The following is an extract of a letter written by Bryce Geiser, of Caneyville Christian Community near Caneyville, KY. It especially brings to contrast the difference between an Anabaptist soteriology and the typical Evangelical soteriology. Bryce writes:
In mid-October we received an invitation to engage in a discussion with a senior’s group at the St. Thomas Catholic Church. They wanted us to explain the differences between our faith, (Anabaptism), and theirs. We responded positively, perhaps a bit eagerly.
I gave it very little thought as the day approached. After all, this was likely going to be a meeting with a few old ladies, and how deep can you get in a setting like that? When we pulled into their parking lot, however, I was surprised by the number of cars already there. Was this, perhaps, a bigger thing than I had expected? I regretted not taking the time to be more prepared, but I was in good company since Aaron, Andrew, Jonathan, David and our wives were all along. We bravely marched into the St. Thomas Church basement,– suspenders, coverings and all.
We were received warmly enough. After a potluck dinner, the priest, Brian Johnson, gave Jonathan the responsibility of organizing the topics and speakers.
Jonathan gave a brief history of Anabaptism in Europe, and their “coming out” of the Catholic church. I could not see any reaction on the faces of our Catholic hosts–only friendly curiosity. I suspect there is not much history about the Catholic church that would surprise any of them, nor do they feel any real attachment to the Catholic church of 500 years ago. But then, what did I expect? Would I?
Aaron followed with a brief explanation of how Caneyville came to be, and why we are not exactly Amish, Mennonite, or German Baptist. When asked if there were any people in the room who had ever considered joining the Amish, the response was sort of feeble. Undazed, Aaron went on to explain that many of their fellow Americans do, in fact, want to join the Amish. He explained the hurdles those people face, and why there have sprung up across the country small communities like ours who seek to remove unscriptural hurdles and yet maintain the strong community structure of a believer’s church.
Jonathan had me give a summary of doctrinal differences. I tried to explain that Anabaptists take the words of Jesus very seriously and, if at all possible, literally. Besides the obvious difference of believer’s baptism, we Anabaptists also try to live the sermon on the mount; not swearing, not resisting evil, and so on. I also tried to note the places we actually agree with Catholics, without getting too ecumenical about it. Looking around th room at the 50 or more people who were there did not make me want to talk much about our common ground.
Finally, Andrew fielded and answered questions from the group. They had plenty of them, but once again it seemed to be only friendly curiosity–nothing critical or accusatory. We might easily have imagined that we were at a luncheon with the Grayson County Historical society.
A few days later, we did a 180 degree u-turn and went to Carrolton, Kentucky, to a gathering of plain or ex-plain people sponsored by Michael Pearl.
Michael began the 3-day session by telling us that he had spent many hours in the plain church meetings, “stinking, hot, and seemingly endless”, being bored to death by our preachers. Now it was his turn, and he intended to get revenge. He gave us a schedule of 7 meetings totaling around 15 hours of preaching.
Could Michael do it? Indeed he could. He could hardly stop talking when the time was up. And what did he talk about?
Well, Michael is as close to a modern-day Martin Luther as you can get. We spent hours going through Romans and the Protestant “faith alone” doctrine, but we were never bored. Mike is an entertaining speaker with clear and firm gasp of his subject. We liked him.
I was glad for the chance to spend most of three days trying to understand Protestant theology. I was surprised at how little I disagreed with the actual words he preached, and yet how vehemently I disagreed with his summaries and conclusions. Perhaps our greatest disagreement was the way we approached the New Testament. Michael wanted us to skip past the 4 gospels,–(“that’s Old Testament stuff”), and start at God’s premier book to the non-Jewish people, the book of Romans. Romans was, for Michael, the window through which he saw the rest of the Bible. Romans was, in fact, the Gospel.
In sharp contrast, for us Anabaptists the teachings of Jesus and his announcements of the Kingdom is the actual Gospel. We see the gospel as the “turning upside-down” of our lives and inviting us to participate in the kingdom struggle. We read Jesus’ accounts of end-time judgment and believe it to be a judgment of fruits and works, not theology.
Michael doesn’t agree. Our salvation is based on grace, through faith alone and not of works. Period. All that stuff about not swearing, not resisting evil people, doing violence to no man, and so forth, belong to a works-based salvation.
By the end of 3 days, it was clear to me that Martin Luther had distorted the gospel message and robbed it of its fruitfulness. Not so much by the exact things being said, but by an overall imbalance of Scripture and a gross misunderstanding of what the Gospel message was.
I watched for my chance to question Michael in a non-threatening setting between meetings. Finally, on the last day, I found him outside all alone.
“How is is,” I asked, “that there can be absolutely no works in salvation when the Bible includes such things as “calling upon the name of the Lord: to be saved? Even simple belief itself is called a ‘work’ by Jesus in John 6:28b,29 “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” My brain, my mouth, my ‘giving up’–are they not the works of my organic body?”
Michael is never stumped. “Those are what we call non-meritorious works”, he said. “That’s not what we mean, not what Romans means when it speaks of works.”
Oh. Maybe we aren’t so far apart as our etymology suggests. If we could find different words, would our worlds draw closer? But then I think of the crisp advice given by John: “Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.”
Catholics and Protestants. Are they opposites? In many ways, they seem more similar to each other than to the Anabaptists, though they would probably cringe to hear me say it. And yet, in widely different ways, each of them has adopted a way of believing the Bible which ultimately becomes friendship with the world and its values. The Way of the Cross, so central to Anabaptist theology, does not dominate their doctrine and thus does not cramp their lifestyle either.
And yet, in my more humble moments, I have to confess that we were treated kindly and graciously in both settings. I want to learn from this, and return grace and kindness to those with whom I disagree, even strongly.