“And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
Well, they had to call them something, didn’t they? Some of them had once been Jews, but that label didn’t really fit anymore. Others had been pagans, probably worshippers of Apollo and others of the Greek gods. That label didn’t work for them anymore. What these disciples had in common was their faith in God and His salvation revealed in Jesus Christ. Therefore, a new label was created for them, and it fit.
It would be wonderful if things were still that simple. But the Christian label is used by so many people in so many different ways that it might confuse people more than enlighten them were I to simply call myself a Christian.
The Roman Catholic Church had its beginning a few centuries into the Christian era when the bishop of Rome claimed the oversight of all Christian churches. Not all churches believed that this was a good thing, or even a Christian thing. These dissenters from the rule of the bishop of Rome were called by various names, including anabaptists, in various times and places. The Roman church attempted to wipe them out and invented many scurrilous stories about their beliefs and practices.
More than a millennium later, a protest movement arose in the Roman Catholic Church, leading to the formation of churches known as Protestant: Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed. These new churches were not in agreement with each other, but they all adopted the old Roman practice of trying to wipe out any other form of worship within the territories that they controlled.
The label of Anabaptist has been applied down through the centuries to those Christians who strove to maintain a living faith apart from the persecuting churches. I accept this label, even though it does not fully describe the faith of those who have been, and still are, identified as Anabaptists, The word means “re-baptizers” and was used because the Anabaptists did not accept the baptism of those who were baptized in other churches. The reason for this was that the other churches were baptizing babies and others who had not come to a genuine faith in God and of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ.
I like what Paul Lederach writes in A Third Way: “Baptism is the tool for gathering a redeemed society, a society of pilgrims separated from the evil of the unregenerated world;” and “Baptism is the symbol of discontinuity with the world. At baptism one breaks with the past and commits oneself to Jesus Christ and to His people.”¹
In his introduction to the Martyrs Mirror, Thieleman van Braght explained the plan of the book in this way:
“We have chosen holy baptism in preference to any other article of the Christian and evangelical religion
“1. Because it is the only sign and proof of incorporation into the visible Christian church, without which no one, whoever he be, or whatever he may profess, or how separated and pious a life he may lead, can be recognized as a true member of the Christian church. This is fully, yet without controversy, shown and confirmed in the following history.
“2. Because it is, beyond contradiction, the only article on account of which others call us Anabaptists. For, since all other so-called Christians have, yet without true foundation, this in common that they baptize infants; while with us the baptism only which is accompanied by faith and a penitent life, according to the word of God, is administered, to adults; it follows, that with us such persons are baptized who have received baptism in their childhood, without faith and repentance; who, when they believe and repent, are again, or at least truly baptized with us; because with us their previous baptism, being without true foundation, and without the word of God, is not considered baptism at all.
“3. Because the imperial decrees (when some so-called Christians began to tyrannize) in the days of Theodosius and Honorius, A. D. 413, were issued and proclaimed everywhere expressly against the Anabaptists and those who were rebaptized; namely against such who maintained the aforementioned article, as the Anabaptists of today do; which was also the case in the last persecution, during the reign of Emperor Charles V., more than eleven centuries afterwards, A. D. 1535; when all who, having been baptized in infancy, had been rebaptized upon their faith and repentance; or who maintained these views, were punished with a severe death, as may be seen in our account of baptism, and of the martyrs, for the years 413 and 1535.”²
It matters little whether I like the Anabaptist label or not; or whether it is the best description of my faith. What matters is that it has been associated for 1600 years with people who have kept themselves separate from those who profess a compromised Christian faith.
This is not to condemn everything about Catholicism and Protestantism. There is much that is sound and admirable in both faith traditions. Yet the baptism of unbelievers and the use of force to propagate those faiths are compromises that should be unacceptable to all true believers.
¹ A Third Way, page 82, Paul M Lederach, © 1980 by Herald Press
² Martyrs Mirror, page 16, compiled by Thieleman J van Braght, 1660