Anabaptism, Ecclesiology and Meaningful Change

There’s lots of different ideas out there about what the Church should look like: indeed, most of the schisms throughout Christian history have occurred, at root, because of differences over ecclesiology.

What role should the Church take in the world?  Paul’s metaphor for the Church is helpful: the Church is the be the physical presence of Christ during His absence.  Our mission in the world around us ought to be the same as Christ’s, who described his purpose thus, quoting Isaiah 61, in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
      because he has anointed me 
      to preach good news to the poor. 
   He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
      and recovery of sight for the blind, 
   to release the oppressed, 
      to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Certainly, then, the Church should be a liberating force in society, releasing prisoners from all kinds of bondage: economic, sociological, psychological, what have you.   But Fin raises a good point: generally this hasn’t been the way things have worked out in Christian history:

i think there’s more than enough evidence to show [Christianity] as system that supports white anglo men. the god of the poor? maybe, but what difference does it make if it doesn’t enact change?

The “Christianizing” of Native Americans during the colonial period, the Crusades, the Inquisition: these are all good examples of Christians oppressing, rather than liberating people, no matter how sincere or insincere our intentions.  But the initial response I have to that kind of argument is that whatever way things might have worked out in practice, slaughtering Muslims in the name of Christendom or burning “heretics” over minor doctrinal issues doesn’t exactly fit the theory.  It’s hard to see how, say, medieval Catholicism or modern evangelicalism got to their current state when the original church looked like Acts chapter 2:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

So wait, who played bass guitar again?  That must’ve been Philip.

But the key thing to note for the Church as far as reversing unjust economic structures is that the early Church shared everything in common, “selling their possessions and goods,” giving “to everyone as he [or she!] had need.”  That’s pretty radical, yeah?  Here the Church, in a small way and yet, I think, in a very big way, overthrew the economic injustices of the day.  But it did so, not in opposition to (like with Marx) or in cooperation with (a la, say, Jerry Falwell) the state, but in a sort of casual disregard for it.

That, I think, is the promise of the Anabaptist idea of the “alternative community” where the power structures of the state are rendered pretty much powerless.  It amounts to practical anarchy in matters of the state.  But the trouble with Anabaptist ecclesiology, I think, is that the “alternative community” is so often rendered meaningless to the society at large.  The Amish, for example, live in Lancaster County in an inspiring and incredible form of Christian community (see, for example, the Amish school shooting of 2006): but you never really hear about it much, do you?  The Anabpatist model misses that element of expansion essential to a true manifestation of Christ in the world.  Remember: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Hmmm . . . tricky.  Is the Church even meant to enact change outside her community?

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2 Responses to Anabaptism, Ecclesiology and Meaningful Change

  1. fin says:

    you are touching on a great question that doesn’t necessarily have to be a christian debacle.
    what you’re talking about is anarchy, albeit a classier, less talked about peter kropotkin variety.
    and that’s totally cool.
    the question now is, what the hell do you do with government?
    do you let it co-opt your ideals? or do you try to do away with it entirely?
    doing away with it entirely puts you in anarchist country, and they’ve been talking about that for centuries. no clear answer there. only fascinating debate.
    can infinite amounts of sub communities exist on the same planet without any federalized system of order?
    god is not an acceptable answer to this question.
    on the other hand, the paris commune isn’t really either.

    i don’t think the church can enact change outside its own community, although that’s only because i haven’t seen it. i maintain that it’s highly unlikely, but i won’t say that it’s impossible.

    • urbanfall says:

      Dude. I’m this close to jumping on the anarchist boat, but more because of people like Jacques Ellul and Leo Tolstoy than Peter Kropotkin.

      As for outside change: What about the Civil Rights Movement? You know, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and such? Granted, it wasn’t an entirely Christian phenomenon, but the motivating force behind the philosophy and strategy of the SCLC and MLK, Jr. was distinctively Christian. I’d argue the same for the abolitionist movement of the 1700s in England, though I can’t make my case quite as extensively. Ditto for the Salvation Army, not to mention the countless other small-time urban relief operations owned and operated by Christians out of Christian convictions.

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