By Ryan Ahlgrim (former FMC pastor)
- The Church in the 16th Century
- Martin Luther
- Ulrich Zwingli
- Conrad Grebel
- The Schleitheim Confession
- Menno Simons
- Mennonites Migrate and Change
- Mennonite Beliefs
- Numbers and Structures
- The Future
Mennonites are one of the best kept secrets among Christian churches. In most areas of North America, the average person has either never heard of Mennonites or confuses them with the horse-and-buggy driving Amish. But that may now be changing. Mennonites are growing, becoming urbanized, becoming increasingly multiracial and multicultural. And Mennonites are offering a way of life desperately needed in our society.
In a society glutted with noise and words, Mennonites let their quiet actions speak for them. In a culture consumed with creating stockpiles of all the latest possessions, Mennonites often choose to do without so that everyone can have enough. In a world that believes in success, Mennonites believe in service. In a world that often turns to the ultimate weapon of force to solve problems, Mennonites turn to the ultimate weapon of love. In a culture that practices unrestrained individualism, Mennonites practice mutual aid and mutual accountability. In a society that pursues cheap and easy answers, Mennonites pursue the costly way of Jesus.
Who are these Mennonites? To understand this group of Christians, it is best to begin with their origins in Europe almost five hundred years ago.
The Church in the 16th Century
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church was virtually the only church in Europe. “Catholic” means universal, and the Roman Catholic Church was indeed a universal church. Except for communities of Jews, who were forced to live in segregated ghettos, virtually everyone in Europe belonged to the Roman Catholic Church.
Not only did individuals all belong to the same church, but society itself belonged to the church. Europe, at this time, was a sacral society. In other words, it was a society bound together by a common religion, and all of its civil institutions were linked to that religion. Church and society were one. To be a full member of society one needed to be a member of the church, and to be a member of the church made one a member of society.
Except for Jews, virtually all people were baptized at birth, signaling their entry into the church. They did not choose to join the church, but were born into it, just as they were born into society. And so, membership in church and society blended together without clear distinction.
This unity of church and society was shaken, and finally shattered, by the Reformation. The Reformation was a massive reform movement that radically changed the face of the Christian church forever. And the person most responsible for beginning the Reformation was Martin Luther.
Martin Luther was a Catholic priest and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Throughout his life he had been wracked by guilt and afraid of the wrath of an angry God. He attempted to ease his conscience and achieve a right relationship with God through rigorous fasting and self-discipline. He made a pilgrimage to Rome in which he performed various rituals and acts of penance which he had been taught would bring him forgiveness. But nothing he did resolved his sense of guilt and separation from God. But in the year 1517 he was studying the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and he had a spiritual awakening. Through Paul’s teaching, Luther suddenly realized that we are not made right with God by anything we do. Rather, we are made right with God by God’s grace alone. Grace is a gift of divine love freely given to us. We do not deserve it and we do not achieve it. God simply gives grace to everyone, and anyone who believes in God’s love, receives God’s love; and by receiving it, we are made right with God.
For Luther this was a tremendously freeing insight. He could let go of his vain attempts to achieve God’s favor (what he called works righteousness), and instead simply accept it as a gift. By doing this he was also able to let go of the soul-destroying effects of self-righteousness — the belief that one is more deserving of salvation than another. So Luther began to proclaim the doctrine that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works.
At about this same time, the Church in Rome was desiring to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica on a grand scale, and it needed more money to complete it. So the pope (the chief bishop of the Roman Catholic Church) authorized the sale of indulgences in Germany to raise the necessary funds. An indulgence is a document that grants the bearer some degree of forgiveness. At that time, the Catholic Church taught that Christians go to a place called purgatory after death. Purgatory is a place where all of one’s imperfections are purged through a fiery process so that one may then enter heaven without any sin. It was commonly believed that this purging process could take thousands of years, depending on one’s degree of sinfulness. But if one bought an indulgence, some of one’s sins would be forgiven and hence one would spend less time in purgatory after death.
When indulgences were sold around Wittenberg, Martin Luther was furious. Luther’s recent discovery of the nature of grace was completely at odds with the thought behind indulgences. For Luther, it was impossible to buy God’s forgiveness, or for that matter, to do anything to achieve God’s forgiveness. Grace is a gift, and the forgiveness and right relationship that proceed from grace are a gift. Thus, Luther strongly rejected the notion of salvation by merits implied by selling indulgences. He also resented the Church in Rome exploiting the spiritual life of the German people in order to raise funds for Rome.
On October 31, 1517, Luther composed ninety-five arguments against the sale of indulgences, and posted these arguments on the front door of the Wittenberg Church. This document is known as “The Ninety-Five Theses.” It was written in Latin and intended for scholarly debate. But soon it was translated into German (the common language) and thanks to the recently invented printing press, it was widely circulated. “The Ninety-Five Theses” was an overnight sensation among the common people, much to Luther’s surprise. It awakened feelings of national pride and resentment at the exploitation imposed by Rome. It also captured the religious imagination with its bold new statement of the essence of the Christian faith.
In the years that followed, Luther debated the official theologians, was put on trial for heresy, and had to live in hiding for a while. These experiences led Luther into deeper opposition with the Roman Catholic Church and to develop his own understanding of the church. Luther never intended to break with the Catholic Church. His only desire was to reform an institution which he viewed as corrupt. But he was ultimately excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. This had the unintended effect of creating a new church, since by now there were many peasants and princes following Luther. They chose Luther’s understanding of the Christian faith over the Catholic Church’s under-standing, and thus began the Lutheran Church.
In addition to his bold beliefs about salvation through grace, Luther broke important ground in many other areas. For instance, he contended that the authority of the Bible supercedes the authority of church tradition. This was at odds with the Catholic position. The Catholic Church taught (and still teaches) that the Bible is the product of the faith community (Israel and the church). The faith community wrote the books of the Bible and created the Bible by choosing which books should be canonized (viewed as authoritative). Thus, the faith community existed before the Bible, created the Bible, interprets the Bible, and has authority over the Bible. Over the course of centuries, councils of bishops have decided what are the correct interpretations of the Bible and the correct doctrines of the church. These decisions are final and authoritative.
Luther agreed that the faith community created the Bible. But Luther argued that the Word of God created the faith community. Luther made a subtle distinction between the Bible and the Word of God. The Word of God is God revealing God’s self through prophets and decisive actions. The Word of God is fully embodied in Jesus Christ, who is the Word made flesh. The Bible records and thus contains the Word of God; it is the inspired Word of God, but it is not the Word of God itself. So Luther argued that the Word of God created the faith community, and the faith community then created the Bible. But since the Bible is the inspired and authoritative record of the Word of God, the Bible has more authority than the official decisions of the faith community during the course of history. The Bible must serve as a corrective to church traditions. So when Luther was on trial for heresy, he did not finally appeal to church traditions and council decisions from the past. He said instead,
“Show me in the Bible where I am wrong, and I will recant.” This was a fundamental shift in understanding of the Christian’s source of authority.
This in turn led Luther to translate the Bible from Latin (the language of the scholars and priests) into German. By doing this, Luther was placing the Bible in the hands of every literate person, and implicitly giving every Christian the ability to interpret the Bible. Luther was convinced that the essential message of the Bible — the good news — was so simple and obvious that any five-year-old could understand the Bible. But when Luther put the Bible in everyone’s hands, and let everyone have the power to interpret, the result was a chaos of radically different interpretations which Luther could not control. In retrospect, Luther was perhaps naive in his opinion that the Bible could be interpreted so easily. This led to one of the central puzzles of the Reformation: who has the authority to interpret the true meaning of the Bible?
When Luther unintentionally split the church, he faced another dilemma. He, along with everyone else, assumed that society needed to be held together by a single church. A country cannot be divided by different churches, nor can it be separated from the church. And yet, two separate churches now existed in the same society. Luther concluded that society needed to belong to one or the other, and he believed that the prince of any given province should determine whether the province would be Catholic or Lutheran. He rejected the concept of a voluntary church, separate from society; instead, he remained tied to the concept of a sacral society. The result was that several German princes were persuaded to become Lutheran, and their territories, and everyone in them, automatically became Lutheran.
While Luther led the Reformation in Germany, a Swiss priest, influenced by Luther’s writings, began his own reforms in Zurich. But whereas Luther was principally interested in reforming theological doctrine, Ulrich Zwingli was principally interested in reforming the practices of the church. Zwingli began reading the New Testament out loud to his congregation and offering his own interpretations. Through this study of the New Testament, Zwingli became convinced that the church’s rituals and practices should return to the forms described in the New Testament. As a result, he advocated the removal of the church organ and the whitewashing of the wall murals since neither instruments nor paintings are mentioned in the New Testament (and making images is prohibited in the Ten Commandments). Today, Zwingli’s approach seems overly literal, but his basic concern that the present church should be modeled after the New Testament church was an important piece of the Reforma-tion. Zwingli, and another more famous Swiss reformer, John Calvin, became the originators of what are called Reformed churches (as opposed to Lutheran churches).
Zwingli’s most controversial reform was his desire to eliminate the mass. In the Catholic tradition, the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) is celebrated at every worship service. The wine is believed to be transformed into Christ’s actual blood, and the bread is believed to be transformed into Christ’s actual body. Although it still looks like wine and bread, it is so no longer. It is now the Body and Blood of Jesus. This doctrine is called transubstantiation. In Catholic theology, partaking of the transformed bread and wine imparts God’s saving grace to the believer. (Luther held to a slightly different doctrine called consubstantiation, in which the bread and the wine remain bread and wine while at the same time Christ’s actual body and blood are hidden within it.)
But to the highly rational Zwingli, this was all wrong. He understood Jesus to be speaking metaphorically when, at the Last Supper, he said, “This is my body . . . this is my blood.” Zwingli believed that during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine remain bread and wine. They simply symbolize the eternal, spiritual presence of Christ in the church. The Lord’s Supper can be an aid to faith, but it does not, in and of itself, impart God’s salvation. Based on this belief, Zwingli wanted to eliminate the Catholic rituals surrounding the celebration of the Lord’s Supper–what is called the mass.
At this point, the Zurich city council thought Zwingli was going too far and too fast in his reforms. Wishing to slow down the pace of church reforms, the city council voted down Zwingli’s proposal. (Switzerland was divided into separate city-states at this time.) Although disappointed, he accepted the authority of the city council in the regulating of church reforms. But Zwingli had some young followers, enthusiastic university students, who were not so accepting of this decision.
The main leader among these impatient university students was a young man named Conrad Grebel. Not content with the city council decision to postpone eliminating the mass, Grebel and his friends attempted to vote in a more liberal city council. When this failed, Grebel raised the question whether the city council should have authority over the church at all. Grebel and his friends came increasingly to the conclusion that the church must be separate from state authority, and make its reforms regardless of the decisions of city councils. Thus was born a concept that is today taken for granted in most Western democracies: the separation of church and state.
Grebel and his friends wanted to go much further in their reforms than Zwingli ever did. They focused on the teachings in the New Testament, particularly those of Jesus himself, and they came to the conclusion that baptism was meant to be a symbol of repentance from sin and commitment to Jesus Christ. Because of this conclusion, they rejected infant baptism since an infant is incapable of repentance or commitment.
The rejection of infant baptism struck at the heart of many traditional doctrines. By rejecting infant baptism, Grebel was rejecting the long-held belief that we are all born sinful and separated from God. Rather, we are all innocent in God’s eyes until we are old enough to make our own decisions and commitments. By rejecting infant baptism, Grebel was rejecting baptism as a ritual that automatically conveys salvation. Rather, we are saved by faith in God’s grace given to us through Jesus Christ. By rejecting infant baptism, Grebel was rejecting the idea that one is born into the church. Rather, we need to choose to be members of the church, which is a group of voluntary believers. And by rejecting infant baptism, Grebel was rejecting an automatic link between being a member of society and a member of the church. The church, because it is based on a voluntary faith commitment, is distinctly different and separate.
At first, Grebel and his friends attempted to persuade parents not to baptize their infants, but to wait until the children grew up to make their own confession of faith. Unable to persuade the parents, Grebel’s group contemplated going one step further: rebaptizing themselves. This was indeed a radical concept. This not only rejected infant baptism, but refused to recognize it even after it had been performed. Moreover, these university students were not priests. They had no clerical authority. If they rebaptized themselves, they would be rejecting the authority of the priests and claiming it for themselves. Aghast at this possibility, the Zurich city council made it a capital crime for anyone to be rebaptized, and outlawed Grebel’s Bible study group from meeting.
Ignoring the recently passed laws, Grebel and his friends met together on January 21, 1525. At that gathering, Georg Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him. A bucket of water and ladle were present (lakes and rivers would have been frozen over), and Grebel proceeded to ladle water on Blaurock’s head, baptizing him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Grebel then asked Blaurock to baptize him, as did the rest of those in the room, and Blaurock did so. On that night the reality of a voluntary church, separate from society, composed of conscious believers, was born (or rather, reborn, since this was how the New Testament church operated).
The city council responded immediately. Referring to their capital crime, Grebel and his followers were branded Anabaptists, which literally means “rebaptizers.” Grebel and others were soon arrested. Among those arrested were a young man named Felix Manz. He was found guilty of rebaptism, bound, and dumped into the city river to drown. Felix Manz thus became the first martyr of the Anabaptist movement. Conrad Grebel died in prison.
The Schleitheim Confession
The Anabaptist movement spread rapidly in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. The movement did not have an organized development, but sprang up independently in many areas as a radical response to the winds of change. Because the Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and instead defined a Christian as one who is voluntarily committed to Christ, they saw most of Europe as being in need of Christian conversion. Unlike the Lutherans and Reformed, the Anabaptists were true evangelicals, aggressively attempting to evangelize and convert those around them. But because it was regarded as a criminal movement by the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches, and because the Anabaptists were not linked to civil authority, it was an underground movement. Groups of Anabaptist believers had to meet secretly under bridges, in caves, or in private homes. Leadership was diverse and inconsistent. Under these conditions, it was impossible for the movement to have a uniform set of beliefs or practices. However, in 1527 a number of Anabaptist leaders met secretly in the German town of Schleitheim in order to come to agreement on some of their distinctive beliefs. The resulting document is known as the Schleitheim Confession.
The Schleitheim Confession is not a full confession of faith. It does not cover many of the principle doctrines of the Christian faith. These were taken for granted by the Anabaptist leaders. Rather, the Schleitheim Confession is a list of beliefs that made the Anabaptist church distinct from Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches. In all, the group at Schleitheim was able to agree on seven distinctives:
1. Baptism. They agreed that baptism is a symbol of repentance, amendment of life, and commitment to Christ. Therefore, baptism must be freely chosen. It is not for infants or small children, but for conscious believers. The church is defined as a group of Christian believers, voluntarily formed. Since baptism is merely a symbol, it does not confer salvation. It is the repentance and commitment symbolized by baptism that opens us to God’s saving grace.
2. Ban. They agreed that Jesus authorized the church to ban from the church those members who continue in sin and refuse to repent of their sin. In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus lays out a method of confronting sin in the church which moves from private confrontation to increasing congregational involvement. Ultimately, the unrepentant offender is to be rejected from church fellowship. The Anabaptists usually put this into practice by refusing to talk or eat with the banned member. From the perspective of modern North American churches, the ban seems extreme and antisocial, but in the context of the 16th century it was a giant step forward in tolerance. Rather than forcing right belief and practice on wayward members, and burning them at the stake if they did not repent (which is what the other churches were doing), the Anabaptists practiced a nonviolent, non-forcing church discipline. And if the church is to remain a church of Christian believers, it must have some method of discipline to maintain its identity.
3. Lord’s Supper. They agreed that when Jesus said, “This is my body . . . . This is my blood . . . ,” that he was speaking symbolically. The bread and wine are not transformed into his actual body and blood. Rather, believers partake of the bread and wine as a memorial to Jesus. The Anabaptists also agreed that the Lord’s Supper is for baptized believers who have made their own commitment to Christ.
4. Separation. They agreed that believers must separate themselves from all sinful practices of society, regardless of how commonly accepted those practices are.
5. Pastors. They agreed with Luther that the church is a priesthood of all believers. Every believer is a priest and does not need another human being to mediate his or her salvation. However, congregations still require leadership, and they should be led by pastors who are discerned by the believers to be mature in faith and conduct.
6. Sword. They agreed that God allows civil authorities to use force for the ordering of society, but that the use of force is “outside the perfection of Christ” and is not permitted for believers. The Anabaptists took seriously Jesus’ commands to love one’s enemies and reject any use of violence, force, or legal revenge (Matthew 5:38-48). As a result, the Anabaptists believed it was impossible for a believer to be a soldier or a judge. They viewed these occupations as necessary for unredeemed society, but incompatible with Christian faith. For the same reason, law courts in general were rejected (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).
7. Oath. They agreed that Jesus commands his followers not to swear oaths (Matthew 5:33-37). Therefore, the Anabaptists stressed honesty in all of one’s speech, and the rejection of using oaths, even in a law court.
In reality, not all Anabaptists in 1527 would have agreed on these seven distinctives. The movement was simply too diverse. Anyone who practiced rebaptism was labeled an Anabaptist, regardless of his or her other beliefs. Nevertheless, the Schleitheim Confession comes as close to a consensus document among the earliest Anabaptists as we have. The meeting in Schleitheim is sometimes called the Martyrs’ Synod because nearly all of the leaders present were eventually arrested and executed.
Anabaptism was a crime, and over a thousand Anabaptists were arrested by Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed civil authorities and put to death. Just living an exemplary moral life could lead to being accused of being an Anabaptist. Luther was convinced that Anabaptism represented a slipping back into works-righteousness because it stressed that believers must demonstrate their faith through moral conduct. He also feared a violent uprising by the peasants fueled by radical religious teachings. Some of Luther’s concerns were not unfounded. The Anabaptist movement included a fanatical element who ignored many social restraints. The 16th century was a time of fear and anxiety, leading many people to expect the end of the world. Anabaptism appealed to the dispossessed and marginalized who had little hope, and some within Anabaptism responded to this mood with ecstatic fervor and extreme actions. The worst example of this was the Munsterite Rebellion.
A group of Anabaptists forcibly took over the town of Munster. They believed it was the new Jerusalem foreseen in the Book of Revelation, and they believed that their leader was the new King David. In their apocalyptic zeal, they began a reign of terror in Munster, and their leader began practicing polygamy. Finally, Catholic troops surrounded the town, laid siege, and took it over. The leaders of the rebellion, were executed and their bodies placed in cages which were hung from the town’s church tower for all to witness the consequences of such a rebellion. The Munsterite Rebellion, even though an aberration within the nonviolent Anabaptist movement, seemed to justify the worst fears of the civil authorities regarding the dangers of Anabaptism.
But one Dutch priest was impressed with the Anabaptists, despite the fanatical excesses of the Munsterite Rebellion. His name was Menno Simons. Born in 1496, Simons was ordained a Catholic priest in 1524. He was a popular preacher and a successful priest, but privately he had doubts about the doctrines of transubstantiation and infant baptism. After studying the New Testament for himself, he came to the conclusion that the tradition of the church was wrong. But, unwilling to jeopardize his position, he kept these conclusion to himself.
Meanwhile, the Munsterite Rebellion was taking place a short distance away. He debated some of the Munsterite leaders, and was critical of–among other things–their violent approach. And yet, he sympathized with their Anabaptist beliefs, and realized that many of his beliefs were the same. The turning point occurred for Simons when the Munsterite Anabaptists were all slaughtered for their beliefs. Among the dead was a man named Peter Simons, who may well have been Menno’s brother. Simons was shaken by the Anabaptists’ willingness to give up their lives for the sake of their beliefs. In contrast, he hid his real beliefs in order to maintain his comfortable and respectable position. Unable to live this compromise any longer, Simons publicly acknowledged his Anabaptist beliefs, gave up the priesthood, and went underground with pacifist Anabaptists in 1536. Because of his skills, the following year he was asked if he would become an ordained leader in the Anabaptist church. Simons hesitated at first because this would mean there would be a price on his head. But he finally agreed, and in 1537 was ordained.
Menno Simons was a prolific writer and had his own secret printing press that he moved from one location to another. Because of his writings, his peacemaking personality, and his long-term leadership (he was never caught and executed), Simons was able to pull together the shattered pieces of the Anabaptist movement. Without his leadership, the Anabaptist movement may well have died out. Soon outsiders were referring to the Anabaptists as “Mennonites.” The name stuck, and in time even the Anabaptists in Switzerland and other places took on the name Mennonite. (A smaller branch of 16th century Anabaptists, that is still vigorous today, became known as the Hutterites.) In 1561 Menno Simons died of natural causes.
Mennonites Migrate and Change
Because of constant persecution, Mennonites continually searched for places where they would be tolerated and where they would not be required to serve in the military. As a result, many Mennonites migrated into eastern Europe and Russia. The Netherlands was also relatively tolerant of the Mennonites, and so Mennonites flourished there. In the late 17th century, William Penn invited Dutch Mennonites to join the Quakers in settling Pennsylvania, and so the first Mennonites came to America to be part of an experiment in creating a society with religious freedom and based on nonviolence. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Russian Mennonites moved to Canada and Kansas.
But the years of persecution fundamentally changed the Mennonites. Rather than being zealous evangelizers like the original Anabaptists, the Mennonites withdrew into their own rural communities and preferred to be left alone. They stressed the Anabaptist doctrine of not conforming to the world and became known as “The Quiet in the Land.” A practical simplicity and quiet approach still characterizes the North American Mennonite church today.
But during the 20th century the Mennonite church began finding its voice once again. During World War I, many Mennonites in the United States were harassed for refusing military service, and some were jailed. Following the war, Mennonite leaders petitioned the government so that Mennonites would be granted conscientious objector status in the future. When World War II broke out, Mennonite leaders, along with Quakers and the Church of the Brethren, arranged with the United States government an alternative service program called Civilian Public Service. Rather than being drafted into the military, large numbers of Mennonites served in forestry, psychiatric hospitals, and other forms of nonviolent, civilian service. Although administered by the government, the Mennonite churches shared the costs. Following the war, many Mennonites went overseas to help rebuild areas devastated by the war. These involvements gave North American Mennonites a broader exposure to society and a global perspective. No longer insulated from the world, Mennonites began to see again their calling in the world.
At about this same time, Mennonite historians were rediscovering the origins of the Anabaptist movement, and were profoundly influenced by its unique and radical voice. H. S. Bender, the leading Mennonite historian in the mid century, wrote a pamphlet entitled, The Anabaptist Vision, which helped an entire generation of Mennonites recover the fervor and essential meaning of their theological roots.
And combined with the new global perspective and rediscovered roots, there was a new commitment to mission. Mission, for North American Mennonites, has taken three dominant forms. First, the mission of worldwide relief and development. In the 1920s, when millions (including Mennonites) were starving from famine in Russia, North American Mennonites formed an agency called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to provide tractors and other forms of relief. Since then, MCC has become the premier relief and development agency of the Mennonite church, helping to meet essential needs around the globe. It is widely considered to be one of the most efficient and effective charities in the world.
The second form of mission has been the planting and nurture of churches in other countries. Compared to other North American denominations, Mennonites are latecomers to the field of overseas mission work, but the fruits are astonishing. The Mennonite churches in South America, Ethiopia, and Indonesia are exploding with growth. In addition, the Mennonite church in India has become substantial and strong. As a result, Mennonites in North America and Europe now make up less than half of all Mennonites worldwide. For the most part, North American Mennonites no longer send missionaries to these other countries to plant or lead churches. The churches in other countries have become indigenous, producing their own leadership and doing their own evangelism. Rather, the role of North American missionaries has become one of offering resources when asked for, and becoming partners with our sisters and brothers in other nations.
The third form of mission has been expansion to the cities. Early in the 20th century, Mennonites planted several mission churches in some of the larger North American cities. But in the 1950s, Mennonites themselves began moving to the cities and the suburbs in substantial numbers and started their own congregations in these settings. The trend has continued, and as a result, rural Mennonites are now a minority. The stereotype of Mennonites as conservatively dressed farmers has become just that–a stereotype. Today’s Mennonite is more likely to be an urban or suburban service professional who may–or may not–come from a Mennonite background. Mennonites in North America are also becoming increasingly diverse, racially and culturally. Many of the larger North American cities have African-American, Hispanic, and Asian congregations.
So what do Mennonites believe today? Because Mennonites are centered on Christ, and their faith is biblically grounded, they have much in common with all Christians who are biblically based: God is all-loving and all-powerful; Jesus Christ is the full embodiment of God’s Word and is Lord of all; the Holy Spirit is God’s transforming presence within us; and we are rescued from our own self-destruction by letting go of our self-centeredness and control, putting our lives in God’s hands, and trusting the living Jesus Christ to live through us.
Because Mennonites are more relational than philosophical, and more practical than speculative, they tend to keep their beliefs simple and basic. Unlike some Christian denominations, Mennonite have very few “official” positions. Beliefs and practices are rarely codified. What keeps Mennonites together is a strong sense of community, faith history, and shared values. As a result, Mennonites in North America share a number of beliefs which, taken together, make them distinctive as a Christian group. Perhaps these distinctives could be viewed as a new “Schleitheim Confession.” Just as the original Schleeitheim Confession was a list of those distinctive beliefs that all the Anabaptists could agree on, so the following seven areas help define what makes North American Mennonites distinctive today:
1. Church. Mennonites agree that the church is a visible body of voluntary believers who have turned their lives over to Jesus Christ. As we worship together, teach each other, and support each other, we make visible and real a part of the kingdom of God here on earth.
2. Salvation. Mennonites agree with Luther that we are saved by grace through faith. But we go on to say that true faith must lead to repentance and the beginning of a transformed life. Salvation has not become a full reality until our genuine faith expresses itself in a Christ-centered life. Mennonites tend to agree that salvation is not merely a personal relationship with God, but a communal relationship with each other. We experience salvation by living it out together.
3. Baptism and Communion. For Mennonites, these are not sacraments that transmit salvation, but are symbols through which we express and strengthen our faith. Baptism is a symbol of repentance for sin and commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ in one’s own life. As such, it is only for conscious believers–those old enough to make their own commitment. Communion symbolizes our continuing faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ.
4. Lifestyle. Mennonites believe that Christians are meant to be in the world but not of the world. In other words, we should live a lifestyle that challenges the self-centeredness and materialism of our society. For many Mennonites this takes the form of living as simply as possible in order to free up resources for those in desperate need, and making choices that are kind to the environment and future generations.
5. Nonviolence. Perhaps more than any other belief, Mennonites are known for their strong stance against the use of violence in any form or for any reason. Because of this, most Mennonites continue to refuse military service or occupations that require the threat of force. The vast majority of Mennonites in North America believe that the cross is an example for believers to follow. We are to overcome evil with self-giving love and positive action. We believe this is the clear teaching of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus is our promise that the way of the cross ultimately triumphs over all other powers.
6. Biblical Authority. For Mennonites, the Bible is the highest authority in matters of faith and practice. The New Testament in particular provides our model for living out the church today. Jesus Christ’s teachings and example are meant to be followed daily and radically in all areas of life, public and private.
7. Service and Evangelism. Although Mennonites are engaging in more dialogue and outreach with their neighbors, service to others is still what comes most naturally to Mennonites. Indeed, Mennonites often sum up the content of the Christian life with the word “service.” As a result, evangelism rarely stands alone. When it is done, it is usually integrated into some form of concrete service. This reflects the Mennonite concern for the whole person and the conviction that salvation is about every area of life.
Numbers and Structures
One of the difficulties in describing Mennonites today is that there are so many different kinds of Mennonites. In North America alone, there are about twenty-five separate groups of Mennonites, each one operating as its own denomination. The largest Mennonite denomination is named, “Mennonite Church USA.” It consists of about a thousand congregations in the United States and has over 115,000 baptized members.
Other Mennonite denominations in North America include Mennonite Church Canada, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite, and Brethren in Christ. Together with the Mennonite Church USA, these Mennonite groups cooperate in a variety of projects and ministries, including MCC (Mennonite Central Committee), MDS (Mennonite Disaster Service), and MMA (Mennonite Mutual Aid).
Worldwide, the total number of baptized Mennonites is over one million. The numerous Mennonite groups throughout the world are loosely tied together by an organization called Mennonite World Conference, which holds a worldwide gathering of Mennonites about every six years.
Many people wonder what is the connection between the Amish and the Mennonites. The Amish and Mennonites went their separate ways in the 17th century. Today the Amish continue a separate, rural way of life, wear distinctive clothing, and are slow to accept modern technology lest it disrupt their simple community life. Thus, the Amish are popularly known for driving horse-and-buggies rather than cars. The vast majority of Mennonites, on the other hand, make full use of technology and do not attempt to separate themselves from society by the way they dress or by physical withdrawal.
Amish and Mennonites maintain a friendly and productive relationship with each other. When the Amish have to work out disagreements with civil authorities, Mennonites will often step forward to represent the Amish in the public sphere. Many Mennonites highly respect the integrity of the Amish way of life and try to incorporate the best of its principles into Mennonite life. The Amish and Mennonites share a desire for simplicity and nonviolence in all areas of life. And those Amish who desire to engage the world more directly and expand their vocational opportunities, often choose to become Mennonites.
The Mennonite churches in North America are growing. With this growth comes more diversity, and with this diversity comes more depth and strength. But at the center of the diversity is the passionate commitment to follow Jesus in every area of life: simply, peacefully, and completely. As North American culture shudders from the effects of too much individualism and consumerism, and too little community and faith, the Mennonites gently offer an alternative: a church and way of life that heals.