One of the highlights of my role as Executive Director of Mennonite Church Canada is the annual marathon of attending Area Church Assemblies. I enjoy this opportunity of connecting with individuals and congregations across Canada. I always am enriched by the conversations.
During one of the congregational visits this winter I was asked by a person new to the Mennonite church why we are known as “Anabaptists”. It seemed to be a term that implies being against baptism. I explained the origin of the term as a derogatory term given by opponents of the 16th century radical reformation movement. The explanation did not satisfy. To be identified as a negative movement seemed unhelpful.
Others in the conversation agreed. Some suggested we might be better associated with being against other things, such as greed or war. “We should have ‘ana services’ to discern the things we are really against”, someone suggested.
This has prompted some thinking for me. Why have we continued to accept a label developed by historical opponents? What term would we suggest to define the radical reformation movement?
The Greek meaning of Anabaptism is more accurately associated with re-immersed or rebaptism. However, the act of rebaptism was an affront to the 16th century church and the state. Rebaptism was viewed as a negative practice and was not supported.
Maybe we should be identified as “Levobaptists”- a movement that supports the practice of baptism. The Latin term ‘levo’ means “support”. Leaders of the historical 16th century movement placed high value on baptism. Their issue was not baptism but that baptism was being conducted for the wrong reason. Because the church and state were one, baptism was legally linked with Swiss citizenship. Baptism was a way for the government (and church) of the day to keep tabs on its citizens. For the originators of the 16th century movement, baptism was a spiritual designation, not a political one. They wanted to be baptized to become disciples of Jesus Christ.
It is not practical to envision renaming a historical movement. However the discussion does generate a conversation of identity. What should be the defining characteristics of our family of faith? What are the values that define us?
Our current Anabaptist context is one of attraction. Young church leaders are rediscovering the richness of historical Anabaptism. This may not be a time to rename the movement, but it might be timely to identify the key elements we consider foundational in defining the movement. This seems as important when people are being attracted to Anabaptism as it is when opponents are reacting to it.