What Does It Mean to Be a Mennonite in 1999? Kelly J Sauder, April 1999 (United States)
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The early afternoon sun is shining brightly through the long, rectangular windows of the church. The service ends with an uplifting song sang in the usual four-part harmony. Everyone leaves the sanctuary to go to Sunday school anxiously awaiting the noon potluck that was about to come. While the women are setting up the assorted varieties of casseroles and pies, the men are socializing and the children are running to get in line so they can have the first pick at the best dishes. Soon the meal is finished, and everyone is leaning back in their chairs, conversing, while they wait for the food to digest. Lazily, the women get up to clean, the children go outside to play kickball, and the men go to the sanctuary to get ready for the afternoon committee meeting.
These are some of the events that would occur at a typical Mennonite church. The song in four-part harmony, potluck, and committee meeting are all characteristics of the Mennonite culture today, but these and other traditions have emerged from certain beliefs of the early Anabaptists. While growing up in a Mennonite family, I have come to understand what it really means to be a true Mennonite in contemporary society. There is more to this faith than just baking pies, forming committees, and singing in tune.
There are many different attributes to the Mennonite faith, so I have decided to pick just a few unique characteristics that I hold dear. My faith sets me apart from the world, but I believe that I should use this uniqueness to share with the world. Some of these unique qualities are baptism, pacifism, and separatism. These have stemmed from our history as early Anabaptists, and have helped us grow into the people we are today.
One characteristic of being Mennonite is adult baptism. This was one of the issues that separated the early Anabaptists from the state church. They believed that you cannot make a decision whether or not to accept Christ as an infant. Baptism is an outward sign of the inward commitment made to Christ. The Anabaptists emphasized this with three principles; salvation, ethics, and membership. According to one of John Roth’s lectures, this was considered a three-legged stool because salvation is a gift of God’s grace, ethics is a commitment to obedience, and membership is a covenant with the community. A complete commitment to Christ needed all three of these aspects in order for baptism to be a whole cleansing of the soul.
I believe that these three principles hold true today, but it is a process. I remember when I was baptized, and this was a very joyous event for me as well as my family. My family not only includes my parents, grandparents, and sister, but my church as well. I realized that in order to accept Christ I needed to repent and ask for his salvation that he had already given to me when he died on the cross for my sins. After this decision, I decided to be baptized, which announces to my church that I am ready to be obedient to Christ. I do this by following His teachings in the Bible, and by knowing that I am responsible enough to become a member of the church. I could never have realized this as an infant, and I am glad that I waited until I could make a complete commitment. Because of my Mennonite ancestors and the great lengths they went to for their belief in adult baptism, I was able to freely experience salvation when I was ready.
Another unique aspect of being Mennonite is pacifism. The early Anabaptists believed in separation of church and state because the state is considered part of the world. “Therefore, when the states ordered them to participate in warfare, they would refuse to be a part of a violent reformation of society that was seen as bound and delivered by Satan.” They also based their nonresistance on the passage in Matthew 4:39 which states “do not resist evil.” Their idea of pacifism was based on resisting evil, but this was used towards resisting government because it was considered evil.
Pacifism and separation are intertwined very closely when looking at the beliefs of the early Anabaptists. They believed that the state was necessary only to maintain order within society; it should not have any authority in religious matters. They refused to be involved with the government because anything outside the community of believers was considered worldly. The state is a part of the kingdom of Satan and they are a part of the kingdom of God.
It is hard to separate these two ideas from each other because they are so related, not only in the days of the early Anabaptists, but also in today’s society. Pacifism and separatism are two characteristics that I believe are very influential in being a Mennonite in 1999. The understandings that the Anabaptists had of these two issues are different from my understandings, mainly because they have changed. The Anabaptists and Mennonites in the 16th Century believed pacifism was a way to resist the state. They also believed that separation meant total isolation from the state and its “evil” influences.
Using pacifism to resist the state from gaining control changed to resisting any form of violence and warfare that could hurt all of humankind. I believe that pacifism means to refrain from committing any harm or violent act to another person, especially in warfare. Using violence as a means to come to an end result does not justify it. If we are to come to a solution for the world’s many problems, we are never going to do it through warfare. In order to have a peaceful outcome, we must have a peaceful approach. Even though pacifism may not have meant this to the early Anabaptists, this is what I think it represents to the Mennonites today.
Separatism has also changed throughout the centuries. I agree with separatism, but not in the sense of the two-world theology. The early Anabaptists believed that if they stay apart from the world, they will gain eternal life because they are a part of the godly world. I believe that we should be involved in the world and government. As a Mennonite in the 20th Century, my idea of separatism means to live by example. The unique qualities of being a Mennonite, such as adult baptism and pacifism, set us apart which gives us a distinctive quality. We should use this distinction to witness to the world. Jesus always mingled with the “sinners” because he wanted to teach them about Christ. If we are supposed to follow the teachings of Jesus, then we should also involve ourselves with the things of the world so we can witness to people. Separation, to me, means living by the example of Christ and thus being set apart because of my beliefs.
There are many changes that have occurred since the early Anabaptists broke away from the state church. Yes, we still have that traditional sense of community that can be represented by our potlucks with mouth-watering dishes, sanctuaries filled with the reverent sounds of harmony, and committees to organize more committees, but these are just the superficial ideals of what we really are. We are a culture whose beliefs are based on the teachings of Christ. We are very distinctive because of our faith that sets us apart from the rest of the world. The ideas of baptism, pacifism, and separation, to the early Anabaptists, have some significant differences to Mennonitism today. I believe these differences have helped Mennonites to evolve into Christians who form stronger relationships with God and each other.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.