Kurt Willems on the Anabaptist Tradition [Voices from the Branches]

© 2011 , Flickr | CC-BY

Menno Simmons, Anabaptist Reformer © 2011 Skara kommun, Flickr | CC-BY

{This is the fourth installment of a series on Christian traditions called Voices from the Branches–a collection of interviews with pastors, bloggers, and scholars from various traditions. Read more about it here.}

Kurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is the founding pastor of Pangea Communities – a movement of peace, justice, & hope. He is also a graduate student at the University of Washington focusing on early Christianity, Greco-Roman Religions, and Classical Languages. Kurt writes for various print and online publications including his site The Pangea Blog and is also on TwitterFacebook, and Google+. Someday, he hopes to finish his first book project.

Tell us your story. How did you end up in the Anabaptist tradition?

Profile Image Kurt WillemsI was raised “Mennonite.”  Actually, I was originally part of an offshoot group called the Mennonite Brethren (although I’m now licensed as a Brethren in Christ Pastor).  You can read about how the M.B.’s came to be here.  I can trace both sides of my family tree to the MB movement that fled persecution during the late 1800’s.  My Great Grandpa Penner boarded a ship in the dark of night to find a new home that would be hospitable to their way of life.  My Willems side of the family has similar stories.

So, yes, I was raised Mennonite, but here’s where things get interesting… I wasn’t raised Anabaptist.  Two distinctive convictions that shaped the Anabaptist (broad Mennonite tradition from the radical reformation period) way include: 1) nonviolence and 2) suspicion of earthly governments (nationalism).  By the time I was being reared in the church, only a slim minority actually held to these views.  Basically, I grew up in an environment that felt like straight-laced evangelicalism with a unique ethnic culture (Mennonites are known for their food and quilts).

It wasn’t until I started reading books by emerging church types that the question of nonviolence came back to my attention for serious consideration.  Prior to this, I believed that choosing peace was irrational and that just wars were necessary in a fallen world.  Then, I entered seminary (Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary [Mennonite Brethren]) and my initial questions grew legs.  And about 6 years ago, after growing up Mennonite, I embraced the Anabaptist vision of theology.  This view puts Jesus in the center of how we interpret the rest of Scripture and how we understand the full revelation of God.  And within that center we take look to the Sermon on the Mount, believing that discipleship is a radical reorientation of lifestyle.

Now I’m part of a sister denomination called the Brethren in Christ. Check out our denom’s core values! Our church, Pangea Communities, was planted as an expression of the BIC. So, I grew up Mennonite but not Anabaptist.  Now, I’m authentically both.

Give us a brief introduction to the Anabaptist tradition. How did it begin?

An article on Anabaptism on Messiah College’s website says it well: “Anabaptism is a Christian theological tradition that developed during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptists believed that other Protestant reformers (such as Martin Luther) were right in demanding reform of the Roman Catholic Church, but they complained that, in some respects, these reformers had not gone far enough with their demands.”

Some of these demands included things like believers baptism, voluntary church membership (not a member of a church or state due only to an infant baptism), separation of church and state, and nonviolence.

What are the distinguishing doctrines of Anabaptist theology?

Although the answers to this question could be framed in a variety of different ways, I offer one helpful framework – especially for what some my call progressive Anabaptism or neo-Anabaptism.

Below answers the question “What is an Anabaptist?” through the Core Convictions of the Anabaptist Network. This gives a helpful window into our theology. If you want to read an excellent introduction to contemporary Anabaptism (which expounds on these values), check out this accessible book: The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of Radical Faith by Stuart Murray. Core convictions from the book include:

  •  Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
  • Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centered approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  • Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalized Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  • The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
  • Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  • Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
  • Peace is at the heart of the gospel.  As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Tell us about the variations in Anabaptism as far as denominations go.

The Anabaptist movement is connected in many ways.  But unlike many churches that have their roots in Christendom, we Anabaptists are “non-creedal” (at least to a point).  For us, the New Testament and the peace witness of the early church serve as our center.

Because of this, our movements have held many common characteristics such as – believer’s baptism, the priesthood of all believers/the church, nonviolence, interpret Paul through Jesus rather than Jesus through Paul, non-hierarchal leadership, and the kingdom of God as a counterculture – but we’ve never had any authoritative creeds to unite us.  Just shared values.

Today, many Anabaptist groups exist in North America and beyond.  All of them reflect the values listed above (at least in theory), but express them in their own way.  At one extreme you have the Amish.  I’ve never met an Amish person and they are as foreign to my experience as they might be to a Baptist or Methodist.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have some of the major denominations that are united in their activism efforts with the Mennonite Central Committee (our social justice/mission organization).  These denominations include: Mennonite Church USAMennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ.  The broadest group of Anabaptists are relationally connected through the Mennonite World Conference. Several other Anabaptist groups also exist, but I’m not connected to them personally.

Anabaptists put a strong emphasis on community with other believers and separation from evil. Though, they disagree on what this community ought to look like and the extent to which they must separate from evil (cf. Amish vs Mennonite vs Brethren in Christ). As an Anabaptist, how do you envision the ideal community and its relationship with the world?

Wow… heavy question. Briefly, I think for too long Anabaptists took separation to mean seclusion. Many of us, today, are reclaiming the New Testament vision to be countercultural for the sake of the culture. In other words, as we live as alternative to the systems of our culture, within the culture, we may just find that folks come knocking on our door wanting what we have to offer: Jesus! I think the way that this gets expressed practically starts by living out our values in concrete ways. Let’s not just proclaim peace; let’s make peace. Let’s not merely speak out against injustice, but let’s humanize the marginalized. Let’s look like the countercultural movement that Jesus had in mind in the first place. Then, perhaps our “separation” will actually look like a glimpse of God’s Kingdom.

Anabaptists hold that the life and teachings of Jesus have supremacy over the rest of Scripture. What does that mean and why does it matter?

Messiah College professor/author, Dr. Sharon Baker, argues (in Anabaptist fashion) that all of Scripture must be read through the “Jesus lens.” Her overall approach syncs well with my understanding of how Jesus gives us the ultimate lens through which to understand the whole Bible. In Jesus, we see God and how this God reinterprets the Hebraic story through the grid of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

So, Jesus has the ultimate trump card, so to speak. The person/teachings of Jesus are the grid through which we come to understand the full character of Israel’s God. This same Jesus helps us understand the Scriptures. As history notes, where the Reformers read Paul to understand Jesus, the Radical-Reformers (AKA: Anabaptists) read Jesus to understand Paul.

This matters because the life of discipleship matters. Anabaptism wants to emphasize orthopraxy (right “doing”) before orthodoxy (right “knowing”).

What resources would you recommend for getting more acquainted with Anabaptist theology?

I already mentioned The Naked Anabaptist. Here’s some other books written by modern Anabaptist theologians:

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