The spiritual poverty of the Anabaptist vision

[This post is an engagement with an article by Steve Dintaman, published by the Mennonite Brethren Herald on March 5, 1993.  Steve is currently a professor at Lithuania Christian College.  You can read Steve’s original article here]

In 1942 Harold S. Bender framed  his understanding of the Anabaptist Vision in a lecture that is now a booklet.  Bender defined the Anabaptist approach to Christianity as 1) the Christian life as discipleship, 2) the church as an alternative community, and 3) the practice of non-violence or, in Dintaman’s words, “nonresistant love.”    Few people have had as dramatic an impact in shaping the Anabaptist Vision as Bender.  If you ask older members of the Mennonite congregation in which I serve, they will articulate Anabaptism along the lines of Bender.  The question is, how well have those who have come after stewarded that vision?

Steve Dintaman concludes that they have not stewarded that vision well.  In part because they have lost two of Bender’s unspoken assumptions.

Two unstated assumptions lie behind Bender’s vision: 1) he held firmly to basic evangelical doctrines about the being and work of God in Christ; and 2) he believed and taught that living out the vision was only possible through the indwelling presence of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Without those two beliefs undergirding the Anabaptist vision, the vision provides a thin reading that reduces Christianity to behavior.  The heirs of Bender’s Anabaptist vision, by reducing Christianity to behavior,  tended to exclude God’s agency in Jesus through the Holy Spirit.  Put differently, a thin reading of  the Anabaptist vision is about our work for God.   This is over and againts a thick reading of that vision that is about God’s work and our co-participation in that work through Jesus under the power of the Spirit.

Dintaman points to three effects of this thin reading of the Anabaptist vision.

1) “The vision [as interpreted and applied after Bender] gave us little insight in human behavior.” (italics added)

2) “We are left with an inadequate awareness of the liberating work of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”

3) “We have also been impoverished in our sense of the spiritual presence and power of the risen Christ.”

Practically, this has shown up in Mennonite approaches to peace and justice.  In a Biblical frame, peace and justice is a part of God’s ongoing work of redemption in the world.  It is rooted in the person of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  It is not our work.  It is God’s work.    Yet, within the frame of an Anabaptist vision devoid of the work of God in Christ and absent the power of the Holy Spirit, peace and justice work can devolve into a human enterprise, under human power, with human techniques.  Too often, that has been the legacy of Mennonite academics, which have deeply influenced the ethos of American Mennonite congregations.

A Missional Move

Dintaman, in response, makes what I call a missional move, or a move towards a different way of rooting the work of the church, and thus the work of the disciple of Jesus, within God’s agency.  He says,

I am not calling us to forsake work for social change, but just reminding us that all this is not the gospel!  The good news is not that Jesus has given us peace ideals and we are called to implement them nonviolently.  That would make God passive and us the central actors in the drama of redemption.

While a gracious, loving God does empower us to be ministers of life, there can be no confusion about the fact that the Scriptures proclaim a redemption that is God’s work from beginning to end.

Some things to consider

As a pastor in a Mennonite congregation, I resonate with much of Dintaman’s arguments in this article.  Almost 20 years after the writing of this piece, we still struggle with a strong Christological, ethical teaching, which can lead to a heavy emphasis on human agency and an accompanying guilt when our work doesn’t bear the kind of fruit we are expecting. (see Ron Adams piece on missional language, human agency and Mennonite guilt here).

I, myself, have become aware of the need for a fuller treatment of God’s mission, the work of Christ, and, especially, the work of the Holy Spirit within our midst.  Instead of an ethical frame that demands difficult choices and a strong will, the New Testament – especially Jesus – offers an invitation into a movement he calls the kingdom of God.  The transformation that makes one fit for such entry is a work of God, not a choice of human will.  This means that the kingdom of God isn’t for the strong, self-discipline and strong-willed alone.  It is also for the weak, the broken and those trapped in cycles of addiction, oppression and so on.  In reality, it is the broken and the weak, stripped of allusions of power and position, that are most able to respond fully to the grace offered by Jesus, the transformation accomplished by the Spirit, and the ongoing call to live as co-laborers in bearing witness to the good news of the kingdom of God.

The resurgence of Anabaptism from outside the Mennonite Church and the new vitality experienced by many within the Mennonite Church is fueled, in my opinion, by a rediscovery of what Harold S. Bender assumed, but did not make explicit in the Anabaptist Vision.  While we struggle to make a missional turn, we are still making such a turn.  That turn is not programatic, it is a turn away from human agency towards God’s agency with human co-participation.  It’s a turn that rest in a fuller understanding of the missio dei, the work of the Spirit and the redemptive purposes of God in and through Jesus.  These are things that Bender believed and that his Anabaptist vision rested upon.  They were simply lost in time and are now being rediscovered in ways that are bearing fruit.

May we continue on this journey of discovering the fullness of the kingdom of God and the redemption that is God’s.

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3 thoughts on “The spiritual poverty of the Anabaptist vision

  1. You’ve echoed my thoughts here, Michael. Peace and justice is a good vision, but it is so much noise when absented from the gospel of Christ.

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