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Presbyterian and [Neo-] Anabaptist?

October 11, 2012

One thing I did at the General Assembly of the PCANZ this last week was to take a pamphlet along which I had co-written with Kristin Jack and give out copies to Commissioners. At the Assembly there was a small lunch time gathering of folk who started a Network of Presbyterian Anabaptists set up to discuss the peculiar challenges of living at the interface of the Presbyterian and Anabaptist traditions. Here is the text of that pamphlet.


and [Neo-] Anabaptist?

Do you believe that peacemaking and reconciliation are central to Jesus and to following Jesus? Do you believe that community is more than just a matter of polite conversation following congregational worship?

Perhaps you’re a Neo-Anabaptist in Presbyterian disguise? Read on.


Clearing the way

For many people the term Anabaptist has awkward associations. On the one hand it is sometimes confused with the common garden Baptist. On the other hand, the term can be associated with more exotic images of folk in rural enclaves with long hair, long dresses, 15 children and no internet1. However in more recent years the term has taken on a new lease of life. People and communities around the world, including Presbyterians in Aotearoa, are identifying themselves as Anabaptists.

the dark side of the reformation – many Anabaptists were martyred

We have no desire to form a separate denomination or ‘a new church’. There are Anabaptist Catholics, Anabaptist Pentecostals; Anabaptist Anglicans, and even Anabaptist Baptists! Rather, this is a way of being Presbyterian that seeks to draw upon the best of both traditions. From the Anabaptist tradition: peace making; non-violence; Christian community; discipleship; solidarity with the persecuted and oppressed (rather than the powerful); and a determinedly Christ-centred/gospel centred way of reading the Bible. And from the Presbyterian tradition: a disciplined attention to all of Scripture; a confidence in the sovereignty of God; an egalitarian approach to our common life in the Spirit, and a willingness to engage with the state and wider society (albeit from a significant point of difference).

The ‘Third Way’?

While this may seem at first glance to be a fairly harmless addition to the current collection of fashionable trends available to Christians, such an observation would underestimate the depth of the Anabaptist vision. Many see it as a genuine ‘third way’ – neither protestant nor catholic, neither evangelical nor liberal. But what does this third way consist of?

The Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand describe themselves as people “who share a passion for Jesus, community and reconciliation”. These three commitments flow from the central commitment to Jesus as the revelation and salvation of God. The Anabaptist vision is a distinctive way of seeing Jesus as central to Scripture, to all of life, and indeed to all of creation. TheAnabaptist sees Jesus’ whole life, theology, teaching, example, death and resurrection as a unified whole. It all reveals ‘God in the flesh’, and it is all salvific. This has significant implications for both peace-making and life-in-community.


When Jesus reveals a non-retributive Abba who graciously gives good gifts to the “righteous and unrighteous” alike, and who forgives sins without requiring sacrifices at the temple; and when Jesus teaches not only love of neighbour, but love of enemy and refusal of the sword (Matthew 5:43-48), Anabaptists see this not as quirky, but as normative and integral to Christian discipleship. It is Jesus’ commitment to non-violence, in obedience and imitation of his Father (John 5:19) that leads him to submit to crucifixion by the political and religious powers. Again, Anabapatists see this as normative discipleship – for the New Testament calls us to follow Jesus and do likewise (Matthew 7:21-29; Ephesians 4:31-5:2; Romans 12:16-21). It is through his refusal to fight evil with evil, but rather with love, that Jesus gains victory over sin and death, triumphing over the powers through his death and resurrection.



Jesus forms community with his disciples instructing them to be accountable to one another; to seek reconciliation through the practice of forgiveness; and to discern together the communal shape of their obedience (Matt 18: 15-20). Neo Anabaptists try to take these things seriously. They seek to live in a community of reconciliation where no one is an island and mutual accountability for the sake of reconciliation is learnt in the Spirit of Jesus.


Neo Anabaptists use the phrase ‘a spirituality of discipleship’ to describe their understanding of Christian spirituality. In other words, a Christ centred life does not consist primarily of either devout religiosity or abstract theology, but of the actual following of Jesus and obedience to his teachings day by day. Such discipleship can only be pursued together as we enable one another to live out Christ’s mission in the world (again, the centrality of ‘community’). Contemporary Anabaptist discipleship is marked by the following emphases and convictions:

  1. Jesus is the fullness of God’s self-revelation. Thus it is through Jesus that we read and interpret the Bible and its implications for discipleship. Jesus is the lens through which we read the rest of Scripture and shape our lives (John 1:1-18; Colossians 2:6-10; Hebrews 1:1-9).
  2. Jesus himself, as revealed in the Gospels, is our ultimate guide and reference point; he is the source of our life, lifestyle, faith, understanding of church, and engagement with society (Like 6:46-49).
  3. Christendom (i.e. ‘the Church’ after Emperor Constantine), while contributing much to the spread of our faith, also distorted and underrmined many aspects of Jesus’ Gospel. Now that we find ourselves living in a post-Christendom, post-modern world, the Christendom model is failing badly. By looking to historical movements such as Anabaptism that sought not to buy into the Christendom model, perhaps we can regain those lost aspects and so be better equipped for mission in our present world (Matthew 5:3-10).
  4. The frequent (historic and contemporary) association of the Church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus. Rather, the teachings of Jesus are good news for the poor, powerless and persecuted. Authentic discipleship is more likely to lead us to soidarity with the oppressed than to accommodation with wealth and power (Matthew 5:10-12).
  5. Churches are called to be communities of discipleship, mission, friendship, accountability, shared meals and vibrant worship. We are committed to nurturing such churches/communities where all voices are heard – regardless of age, gender or status. We are committed to relevant evangelism and discipleship, and baptism as a sign of commitment to Jesus and his teachings (Acts chapters 1-28).
  6. Spirituality, discipleship and economics are connected. We are committed to exploring ways of living simply and generously, while caring for creation and seeking justice (Matthew 6:19-34).
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus we are committed to non-violence and peace-making between individuals, churches, communities and nations (Matthew 5:9; 5:38-48).


(the core convictions of the Anabaptist Network of Ireland and Britain,    from ‘The Naked Anabaptist’, Stuart Murray Williams, Herald Press, 2010).


Taking ‘post-Christendom’ to a new level (some historical background to an incomplete project)

It is helpful to see these things in context. The fact that this vision for peacemaking and community is so distinctive is a sad commentary on the history of the church. In forming an alliance with the power of the state (and of the sword) in the 4th century and thus establishing what we call Christendom, the followers of Jesus gave in to the temptation which Jesus had resisted. The logic of ‘an eye for an eye’ was back and soon theologians found ways both to justify war and also to project the same violence and retributive logic onto God. Jesus had to die, they said, not to reconcile us to God and one another (as the New Testament teaches) but to reconcile an angry or offended God to us. God could not, they argued, forgive without retribution. Justice, they believed, must be retributive and the system of exchange (an eye for an eye) must be maintained (contra Jesus’ own life and teaching). Jesus must be punished (or at least give his life into the system of exchange) in order for us to avoid punishment. This was the dominant theology of Christendom in both its Protestant and Catholic forms (since the 11th century and Anselm, but emerging as early as the 5th century). For Presbyterians it is worth noting that John Calvin developed a specifically violent version of this retributive account of salvation. For Calvin and for the evangelical tradition which draws so heavily upon him, God saves us by giving Jesus the death penalty (penal substitution).

Today we live in the ruins of Christendom. Its demise finds us with mixed feelings as a church. Some of us look back in nostalgia for our previous status and power while others seek to respond to a new missional situation. However, the theologies and practices of Christendom live on in us. Within this context a new interest in the Anabaptist tradition is emerging. During the reformation it was the Anabaptist churches who rejected Christendom precisely because they followed Jesus in rejecting the sword2. Of course, the Anabaptist tradition was not always successful in its attempt to be true to these insights3, however their practice and their theology represent for many an incomplete project and a calling which needs to be continued

Anabaptist leader, Dirk , rescues his persecutors

Following Jesus in Mission

Contemporary anabaptist-style theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder emphasise the importance of the visible church in the mission of God. The distinctive life of the body of Christ ‘speaks to’ the world as a strange phenomenon and a foretaste of the world to come. In a post-Christendom context the business of following Christ in his peace-making and in his community-forming work has a distinctively missional character. Thus following Jesus means entering the neighbourhood and seeing it through the eyes of Jesus – eyes that see its victims and share their vulnerability.

Neo Anabaptism in Aotearoa New Zealand

The movement is very new and very small in this country, however we share much in common with the neo-monastic movement and with the missional group, Servants. We have a network called the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ) which exists to promote the vision and support Neo Anabaptist communities downunder. The New Zealand representative on its executive is Bruce Hamill (a Presbyterian Minister in Dunedin), however, there are members in all the main centres and they join together with like-minded people each year for ‘Passionfest’ – a Festival at Ngatiawa, on the KapitiCoast near Wellington. If you are interested in contacting Presbyterian Anabaptists we would be glad to explore these issues further with you.

Contact People: Bruce Hamill, Kristin Jack (Servants)


[1] At the time of the reformation in Europe, a third movement arose that became known as the radical reformation. They sought to place the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, at the forefront of their discipleship. There fore they came to reject the sword, taking oaths, joining the military and practiced adult believers baptism. All of this earned them the wrath of both the magisterial reformers (Calvin, Luther etc) and the Catholics: persecution and martyrdom followed.

[2] In the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 (the most representative statement of 16th century Anabaptist principles) complete renunciation of the sword was regarded as the norm for Christian discipleship.

[3] In 1534 the ‘Munster incident’ occurred, in which an aberrant group of German Anabaptists took up arms to defend the city of Munster from the invading armies of both magisterial reformers and Catholics. After this debacle, the majority of 16th century Anabaptists renounced the use of the sword, believing that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (and Romans 12:14-21) precluded them from using violence.


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