Join the conversation! how do Conservative and Progressive Mennonites present a compelling vision of Anabaptism together?

Anabaptism is cool. There’s no denying it. In this ultra-exciting age of the emerging movement, post-modern transition, and a change of scenery in the American church, buzzwords such as “reformation”, “contemporary”, and “social justice” have crept into the church’s vocabulary. Is Anabaptism just another one of these words that sounds cool but is hard to define or flesh out in every day living?

I wondered these things since early childhood–and I was a child raised in an “Anabaptist” environment. I soon found out that Anabaptism means different things to different people–and not only that, but their view of Anabaptism often influences their view on church and Christianity.

To the “old-orders”, who proudly trace their roots to the first Anabaptist reformers, Anabaptism is a way of life, a frozen set of traditions and doctrines. They sincerely hold on to certain traditions simply “that’s how the early Anabaptists did it”. Only they don’t say it in quite that way. It usually comes across as “that’s how we’ve always done it” to people who may be disgruntled with the traditionalism and culture of the still relatively strict and conservative groups of Amish, Mennonites, Brethren and Hutterites.

It was in this setting I was raised. It was with interest that I read Tim’s last post concerning coverings, conservatives, and traditions. I grew up in a strict church that was independent of both the old-order Amish and the Mennonite conferences. As a result, they managed to keep some consistency in dress (cape dresses, coverings, etc), yet they walked a fine line doctrinally between fundamentalism and historical Anabaptist thought.

Progressive Mennonites have decided that Anabaptism is not just about a historical faith. They believe that there are defining attributes of the Anabaptist movement that any group calling themselves “Anabaptist” should hold to. The big, mega, huge one is peace. Fortunately, peace and peacemaking have a firm basis in scripture and are a practical way of life for a committed disciple. However, was Anabaptism really all about peace? Unfortunately, a little town called Münster changed that view. More unfortunately, most Mennonites have never heard of the scourge of Münster.

Was Anabaptism about doctrine, about lifestyle, about traditions? Was it all about a new way of doing church? Was it any of those?

The defining trait of historical Anabaptism was really not any of those. Anabaptism was not about a new system, a new institution. Rather, Anabaptism was a label given to those radicals, those people who couldn’t get along with any system. Anabaptism described those who didn’t give a damn about what the government said or did, no matter if it was civil government or church government.

So just what was it that made Anabaptism great? What made it a powerful movement? It was its willingness to be a third voice in a previous dual-faceted shouting contest. It was its bold call for reform and its ability to adapt and learn from its enemies.

What should Anabaptism look like in a 21st century setting? It should be bold and adventurous, always excited about being a missional faith in a doubting culture. It should be training committed disciples, learning from the dubious recruiting techniques of its Reformed neighbor and the harsh initiation of its Catholic neighbor. It should be ready and willing to listen, learn, and work with other denominations, faiths, and religions. It should learn from culture and never hesitate to stoop to a poverty stricken people’s economic level or station in life in order to show Jesus to them in every day life.

How are conservative Mennonites exemplifying Anabaptism better than progressives? How are progressive showing the conservatives that its not just about a frozen canon of works?

We (the conservatives and the progressives) need to learn from each other. We need to work together if we are going to make the Anabaptist vision compelling enough to infiltrate the masses. The conversation begins here. What’s your idea, confession, or concern?

Comments (16)

  1. Hootsbuddy

    The last three posts all derive from a single root, the contrast between tradition and what passes for progress. As an outsider looking with respect on a living example of a Christian community I urge you all to do whatever it takes to embrace change but only to the point that Christian values are not compromised in the bargain. Your dress and manners serve the same purpose as that of priests (or others) who place faith ahead of worldly values. As the line goes in the Service of Baptism, p.108 “…you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” It strikes me as more than an accident of language that you be called Anabaptist, whatever the derivation.

  2. BeccaJayne

    This is a really challenging entry! Here’s one of my concerns: While I do not claim to be a scholar of the Anabaptists’ history, I do see the need to be a “separate” people moving towards “assimilation” into dominant culture as a pattern over the past few hundred years (I am speaking for/as mainly the Swiss Mennonite tradition here). We don’t WANT to be recognized as an alternative way of practicing Christianity anymore, either because it could be viewed as political, or because it might cause conflict within communities, work places, etc. In other words, we’d have to change in small ways and big; and right now, I see us as being very comfortable. Really stressing things like simple living and starting peace at home would send shockwaves through many of our churches. I really think we’d lose some folks who want to walk into church on Sundays and feel like they are in any other Protestant service. I gravitate towards my Anabaptist upbringing, but lately I am so critical of the rural services I attend when home from grad school that I wonder whether I should just give up and find another denomination.

    1. Roy Peck

      Being the same as other Protestants? Why have a separate name? Peace will drive people away? Christ’s teachings cause social ripples and should be therefore silenced? Listen to what you are saying.

  3. Mike Barrett

    God walked with Adam and Eve in person which was later changed to His adminstrations through Moses and Torah. Moses and Torah was later changed by adding the Temple system. All these were later changed when Christ showed up and brought the Kingdom (the now and the not yet). On top of these macro changes are the micro changes within movements and denominations, all changing to become more relavant to the next generation and world circumstances. So… change is built into God’s overall design of things. Anabaptism must change to stay relavant or it will one day become stale and inconsequencial. For the next generation to value and use the Anabaptist traditions the conversations of this site have to permeate into action within the rural church settings noted above. This sounds contradictory for a pacifictic movement to even consider – but, I think there needs to be a loving hostile takeover.

  4. Eric

    What with the ra ra about peace making.Over the past 23 years most of the people I have met that were involved in peace making were people who did not even believe in God and thought the Bible was just another dusty book. Peace making and justice issues are not uniquely anabaptist/christian. All people want these things, including the Moslems and people who practise other religions. The unique gift that Christians can give the world is the hope of attaining heaven and everlasting life through reconcilliation to God by confessing Christ as their Lord and saviour. Christianity has always been about the great commission of preaching the gospel and saving souls.If more Christians got involved in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and living it and its values as opposed to the world’s values we probably would not be just another marginalized group who are blending in with others who share our vision of peace and justice but not our faith. My advice to Christians is to get back to our mission of saving souls and leave the world to its own set of values.If there is no difference in your life/values and the world’s values, eg status, money, nice home with a good address -impressive car, a well paying job,jewllery, prestige,etc then what have you achieved but to be converted to what the world values.Sure, anyone can be a peace maker, even non – believers, but only a Christian can be Christian and have the hope that Christ offers.I say, make peace making your own goal but make Christianity your vocation. It is much harder to win a convert to Christianity than to win a convert to peacemaking.

  5. Eric

    Hi BeccaJayne,

    I wish you luck as your anabaptism walks into oblivion as salt that risks losing its salt and losing your identity as an anabaptist. I suspect that the majority of anabaptists who are increasingly conservative will not allow themselves to be swallowed up in western culture with its values of selfishness, individualism, financial security and it’s resulting loneliness.

  6. somasoul

    I can’t help but agree with Eric, even with his slightly condescending attitude in the last post.

    Many anabaptists who were brought up in the church want “relevance”. As a young, hip, punk rawker who likes mosh pits I can’t disagree more. I started attending a mennonite church in June and I wish it was more traditional. I left the protestant church, who the mennonites want to become more like, because it was just like the world. It liked money, and power, and sought the American.

    I want a church that isn’t afraid to deny this stuff and move forward without losing it’s roots.

    Sometimes I read some comments from Anabaptists and I think the peace position attracts Godless heathens who want some sort of religion. I don’t want liberalism or conservatism, I want Jesus.

  7. Skylark

    Hi somasoul, I think you’re missing a bit of what some folks here were saying about the separateness of the Anabaptists. It’s not that what they were doing, exactly, was wrong, but they weren’t doing it because it was the sincere desire of their hearts to deny materialism to serve God better, etc. They were doing it because it was tradition, because we’ve always done it that way, or because we’re in a self-denial competition with the Yoders next door. I think you’d find yourself pretty frustrated in certain “traditional” constructs. You may not care much about what music is chosen, etc, but what if it matters a great deal to the other parishioners, and they’re willing to condemn other people over their choice of worship music? These sorts of attitudes are what I’ve seen many YARs disliking.

  8. somasoul

    Thanks Skylark,

    I think my position can be summed up like so:

    Aren’t we throwing the baby out withe bath water here?

  9. freeservant

    I must say, I’m glad this discussion is happening. While I understand the frustration with many practices and attitudes in many conservative mennonite churches, there does seem to be also be some ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater” too by us progressives. On the other hand, perhaps there needs to be some of that. A lot of the principles behind many of our more conservative traditions are good and Biblical and should be valued, but there has been so much legalism around these practices, and rules, that the principles have gotten lost. It’s no surprise that even some independent conservative conference (not cmc) leaders are having similar discussions right now.
    So we as progressive anabaptists do need to figure out how we remain a distinct group following Christ, and bearing witness in the world, without falling into legalism, and while moving away from the legalism, not falling into just your average protestant church either. I joined the Mennonite Church in my early 20’s after leaving mainline protestantism, because I felt that the other mainline denominations were being too controlled by mainstream society, in regards to the spectrum of stances that they took, instead of willing to be distinct followers of Christ and scripture. I more recently have left the conservative/traditional Mennonite church because I found things to be too legalistic and not engaged enough with the rest of society (not even in talking with many other people, let alone helping make desperately needed community changes).
    I have since found a home in more progressive churches, but also am saddened by the move toward mainstream society. So beyond just the Biblical stance of Peace, there are many points of doctrine that are Biblical and make us in the anabaptist church community distinct, from non-violence, to non-accumulation or non-consumerism/frugality, to non-conformity, to simple living, to service and the list could go on, (but it’s late at night, and I’m very tired).
    Can we first and foremost, as Christians be a peculiar people, standing out enough and not-conforming to society’s ways, but being engaged enough too, to really bear witness to the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    God calls us to be a distinct people, loving and active, not conformed to the ways of the world but also free from legalism and free in Christ.
    What might this look like?
    (oh yeah, there’s some non-anabaptists that are asking the same questions for themselves)?

  10. Eric

    Hi free servant,

    As an anabaptist who has recently moved back to the Mennonite confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective, and having spent about 12 months with the Beachy Amish, I too experienced a dissonance with the conservative practise of separation of the world and its politics and the preoccupation they seem to have with the externals,(legals) of plain dress and such. However their ability of keeping at bay the values of Western culture is something I am glad that I have learnt. At some point it is important that we anabaptists engage with the world in issues of peace, justice and conservation. Not to do so seems somewhat callous at times.

  11. Eric

    It has been a while since my last post. After a lot of reflection I have come to realize that there is a lot to be learnt from conservative resources. I note that both conservative and progressive anabaptists sell and use Daniel Kauffman’s ‘Doctrines of the Bible’.I have found this book listed in both Christian Light and Mennonite Publishing cataloques. Also, recently I have started to use a book titled,’Introduction To Theology’ by J C Wenger. On page 5 he stated,’Theology is a human work, it IS NOT infallible, and it does not possess divine authority’ also on the same page he stated,’Only God’s Word remains completely authoritative’. He also mentions Daniel Kauffman’s ‘Doctrines of the Bible’, as amongst the ‘Out standing Work in Systematic Theology’, as well as “The complete Works’ of Menno Simons as another notable work. I feel that because both the progressives and the conservatives draw upon these books I feel it is these books and God’s Word which are the best basis upon which conservatives and progressives can communicate. For me, now, Daniel Kauffman’s book, ‘Doctrines of the Bible’ is the best starting point for me. In Australia where there is only a small anabaptist presence, I feel that all Christians, especially anabaptists, need to support each other whether they be conservative or progressive. When dealing with God’s word I am doing it from a conservative approach. As theologies vary widely I find that I would rather err on the side of conservatism than get carried away with ‘all sorts of strange doctrines’.In Australia where I live and because I have the need to reach out to other Christians and because there are no, what I would say close and local anabaptist denominations I find the need to be eucmenical in my approach in regards to church.All of the church denominations within the ‘Body of Christ'(The Universal Church) need to work and serve each other to make ‘The Great Commission’ possible and to reach out to a hurting and violent world and to make it a more peaceable world in which to live. Also this past weekend I spoke to a writer and a person well educated in various theological traditions, and even though he is not anabaptist, he told me that there is a place for Christians to advocate or to bring to the attention of politicians situations that need to be dealt with. I feel that an example of this would be local issues of safety, conservation and town planning, public education in regards to what media children and adults are exposed to. Also, using media to educate the public about the ramifications of using violence to deal with conflicts. I know about and have donated money to organizations such as ‘Christian Aid’ so no one can say that conservative Christians are callous in that regard. However as we are called to be compassionate I find that compassion also includes those things that can lead to an positive improvement in peoples lives. As politicians are well placed to act on these issues I feel that it is valid , as tax payers, to use their services where possible as an agent for good. In the article, ‘Mennonites and Mammonites’, I feel that this article shows what can happen when churches and Christians get too involved with politicians and politics. So, I still draw upon articles in such magazines, as ‘The Seed of Truth’and conservative publications in order to develop a Christ centered life.

  12. Wendy Donton

    I have such a strong desire to belong to a group where the women wear head coverings, and dress modest, like it says in the Scripture. The church my husband and I belong to, the women dress like the world, and follow the world, and I do not agree with it. I was raised in a worldly enviornment, and want to make a 180 degree turn in my life. My antsisters came from Germany and Switzerland, but I don’t know if any of them were Anabaptists. Plus, my husband and I were baptized twice. Once as an infant, and once as an adult. Lord willing, we are trying to buy land, so we can farm, make our own products, and live off of what God provides, and not relay on man.

  13. Benjamin

    Anabaptism was about doctrine.
    How was it not?
    It was about believer’s baptism.
    It was about the symbolism of breaking the bread.
    These are the reasons why they were persecuted by the Roman Catholic church.
    I think you have changed the definition of Anabaptism.
    It’s more than just separation of church and state.
    It’s more than just pacifism.
    It’s more than just “cool.”
    You should change your name to “Young Christian Pacifist Radicals.”
    Out of respect of those who once held the name Anabaptist.

  14. Tim Baer

    Benjamin brings up the point that anabaptism has a history and that by being “radical” YAR seems to be interested in changing what anabaptism has been, yet it is nothing without it’s roots. Anabaptist means the things that have previsouly defined it, not what we imagine it to be in the future. How does YAR reconcile it’s need for theological change within the Mennonite/Brethern spectrum while simultaneously stay true the roots of the faith?

  15. vera

    I have a question of you all: How did a faith that began with the stress on separation from the world, and whose founders stressed the question, what good is being a believer if you can’t tell by their actions… how did this living-based faith become indistinguishable from the bland mainstream religion? I am learning about historical anabaptists and I am completely baffled.
    Thank you.

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