Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

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I grew up believing my Mennonite religious tradition originated as a part of the Anabaptist movement.  I would’ve been incredulous if someone had told me then that our theological underpinnings originated from a completely different source and most of our practice comes from a much later time.

It has taken me decades to fully come to the realization that conservative Mennonites (and especially those in the Charity movement) are not Anabaptist anymore.  We have, in fact, as a result of absorbing teachings from other sources, morphed into something quite different.

The evolution has been slow over many generations, but the difference is profound and the implications are deep.  We might self-describe as Mennonite or Anabaptist, but are, in reality, something else entirely and very different from our ancestors.

If you want to see the contrast, compare us (conservative Mennonites) to our Old Order cousins and consider how differently we approach things.  We share the same genetic origins (and surnames) yet not much as far as our theological ideas and practices.

So, who is real and who is the impostor?

Consider that everything from Sunday school to revival meetings, four-part singing, our eschatological perspective, and Zionism, is not originally Mennonite.  Those were things added (sometimes with great controversy) often only a generation ago or within the past couple centuries.  They are things that originated from various Protestant movements.

Our relatives from a generation or two ago swallowed fundamentalist theological innovations hook, line, and sinker.  They did so without realizing the divergent path this represented.  It might have begun with a subtle change of focus, but the difference in final outcomes is huge.  We have gone from from a question of “is it Christlike” to “is it biblical” and many of us don’t even know why that’s a problem.

Our ancestors might have been radical followers of Jesus.  Yet, most of us, despite our additional Mennonite packaging and a little Anabaptist flair, added back in to make us feel special about ourselves, are plain old biblical fundamentalists.

What is biblical fundamentalism?

It is a new idea.  It is a conservative Protestant reaction to modernism.  It is a hermeneutical system that reimagines “word of God” to be a book to be read rather than something far more dynamic and alive.  It turns belief in Jesus into a process of finding a code of ethics in Scripture and creating doctrine—but misses the essence of what it means to truly follow him.

Biblical fundamentalism is an extension of a Protestant idea.  In fundamentalism the religious experience is centered on Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) and neglects a large swath of Christian tradition.  It is a heresy only possible since the invention of the printing press.  Before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, in 1440, and widespread literacy, it would have been a hard sell to convince people that God’s word came to the masses primarily in book form.

Fundamentalists have literally deified a book, they made it an object of worship, and yet have irrationally thrown aside the institution of the church that delivered it to them.  They have essentially made Holy Scripture an coequal part of the Trinity, synonymous with Jesus Christ, usually at the expense of the Holy Spirit and almost always at the expense of church unity.  If we look at the long-term results the fruit of the Protestant reformation has undeniably been the the fracturing of the church into smaller and smaller bits. 

The Scripture-alone view has led to many bizarre interpretations of the text and a hyper-individualism that makes our unbelieving neighbors seem forbearing and cooperative by comparison.  It has led to a religion characterized by legalism and dogmatism.  Making the Bible into an infallible object has led to weird fixations on particular translations, like KJV-onlyism, that make no sense considering that the original text wasn’t written in old English.

In many cases biblical fundamentalists are simply conservatives stubbornly reading their own preconceived ideas back into the text (or proof-texting) rather than taking an honest and open Berean approach.  Fundamentalism started out of fear and as a defensive posture against higher criticism and modernism.  It is limited because it is based on assumptions that are wrongly taken as infallible truths.

It is a religious perspective that never leads to unity or true brotherhood because it is based on personal interpretation rather than a collective and historical understanding through the church body.  In Protestantism everyone has become their own pope and their own individual understanding of the Bible their only god.

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

Anabaptism quickly lost its way after a good start.  It soon devolved from radical faith, that challenged everything, into a religious tradition that couldn’t be questioned.  But despite that, it maintained a distinct community ethic and (after reigning in violent factions) developed a strong peace witness.  Ideas like non-conformity and non-resistance were passed down as a teleological “who we are” rather than a theological argument.

However, that “who we are” was too often missing the spiritual component that inspired it.  As a result, many Mennonites over the past few centuries started to look for energy from outside of the Anabaptist tradition.  Protestant movements that led to biblical fundamentalism have long had an appeal to conservative-minded Mennonites.  Pietism, revivalism and biblical fundamentalism have all breathed life into what had become dead orthodoxy.  But these movements did not share the same theological underpinnings of original Anabaptism.  And, instead of help, they have further eroded the Mennonite community, as many splits since then bear witness.

Biblical fundamentalism took root in the Mennonite culture when the longtime standard of the Schleitheim confession (established in 1527) was supplemented in 1921.  The adoption of “Christian Fundamentals” represented a dramatic change of thinking from anything truly Anabaptist.  It mirrored the polemic (or apologetic) style of the Protestant theologians and borrowed language from their work “The Fundamentals” which is the basis of ‘Christian’ fundamentalism.  The shift in priorities is clear, we went from a more practical lived-out ideal to an argumentative obsession with our “doctrines” and a new fixation on a particular brand of biblical literalism.

Our more scholarly and fighting approach has backfired.  The Mennonite church has split multiple times along “conservative” and “liberal” lines since then, both sides using their own interpretation of the Bible as their basis and coming out at different conclusions.  Our going from a perspective that prioritized loving submission to each other to one that elevates an individual’s own (personal, dogmatic and inerrant) interpretation of Scripture has not worked well for us.  It continues to bear the same fruit of division in our denomination as it did in Protestantism in general.

Sadly, we have increasingly farmed out the discipleship duties of the church brotherhood to “Bible institutes” and foolishly turned to fundamentalist icons like Bill Gothard, Michael Pearl or Ken Ham for our understanding of Scripture.  And worse, while a liberal arts education is viewed as a potential pitfall, biblical fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones (where racial segregation was enforced until the 1990’s) and Liberty University (who’s founder gave his full-throated endorsement to a divisive and immoral political candidate) are not seen as dangerous.

Why?

Because we have become something different from what we claim to be.

Fundamentalist indoctrination has now become woven into the fabric of our Mennonite experience and is indistinguishable from our authentic Anabaptist heritage to most born into our denomination.  We teach our children lyrics like: “The B-I-B-L-E, now that’s the book for me, I stand alone, on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” or “I love the Bible, I love the Bible, I love the Bible, it is the word of God.”  Which is cringe-worthy when you consider those songs are fundamentalist propaganda with little basis in Scripture and are priming a child’s confirmation bias for life.

In their embrace of fundamentalism, conservative Mennonites have lost the fight for the soul of Anabaptist tradition.  Many of have confused the fundamentalism of the past century with a “third way” Anabaptist heritage and are fooled into thinking they are winning the war when they are actually fighting for the other side.  In reality, while we think we are still Anabaptists, we have been invaded and conquered by our former persecutors.

How was authentic Anabaptism different?

True Anabaptism, while having very high regard for the Holy Scripture, understood the importance of community of faith and attempted an orthodoxy around simple obedience to the instructions of Jesus.  It was Christocentric rather than bibliocentric, meaning that the words of Scripture were to be illuminated through the life of Christ and via the Spirit.  The focus, as a result, was less on theological navel-gazing and more on living true evangelical faith or real world application.

Gelassenheit, or the idea of self-surrender and resignation to God’s will, meant submission to the body of believers.  Early Anabaptists understood the importance of community of faith, the part that community (and discipleship) played in salvation of the individual, and taught that faith produces a practical change in lifestyle.  Fundamentalism, by contrast, puts emphasis on personal experience, stresses the importance of dutiful Bible reading, takes a cerebral (modernist) approach to understanding Biblical text and often gets mired in the theoretical.

Authentic Anabaptism was more teleological than it was deontological in that it was more about just “being” rather than it was interested in creating theology or a system of rules.  While fundamentalism reduces Jesus to the level of Moses, a man trying to establish a code of ethics and a new doctrinal framework as a means to salvation, the Anabaptist perspective was to take emphasis away from the individual, to place an individual in a community of faith (representative of God’s kingdom) and then practicing love towards each other.  It was less “the Bible says so” (supported by a position paper) and more “this is what we are” using spiritual fruit as evidence.

Our Old Order brethren still carry on at least the vestiges of an Anabaptist perspective with their focus on maintaining a community of faith.  That, at very least, provides them with some stability and a little protection from being blown hither and thither by the winds of doctrine.  I can see this in my Amish coworkers who exhibit a simple practical faith as if it is breathing for them.  Sure, they might not loudly proclaim themselves “born again” or be able to give a detailed explanation of every practice, but they do have something we as modern “conservative” Mennonites have lost.

Modern Mennonites, like other fundamentalists, are taught to depend on themselves and take an extremely individualistic approach to matters of faith.  We do not see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers (other than to argue with them in men’s Sunday school class) and are quick to split over what we see as “more biblical” based on our own personal interpretation.  We have lost the concept of the body of Christ (and our being the incarnation together) that once made us unique.

Why Has Anabaptism Failed?

Anabaptism started on the right track, but subsequent generations have abandoned what was a teleological (and Spirit-led) faith for something manufactured, deontological and fundamentalist.  Sure, we have more theological knowledge than ever, but we lack spiritual wisdom to contextualize, comprehend or properly apply what we know.

It is bizzare that we cling to fundamentalist innovations of the past century as if all truth depended on it (things like revival meetings, Sunday school, modern eschatological interpretations and Creationism) yet neglect the richer traditions of the church.  Even our Amish brethren celebrate important days on the Christian calendar (Pentecost and Ascension Day) that are forgotten by most of us.  Anabaptism has failed, in part, because it separated itself from the greater cloud of witnesses and universal church that together represent the body of Christ.

We failed also because we, like many religious fundamentalists today, study the Bible thinking a book alone can lead us and this is a complete rejection of the means that Jesus said would be provided for those who believe.  Jesus promised that we would have the Holy Spirit to “teach us all things” and stressed living in simple obedience through those means—with loving submission to each other as something central.  That is something quite different from a mental assent to a bunch of religious doctrines or dogmas.

We fail because we face backward towards our ancestors as if they hold the answers for today and forget that those before us looked forward full of the Spirit.  They did not dwell in the past.  Instead, they were dependent on each other and had Christ as their head.  We should not be trying to recreate their movement or looking for fundamentals.  We should instead be in full and sincere pursuit of faith as they were.

What to do?

I believe we would do well to be humble about our heritage, consider the fallibility of our own inherited base assumptions, and reach for an understanding broader, deeper and richer than our own.  Yes, being a Mennonite is as good a place to start as any other, but it cannot be where we remain or it leads to spiritual stagnation.

Living faith fossilized into mere Biblical fundamentals is no better than the dead orthodoxy or the faithless modernism it was supposed to protect against.  Faith is something that is supposed to be lived out while moving boldly in a direction and is not something reducible to a set of theological propositions.

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19 thoughts on “Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

    • And you certainly don’t need to agree with all of what I said. The body of believers means that together (with the historical church) we discern and that means discussion.

      Thank you for reading!

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  1. Jason Croutch

    Joel, you make some excellent observations! I wholeheartedly agree that as conservative Anabaptists (or Mennonites), we have gotten far away from the concepts of brotherhood and Gellasenheit. Following Scripture dare not be or become more important than following Christ and the Holy Spirit. It has troubled me for years that we see so many conservative people who are obviously not controlled by God’s Spirit. Thank-you for “preaching” this. The Church needs to hear it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. I think it is deeply ingrained and only made worse by the emergence of fundamentalism. Perhaps it is just human nature? We want simple and concrete answers, we love when men (claiming to be experts) cherry pick the Scripture to find that black and whiteness we long for. But God calls us to something greater and that is faith. Look at the overall picture in the Bible, no two stories of faith are the same and nothing about what is described is as simple as the dogmatic answers some give. There is nuance there that demands that we depend on God rather than our own intellect and fundamentals. We need the life of the Spirit or no amount of carefully crafted theology and religion can save us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. leonard

    Finally…there are others realizing we are deeply flawed…I love this article…OiL believe there are more than us…whose sentiments are alike…lacking the courage…to be early with this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I try to speak up for the many who feel like I do and don’t have the words to express it. I have been given a gift, an ability to write, and hope I can use it for some good.

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  3. I really appreciate coming across this thoughtful article on Facebook. I am a Catholic with Mennonite in-laws, and live in an area with an Old-Order Mennonite community. I’m not a scholar, but in reading your thoughts, it occurred to me that for the most part, you are moving closer to Catholicism. When you referred to biblical interpretation, and said that each person becomes their own pope, I couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, it becomes impossible to hold a community together when everyone’s personal interpretation holds the same weight. In Catholicism, we recognize that the Holy Spirit speaks to us individually through Sacred Scripture, but the Church interprets scripture for the community at large. The Reformation should be more correctly called the Revolution, because of the throwing out of doctrines that had been passed down for over a thousand years, to instead rewrite them in a way found more palatable to the revolutionaries.
    The Catholic Church is not perfect. Jesus entrusted the church to sinners, and so it is. But. It is guided by the Holy Spirit and with all its flaws, has endeavored through the ages to remain faithful to His direction. If you ask most Catholics why they stay in the Church when, alas, so many of the baby boom generation have left, the answer would be the Eucharist. We need that daily bread of life. Starting with Vatican II, that generation suffered from poor catechesis, and I believe that many of my cohort left without fully understanding the Church. Most of my children left the Church as they came of age in the late ’90s and early 2000s, but half of them have now returned and want to pass it on to their children. Over the past few years, I have observed in younger Catholics a real desire to live faithfully and committed to Christ. It seems to be world-wide, is inspired in many ways by St. John Paul II and is quite heartening. I think this will continue, especially after my generation passes on.
    I recognize that God is continuing to guide all His people – Protestant and Catholic alike. And I do believe that we will again fulfill Jesus’ desire “that all are one.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do believe in one holy univeral (ie: catholic) apostolic church. That not necessarily meaning an organization or institution, but the body of believers historically and around the world. It also means acknowledgement of the church tradition that canonized the Bible.

      For our faith to be strong and healthy I believe there are three things, not equal but all working together, and those three things being the Holy Scripture, the Holy Spirit and also the Holy Church. That was the order of my own spiritual journey, I was brought up to reverence the Bible, then learned the need of the Holy Spirit to give life and more recently the need for the church to be bigger than my own religious heritage.

      I have actually been attending a Greek Orthodox church. I have left more spiritually fed from a liturgy almost to millennia old than I did hearing the fundamentalist rants in my home congregation. Still, I’m a very cynical and skeptical guy, it is difficult for me to fully accept their orthodoxy. But there is real beauty there, I can imagine the cloud of witnesses and can appreciate their reminders of those who have gone on before. But it is more the love I was shown by Orthodox people that led me there.

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  4. Darren Fox

    Hi Joel,
    Could you please cite your sources for the sections “What is biblical fundamentalism?” and “When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?” Thanks!
    -Darren Fox

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kinu Grove

    Having grown up in a transitional Mennonite church and now moved to a non denominational church. (spirit led with a focus on personal change and freedom from sin) I see how being correct was more important in many cases then showing love and mercy. Your writing perfectly put into perspective the challenge that the modern Mennonite church faces. Traditions and formalities have replaced then unstructured unpredictable workings of the holy spirit. Are we changed when we encounter Jesus do we give up our lives and live as he directs or do we follow a bunch of laws like the old testament. I think God is opening eyes in all churches and raising up true Jesus followers that will see us break this bondage and walk in Love and freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mark

    Hi, Don’t know you, but enjoyed the article. Would like to privately message you. Could you send me a link to FB, or a way to talk with you? Mark

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  7. Peter

    Hi Joel, This is a very well written, honest, and truthful post. Thank you for writing it. You didn’t come out and say the words, but I appreciate your emphasis on Holy Tradition. I remember when I was in a fundamentalist Mennonite church, there was always talk about those poor sincere-but-sincerely-wrong Christians out there somewhere (who, if we were feeling especially magnanimous, would even be allowed the possibility of salvation), but we never thought that we might be in that category. We were so sincere!
    I’m glad to see you’re attending an Orthodox church. I was chrismated into an OCA Parish last Pascha and have never been so aware of spiritual realities as I am. I’m finally beginning to understand what a relationship with the Word is, and what it means to love Him and be loved by Him. I know the doctrines and practices can be hard, but keep your historical perspective and and remember to avoid self-papacy (or any other papacy) and you will be fine. I’ve never met so many loving and non judgemental people as at my church in Tyler, TX, but for me it was the history that led me there. Then I stayed for the grace.
    I found this blog through my wife who is still Mennonite (and is also your cousin), but who I hope and pray will convert with me. She reads it all the time. Keep up the good witness. God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I hear you as far as Mennonite (and fundamentalist) attitudes towards church traditions older than their own as well. It is sad. There is such a richness of history and depth of understanding that is missed. But it took me a long long time to get to the place where I was finally able to appreciate a tradition other than my own.

      Initially it was the concept of theosis that intrigued me about the Orthodox perspective. But what really made the difference for me was when I began to correspond with Fr. Anthony. Not only was I impressed by his vast knowledge of Scripture, but what really made the biggest difference is his treatment of me and his humble spirit. That, and he never pressured me, if he had the aggressive style of a typical Evangelical/fundamentalist scalp counter he probably would have made me less interested, but he was patient and let God be in control.

      Since attending I’ve really enjoyed the liturgy, I find it to be very meaningful and I’ve left singing parts of it. It wasn’t that way for me leaving a Mennonite church anymore. I would often feel drained and irritable because of all the nonsense that tainted anything beneficial in the experience. I guess, as Fr. Anthony put it, I have “out grown” the church of my youth. That’s not a pleasant feeling for me either, it had always been my plan to remain Mennonite and leaving is like tearing a chunk of my heart from my chest.

      But I suppose Jesus did say something about leaving even our family behind to follow him…

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  8. fruitfirst

    For not wanting to believe the scriptures you sure do reference the Scriptures many times to show how you should follow Jesus. I am surprised you do not say Christ.
    If you truly feel the Scriptures are not important to follow Jesus then you Must Explain, John 1:1-14 especially verse 14 and then tell me why the Scriptures are not important to follow Christ.

    Like

    • I never said anything about not believing the Scripture. I did say that the Scripture is sometimes difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and is dependent on the interpreter. People twist the words of the Bible just like you twisted mine. So how do you know that your understanding of the text is the correct understanding?

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      • Really? The Bible never makes that claim. In fact, the Bible tells us that Jesus promised the Spirit would “teach us all things” and contradicts your opinion many times. You don’t believe the promised Spirit or Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus?

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