Mennonite but not Anabaptist
A call to end ‘cannibalism’ in Mennonite churchesby Chad S. Mason
This [article] excludes all infant baptism, the highest and chief abomination of the pope.—Article I, Schleitheim Confession (1527)
Baptism is the basic sacrament of initiation, in which a new relationship is established between the candidate and the Church. The candidate formally embarks on the way to discipleship, and the community commits itself to guide the candidate in the following of Christ.—Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. (1986)
The members of a rural Mennonite congregation stared at me with a peaceful but quizzical silence. They were gracious and hospitable people and were giving me the benefit of the doubt. Drawing from an obscure line by Stanley Hauerwas, I had suggested that “infant baptism can only be practiced with integrity by communities like the Mennonites.” Seeing their reaction, I assured them that in my own Mennonite congregation we do not practice infant baptism, since we believe it to be an inferior practice to convert baptism, but we do honor infant baptisms performed elsewhere. They remained gracious but still apparently unsettled, and I feared I might be lousing up my appearance as a guest preacher.
Their meetinghouse rests quietly on the broad alluvial valley of a winding, sluggish river in southeastern Iowa, where the soil is rich and dark. On a calm summer day you can almost hear the corn growing, and your listening is as likely to be interrupted by the clomping of a horse-drawn carriage as by the sound of automobiles.
This valley has been the home of Amish and Mennonite farmers for more than 130 years. It may be a long way from Schleitheim in time, distance and circumstance, but the rhetoric of the Radical Reformation still carries much emotional potency here.
However, it is important to situate that rhetoric in its historical context, lest we misunderstand and misuse it today. “Anabaptism” is rebaptism, not simply believer’s baptism. (The prefix ana- means “again.”) The first generation of radical reformers had to be called Anabaptists because everyone in European society was already baptized; there were no unbaptized proselytes available to the first radical reformers. Subsequent generations of radical reformers continued to be called Anabaptists, not because they refused to baptize their own children but because they remained willing to rebaptize Catholic and Protestant converts.
State power: In rebaptizing their converts, radical reformers publicly rejected the indiscriminate practice of infant baptism in medieval Europe and its entanglement with the machinations of state power. Today Christians of all kinds have lauded the theological and political vision of the Anabaptists. In a time when baptism inducted a new German citizen but seemed to have lost its connection with the way of Jesus, one could fairly ask whether such a baptism was fully Christian. In the context of 16th-century Europe, rebaptism served as a clarion call for Christians to reconnect baptism with discipleship and to disconnect baptism from state control. Anabaptism constituted an alternative society amid warring church-state complexes and called people out from those complexes of power to embrace the weakness of Christ. Today the radical reformers are widely admired for issuing that call under the constant threat of martyrdom.
But what should we as Mennonites think about the current time, when Catholics—especially in Europe and the United States—are no less disenfranchised than we are from the corridors of worldly power? Should infant baptism continue to be a church-dividing issue now that our Catholic neighbors practice baptism, of infants and adults, discriminately as part of an intentional process of disciple-making? What shall we do when infant baptism comes unglued from its historical Christendom apparatus and no longer serves as a rite of entry to civil society? Under such conditions, can Mennonites legitimately exclude all infant baptism? Such exclusion surely lacks the theological and political relevance it had for the brethren at Schleitheim.
Simply put, Catholic baptism is no longer coincident with worldly citizenship. Catholics themselves are keenly aware of this. They conduct their baptisms not in private but during Sunday Mass, as public initiations to God’s alternative society. They know that if their children are going to stay Catholic, they will need the purposeful care of the Catholic community. They’ll need strong parishes and committed Catholic parents and mentors; they may even need Catholic schools. Catholics know they are resident aliens, a subculture distinct from its surrounding host. In postmodern America, Catholics know they must intentionally cultivate Catholic beliefs and practices in order to prevent their extinction by American beliefs and practices.
Sound like anybody you know?
Personal reasons: Granted, I am not aware of any Mennonites today who would require rebaptism for Christians of other communions to join their congregations. But many Mennonites remain willing to rebaptize new members who request it for personal reasons. In other words, because the theological and political function of Catholic infant baptism has changed, the prevailing Mennonite rationale for rebaptism has also changed. Today our willingness to rebaptize is most often rationalized in ways that seem to owe more to the Declaration of Independence than the Schleitheim Confession. We justify rebaptism by arguing that the individual did not choose her infant baptism and cannot remember it, so it somehow lacks “meaning” or “personal importance” for her.
I have grave theological concerns about this language. It suggests that baptism serves essentially private functions, aiding the candidate’s pursuit of happiness by providing her with fond memories and a sense of personal spiritual enrichment.
In 21st-century America, rebaptism may serve to underwrite individualism, which is as perilous to Mennonites as to Catholics. In America, and perhaps elsewhere, rebaptism contributes to the modern deception that baptism is a private matter and not a public initiation to God’s alternative society. Mennonites ought to stop rebaptizing people—even those who request it—and not only because rebaptism is disrespectful of Catholics. In our context, rebaptism is also disrespectful of our own Mennonite commitment to the church as a public reality larger than the individual. Our capitulation to the autonomy of the individual, manifested in our ongoing willingness to rebaptize upon request, is not only a kind of predation on other communions; it is a kind of cannibalism of our own. By handing baptism over to the choice of the individual, we are eating ourselves alive.
After all, if we accept a wayward Catholic’s rejection of her baptism on the grounds that she did not choose it and can’t remember it, what answer can we muster for the departing Mennonite who rejects our faith on the grounds that he was merely born and raised Mennonite?
The world is not medieval anymore. All Christian communions have now been removed from power by Western liberalism. Thus have we come, ironically, to a historical moment when Mennonites may need to reject Anabaptism in order to preserve the Mennonite association of baptism with discipleship and the Mennonite disassociation of baptism from power. Especially in places like southeastern Iowa, it has become fair to ask which community is closer to being in power, Mennonites or Catholics. The answer, of course, is neither. Both now stand in solidarity as varied expressions of God’s alternative society, distinct from the dominant power of American individualism.
In order to be radical in their proclamation to such power, Mennonites should refuse rebaptism to every person who wishes to act as his own pope. Perhaps then we may all, together, eat the flesh and blood of Jesus instead of our own.
Chad S. Mason is pastor at Christ Community Church, a Mennonite Church USA congregation in Des Moines, Iowa.
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From Article 11 (“Baptism”) of Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective:
We believe that the baptism of believers with water is a sign of their cleansing from sin. Baptism is also a pledge before the church of their covenant with God to walk in the way of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Believers are baptized into Christ and his body by the Spirit, water, and blood.
Christian baptism is for those who confess their sins, repent, accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and commit themselves to follow Christ in obedience as members of his body, both giving and receiving care and counsel in the church. Baptism is for those who are of the age of accountability and who freely request baptism on the basis of their response to Jesus Christ in faith.