Dialogue with TGC’s Trevin Wax: Gratitude and Differences

This dialogue deserves a few thank-you’s. Thanks to Trevin Wax for participating in this dialogue. Thanks again to Darryl Dash for prodding us to do this (I think it took over a year?). And here’s two more thank you’s offered to Trevin Wax as a response to his post on ‘3 Reasons We need Today’s Anabaptists’

Thanks to Trevor for not giving us the standard account of Anabaptists

Too often, in my opinion, people in the Neo-Reformed or Neo-Calvinist worlds default to a standard account when talking about Anabaptists. This standard account says that Anabaptists are sectarians. We’re too negative on the world. Our understanding of church is to withdraw from the world. These are all too common caricatures of the Anabaptist theology of church and culture. See James Davison Hunter To Change the World (for instance pp164 ff), or Tim Keller’s Center Church (see for instance pp207ff). Trevin resists this ‘standard account’ and instead makes the point that “Anabaptists do not intend to withdraw from the world; they intend for their separatist identity to engage the world differently from the churches that have a Christendom outlook.” He then reflects on how a pure and distinct church creates a pure, visible community of faith that has ripple effects of transformation throughout the world. Too often, Neo-Reformed people default to the account that says Anabaptists are sectarian. Click To Tweet

I would add to Trevin’s thoughts on this that much has happened in the last twenty years in theology, cultures studies, political theory, and linguistics to substantiate this idea. More and more, we’re learning (from linguistic and cultural studies in multiculturalism) that, in order for a message to make sense, it must have a social world from which to refer. And as these social realities intersect, they not only can destabilize existing culture(s) bringing change, but also they enter dialogue, and indeed engage culture better than merely sending individuals from one culture to enter another culture.

I have criticized certain versions of Neo-Calvinist or Neo-Reformed social engagement (recently here) that, for whatever reasons, tend toward sending individual Christians out into the spheres of culture in which they live their lives. In business, education, government and even family, we go as individuals formed in church to bring Christian witness to transform these spheres of God’s creation.

For us Neo-Anabaptists however, these transformational approaches assume too much. They assume our language makes sense in a world where it no longer has currency. It assumes the individual will not get absorbed into the world’s ideologies. It assumes that somehow because we are Christians and know the creator, we have authority to enter culture and call for Christian purposes and values. We Anabaptists question whether we can assume any of these things in these post-Christendom times. We worry about an assumed posture of power in this approach. This was one of my questions about James Davison Hunters’ book To Change the World in my own book Faithful Presence. For us Neo-Anabaptists however, these transformational approaches assume too much. Click To Tweet

Instead, Anabaptists believe all these things must be discerned as a part of a total way of life (where individuals best go two by two). There will be times, for instance, when business can be critiqued. But there will also be times when we will have to withdraw from it altogether and initiate Kingdom ways of economy. (The option to withdraw from capitalism doesn’t seem to be on the horizon as much for my NeoReformed friends). Sometimes God’s good creation is already evident in business, so much so, that we can enter into it on its own terms. But this takes a way of life with an integrity of its own, able to engage in these ways.

As a result, Anabaptists talk about authentic transformation coming from Christian life lived as a whole way of life lived out under the Lordship of Christ. The church engages its neighborhoods, cities and villages, not as one individuals sent out, but as communities of culture living and dialoguing alongside one another. Here as communities of peace, and humble vulnerable witness, we act as salt and light, and participate in bringing God’s Kingdom in Christ among the world.

Thanks to Trevin for recognizing the complexity of the power issue.

Trevin does not dismiss Anabaptist ways of talking about power. At first he says, “I worry that the Anabaptist approach toward power often resembles that of the ancient ascetics toward money: renounce it, divest yourself of it, and you’ll avoid the taint of compromise!” But before Trevin goes off and dismisses the whole Anabaptist conversation concerning power, he says “Christians are going to need the wisdom of the Anabaptists in coming years…who are comfortable without the levers of political power or privilege.”

I appreciate that Trevin gives a hat tip to what I think is an extremely important issue for our day, an issue that has been, in my opinion, continually misunderstood by people in his camp. Neo-Anabaptists do not refuse power entirely. Rather we insist that the shape this power takes for Christians is completely different than the world’s power. And so we reject violence and coercion and forms of hierarchy that place one person over another. We reject that God will change things merely by anger, lashing out or coercing through either war, force of other kind, or antagonistic politics that diminish the personhood of the other. This is extremely important for the times we’re living these days. Neo-Anabaptists insist the shape of power for Christians is different than the world’s power. Click To Tweet

Instead we argue that God comes in His presence, restores us to His presence through Jesus Christ, and that He is at work in the world bringing the world to Himself. Though He will not coerce, He nonetheless comes to be present, and if His people will be present to His presence, God will use them to heal the world, bring forgiveness and reconciliation to this world, and by his transforming power, reshape the world in and through the Lordship of Christ.

We, as a result, do not exercise the world’s power, we participate in God’s power at work in renewing the world. It is a nuanced understanding of power that is often misunderstood (witness the comment and my response on Trevin’s first blog post). It’s a nuanced view that I have tried to get across in regard to my critique of Andy Crouch’s book on power (see this post). It is a nuance often misunderstood as in some of my discussions with James KA Smith (See this post).

Despite the challenges of this way of understanding power, I believe this vision of power is singularly important for understanding how the church actively engages the world today for God’s justice in the world. It is what I tried to describe in my newest book Faithful Presence.

Who Woulda Thunk it?

Who would have thought that such a simple exchange between two blog writers could be so valuable to so many people. I mean there was a lot of good social media flowing on the mere idea that a Reformed person and an Anabaptist could talk appreciatively of one another. I guess we’re starved for collaborative dialogue. So thanks to Trevin Wax (his latest response to me is here), and Darryl Dash for making this happen.

And let’s do it again! Next time let’s bring Scot McKnight and Tim Keller together on an hour long video talking about ‘What is the gospel?’ I know I can make my side of this equation happen! Let’s do it, eh, Darryl Dash?

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