Church identities, like personal identities, are constructed in present circumstances, out of materials furnished by the past.
Consequently, only to the extent that we know ourselves in a thoroughly historical way, will we be prepared to meet the unknown future with our eyes open.
II. Locating Anabaptism Historically
It is true to say that Anabaptists were neither Catholic nor Protestant.
Nevertheless, Anabaptist spirituality -- its understanding of salvation and the Christian walk -- was fundamentally ascetic and Catholic, and only superficially Protestant.
The deepest, strongest, and richest taproot of Anabaptism found its nourishment in the subsoil of ascetic, Christian spirituality, even though it was fertilized by Luther’s Bible revolution.
The Anabaptists learned to use the Bible as a revolutionary tool, but they read and interpreted the Bible like medieval, ascetic Christians, not like Lutherans justified by faith alone.
Anabaptism was not Protestantism taken to its proper ends, but rather, Protestantized Ascetic Piety.
Since Anabaptism’s spiritual path was the ascetic one from the start, thinking about the future of the Mennonite church should involve understanding, recovering, and learning from the ancient ascetic spiritual traditions of the Christian church -- of which our own is a part.
III. The Anabaptist Spiritual Path
One boundary of the Anabaptist spiritual path was marked by the conviction that Christian believers are brought into being only by the living power of the living God.
The other boundary of the Anabaptist spiritual path was marked by the conviction that those who had experienced inner renewal by the power of the Spirit of the living God, would respond with a new life of obedience and works of love, lived in visible commitment to the body of believers.
In a word, the Anabaptist spiritual path was hedged in by the primary demand for spiritual rebirth, followed by the necessary, but derivative demand for a communal life worthy of those now governed by the living Spirit of God.
The Anabaptists were innovators in the secondary and derivative categories, when they interpreted the requirements of the new life. The Anabaptists were innovators when they baptized adults and formed closed communities of the baptized. But, they certainly were not the first to discover the biblical call for rebirth and discipleship.
The basic shape of the Anabaptist spiritual path was inherited directly from late medieval piety and reaches back through the middle ages to the early church. We read in that literature about the fear of God, repentance, self-emptying, and humility -- about God’s grace and power coming into a yielded heart with the power of regeneration. We read that spiritual rebirth must be followed by a life of discipleship -- following after Christ, living as he lived, in a community of like-minded believers.
The Anabaptist path was forged not just from the Gospels, but was a further development of the Western ascetic understanding of the Christian path. Read Augustine, Cassian, St. Benedict, Peter Waldo, St. Francis, Tauler, a Kempis, and a host of others, and you are reading the shapers of Anabaptist spirituality.
Martin Luther called Anabaptism a new monkery. From his perspective, the statement was a mighty insult. From other perspectives it can be taken as a great compliment, an indication of the continuation in Anabaptism of an ancient and venerable Christian spiritual tradition.
It is my conviction that one important path forward for Mennonites in the next millennium lies in a better understanding of the fundamentals we share with the Western Christian spiritual tradition that long pre-dated the sixteenth century.
IV. The Spiritualist Root of Anabaptism
There would not have been an Anabaptist movement at all if our parents in the faith had not believed that God’s living Spirit was directly informing and impelling them, without any mediation of priests or sacraments.
The Anabaptists were shaped by the powerful spiritualizing current that emerged within late medieval Catholic piety.
It was on the basis of a spiritual baptism that water baptism was carried out; it was on the basis of a spiritual communion that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated; it was only on the basis of a spiritual regeneration of believers by God’s spirit that a communal life of discipleship could be expected. And interpreting and explaining the Word of God was supposed to be the task of who had been equipped by the Spirit of God.
The positive side of this radical spiritualization was the formation of a Believers’ Church, in which each member had been individually called into the Body of Christ by the living Spirit of God.
The negative side of this radical spiritualization of the Christian life was that a millennium of liturgy, ceremony, symbolic language, prayer, and ritual were thrown away as human inventions, not truly biblical, and not necessary for a truly spiritual life.
Radical spiritualism cleared the ground for radical restorationism. The Anabaptists attempted to restore the church to its pristine, New Testamental shape. It was a valiant attempt, but probably a misguided one.
The New Testament church could not then, and cannot now, be restored to its pristine state -- any more than we can force the earth back to the centre of a pre-Copernican solar system. The past can teach us many things, but the march of time does not allow the recreation of golden ages.
It is my conviction that Mennonites in the next millenium will re-discover the spiritual, mediating power of outward symbols, liturgy, ceremony, and worship -- understood and re-interpreted in a Believers’ Church context. A renewed appreciation for our deeper ascetic and spiritual roots will help in this rediscovery.
V. Discipleship: The New Life in Christ
For the Anabaptists, discipleship, or following after Christ in life, was not a negotiable issue. They knew that those who have been reborn by the power of God’s Spirit desire to follow after Christ. Period.
Nevertheless, the early Anabaptists understood what some modern Mennonites have forgotten: Discipleship is only the second, derivative step, not the primary or only step.
True discipleship does not happen by a pure act of the will; true discipleship is not fundamentally a matter of ethics. True discipleship is the visible part of a spiritual condition, the result of God’s grace. True discipleship grows out of a genuine spiritual empowerment.
We are right to worry about the loss of Mennonite discipleship distinctives, such as an erosion of our teachings on peace, non-coercive ways of living, mutual accountability and mutual aid. These outward signs are barometers of our spiritual condition.
However, after almost five centuries of experience, we should admit that we were wrong in concluding that the solution to the problem was to insist on tighter boundaries and better rules.
The cure for under-developed fruit is not a topical ointment applied to the fruit, but rather deep nourishment provided to the roots of the plant. If the plant is healthy, abundant fruit will follow, John 15.
If we care about fruit, we will care about re-learning the spiritual disciplines that lead to a renewed reliance on God and God’s grace.
It is my conviction that Mennonites in the twenty first century will rediscover true discipleship, true community, and true accountability B but only in the same measure as we cultivate and rediscover a vital spiritual relationship with the living God.
There is no doubt that the twenty-first century and the third millennium will see a further erosion of cultural Christianity and Christendom models. As secularization progresses, choosing the Christian way will become the normal way of becoming a Christian, rather than the exception.
In increasingly secularized cultures, Anabaptism offers strong resources for ecumenical dialogue, evangelism, and mutual support in following Jesus. Anabaptist Christians in Great Britain, Africa, and Latin America can already testify that this is true.
Questions of Anabaptist/Mennonite faithfulness in the coming millennium will continue to revolve around the strengths and tensions we inherited from the Christian ascetic tradition that first formed us in the sixteenth century.
The deep spiritual tradition of which we are a part did not begin in the sixteenth century; it is not culture specific or limited to one or two ethnic strands of piety. It is the ancient and universal Christian path of learning to submit to the will of the living God (Gelassenheit), and following after Christ in life (Nachfolge). Walking this path faithfully has provided, and will continue to provide, more than enough agenda for our church.
We have much to learn from the ancient Christian traditions. For centuries they have prayed, meditated, and reflected on the twists and turns of our shared spiritual path. We have much to learn from new Anabaptists world wide, who have set out on this path with new energy and conviction. We have much to learn from open dialogue with all Christian traditions, ascetic or not.
I am convinced that there really is no future for an AAnabaptist Vision@ that is North American, triumphalist, sectarian, and pretends to own the truth. There is no future for an Anabaptist vision that has forgotten how to distinguish fruit from root.
our Anabaptism is alive enough to yield to the leading of God’s Spirit
if our Anabaptism is humble enough to be taught by brothers and sisters world wide
if our Anabaptism is obedient enough to follow
Then the Anabaptist Vision is truly alive and well, and ready to lead us in the new millennium, come what may.