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.

The Most Dangerous Book in Existence

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Books are powerful and there is little doubt of that. Their words carry ideas far beyond those who wrote them. The power of books is widely recognized and that is why they are written; that is why books are removed as a potential threat. Books have undoubtedly had a huge influence on the course of history.

Books carry both good and bad messages. Books have popularized ideas that have led to hate and harm of people. If one were to list the most dangerous books in history there are many titles that might come to mind. Books such as Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Communist Manifesto can be linked to political purges, religious persecutions and genocide. With each title one could discuss the human causalities related to each and try to rank them.

However, there is one book that perhaps is more dangerous (especially spiritually) than all of those titles combined and that is the book this blog is about. It is a book so powerful that it has been used to create sectarian division within the very group it was written to inform. Knowledge of this book has historically caused some religious experts to reject as a false teacher that others believe it was written about. It is a favorite source of ridicule of those skeptical of the truthfulness of the ideas it contains. This is a book that was used as a means to tempt Jesus. This one book is actually a combination of books that were compiled into the single book which is now called The Holy Bible.

The Bible is arguably one of the most influential books in all of human history. The Bible carries both great potential for good in the right hands and also a terrible power for evil used wrongly. It has inspired some to great acts of self-sacrificial love. It has been used by others as justification for violence. The power and potential of the Bible is in the hands of the interpreter.

Biblical reformation, the division in the church and the interpretation question

Biblical fundamentalism is branch of Christianity that has become popular since the Protestant Reformation. It is a belief system made possible with the invention of the printing press and widespread availability of Biblical texts to the general public. This wresting of control of the church from the institutional church and new emphasis on a written text was a significant development in church history; it seemed necessary at that time as a reaction to the abuses of the institution of church.

Unfortunately, as reactions often do, the resultant bibliocentrism has also created a great deal of other problems. The biggest of those problems is the all too obvious explosion of sectarian divisions within the church. The confusion is evidenced in the reality of the over 30,000 separate church denominations in existence today. The widespread availability of the Bible has clearly not created church unity. It has rather clearly created the opposite and a spirit of division.

Those of the Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) view cannot agree on how Scripture should interpreted and let alone how it should be applied. Those who believe the Bible is sufficient alone put the interpretation of their own group and own personal interpretation above all others, each believing they are more correct than the others. Everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.

Bible based faith produces results that are wildly different from person to person. I know a guy who believes sincerely that the Bible teaches that Christians should basically be like ISIS and should either remove (kill) unbelievers entirely, subjugate them or enslave them and he has many proof texts to support his position. I know of many others who believe that the Bible teaches pacifism, endorses state socialism or forced wealth redistribution and they too can produce many supporting texts. I know some who based in their own understanding of the Bible believe Jesus was not God.

We could go through Scripture with a variety of people and get completely contradictory perspectives on what it actually says in many significant areas. On the basis of a few snippets of text, on a specific definition of a word or two and on the base assumptions they brought into their reading people have built whole doctrines. Different hermeneutic (or interpretive) approaches produce greatly different theologies that are contradictory in their extremes. The Bible is a great source of confusion.

People in the church cannot even agree on an appropriate translation of Scripture. Some will insist an earlier Old English translation of the Bible is more accurate than others and can give complex rationals in support of their position. Some even teach the one version they believe in is the only acceptable ‘inspired’ version. Varying degrees of literalism have led to many disputes within the church. Some believe the Bible teaches that the world is flat based in their dogmatic literalism. Others see more figurative speech, more allegories and metaphors.

Whole doctrines built off of words or phrases that aren’t clearly understood and yet are assumed to be understood in ignorance. The Bible, according to 2 Peter 3:15-16, describes concepts that are difficult to understand and words which can be misused in ignorance:

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”

In the hands of “ignorant and unstable people” the Bible is potentially destructive. I believe we do not need to look far into history to find many examples of where this has been the case. If you do not know examples, then I will present the Münster Rebellion and the Bible-based predictions of Harold Camping as examples of Biblical application gone badly.

So, to my friends of Christian faith: Be humble, be diligent and do not ever believe your own knowledge of Scripture is without potential error. Faith cannot be in reading the Bible alone, there must be source greater than the Scripture that guides us spiritually and that is where the Spirit of God comes in.

Biblical literalism, the rejection of Jesus and the Elijah Question

Error is not a new problem with those attempting to interpret the written text of Scripture for themselves. Jesus himself was rejected on the basis of the Scriptural interpretation of those who knew the bulk of the book (we call Bible) better than most of us probably ever will or can hope to so many years removed from the culture and people it was written to. The Pharisees knew their Bibles well and also knew what it said about the Messiah.

Based in Malachi 4:5-6 there was an expectation that Elijah would return before the Messiah. According to Jesus the prophet John the Baptist was Elijah and he is recorded having said that in Matthew 11:13-14:

“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

However, the experts on Scripture, who rejected Jesus, were evidently looking for some more literal. Perhaps they were envisioning Elijah returning in a spectacular way and hoped for a kingdom of physical world importance, who knows? But the answer Jesus gave did not satisfy them.

It is interesting that even John the Baptist himself denied being Elijah when questioned in John 1:19-21:

“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”

So, should we take John’s own words recorded in Scripture at face value? Should we believe the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:13-14 that contradict them? This is a serious problem for a literalist. This irreconcilability of message can easily explain the angst of those looking for a literal fulfillment of Malachi. Considering that John the Baptist himself would not claim to be Elijah probably caused some of the critics of Jesus to be even more secure in their own understanding of Scripture.

Luke 1:13-17, however, offers us this view of John the Baptist:

“But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.  And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

What Luke suggests is a literal return of Elijah, but not a literal physical return of Elijah and a spiritual fulfillment instead. John the Baptist was a return of Elijah, in that he embodied the “spirit and power” of the prophet, and yet he was not literally Elijah in physical form. To reconcile John 1:19-21 with Matthew 11:13-14, we can probably assume that John the Baptist was being humble in his answers, not even claiming to be a prophet, and that Jesus was exalting him as he should have been.

But, those who rejected John the Baptist as Elijah also rejected Jesus as Messiah and their knowledge of Scripture did not save them as they apparently believed it would. In John 5:30-40 this type of misplaced faith in Scripture is confronted by Jesus:

“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

For those who believe that the Scripture is God’s own voice, I think they need to take heed of what is written above and understand what Jesus is trying to explain. The people Jesus spoke to were experts on Scripture, they were extremely knowledgeable of the books of the Bible they had and put faith in their knowledge of the text like many religious people do today.

Unfortunately, what their knowledge of the book could not give them is true faith that can only come from the Spirit of God. The passage above in some translations tells us that they “searched diligently” the Scripture and yet before that tells us they have never heard from God or had “his word” in them. This passage flies directly in the face of those who think the written words of Scripture are themselves the word of God.

Biblical temptation of Jesus and the authority question

I’ve had Christian friends post on social media a message similar to this:

“When you carry the Bible, Satan gets a headache. When you open it, he collapses. When he sees you reading it, he faints. When he sees you living it, he flees. And just when you’re about to re-post this, he’ll try to discourage you. I JUST DEFEATED HIM! Copy and re-post if you can. Any takers?”

I do appreciate the enthusiasm. But it is perplexing to me that a person who has read the Bible themselves can believe that. The account of the temptation of Christ should put that idea to rest. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all give an account of a conversation between Jesus and Satan that proves the exact opposite.

Satan is not afraid of Scripture. Satan cited Scripture and tried to use it to deceive Jesus. This is a version of that temptation in the Matthew 4:5-6:

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

That is a quote of Psalm 91:11-12 used by the devil to tempt Jesus!

We don’t actually defeat our spiritual enemy through our enthusiasm for the Bible. Evil is not afraid of the Bible. Evil men have long used the Bible to accomplish their own selfish ends and have deceived many using the book. It is not a book that will save us from temptation. It is not a book that will give us the right answers or knowledge to defeat those who attempt to deceive us. What we need is the same authority dwelling in us that led Jesus into the desert to be tempted in the first place. What we need is the word of God in us or the Spirit of God and then (and only then) Scripture will become profitable in our hands. We need the authority that gave authority to those who were inspired to write the Scripture.

It is a bit paradoxical that I am trying to explain this using Scripture what I do not believe Scripture alone can explain. But, it is because I believe those who are Biblically religious and yet truly spiritually seeking will understand through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Many simply give credit to the wrong source unknowingly. They allow the true authority to speak to them and still do not understand they are actually receiving their understanding through that authority. So, to them, those who are listening to the voice of Jesus in their heart even unknowingly, Paul gives us a solution to understanding Scripture in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16:

“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”

To understand God in Scripture you must have the ‘mind of God’ in you first. It is not enough just to have knowledge of Scripture. Even the best Biblical doctrines and theology all will fall short if they are practiced by a person not also under subjugation to the Spirit of God. The words of the Bible are not magical in themselves, the words themselves are dead and the interpreter is the one who gives them life. And, to give the words of the Bible the right life requires that one have the “mind of Christ” while reading them and not any other.

The Spirit of God is the ultimate authority, the ultimate teacher and is the one we should trust when we claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Stay tuned, this will likely be a multiple part series…