|The Fundamentalist writings|
Sometimes, contemporary Anabaptism seems to have become almost pre-occupied with the concept of written confessions and statements of faith. Statements similar to “you must believe…”, “We Believe…” or “Anabaptism today is defined by…” are seemingly increasingly common. Make no mistake, Liberal Anabaptists, so-called Traditional Anabaptists, Fundamentalist Evangelicals and the Evangelical Mennonites all seem to be just as determined to increasingly define both themselves and others in the narrowest terms possible. Amongst the Brüderthaler and former EMB, people are still being asked the two questions – “What do Mennonites believe?” and “Do you identify with the Evangelical creed or the Mennonite creed?”.
I find this a bit confusing. Even in researching the contemporary “measures” of “true” Anabaptism – being one’s conformity to certain definitions of pacifism or non-resistance, there is little evidence that there has ever been any greater historical agreement over these terms than over baptism or Pietism. Make no mistake – the definitions of these terms have been loudly debated amongst the Anabaptists for over five centuries. Yet no clear consensus has yet presented itself. In fact, the Anabaptist tendency has historically been more-or-less anti-confessional.
The majority of Anabaptist Creeds actually seem to be evolutionary in nature – a far cry from the “Moses receiving the Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian creed direct from God on Mount Horeb” mythologies of many other Evangelical, Mormon or ethnic churches.
|Täuferdisputation (Swiss Anabaptists), 1525.|
The so-called Anabaptist Creeds were seldom universally adopted or applied and were seemingly most often instigated by the need to respond to judicial questioning by outsiders in royal and religious courts – for instance, the need to prove the Christian Orthodoxy of Anabaptist Evangelicalism to the King of Poland, the Bishop of (take your pick)… or the later experience of the Mennonite Brethren being called before the Tsar’s emissary in Ukraine.
Perhaps the American Amish and Mennonite-Amish have become more creed-oriented over time due to past traditions of establishing and maintaining communal ordnungs that often proscribed correct if mundane life decisions such as transportation and dress in minute detail. The Russländer simply were too diverse and yet too equally grounded in their interpretations of the scriptures to hold to a unified creed beyond their basic faith in Christ.
Reading Rodney Sawatsky regarding the General Conference and certain personal testimonies of the Brüderthaler, Russian Mennonite theologies regarding non-resistance were certainly discussed but there was often very little in the line of “official teachings" on non-resistance offered to Mennonite youth in the Russländer traditions.
Rather than defining themselves by creeds, Russian Mennonites were a people of conscience. People were expected to be moved by the spirit within their individual consciences on spiritual matters. During both world wars, the focus seems to have been on preserving the freedom of conscience to not participate in war rather than to adhere to a specific doctrine. In his memoir, Colonel Kellogg was often almost dismissive of the inchoate nature of Anabaptist peace theology. He includes many examples of youth possessing excellent command of the Scriptures yet having to write to their Bishops for clarification as to what their stance was regarding the military. Kellogg also often noted that Anabaptist communities seemed to have little regard for enforcing a common approach to their doctrines. (He was much more appreciative of the more organized Quaker position that advocated humanitarian service over military service rather than what often appeared to be mere Mennonite tradition.)
Where did our current fascination with creeds, statements of faith and “key doctrinal positions” come from then if not from our traditions?
In both cases, our greater need to define ourselves and what we believe seems to be a symptom of growing assimilation into the larger North American populace. Evangelical Mennonites were often encouraged, if not required, to publish lists of “key doctrinal positions” to which they claimed to ascribe, possibly in order to access the resources, organizational expertise and fellowship of their more creed-oriented Fundamentalist brethren or in response to increased government regulation. Seemingly, many Anglo-American Fundamentalists have an affection for drawing up detailed lists of core doctrinal faith points in order to distinguish conservative Fundamentalist theology from either traditional Orthodoxies or Liberal philosophical / political positions. One needs only reference the somewhat odd reference of groups such as missionary retirement homes to items far removed from what would seem to be a logical mission statement – for instance, taking stances on abortion and homosexuality – apart from being able to raise money from “like-minded” organizations and congregations and being able to assure potential residents of being able to live out their retirement with “like-minded” individuals.
Similarly, more “scientific” or liberal academics have tried to tease out the essence of the true Anabaptist spirituality by manipulating definitions to include and exclude others in ways that benefit their models and philosophical perspectives.
At the same time, nothing could be more adverse to the sense of a living, Spirit-infused congregation of mutually-supporting individuals of conscience than this focus on Faith Statements and academic definitions. Since the baptism of George Blaurock in Switzerland, the conversion of Menno Simons in the Netherlands, or in the everyday lives of Pietist Mennonites across the globe, Anabaptism has depended more on a personal conviction to search out the scriptures for oneself and to be personally convicted by Christ’s Truth – a right and privilege for which many early Anabaptists gave their lives, rather than some sort of Inquisitional requirement to adhere to a list of faith principles.
Two institutional aspects may have supported the new Confessionalism – as Anabaptist have assimilated, there has been greater pressure to cooperate and conform themselves and their churches to the models and beliefs of others – on both sides of the political spectrum. In order to do so, many anti-vow-taking Anabaptists are now more or less taking figurative “oaths” that they support certain key doctrines in common with those groups they wish to join. This might be especially true of the NAE and the World Council of Churches or of the various missionary agencies.
Secondly, traditional methods of learning one’s doctrine from one’s parents, from one’s personal study of the Bible and from discussion and debate within the congregation or church have largely given way to conforming to the doctrines preached by a more academic and professionalized pastoral staff. The teachings of the elders and parents simply lost relevance next to the well-organized teachings of professional seminarians, doctrinal experts or teachers in the universities and Bible Institutes. Religion now sometimes resembles a form of political joining rather than a personal ethical and religious philosophy or experience.
Regrettable, at least from my perspective, are three key losses to Anabaptism as a result of this new Confessionalism.
First, in needing to conform to the definitions, beliefs and measures of others, too many heritage claims to authentic or traditional Anabaptist identity structures have been largely either abandoned or made rhetorical.
Second, much of the core focus by the Anabaptist identity on congregationalism and service to others has been scrapped in favor of doctrinalism and ideological missions organizations.
Third, there has been a drastic loss of both Anabaptist intellectualism and diversity of thought.
Admittedly, these are personal or subjective judgments. However, given that diversity and assimilation are opposing positions – a preference or valuing of one leads to a devaluing or preference against the other. (While one could argue for a third position that seeks to accommodate the other two, there cannot be an exactly neutral position, merely a position of greater or less toleration of those who hold to the opposing perspective).
The second loss might have come about with the increased participation of Anabaptists in Universities and Bible Institutes and participation in non-Anabaptist foreign missions boards. There is nothing wrong with this. However, one could argue that a previous strength of the Anabaptist Evangelicalism was its focus on finding personal, direct means of witnessing to others through personal relationships and individual acts of charity and compassion. Well organized organizations, programs and plans have their place, but too often resemble political movements and are too often too easily confused with modern forms of indoctrination, colonialism or imperialism. The result is a dilution in the overall inventory of sectarian specializations available for the furtherance and growth of the Spiritual Kingdom.
One could argue that the early Church was a fellowship or community of individuals relating to each other through their relationship to Christ. Similarly, moves to organize into a more effective Church organization have often led to Spiritual erosion, loss of focus and missed spiritual opportunities. In many ways, Anabaptism has historically stood as the corrective to these tendencies. That is why our mere existence has often been indicated as our highest witness.
|(c) Michele Huttler Silver Photography.|
Many outsiders (and more than a few insiders) have taken our traditionally looser and more consensus-driven faith as naïve, weak, disorganized or traditional. Outsiders have often tried to reach out to our people to help them realize better organization, stricter theologies and more sound definitions on controversial doctrines. Insiders have often attempted to “reorganize” our traditional congregations to be “more effective,” “better prepared,” and “more responsive” to perceived missions and opportunities. Again, not a bad thing in and of itself.
Strangely, debates over traditionalism within the Fundamentalist-oriented conferences and over social issues such as the ordination or women, church membership of gays and lesbians and stances on the military within the larger, more diverse national bodies have both led to a new stances advocating or re-recognizing a practical diversity within the grosse gemeinde or the diaspora. For cultural Anabaptists, this would be an encouraging sign. Something to feel confident about for the future.
Note that I do understand the belief by many Fundamentalist Anabaptists that culture and tradition are simply not relevant considerations in the life and mission of the church but that is a different question that will have to engaged on a different day.