October 2000 Hays

Contents of Volume
October 2000 Number Four

Embodying the Gospel in Community


One thing I have learned from the Radical Reformers is that theological thought can never be separated from its embodiment in concrete communities of worship and service. Thus, when asked how my thought has been shaped by engagement with Radical Reformation theology, I must reply-in the spirit of what I have learned from the Anabaptist tradition-that I cannot answer the question without explaining how my life has been shaped by encounter with radical reformation communities.


In the summer of 1971, I decided to drop out of seminary. My one year of study at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University had been a disillusioning experience. The United Methodist Church, the church in which I had grown up, seemed to be a vast, cumbersome bureaucracy; my classmates in seminary seemed less concerned about preaching the gospel than about pursuing professional advancement in the denominational pecking order. At least, that was my uncharitable assessment of the situation. My wife Judy and I, newly married, had read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship together and found it compelling but distant from the actual life of the church we had experienced. We had failed to find a congregation in Dallas where we felt nurtured and challenged to grow as disciples of Jesus. I was not sure that ordained ministry was the right vocation for me, and I needed a break to reassess what I was doing. Thus, when an opportunity came for me to teach high school English in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, I seized it.

In Massachusetts we met some people who were interested in starting a Christian intentional community. We had no clear blueprint for what we were doing, but we knew that we wanted a more intense experience of Christian community than we had found in our various denominational churches. Six of us moved into a large old house in Springfield, which we christened The Ark. We developed a pattern of eating meals together, praying together daily, and sharing common expenses. We all read Bonhoeffer’s little classic Life Together and tried to put into practice his counsel about the practices of confession, forgiveness and mutual accountability. Our Sunday evening Bible study began to attract friends and neighbors, growing into an informal prayer-and-praise fellowship that regularly brought about fifty people together for singing, prayer, Bible study and a potluck supper.

Some of the participants in this larger fellowship were also interested in exploring life in community. Consequently, we began to look around for guidance. We knew about Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm community and Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri in Switzerland, but neither of these seemed quite the right model for a house-church community in an urban setting.

In time, we learned about Reba Place Fellowship, a large and well established extended-household community in Evanston, Illinois.[1] Reba Place was the hub for a network of similar communities, most of which had grown from Mennonite roots. We began to draw on their wisdom and experience as our little house-church community slowly took shape. Reba Place sent a delegation of elders to visit us and give counsel, and I, along with several other members of our group, travelled to Evanston to see their community in action. It was my first encounter with Radical Reformation theology embodied in the flesh. I was moved not only by the community’s depth of commitment (in contrast to the tepid mainline Protestant congregations I had known) but also by the gracious beauty and simplicity of their common life, the unassuming maturity and holiness of their long-time members, their candor in confronting sin and failure in the community, and their sustained commitment to hands-on service in their needy, racially mixed neighborhood. I was seeing before my eyes a church that seemed to stand in recognizable continuity with the communities that I had read about in Paul’s letters, in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35, and in Bonhoeffer.

In 1974 our community in Massachusetts formally organized itself as Metanoia Fellowship, and the residential community grew from the original one household to four, now encompassing more than thirty adult members along with about fifteen children. We did not think of ourselves as Anabaptists-our members being Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Evangelical Covenanters, Methodists and so forth-but the Anabaptist vision of life in community provided the inspiration for our efforts to lead simple lives of radical discipleship.


Recognized as one of the pastoral leaders of Metanoia, I soon realized my need for more theological education and began commuting to Yale Divinity School on a part-time basis to continue work on my M.Div. degree. During my studies there I first read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, which grasped my imagination forcefully.[2] Because I was living in a countercultural community seeking to embody the gospel, I found Yoder’s critique of mainline Protestant ethics and his constructive proposals about Jesus as the norm for ethics to be enormously helpful in my own effort to understand and commend the practices of discipleship that my community was seeking to follow.

Yoder’s ideas have become so much a part of my own theological framework that it is not easy now to recall precisely all the ways in which The Politics of Jesus impacted my thinking twenty-five years ago. At least the following five factors were significant.

1. Yoder provided a clear diagnosis of what I had found unsettling about my theological education. He pinpointed the compromises that made so much Protestant theology appear to be an exercise in apologetics for the status quo: theological ethics in the Niebuhrian tradition rendered Jesus and the gospels mute and irrelevant and thus left the church free to conform itself to the political and economic conventions of its surrounding environment. Once the diagnosis was made, the remedy was clear: the church should be directly guided by the teaching and example of Jesus, not by prudentially calculated approximations of the ideals of love and justice. I began to see that this perspective implied a fundamental critique not only of the mainline establishment church but also of the left-wing politics that had shaped my thinking during my undergraduate years.

2. At the same time that I read Yoder, I was also absorbing Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics and the thought of Hans Frei, who championed the recovery of biblical narrative as the proper framework for theology. The conjunction of Yoder with Barth and Frei provided a stimulating matrix for reflection. I wondered whether Yoder’s reading of the New Testament demanded a historical reconstruction of the Jesus behind the gospel portraits, or whether his ethical position would have been stronger if he had insisted, with Frei, that the identity of Jesus Christ is disclosed only in the canonical narratives. I also wondered, on the other hand, whether the narratively shaped “Yale theology” I was learning would have more impact and integrity if it were linked with the Anabaptist insistence on discipleship in community. In either case, it was clear to me that Barth and Yoder were prophetic voices who summoned the church to a fresh encounter with the Word of God-a word not of our own devising-that judges us and calls us to be transformed.

3. In reading Yoder, I saw that the modern dichotomy between religion and politics made no sense-or, rather, that it made sense only within the logic of an order inimical to the gospel. I began to grasp more fully that Jesus was not a figure who preached religious ideas that might or might not have political implications; rather, he called followers to a way of life that necessarily entailed the formation of a new polis. The kingdom of God was not merely a figure of speech; it was a claim about the concrete manifestation of divine sovereignty in the world. This insight has contributed to my longstanding concern to demonstrate in my work that theology and ethics can never be separated and that we cannot treat issues of discipleship as secondary implications of a more primary set of theological convictions.

4. In particular, I found my attention riveted by Yoder’s discussion of Paul’s message of justification by grace through faith. Yoder contended that Paul understood justification as “a social phenomenon centering in the reconciliation of different kinds of people.”[3] At this point, Yoder was dependent on the work of several New Testament scholars (especially Krister Stendahl, Markus Barth, Hans Werner Bartsch and Paul Minear), but it was through Yoder that I first encountered this interpretation of Paul and saw it placed into a larger construal of the New Testament’s message. This tremendously exciting discovery revolutionized my reading of Paul’s letters, and it held the potential of overcoming traditional dichotomies between Paul and Jesus. My subsequent work on Paul has sought, in several ways, to develop insights that were first elicited by my reading of Yoder.[4]

5. Finally, I was fascinated by the way Yoder’s exposition of the politics of Jesus produced a persuasive construal of the unity of the New Testament’s message, a vision of the wholeness of the New Testament canon. The problem of unity and diversity in the canon is a notorious difficulty in biblical scholarship. Yoder’s straightforward and forceful reading pulled the diverse voices in the New Testament together into a chorus praising the Lamb who was slain and commending his life as a pattern for ours. Books as disparate as Luke, Romans, Ephesians and Revelation could be heard, under Yoder’s direction, as complementary voices. Yoder pointed the way forward towards a solution of the problem of unity and diversity in New Testament theology.

Readers acquainted with my body of scholarly work will see how these insights, originally derived from Yoder, have been woven through my thought and writing. I reemphasize, however, that my reading of Yoder did not occur in a vacuum. I found his account of Jesus’ politics compelling because it corresponded to what I was learning about the Christian life by living in a community also shaped by the witness of the Radical Reformation. Apart from that concrete experience of community life, I doubt that Yoder’s themes would have found such resonance in my own emergent theological consciousness.


At the same time, however, my theological studies also began to uncover for me some of the limitations of the Radical Reformation tradition. As I studied the history of the Reformation, it had seemed to me-as it did to the sixteenth-century Anabaptists-that Luther and Calvin, in their continued defense of infant baptism, were strangely inconsistent with the logic of justification by faith. If we are justified by faith, I asked Professor George Lindbeck, does it not follow that only believers should be baptized? Rather than answering my question, he suggested that I write a paper on the problem. And so, in the last year of my M.Div. studies, I wrote a lengthy paper on “The Relation of Baptism and Justification in the Theology of Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptists.” The driving heuristic question of the paper was: “Is the practice of infant baptism compatible with a consistent adherence to the principle of justification sola fide'” I read not only the magisterial reformers but also Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier, Menno Simons and the major confessions of the Anabaptist tradition.[5]

As I worked through these writings, I was impressed by the clarity and courage of the early Anabaptists, and I was persuaded that their understanding of baptism did in fact recover important aspects of the New Testament’s teaching. At the same time, however, I was given pause in some cases by what appeared to be flat-footed literalism and hermeneutical navete. For example, Grebel’s argument against singing in the church: “Whatever we are not taught by clear passages or examples must be regarded as forbidden, just as if it were written: ‘This do not: sing not.’. . . We must not follow our notions; we must add nothing to the word and take nothing from it.”[6] Alongside this sort of unimaginative rigidity, I was also disturbed by the tendency of many Anabaptist writers to bifurcate reality, juxtaposing the inward and spiritual realm of faith to the outward and physical realm of sacramental action, deprecating the latter in favor of the former. Some Anabaptists regarded baptism not as a divine act of grace but as a human pledge or testimony of faith. Against this tendency, the sturdy sacramental realism of Luther looked highly appealing because it protected the priority of God’s gracious action pro nobis. Indeed, I came to see that for Luther infant baptism was necessary to safeguard sola fide because it so clearly symbolizes that we do not determine our salvation by our own decision. The danger of the Anabaptist position is that it can turn faith into a work, a precondition that must be met to receive the grace of God. As Luther warned, here lurks a Werkteufel (i.e., a devil that tempts us to rely on works) that evacuates the grace of God and drives us back to constant scrutiny of our own subjective faith experience as the ground of salvation. I remained (and still remain) convinced that the baptism of confessing believers is the practice that most faithfully reflects the New Testament’s interpretation of baptism’s significance, but I found that Calvin’s exposition of baptism as a covenant offered a more profound theological framework for understanding baptism than anything I had found in the Anabaptist writers.

Correlated with the danger of turning faith into a work is the tendency of some Anabaptist theology towards a naively optimistic anthropology that assumes a simple and unproblematical capacity of human beings to hear and obey God’s commandments, an impulse paralleled, of course, by similar tendencies in my own Wesleyan tradition. Here again, I found Luther’s theology to be a necessary counterpoint, reminding us of the dark complexity of our own motives and the weakness and limitations of our obedience.

This last theme was of particular relevance for me as I reflected on my own experience of community in Metanoia Fellowship (which ultimately failed and dissolved in the late 1970s). In our worst moments, we were pretty proud of ourselves for being radical Christians (“Lord, we have left everything and followed you”), and we were constantly tempted to be judgmental towards outsiders and harshly perfectionistic in our dealings with one another within the community. Of course, as we got to know one another better over the years, the reality of our own human sinfulness and brokenness impressed itself upon us unmistakably. The challenge for us, as for all Christian communities, was to keep the gospel of unmerited grace and the radical imperative of the transformed life in a faithful balance. In that respect, our little community was recapitulating the struggle that the churches of the sixteenth century had faced.


I am profoundly indebted to Radical Reformation theology and to the communities that have embodied it. Whatever failings and weaknesses these communities may have had, they have been for me a city set on a hill, a sign of God’s coming kingdom. As I have sought to discern and write about the New Testament’s moral vision,[7] I have been repeatedly instructed and inspired by the testimony of the Radical Reformation tradition. Although it has been more than twenty years since my wife and I lived in community, I have been permanently shaped by that experience, and I continue to ponder its theological implications. What are the key themes and insights that have been most important in my own thinking? By way of brief summary, I highlight four points.

1. The radical call to discipleship. The Radical Reformation tradition emphasizes that authentic faith is necessarily embodied in a life of following the teaching and example of Jesus. The point seems so simple and fundamental that it should hardly require emphasis, but the history of the church shows our urgent need to be reminded of this truth again and again. Christian theology has constructed numerous rationalizations and evasions, but the Anabaptists-alongside other communities such as the Franciscans-remind us that those who are called to be Jesus’ disciples must take up the cross and follow him.

2. The centrality of life in community. Our life of discipleship is not a lonely, individualistic project. To be called to follow Jesus is to be called into community. The Radical Reformation tradition wonderfully exemplifies this truth, which must shape our understanding of all Christian doctrines and practices. For example, baptism is not merely a rite conferring forgiveness of sins; rather, it is an incorporation into the eschatological community of God’s people. In Anabaptist tradition, the Body of Christ is not only a theoretical doctrine; it is the daily experienced context of life together in a community of mutual love and accountability. The Anabaptist emphasis on mutual admonition and church discipline is deeply faithful to the New Testament picture of the church, and it is an emphasis that the wider Christian church desperately needs to recover if we are to survive and bear witness with integrity in the post-Christendom situation. The rest of the church is only now starting to realize the truth to which the Radical Reformation communities have patiently witnessed for more than four hundred years: the ekklesia is a peculiar people, called out of the world to embody a different politics.

3. Sharing possessions. That different politics is most dramatically expressed in the Radical Reformation’s practices of economic sharing and simple living. Never has this message been more urgently needed than the present. In a world driven by corporate capitalism and drugged into materialistic numbness by the suggestive power of the mass media, the counter-testimony of the Anabaptist communities is crucial for modelling another way, the way of the gospel.

4. Peacefulness and peacemaking. Similarly, the Radical Reformation’s renunciation of violence is of enormous importance for our time. The church’s longstanding complicity with violence is one of the most shameful aspects of its history. By recalling the community of faith to the peaceable teaching and example of Jesus, the Anabaptist tradition summons us to reclaim our true vocation in the world as a sign of the coming kingdom in which, under the lordship of Jesus, “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9).


To give a full picture of my response to the Radical Reformation tradition, I must balance these appreciative remarks with a few additional critical observations and questions. I have already noted the concerns I had back in the 1970s about the tradition’s tendency towards excessive biblical literalism and towards an over-optimistic anthropology that, at its worst, can lead to a semi-Pelagian soteriology and its correlate, a prideful disdain towards outsiders. The recurrent, unimaginative criticism of the Anabaptist tradition as “sectarian” finds its one legitimate target at this point. As I have continued to reflect on the theological implications of the Anabaptist legacy, two other issues have come into focus for me-issues that I believe to be important for the ongoing dialogue between Radical Reformation and mainline Protestant traditions.

First, how do we take adequate account theologically of the Old Testament? The Radical tradition tends to undervalue the Old Testament and/or to regard it as superseded by the New. Anabaptists are hardly alone in this failing-if anything, the Lutheran tradition’s hermeneutical elevation of the law-gospel dialectic is even worse-but the matter must be reconsidered in our time. Jesus’ teaching and action can be understood rightly only when he is placed firmly in the context of the Judaism of his time and of the longer story of God’s dealings with Israel.

Second, I see an unresolved tension in the Anabaptist tradition between authority and freedom. This tension manifests itself in practices of biblical interpretation and in the mechanisms of decision-making in the community’s life. In Metanoia Fellowship, for instance, we faced constant struggles about such issues as we tried to pursue decision-making by community consensus under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Radical Reformers insisted that they were recalling the faithful to live strictly by what the Bible said, rather than by the body of tradition developed in the church over many centuries. But who is to decide how the Bible is to be interpreted, particularly on contested issues (such as current debates about sexuality)? Is each individual free to decide? How then can there be coherence in the community’s life, and how can there be any meaningful practice of church discipline? On the other hand, if the community’s leaders guide the church in the process of interpretation, then do the community’s decisions take on the status of authoritative traditions that shape the subsequent reading of Scripture? If so, how is this different in principle from what catholic Christianity has always claimed about the authoritative role of tradition? I face this conundrum constantly in my own work as a theologian committed to the authority of Scripture in the church, and the Radical Reformation traditions have not, on the whole, offered any clear resolution of the problem.

These questions and criticisms should be understood as coming from a grateful friend of Radical Reformation theology. I have learned far more from the tradition than I could ever presume to teach it. I continue to find the witness of the Radical Reformation churches inspiring and challenging, and I expect that the power of their testimony will increase in the coming century, as the church in the West comes to grips with its new situation as a disenfranchised minority in a post-Constantinian world.

[1]. For an account of life at Reba Place in the early 1970s, see Dave and Neta Jackson, Living Together in a World Falling Apart (Carol Stream, IL: Creation House, 1974). For a more extended history, see Dave and Neta Jackson, Glimpses of Glory: Thirty Years of Community. The Story of Reba Place Fellowship (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1987).
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[2]. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).
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[3]. Yoder, Politics of Jesus, p. 230.
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[4]. In rereading my old copy of Politics of Jesus in preparation for this essay, I was intrigued to discover that back in 1975 I had highlighted note 9 on page 226: “In general the New Testament word pistis would better not be translated ‘faith,’ with the concentration that word has for modern man upon either a belief content or the act of believing; ‘faithfulness’ would generally be a more accurate rendering of its meaning.” Although I had forgotten encountering this suggestion in Yoder by the time I got around to writing my doctoral dissertation, it was undoubtedly one of the seeds that germinated in my decision to explore the meaning of pistis Iesou Christou in Paul. See R. B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1983).
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[5]. Along the way, I was pleased to discover that Yoder had begun his academic career by writing studies of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. See, e.g., J. H. Yoder, Tufertum und Reformation in der Schweiz, Bd. 1: Die Gesprche zwischen Tufern und Reformatoren, 1523-1538 (Karlsruhe: H. Schneider, 1962) and, Tufertum und Reformation im Gesprch: Dogmengeschichtliche Untersuchung der frhen Gesprche zwischen Schweizerischen Tufern und Reformatoren (Zrich: EVZ-Verlag, 1968). I also learned for the first time about MQR and the modern scholarly recovery of the story of evangelical Anabaptism, and I read Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944).
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[6]. C. Grebel, letter to Thomas Mntzer, in G. H. Williams, ed., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), 75-76.
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[7]. See my book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996).
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Embodying the Gospel in Community
*Richard B. Hays is Professor of New Testament at The Divinity School, Duke University.