When I first started reading Thompson’s The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ, I thought it was going to be a Neo-Anabaptist book. “Neo-Anabaptist” refers to a movement led by John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, with roots in 16th Century Anabaptist theology.
The Anabaptists arose about the same time as Calvinism and Lutheranism, except they insisted on the separation of church from state, and therefore they rejected infant baptism, insisting on baptism of believers, generally by immersion for remission of sins. And so they re-baptized their converts: “Anabaptist” likely means “re-baptizer.” We can’t say too much about the early Anabaptists because the Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans all persecuted them ruthlessly, and much of their writings and thinking has been lost to history.
Both Churches of Christ and Baptists like to claim Anabaptist roots, and there is some truth to it — although there’s hardly an unbroken line of succession. Rather, Anabaptist thinking on baptism influenced both denominations, but the Baptists descend from the Puritan family tree, while Churches of Christ descend from a mix of Presbyterian and Baptist roots — except for our doctrine of baptism, which is Anabaptist. (This hardly makes it ipso facto wrong.)
Today, in the US, denominations with true Anabaptist roots are the Mennonites, Nazarenes, Evangelical Bible Churches, and the Amish. Yoder was a Mennonite. Hauerwas is a Methodist who attends an Episcopalian congregation, but his theology is very Anabaptist.
“Neo-Anabaptist” refers to the point of view taught by Hauerwas and Yoder, who’ve created a very serious theological framework for certain Anabaptist positions. Historically, Anabaptists have been pacifists (Why fight for a king who is persecuting you?), and they see the decision to be a Christian as, among many other things, political. That is, if you declare Jesus the Christ, you’re declaring your allegiance to him as King, which means you’re declaring that his claim on you is higher than your nation’s claim.
And like Thompson, Hauerwas sees no Christianity separate from the church as a gathered community. That is, the church isn’t the sum of all individual Christians. Rather, Christians are only Christians because they’ve been incorporated into the church (or Kingdom). (This thinking is also found in N. T. Wright, although not nearly as prominently. He comes at it from the meaning of “kingdom” and the OT prophets.)
I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is [mediated] faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church.
So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.’
(emphasis mine; paragraphing of quoted material modified throughout the post the ease Internet reading)
He’s right, isn’t he? Don’t we see our personal relationship with God as much more important than our relationship through the church. We shop for congregations, hoping to find one that suits our personal needs. The needs of the church therefore must bend to the needs of the individual. The church is there to support the individual in his personal relationship with God.
And he’s right that one result is a lack of discipline. That is, church leaders have little real authority because the members see themselves as consumers of religious services, and if the leaders make them unhappy, they’ll just buy their religious services from another congregation down the road. There is little real commitment to the congregation, and hence community formation is very often imaginary.
To me, Hauerwas’s most important book is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, written with William H. Willimon. There he says,
It might be possible for Christians to argue that our ethics are universally applicable, that the way of Jesus makes sense even to those who do not believe that the claim “Jesus Christ is Lord” makes sense. … You do not need a strong community, the church, to support an ethic everyone else already affirms. It might be possible for Christians to take this approach to ethics (indeed many contemporary Christians have), until we collide with a text like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. …
Here is an invitation to a way that strikes hard against what the world already knows, what the world defines as good behavior, what makes sense to everybody. The Sermon, by its announcement and its demands, makes necessary the formation of a colony [a Christian congregation], not because disciples are those who have a need to be different, but because the Sermon, if believed and lived, makes us different, shows us the world to be alien, an odd place where what makes sense to everybody else is revealed to be opposed to what God is doing among us. Jesus was not crucified for saying or doing what made sense to everyone.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 73-74). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.
For the Sermon on the Mount to push a life-style based on the assertion that we merely mortal human beings are to act like God borders on the absurd. How is it possible for human beings who are vulnerable, finite, and mortal to be nonviolent, utterly faithful, and perfect even as God is perfect? What sort of gargantuan ethical heroism would be required to foster such an ethic?
Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 75). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.
The Sermon on the Mount is after something that … most of the modern church, forsook—that is, the formation of a visible, practical, Christian community. Jesus is here teaching his disciples ([Matthew] 5:1-2). Although “the crowds” (5:1) are not excluded from this teaching, since the Teacher has as one of his capacities to invite all people into this Kingdom, here is a sermon for those who hear the summons to become salt and light for the world, for those who want lives by which others will “see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16). By these words we all might become children “of your Father who is in heaven” (5:45).
These are words for the colonists [that is, members of a Christian congregation]. The Sermon is not primarily addressed to individuals, because it is precisely as individuals that we are most apt to fail as Christians. … The Sermon on the Mount does not encourage heroic individualism, it defeats it with its demands that we be perfect even as God is perfect, that we deal with others as God has dealt with us.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 76-77). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.
Christian community, life in the colony, is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about disciplining our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives. In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus.
It is important to recognize that all ethics, even non-Christian ethics, arise out of a tradition [worldview] that depicts the way the world works, what is real, what is worth having, worth believing. Tradition is a function and a product of community. So all ethics, even non-Christian ethics, make sense only when embodied in sets of social practices that constitute a community. Such communities support a sense of right and wrong.
Yet most modern ethics begin from the Enlightenment presupposition of the isolated, heroic self, the allegedly rational individual who stands alone and decides and chooses. The goal of this ethic is to detach the individual from his or her tradition, parents, stories, community, and history, and thereby allow him or her to stand alone, to decide, to choose, and to act alone.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (pp. 78-79). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.
The Sermon implies that it is as isolated individuals that we lack the ethical and theological resources to be faithful disciples. The Christian ethical question is not the conventional Enlightenment question, How in the world can ordinary people like us live a heroic life like that? The question is, What sort of community would be required to support an ethic of nonviolence, marital fidelity, forgiveness, and hope such as the one sketched by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?
Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 80). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.
To get back to our mission: Our first mission is to form a colony of resident aliens — that is, followers of Jesus as King who want to live as Jesus taught — together with others who’ve made the same commitment — all as defined by the Sermon on the Mount (and such parallel passages as Rom 12- 15).
Individual spiritual formation derives from the formational work of the community. I mean, we can’t go the second mile all by ourselves. We can’t refrain from lust if there are no women in our lives. We can’t refuse to judge unless we live with others whom we might be tempted to judge. And so we do this together.
Hence, if we meet each week with our fellow resident aliens to remember the story into which God has saved us — the story of Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and ultimately Jesus — and we take the Eucharist at a common table at which the story is told yet again, we are shaped into the shape of the story. The story of the Bible becomes our framing story, our metanarrative, or as Hauerwas says, our tradition. And it’s within the Eucharistic telling of the story that the Sermon of the Mount and Christian ethics make sense. And only there.