What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Sae Jin Lee, April 2011
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“What does it mean to be a(n) Anabaptist/Mennonite? And why is any one a(n) Anabaptist/Mennonite?” In order to answer these questions, one must examine the common theme that runs through the history of the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church throughout the centuries and the different countries of the world. At the core of Anabaptist/Mennonite faith is a deep thirst for renewal within the Church. Throughout our past, almost 500 years of history that sprung and continued in different parts of the world, the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church sought to live as a fluid, constantly transformed, and repeatedly chiseled body of Christ, where each part of the body lives, challenges and holds one another accountable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The history of the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith, then, is ultimately a story—a story about a faithful and equally fragile gathered community’s restless and stubborn struggle to live as a renewed “Church.”
This story of a community’s restless and stubborn struggle to live as a renewed Church began as a small group of people gathered together and baptized each other on January 21, 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland. Among the gathered people were Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Felix Manz, who had been vigorously debating with the State Church on various issues, with the practice of believer’s baptism as the center of their dispute. The forebears of the Anabaptist faith argued that each member of Christ’s body must be baptized, not according to the mandate of the State Church, but according to their own freedom of conscience, grounded in scripture. Such a stance was intolerable to the State authorities on a variety of different levels—politically, socially, theologically, and economically—and thus, the State responded with severe persecution of early Anabaptists. The various Anabaptist groups who were persecuted by the State authority responded in different manners—some with violent retaliation, some with withdraw, and yet others with heightened conviction and missionary zeal. While some of these varied responses of the early Anabaptist could be considered “more- or less- Christian” than others, all of these responses reflect their common thirst and effort to live as a renewed Church. The pious, non-conformist, and even violent stories of the various Anabaptist groups of the 16th Century Europe is the narrative of the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church—faithful, fallen, and yet constantly seeking new life.
The story of the faithful and equally fragile Anabaptist/Mennonite community’s restless and stubborn struggle to live as a renewed “Church” continued in the history of the European Anabaptist tradition. After the persecution of their mothers and fathers, the second and third generation Anabaptists of Europe struggled to formulate and sustain their faith convictions. The Schleicheim Confession became an important guide in maintaining the life and order of the Church, as was Menno Simons’ writings and leadership that helped to formulate a more systematic theology that was grounded in discipleship, scripture, and non-violent love.
However, along with a more systematized theology and praxis also came more disagreement and division within the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church. During the mid 16th and the late 17th Centuries, the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church went under many divisions over the dispute of various issues, such as church discipline, leadership, and the members’ relationship to non-Mennonites. The great tension between the Swiss-Brethren Mennonites and Amish over the practice of Ordnung resulted in the especially somber split between the two groups. These various disagreements and division within the 16th and 17th Century Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, however, is an important indicator of the community’s struggle to live as a more faithful and renewed body of Christ. These heated debates and divisions within the history of Anabaptist/Mennonite Church reflect the seriousness of each community’s devotion to an ever-renewed Church.
This is again evident when reflecting on the continued exchanges between various Anabaptist/Mennonite groups, even after their geographical “division.” One example of this can be found from the continued economic, spiritual and moral exchange between Dutch Mennonites and Swiss-Brethren Mennonites in the early and mid 18th centuries. During the difficult period of political, social, and economic unrest the Swiss-Brethren Mennonites experienced, the Dutch Mennonites them with great material and spiritual aid. The many “splits” as well as the ongoing exchange of mutual support between various Anabaptist/Mennonite groups reflect the tradition’s strong desire for renewal. Through its ups and downs, the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church of Europe continued to seek to live as a renewed body of Christ.
The story of the faithful and equally fragile Anabaptist/Mennonite community’s restless and stubborn struggle to live as a renewed “Church” continues even in the history of various Global Anabaptist/Mennonite groups of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The birth of the Messerete Kristos Chruch of Ethiopia is a prime example of a community’s struggle to live as a renewed Church. The Messerete Kristos Church, especially during its founding years, developed its identity as a renewal movement, over and against that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Now, the MKC continues to cultivate ways to sustain the identity of the Church, both distinctive from and along side the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The Zimbabwean Mennonite Church, too, is active in renewing the life of the Church amidst their country’s prolonged struggle for social, economic, and political welfare. The leaders of the Zimbabwean Mennonite Church not only urge their people to embody a life modeled by Christ, but also urge other brothers and sisters of the global Anabaptist Churches to walk with them in their time of struggle. By asking the delegates of the Mennonite World Conference of 2003 to 1) pray for their country/people, and 2) share their story with others, the members of the Zimbabwean Mennonite Church reminds the broader Global Mennonite Church to recognize each other as crucial parts of the common body of Christ—all in need of renewal.
The birth of the Jesus Village Church of Chun-Cheon, Korea is also a story of a small community’s hope and struggle for renewal. The founders of JVC sought to recover the “New Testament community” within the homogenized mainline Korean Church that was heavily invested in the culture of the World—in nationalism, professionalism, hierarchy, institutionalism and legalism. Lee Yoon-Shik, one of the members of the group who studied at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (current day CMU), introduced the others in the group to Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, history, and faith. Together, the group studied the stories of the early Swiss Anabaptists, who refused to conform, until death, to the ways of their dominant culture, as well as Harold S. Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” that called for the twentieth century Anabaptists/Mennonites to reclaim their faith heritage of Christian discipleship, community and nonviolence. These stories of the Anabaptist/Mennonite community’s continued struggle for a renewed Church struck a flame in the spirit of the young Korean couples. They found their own desires interlocked with those of the many forebears of the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, and they started the JVC—also dreaming of a renewed Korean Church.
Again and again, found throughout the history of Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition is a common story of the faithful and equally fragile community’s restless and stubborn struggle to live as a renewed “Church.” Upon reflection on this common story of the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church through the centuries, I too ask myself the very questions that were raised at the beginning of this essay: “What does it mean to be a(n) Anabaptist/Mennonite? And why am I a(n) Anabaptist/Mennonite?”
I am a(n) Anabaptist/Mennonite because I am drawn to the seriousness, willingness, and the stubbornness of the Anabaptist/Mennonite community to struggle to live as a renewed Church—the fluid, constantly transformed, and repeatedly chiseled body of Christ. In essence, I believe that to be Anabaptist/Mennonite means to believe in the two following convictions: 1) one can only be Christian within the context of a community that takes being Church—constantly renewed body of Christ—seriously, and 2) its inverse—we can only be a living Church when each member is serious about being Christian.
I see within me areas where I need to grow by listening to the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church’s invitation to follow Christ more closely. One area in which the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church is calling me to follow Christ more closely is the commitment to make peace in all areas of my life.
Growing up in a nation that was invaded by many foreign powers and was divided into two countries as a result of internal unrest and the Cold War influence, “peace making”—especially on a national scale—was a foreign language in my theological/spiritual paradigm. While I was actively committed to making peace in my personal life with my neighbors, even until recent years, I believed that some form of social violence/militarism was necessary for the sake of defending one’s nation. I thought that the “peace making” aspect of the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition is one area that I could never understand fully, and dismissed my Mennonite friends’ and church members’ commitment to peace as naïve and foolish. However, having studied in Religion Seminar, as well as Anabaptist/Mennonite History class, the long tradition of Anabaptist/Mennonite peace stance, I have come to understand that the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church’s struggle for peace as not as a commitment for effectiveness, but as a struggle to imitate Christ more fully—putting our hope not in the systems of this world, but in the way of Christ’s Kingdom. In order to fully embody this commitment for peacemaking, I know that I need a community that can hold me accountable to Christ’s call for peace and not that of this world of violent retaliation.
Alongside the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church’s continual call within my life to commit to peace and follow Christ more fully, I am also aware of the call that the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church needs to hear from me. I see within the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church areas where our Church needs to grow by listening to what God has spoken through my experiences, thoughts, and life. One area that I long for the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church to grow in—especially among the youth of the North American Anabaptist/Mennonite Church—is allowing the Holy Spirit to freely live and dance within us.
I remember distinctly the awkward discussion we had on the topic of the work of the Holy Spirit in one of the Religion classes I took at Goshen College. During the discussion, the majority of the students shared how “weird” or even “freaky” it was for them to witness people speaking in tongues when they were visiting different churches of various countries on SST. The students then discussed whether or not this was valid, or the people were simply making up “gibberish.” Having grown up within an intentional faith community and JVC where many of the members routinely spoke in tongues during worship and prayer, I did not know how to respond during the class discussion. I resorted back to my default mode of withdraw and kept my mouth silent, for I was afraid that upon any sharing, I too would be identified as “weird” or “freaky.” I left the class confused and sad, not knowing whether to feel ashamed at myself for not speaking up or cry. Since then, I have encountered many more youth of our N. American Anabaptist/Mennonite Church who feel uncomfortable with the notion/experience of the Holy Spirit, and who even dismissed Her activeness all together. For this reality, I have mourned many times. While I do not think that speaking in tongues is the only manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit, I believe that there is great loss in dismissing the existence of the Holy Spirit just because we feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar about the various expressions of Her. If speaking in tongues is too “radical” or “weird” for the N. American Anabaptist/Mennonite Church to accept, then we must be hungry for other manifestations of the Holy Spirit that nurtures our souls. While I am not sure what such alternative manifestations of the Holy Spirit may “appropriate” for the N. American youth of the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church, I am sure that this is one area in which God wants me to continue to share and search within our Church so that all of us may celebrate the joyfulness of the Spirit within our worship.
The beauty of the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition is found in our continual effort to live as a “renewed Church.” Whether it be committing ourselves more seriously and stubbornly to Christ’s call to peacemaking, or opening ourselves more freely to the Holy Spirit’s call to joyful worship, we struggle together as a Church to live more renewed today than we were yesterday. It is my deepest prayer that as we struggle together, we may find Christ more enliven in our presence. May we, the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church, here in N. America as well as in all parts of the world, be united in our common conviction to live as Church: listening, challenging, disagreeing, and worshiping with each other as one body of Christ—citizens of God’s Kingdom.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.