Were Anabaptists Always Pacifists?

In my last post, I explored my own journey towards peace theology. Over the years, I have processed through what I perceived to be the Anabaptist commitment to peace. It is true that most Anabaptists espouse the value of peace today, but I had to keep asking the question: “Has it always been this way?”

In several circles I have come across, I have found some people act as though peace was a central tenant of the early Anabaptist movement – the radical reformation. I have to argue slightly differently, in saying that peace was not the central tenant, but the result of several other significant convictions. More than anything, I understand that the early Anabaptists were committed to the citizenship of the kingdom of God before citizenship to a kingdom of this earth. This idea was manifest in an opposition to infant baptism and a strong conviction in believer’s baptism.

Believer’s baptism had significant implication in the societies of Europe. As reformers had begun to topple the corrupt governments run by the Roman Catholic Church, many of them also fell into the snares of worldly power. Christening and infant baptism still allowed a great deal of control for the leaders of the church and the government. Radical reformers that practiced believer’s baptism not only rebelled against the religious infrastructure, but also the government system. Reformation churches that now had governmental power could have likely feared a new revolution that would soon put them out of power. Also, the children of Anabaptists were believed to be damned if they were not baptized, just as any other child who was not baptized would be damned. At the core of this issue was both a power struggle and a theological challenge.

As the early Anabaptists began to aggressively pursue their theological convictions, many – if not all – of them faced significant persecution from the reformed churches of Europe. This is the moment when many of them began taking on a pacifist approach to life. It is very important to put re-baptism as the central goal of the Anabaptists rather than just a goal to overthrow the church-government system. The goal of the Anabaptists was to pursue this conviction of believer’s baptism without mandating a governmental change. In Anabaptist historical studies, some scholars have tried to indicate that the earliest Anabaptists were the Munsterites (a group of militant reformers seeking to overthrow the governments in Germany, who aided the start of the German Peasants’ War.) The Munsterites were focused on economic reforms to help the lower class because they believed that the reformation had not gone far enough in reforming the class-system of the era. However, I think it’s a stretch to call them Anabaptist based on one simple reason – they never espoused re-baptism… ana-baptism. Therefore, we can assume that they might have influenced the early Swiss Anabaptist, but they certainly were not Anabaptists.

The early Swiss Anabaptists were led by several influential individuals, but ultimately it was Conrad Grebel who led the charge when he refused to have his infant daughter baptized. After a standoff in 1525 with Zwingli over infant baptism (that Grebel lost), he made a decision to be re-baptized with his confession of faith as a believer. It wasn’t until almost two years later that an Anabaptist leader, Michael Statler and several others wrote the Schleitheim Confession. One of the seven articles mentioned pacifism:

Violence must not be used in any circumstance. The way of nonviolence is patterned after the example of Christ who never exhibited violence in the face of persecution or as a punishment for sin. A Christian should not pass judgment in worldly disputes. It is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate; a magistrate acts according to the rules of the world, not according to the rules of heaven; their weapons are worldly, but the weapons of a Christian are spiritual.”

It is in this document that we can see that the early Anabaptists very quickly discovered a commitment to peace as they interpreted from the Gospels in the New Testament. Their initial goal was not to promote pacifism as a priority, but amidst their persecution they sought to follow the example of Christ.

With all of this in mind, Anabaptists today need to remember that our central call is not to peacemaking, but rather the kingdom of God (of which peacemaking is just one piece.) The early Anabaptists put a high value on non-resistance, but after several other key convictions – believer’s baptism being the greatest. In this same vein, we have to remember that our first call is to make disciples and our commitment to peace should be our defense (or lack thereof) against those who persecute us. It’s important for us to uphold a commitment to peace, so long as we don’t forget the reason we hold to this value – because Jesus calls us to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) of a kingdom that is not of this world (John 18:36).

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