Can Mennonites and Lutherans Experience Grace, Faithfulness, and Even Fun Together?

Can Mennonites and Lutherans, once bitter enemies, have fun together? Though the journey is challenging, that’s a question Mark Ellingsen’s take on Lutheranism in “Lutheranism: An Evangelical Catholic Way to Follow Jesus” stirs for me.

Noting that, as was true for Anabaptists, the label Lutheran was originally applied by critics, Ellingsen wants to highlight such names as “evangelical” and “catholic.” He explains that Lutheranism incorporates many strands, including Pietistic, Confessional, or the “Neo-Confessional” he names Evangelical Catholicism. He also stresses that most Lutherans can at least agree “that the Christian life must be rooted in God’s grace.”

Where does my Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition fit into this? I resonate with John J. Friesen’s take that we owe much to Lutheranism—which helped create space for the Anabaptist rejection of Roman Catholic indulgences, commitment to the Bible (sola scriptura) above tradition, belief that Scripture should be accessible to the common person rather than only privileged priests, and the ensuing affirmation of the priesthood of all believers.

As Ellingsen notes, “Lutherans . . . join with most Protestants in embracing the idea that all who are baptized, all who follow Jesus, are priests. Christians who follow Jesus are priests, for they have been dedicated to living lives in which they perform the sacrifice of dying to their sin and rising to serve Christ and the neighbor (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, p.53; Ibid., Vol.36, p.145; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XXIV.26).”

On the other hand, casting a shadow Ellingsen doesn’t address, Luther became a vitriolic opponent of Anabaptists. How did this come to be?

Through establishing Lutheranism as a state church. As Friesen summarizes, “When Luther opted for the state-church model, placed the Lutheran church under the authority of the state, and persecuted minority churches, Anabaptists believed that Luther had betrayed the teachings of the Bible.” Anabaptists rejected models in which church and state together policed the boundaries of acceptable Christianity.

In contrast, Anabaptists, purveyors of the Radical Reformation, believed that the commandments of Scripture and particularly the teachings of Jesus trumped the state if church came into conflict with state. Surely, thought Anabaptists, there was conflict  if the church demanded, contra Jesus, killing enemies, swearing oaths, infant baptism not optional but coerced, upholding civil order and established norms if they blocked following Jesus. Surely there was almost unbearable conflict when not only did the state go against Jesus’ teachings but the very Martin Luther who celebrated grace countenanced the possibility that the state should execute Anabaptists for sedition and blasphemy.

Although they based it more on New Testament practices than a formal take on the priesthood of believers, Anabaptists, and their Mennonite branch, were also often more radical in blurring the line between laity and clergy. I experienced this as a seminary graduate trained in an American Baptist seminary (where Lutherans were classmates) whose professors advocated a moderate setting-apart of ordained ministers within a larger commitment to the priesthood of all. My first pastorate was at Germantown Mennonite Church, oldest Mennonite congregation in North America, established in Philadelphia in 1683 by Mennonites and Quakers. By 1980s a faithful remnant of some 25 congregants was expressing commitment to the priesthood of all through a leadership team that included ordained but unpaid ministers plus several congregants. As a paid minister, I would stretch the pattern.

My first Sundays careful attention was paid to where I stood when preaching. At the front of the historic building was a raised platform and pulpit many congregants’ saw as too prominent, evidence prior generations had strayed from true radicality. With heart pounding I went to the pulpit instead of the humble portable lectern. Whoever was right or wrong, the resulting controversy had roots reaching down to the early days of Anabaptism, not to mention Lutheranism.

But as with all human traditions, Mennonites are complicated. The same understandings that could be understood as discouraging trained professional priests/pastors exercising authority over Christians also generated structures that sometimes straitjacketed individual freedom of conscience. There were reasons for this; as Astrid von Schlacta observes, “Yes, sola scriptura implies that the meaning of Scripture does not depend on interpretation by a priest. Yet Anabaptists believed that collective interpretation of the Bible by the community of believers was indispensable.” True enough. But then in the name of the community others in the community, often themselves paradoxically following the authority of the leaders they trusted, might ban those they considered out of bounds.

This has led to circumstances in which Mennonites seeking to be “without spot or blemish” have generated communities that have policed boundaries of the quest, excommunicated congregants perceived to be non-repentant sinners, and risked crushing grace under law. In her memoir The Merging (DreamSeeker Books, 2000), my aunt Evelyn King Mumaw tells how her parents helping establish an early 1900s Sunday school. In that Mennonite context, this was perceived as violating church norms. Mumaw describes the day the bishop came to put her family out, an event which cast lifelong shadows over the family, including her younger brother who was my father:

Attendees were warned to discontinue their involvement. Those who continued attending there were finally excommunicated. Limerick Sunday school was closed. All persons who were put out of church were to confess that they had sinned in order to be  reinstated. Some would only confess they had disobeyed a conference decree. I still remember that chilly morning when the little Bishop with the cold sharp eyes came driving up our lane in his boxlike Model-T Ford. I think it was the time he had come to tell my parents that the people who kept on attending Limerick after they were told to stop were going to be put out of the church. And that included my parents. The people who went through this experience were deeply hurt.

This takes me back to Ellingsen and the gospel of grace. One could underscore the shadows of Lutheranism. One could claim, as I’ve heard Mennonites do and sometimes done myself, that Lutheranism purveys a cheap grace. One could suggest, and I see some value in this, that those who wrap their commitments around faithfully following Jesus, often rooted in the Gospels, may experience formation complementary to that of those who particularly celebrate sola fide and sola gratia, frequently rooted in Pauline epistles.

But after 500 years, Lutherans have asked forgiveness for persecuting Anabaptists. Ellingsen underscores that there is an ethical component to Luther, who believes “you only sin bravely when you do not give into concupiscence, when you boldly live a sacrificial, sin-denying life (live your baptism), but do so with the awareness that even then you are still sinning, that all good done is a function of God working in and through you (Complete Sermons, Vol.4, p.367).” And Ellingsen paints moving word pictures of the gifts of grace:

When you live in a family, with a lover whose love works on you, the loved one does not have to tell you what to do to please him/her.  You just sort of know.  True human love is spontaneous.  Imagine then what God’s love can do to you.  In fact, when you are in love (fall in love – note the passivity) it is like an ecstatic experience.  You lose yourself.  Should we not expect it to be that way in the arms of Jesus?  This is another reason why Lutherans claim that there is no need to teach Christians how to follow Jesus.  It will just happen spontaneously when you are living with Jesus. 

Here I still want the Mennonite formation that says human commitments are never fully whole so that, like couples who may not always feel love but want to receive and offer it nevertheless, we need teachings and a community that create disciplines of right living—whether or not these spontaneously emerge. On the other hand, how those Limerick Mennonites yearned for a more ecstatic church than the one offered by the cold-eyed bishop. How importantly Lutheranism, drawing on the Pietistic strand Ellingsen embraces, reminds us that with

awareness that everything we do is a sin, it follows that the best Christians can be is simul iustus et peccator (100% saint and 100% sinner) (Romans 7:14-18; Luther’s Works, Vol.32, p.111; Ibid., Vol.27, p.230).    This is a freeing insight, as it entails the awareness that we are loved by God, even despite all our sin and selfishness.

And how helpfully we can collaborate on the Way. As von Schlacta sees it,

The Anabaptists were part of the Reformation and shared basic convictions with Lutherans and Reformed. Yes, sola gratia means we do not attain salvation through works. But living the faith was important for all. The Anabaptists called this discipleship. For Luther it was “new obedience.”

Perhaps together, then, amid grace and forgiveness for the sins evident in both (and all) traditions, we can say a celebratory yes when Ellingsen asks, “Can the rest of the catholic tradition also embrace the freedom, spontaneity, and fun which Lutherans often associate with following Jesus?”