Were the early Anabaptists missionaries? Not in the modern sense of the word, no. It is true they engaged in preaching and talking and inviting people to join their movement. But all of that was done in the context of Christian European society. In other words, the Anabaptists were Christians interacting with fellow Christians (Catholics and Protestants), calling on them to adopt a radical view of the Bible accompanied by a radical subversive lifestyle. An anti-establishment world-rejecting lifestyle. And I don’t mean that in a mere rhetorical sense, but in an actual underground countercultural life-risking sense. To the best of my knowledge, there were no efforts by the early Anabaptists to proselytize Jews or Turks, or any non-Christian groups. In fact, quite the opposite. The Anabaptists were the original advocates for religious toleration, freedom of belief, and separation of church and state. What this meant for the Anabaptists was they wanted space to believe and practice in their own way, and at the same time for others to be able to do the same. This is why Felix Manz said that people of other faiths should be left undisturbed, to practice as they saw fit. And it’s why a Moravian Anabaptist named Kilian Aurbacher said: “It is never right to compel one in matters of faith, whatever he may believe, be he Jew or Turk.” So, how come mainstream Mennonites today have such a fetish about building “missional” churches and proselytizing non-Christians around the world? Who knows. But the impulse to convert “pagans” can’t be traced to the early Anabaptists. Rather, it’s a result of Mennonite assimilation into American evangelical culture. And for many reasons, that is not a good thing. Which is why Marginal Mennonites reject missionary campaigns and mission organizations. Instead, we believe Mennonites should engage in calling our own people, within our own communities, to more radical, subversive, anti-authoritarian beliefs and practices. Not just in mere rhetoric, but in an actual underground countercultural sense. And leave the poor Jews and Turks alone, to wrestle with their own issues in their own way.
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