At different times throughout “plain” Anabaptist history, there have been new movements that have had a significant impact on the Anabaptist movement as a whole. Many religious movements gain traction whenever there are significant missing components within a particular segment of the church that truly need addressed, whether spiritual, scriptural, or relational in nature.
Doctrinal statements are written at various times in church history to address heresies that are being promoted in that particular era, sometimes to counter teachings that are considered dangerous or to reflect the church’s theology and worldview.
Anabaptist life and thought is itself a restoration movement within Christian history. The Anabaptist faith tradition has no founding church, institution, or writings that are considered authoritative. The movement is held together by their common ideals and their common way of reading and applying the scriptures. In this article, we will look at movements within and alongside the more traditional wing of the Anabaptist faith tradition and how these movements influenced the Anabaptist movement as a whole.
A history of Anabaptist-adjacent movements
One of the first movements among the Anabaptists was a “restoration” movement led by Jacob Amman. Amman took up the way of Jesus due to the evangelistic efforts of Ulrich Muller and others who brought the Gospel to some “hillbillies” in and around Erlenbach, Switzerland in the mid -1600’s. This evangelistic work was blessed with good success, and within a few decades, 200 last names had been added to the Anabaptist movement. (Many of the last names among Amish and Amish-Mennonites today are the result of this evangelistic effort.) Amman, the most central figure in this movement, believed that social avoidance of excommunicated members was a teaching of the NT and must be practiced by members of the church against the excommunicated. This was the historical practice of Menno Simons and the Dutch Mennonites, which Amman believed was scriptural. Amman believed that only those who were willing to identify with Jesus by being baptized into a pure, disciplined body of believers could be saved. He believed that anyone not willing to take this radical step could not be born of the spirit of God. He also believed that liars should be excommunicated. (e.g. Those who promised civil authorities to leave a canton to avoid further persecution should not go back on their word and return to that canton. If they did, they should be excommunicated.) Amman believed that trends and fashions in personal appearance should not be adopted. And lastly, he believed that the church should practice foot-washing. His rigid stance on these issues resulted in a schism between Amman (and his followers) and the other Swiss Brethren.
In spite of the schism in 1693, the rigid stances of the Amish-Mennonites influenced the plainer segments of Mennonites and continually reminded them of the necessity of separation from the world, and the need for diligent “housekeeping” in the church. Amman and his followers, on the other hand, could have learned more from the Mennonites about being long-suffering and patient.
Today the Old Order offspring of these two sects often live in the same communities and cooperate together in publishing, counseling, business endeavors, and humanitarian aid, but do not work together in church life. Conservative Mennonites and conservative Amish-Mennonites regularly share pulpits and have much more interaction on a church level. A lingering question remains… What if Amman and his followers had taken a more conciliatory approach? Would this have resulted in compromise, or would it have resulted in greater spiritual unity within the plain Anabaptist community?
The next movement that had a significant impact on the Anabaptist movement as a whole was the Pietist movement. This story is told by Robert Friedmann in “Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries”. The Brethren movement, arising out of the Pietistic movement and led by Alexander Mack, took considerable numbers of Mennonites into its constituency. This caused considerable consternation among Mennonites, but eventually the plain descendants of both groups moved more toward each other and today most plain Brethren are considered part of the Anabaptist movement. Old Order Brethren still keep their distance (church wise) from Old Order Mennonites and Amish, but among the more moderate-conservative wings of the Anabaptist movement, there is much back and forth, sharing pulpits, etc.
The Brethren movement reminded Mennonites and Amish that piety is indeed an integral part of the Christian life and that there is a scriptural reason for baptizing someone in a river even if the Mennonites and Amish didn’t do it that way. At the same time, the Brethren could have learned something from the Mennonites about recognizing others who were endeavoring to follow Christ, rather than write them off as unscriptural. A lingering question remains… What if Mack and his followers had taken a less competitive approach? Would this have resulted in compromise, or would it have resulted in greater spiritual unity within the plain Anabaptist community?
The revivalist movement started in the last half of the nineteenth century. By 1920 many Old Mennonite churches had a week of revival or evangelistic meetings each year. This change in church life among plain Mennonites was likely the influence of the second Great Awakening among Protestants during the first half of the nineteenth century and was contemporary with a third (less known) Great Awakening among Protestants. Men such as John Funk (who was converted at a Presbyterian revival meeting and worked under D.L. Moody) along with John S. Coffman attempted spiritual renewal in the church by borrowing from Protestant doctrine and methods. Revivalism was often coupled with activism, mission boards, etc. Objection to “protracted meetings” (in which listeners were subjected to the bombardment of certain ides, the emphasis on using one person/personality to preach the revival messages, and the emotional pressure on people to “receive Jesus yet today”) along with Sunday School, were two of the main reasons for the Old Order Mennonite / Old Mennonite division.
The revival movement reminded Old Orders of the importance of Bible teaching and the need for members of the church to experience the new birth. The revivalists could have listened to the Old Orders and taken a second look at whether the methods they were using were really in harmony with the teachings and example of Jesus. A lingering question remains… What if John Funk and John Coffman had helped churches do better at Bible teaching and fruit inspection rather than copy methods from their Protestant acquaintances? Could they have encouraged greater spirituality and unity within the plain Anabaptist community without wearing “armor” that didn’t fit them as a people?
In the early 1900’s Fundamentalism had a big impact on the Old Mennonite Church and the plainer segments of the Amish-Mennonite and Brethren constituencies. Doctrinal statements were rewritten putting the Bible as the first point on the statements. Non-biblical adjectives were added to describe the origin and authenticity of the Bible. Rigid stances were taken on literalism which affected eschatology, church polity, outward identity, etc. This movement was led by Daniel Kauffman and his associates and seems to have fostered the wide-scale reaction and drift in the Old Mennonite church a few decades later.
The Fundamentalist movement within the conservative Anabaptist constituency encouraged Anabaptists to take the Bible seriously and not be afraid to defend it. The Fundamentalists could have listened better though to the Old Orders who were more inclined to teach and preach extemporaneously, and to avoid forming doctrines that God did not see a need to clarify in the scriptures. A lingering question remains… What if Kauffman and his associates had taken a more humble approach and a less hierarchical approach? What if they had simply addressed the concerns of their day and encouraged regional bishops to address the matters at a more local level? What if the “Fundamentalists” had attempted to follow Christ and read the Bible as the early Anabaptists did, rather than copy the church structures of their Protestant neighbors? Could such an attempt have resulted in greater spiritual unity within the Anabaptist community?
In the 1960’s, the conservative movement began. Conservative Mennonites began withdrawing from Old Mennonite conferences to form new fellowships and conferences that functioned similarly to how plainer Mennonite churches functioned during the first half of the 20th century. A significant portion of this movement was also focused on “non-conference” ideology (congregational autonomy vs. strong central conference structure). However, this movement set in motion a sectarian and schismatic rubric that continues until the present, though the offspring of those who created these schisms are much more comfortable associating across sect boundaries (within the Plain spectrum) as compared to their grandparents.
This movement which opposed worldliness reminded compromising Anabaptists of their willingness to adapt to the world. However, they could have learned from other Anabaptists who were committed to New Testament practice, but were not willing to impose unnecessary burdens on folks who were coming to God. They could have learned that no amount of legislation can change a cold heart to a soft one. A lingering question remains… What if the “conservatives” had attempted to follow Christ and read the Bible as the early Anabaptists did, rather than adopt church polity that would have been foreign concepts to the early Anabaptists? Could an attempt at following Christ like their Anabaptist forefathers resulted in greater spiritual unity within the plain Anabaptist community?
In the 1980’s, the “Charity” or “Remnant” movement began. This movement was a combination of Revivalist, Fundamentalist, and Anabaptist ideologies. Much emphasis was placed on a definite, radical new birth experience. Patriarchal authority structures were encouraged. Revival style preaching was generally considered Holy Spirit endued. Simple, radical living was encouraged. Churches that needed “standards” to keep their people in line were considered spiritually dead. “Charity folk” encouraged traditional Anabaptists to leave their congregations and often encouraged rebaptism in a “Charity” church. From the new movement’s perspective, anyone willing to leave traditional Anabaptist churches to join the “Charity” churches were brave and doing the right thing. After about 20 years, the movement began experiencing a widespread loss of members and offspring to Evangelical churches, antinomianism, and hedonism. In recent years, the plain descendants of the Charity “founders” have become more willing to acknowledge the good that can be found in traditional Anabaptist settings and work together for the good of the church. The Charity movement again reminded traditional Anabaptists that there should be evidence of the new birth before baptism and reminded them that some church customs had developed over the centuries that were really a great burden on those who are coming to God. However, the Charity folk could have learned something from traditional Anabaptists about “plural ministry” and what will happen if too much Protestant theology is incorporated into a community. A lingering question remains… What if the Charity folks had taken a less competitive approach? Would this have resulted in compromise, or would it have resulted in greater spiritual unity among kingdom Christians, of which traditional Anabaptists make up the greatest percentage?
In the early 21st century the kingdom Christian movement began. The term “kingdom Christian” became popularized through the writings and teachings of people such as David Bercot, John D. Martin, Dean Taylor and through a gathering called Kingdom Fellowship Weekend. This included an emphasis on early Christian beliefs and practices as described in the ante-Nicene writings as well as a recapturing of the vision of the early Anabaptists. Originally the term was used to include all Christian groups that practiced separation from the world, modest dress, no divorce and remarriage, non-resistance, etc. In the early days of the movement, emphasis was placed on teaching and living the commands of Christ and the Apostles. Fundamentalism was not as popular in the Kingdom Christian movement as in the Charity movement. Later the movement rallied around themes found in resources offered by Scroll Publishing. By 2020, the term “kingdom Christian” had in some places evolved into a proper noun that described individuals who were willing to break away from more traditional Anabaptist churches and practices. Some common emphases among Kingdom Christians are: baptism for the remission of sins, weekly communion, a more dynamic view of the Eucharist, religious activism, and the value of post-secondary education. “Extra-biblical” standards are viewed as a hindrance to spiritual living, and the importance of distinctive attire is minimized. (These emphases were not highlighted by the names mentioned above.) Unlike the early Charity movement, the Kingdom Christian movement adopted more trendy attire in order to avoid looking old-fashioned or frumpy. Like the other movements, individuals who feel a lack in their more traditional Anabaptist settings are encouraged to leave those settings and become part of a church that is more real, more authentic, and more scriptural.
Like earlier movements, many Kingdom Christians see little value in learning from or teaming with traditional Anabaptists. In many congregations, the emphasis on religious activism has resulted in poor shepherding among new believers and among Christians from other areas who move into the area to be part of the church. If the past is any indication of the future, a time will come when the more progressive folks within this movement will continue on to wherever they are going and the plainer kingdom Christians will find themselves cooperating more with traditional Anabaptists.
Kingdom Christians are a reminder to traditional Anabaptists that spirituality and a New Testament vision for the church cannot be passed on from one generation to the next without the aid of the Holy Spirit. Institutions become lethargic and off-balanced whenever they attempt to maintain “the faith” rather than make the necessary adjustments that the Holy Spirit would like them to make. At the same time, Kingdom Christians could be learning from traditional Anabaptists about how to shepherd the flock, how to benefit from other kingdom Christians, and how to live humbly before God and the world.
Moving forward with “Kingdom Christianity”
The question remains… What if Kingdom Christians would take a less competitive approach? Would this result in compromise, or would it result in greater spiritual unity among kingdom Christians (of which traditional Anabaptists make up the greatest percentage)?
The snapshots above raise some questions… Do we wait on movements to come along and show us what we lack, or could there be a renewal movement that runs through both the traditional Anabaptist communities and the present Kingdom Christian communities? Could the renewal movement happen by intention? Could the traditionalists and Kingdom Christians work together at identifying weaknesses in each other’s camps, rather than set themselves up as competitors?
What if a new movement in the next couple decades would give attention to the following?
- A movement that gives consideration to the strengths of previous movements and identifies the weaknesses of the previous movements.
- A movement centered around values and principles rather than personalities. (Most movements are centered around personalities.)
- A movement centered on identifying complementary principles/values, instead of reacting to what is over-emphasized or skewed in other churches.
- A movement that happens across the kingdom Christian spectrum, both within traditional Anabaptist settings as well as in renewal groups existing alongside traditional Anabaptist life and thought.
- A movement that encourages motivated individuals within traditional Anabaptist settings to “hold fast and strengthen the things which remain” and “exhort one another daily”, rather than be encouraged to join a church that is more “more spiritual”, “more biblical”, more “community focused”, etc. (This does not mean that persons should be held captive in their home churches but rather that they are not viewed as being more spiritual, more scriptural, etc. if they are willing to leave such churches. The letters to the churches in Revelation do not picture those who pull out of their churches as being more spiritual.)
- A movement that focuses on making the local church a representation of the local population. A focus on church growth and church planting efforts among the lost, the unchurched, and the less churched. (Rather than bringing people together from other localities who seem to have a similar ideology and are looking for a similar church experience.) Many of the movements mentioned earlier in this article built their momentum by welcoming people from more traditional Anabaptist churches to leave their churches and join a church that is part of the new movement.
- A movement in which the proponents are up front about their goals and what they hope to avoid. (In the past, movements have tended to do one of the following: Subtly push their ideas into traditional Anabaptist communities, force their ideas on traditional Anabaptist communities or start a competitive constituency that takes the Anabaptist community by surprise.)
- A movement that values the contribution of other pilgrim churches and does not view itself as superior or the “always better alternative”. (When a movement views itself as such, anyone coming their way is making a good choice, and anyone who questions some aspects of the church is viewed as not having good judgment. There is no need for communication with other pilgrim minded churches.”)
- A movement that values humility (a traditional Anabaptist concept) as opposed to arrogance (a traditional characteristic of new movements).
- A movement that seeks to grow better “forage” both in traditional Anabaptist settings and also other kingdom Christian churches.
Helping churches grow greener grass
One of the biggest temptations for churches who want to grow the church from more than just their posterity is to grow their church with transfers from other churches. What if Christians today would follow the example of the Apostle Paul who disciple Onesimus, sent him back to his master, and then gave Philemon some suggestions for growing “better forage”?
Ever since I was a youth, the idea of “sheep stealing” didn’t seem right to me. And now 30 years later, the burden has grown even stronger. Recently I discovered a book with this title, Stealing Sheep: The Church’s Hidden Problems with Transfer Growth by William Chadwick, published in 2001. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in growing their church. Its message is still timely.
It is typical for most Christians to gladly receive members from other church communities. Churches take it as a compliment that someone else wants what they have to offer. This is especially true if the sheep would be a real asset in the pasture in which they hope to relocate. The unspoken thought is, “Anyone who wants to join our church is making a good choice.”
However, if someone leaves their church for another church, the same folks are quick to point out the wrong motives or the shortcomings of the ones who are leaving. Some churches will at least check with the former congregation to see if there is any reason why they should not take the folks in as members, but the default pattern is to still take them in as members rather than find a way to help them flourish in their home church.
Those who find everything they were looking for in the new church are likely to think of their new church as providing a complete diet for the sheep and view the churches they left as providing a meager diet. Such persons will often defend their new church and be blind to weaknesses in their new church. They can be confused or surprised whenever someone from the church they joined does not find the “forage” of the church to be a sufficient spiritual diet. It is hard for them to imagine that their church is somehow not providing a complete diet for the sheep.
It is rare for a church to have a vision for helping neighboring churches grow the kind of “forage” that will keep the sheep satisfied and content.
A few years ago I met with a pastor in Utah who had quit being a pastor to start an organization called Standing Together. There are only a few Evangelical churches in Utah and there are thousands of Mormon congregations. Mormons have about 3 congregations per square mile. When my pastor friend who was formerly a Mormon would try to promote Christianity as understood by Evangelicals, the Mormons would say, “But you are always splitting and splintering. We are unified!” So he started an organization called Standing Together to unify the Protestant churches. The pastors meet once a month to pray and build relationships. As they converse with each other, pastors will often inform each other of sheep who are attending their congregation who formerly attended the other pastor’s congregation. These pastors work together (across denominational lines) to help each other grow better grass for their sheep.
I would love to see a similar kind of respect and care between traditional Anabaptists and other kingdom Christian communities.