I went into seminary an Anabaptist, and came out a better one
A word of thanks
My diploma just came in the mail, so I had a moment to feel grateful again for the opportunity and the special dispensation my church provided me to study in seminary and earn a Masters of Divinity (what a grandiose title). I just want to note that it was a significant time commitment, and for a dude with a young family and church, it added more demand on me and it required a lot from my family and team. So I’m thankful for them too. Someone asked me recently, since I’ve been pastoring for over eight years, if it was time for a sabbatical for me. I thought, I just spent five years studying in school—that is like a sabbatical!
And it was a blessing. It was a deepening experience. Fun, stimulating, and challenging, I came out more learned, more centered, and also more grounded in the practice of being a pastor. I actually think that the MDiv degree, which is much maligned because of how extensive it is, is great for pastors specifically because of how broad it is. And I want to add that I loved Palmer’s program in general; and it was an honor to be taught by my professors, and notable that many of them were people of color and women (in fact, nearly all of my Bible teachers were women).
Anabaptists are simple
I entered seminary a committed Anabaptist, and after traveling through the world and history of Christianity, I’m proud to report that I’m still an Anabaptist. So after seminary, I’m still holding on to Circle of Hope’s rooted Anabaptism. I didn’t find a better alternative. And notably, I didn’t lose my faith! Both of those things happen all the time in seminary.
In my experience with seminarians, they generally fall off the edge of faith as they encounter ideas that deconstruct their own. Or they cling to a sort of fundamentalist allegiance to “Orthodox” thought, largely from the Patristic Period (Early Church Fathers, that is to say). They become obsessed with proper doctrine or abandon it altogether. I think for those of us who grew up evangelical, a notoriously low church tradition, fall in love with high church doctrine and liturgy. I appreciate that reverence, but it rarely moves me. I love the drama of it, but that isn’t where I feel most intimate and connected with God.
Drama aside, though, the church apparatus and structure, has generally made me feel isolated from God. The priest-class, armed with their proper doctrine and creeds, give me access to God through them. That sort of hierarchy makes some sense in early Christianity, but less so when we’ve established ourselves. Early on, it made sense to create some order and boundaries with a fledgling faith movement, but cementing it too much resulted in the imperial church, which Anabaptists corrected by their own radical reformation.
The resulting faith movement was far more communitarian and approachable, if you ask me. It fit right into my understanding of the world. I think it is much more incarnational and much closer to Jesus. Our obsession with being reverent and fearful of debasing God actually undoes the fact that God self-debased, you might say, to be incarnate among us.
Our simpleness is also en vogue at the present moment, because we’ve seen how distrastrous and wonton greed can be: for our souls, for the poor, and for the environment. Material simplicity has been elemental to Anabaptism, and also to Circle of Hope. This has served us in a variety of ways. We continue to share generously, but not to serve a budget of excess. Rather, we share in common in order to share with those in need. We are sort of “distributists,” if you will. The “rule” to our economics is simplicity.
However, going back to the early church, which is appealing to many seminarians, much of its doctrine and creeds was done in service to their time and place. The process of coming together to decide and agree is really what I take from the early church councils, more than the doctrinal specifics that are a little harder to apply here. Most of us don’t think in Greek ontological terms or in Aristotelian metaphysics, so I’m not sure why we would adopt that language as the forefront of our Gospel message to the world.
Believe it or not, the simple speech of Anabaptists, but also their ability to adapt to new environments is one think I find appealing about them. In fact, the Brethren in Christ, our Anabaptist denomination, has adapted (and yes overadapted) to many different occasions, borrowing from the Wesleyans and also the Evangelicals (and now, if you look to the Southeastern U.S., Pentecostals). This ability to adapt is excellent application of the early church’s adaptation to Greek culture, and though it has a weakness (sometimes our generous nature means that we lose some of our character), I think it is generally a strength and I want to mimic it. The BIC actually did this, in the last century, when they decided to move from ‘simple dress’ to clothing regular people wear, and they did so in service of the Gospel and the Great Commission. That is a great reason to adapt. The denomination has even more adaptation in its future, I suspect.
But Anabaptists don’t try to have every answer to every question. And so we suffer some risk in being too easily influenced by movements that fill in the blank. Sometimes we are too influenced by one movement or another (fundamentalist Calvinism comes to mind), so we need to be cautious that our doctrine which seeks to hold us together, doesn’t get commandeered by people with more assertive movements.
Anabaptists aren’t concerned with power or position
For me, another appealing thing about Anabaptism is the radical mutuality and humility of the church. We often have pastors, but we don’t necessarily see the “office” very highly. Everyone can do everything. When the reformers talked about the “priesthood of all believers,” Anabaptists actually applied it. We thought anyone could be a pastor and a leader, and often in our history, we drew straws to see who leads us. In Circle of Hope, we usually have called pastors from among our congregations, but as you can tell, I had no “formal training,” prior to being apprenticed by a team of pastors. This degree is just the cherry on top. We don't need to prove ourselves to an outdated bureaucracy in order to serve. We disciple each other in community, not through procedure. And we don't think we are more qualified just because we have a degree or a special title. No moral or intellectual superiority here. Good riddance!
We can do that because we don’t have doctrine that was developed in universities and cathedrals. It was developed on a farm, in community. That doesn’t mean it lacks substance, but it is simple enough for most people to understand. We take Jesus’ words seriously and literally, so we actually love our enemies; so we advocate for nonviolence and peaceful ends. That peace position also makes us relate to the state prophetically, but also at a distance. Many Anabaptists today don’t serve in public office or the military, and they don’t vote. Some do, like myself, but we do it with some trepidation and struggle because we know we are empowering a violent system.
We aren’t too concerned with worldly power, and I think this is noteworthy specifically because the world right now is in a major power struggle. Right now, the message to us is that the path to equality is through creating new power structures (ones that compete with existing ones), but Anabaptists are more about leveling the ones that exist. Thus, Anabaptists need to learn to see power structures and not just resort to “quietism.”
The sacrament is the Body (that's you)
Our adaptable, simple, and common church, as I mentioned above, does lack some of the priestly and liturgical drama of some mainline or high churches. And I know some folks miss that. So we, at Circle of Hope, use the church calendar to guide us through Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. We observe communion every Sunday during Lent, and quarterly at the Love Feast. Our expressions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are symbolic, but that doesn’t mean we revere them less.
However, the “sacrament” is still with us. It is in the body. It is in the community. We literally think the Body of Christ is the church. That we are the ones through whom Christ’s grace and love is administered. Jesus is known through our community and our life together. More than anything, I know you’ll get to know Jesus best, because you participated and joined a community. That’s where the heart of the church is. Not trapped in a building, or in an office, or a position, or a power structure. The church is people: that’s Anabaptism. I’m glad seminary kept me one, and made be a better one at that.