In Defense of Radicalism

Editor’s Note: Benjamin Hawkins is a Ph.D. student in church history and historical theology at Southwestern Seminary.

As with the religious radicals of sixteenth-century Europe, the religious radicals of the twenty-first century—it is said—disrupt the equilibrium of society and threaten the enlightened ways of Western civilization. Thus spoke Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In 2004 he wrote the following statement in The American Prospect:

The great conflict of the 21st century may be between the West and terrorism. But terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The underlying battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernist fanatics; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind allegiance to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism is not the only danger we face.[i]

And who, according to Reich, are these “anti-modernist fanatics,” these radicals? These radicals were (at the time he was writing) the “Bushies” or the “ground troops of the Bush campaign.” They were “America’s religious right – mostly right-wing evangelical Protestant churches, but also right-wing Southern Baptists, anti-abortion Catholics, and even a smattering of extreme pro-Israeli and anti-Arab Jews.” Such radicals, he wrote, challenge the nation’s separation of church and state by endorsing school prayers, banning abortions and gay marriage, and promoting “the idea of a ‘Christian nation.’” According to Reich, such radicals—these “religious zealots”—“confuse politics with private morality,” forgetting the distinction between the “two realms” of private religion and public policy.[ii]

Reich, along with the religious zealots of the twenty-first century, would do well to consider the radical “threat” to sixteenth-century civilization. At the time, these radicals—dubbed Anabaptists for their practice of adult, believer’s baptism—were viewed as extremely dangerous to the survival of Christian Europe. Protestants and Catholics alike tortured and burned these radicals, whom they perceived as seditious, schismatic heretics who would overthrow peace and order. These radicals, however, suffered with courage and nobility, and the message they proclaimed provides insights for Reich, on the one hand, and the twenty-first century religious radicals, on the other hand. In what follows, I outline some important aspects of their radicalism.

First, the religious radicals of the sixteenth-century believed that true religion—true faith, true morality—is personal; nevertheless, it is all-embracing and public, as well. They insisted that people must believe the Gospel for themselves, that they must trust God and his promises for themselves. For this reason, they defended the believers’ church, into the membership of which they baptized only committed, adult believers.

Although true religion and faith were personal, they were BY extremely, seditious, well., private, anyone, discipleship, it, Lord, Lord., his, opposed describes religion and morality as private, and many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—tend to agree with him. Twentieth-century writer C.S. Lewis once observed the modern tendency to imagine that “religion belongs to our private life—that it is in fact, an occupation for the individual’s hour of leisure.”[iii] Such a depiction of religion runs counter to all that the sixteenth-century radicals believed.

According to the Anabaptists, in fact, entrance into the believer’s church precluded the possibility of a private religion. When believers were baptized into the church, they committed themselves to live in a godly manner and expected that the congregation they joined would keep them accountable. Furthermore, if they did not keep their commitment, they recognized that the church would first admonish them to change their ways. If this did not happen, the church had the right to ban, or exclude, these people from membership—although with the desire that they should repent and be accepted back into the church’s membership.

This practice was radical in the sixteenth-century and, for many even today, it remains so. In actuality, this was an application of Jesus’ own command (Matthew 18:15-17, NKJV):

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’  And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

Thus, Anabaptists could not conceive of private religion within the church, nor could they imagine religion segregated from any sector of one’s life.

In fact, religion was, for the Anabaptists, so all-embracing that it shaped the social and economic realities in which they lived. Some Anabaptists—for example, the Hutterites—set up their own communities in which they shared all their goods, believing that this practice was sanctioned by Scripture: “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2:44-45, NKJV). Many Anabaptists, though not all, also promoted pacifism, even amid persecution. Though the validity or biblical basis of these particular Anabaptist principles (i.e., communal living or pacifism) can be debated, these examples clearly show the public, all-embracing nature of the Anabaptist faith.[iv]

Second, while defending a personal—though public—religion, the religious radicals of the sixteenth century also insisted that all men owe their lives to a supreme authority, the Lord Jesus Christ, and that they should find truth within the Word of God. In 1944, historian Harold S. Bender described the “Anabaptist Vision” as discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ:

The true test of the Christian, they held, is discipleship. The great word of the Anabaptists was not ‘faith’ as it was with the reformers, but ‘following’ (Nachfolge Christi). And baptism, the greatest of the Christian symbols, was accordingly to be for them the ‘covenant of a good conscience toward God’ (1 Peter 3:21), the pledge of a complete commitment to obey Christ, and not primarily the symbol of a past experience. The Anabaptists had faith, indeed, but they used it to produce a life [i.e., saving faith should produce a life of discipleship]. Theology was for them a means, not an end.[v]

Such an emphasis on discipleship was and is based in Scripture. In fact, the Anabaptists followed the written Word of their Lord, and they strove to believe and practice only that commanded within Scripture: “Within the Reformation no group took more seriously the principle of sola Scriptura in matters of doctrine and discipline than did the true Anabaptists.”[vi]

The biblical mandate to follow Christ the Lord is clear: The tenth chapter of Romans says that those who desire to be saved should confess Jesus as Lord, and the second chapter of Philippians states that, at Christ’s return, all men will bow their knee and confess Christ as Lord. Furthermore, the Gospels portray Christ’s radical call to discipleship: Unless people will abandon their occupations, their homes and comforts, their families, and even their lives for the sake of Christ Jesus the Lord, they cannot be His disciples (Luke 9:23-27, 57-62). Additionally, Christ commissions his church to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20, NKJV). It was this biblically-based call to discipleship that the Anabaptists wanted to fulfill.

Finally, not only did the sixteenth-century radicals promote a public faith defined by Christ’s Lordship and the Word of Scripture, but they also practiced and defended vigorously religious liberty and the separation of church and state. They insisted that the government should not coerce religion. In a treatise, titled “On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them,” the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier declared that no heretics or unbelieving Jews or Muslims should be killed for their religious beliefs.

Such a practice, Hubmaier wrote, is unbiblical: Heretics and unbelievers should be gently persuaded by preaching God’s Word, not compelled to belief with the sword. “Now it appears to anyone, even to a blind person,” he writes at the end of this treatise, that the law [which provides] for the burning of heretics is an invention of the devil.”[vii]

For promoting such views, Hubmaier was burned to death in 1528, and his wife was drowned three days later. But, as his writings attested, the truth that Hubmaier preached would prove “unkillable.”[viii] The religious liberty he defended is now the law of the land in the United States, at least, according to the Constitution.

But, according to Reich, religious radicalism threatens the liberties defined by the Constitution. As opposed to Reich, such radicals believe that religion is public, not private; that people should give whole-hearted allegiance to God; and that people should look for ultimate truth in Scripture, not in reason or science. He may be surprised to discover that such radicals were among the first to proclaim religious liberty and church-state separation.

On the other hand, if any Christians want the state to enforce religion in order to create a Christian nation, they should heed the message of the Anabaptists. In the end, it seems that religious radicalism is not one of the greatest threats to Western civilization. In fact, if Reich wants to defend religious liberty and church-state separation, he should hope to see more religious radicals, not fewer—radicals, that is, willing to follow in the footsteps of their sixteenth-century forebears.

[i]Robert Reich, “Last Word” in American Prospect (online), (accessed Nov. 8, 2011).


[iii]C.S. Lewis, “Membership” in The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 158.

[iv]For background to the information in this essay, including the discussion below, see W.R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 127-49; 190-235; 254-66.

[v]Harold Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” Church History 13, no. 1 (1944): 14.

[vi] Estep, Anabaptist Vision, 190.

[vii]H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, trans. and eds., Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, Classics of the Radical Reformation, 5 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 58-66.