(Old Facebook Post)

I once heard three seasoned conservative Anabaptist church leaders (many of you would recognize their names instantly) discuss the challenge of motivating church members to live holy lives. Specifically, they discussed how to help members walk in holiness without the presence of multiple church standards.

The first described the difficulty of awakening in members a sense of modesty. He said he found this most difficult to achieve among those who had grown up in settings with many prescribed standards. The second then turned to third with an observation phrased as a question: Is it not true that in your church fellowship (different than the speaker’s own) the members who are giving you the greatest challenges are those from backgrounds with many church standards? The third affirmed that this, indeed, is true.

I have often pondered that conversation. I remembered it again last night when I read this from Roland Allen’s classic book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (written in 1912, by an Anglican missionary):

“In our dealings with our native converts we habitually appeal to law. We attempt to administer a code which is alien to the thought of the people with whom we have to deal, we appeal to precedents which are no precedents to them, and we quote decisions of which our hearers do not understand either the history or the reason. Without satisfying their minds or winning the consent of their consciences, we settle all questions with a word.”

That paragraph sounds like the experience of some youth in some of our Anabaptist churches. But it is the next paragraph that reminded me of the above conversation:

“This is unfortunate because it leaves the people unconvinced and uneducated, and teaches them the habit of unreasoning obedience. They learn to expect law and to delight in the exact fulfilment of precise and minute directions. By this method we make it difficult to stir the consciences of our converts, when it is most important that their consciences should be stirred. Bereft of exact directions, they are helpless. They cease to expect to understand the reason of things, or to exercise their intelligence. Instead of seeking the illumination of the Holy Ghost they prefer to trust to formal instructions from their foreign guides. The consequence is that when their foreign guide cannot, or will not, supply precise commands, they pay little heed to his godly exhortations. Counsels which have no precedent behind them seem weak. Anything which is not in open disobedience to a law can be tolerated. Appeals to principles appear vague and difficult. They are not accustomed to the labour of thinking them out and applying them. If a missionary explains to his converts that some act is not in harmony with the mind of Christ his words fall on deaf ears: if he tells them that it was forbidden in a council of such and such a date, they obey him; but that is the way of death not of life; it is Judaism not Christianity; it is papal not Pauline.”

Allen ends this chapter with these probing words:

“Christians are not only what they are by nature, they are a Spirit-bearing body. It is not a question merely of our faith in them: it is still more a question of faith in the Holy Ghost. We look too much at our converts as they are by nature: St Paul looked at his converts as they were by grace.”


I dream of writing a book inspired in part by Roland Allen’s book, called perhaps “A Pure Church: St. Paul’s Methods or Ours?” It would give a brief historical overview of Anabaptist methods of producing pure churches, then systematically survey Paul’s approaches to the same goal in each of the churches he founded (and what he envisioned that goal to look like), then compare the two, ending with a challenge to change our methods where they don’t line up with Paul’s.

Subtopics could include issues like leadership and authority (source, limits, use of), congregational decision-making methods (biblical and current), membership paradigms (who is my brother?), keeping unity of the Spirit while building toward unity of the faith (Eph 4), true nature of NT separation (physical vs. spiritual), covenantal contrasts between OT pure community (Israel) and NT pure community (Church), inclusion/discipleship of new believers and exclusion of sinful believers (conversion, baptism, catechism, training, disciplining, excommunicating), methods/grounds of motivation toward holiness, training by grace (Titus 2), the regenerate/Spirit-filled nature of the true believer, etc., etc.

We Anabaptists can sometimes become so enamored with parsing our own history (congratulating ourselves, selectively and favorably comparing ourselves with other groups, justifying current practices based on trends of 50 years ago, aiming for pragmatic solutions that will preserve our churches unchanged for centuries) that we fail to listen closely to Scripture as we ought. Perhaps it is true that, when looking for guidance on practical church governance, we look more to history than to God’s Word. We base decisions on our own Anabaptist history; the early Anabaptists examined their history in light of God’s Word and made changes. I’ve heard it said that we now have our theology already worked out, with the implication our doctrine is basically all correct and we just need to get busy putting it into practice. I think a close look at Paul’s vision for the church is a necessary corrective for every generation, including ours. (And not just Paul’s; such a book could draw from Jesus and the rest of the NT, too.)

Enough ranting. May we proceed in love and be open to correction ourselves.