Joyfully claiming Mennonite Brethren distinctives, theology and history
By Jim Aiken
“Do you drive a horse and buggy?” a co-worker asked when I told her I had joined a Mennonite Brethren church. This was the first of many confused and curious responses I have received when I tell people I am a Mennonite.
We don’t always know how to answer when asked, “What is a Mennonite?” But it is an important question, and how we answer reflects our confidence, pride and knowledge of our spiritual heritage.
Let me begin by reviewing my journey to faith and my decision to become Mennonite Brethren. I grew up in Fresno, Calif., and religious faith was not part of my home life. I went to Sunday school as a child out of family tradition, yet it made little spiritual impact. During my high school years, I became a Christian through the ministry of Campus Life and then served in a junior high ministry with Youth for Christ for three years.
After two years of college I wanted to pursue full-time ministry. A friend told me there was a small Christian college in town called Pacific College, now Fresno Pacific University. After graduating from Pacific College, I attended Gordon-Conwell Seminary in New England. With an enrollment of 600-plus students from 40 different denominations, it was an eye-opening experience. I soon decided that I needed to be part of a church denomination with beliefs strongly based on Scripture.
At this point I was faced with a dilemma. The two denominations I knew best were Foursquare Gospel and Mennonite Brethren. I went back to the Anabaptist theology books I had studied at Pacific College. After months of study and prayer, I chose to become Mennonite Brethren.
I made this decision because of our distinctive theology:
· We are Christ-centered.
· We believe Jesus is God.
· We believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God.
· We practice radical discipleship and follow the Sermon on the Mount.
· We practice nonviolence.
I am proud of our distinctives and theology. They are why I am Mennonite Brethren.
Challenges we face
I believe one challenge we face, as churches and as a denomination, is explaining to other people who we are as Mennonites and doing so in a positive manner that makes a person want to pursue spiritual issues from an Anabaptist perspective.
One challenge to telling our story is the misconceptions people have of us.
According to two surveys commissioned by Mennonite Board of Mission, an agency of Mennonite Church USA, 82 percent of those who have heard of Mennonites have a distorted perception. Most associate Mennonites with beards, buggies and old-fashioned clothes. Some people focus on misrepresentations of Mennonites and never see our distinctive. As a result, they never see Jesus!
Another challenge is the tendency to equate Mennonite Brethren with a certain ethnicity. Now there’s nothing wrong with ethnicity. That’s how God created us. But associating a denomination with certain ethnicities or religious traditions can hurt our ministry. “The stronger the ethnic culture, the more difficult it is to fulfill the Great Commission,” cautions Lyle Schaller, author and church consultant.
The reason is simple. If an ethnicity is equated with church and you’re not of that ethnicity, two things go through your mind: Maybe I don’t belong here. Maybe their beliefs don’t apply to me. Both thoughts can lead to the sad conclusion that this church is irrelevant.
While the spiritual forebearers of the Mennonite Brethren Church are German-speaking Russians, today the Mennonite Brethren Church is a global fellowship. While there are 30,000 Mennonite Brethren in the U.S., and 40,000 in Canada, there are 100,000 in Congo and 200,000 in India. Mennonite Brethren churches can be found in Africa, Asia, Central America, South America and Europe as well as North America.
Claiming our history
We also must admit that sometimes we want to hide our spiritual heritage. Some prefer that we downplay our Anabaptist distinctive so that we will blend in with other evangelicals. Some will say, “We’re just like the Baptists,” which is not true or wise. When we do this, we lose our distinctive.
Over the years I have found that being familiar with our historical origins is helpful when I explain who I am as a Mennonite Brethren. If someone is open to a serious conversation, I take three or four minutes to briefly tell our story. My version goes something like this:
In the early 1500s a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther came to a new understanding of salvation. He realized a relationship with God was experienced by grace, through faith and not religious church traditions. This transformed Luther’s life and thinking, prompted him to attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church and led to a religious movement known as the Reformation. When the Catholic Church resisted Luther’s efforts, other believers joined Luther to protest for change, and they were labeled “Protestants.”
There was a group of believers who felt Luther didn’t go far enough, especially in regards to baptism. After studying Scripture, these believers concluded that baptism was only for people who had decided to believe in Jesus. They promoted “believer’s baptism” and rejected infant baptism.
To reject infant baptism in the 1500’s was very radical. Catholics and Luther equated infant baptism with salvation, thinking that original sin is cleansed in baptism. Luther saw believer’s baptism as heretical and argued that Scripture did not support it. Catholics saw it as criminal, insisting that it broke the law.
At that time, the church and government worked closely together. For example, when a baby was baptized, the family paid taxes to the government. To not baptize a baby was seen as a refusal to pay taxes. Luther and the Catholics gave this group of heretics a nickname — Anabaptists, meaning “re-baptizers.”
In every religious movement, there are extremists. Anabaptist extremists existed in the German town of Muenster. Zealous for the second coming of Christ, they forced people to be rebaptized, killing those who refused. After a yearlong siege, soldiers killed everyone in the town. Authorities believed violence was the only way to control Anabaptists, and 200,000 Anabaptists were killed over the next 50 years.
A third option
During this time, a Catholic priest in the Netherlands was shocked that people would die for their view of baptism. So he carefully studied Scriptures and as a result, he became an Anabaptist himself. He began writing pamphlets supporting Anabaptist teaching and nonviolence. People began following this former priest whose name was Menno Simons. His opponents nicknamed his followers “Mennonites,” a term used to ridicule them.
Mennonites were not part of the Catholic Church, and they were different from other Protestants. They became a third option for believers and were known as the Radical Reformation. In some ways, they were the “emerging church” of the 1500’s, seeking to return to biblical standards of beliefs and lifestyles instead of just following the religious status quo.
In the 1500’s, people were willing to die for believer’s baptism, salvation through Christ alone, the Bible as the final authority for belief, discipleship, separation of church and state and nonviolence and peacemaking. We can be proud of this heritage.
When people hear the word “Mennonite,” do they think of a cultural distortion or a true and biblical distinctive? At one time, “Mennonite” meant a radical follower of Jesus. Do people think that today? I think our goal should be a return to that far-reaching discipleship. We can be confident and proud of our spiritual heritage. Are we willing to live out a radical faith? I believe doing so would please Jesus.
Jim Aiken is lead pastor of Dinuba (Calif.) MB Church.