What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Aaron Shelly, April 2011
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Throughout high school I sometimes questioned what being Mennonite meant. Growing up in Bluffton, I was surrounded by many churches. As a result, many of my friends attended different churches than my own. I always associated those who went to Catholic, Baptist, or some other denominational church as having a different faith than me. Just the name set up a division I was comfortable with and could understand. It was more complicated when I tried to differentiate from those who went to other churches with Mennonite in the name. Although our churches shared a similar title, I did not feel they were of the same faith. Does the name Mennonite determine what it means to be Mennonite?
My “Mennonite” friends would talk about war like it was a good thing and the United States as if it was God’s greatest creation. I had never heard anyone from my church talk like that. We were surely against war but they were Mennonites right? At least they went by that name. Throughout this course I have learned that this is not what makes us Mennonites. Those churches back home had once belonged to the Mennonite faith but have since decided to part ways. However, I am still left with the question of why they are not Mennonite. Is it because their theology is different and they support war or something else?
The question what determines the meaning of being Mennonite is difficult. Even after this course I still do not know concretely what it means to be Mennonite. However, I think this is part of faith where no one has the answers. In my opinion it is a shared set of beliefs, and acknowledgement of the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite history, and continuing community and conversation that makes someone Mennonite.
As I earlier mentioned, I felt that my differences in beliefs with my friends kept me from associating them as Mennonites. Because of my strong belief in nonviolence I could no longer couple myself with them. So then the question is what beliefs matter in determining whether you qualify to be Mennonite. For example, throughout Africa they believe in and regularly practice exorcisms. Most Mennonites in the United States do not share this belief. Does this mean we are not both Mennonites? This question easily leads to greater division and does not really determine anything.
Unlike other faiths where there is a distinct set of beliefs you must share or else you are an unbeliever, Mennonites do not have such a rule book. Instead, Mennonites are linked through a set of core beliefs. Some core beliefs consist of a committed life to Christ and his teachings, a voluntary baptism that symbolizes this commitment to a new way of life, non-violence, and so much more. However, unlike other traditions, these set of beliefs do not clearly define what it means to be Mennonite. In contrast, gray areas form along the edges of these core beliefs. It is what allows both an African Mennonite theology and a Northern Mennonite theology to coexist under one faith, Mennonite.
Although a Mennonite theology based on living out the Sermon on the Mount helps define what it means to be Mennonite, it is not the entire picture. This foundation helps bring about what I think is another huge aspect of what it means to be Mennonite. Because so many groups today belonging to Mennonite World Conference do differ in their theology, there must be something else that helps define such a group. One defining aspect of a tradition is its history. For Mennonites, this means participating in the larger history of the Anabaptists and Mennonites. To be Mennonite requires the acknowledgement that they belong to this continuing story of the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition. Without understanding where they came from, it is impossible to determine what being Mennonite means.
Also, being Mennonite cannot solely rest on a central theology and common history. As I have already mentioned, being Mennonite in Africa surely must be different than being Mennonite in America. This is where my third element for determining what it means to be a Mennonite today comes in. Belonging to the Mennonite faith means you are willing to interact with a fellowship of believers where conversation is what unites you. Without a hierarchy structure of organization and discrete set of beliefs everyone must believe in, there must be room for conversation. As a result churches may leave the greater Mennonite church due to disagreements. However, this is what it means to be Mennonite. Circling back to the core beliefs, it takes a voluntary decision to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ in fellowship with your brother and sisters in Christ.
It was rather difficult to define what it means to be Mennonite and why I am one since I am already within the church. Before taking this class would have been even more difficult because my default would have been I just grew up one. Even though I learned more of what it meant to be Mennonite through my catechism class, I still could not tell you why other than I was molded that way. I was brought up in a Mennonite church and quite simply as a result I am Mennonite. This is a weak reasoning for being Mennonite and arguably completely against what it means to be Mennonite. I am supposed to make an individual life changing choice not a continuous molding and eventual baptism.
Although my growing up Mennonite is important, it is not the whole story. Sure, my upbringing played a large role but I still had to make a choice whether to join the church or not. Yes I was strongly influenced to join the Mennonite church but no one made me (infant baptism sound familiar). Before my baptism I knew what I was agreeing to. I shared the belief that Jesus was my savior and that my life should be modeled by his life and teachings. I was ready to join a fellowship of believers that consisted of my local church and Mennonite Church USA. I was ready to be Mennonite.
I cannot however say I knew entirely what I was agreeing to. For the most part I was unaware of the larger World Mennonite Church body I would be joining. It was not until after several of our readings in this class that I more fully began to comprehend what being a Mennonite meant. This class has opened a door to understanding more about my faith and what defines it. Part of me wants to get baptized again so I can more fully appreciate what that experience really means. However, then people might start calling me Anabaptist and that would just get confusing. (Apologies on the pun at the end…couldn’t resist)
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.