Amid Complexities, Five Things Many Anabaptist-Mennonites Emphasize

Yes, I will summarize five Anabaptist-Mennonite emphases. But I don’t dare try before addressing complexities of doing so when so many groups stress so many different things.

We can link some Anabaptist-Mennonitisms back to Swiss Anabaptism. Even as approaches to Anabaptist origins and contemporary implications vary (as historians contest whether “polygenesis,” “monogenesis,” or some blend best explains Anabaptist beginnings), noteworthy was the 1525 Zurich move by leaders such as Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock to rebaptize each other. They and others called for rebaptizing adults committed to a “believers church” and by 1527 produced the Schleitheim Confession summarizing early Swiss Anabaptist beliefs. They also contributed to a believers church shadow: if only believers belong in the church and are to rightly live Jesus’ teachings, there is potential for endless schism over who is the true believer.

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Today, among many Anabaptist-Mennonite groups, some include the name Anabaptist, some Mennonite, some neither. Yet they are broadly part of Mennonitism, whether in North America or worldwide. Mennonites gained their name as disciples of the 1500s former Roman Catholic priest, the Frisian (Netherlands) Menno Simons. Other Anabaptist groups, such as Church of the Brethren, Brethren in Christ, Hutterites may have varying links to Mennonites but involve different branchings-out of Anabaptism.

Then there are the Amish.  Though they diverged in the 1600s, their roots are Swiss Anabaptist. The Amish are part of my family lineage some generations back. Despite their split from branches of Anabaptism with which I’m most connected, their plain and simple living commitments make their own contributions. The Amish have sometimes intertwined with Mennonite streams as wings of Mennonites and Amish have migrated back and forth. Thus for example someone like my aunt Evelyn King Mumaw could tell of how, after her family was put out of its Mennonite wing, they attended Conestoga Amish Mennonite Church.

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The point is not the details but that one could go on and on about who believed what, belonged to whom when and for how long, evicted one group or joined another. As addressed in my response to Orthodoxy, long unfolding Anabaptist-Mennonite diversification seems only to have gathered momentum in Mennonite Church USA, to which I belong. This has led to MC USA losing nearly half of its members since its formation in 2002. Despite the goal—heal divisions and merge two prior denominations—MC USA faces continuing challenges, and the merger split off MC Canada from what had been a binational church.

As touched on in my response to David Ford on Orthodoxy, a significant though not only factor heightening tensions has involved LGBTQIA-related decisions. I once pastored a congregation the denomination later excommunicated when it was perceived to have moved too far toward inclusion; I was saddened when delegates of another congregation I was then pastoring voted for eviction. In 2015 I was an MC USA seminary dean when the university to which it belonged navigated both internal divisions and the wider denominational tumult in moving toward a more inclusive hiring policy. In 2015 and beyond, many congregations and some conferences—regional and/or affiliative clusters of congregations into which MC USA is subdivided—shifted loyalties to different entities or left MC USA entirely.

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So what do Mennonites believe amid ongoing wrestlings? Key is the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective and its summary of 24 principles MC USA formally affirms. But what of Anabaptist-Mennonite streams that have left MC USA or in some cases never joined?

For example, CMC, formerly Conservative Mennonite Conference, now labeling itself an “evangelical Anabaptist denomination with headquarters in Irwin, Ohio,” offers alternative statements of faith on theology and practice.

LMC—“A fellowship of Anabaptist churches,” formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference—was until recently largest of MC USA’s conferences. Now LMC states commitment to the 1995 COF but doesn’t mention in summarizing Anabaptist-Mennonite history its departure from the denomination of which it was once such a large part.

Acronyms such as CMC or LMC in place of Mennonite matter. They signal preference to emphasize evangelical and/or Anabaptist over Mennonite components.

Evana Network emerged amid 2015 MC USA controversies. Evana (abbreviating “evangelical Anabaptist” theology), speaks of embracing the 1995 COF but also various confessions of the Mennonite Brethren (yet another denomination) and CMC even as it asks members to commit to requirements as “defined in our covenant” and expects congregations to belong to a Congregational Covenant.

Statements Evana embraces vary in emphasis and details. For example, the 1995 COF speaks of a “fully reliable and trustworthy” Bible even as CMC affirms Scripture as “without error in the original writings in all that they affirm.” Evident here a century later are ongoing effects of Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies.

Then one could ponder Anabaptists emphasizing a Jesus manifested in social and communal ethics versus Jesus as personal savior. In The Absent Christ: A Theology of the Empty Tomb (Cascadia, 2020), Justin Heinzekehr describes a God “mediated to the world in and through material relations.” Reviewing in Brethren in Christ History and Life (Aug. 2021), pastor Zachary Speidel says that for Heinzekehr, Christ’s absence makes space for the sacred “to be inseparably bound up in ethical relationships with . . .  others.” But Seidel underscores Jesus’ presence: “When I speak of ‘Jesus,’ I speak of my Savior, my Lord, my Friend, and my Shepherd.”

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When I was pastor into 2008 at Spring Mount Mennonite Church, we faced such larger dynamics but also complexities in our immediate setting. To remain viable, given the congregation’s dwindling to 35-some participants, we needed to welcome persons from diverse backgrounds. Pointing in microcosm to increasing diversity of Anabaptist-Mennonitism, often growing most quickly in cultures and settings beyond North America or within the U.S. beyond earlier ethnic and racial enclaves, eventually about half the congregation came from diverse settings. These ranged from Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations to “Nones” sometimes having no prior faith commitments.

What beliefs might we hold in common? After 11 years of wrestling with this, I preached in my final months sermons summarizing five values Anabaptist-Mennonites often emphasize while still embracing many affirmations of other Christian traditions:

The first involves “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).  That introduces value 1: The starting point for Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of God, the church, and all life is the New Testament and the Jesus Christ revealed in it. If we find understandings in Scripture, church, world, or our lives that conflict with New Testament teachings about Jesus’ Way, we give Jesus priority.

This is why the Sermon on the Mount is key to daily living. Jesus repeats, again and again, “You have heard that it was said. . . . But I say to you. . . .” Here Jesus reshapes the lives of followers—including Anabaptists—by teaching radical understandings of how God works and what God expects of us.

Value 2: God’s kingdom or realm comes first. This Anabaptist-Mennonite teaching has 1500s roots. Back then church and state often intertwined in what is sometimes called Christendom. Being baptized as a baby into your state church made you Christian. As radicals reforming the Reformers, the Anabaptists concluded Jesus taught that infant baptism doesn’t make you Christian. Rather, to be Christian is to make an adult decision to follow Jesus.

When you decide to follow, you become a citizen of God’s nation. You put God’s realm first. If your earthly nation, society, community, or even church asks you to violate the teachings of Christ and ways of God, you obey God .

Value 3: An Anabaptist-Mennonite church is a believers church. A believers church is made up not of people born into it but who have consciously decided to follow Jesus.

That decision is momentous. Only those who grasp the meaning and cost of following Jesus should be baptized, Anabaptists claimed. This was how Anabaptists, meaning “rebaptizers” as their enemies named them, came to see adult baptism as important enough to die for when Christendom entities ordered them to stop

Though as evident above this can catalyze division, the dream is that you and your co-believers will form alternative accountability structures helping you discern Jesus’ Way and find wisdom and courage to live it.

Value 4: Anabaptist-Mennonites are committed to love and nonviolence. We believe this because Jesus taught and modeled it, even dying on the cross and forgiving those who put him there. This means together cultivating a personal lifestyle of loving enemies and forgiving those who hurt or offend us. This has generated Mennonite contributions to conflict transformation. It means we can’t in good conscience follow Jesus and kill other people. So in theory (not always in practice) we don’t participate in war even if the alternative is prison, as Mennonites faced in World War I, or conscientious objection, as I registered for during the Vietnam War.

Value 5: Anabaptist-Mennonites embrace wholistic mission. We share Christ’s love with souls and bodies. The saving news of the gospel must be shared. And Jesus wants the bodies of God’s children, of those blind, captive, oppressed as he put it in Luke 4 and the “least of these” as he named them in Matthew 25, to be cherished. This means caring when injustice, racism, poverty, hunger, nakedness befall any of God’s children or creation itself and has led to such service organizations as Mennonite Disaster Service and Mennonite Central Committee.

These five values are neither exhaustive nor speak for all Anabaptist-Mennonites. Many treasures and shadows, or ways Anabaptism might correct other traditions or be corrected, await other venues (and are touched on in responses to Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Lutheranism). Yet I hope I’ve hinted at our complex, sometimes tormented, sometimes spine-tingling history and beliefs.

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