The Anabaptist Vision—Synchro Blog

I’ve reflected a fair bit on the question, “What is the Gospel?” as my church recently went through a series on the topic. One of our aims was to recognize how the good news goes beyond personal salvation - Jesus is Savior and Lord of our whole lives, past, present and future. Inevitably, we talked a lot about discipleship - the gospel of Jesus here and now for us as followers of Jesus. All good stuff I think.

But in the midst of our discussion a challenge arose. The strong emphasis on discipleship, rightly stated I believe, was perceived as a sort-of works-based Christianity. As one person suggested, we risk trading a salvation-only gospel with a discipleship-only gospel.

As a pastor and church aligned with the Anabaptist tradition - a tradition that has always strongly emphasized discipleship - I wasn’t surprised by the critique. But I was troubled.

What if it’s right?

Enter synchro-blog discussion: A group of us are reflecting on an article this week - “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision” - that addresses a challenge in how Anabaptism is communicated and practiced (follow links below). Referring to what’s often called the “Anabaptist Vision”, Stephan Dinteman points out the tendency in Anabaptism to adopt a behavior-based discipleship. Discipleship is one-sided - it’s all about us. Dinteman outlines the problem as follows:
This approach to the Anabaptist vision resulted in generations of students and church leaders learning behavioural aspects of the Christian faith without learning equally well that discipleship is only meaningful and possible because it is an answer to who God is and what God is doing, and without necessarily experiencing what it means to have a life-changing personal friendship with the crucified and risen Jesus.
My first response is one of agreement. We can’t follow Jesus by ourselves, but need the transforming work of God in us and through us - discipleship is only possible because of the power of Christ’s resurrection and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Following Jesus is beyond us.

But I don’t think Dinteman solves the problem completely. We need more than a corrective or balance in emphasis. Dinteman still frames the discussion as two separate categories of life: God’s work and our work. But do we really have to order them as step one and step two? Or God’s work and then our work?

I wonder, can it be both at the same time?

I worry that Dinteman’s critique accepts an overly categorized approach to God, faith, and discipleship. Correct behavior-based discipleship implicit in the Anabaptist Vision? Absolutely! But in the process, we need to realize that following Jesus is far more than a clear ordering of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Anabaptism doesn’t need to be more balanced in a modern 21st Century kind of way. This just accepts a separation of God’s work and our work into nicely ordered categories. But one of the best lessons of Anabaptist history is that faith is never nicely ordered (read Martyrs Mirror). Let’s not forget that.

Dinteman proposes that “the challenge before us now is to experience and name these transcendent works of grace in ways that are authentic and empowering for our times.”

I suggest, then, that an Anabaptism “for our times” requires we move beyond just balancing the dichotomies of God/salvation and discipleship. These shouldn’t be dichotomies. We need to remember that following Jesus is about dynamic participation with God in the world. This dynamic participation accepts that our faith isn’t always nicely ordered - sometimes God acts, other times we act, oftentimes it’s both at the same time. Faith gets worked out in unpredictable and complicated ways - yet ways that are mysteriously powerful and influential in our lives and the world.

As Anabaptists, I hope we never downplay discipleship. But I also hope we don’t simply (or impossibly!) just follow Jesus. The Anabaptist Vision, and even Dinteman’s response, needs the bigger picture of Anabaptist history and biblical faith that gets beyond 20th-Century categories of salvation and discipleship (and all of the baggage that comes with that). 21st Century Anabaptism, therefore, needs to be a big picture Anabaptism - theology, history, church, culture, discipleship all interrelated as we seek to faithfully participate with God in the world.

The Anabaptist Vision—Synchro Bloggers:


Len Hjalmarson said...

We used to frame the dichotomy - which often is a dichotomy in practice - as "decisions or disciples?" But maybe if we reframe conversion as a continuing process, much as the classical monastics did (Benedictine in particular) we can escape that false division...

David Warkentin said...

Yes Len, conversion as a continuing process is far better. Not that we can't have specific steps, ordering, and understanding within that, but that the overall paradigm includes the whole process of faith and life, not specific emphases.

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