I am not one of those people who says, “I’m not religious, I just love Jesus” or “I don’t belong to any denomination, I’m just a Christian.” Rather, I have sometimes said, “Those who are sure of their unique convictions are often more open to genuine dialogue than those who accept all beliefs as equally valid.” The latter really have little to offer to a dialogue and by accepting everything uncritically they thereby dismiss anyone who has strong convictions.
We all have traditions, backgrounds, biases and peculiar perspectives so we may as well acknowledge them. Perhaps by acknowledging them we will be more open to listen to others from other Christian traditions and even other religions.
I have no problem identifying my theological convictions as Anabaptist or Mennonite, but of course what that means is open to debate. Although Anabaptists were given the derogatory nickname in the 16th century because of their peculiar practice of believers baptism, I propose that it is not necessarily this practice that is at the core of our identity today. The practice of believers baptism in the 16th century was a way to outwardly signify an allegiance to another jurisdiction — the localized rule of Christ — than the Christendom Empire. It was this allegiance to follow Christ in community, not the mere practice of applying water, that was the hallmark of Anabaptism.
How do we best show our allegiance today? What does it mean to be an Anabaptist today? Christendom is in various stages of crumbling in the western world so perhaps we need additional outward markers to identify our loyalty and commitment to the body of Christ rather than the prevailing Empires of militarism, consumerism and tribalism. How do we collectively give witness to our commitment to pacifism, economic justice and inclusivity?
My creative action as a theologian is to reflect on how I teach Anabaptism to an increasingly ecumenical, interdenominational, ambivalent student body. Anabaptists protested the hierarchy of popes and bishops in league with emperors and princes and as a negative result this movement has splintered into dozens of believers church denominations in subsequent centuries, e.g. Mennonites, Baptists, Brethren, Evangelical Free, Pentecostals, Alliance, Vineyard, etc. — not to mention all the independent “nondenominational” churches.
I say in class that I would rather have this mess than a neat and tidy hierarchy of oppression, but at the same time we must consider Christian unity and our collective witness which is just as biblical (John 13:35; 17:20-23) as some of the distinctives [e.g. believers baptism] that have caused our separation from others. I will join with others to work for peace and justice — the hallmarks of the reign of Jesus.
Gareth Brandt is now in his 19th year of cycling to work at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, B.C., where he teaches spiritual formation and Anabaptist theology. He is author of Spirituality With Clothes On: Examining What Makes Us Who We Are and blogs at garethbrandt.wordpress.com, where this post originally appeared.