The Challenge of Anabaptism in the 21st Century

The biggest challenge for any faith is the tendency for it to become just a tradition

 

Video transcript:

RICHARD
So in this video in our series on Anabaptism we’re going to talk about some of the challenges Anabaptism faces in the 21st century, which, at least from what we can foresee, are somewhat different from the challenges of the 16th century.

MAUREEN
The biggest challenge, as for any faith or system of belief, is the tendency for it to become just a tradition, a way of doing things “because that’s the way we’ve always done them” whereas at the beginning it was motivated and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Strictly clinging to a set of rules is never enough. What was once a living, vibrant faith becomes a cultural curiosity that looks nice and quaint from the outside but doesn’t present a challenge to the status quo.

RICHARD
Conversely, abandoning tenets of faith in order to adapt to changing circumstances is dangerous. In a tragic chapter of Mennonite history, during the Nazi era some German Mennonites set aside their commitment to pacifism and separation from the state and instead celebrated German nationalism and took part in violence both within the military and apart from it. Some evidence even implicates some Mennonites of that era in genocide. This didn’t happen overnight. The gradual abandonment of pacifism began with acceptance of self–defense as a legitimate response to violence that was perpetrated against Mennonite communities.

MAUREEN
Another example that’s a little less heavy is the issue of plain dress. The Brethren in Christ, another Anabaptist congregation, used to have a dress code that was meant to give visible evidence of their beliefs and commitment to modesty, simplicity, and nonconformity, similar to the Bruderhof. Beginning in the 1950s, as members of the church became increasingly urbanized and professionalized, standards for plain dress were relaxed and eventually disappeared. While this is not necessarily a bad thing – in the Bruderhof we do have conversations about whether the way we dress is a help or a hindrance in communicating our faith – abandoning plain dress without a deep understanding of why you wore it in the first place is surely a mistake.

RICHARD
Right. Dropping what makes you distinctive just to be “relevant” is risky. That said, change is necessary to remain living and not become an institution. But it has to occur at the promptings of the Spirit. 

MAUREEN
It’s the same Spirit that blows where it wills, and yet comes from an eternal, unchanging source. I don’t see that as a tension. Some changes should – and will – happen naturally as the Spirit finds ways to reach new people in new times. But God’s laws don’t change, in the same way the laws of physics don’t change. And like the laws of physics, they’re not restrictive; they’re foundational.

RICHARD
The other thing I think about is that some of the things about Anabaptism that were extremely controversial and radical at the beginning like adult baptism, rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation, refusal to swear oaths, and so forth are not particularly contentious in the modern era, whereas at the time they were a sharp rebuke to the institutional churches who sought to control people under their jurisdictions. This “otherness” strengthened the identity of the Anabaptist communities who felt called out from the world. In our current era of relatively more religious toleration these profound theological differences with other faiths can be replaced with a false ecumenism that ultimately weakens faith.

MAUREEN
False ecumenism? What’s true ecumenism then?

RICHARD
Well simply being clear about what you believe but trusting that God’s going to sort us all out in the end so we can still be friends.

MAUREEN
Well thanks all for watching. Please remember to subscribe if you haven’t yet and ring the bell to be notified about our next video.