churches pride themselves on being balanced—neither too liberal nor too conservative. I’m sure there are plenty of churches that pride themselves in being liberal, because they feel that it makes them more culturally relevant.

However, in my experience, most churches of Anabaptist descent that don’t hold to a set of church standards will also tend to relax some New Testament teachings as well, like teachings on divorce, the head covering, and homosexuality. So the conservative churches tend to be the ones that continue to practice the New Testament faith. However, you can’t always trust the designation that one church gives to another church. Some churches will consider other conservative churches to be wildly liberal, maybe only because they allow their members to listen to the radio or use the internet.

I said that many liberal churches no longer hold to all New Testament ethics. However, conservative churches are by no means perfect either. Even though they generally don’t vote or take part in the world’s affairs, many members still think just like the world thinks. Even though they usually practice close community, many members tear down that very community by gossiping. Even though they often support missions abroad, they are rarely successful at converting people in their home neighborhoods. As a member of a conservative Anabaptist church, and as one who is dedicated to the Anabaptist faith, this saddens me. I encourage every Christian to live according to Christ’s teaching, whether they are Anabaptist or not.

Kingdom Christians

In another article, I have defined Kingdom Christianity, which is a group that’s related to the Anabaptists. Those who use the term mean it as an umbrella term for all those who have lived as loyal and obedient citizens of God’s kingdom. They mean the term to include Catholics, Protestants, Waldensians, early Christians, and anyone else who has maintained an obedient love–faith relationship with Christ.

However, one could also describe those who use the term “Kingdom Christian” as a recent subset of the Anabaptist movement. They believe similarly to the Anabaptists and have gained a lot from early Anabaptist teachings, but often Kingdom Christians weren’t raised as Anabaptist. They use the term “Kingdom Christian” because “Anabaptist” feels limiting to them. They value the many Christians who remained true to Anabaptist/Kingdom beliefs throughout history, and don’t want to overemphasize the witness of Anabaptists in particular. I would consider myself a Kingdom Christian as well as an Anabaptist, though I don’t use the term as frequently because it’s not as well-known outside of our communities. I don’t consider the distinctions between the two terms to be hugely important.

Neo-Anabaptists

You might also have run into some public figures who call themselves “Anabaptist,” such as Greg Boyd and Bruxy Cavey. How do they fit into the Anabaptist community? Most people call them and others like them “neo-Anabaptists.” These Christians appreciate the nonresistant teachings of the Anabaptists, as well as the way Anabaptists look to Jesus as our great example for how to live. However, they don’t hold to many of the other distinctively Anabaptist beliefs. For example, they tend to involve themselves heavily in worldly politics and they often reinterpret the New Testament’s sexual ethics.

Rachel Stella helpfully draws out some of the differences between the different Anabaptist groups I’ve mentioned. Though I disagree with her decision to join the Roman Catholic Church (see my critiques of Roman Catholicism), her experiences as a seeker within these movements has helped her to recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

Anabaptism: A New Understanding

In previous years Anabaptists have tended to see themselves as “Mennonite,” “Amish,” “River Brethren,” or whatever the name of their group might be. Today, many are starting to take hold of the term “Anabaptist” to describe their beliefs. That’s because different groups that descended from the early Anabaptists typically hold similar theology and practice.4Though they will practice different specific clothing styles and church government structures. In today’s age of connectivity, the differences between different Anabaptist groups look smaller and smaller. This rediscovered Anabaptist identity, as I have observed it, includes the following:

  • An attempt to center Christian living around Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7)
  • Separation from worldly politics
  • A mission orientation (feeding the poor, aiding refugees, etc.)
  • “Plain” dress (modest traditional clothing), short hair for men, long covered hair for women
  • Following New Testament–based requirements such as male leadership in churches and traditional sexual ethics
  • Adult believer’s baptism
  • Value of close church community
  • In the practice of these things, a felt kinship with or spiritual descent from the early Anabaptists like Menno Simons, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and Conrad Grebel

This list is a short description of the essentially Anabaptist faith that Anabaptists today are defining as “Anabaptism.” So when you hear the word as used (for example) by speakers or writers on Anabaptist Perspectives (a great podcast), that’s what they probably mean.

But Shouldn’t We Just Be Called Christians?

In recent years, I’ve often heard the argument that we shouldn’t call ourselves anything other than “Christians.” Sometimes this comes from a wish to distance ourselves from the imperfections and failures associated with denominational names. And sometimes people feel that these designations are sectarian and that they separate the body of Christ, which should not be divided. And some feel that to name ourselves after a denomination or a movement keeps us from giving our full loyalty to Christ.

I love God’s church. I love Christian unity. When I take communion with my congregation, I love to think of all the lovers of Christ throughout the world who are communing with him and with each other and with us. And I would love to see the barriers to cross-denominational unity broken down. However, I don’t think that using only the term “Christian” to describe ourselves will be very helpful. Here are several reasons:

  1. Our loyalty is only to Christ; thus we are “Christians”; however, that term describes people as unlike each other in belief and practice as the Pope and Kanye West. It is useful to have words to describe the differences between different views of Christianity.
  2. Besides, nobody can help the existence of designations other than that of “Christian,” since other Christians will always find words to describe your view of Christianity. After all, the last major movement that tried to unify Christianity under that name is now called the Restorationist movement. The names of their churches, like “Church of Christ” and “Church of God,” have become names of denominations rather than a rallying point for all Christians.
  3. For many Christian-only people, using the term “Christian” for their beliefs can become a dividing point. Suppose someone asks a Calvinist if they are a Calvinist. “No, I’m just a Christian.” Well, does God predetermine who will be saved and who will be damned? “Oh, yes.” Why do you believe that? “Because I’m a Christian.” This can be very unhelpful, since it risks defining Christianity by our personal beliefs, rather than by our loyalty to Christ.
  4. Basically anyone who is serious about Christianity has some doctrinal beliefs, many of which stem directly from the people who brought them into the faith or from the people whose teachings they listen to. When discussing their beliefs with a person from a different tradition, if they are not aware of the differences between different views of Christianity, their semblance of unity is a poor one based in ignorance of each other’s views. It would be better if they knew more about the different traditions within the Christian faith.

I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to reject denominational designations, but I do think it’s unhelpful. So I’ve chosen to self-describe as an Anabaptist, associating myself with a tradition that encapsulates much of the historic faith.

Does the Anabaptist Faith Matter?

Finally, what is the value of looking into what the Anabaptists believe or used to believe? It’s of no value at all, unless the Anabaptist faith lines up with what the apostles taught. I invite you to read my reasons for believing Anabaptism to be a true representation of the apostolic faith. But while reading those articles, search through the New Testament and compare what I say to what the apostles wrote. I hope that the resulting study can help you find or develop your faith in Christ.

  • 1
    See the home page of thehistoricfaith.com and the courses on that site (which are well worth signing up for!)
  • 2
    Matthew 13:24-30, 36-33, 47-50
  • 3
  • 4
    Though they will practice different specific clothing styles and church government structures.

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