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Spring 2010 · Vol. 39 No. 1 · pp. 71–83 

Ancient Monasticism and the Anabaptist Future: A Tale of Two Reformers

Leonard Hjalmarson

A tale of two Reformations and two German monks: one Augustinian, one Benedictine. It’s a story that seems very current, because it was set during the collapse of one world and the birth of a new.

It’s a story we know well, or think we know. The Middle Ages, the Age of Belief, was drawing to a close, and the Renaissance was telling scholars to question received truths and return ad fontes. It was a time of political, social, and religious upheaval, where the calm synthesis of one age was erupting into multiple streams of thought and practice. In time a new way forward would be taken, led by Queen Reason, but not before a more or less unified Church was shattered seemingly beyond repair, and not before many Christians killed each other, or died trying.

We need a gospel that will capture our hearts and affections, and not our minds alone

The Augustinian monk is Luther, of course. The Benedictine monk is less well known, but his name is Michael Sattler. In 1523 Sattler left the cloister of St. Peter to join the Swiss Brethren in Zurich. Like Luther, he married an ex-nun. Banished from Zurich in 1525 they arrived at Strasbourg. In February of 1527 the Schleitheim Confession was forged, but no peace was made with the status quo of Christendom. Arrested by the Roman Catholics, Sattler and a group of Anabaptists were executed after torture. Martin Bucer continued to speak well of him.

If this little bit of history interests you, it stunned me. For quite some time I have been impressed that there is a resonance between Anabaptism at its root and the new monastic movement. Discovering that two Reformations shared so much in common, yet moved worlds apart, was astonishing. And then discovering that an Anabaptist father had been a Benedictine monk, and witnessing the similarity of the Confession to the Rule of St. Benedict, I felt as if a new door was open to me.

What the radicals were calling for is evident in the Confession: (a) voluntary membership in community; (b) a common way of life (even more so than belief, but this separation, this dualism, is itself thoroughly modern); (c) the disciplined pursuit of holiness; (d) leaders elected by the community. They were reimagining the monastery without the walls and without celibacy. This amounts to a “lay” order of monks; Anabaptism was the “new monasticism” of the sixteenth century.

No surprise, then, that as the church looks for a way beyond her accommodation to modernity and her immersion in consumer culture, we are rediscovering missional orders and covenant community. It isn’t happening just in the U.K. And Anabaptist groups (often non-Mennonites, and particularly in the U.K.), 1 with their theology of God’s people as an alternative or third culture, seem to be on the forefront of this move.

As I thought about this, I wondered what it would look like to run our Metro community, born out of Willowpark Church, through the grid of Benedictine vows. 2 The Benedictines ordered their shared life around stability, conversion, and obedience. Do these ancient vows help me make sense of our community as an Anabaptist shalom reality, with its missional/incarnational expression? Let’s talk about the vows: Stability—Conversion—Obedience.


The church in modernity largely abandoned “place” just as it abandoned the margins of society. 3 Instead of becoming rooted, people uprooted and moved out of the urban centers in search of safer and more attractive areas. But “man is only in so far as he dwells.” By dwelling, Heidegger means more than simply residing. Any living creature can reside. But to be human is to inhabit a place—to experience it from the inside—and allow that place to inhabit us. In a sense, it’s this inhabiting that turns a neutral, empty space into a fully human place invested with meaning.” 4

But even where this physical move did not occur, most of us travel to participate in some kind of ecclesial expression. We thus lose our sense of “neighborhood” and weaken our sense of responsibility for the place where we actually live. We become service providers but not stakeholders.

The automobile has contributed to this detachment from place and our loss of community just as “virtual community” now contributes to further fragmentation and detachment. Those in my generation are fond of complaining about virtual community while we contribute to another kind of fragmentation by exercising our freedom to consume religious services as, and where, we choose.

Wendell Berry has written about the effects of all this with great clarity in Sex, Economy, Community and Freedom. 5 With his agrarian roots and his love of the land he sounds more Mennonite than most Mennonites. (It’s helpful to remember that “covenant,” “land,” “justice,” and “people” are powerful, recurring theological themes in Scripture.) In short, we have little understanding of what it means to dwell in a place and fully inhabit it. As a result, we don’t go deep into relationships anymore, nor are we stewards of the places where we live. But without that depth, without that sense of covenant to persons as well as to the land, there is no deep investment made; and therefore trust is not achieved. We are not vulnerable to one another, we don’t know shalom, and we remain caught in our Cartesian modes of existence. “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone.”

What does this mean for the church in the urban core? What is the call of the Lord on us? It doesn’t take an Old Testament scholar reading through the book of Isaiah to realize that the Lord is deeply concerned about the city. A quick look at Isaiah 25 and 26, and the call of the Lord to his people in exile to “seek the shalom of the cities where you dwell” (Jeremiah 29) should be ringing in our ears.

Some of us may be asked to sell our homes and to move closer to the urban core. Others will spend more time hanging around downtown and building friendships. We hope that we can initiate a community garden so that urban dwellers and street people can get in touch with the land and contribute to a greener city, as well as participate in advocacy for those who have no voice. We are talking about some kind of crafts and art cooperative, and perhaps some mentoring in simple furniture making. But the most profound and lasting change will only come as peace seekers move into the abandoned places of Empire. 6


The second Benedictine vow is conversion. What does it mean to repent? The word in Scripture is metanoia, and it signifies a turning in both mind and heart. Conversion starts on the inside and works its way out.

The word signifies a process more than an event. It means to keep on turning, to be renewed in our minds, to allow the light of God to expose new layers of our lives requiring a new surrender day by day. Repentance—conversion—is an ongoing need for us as we follow Jesus. When our own inner lives are exposed to the light we learn about the false self, and that enables us to see it in others. When we live this way we can invite others along on the same journey. There is no “us” and “them” as if we have achieved something. We identify with the broken because we are broken.

It is to Christ we are converted but not to Christ alone. “The church is the dating service—sometimes she thinks she is the date.” Richard Rohr hits the nail on the head but, at the same time, conversion includes a communal element: when we repent of our sin and selfish ways we join a people on a journey toward wholeness, toward shalom. “Repentance” becomes the spiritual equivalent of the natural process of grain being ground: individual grains cease to exist when the loaf is born.

In Hebrew, repentance is signified by the word shuv. Shuv has a storied history—it pictures Israel returning from Babylon to be God’s holy people in the land of Promise. God gave to Israel the law—a code for living together as a political entity. So conversion begins with our personal orientation to God, but it doesn’t stop there. It expresses a new polis in an alternate community under an alternate Lord. It embraces all of life and, in particular, life in community.

What does this mean for life together with marginalized and homeless people?

It means that no one of us has arrived. We journey together to a land we have not seen. It means that together we learn new ways of being, ways that exclude no one. We build a new home together—a third culture and a third space that shows an alternate way of living in peace and friendship. As Stanley Evans wrote, “There is only one way in which the church in the back streets can proclaim the Gospel effectively, and that is by action. The great mass of people have a very shrewd idea of what Christianity professes, but they have an equally shrewd idea that the practice of the Church in no way corresponds to these professions.” 7

It means no one is left behind. We invite belonging before believing. We are less interested in whether people can articulate what they know before they experience the embodiment of shalom in a living community. 8 In this sense we are post-colonial, and we resist reducing the gospel to an intellectual transaction or a behavioral system.

In this sense we are returning to a much older paradigm. In Deep Church Jim Belcher makes the connection to Paul Hiebert’s classic framework of bounded-set, centered-set. 9 Churches that move within the foundationalist frame of modernity have tended to create arrogant Christians who always push for boundaries (in-out) to be crystal clear. Churches which operate with a post-foundationalist ethos are more likely to function as center-set communities, not worrying about what beliefs or confessions define in and out but articulating core values and practices, and then determining belonging by relationship to that center. The illustration popularized by Frost and Hirsch is “fences versus wells.” 10

It means we embrace a chastened rationality 11 or, as Newbigin framed it, a “proper confidence.” We walk in humility. Lesslie Newbigin, the father of western mission, asked this question in Foolishness to the Greeks: “As people who are part of modern Western culture, with its confidence in the validity of its scientific methods, how can we move from the place where we explain the gospel in terms of our modern scientific world-view to the place where we explain our modern scientific world-view from the point of view of the gospel?” 12

Conversion requires that we turn away from power to embrace the foolishness of the Cross, a strong theme in Anabaptist history. We have all compromised in some way—we are all idolaters. Western believers have idolized reason and used logic and reason to argue others into capitulation to a belief system. At the same time, we have been near the center of political and economic power for too long. As Reg McNeal argues in Missional Renaissance, churches have often become business machines that measure their success in secular ways—attendance, buildings and cash. We forget Jesus’ words that a man can gain the world yet lose his own soul. 13

Some of us idolize intellect; 14 some, wealth and power; some, independence or freedom. Most of us are addicted at some level to culture, and we are all called to repentance. As Gordon Cosby says,

Most of us are living, to some degree, as addicted persons, striving anxiously after power and money and prestige and relevance, trapped in the turbulence of wanting more. These addictions are so subtle for most of us that we have the illusion of being free people when in actuality we are immersed in society’s expectations. . . . We are subtle control freaks, truly believing we are turning our lives over to God but demanding a minimum of comforts. . . . 15

At Metro we embrace a discipline of giving and sharing that moves beyond our wallets. Our community is very needy. This past Sunday my wife and I arrived to find a young man of about twenty years with bruised body and stitches on his forehead. After only two nights in town he was mugged while camping out along Mission Creek. The cry of his heart was “home.” We bought him a bus ticket and I drove him to the station. I spent the next hour with him while he sorted through some of the wreckage of his life.


Following Jesus is an experiential thing because we have a living Teacher who speaks. “My sheep hear my voice.” So “the will of God” is not something we figure out in a strategic sense but requires personal intimacy and corporate discipline—a daily lived obedience. It is no accident that the Mennonite Brethren were birthed as a charismatic movement. Perhaps charism and covenant are a double helix: the best interweave of Word and Spirit.

At the heart of a covenant community is an intentional agreement between its members to live in a certain way. Sometimes this “way” is described by an “order” or “rule of life” (the word derives from the Latin regula, which means “rhythm, regularity of pattern”). “Rule” in our place in history tends to sound oppressive and limiting, but a rule is not an end but a means to an end. 16 Henri Nouwen writes that, “A Rule offers ‘creative boundaries within which God’s loving presence can be recognized and celebrated.’ It does not prescribe but invite, it does not force but guide, it does not threaten but warn, it does not instill fear but points to love. In this it is a call to freedom, freedom to love.” 17 In Paul Hiebert’s terms, covenant communities share the characteristics of both centered sets and bounded sets. 18

It’s at this point that questions of governance arise. Many communities in our day are actually built around charismatic leaders more than shared purpose, but this makes the community very fragile. It seems we have a choice to build leadership cults, or a leadership culture. 19

Historically, communities oriented around a common rule have identified people in their midst who are unusual for their wisdom. According to Lawrence M. Miller, 20 the key to holding together diverse communities of leadership types is the synergist. Miller describes a synergist as “. . . a leader who has escaped his or her own conditioned tendencies toward one style and incorporated, appreciated and unified each of the styles of leadership on the life-cycle curve. The best managed companies are synergistic.”

The synergist guards this ethos, and her role is to foster and maintain a creative and open space within the team so that no one role dominates. 21 She helps maintain clarity of vision and her investment is in internal capital. Some traditions call this person an Abbot or Abbess.

Alan Roxburgh compares the role of the synergist to that of the leaders of Celtic communities in the fifth to ninth centuries. These Abbots and Abbesses did not function as authoritative command and control personalities 22 but rather were people who best embodied the living ideals of the community. They were concerned more with cultivating healthy environments rather than shaping specific actions or developing programs. They were not managers but spiritual elders. Joseph Myers writes that the leaders of tomorrow “shape environments as opposed to creating groups. When the environment is healthy, people will find connection on their own.” 23

Anabaptists have a special legacy with regard to leadership and community. We always understood leadership as primarily a spiritual vocation. In the last generation we nearly lost this, and we have other work to do to unlearn a professional model of ministry and relearn a vocational model. Sandra Cronk talks about this same struggle within the Society of Friends:

The professional model assumes that ministry is primarily a skill or body of knowledge that is offered to recipients. These skills are part of a job. But in earlier years Friends saw ministry much more as a way of being and relating. Ministers were recognized for their skills, to be sure, but they were leaders more because their whole way of being pointed toward God or conveyed God’s love and caring. Their words, actions and relationships were their ministry. In this old Quaker conception, ministry is not just a matter of doing but of being.

There are problems with the kind of structure which compartmentalizes life into private and professional spheres. This kind of division tends to make ministry a task. It prevents a full relationship with another human being in which redemption can happen. 24

It won’t be an easy task to recover this older model, because we have seen so many abuses of spiritual authority. Given our negative experience with authority and the fear generated from these, we have work to do to rebuild trust. 25


Why covenant together?

For Anabaptists covenant is not a new idea, but for many in the free church tradition, the idea of a covenant or rule of life is odd. Isn’t the Bible a good enough guide?

But it is the Bible that gives us the example of sharing concrete practices. In 1 Corinthians Paul gives instruction on what to do with meat offered to idols, what to do about head coverings, how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We might not do all the things he suggests in the same way today, but in his culture and his time these ways made sense. They were a way of witnessing to an alternate way of living—a shared way and a covenant way—within the individualist Greek culture of the time. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Savior says,

God’s dream for radical newness will require discipline. Not discipline connected to punishment or shame, but discipline that roots us in Christ, deepening our connection to God and one another. This rootedness will come from having consistent, ordered ways in which we remain open to Grace, and they will be unique to each one of us. Grace constantly seeks entrance into our souls in order to effect change, but Grace will never force her way in. Discipline is the means by which we open ourselves to the sort of radical change that has always been God’s intention for us. 26

What kinds of agreements, or covenants, are at the center of communities that are shaped by an order? A very basic rhythm includes these elements:

  • Dwelling in the Word: becoming people who are read by Scripture
  • Hospitality—with both friends and neighbors
  • Keeping the Daily Office (an ancient rhythm of prayer)
  • Regular worship within a local church expression
  • Advocacy, peace, and justice

We covenant together because we discover along the way that we are basically lazy. Like water, we tend to take the path of least resistance, usually downhill. How do we keep our feet to the fire? Making a shared commitment to prayer, hospitality, study, mission, and gathering together helps us to stay on track and gives us a basis on which to encourage one another in our common purpose.

It also simplifies our choices. The reason why some people do not pray or study the Scripture or go out on mission is that they do not know where to start, or on what basis to choose. When we agree together to the journey in Christ we are no longer on the journey alone.

In the end, there is much to be said for spontaneity, but I believe most communities need to establish rhythms in their practices or they will have difficulty maintaining coherence and a restful center. Fragmentation will continue to plague them, and non-covenantal reality will result in distractions that contribute to arhythmia. Escaping the duality of sacred and secular life will require us to rediscover essential rhythms.

Christians are formed into communities because of God’s work to make a people to serve him as Christ’s witnesses. The congregation is either a missional community—as Newbigin defines it, “the hermeneutic of the gospel” 27—or it is ultimately a caricature of the people of God that it is called to be. 28

Shalom and berith (“covenant”) are practically synonymous. Shalom refers to the state of those who participate in the harmonious society. Berith refers to the community and all the privileges and obligations that community implies. Covenant and shalom go hand in hand; God’s community must have one to experience the other. 29

It is the legacy of Cartesian individualism that has allowed us to separate things that our fathers and mothers would never separate: law and grace, covenant and shalom, faith and community.

Anabaptists have always had a special concern for discipleship. Even in this late day, we are still not quite comfortable with the idea that one can embrace belief without a practice, or embrace faith apart from a living community. But we have come perilously close to this place—an abstract wasteland of Gnosticism.

Here in the death throes of modernity we live mostly in our heads. The church is not much different than the culture. The solutions and attempts at change, in particular the calls for leaders and churches to change, are largely appeals to change our thinking or our worldview, and sometimes appeals that shame or guilt us. (Just listen to the sermons we preach.) The problem is seen as one of correct thinking or right belief—therefore the solution advanced is new and better information. We have attempted to bring change in this way for most of the last generation, and the result is churches in decline, a valley full of dry bones, and a church that looks very much like the world around it. We have succeeded in training a generation of believers as consumers of religious goods and services. 30


Where did we go wrong?

What if, instead of reason, our affections are where we deeply live? We are creatures of desire. As James K.A. Smith argues, eros must order agape. 31

What if formation cannot take place except through the embrace of disciplines that form us, body and soul? 32 Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom has drawn out the philosophical and theological thread in much richer detail. This “thick description” may help us see the problem more clearly. Realistic treatment grows out of a correct diagnosis—and the patient does not have much time left.

We have rightly been concerned with truth, but that concern has not produced apprentices of Jesus. Perhaps this is a clue that the mind is not the “primary” locus of personality formation in humankind?

This past weekend I listened to a passionate young preacher defending “absolute truth” as knowable and unchanging. He began by identifying Truth (capital “T”) with God, but then proceeded to defend reason as a path to knowing God. He clearly assumed that defending reason was defending our faith.

When did reason become the foundation of our faith? When did we separate “truth” from “troth,” and belief from “knowing” (in the biblical sense of relational intimacy)? We have many people who call themselves disciples because they believe rightly or because they perform good deeds. Are these things the essence of faith or a necessary result of knowing God? If they are the essence, why do we have so many bored congregants who are mostly concerned with enjoying the good life and do not live as citizens of God’s kingdom?

If the problem of discipleship is a problem of right thinking or right action, then we should really have gotten it right by now—but our churches are in deep trouble. I hear appeals to morality and behavior on one hand, and appeals to correct belief on the other. There are few places where I hear a real call to conversion at the level of Spirit and desire. But the monastics had it right—“God is not known if he is not loved.” It is by the witness of the Spirit in our hearts that we know that we are children of God, and it is the Spirit who transforms us: the flesh profits nothing.

Hear, O Israel. The LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall LOVE the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength. . . .

No, we have more work to do. We need a gospel that will capture our hearts and affections, and not our minds alone. We need a renewed vision of the beauty and excellence of Christ and the kingdom: a vision of a world we have not seen but a city we long for—a city which we are, as a sign and a foretaste of the City to come (Matt. 5: 13–16).

And if we fail to recover an expression of the church as a covenant community, a “community of virtue” in the language of William Cavanaugh, 33 a community immersed in a concrete way of life in the neighborhoods where we dwell, the battle will soon be over and the secularity that has long been a solvent of our faith will be seen to have won.


  1. See in particular the work of Stuart Murray, and new efforts like Urban Expressions.
  2. Metro is a community of Anabaptist believers living among the urban poor in Kelowna.
  3. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Michel de Certeau here and his definitive work The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
  4. Simon Carey Holt, God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighborhood (Melbourne: Acorn, 2007), 63.
  5. Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon, 1993).
  6. See especially the work of Robert Lupton and FCS Urban Ministries. In Canada, see the work of Glenn Smith and New Church Initiatives.
  7. Stanley Evans, The Church in the Back Streets (London: Mowbray, 1962), 35–36.
  8. See also Gordon Smith. Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Contours of Christian Initiation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: 2009).
  9. Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 94–95.
  10. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the Twenty-first-century Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 85–86.
  11. John Franke, “Reforming Theology: Toward a Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics,” The Westminster Theological Journal 65 (Spring 2003): 1–26.
  12. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 22.
  13. Reggie McNeal, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).
  14. We need to rehear Paul’s wringing words as he opens his letter to the Corinthians. Will we choose power or embrace the foolishness of God?
  15. In an interview with Jeff Bailey, “The Journey Inward, Outward and Forward,” Cutting Edge Magazine 5 (Fall 2001): 10–14.
  16. Somewhere St. Gregory writes that we always live with the danger of transforming supplies for the journey into hindrances to our arrival. A rule is a good thing if it deepens our walk and lights our path.
  17. Found at the Northumbria Community website. Online Similarly, Newbigin writes, “true freedom is found not by seeking to develop the powers of the self . . . but [in] true relatedness in love and obedience.” Foolishness, 119.
  18. Paul Hiebert, “The Category ‘Christian’ in the Mission Task,” International Review of Mission 72 (1983): 421–27. See Mark Baker’s recent reflection on these terms in “Bounded or Centered: The Book of Galatians,” In Touch (Fall/Winter 2009). See also Alan Roxburgh’s chapter in Darrell L. Guder et al., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
  19. Anne Deering, Robert Dilts and Julian Russel, “Leadership Cults and Culture,” Leader to Leader no. 28 (Spring 2003).
  20. Lawrence M. Miller, Barbarians to Bureaucrats (New York: Fawcett, 1990).
  21. The domination of certain leadership types has been ironically designated the sola pastora model. But the loss of diversity is no laughing matter. Biologists know that genetic diversity is what allows organisms to survive under rapidly changing conditions.
  22. Alan Roxburgh, The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition (Eagle, ID: ACI, 2005).
  23. Joseph R. Myers, The Search to Belong (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 79.
  24. Sandra Cronk, “Discovering and Nurturing Ministers,” Festival Quarterly (Winter/Spring 1989).
  25. See Brad Sargent’s summary of the five “core needs” for transformation from Kathy Koch’s Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness: Five Questions that will Change Your Life (Chicago: Moody, 2005). The core needs are: “Security—Who can I trust? Security is the state of being or feeling secure. It involves freedom from fear, anxiety, danger, doubt. Identity—Who am I? Identity is the characteristics and qualities of a person. Our identity can be stuck in the past (who was I?) or lost in the future (who do I want to be?), but is healthiest when it is rooted into [sic] who I now am. Belonging—Who wants me? We belong when we are related and connected.” Sargent, “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 3B,” Also related, Stephen Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2006).
  26. Interview with Jeff Bailey in “The Journey Inward, Outward and Forward.”
  27. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 222ff.
  28. Darrell L. Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 136.
  29. Jon Stock, Tim Otto, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2007), 112.
  30. A.W. Tozer is reputed to have said, “A church that can’t worship must be entertained and men [sic] who can’t lead a church to worship must provide entertainment.”
  31. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
  32. See in particular the work of Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1999).
  33. William Cavanaugh. “The Church as God’s Body Language,” Zadok Perspectives (Spring 2006): 150.
Len is a writer, teacher, and software developer living in Kelowna, B.C. He was a contributor and editor of Voices of the Virtual World in 2008 and Fresh and Re:Fresh in 2009. With a D.Min. in Leadership and Spirituality (ACTS Seminaries in Langley, B.C.), Len is also Director of Spiritual Formation for FORGE Canada. His blog can be found at He edits Missional Voice at

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