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.

Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

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People divide up.  Segregation occurs naturally in groups as individuals seek out others who have something in common with them.  It students find those of common interests, social status, gender or race.  It happens in communities—people choose to live with people more similar to them.

But where division should not happen is in the church.  Not according to the Apostle Paul, at least:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2‭-‬6)

I believe the first sentence, “Be completely humble and gentle,” is key to the second part being true of us.  With pride comes contention (Prov 13:10) and without humility there is divisivion.

Paul further elaborates:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloeʼs household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10‭-‬15)

The message is clear in the words of Paul—the church should not be divided into competing denominations and, if Scripture is to be believed, we should be grieved by division in the church and preach against it.

We should stand united against this:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9‭-‬10)

Diotrephes evidently thought he was pretty special.  He desired preeminence, made slanderous accusations and was excluding other Christians from fellowship.  We aren’t told why he was banning people, but his attitude clearly is condemned as wrong in the passage.

A church divided against itself…

The church today is divided up into many denominations.  There was the big schism between East and West that was caused by disagreement over Papal primacy, the Filioque added to the church creed, canonization of Scripture and multiple other issues.  After various attempts to reconcile differences over many years the result was eventually mutual excommunications in 1054 that are regarded as the terminal event.

Then came the series of splits in the Western church, the so-called Protestant Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s protests over the sale of indulgences in the 1500s, leading to the formation of a “Lutheran” church and culminating in the 33,000 denominations that we have today.  My own Mennonite denomination was the eventual product of a radical and rebellious (sometimes violent) Anabaptist movement.

My church is part of many Mennonite “conferences” that recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree.  Some groups considered “old order” (who reject modern technology) with a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” as broad as the overall church and spawning more variations (some who resist being called Mennonite) recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree… yet typically only allow their own members to take communion.

Mennonites today, unlike the schism in 1054 or other splits caused by larger more meaningful matters of theology and doctrine, tend to divide over the minutia of application.  Things like the style of coat, size of a floral print on a dress, color of socks, facial hair, and any number of nitpicking details which nobody in the world outside Mennodom would care about, can precipitate a church split.

For example, in my church the two big controversies that led people to leave were over hair style.  First, several families left for a more conservative conference because a little girl had bangs.  Later, a liberal contingent left because of a feud over a bit of peach fuzz.

Complete absurdity.

This is a reality in clear opposition to the teachings of Paul and the “unity of the Spirit” he describes.

What is the problem?

We have names from A to Z in front of our church buildings to proudly tell people what church tradition we follow.  We announce “I am of Menno Simons” or of this “Lutheran” theological perspective or that “Methodist” doctrinal division and promote a form of tribalism.  The result is a confusing mess that only a religious historian could untangle.

But, I can hear the protest: “Shouldn’t people know what denomination we are?  I mean, they’ll find out eventually, better to let them know before they enter and disturb us, right?”

And thus we prove we value our denomination more than we do welcoming others of Christian faith.  It is the spirit of Diotrephes, a prideful desire for preeminence and control; it is love of our own dogmatic ideas over other people.  It is the kind of attitude Jesus condemns:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)

The “teachers of the law and Pharisees” thought they had every right to shut people out based on their biblical standards.  But Jesus warns them that they will be shut out the way they shut out others.  It seems the same message Jesus preached of forgive as you wish to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14) and judge as you wish to be judged (Matt. 7:2) and that should give pause to anyone humble enough to know their own imperfections.

The Mennonite church I grew up in will refuse to baptize a believer who doesn’t go through a class and agree to follow their own list of standards.  They would go so far as deny communion to a person from another denomination.  And this inhospitable attitude is not a problem to most of them.

Maybe God will be inhospitable to those who have denominational pride and shut out other believers different from themselves?

Some things to consider…

1) Reconsider having a denominational name in front of your church.  Do you understand the admonition of the Apostle Paul against division?  If so, why do you see it as allowable to emphasize a man’s name, a particular doctrinal slant or denominational tradition in front of your church?  What if our true worship was supposed to be less about theological correctness and more about our truthfulness in love and forbearance?

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12‭-‬14)

2) Stop attacking, belittling, and making slanderous accusations against other denominations.  I know I know, Catholics are idol worshippers, Joel Osteen isn’t negative enough (more about hell, please) and Calvinists are too fatalistic, predetermined or something like that.  But Scripture tells us, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and warns: 

If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)

Perhaps, before we get too sanctimonious, we should consider this:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11‭-‬12)

3) Be less resistant to criticism and more receptive to correction regarding your own denomination.  It is easy to circle the wagons when our own church tradition is scrutinized, and to react defensively rather then be open to rebuke.  For example, nearly any time I blog about the defects of my own religious culture, there’s usually a chorus of those crying, “My Mennonite church isn’t like that!”  Many are in denial—but that is their pride.

We should practice introspection and be open to the possibility that outsiders might see our flaws better than we do, because:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8‭-‬10)

There is no weakness in acknowledgement and confession of fault.  There is no need for huffy recriminations (“Well, they do it too!”) if we are truly humble.  Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven, not about defending the image of our denomination.

4) Baptism should be uncoupled from denominational indoctrination and membership.  There is nowhere in Scripture where baptism is seperated from profession of faith.  Yes, we should disciple young believers, teach correct doctrine and encourage good application.  However, that can come after baptism.  There is no reason why a baptism should wait weeks or months.  And, if you belong to a church that ties baptism to extrabiblical church standards, speak out against it.  We should welcome the young in the faith rather than add our own prideful denominational requirements:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1‭-‬5)

5) Do not refuse to allow other Christians to participate in your Communion service.  Paul warns against eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27) and this is reason for introspection.  However, what is neither said nor implied is the idea that a church leader should determine who is worthy or not worthy.  Yes, we are told that an openly wicked and unrepentant person should be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13) and yet that doesn’t mean we should deny those of other denominational stripes from the table.

We must rebuke Diotrephes and welcome other believers even if they do not meet our own denominational standards.  There is one church and one Spirit—we must take a stand against the spirit of division.  We need to stand against sins of pride and denominationalism.

Will the Real Anabaptists Please Stand Up…

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We are all familiar with that guy—the high water mark of his life being his senior year of high school—who is always looking back on that one moment when he was actually relevant and longing for those glory days to return, right?

It is the tendency of some to romanticize the past and something very easy to do when things aren’t going as well as we’d like in the present.  Occasionally this sentimentalism about the past is useful reflection, but oftentimes it is no more than our fear of a future that seems uncertain and keeps us from the greater fulfillment of our potential as an individual or together as a group.

We read about those who rejected what would have brought them into the promised land who “in their hearts turned back to Egypt” and “worship the symbols of their former greatness rather than understand” (Acts 7:39) in Scripture.  Because of this idolatrous preference for things past-tense a generation of Israelites escaped the bondage of Egypt only to wander aimlessly in the wilderness because they did not trust God to overcome the giants of their time.

It is fashionable nowadays in some conservative Mennonite or somehow otherwise related circles to use the word “Anabaptist” as a means to distinguish themselves.  This resurrection of Anabaptist identity seems to both be a response to a perceived lukewarmness in the established tradition and also a rejection of what is often labeled Evangelicalism.  But what it often amounts to is no more than a change of window dressing and nothing more.

In many cases it seems these new Anabaptists are simply another hybrid/remix version of conservative Mennonite standards with Biblical fundamentalism, Revivalism, Pietism, along with many other more recent innovations and influences.  These self-proclaimed Anabaptists may actually be more at odds with their ancestors than their Old Order cousins whom they consider to be their spiritual inferiors.  There is no new life, only rewarmed leftovers of yesterday’s meals and a new distraction.

Early Anabaptists did not spend their days in obsessive omphaloskepsis or in preserving a religious cultural identity.  They were men emboldened by the Spirit to question the authority of their own human teachers and break from tradition passed to them.  They were rebels, branded as troublemakers and thought to be dangerous heretics. 

If your primary goal in life is raising your quiverful and maintaining a respectable image in church or society in general, then you, my friend, are no George Blaurock.

Are modern day Anabaptist wannabes doomed to wander a spiritual wilderness?

The short answer is, no.  

We all have choices to make in the present that will shape our future and the choice is still in front of us all. 

Here’s your choice: Will you be like those who stubbornly clung to the past for security and missed out on the promised land because of their lack of faith?  Or, will you this day choose to stop burying your talents in fear, invest fully in trust of God’s grace and rest completely in the Spirit’s ability to lead you as it did Jesus? 

Jesus, when his authority was questioned, pointed to John’s Baptism (Mathew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8) and a moment of special spiritual anointing recorded in all of the Gospels. 

We are told the sky was “torn open” (Mark 1:9-11) then the Spirit of God descended upon him “in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:21-23) “and alighted on him” (Matthew 3:13-17) and immediately after this: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…” (Luke 4:1)  I believe those writers wanted us to know what gave Jesus authority and direction—what say you?

This is what I read: Jesus appealed to an authority greater than the experts on Scripture and theology back then could duplicate.  He points to something spiritually significant that accompanied his physical water Baptism.  An anointing by God that immediately leads him to the wilderness where he is tempted and then emerges to read from Isaiah “the Spirit of God is upon me” claiming it to be fulfilled that day in him to a stunned and incredulous audience.

But, besides that, there is another Biblical accounting of the Baptism of Jesus with an added detail of great importance, the testimony of John:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is Godʼs Chosen One.” (John 1:32-34)

Jesus did not only live as an example and die as a sacrifice for our sins.  No, according to the passage above, he came to deliver on a promise.  That promise was a spiritual anointing like his available to all who believe. 

That promise being “the Spirit of truth” that the world (including many who falsely claim to believe Jesus) cannot accept as real (John 14-17) and is only known to those who have been anointed or “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and is what was experienced on the day of Pentecost in an event Peter claims was foretold by the prophet Joel before preaching a message of repentance:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

What is the first step out of the wilderness?

#1) “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15) Which means turning away from our sinful attitudes and behaviors—be Baptized, then live in obedience to the teachings of Jesus as we know them.  The Baptism of repentance is something we do as both a symbolic gesture and also as part of sincere effort to put to practice the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.

This is the most difficult step for those raised in a Christian religious tradition.  We know how to follow the rules or behave ourselves and act right.  However, this is often a commitment without sacrifice and an occasion to stumble over our own pride.  We become like the prodigal son who never left home yet was far from repentance.

Keep repenting as need be.

#2) “Ye must be born again.” (John 3:1-21) This was something perplexing to Nicodemus and still mysterious to us.  Jesus says “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” then adds that only the Spirit gives birth to the spirit.  As surely as you didn’t give birth to yourself the first time you will not give birth to yourself spiritually.  For man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

There are many spiritual infants in the church today or those who rely on their own human reasoning and not the power of God.  There was recently a man, ordained in the Mennonite church, who confessed to his not being spiritually born when he started as a preacher.  We send missionaries out full of themselves or a religious indoctrination and youthful ambition rather than tell them to wait on the fullness of Spirit to come to them as Jesus urged his disciples.

#3) “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.” (1 John 2:20)  Do you have that confidence?  Or are you like those Paul encountered who were Baptized in water of repentance and yet…

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’ ‘Johnʼs baptism,’ they replied.  Paul said, ‘Johnʼs baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:1-6)

There are many who have been Baptized with water of repentance who are still not quickened in Spirit.  There are two Baptisms, one physical and the other spiritual, one is to show our repentance and another is of God clothing us.  I pray God sends the willing of this generation to lay hands on those who are Baptized yet still spiritual powerless and that through prayer they are anointed in the name of the Lord Jesus.

#4) “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint…” (Proverbs 29:18)  The word revelation (also translated as vision) is about spiritual foresight and leadership.  When there is no spiritual vision people cast off restraint, run wild, perish, etc.

Vision is not about looking backwards for answers.  This is not medieval Switzerland, you are not George Blaurock, I am not Conrad Grebel, and we can’t recreate the 1500’s today nor should we want to.  Tent meetings, Sunday schools, VBS (or any of the other innovations of a prior era) do not need to be preserved ad infinitum either.  We have work to do, work God has given us to do in this present moment using the advantages we are given.

Yes, the witness of faithfulness past-tense should not be forgotten and is a great encouragement.  Take these translated words of “Gott, dich will ich loben” (God, You I Will Praise) a hymn written by Blaurock before his martyrs death have great value:

“Lord God, how do I praise Thee
From hence and evermore,
That Thou real faith didst give me
By which I Thee may know.
Forget me not, O Father,
Be near me evermore;
Thy Spirit shield and teach me,
That in afflictions great
Thy comfort I may ever prove,
And valiantly may obtain
The victory in this fight.”

But putting those words to actual practice does not mean we should be consummate historians, full of knowledge of the past and light on vision for the future.  We should not be like those obsessed with their former glory, trying to be great again by looking backwards, rather we should be full of the Spirit and a vision for today.

The real Anabaptist is the one who does as they did and recklessly pursues the truth regardless of personal cost.  We need a radical faith, one that uses the technological means and media of today, that reaches the world with authentic self-sacrificial love.   We have tools at our disposal that give of us capabilities that our ancestors could hardly even imagine.

Ultimately, however, for any of our tools, technology and historical knowledge to be useful, we need a spiritual awakening.  Real Christian vision is not a product of human ability or effort, it comes from the Spirit of God—For any of our advantages to matter we must be born again.

Those who walk in the Spirit look forward with a positive vision and a great hope for the future.

Commitment Issues: Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

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There was a Baptism service at my church this past weekend and not the usual indoctrinated from birth teenager either.  This was a married couple in their thirties come in from outside the Mennonite religious tradition.

We had Communion that night and the devotional was about how Jesus asked “take this cup from me” when considering the suffering he would soon endure.  The cup we drink at Communion is a voluntary commitment to “take up the cross” and suffer with Jesus.

Baptism is a serious commitment.  Jesus urged to “count the cost” before making a commitment to follow after him and his converts were adults.  This seems in stark contrast to the evangelical emotional appeals for a decision and child conversion of the current conservative Mennonite culture.

Mennonites, or rather our Anabaptist ancestors, suffered persecution because they (among other things) rejected infant Baptism in defiance of the established religious order of their day and tied the ritual back to profession of faith.  This is called “Believer’s Baptism” and a commitment made with keen awareness that it could come at a tremendous cost.

Baptism Age: Then Compared To Now…

We, as Mennonites, especially conservative Mennonites, take pride in our Anabaptist identity, we like to use it as something that makes us unique, special or separated and, put plainly, better than other Christian denominations.

But are we?

Are we much like early Anabaptists and Mennonites who came before us?

In my own church experience, as noted, the ‘conversion’ to Christianity often comes at a very young age and most are Baptized as teenagers.  This is probably a reflection of a departure from our Anabaptist roots and embrace of more recent Evangelical innovations.  We, unlike our predecessors, have pulpits to pound on, Sunday school hours aimed at children and Revival meetings with strong emotional appeals.

So, what about our Anabaptist heritage, how does *their* normal for conversion compare to our own?

When did *they* get Baptized?

According to a GAMEO article on age of Baptism this is the answer:

“The estimated average age of baptism for 10 representative Anabaptist men and women, 1525-1536, was 36.4, with none under the age of 20, two between the ages of 20 and 29, four between 30 and 39, and four between 40 and 49.”

Early Anabaptist converts were often adults who could likely more fully understand the commitment that they made and knew it could be a death sentence.  Mennonite converts today, by contrast, are often children, products of a careful indoctrination from a young age, taught to please parents and through ‘conversion’ gain access to the perks of cultural acceptance rather than lose it.

Which leaves a question of whether or not our child converts actually able to count the cost of being a disciple of Jesus or are they simply doing what is culturally expedient and trying to keep up with their religious peers?

Sure, we could say that our children (because of our great teaching and example) are more ready for a serious commitment than say, for example, a 16th century German peasant facing death, a safe assumption, right?

However, then we get to the topic of marriage commitment…

Marriage Age: Then Compared To Now…

As far as I can tell our Amish and Old Order cousins are doing just fine in regards to courtship and marriage—It seems to be business as usual for them.  However, in the conservative Mennonite subset I am a part of there also seems to have been a shift away from marriage commitment.

When compared to prior generations we are waiting longer and longer to tie the knot.  My great grandma, not uncommon in her day, married as a teenager, and my grandparents married just into their twenties like my parents did.  But in my own church today there’s nearly two pews of those twenty-five or older who never married and hardly even dated.

The subset of Mennonite I belong to came under the influence of fundamentalist voices, men like Bill Gothard (who remains single) and others, that taught a courtship model.  They have embraced an idea that basically turns a first date into an engagement.  Friendship, let alone development of a romance, has become nearly impossible and it is because there’s this fear instilled in both genders to prevent even healthy interaction.

These fundamentalist Mennonites have also come under the influence of worldly entertainment.  Despite our traditional dress and slightly more cloistered communities, we are exposed (through internet and other media) to secular millennial generation values.  Mennonite fundamentalists, like their worldly counterparts, are postponing a marriage commitment longer and more never do tie the knot.

Could it be possible that we value freedom from responsibility over commitment and our temporal pleasures (like freedom to travel or other self-satisfactory personal projects both religiously or otherwise justified) over the risk of a long-term relationship?

But, more importantly, what does this reluctance to show romantic love say about our faith?  Can we claim to be committed to God when we can’t even make a serious commitment to loving each other?

Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

I believe our practices betray our inconsistency of thought and departure from the identity we claim as our own.  It is cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, etc.  We urge our children to commitment before they are able to count the cost as an adult, but then continue to mistrust that decision after they do so as if we do secretly know better. 

First we often urge them to wait to be Baptized.  We save that public confirmation for teenagers who went through a young believers class, which is nothing like the Baptism immediately upon profession of faith as was the case in the early church. 

But then, even after that, we continue to mistrust the commitment when it comes to courtship practice.  Mennonite suitors are not treated as an actual brother in Christ when it comes time to ask.  No, instead they are treated as if a hostile invader who must prove himself worthy by running a gauntlet and can be instantly disqualified if he dare be too honest about his own imperfection.

We might ridicule Catholics and Lutherans for doing the opposite of us (for Baptizing their infants and then confirming them as believers later on) but should probably be careful not to throw stones from our glass houses.  We should instead consider the beam in our own eye and ask why we are urging commitments that we don’t fully recognize or completely respect later on.

We tell tales of Constantine marching his troops through a river and calling them Baptized.  Yet could it be that we are really only manufacturing pre-programmed religious robots?  Sure, we produce children who recite back memory verses, spout out our dogmas on cue, and give all the right sounding answers with a smile on their face, but are as evil as the world at heart?

Adult Commitment Rather Than Premature Birth and Underdeveloped Faith

In Christian commitment (as in marriage) we should probably be encouraging our adults to commitment and telling our children to wait until ready.  If a person is too young to commit to marriage then they are also likely too young to comprehend the true cost of discipleship and make a commitment to God.

As one who was physically born early (my mother’s labor induced rather than natural) there is clear danger in going ahead of schedule like this.  I spent weeks in the hospital, in plastic box seperated from my mom because of a collapsed lung, and seemed to have developmental issues since as a result.

Likewise, encouraging premature spiritual birth could be to our detriment and leading our converts to struggles down the road.  Perhaps we have become like Abraham who tried to create a fulfilment of God’s plan through his own efforts?  Ultimately our children are not saved by our good parenting, frequent altar calls or courtship standards.

We need to return to a radical faith that emphasizes the cost of discipleship and encourages adult decision rather than urge premature commitments.  Perhaps the our young adults would be less fearful of lessor commitments and more ready to sacrifice all for love than cling forever to their childish fears?

Whatever the case, there is something very special about an adult Baptism and a decision made by one more fully aware of the cost of commitment.  May God bless Dan and Dina for their testimony of faith and their public commitment yesterday.

The Lost Witness of Christian Community and Finding it Again

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There has been much focus on the family in the church.  Popular media commentators (like James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard and Doug Philips) encourage making a high priority of our own immediate families. 

Family is important.  But the “no greater joy” in 3 John 1:4 is not written about a man’s own family or his blood relatives.  Instead the letter is written about the church.  John is describing love for spiritual children and the family of God.  Do we find as much joy in the church family as we do in raising our own children?

Christian community has been watered down over the years.  Yes, we might have more ‘church’ activities than ever and yet, as far as real interdependence, we are lacking.  Those of you from good homes, who are happily married and in your prime, may not notice.  But there is great social need beyond your doorstep.

This blog will explore where we are, where we were and where we need to go from here; it will address the enemies and also the benefits of faith community.  One blog can’t even begin to do the topic justice, but hopefully it will spark thoughts and discussion.  My prayer is that those reading will take faithful steps to restore the Christian community where they are.

Where we are…

The loss of community in the world around us is profound and the results are tragic.  Isolated people are unhealthy people.  The family unit itself has been degraded.  Many children do not have opportunity of dinner time conversations together with their parents at home.  Child care is increasingly outsourced.  More people survive on food cooked by strangers than ever.  The elderly are interned for sake of convenience, out of sight and out of mind.  It is madness.

The church has not fared much better.  People in many churches have very little meaningful interaction with each other during the week.  After the church service is over most go their seperate ways and expect the needs to be taken care of by those appointed to do so.  There is very little difference between the mainstream church and the world in regards to community.  Sure, many churches bustle with activities, and there are many good people who are trying to make a difference, but there are many unmet social needs.

My conservative Mennonite culture has a more distinct history of community.  Other Anabaptist groups, our spiritual (and often biological) cousins, have a stronger community emphasis than our own.  Amish have taken dramatic steps and have rejected technology (starting with the automobile) in an effort to preserve the integrity of their communities.  The Hutterites have a long communal tradition.  But conservative Mennonites lack a clear structure and could lose this strength of community entirely.

I’ve seen changes in my own Mennonite community in my own lifetime that indicate the erosion of our community.  We are following after the mainstream and the world more than we often realize.  The Anabaptist prioritization of brotherhood has been replaced with a more individualistic mindset.  

We do not pursue the concept of Gelassenheit anymore.  Instead we turn to our own biological families for support and our fellowship is growing apart.

Where we were…

The early church example is very clear.  The family language used by early church leaders meant something.  When Paul spoke up for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-25) he speaks with the urgency of a father speaking for his son.  It is not casual usage of words.  It is not us singing “I’m so glad to I’m a part of the family of God” on Sunday mornings and then doing next to nothing for each other during the week.  The chuch then was a true family in every sense of the word…

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47)

And repeated again later in the book of Acts…

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Their commitment to each other was clearly not a superficial commitment like our own too often seems to be.  What is described in the passages from Acts above is not coincidence.  No, what is described is what will happen when people commit fully to the teachings of Jesus and love as they ought to love.

Where we need to be…

What we need, first of all, is intention—we need to want to make the ideal of community a greater reality.  We must realize our own weakness alone, confess this to each other and then bear our burdens together… 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It is not a meddlesome or controlling spirit, but rather a growing recognition of our own need for community and deepening commitment to the good of our Christian brothers and sisters.  This kind of love is the truest expression of obedience to the law of Christ.  

Jesus said the world would know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:34-35) and this is expressed in Koinonia (κοινωνία) or our common union as believers.  We are to be intimately involved in fellowship together, and in all things, or we are not fully living the example Jesus taught.  This must be made a reality today in our own time or we cannot claim to be fully living in faith. 

The church should be extending our family to those without.  Our elderly should never be left to a commercially operated nursing facility.  Young single mothers should be able to find a restful place amongst us.  We need to be less focused on our own individual family and more concerned with the family of God.

Enemies of community of faith…

There are many reasons why we do not follow the Acts church example today and it is mostly because we fear that the arrangement will not benefit us as an individual or our own family.  This is a short list of reasons why one may resist a greater expression of Christian community:

1) Individualism: There is no doubt that our American culture centers on ideas of independence and rugged individualism.  Unfortunately this has evolved into a rat race where everyone pursues a dream (unattainable for many) at the expense of real and fulfilling relationship.  We seek independence, and it is good when we are working to support ourselves, yet we have social needs that cannot be fulfilled in ourselves alone.

2) Prosperity: People can create an illusion of their lack of need for other people because they are wealthy.  Our wealth as Americans is used as defense of the status quo.  The argument goes that since everyone has food, shelter and clothing there is no need for a better application of what we read in the book of Acts.  Unfortunately government programs, while keeping people from physical death and complete destitution, do nothing for social or spiritual needs.  Even materially wealthy people can be very isolated and miserable.

3) Pride: Religious people can easily imagine they are better than other people including their own brothers and sisters in the church.  They do not want their children influenced by other children and adults, therefore they remove them, homeschool, etc.  It is the oldest sin in the book.  It was what seperated mankind from God and it is also an enemy of Christian community.  Pride is dangerous, it causes divisions in the church and decieves us into believing we are better off when we are in complete control.

4) Technology: The Amish were right.  The automobile dramatically changed and has aided in the decline of community.  Add to that the television and smartphones.  Children nowadays have more reason to stay inside and isolated.  Adults are not much better by choosing to live in some suburban home with a privacy fence.  We are increasingly buried in technology, addicted to the quick fix of social media and at the expense of true relationship.

5) Fear of commitment: It takes faith and commitment to seek after deeper relationship and many of us are simply avoiding it.  In the conservative Mennnonite church we are afraid to court and adopting the same reluctance towards marraige of the Millennial generation.  Commitment is scary.  The rewards of community (like marriage) are not immediate and the risks loom large.  Unfortunately we miss out on a blessing because of our fear.

The practical arguments in favor of community of faith…

First and formost, there is need.  Again, just because your own needs are met does not mean that there is no need.  The plight of our older singles and elderly people would be a little less severe if they were intergrated into a community rather than the afterthought that they often are.  The church shold be a place where everyone has an equal seat at the table. 

Unfortuantely many of us our too preoccupied with our own families to notice or care about those who are lacking.  That is not the spirit of Christ who told us to leave all (including family) to follow after him.  The irony is that those who actually have by some means found their security in themselves may actually have the most need.  Wealth, whether it be that of material or biological variety, has always hindered commitment to faith.  Our need to repent of our religious individualism and spiritual pride could be our greatest need of all.

Then there is the matter of efficient use of resources.  As most of us currently live there is this ridiculous redundancy.  We all need our own seperate lawn mower, garden tools, pickup truck and would be so much further ahead sharing.  That’s not to mention our reliance on commercial lenders rather than each other.  It is sad that we would rather our brothers pay interest to a bank and struggle to stay ahead than help them as we might our own son.  It is a wasteful use of resources that could otherwise be used to further the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the most spurious arguments against a more real expression of Christian community is the idea that it would come at the expense of evangelism.  The reasoning goes that existing groups that practice a community of goods concept have failed in one regard or another and often in sharing the Gospel.  This, of course, is the same argument used by those saying that we should drop other non-mainstream Biblical practices currently practiced by conservative Mennonites.  If we start abandoning practices that can somehow be associated with abuse or neglect we would probably need to join the faithless and stay home.

Community of faith is actually the most practical witness of the Gospel we have.  How better to meet the needs in the world around us than to offer them the clearest possible alternative?  There is no choice between missions outreach and Christian community because one can compliment the other.  In fact, one enhances the other and makes it much more effective.  Sure, maybe the commitment would require more of us.  However, there are many people with needs who would benefit greately from a church that truly acted as a family.  

Change comes upon us slowly…

The book of Acts describes a reality quite a bit different from our own today.  Then, unlike now, there was a willingness to give up financial independence and truly be a part in a community of faith.  This is something that must be restored for the church to function as it was supposed to fuction.

I believe that the contrast between then and now is something that must be part of our discussion.  Even in my own lifetime there seems to be a weakening of our commitment to each other.  There was a time it seemed we spent more time together visiting on a Sunday afternoon, when we worked closer together and had a more meaningful impact on each others life.

There needs to be radical steps taken in faith.  We need not recreate the past, but rather we do need to walk in obedience to the same Spirit that caused the early church to want to have a better communion (or common union) together.  We must ask what has changed between our priorities today and theirs then.

Many of us would scoff at the idea of a commune.  However, do we see the absurdity of our own time and way?  Do we see the cost of paying strangers to prepare our coffee in the morning or care for our elderly?  Do we see what the loss of community has done to our neighbors and nation?

There needs to be a vision for community of faith.  We need to take steps to get off the tragectory that the world is on and present something different and better.  My own conservative Mennonite church family can lead the way in this regard.  We have this better prioritization in our Anabaptist history and could use this as a basis for a fresh push in that direction.

We need to be intentional.  We need to challenge the thinking of the world that has crept into our lifestyle and has convinced us that we are better off in our own corners rather than in loving community together.  Jesus said “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:29) not only our own biological progeny.  The church should be our family.  

So my encouragement is that we pursue the true ideal of church community with all sincerity.  We should tune out the radio and internet commentators and commit to love each other more.  I believe we will find God faithful when we do.