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Fall 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 2 · pp. 124–131 

Ploughing with a Donkey and an Ox: On Being Anabaptist and Reformed

John Neufeld

I have been asked to write an article on the Reformed movement (sometimes called “New Calvinist”) within Mennonite Brethren circles. I suspect I have been asked to write on this question because I identify myself that way. I am a council member of the Gospel Coalition led by D.A. Carson, Timothy Keller, and John Piper—an association known for its roots in the Reformation and its Calvinistic convictions. I am also pastor of a large Mennonite Brethren (MB) church in Canada, and as such have no difficulty identifying myself as an Anabaptist. I was once introduced as a “Reformed Anabaptist” to a member of the Coalition, and he responded with the words of Deuteronomy 22:10—“You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” I smiled, but inwardly was not amused. But the comment could just as easily have been made in MB circles. Both sides are suspicious that the two simply cannot be wedded.

Anabaptism needs the Reformed movement, or it vanishes into the very lifeless morass in which Eduard Wuest found the Russian Mennonite colonies.

The question of how one can be consistently Anabaptist and consistently Reformed is a genuine one. For many, being Reformed means being {125} Presbyterian or Christian Reformed. It means embracing infant baptism, a Reformed view of a real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and an ecclesiology which lends itself to a more hierarchical view of church leadership than most Anabaptists agree with. Furthermore, Anabaptists often remind me of John Calvin’s role in the burning of the anti-Trinitarian heretic Michael Servetus in 1553. In contrast, Anabaptists are called to love their enemies, not persecute them. Finally the idea of a Christian Geneva, which Calvin subscribed to, cannot be reconciled with an Anabaptist view of the church as a radical community of God’s people separate from the corridors of worldly power.

Given what seem to be insurmountable differences between the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions, many are suspicious that the present trend in some Mennonite Brethren churches toward hiring Reformed-sounding pastors can be put down to two factors. The first is simply the fact that being “Reformed” has become “hot.” With the 2008 publication of Collin Hansen’s book, Young, Restless, Reformed, 1 a new surging Calvinism has gained attention in North America. In 2009, Time magazine named “new Calvinism” one of ten new ideas changing the world right now. 2 Some Anabaptists suspect that the Reformed movement among MB churches is simply riding a wave. Surprisingly enough, I too share that concern. I identified myself as “Reformed” back in the early 1980s as a result of reading Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). At that time, being Reformed was not “hot” at all. My fascination with Edwards led to reading the Puritans, and then finally to Calvin and Luther. I saw in them something that I lacked and longed for, even while I never lost my Anabaptist roots. And yet, I, like other Anabaptists, am concerned that many who are “Reformed” are more likely to be influenced by some populist preachers who have put a new brash face on the Reformed movement and are not the product of serious theological reflection.

A second reason why some are suspicious is because pluralism has grown in all denominations. In our denomination, what it means to be “Mennonite Brethren” is often not well articulated. Thus widely divergent streams are allowed to co-exist without any attempt to reconcile our ever widening pluralism. Of course, this is not simply a problem for the Reformed who find themselves under the MB umbrella. In some ways, MBs have become like the old three-ring circus that used to come to town. Various acts performed simultaneously under the same tent, and it was entirely up to the viewer to decide which of the three interested him or her most. And so, one might be MB and watch the “peace position” act, the “feminist” act, the “mainline evangelical” act, the “emergent” act, the “hermeneutics of peoplehood” act, or the “Reformed” act—all happening at the same time, under the same big top. {126}

As suspicious as the idea of “Reformed Anabaptism” may sound to some, in what follows I wish to present my own vision of what I believe to be a consistent approach to being both Anabaptist and Reformed. I wish to build a case for the only kind of Anabaptism that I believe actually works, a hyphenated Anabaptism. It is my argument that Anabaptism as a movement was never intended to stand alone. It is a “corrective” movement, and no one should take a “corrective” and make it the central thing.


The logical place to begin is with the first stirrings of Anabaptist sentiments in Switzerland under the reformer Ulrich Zwingli. The “young radicals” who broke with him in 1525 and established the Anabaptist movement had much in common with their mentor. They had adopted Zwingli’s view of Scripture. Zwingli’s emphasis on the Reformation ideal of sola Scriptura formed the very basis for the disagreement with their teacher. From Zwingli, they learned that the church is not subject to the state but answers to the Christian community of which it consists. From him also, they adopted the doctrine of justification by faith alone, denied the Romanist doctrine of transubstantiation, denied that good works had salvific merit, denied the doctrine of the intercession of the saints, denied the existence of purgatory, and so forth. Many contemporary Anabaptists fail to realize that our view of the Lord’s Supper is entirely the view of Zwingli. Zwingli’s impact on who we are and what we have become is undeniable. We would do well to acknowledge our debt of gratitude to this outstanding reformer. Indeed, Zwingli and the two other “magisterial Reformers” (Luther and Calvin), form the basis for our own MB denomination. They set the stage for who we are, what we believe, and the principles of Scripture that guide us.

Why then did the Anabaptists break with Zwingli? The issues are many, but for the benefit of this article I will limit them to two. The first was the issue of the Mass. Conrad Grebel and his friends demanded that Zwingli bring an end to the practice of the Mass, which they deemed to be unbiblical. Zwingli had already taught them that, but urged his young students to remain patient. He hoped to work this matter out with the city council of Zurich. Indeed, he did. Shortly after the break, Zwingli obtained permission from the city council to abolish the Mass. From Zwingli’s perspective, the men under his care had been far too impatient. Indeed, if they had only waited, they would have seen their desires fulfilled. Such is the impetuous nature of the young.

But from the perspective of the radicals, Zwingli had missed the principle issue altogether. Having been liberated from one oppressor (Rome), why should they now submit to another (the Zurich city council)? The {127} principle issue was that of a church under the Lordship of Christ, a model of church we now call the “believers church.” The governance of the church was entrusted to a believing community directed by Scripture and not awaiting the decrees of a civil authority. Hence, to be Anabaptist meant to embrace the church as a radical community called out of the world and under the authority of Christ alone. In essence, this was the logical trajectory of the Reformation doctrine of solus Christus.

The second issue was baptism, which served as the point of entrance into the community of believers. Infant baptism spoke of the idea of “Christendom,” while believers baptism spoke of the idea of a community of God’s people, separated from the world in order to be the holy people of God.

At this point, we do well to note that at no point did the radicals take issue with the doctrines of grace they had received from Zwingli. While it is true that in the future there would be all manner of disagreements with the Reformation doctrines of grace (consider the Zwickau prophets, the Muenster tragedy, and the “works” theology of some Anabaptists in southern Germany), the mainstream remained convinced that the doctrines of grace formed the basis of their faith.


From the preceding, several pictures should emerge. The first is the relationship of the Anabaptist movement to the wider Reformation. There are those who argue that Anabaptism represents a kind of “third way,” a way of looking at Christianity that is “neither Catholic nor Protestant.” 3 But this approach is problematic. Those familiar with the Reformation will recognize that the Reformers were not trying to present a “second way.” They argued that Rome had lost its way and must be reformed to bring it back to what is the only way. For that reason, the Reformers not only loved to quote Scripture, but also made use of key church leaders in the past. Those familiar with Calvin will recognize immediately how liberally he borrowed both from Augustine and John Chrysostom. Those familiar with Zwingli will remember that he justified his expositional preaching by citing the practice of the Church Fathers.

The point is that the Reformers were out to re-establish the Church on its proper footings, not introduce a new tradition, a second way of seeing the Church. Reformers pointed out that the advent of the papacy was an aberration, not a natural development in the authentic Church. Even at the celebrated councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, bishops from the universal Church came to their conclusions through their study of the Bible and by consensus, not by passive obedience to a papal edict. So for Reformers, the Western church had lost its way, and they were on a journey to rediscover {128} its true way, by submitting to the authority of Scriptures alone. On this Anabaptists agreed.

Furthermore, the Reformers were not so naïve as to think they could completely reform the Church. Their vision was of a Church reformed and yet always reforming. And it is precisely here that Anabaptists present us with something we need to hear.

In The Anabaptist Story, William Estep declares that Anabaptism was essentially a “Reformation phenomenon.” 4 Particularly in regard to the principle of sola Scriptura, but also, one could add, on such subjects as the authority of the historic creeds, the doctrine of the Trinity, and justification by faith, “the Reformation stance of Anabaptists is unequivocal.” 5 In Estep’s view, the great Anabaptist distinctive was their refusal to concede that church and state must be allies. 6 An earlier scholar has also suggested that Mennonite views were passed down to the Puritans who made their way to Plymouth and in 1611 founded the first English Baptist church in London. 7 The Baptistic emphasis on the separation of church and state and on believers baptism is reflected in the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. 8 This confession is essentially identical to the (Calvinist) Westminster Confession of Faith, the only differences being an added chapter on the “The Gospel and its Gracious Extent” and Baptistic statements on baptism and the nature of the church. Again we see both continuity with the Reformation and discontinuity on how the role of the church is understood.


Mennonite Brethren share in this Reformed-Anabaptist story in a unique way. Those who eventually became the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1860 were earlier impacted by Lutheran Pietist preacher Eduard Wuest (1818–1859) who preached a Reformed doctrine of salvation combined with pietistic revivalism. Many were converted under his ministry. 9 In the early days of the MB movement, the Baptist influence along with the pietistic Lutheran influence was plain and unmistakable. Our first MB Confession of Faith (1902) shows clear evidence of Baptist and Reformation principles. While it is clear that MBs have been deeply influenced by Jacob Arminius and Arminian theology, I argue that this is not so by necessity. In my estimation, if a clear understanding of what was offered by the Reformed doctrines of grace had been presented, the movement might just as easily have gone in that direction.

For many, the acronym “BASIN” stands at the heart of what is meant by Anabaptist theology. The Brotherhood of all believers, Adult believers baptism, the Separation of church and state, that we are In the world but not of it, and that we offer loving Non-resistance to our enemies stand at the heart of the Anabaptist view. {129}

Similarly, the TULIP acronym stands at the heart of Reformed theology. Notice here, that I confine my use of the word “Reformed” to the Reformed doctrines of grace. We will consider these one at a time.

First, our state outside of grace is that of “Total depravity.” This of course does not mean that we are as wicked as can be, but only that sin has radically and totally invaded every part of our humanity, including our intellect, emotions, volition, affections, and also our will. No part of our humanity is left outside of sin. Reformed theologians have argued that unbelievers often do righteous things, but that these deeds are a result of what they call “common grace.” Were a general grace from God not applied to all humankind, we would all fall into utter depravity. But God is gracious. And yet this grace does not lead to salvation. Without saving grace, in spite of the benefits of common grace, we have nothing with which we can commend ourselves to God.

Second, when God’s saving grace is applied to anyone, it comes to them apart from any prior condition. This is called “Unconditional election.” God chooses his own apart from any merit they have in themselves. The common “mainline evangelical” merit of “choosing for Christ” is rejected here, for if even our power to choose has been invaded by sin (the “T” in TULIP), we are unable to choose for God. Interestingly, the 1902 MB Confession of Faith stated that very thing, stressing that it was a statement of MB faith to believe in man’s inability to respond to God. 10 For those in the Reformed tradition, that inability is only overcome if God gives life to the dead. God must act first, apart from any human merit. If it were otherwise, grace would no longer be grace. Reformed theologians insist that any attempt to merit our own salvation—including the merit of choosing for God—is simply opposed to the doctrine of grace. No, Christ calls us first, then we, having been raised from the dead, respond to him.

Third, is the controversial doctrine of “Limited atonement.” Reformed theologians prefer to speak of this as “particular redemption,” meaning that Christ’s death on the cross was intended only for the elect. It must be added, however, that on this matter there is considerable disagreement. Rather than defending or challenging this view, I simply state it, noting that not every Reformed theologian agrees on this point.

Fourth, is the wonderful assurance of “Irresistible grace.” While there is a general call that goes out to everyone, that all should repent and believe the glad news of the gospel, there is an “effectual call,” an irresistible call, where the sinner is overwhelmingly drawn to Christ, so that no man might boast, but in Christ alone.

Finally, all Reformed theologians hold to the “Perseverance of the elect.” The idea here is not that we might have had a conversion experience years before and regardless of how we live we are saved, because of {130} a “sinner’s prayer we might have prayed.” Rather, this doctrine declares that all who are truly and irresistibly drawn to Christ, because of the eternal counsel of the Father to bring them into his elect, show this by remaining faithful unto Christ until death.


Having stated matters this way—that BASIN refers to the Anabaptist side of the equation and TULIP refers to the Reformed doctrines of grace—one can easily see why there is no contradiction between the two. BASIN refers to our ecclesiology, whereas TULIP, to our soteriology. The Reformed side of me wants to chastise the Anabaptist by saying that while you think of the church as the people of God and following Jesus as the calling upon the church, you have not asked how it is that individuals can become the people of God. It is the lack of a clear doctrinal formulation that leads to a church no longer founded on grace, premised instead on human opinion, and led astray by every wind of doctrine. Anabaptism needs the Reformed movement, or it vanishes into the very lifeless morass in which Eduard Wuest found the Russian Mennonite colonies in the 1840s and ’50s.

And yet the Anabaptist side of me wants to chastise the Reformed movement as well. Sharing a doctrine of grace without an ecclesiology premised on the priesthood of all believers is dangerous. It leads to abuse of power and trading a vision in which there is level ground before the Cross for one that places the priesthood into fewer and fewer hands.

It is this combination—plowing with an ox and a donkey—that has led me to a way of understanding Christian faith that is both biblical and evangelical.


I was first introduced to this viewpoint when a student at Columbia Bible College in the early 1970s. There I learned about Anabaptism, and there I read Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, 11 a Reformed classic. At that point I had not put together all the details, as further study would do. But that foundation has remained at the center of my thinking.

How has this impacted my ministry? For one, I have been committed to expositional preaching—verse by verse preaching through the Bible text as exemplified in the Reformation. Second, I have come to believe that the Bible forms a unity, and therefore that a proper systematic theology, based upon the whole Bible, is essential when preaching and teaching. Finally, it has impacted the way I see the church and its relationship to the world. {131}

So much more could be said. It is my prayer that serious dialogue on these matters within Mennonite Brethren circles might lend themselves to a renewal of who we are, and who we should be as a people.


  1. Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
  2. David Van Biema, “#3 The New Calvinism. (Cover Story),” Time 173, no. 11 (March 23, 2009): 50.
  3. See, e.g., Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant, 3rd ed. (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2001).
  4. William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 177.
  5. Ibid., 190.
  6. Ibid., 257.
  7. Robert Hasting Nichols, The Growth of the Christian Church (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1914), 2:76.
  8. The text of the Confession can be found at
  9. For a detailed account of Wuest’s influence in the Russian Mennonite colonies, see Harold Jantz, “A Pietist Pastor and the Russian Mennonites: The Legacy of Eduard Wuest,” Direction 36 (Fall 2007): 232–46.
  10. See the second article of the Mennonite Brethren Church Confession of Faith (1902), “Concerning Sin and Redemption.” Available online at Global Anabaptist Wiki, s.v. “Mennonite Brethren Church Confession of Faith (1902),” last modified June 21, 2012,
  11. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th rev. and enl. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941).
John Neufeld, DMin, is senior pastor at Willingdon Church in Burnaby, BC. His studies include Columbia Bible College, University of Saskatchewan (BA, Psychology), Fuller Seminary (MDiv), and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (DMin). John has been married to Kathy for thirty-five years, is the father of three, and grandfather of five. He loves riding his Goldwing motorcycle.

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