Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Anabaptists and Evangelicals: The Differences

By Nolan Martin

What are the distinctive beliefs of Anabaptists? The first difference, and perhaps the only difference many Anabaptists would mention, is their belief in nonresistance, which Evangelicals do not hold. 

Although this visible divergence is a significant difference, it springs from deeper doctrinal differences. The most basic of these differences lies in the interpretation of Scripture. Although both groups believe in the authority of Scripture and would even use similar methods to interpret Scripture, Anabaptists approach the Bible with some different presuppositions that lead to vastly different outcomes.

First, an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture is centered on the teachings of Christ and his call to discipleship. The rest of Scripture is then viewed through this lens and interpreted so as not to contradict the teachings of Christ, the head of the church. This produces different conclusions than when interpretation is centered on the writings of Paul as often seen in Evangelical teaching. A Christ-centered interpretation maintains that Christ's teachings can be followed with God's enabling grace and must be followed if an entrance into the kingdom of God is to be gained. A Paul-centered interpretation tends to overemphasize man's sinful nature and makes man utterly helpless in the pursuit of good. Consequently, many of Christ's teachings are considered unattainable in the present. In fact, some who interpret the Bible this way postpone the validity of Jesus' teachings to some future time. God's mercy and forgiveness is emphasized in this system rather than careful obedience.

Second, Anabaptists believe the New Testament takes precedence over the Old Testament. They believe the Old Testament points forward to Christ, whereas the New Testament is the final and ultimate revelation of Christ. On the other hand, many Evangelicals have a "flat Bible," putting the Old and New Testaments on the same level. Except for Jewish ceremonial and dietary laws, Evangelical morality closely resembles Jewish morality. Oaths, accumulation of wealth, participation in war, and divorce and remarriage are acceptable for Evangelicals because they were acceptable in the Old Testament. For the Anabaptists, the New Testament teaching on these issues trumps the Old Testament teaching.

Third, Anabaptists believe the Bible is best interpreted when the believer is committed to obeying it. Early Anabaptists were concerned about how the learned of their day “twisted” the Scriptures to get around the force of a command. Anabaptists today reject the common distinctions made between New Testament commands on the one hand that are binding both in form and spirit upon Christians for all time and those on the other hand that are to be observed only in spirit. Many hold that to the former class belong such items as baptism and communion, whereas to the latter class belong such commands as to greet one another with a holy kiss, to wash one another's feet, and to anoint the sick with oil. Anabaptists hold that these New Testament commands as well as communion and baptism are to be observed by all Christians everywhere until the end of the age. Mennonite theologian J. C. Wenger said, "There is no exegetical consideration against the observance of feet washing, for example, which would not also bear against the observance of baptism."

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