A Mennonite Theology of Culture

I just returned from a 3-week trip to Europe studying Anabaptist/Mennonite history, led by Goshen College professor John D. Roth. We started in the Alsace region of Eastern France, and traveled through Switzerland, Southern Germany, Northern Germany, Friesland in the Netherlands, and then finished in and near Amsterdam. We visited current Mennonite (or historically Mennonite) congregations as well as historic sites in Anabaptist and Mennonite history.

These are thoughts which arose during that trip, but were most recently inspired by Edward Christian’s post on Radical Anabaptism and Radical Biblical Exegesis, as well as Nate Myers’ comments on FolkNotion’s post Is it really a sin?, but I thought they deserved their own post. I’ve done my best to keep up with YAR, but I’m sure these things have been said earlier by others (and probably in better ways), so I apologize for that.

As I read the Schleitheim Confession, I realized — as many modern Mennonites have realized before me — that I didn’t (and don’t) like it. At all. This admission led to a basic question that probably arises from any study of the early Anabaptists: “What am I supposed to do with this? How should I respond to (bad) Anabaptist theology?” And as I say it, I realize that I’ve been taught to think of the latter question as a form of heresy.

Today, even though we historiographically reject the notion that all Anabaptists were like-minded pacifist Michael Sattlers, we (or maybe just “I” — prove me wrong) still don’t make a practice of questioning the theology of those few “true Anabaptists” (or “evangelical Anabaptists, as Harold Bender said) with whom we strongly identify. The Anabaptist movement and Mennonite church has based itself largely on a simple time line of turning from God and subsequent renewal: the early church had things right, the Catholics screwed things up, and then the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptist movement returned the church to an earlier, more pure form. As such, we (theoretically) look to the early Anabaptists and the early church as our models for what the Church should be today, and examples of a less “compromised” faith. This is one aspect of what the Concern Group was pushing for 50 years ago. I was brought up Mennonite, but I feel like I was always looking to the Amish as an example of a more faithful lifestyle, or a more biblical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.

Which is cool. I can dig it…to a certain extent. This theology was largely shaped in reaction to a Catholic theology of culture that tended to reinforce the status quo and accepted what the Anabaptists saw as too many cultural compromises. But again, what happens when we come across bad Anabaptist theology? I don’t believe Menno’s strict enforcement of the ban and excommunication is anywhere close to God’s will for the Church, nor do I believe that Jesus entered the world through Mary “like water through a tube.” And I’m sick of talking about theological “compromise with culture” as if it’s an inherently negative thing, or as if we should feel secretive and guilty about believing that women should talk in church (and even be ordained) no matter what Paul (or his students) wrote.

So let me say loud and clear: our theology has progressed over time, and that’s a good thing. I don’t mean this to be a blanket “everything is God and God is everything” statement, which can lead to a free license to continually defend the status quo. But the Anabaptists wrote in a specific culture — I don’t need to contextualize their writings or do an in-depth cultural analysis to realize that some writings strike me as harmful and contrary to the will of God. Theology and biblical interpretation should be willing to change over time, as culture changes.

Obviously my argument has many holes. What is our framework for recognizing theological and ethical progression vs. regression? How do we maintain a distinctive witness against the negative powers of our world? Hopefully there can be a healthy balance between a theology of culture and the traditional Anabaptist/Mennonite suspicion of change. Perhaps we can use the tools of our tradition (Anabaptist values, theology and ethics) in a constant communal reinterpretation of our sacred texts (the Bible, Anabaptist writings, etc.) through the lens of both our tradition and our cultural values and beliefs. And maybe that’s what YAR is all about.

Or maybe I didn’t actually say much new. It’s a push to reject the Bible (or any fixed text) as our one and only source of the Divine authority, and it’s a defense of what I think is good about reading my own “perspective” and “ideological agenda” back into Scripture (see Nate’s comments, referred to earlier). We’ve improved on Menno Simmons, we’ve improved on Michael Sattler, and (dare I even say it?) we’ve improved on Paul.

How’s that for Mennonite humility?

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16 Responses to “A Mennonite Theology of Culture”

  1. lukelm Says:

    I’m thinking about this post J Alan. Since being involved in YAR conversations the past couple weeks I’ve actually had the urge to look through my little pamphlet copy of the Schleitheim Confession (the first document the early Anabaptists came up with once they finally got organized/calmed down enough to write some agreed-upon theology down) - I looked for it but realized it’s in my other apartment.

    I’m going to keep thinking about this and am interested in what others say. My one thought (kind of unformed) to throw in now is that God/the divine/the Spirit doesn’t send revelation to institutions or (I’d say) to texts - revelation is for PEOPLE, for humans, for lives. The spirit didn’t come to a group of church founders or text-writers 2000 or 500 years ago and then travel through time through the associated institutions and texts - the spirit is for now, for life, for the living.

    And then what I REALLY wanted to say - what a great trip through Europe! I did the same class with John D. Roth four years ago, as my last class at Goshen right before graduating. I have very fond memories of it. Cool.

  2. TimN Says:

    The Anabaptist Network has website with the full text of the Schleitheim Confession as well as a number of other primary documents from early Anabaptists including the perennial favorite, “Exposé of the Babylonian Whore”

  3. eric Says:

    I like where you’re going J Alan. Or where you’re coming from. Or both.

    I was complaining about the Schleitheim theology about a year ago to my more-educated-than-myself-on-such-things grandfather who offered in their defense: They were being killed. A little bit of black vs. white theology makes sense in a context like that.

    I’m not sure I buy any defense for such bad theology - from Menno Simons or Paul (Isn’t it interesting that Christian culture is more willing to accept the failures of, say, Moses than Paul. Why is that?) - but I was reminded of it by Luke’s idea of divine inspiration being about life in the present. Did the Schleiheim make a theological sense then that it doesn’t retain now? How about the book of Romans? Or Matthew?

  4. folknotions Says:

    Eric,

    Does the Schleitheim Confession actually retain any relevance for Anabaptists today? Are there folks who still acknowledge it as core doctrine? I haven’t encountered anyone who views it as anything but a historical document but, of course, I am limited by my own walk.

    I observe a lot more often the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective is acknowledged as doctrine than Schleitheim. What is your take?

  5. j alan meyer Says:

    I’m not Eric, but I’ll volunteer my take as well (while also looking forward to Eric’s): Most Anabaptists don’t know what the Schleitheim Confession is, or at least have never read it. I would hope no one who’s read it would view it as anything more than a historical document, as you suspect. While the Amish may still implicitly follow it for the most part, they would never talk about it as such. And until recently (the last 75 years), I doubt most Mennonites knew much about the early Anabaptists besides what’s written in the Martyrs Mirror.

    But today, I think you’re right: The “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” is widely viewed as the prescriptive doctrine of MC-USA, and is treated as such. But regardless of the way we view Schleitheim (which is still regarded as the earliest written confession of the Anabaptist movement), I would argue that the early Anabaptists are still viewed as a sort of “purer, more faithful church” that we should try to imitate (much like Paul and the early church). This “heroification” of the early Anabaptists is often disconnected from the theology these Anabaptists espoused, which I think can be good or bad. Are we blindly calling the Church to renewal by looking at the early Anabaptists without admitting that we don’t like their theology, or are we praising the Spirit of the early Anabaptists, and a few selected practices that we still like? I would say one of those is helpful, but the other is not.

    Or maybe I’m way off base and other people perceive the modern Mennonite church differently.

  6. eric Says:

    I’m guessing you’re both right and it’s a rare Anabaptist out there that could quote the seven points of the Schleitheim, assuming they even knew what it was. But I think it’s still important.

    While the Amish implicitly follow it, I often think the Mennonites passive-aggressively follow it. I think the philosophies behind it have become cultural and theological underpinnings that go unstated, but remain present. We still practice the ban, but call it “discipline” - it’s the same pure-church, teach-the-sinner-a-lesson, shun-em-for-their-own-good theory. We just use nicer words and say we still love each other.

    How much would today’s church actually disagree with the Schleitheim, and how much would we just want to tone it down so it sounds nicer? Based on the recent study of Mennonite thought (is there a link available?), and the varying theologies of the global Mennonite churches, I think we might even want tone down the peace bits.

    Make the whole thing nice and cozy for everyone (except maybe the gays and the ‘promiscuous’ - they’re still acceptably shun-able), then go on with the same theology and practices we’ve learned from our wise tradition.

    That’s not to say there’s been no change at all in the church since 1525, but I think even unspoken, the theology of the Schleitheim is still with us.

  7. folknotions Says:

    Eric,

    yes, I would be inclined to agree with you on the point that Schleitheim has unspoken underpinnings for our church doctrine.

    What is refreshing for me, though, is that some Mennonites still recognize that the congregation comes before any doctrine, either historical (Schleitheim) or current (CoF in a Mennonite Perspective). Germantown Mennonite Church which was barred from conference for allowing openly queer memebers and James Street MC which is now ordaining women; I think these folks embody more of the legacy of Michael Sattler - i.e., flying in the face of church hierarchy to live together in love.

    While, yes, Schleitheim does strictly uphold banning, I think it is important to note not just that they were being killed but, as Harold Bender noted, Anabaptists were responding to the Lutheran and Catholic churches which were full of really terrible wrongs (for them, it was more about drinking and sex…but I think also about war and not caring for others in the church). I know I’m not saying anything most folks here don’t know, but the ban was an element which could ensure that they were different from these churches and wouldn’t decay and become like the churches that the Anabaptists were trying to be different from.

    That said, when employed, the ban can have the result of hurting families and individuals so that the church can “save face”.Especially when the ban comes from doctrine not developed by the individual congregation but by a higher, detached church body. The church is now threatened with decay by its own conservative traditions. In the legacy of the first Anabaptists, the church should , for its own good, reaffirm Christ’s call for love not just in words but in action and spirit. It is a much more powerful witness to accept and love (as Joe posted a few weeks ago) than to shun. The ban is no longer relevant.

  8. JUnrau Says:

    Do any Mennonites who aren’t 80 and who use rubber on their tires really think the ban *is* relevant? Is that something people actually think about these days outside of an historical context? I ask because that seems so foreign to me and I’m not sure if this is being bandied about in the abstract or as something that has practical significance.

    Not that I’m against abstract discussion, I just want to make sure I’m on the same page here.

  9. carl Says:

    JUnrau, you may have missed this from Eric’s post:

    We still practice the ban, but call it “discipline” - it’s the same pure-church, teach-the-sinner-a-lesson, shun-em-for-their-own-good theory. We just use nicer words and say we still love each other.

    The point being that the ban is still relevant in the same way Schleitheim is still relevant: although we sugarcoat things and use different terminology these days, the same basic theology informs our practice.

  10. folknotions Says:

    JUnrau,

    as Eric noted, we still practice the ban but call it “discipline” - the CoF in a Mennonite Perspective has an article on discipline. If it was irrelevant, when that confession was drafted, “discipline” wouldn’t have been included, let alone given a whole article.

    Also, the ban’s underpinnings are still relevant to the notions of “purity” as they exist in the church.

    Germantown Mennonite Church was kicked out of (Franconia?) conference for admitting openly queer folks into the congregation as members. I would say that is a form of “discipline”.

    I think the notions of purity which underscore the ban also lead to the quietism of some Mennonites, who try not to associate with anyone who is queer, anyone who may have a drug/alcohol problem, or who have premarital sex, etc. etc. And when I say “some”, it can often be leaders in the church who disassociate in this way (though not the leaders of my congregation ;)).

    So, yes, this does have a practical significance for Mennonites today. And we can’t overlook that there are still many YCM’s (Young Conservative Mennonites) who don’t challenge the ban.

  11. JUnrau Says:

    I saw that and was still puzzled. Your church “disciplines” people? What for? I’ve never heard of my church doing such a thing. Ever. I mean thirty years ago there were arguments about divorcees remarrying but those were just members getting mad at each other, nothing official.

    Does “discipline” actually happen in everyone else’s churches?

  12. JUnrau Says:

    I just caught your response there folknotions, and I hadn’t been thinking of conference discipline.

    Conference stuff doesn’t seem that important to me. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. The only churches who’ve left the conference as far as I’m aware weren’t kicked out but left because the conference wouldn’t discipline churches for accepting gay people. Or something like that.

    It just seems weird for churches to be disciplining each other. I’ve always felt part of a non-hierarchical group in terms of my church experience. As compared to Catholics or Anglicans or whatever with their hierarchies and stuff. We’ve got committees to talk this stuff out ad nauseam.

  13. Skylark Says:

    There’s only one time in my life I’ve ever really wanted to use the ban, and unfortunately, that individual was involved in other circles in which I interacted, so a church ban would only have been partially effective in erradicating this person from my life.

    That’s when this GMG (Good Mennonite Girl) starts using choice phrases like “digging a hole six feet deep” and “what’s the going rate for Mafia hitmen?”

    I can deal with all kinds of doctrinal, moral, theological and lifestyle disagreements. I don’t necessarily want to “cast the offender out” over stuff like that. What I can’t deal with is someone who lacks the maturity for an actual discussion of these disagreements, who promises one thing and the next day swears up and down no such promises were made, blatantly lies about people and their actions, and who tries to claim the spotlight at every turn. Those aren’t the “hot button” issues openly splitting churches apart, but golly, they sure get me hot under the collar.

    Maybe the ban should be enforced on the gossips, the drama queens, the liars, the promise-makers-and-breakers and the completely immature. Why does church suddenly feel like high school?

  14. eric Says:

    Skylark - I love it. Inspired. Well writ.

    JUnrau - Do you Canadians do everything better than us, or does your denomination practice oppression in even more subtle ways? I would be willing to believe either one, but I hope for the former.

    My point was we’ve built our church on this stuff and it doesn’t just disappear - we adjust it to fit modern parlance. I don’t think ‘discipline’ is the only example of this - just one i picked out.

    Folknotions’ adaptation of that to a more personal level - and the quiet shunnings that happen without fanfare or official edict - are another good example along that same line though. “Not getting in with the wrong crowd” is often an excuse for subtle social use of the ban, and a way to keep the privileged among us in control.

    On that level it’s certainly not only an Anabaptist issue - but I do think we make an art and a morality of it that is rooted in the Schleitheim and still alive (more quietly) in the CoF.

  15. TimN Says:

    I think its worth noting that the use of the ban is rooted in a certain interpretation of Matthew 18:15-17:

    15 “If your brother sins against you,[a] go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[b] 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

    I have two observations on this:

    1. Those who have used the ban have interpreted this final verse as a prescription for exclusion. But how did Jesus treat pagans or tax collectors? He ate meals with them, he loved them and he invited one of them to be a disciple.
    2. Mennonites involved with conflict transformation often draw on this passage as a model for transforming conflict. I’m by no means an expert on this, but I’ll see if I can get my wife Charletta to share a bit more about this here.

    Its tempting to write off “discipline” as oppression and forget about it. But I think it can also be useful to reclaim the term discipline as part of what it means to be accountable to one another as we deal with differences and conflict between us.

    P.S. This is in some ways a continuation of the On Schism and Unity discussion thread.

  16. Felix Says:

    The thing that Menno Simmons did was reject the accepted teachings of the Catholic church and look to the Scripture as the sole authority. Any time a person or group of people reject the clear teachings of God’s Word in favor of man’s ideas, chaos and heresy will follow. Was Menno imperfect? Certainly. And therefore every one of us who bears the name Mennonite should be a faithfull student of the Word, for “cursed is the man who trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm”.

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