What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Kindy Erin, April 1999 (United States)
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My understanding of Mennonites has increased through two primary ways this year: interaction with Mennonites and studying Anabaptist history. My friendships with Mennonites have shaped my understanding of them. We have enjoyed intense discussions of theology, struggled over daily applications of Christian beliefs and laughed together over "ethnic Mennonite" things like borscht and "The Mennonite Game." Insights from history have helped me place today's Mennonites in context. Both relationships and historical background have encouraged me to assess my own understanding of Christian discipleship.
All Mennonite churches strive to be faithful, at some level, to New Testament Christianity. This means the life and teachings of Jesus and the example of the early church influence Mennonite life choices and worldview.
Many early Anabaptists saw the Bible as a practical map for holy living. They believed that Christians should strive to align their lives with the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Today, although Mennonites still uphold the significance of the Bible, Biblical ethics are more often considered impractical ideals rather than applicable guidelines for life.
A gathered body of believers is an essential component of Mennonite identity. Particularly true in the past, a vestige of this value remains in most Mennonite circles, but some emphasize it more then others through speaking of church as a family or being intentional about praying for fellow members. Early Anabaptists bound committed discipleship to union with other members of the body of Christ. One needed the support of brothers and sisters to be obedient to the costly call of the cross. Historically, Mennonites have often surveyed the world from a separate and sometimes sheltered position of community. They had a strong group identity, while today Mennonites have absorbed a more individual view of salvation from surrounding denominations and claim personal individuality.
Despite the shift away from the communal cultural and spiritual identity of the past, many Mennonites maintain a feeling of being unique. Although this perception may not be entirely accurate, it continues to be a part of Mennonite self-awareness and is displayed in a variety of ways. One of these is "The Mennonite Game," a well-known pastime in which Mennonites exchange the names of relations or acquaintances in an attempt to find connections. The strong ethnic identity of many Mennonites is clear as people invariably know or are related to some of the same people. In some Mennonite circles Christian discipleship continues to be understood as a choice and way of life that contrasts with the surrounding society. Often this belief is tied to expressions of resistance to war and violence; a variation on the historical Anabaptist doctrine of non- resistance.
Many Mennonites are proud, in a modest Mennonite way, of their heritage. They feel privileged to look back upon the steadfast faith of early Anabaptists, beliefs that sometimes led them to gruesome martyrdom. They are grateful for the early Anabaptist focus on adherence to the scriptures which brought them to accept adult believer's baptism and to pull away from the established churches at the time of the Radical Reformation. It is healthy to be thankful for the witness of the early carriers of one's faith. However, if that is the extent of their impact, something essential is missing.
Hearkening back to early faithful believers should be a challenge to more dedication in Christian discipleship today. Though circumstances have changed, traits we look up to in our forebears are characteristics we should cultivate in ourselves in the present. If the past does not force us to reflect on current realities it has not fulfilled its whole purpose.
There has always been diversity of beliefs among Mennonites. This was true at the Anabaptist inception and continues in contemporary times. There is a wide range of understandings of what it means to be true to the scriptures, uphold the importance of community and follow Christ in daily life. Mennonite history is sprinkled with divisions which have resulted from varying understandings of specific convictions of faith. These have included the place for and level of discipline appropriate in churches, the right mode of baptism and the correct position for speaking in the Holy Spirit. Schisms were usually the consequence of conflicts where strongly held beliefs left each group distinct. As Mennonites have become more acculturated, group differences have generally faded, until sometimes the only remaining contrast is their name. This loss of a distinct identity has occurred not only within the Mennonite church, but has also obscured the unique contribution Mennonites have had among other Protestant denominations. A separate Mennonite nature has become so blurred that at times there is little difference between Mennonites and other mainline churches. This is a great loss.
The recovery of early Christian ideals by the Anabaptists and their zeal for a discipleship of bearing the cross separated them from the culture surrounding them. Their focus on making their lives consistent with what they professed made the Anabaptists stand out. If Mennonites of today stressed these understandings they could again become a "city on a hill;" as it is, their witness has been greatly dimmed by contentment and acquiescence to current realities. The seeming contradiction between a pure church community separate from the world and obedience to teachings of Jesus which demand reaching out to society's outcasts, have forced me to think in new directions. A pure church separate from the world was a high priority for Mennonites. They attempted to maintain that purity through voluntary membership and then discipline and admonishment among members. Mennonite churches clearly desired to express love and care for each other within the church. The body of believers was an expression of God's will for the world. I agree that a fellowship of committed Christian disciples is an essential witness to God's way. Obedience to the New Testament necessarily causes people to stand in contrast to worldly society. So, church community and nonconformity to the world are essential. The trouble comes when maintenance of a distinct church is at odds with caring for the needs of the unloved, which was an obvious portion of the ministry of Jesus. Mennonites have often understood that purity requires that the church stay aloof from the evils of the world, but Jesus touched and related to those who were unclean and who were sinners. Mennonites ideally base their discipleship upon scriptural obedience; it demands both a distinct, gathered community and efforts to meet the needs of those around and outside the church. Pondering how I should integrate these themes in my personal expression of Christian discipleship has been one of the fruits of studying Anabaptist and Mennonite history.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.