One of the unfortunate and lingering effects of the reformation is that we are too easily prone to major on the minors as well as the majors, treating everything as equally important. This necessarily leads to increased schism within the church. As the old saying goes when everything is important, nothing is important. Whether it’s baptism, eucharist, marriage, divorce, same-sex attraction, abortion, Jesus’ divinity, God’s foreknowledge, peace, Just War, Church vs. State, or any number of other issues, we tend to treat everything as equally vital for salvation. If we can’t acknowledge what is of ultimate importance we will never achieve unity. Now, some don’t have a problem with this, but I do. I especially get upset when I hear a Christian leader, particularly one with a large microphone, make schismatic comments that are unnecessary and ultimately untrue. The idea for writing this article was a statement made by Greg Boyd over the summer.
Before I address the issue in earnest, though, let me first say that I like Greg and his church Woodland Hills. He’s a super smart guy who is always pushing the body of Christ to ask itself tough questions. I disagree with some things he says and agree with others. Rarely though does he say something that really makes me mad. This is about one of those things that makes me mad – really mad. Ultimately though this isn’t about Greg, it’s about a point of view.
Woodland Hills is non-denominational, but they trace their lineage back to several streams of thought: Christ as their foundation, Lutheran, Pietist, Charismatic, and the Anabaptist traditions. In a summer sermon series Greg preached on the influence each of these has had on their church. One of the major pieces that Anabaptists bring to the table is the peace position (in contrast to just-war theology) and Greg is very strong in his alignment with this doctrine. Unfortunately, the depth of his allegiance seems to have led him to make a critical error in his understanding of history, which encourages schism within the church.
It may well be asked what the markers of an Anabaptist are and how do we understand them in a historical context? Specifically, how do we identify which Christians were Anabaptist at the time of the reformation? For many the primary marker was a Christian who was and believed in re-baptism (which is where the title “Anabaptist” comes from). Because baptism was seen as a sign of citizenship, being rebaptized was a sign of rebellion. Anabaptists believed that baptism first required a profession of faith and that infant baptism’s were invalid. In contrast, Greg’s definition of anabaptism limits membership to those who held to the peace position and that anyone who didn’t display this particular mark is not an Anabaptist. I suppose that’s one way to look at things, but I’m not convinced its true or helpful. While it is certainly true that a pacifist theology developed within the Anabaptist communities, it cannot be reasonably asserted that it was universally accepted in the beginning.
During his sermon on the Anabaptists, while speaking on the peace position, he seems to imply that all 16th Century Anabaptists have believed and practiced non-violence: “It’s the only tradition without blood on its hands.” His words are included in the wonderful book Naked Anabaptist and go even further: “This [Anabaptism] is the only tradition that consistently refused political power and violence . . . It is the only tradition that isn’t soaked in blood and the only tradition that looks remotely like Jesus” (168).
The historical event he has to get around is the event known as the “Massacre at Munster”. Munster was a town in Germany that was taken over by Anabaptist radicals during the reformation. They were apocalyptic, believing that God’s return was imminent, and the saw Munster as a new Jerusalem. They needed to return Munster to a pure state so that Jesus would return. They imposed harsh Old Testament style laws, even executing people for swearing. And they believed in re-baptism. Most historians I have read and most Anabaptists I have asked about this issue agree that the radicals that took over Munster were indeed Anabaptists, albeit misguided ones. In fact, it seems that the events at Munster were responsible for highlighting the importance of taking the Sermon on the Mount literally and promoted a more rapid adoption of the peace position. So, while those early Anabaptists may not have believed or acted in a way consistent with contemporary Anabaptists, we should see it as an early formative period that led directly to the acceptance of the peace position.
Regardless of how you view Munster, the claim that Anabaptists “don’t have blood on their hands” simply demonstrates an incomplete knowledge of history. On this point I don’t fault Greg, since much of what is shameful about Anabaptist history is not well known. But it has been demonstrated that during World War II, Anabaptists who resided near concentration camps were complicit in the use of slave labour, took no action to oppose what was going on and even served in the S.S. After the war Mennonites who were certified as such by the Mennonite Central Committee were allowed to repatriate to Canada without any vetting as to their wartime activity. This allowed war criminals to enter Canada without any questions being asked. Even after they had been allowed into Canada, their churches failed to impose the ban on these men and seem to have swept it under the carpet.
For anyone to claim that simply being a member of the Anabaptist tradition gives them any moral superiority on the issue of ethics in war time or on violence at all is simply wrong. We are warned against this sort of arrogant talk in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Gospel of Luke 18:9-14:
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I certainly don’t deny that God has and is using Anabaptists to spread the message of peace to the world and most importantly into the church. I praise God for their witness of peace and for every good thing they offer the universal church. But when we put our tradition on a moral pedestal, who are we more like, the Pharisee or the Tax Collector? The real danger here is not the pride or the hypocritical nature of the belief, but rather that it can only lead to schism. It’s putting us in one camp and them in another. It is calling others to repent and acting as if we have nothing similar to repent of. All denominations and churches have warts and they are not all pretty to look at or just minor annoyances. If a Church is not preaching the Gospel, yes, point that out. If there have been errors in church history that have injured our witness, we need to repent of that. It is one history, not a million histories. If you call yourself a Christian you are baptized into the full history of the church, not just the history of your particular denomination. To pretend otherwise is to stick your head in the sand. The church is the church warts and all.
We all have violence in our pasts, we all have blood in our hands. In His high priestly prayer, Jesus’ prayed that his church “may all be one, just as you, Father are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21). We don’t need more schism in the church. The shameful disaster that is the fractured body of Christ is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to others accepting our faith. In an ironic twist, when the radicals took over Munster the Catholics and the Protestants merged their armies to oust the radicals: for a brief moment we united most of the church back together (said very much tongue in cheek). To once gain quote Greg Boyd, he writes “This tradition is a treasure to be cherished” (168). It is indeed, but only if we Anabaptists can rid ourselves of these false notions of history, admit our faults and repent of them, then maybe Anabaptists once again can have a real role in church unity so that we may all be one in Christ. To continue to live in these lies is to damage the very peace witness we claim to uphold as one of our most cherished values.
Resource: Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray (978-0-8361-9517-0)