This past weekend, I have spent considerable time attempting to develop stronger, more universal definitions for many of the terms that I use in my essays and which I tend to encounter in my reading. I also spent a fair amount of time writing an essaic criticism of the rhetorical argumentation in a recent series published in Fellowship Focus on the emergent churches. The emergent church movement is a new concept to me, so I was able to approach the articles with an open mind. However, the quality or organization of their particular line of argument was often inconsistent, non-linear, even self-contradictory, leaving me, the reader, confused and uncertain. Note that one finds it much easier to criticize the work of another than to recognize the same deficiencies within oneself, which is why there is a certain intellectual strength to be found in the Scholastic or even consensus-building process -- and why most books and literary efforts shower such profuse praise on those who assisted in the editorial process.
In large part, anyone who writes on these topics is going to encounter certain problems -- chiefly, how does one establish a close, linear line of argument when there is so little consensus as to the basic definitions of so many fundamental terms.
The EMB-FEBC tradition has long had a tradition of avocational intellectualism. Honestly, I think that this is both healthy and proper. Yet, as a conference, or even a socio-ethnic identity, the EMB-FEBC lack an organ through which such definitions might be developed and promulgated or spread.
My specific contemplation of definitions involved two particular areas of interest. My primary motivation involved some residual confusion over the defining of the emergent church movement. To be fair, I did some further research that only added to my confusion. The point being that everyone seems to be upset about a movement of which no one has yet to propose a reasonable definition. I found myself a bit concerned. I self-identify as a schismatic Mennonite. The EMB-FEBC and the Mennonite Brethren (MB) both have strong roots in the 19th Century Pietist Movement and many of the more cogent objections raised against the Emergents in Fellowship Focus could also be applied against the Pietists. Nor was I comforted by the knowledge that the author of the piece has historically been known to be more or less ambivalent towards that church’s Mennonite and Pietist traditions. I felt the strong necessity of defining both the Pietists and the Emergents so as to determine for myself what the similarities and differences are.
The second issue with which I was confronted had to do with the indices I have been proposing as a way to understand both the identity and the history of the EMB socio-ethnicity. Following Calvin Redekop’s lead in Leaving Anabaptism, one is easily attracted to a linear scale with the term Mennonite at one end and the term Evangelical at the other. Though I feel that most readers have a tendency to over interpret Redekop’s work, there is a certain truth to that dichotomy within the history and identity of the EMB-FEBC as a church conference. But -- what are the definitions of the two extremes? My proposal was to take a similar historical progression apparent in the work of O.J. Wall, also of the Lustre community, that begins with the original focus of the Brüderthaler on Reform and leading towards Missions. Historically, O.J. Wall’s progression is solid and makes quite a lot of sense. The EMB were founded on the basis of reform of the church and of the life of the individual. Following the old formula, right thinking leads to right action, as the reformed church established itself, the EMB-FEBC naturally turned increasingly towards Missions outreach (action). Previously, I had been convinced that the proposal was clean, clear, and even a bit sexy.
Working out definitions for the various poles, I am now convinced that while the proposed Lustre Synthesis still retains value as a means of mapping the identity and progress of the group as a whole, that the definitions of the opposing axes do not necessarily represent clear dichotomies. Pietism includes the sense of service or missions, and it is difficult to separate the term Mennonite, used in the context of the Kleine Gemeinde, the Bruderthaler, or the Ebenezers, (or the Mennonite Brethren) in as much as they have been oft referred to as the Pietist Mennonites. First, I attempted to clarify the vertical axis by noting that by Pietist I was meant those who were focused on church reform, internal spirituality, and the spiritual exercises or aspects of the Christian life that are generally thought to be inward focused traits, versus aspects of outreach, conversion, and service that are aimed outward. But, this was not really a true use of the labels.
Secondly, I thought to maintain the term Pietist at the top of the vertical axis and to change the label at the bottom as Fundamentalist. This also brings up questions when you consider the greater historical overview of the socio-ethno-religious experience. Furthermore, I became increasingly concerned that there was too much overlap between the four axes. Lacking precise definitions of the terms, it was not, however, clear as to where or what those overlaps might be. The situation became more convoluted when you tried to graph the position of the so-called Emergents -- how would you determine the appropriate location of the identity point and how would one weight the various variables and components of the definition?
Finally, in my essay on multi-polar graphs indicating the relative Mennonite identities, I became increasing concerned that many of the identities on the Bruderthaler-FEBC graph were in fact reflections of the greater Conservative-Liberal // Cultural Isolation-Cultural Assimilation.
One might also consider that the terms Liberal and Conservative are normally extremely relative. For instance, politically, today’s conservatives are yesterday’s classical liberals. When one considers the EMB-FEBC, one has to consider that prior to 1987, the Conservatives were the so-called traditionalist or ethnic Mennonites. The Liberals who wanted to change the conference identity and to move away from the Conservative Mennonite world view were the Modernists or American Fundamentalists. Now, according the FEBC publication, Fellowship Focus, the conservatives are now the Fundamentalists, and the new liberals are the groups that comprise the Emergent Movement. Not only have the Fundamentalists changed poles, but the Emergents share a number of similarities with the old Pietist Mennonites.
So, the issue becomes one of definitions and defined categories.
Traditional Mennonite -
Ethnic Mennonite -
Schismatic Mennonite -