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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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.