Photo: Drew J. Strait addresses incoming students at the Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. Photo by Peter Ringenberg
This article comes from the August issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Why I am an Anabaptist.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.
How did two outsiders to the Mennonite church find their ways as students at the same evangelical seminary to employment at the same Mennonite seminary a decade later? Looking back, it wasn’t a repudiation of our evangelical emphasis on the gospel but an expansion of our understanding of the gospel. As evangelical youth and, later, students at evangelical colleges, our personal relationships with Jesus were everything. But in the wake of America’s preemptive invasion of Iraq, we pondered the limitations of a relationship with Jesus that operated apart from the words and ways of Jesus. As fellow Evangelicals cheered on U.S. military interventions, the tectonic plates of our biblical foundations began to shift. How could Christians celebrate the mutilation of civilians and purported enemies abroad and embrace militarized nationalism while proclaiming Jesus as Lord?
These questions stimulated an awakening, drawing us to Anabaptist authors, Mennonite Church USA congregations and, ultimately, employment at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana. While we remain indebted to our evangelical backgrounds, Anabaptism has cultivated an approach to discipleship that is not just an inward disposition but a total way of life—one in which the gospel is corporate, cosmic and embodied.
One way mainstream Evangelicalism socializes disciples into the gospel is through four spiritual laws formulated by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru). While these laws have helped thousands find Jesus, they suffer from an individualistic approach to faith that is characteristic of white Evangelicalism. Here we offer an Anabaptist spin on these laws to explain how our faith has developed.
Spiritual Law 1 (Creation and Election): God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
We’ve watched with dismay as the same Evangelicals who taught us that humans bear the image of God (Genesis 1:27) repudiate humane immigration policies, the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, advocacy for LGBTQ people and environmental policies that directly affect Indigenous peoples and communities in poverty. In doing so, Evangelicalism has weaponized Scripture as evidence for God’s election of individuals rather than seeing in it God’s corporate election of humanity and creation, which God declares “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If all creation is very good, there is no justification for exclusion and discrimination.
The election of individuals is also read into one of the most cherished verses among Evangelicals: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:11). While this is often appropriated as an individual promise, an Anabaptist reading emphasizes the corporate context of the calling to “seek the welfare [shalom] of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). This is a call to seek the shalom of all, not just a chosen few.
Anabaptist rendering: God loves the world, has a wonderful plan for it and invites people to participate in this plan of bringing it shalom.
Spiritual Law 2 (Sin): Man [sic] is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
An “eternal separation,” “turned back,” “vast chasm,” “closed and locked door”: These were the descriptors that taught us to believe that before we were an object of God’s love we were sinners—objects of God’s wrath. While we affirm the reality of personal sin and the life-giving forgiveness Jesus brings, we reject the atomizing effects of a faith that turns a blind eye to social and structural dimensions of sin.
In Anabaptism, we’ve found a theology that takes seriously “the powers” (Ephesians 2:1–3), those cosmic and daemonic forces that distort our knowledge of God, disorient our relationships with our neighbors and corrupt our care for the earth. In this biblical cosmology, sin is not reduced to a broken relationship with God but includes corporate and earthly dimensions that emerge in systems of domination in service to the power of death.
Anabaptist rendering: Humanity is an object of God’s love that has become enslaved to the powers of sin and death by turning to its own way and rejecting its creational design to live in harmony with God, fellow humans and creation.
Spiritual Law 3 (Salvation): Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s [sic] sin. Through him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
As Evangelicals, we were instilled with a strong sense of the exclusivity of Jesus and his death for salvation. In Anabaptism, we’ve found an expanded understanding of salvation that results not only from Jesus’s death but also from his incarnation, ministry, resurrection and ascension. Through the totality of Jesus’ earthly existence, the powers are unmasked and undone.
This expansive view of salvation includes both forgiveness of sins and liberation from sin and death. It offers not just good news to sinners but also jubilee to people who are poor, oppressed, imprisoned, infirm and in debt (Luke 4:18–19). It can only be received as good news when systems of oppression are dismantled. Here we part ways with our neo-Anabaptist friends who espouse Anabaptist theology but remain largely within white evangelical spaces and often advocate for a “third way” on political issues that amounts to a political neutrality that reinforces the status quo. While we maintain a posture of suspicion toward the state, we see in Jesus a call to those with privilege and power to repent of their complicity by actively taking the side of those who have been marginalized. In so doing, Jesus liberates both sinners and those sinned against.
Anabaptist rendering: Jesus is God’s answer to the powers of sin and death. Through his earthly existence, Jesus brought salvation to the world by conquering the powers and enacting jubilee justice.
Spiritual Law 4 (Discipleship): We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.
There is spiritual danger in reducing the gospel to a passive and inward receipt of Jesus as Lord and Savior in order to find God’s elusive plan for one’s life. In Anabaptism, we’ve discovered a reading of Scripture that foregrounds the teachings of Jesus not as a peripheral set of inward dispositions but as a centering, corporate expression of the inbreaking of God’s just world. Following Jesus is God’s plan for one’s life and means a revolution of the mind (metanoia) regarding power, retaliation, borders and enmity. It means embracing and incarnating an alternative (even counter-imperial) worldview, wherein communities of fellowship participate in God’s all-encompassing love revealed in Jesus and the ways this love disrupts systems of domination and fear of human difference.
Anabaptist rendering: In placing trusting allegiance in Jesus as Savior and Lord, we are invited to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation and to claim as our own Jesus’ pattern of peacemaking as an expression of loving God and neighbor.
As we’ve studied the Christian faith and interacted with fellow spiritual travelers, we’ve discovered that these convictions are not the exclusive right of Anabaptists. Peacemakers and radical disciples dwell among Evangelicals, Mainliners, Catholics, Orthodox and Pentecostals. Yet even as we recognize possibilities for peacemaking across traditions—and even as we acknowledge Mennonites’ historic failures at peacemaking—ultimately our journey into Anabaptism is about more than a set of convictions that can easily become just another set of ethereal platitudes. Rather, among Anabaptist-Mennonites, these spiritual laws are embodied in communities of worship, practice and direct action. This is why we are Anabaptists today.
David C. Cramer is a sessional lecturer in theology and ethics at AMBS and managing editor of the Institute of Mennonite Studies.
Drew J. Strait is assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at AMBS.