26 Anabaptist distinctives

These are distinctives of the three Anabaptist groups that survived the initial period of Anabaptist formation (1525-1575) – The Swiss Brethren, The Dutch-North German Mennonites and the Hutterites.

1. Scripture Alone: Scripture is the supreme authority over the church. Catholic popes, councils or traditions are not the authority. Theologians like Luther or Zwingli are not the authority. City or national governments are not the authority.

2. The Precedence of the New Testament: The Bible is not flat. The teaching of Jesus and the apostles takes precedence over the Law and Prophets. We come to understand the Old Testament through Jesus and the apostles. The Old Testament has the character of promise. The New testament is all about fulfillment. Now that the promises are being fulfilled this should be the primary focus – especially the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount.

3. The Bible is Accessible: The literal meaning of Scripture is available to the common person – Matthew 11:25. Although learning is not bad, there is no need for elitist popes or scholars to dictate to all what the Scriptures teach. On the other hand, all interpreters must rely upon the Spirit and desire to obey the Scriptures to truly understand them. Only these are truly qualified to interpret Scripture.

4. Biblicism: The end of all Bible study is to do what it says. We literally do whatever Jesus and the apostles teach, whatever the consequences.

5. Restorationism: The goal is not so much reform as it is a restoration of the apostolic/New Testament church. It is not enough to take the medieval church and tinker with it (Luther, Zwingli). One must get back past the fall of the church with Constantine and restore the practices of the New Testament church. This is all that is important.

6. Salvation by Grace through Faith: Salvation is a gift of God’s grace, based on what Jesus has done, that must be received by faith. Salvation is not based on deeds we do, religious or otherwise. Anabaptists learned this from Luther. But they emphasized that this grace, if it is real will produce acts of righteousness. Only the one who does the will of the Father in heaven will ultimately be saved – Matthew 7:21.

7. Human Choice: Although all people are sinners, God makes it possible for all to choose to have faith and be saved. Luther’s concept of predestination is  wrong. People do have a choice. God does not predetermine everything. Also Luther’s idea of total depravity is overstated. We are sinful, but by God’s grace we can choose to turn to God.

8. Spirit Regeneration: The one who believes is born of the Spirit. Believers are new creations in Christ and are thus able to do God’s will. We are not simply forgiven sinners, who continue in sin. We are forgiven and transformed by the Spirit so that we can obey God. For Luther God’s grace is best emphasized when we see God as accepting us despite our continued sin. This keeps us from thinking we can earn our salvation. For Anabaptists God’s grace is best emphasized when we see God’s grace powerfully transforming us. All the good we do is a testimony to God’s powerful work in us.

9. Non-Sacramental Ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are simply outward signs of God’s grace working in you by the Spirit. A sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” In Catholic thought the visible sign conveys the invisible grace by the mere performance of the act. There are seven Catholic sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Ordination, Confirmation, Penance, Marriage, and Extreme unction. It is through these acts that God’s grace (salvation) is given to people. For Anabaptists, the two outward signs do not convey the grace. They are a means by which a person testifies to the presence of grace already within them.

10. The Lord’s Supper: This is a memorial of the death of Jesus and is only for baptized believers who are committed to obedience to Jesus. The idea of the supper as a memorial was learned from Zwingli and/or the Dutch Sacramentists. The bread and wine are only bread and wine. They do not change in essence as in Catholicism. They point to the death of Jesus.

11. Believers’ Baptism: According to the New Testament baptism is only for believers. It is the pledge of a believer to live a new life as a part of God’s community. It is about discipleship. Since the water is only water, it does an infant no good. The scriptural pattern is always that faith precedes water baptism. Baptism is like a monastic vow. All who choose it commit to walk according to Jesus’ teaching. It is the beginning of a life of discipleship, set apart from the world.

12. Children are Innocent: On the basis of texts like Matthew 19:14 children should be seen as innocent. There is no need for a sacrament such as infant baptism that can wash away the effects of original sin for them. They are not punished for sin until they come to the age of accountability. Therefore they should wait and be baptized as believers.

13. A Visible Church: The church is not invisible – made up of those with faith in their hearts alone. One’s inner experience of God (if real) will show up in an outward conformity to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Thus the true people of God will be marked by baptism and a godly life. The spiritualists thought that inner spirituality was enough. Anabaptists insisted that the inner and the outer are connected. Real disciples are known by their fruits – Matthew 7:16.

14. Two Kingdoms: The church is a separate social entity from the rest of society which is “the world.” These two kingdoms have different standards. You are either among the people of God or you are a part of the world. There is no neutral ground. The dividing line between these two kingdoms is believer’s baptism. This is a rejection of the Christendom conception of a church that is fused together with the state into one social entity, living by one standard. True disciples who live by the teaching of Jesus will not fit in with the world system around them.

15. Political Nonconformity: Followers of Jesus must be faithful to the teaching of Jesus, even if this brings them into conflict with the political authorities placed over them by God – Acts 5:29. The church is a prophetic voice to the powers that be of the new way of Jesus. It also calls governments to account for their actions of injustice that go against God’s will for governments. This was especially the case when governments persecuted the Anabaptists.

16. Voluntarism: Each person must decide in their conscience what they will believe and should not be persecuted for this. Each person should be able to choose what they believe without coercion or pressure. If someone wants to be baptized, let them choose it. If not, that is their choice.

17. Localism: Each local congregation is qualified and responsible to decide what should be taught in it. They should also call, support and discipline their own pastors. Luther thought that political leaders should decide what the faith of their people would be. Anabaptists taught that each congregation should decide for themselves – not the state or the clergy or the scholars.

18. Community Egalitarianism: Within the congregation there is no sharp difference between leaders and  followers. Anabaptists did not like the Catholic scheme whereby priests are placed on a higher level because they mediate God to the people. They taught that God is no respecter of persons. They had leaders, but they were common people from the congregation who seemed gifted and called to serve the rest.

19. The Ban: When a person breaks their baptismal pledge to follow Jesus the church is to call them to repentance. If they do not repent, they are placed out of the church – Matthew 18:15-20. This is the proper way to purify the church, not persecution and death. The Christendom model either overlooks issues of immorality or it uses the criminal justice system to kill people for matters of faith.

20. Enemy Love: Disciples are literally to love enemies and not to resist evildoers – Matthew 5:38-48. This means that Christians cannot be political leaders or in the military. This separates all disciples from the world system which demands warfare and violence.

21. No Oaths: Disciples are literally not to swear oaths – Matthew 5:33-37. This also meant that Christians could not be a part of much of the civic and economic life of the day which required oaths.

22. Common Goods: Disciples must share what they have with those in the church who have needs. This has more recently been called – “Mutual Aid.” This comes from the teaching of Jesus (Luke 12:33) and from the example of the early church in the book of Acts. Salvation encompasses one’s economic practices. Hutterites went on to say that there could be no private property, but everyone in the congregation must hold all goods literally in common. Other Anabaptists simply held a common treasury, used for those in need in the community.

23. Suffering: Disciples must be prepared to suffer for their faith. The true church is characterized by suffering. Anabaptists experienced this from both Catholics and Protestants. There were thousands of Anabaptist martyrs. This helped spread Anabaptism as others saw that their faith was real. But it also caused great distress and eventually quenched the movement. The leaders were killed and the rest went underground.

24. Mission: The church must spread the gospel and establish communities all throughout the world. Protestants and Catholics felt that the great commission had already been finished. Anabaptists saw all of Christendom as a mission field. They set up extensive itinerate systems for evangelism. They were very successful for a time, threatening to become the dominant group. But intense persecution counteracted this.

25. Non-Speculative Theology: One should accept traditional orthodoxy, but the real business of the church is that of forming disciple communities through catechism that uses biblical categories and terms. Anabaptists used the apostles creed. They were orthodox in their understandings of the Trinity and Christology. (Although some early Dutch Mennonites had a distinctive Christology.)

26. Apocalyptic: Jesus will return at any time to judge the world, and save his own people. The world can be seen in the terms of apocalyptic according to the Anabaptists: the beast and the whore (the persecuting state and the unfaithful church) verses the saints of God. This reinforced their two kingdoms outlook. It also placed their suffering in the wider cosmic context of God’s plan for all of creation.

William S. Higgins – 2003