Do Old Order groups follow culture over Christ?

Feb 17, 2014 by

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Jesus once told this (very paraphrased!) parable to modern day Mennonites:

Two believers went to church to pray, one a modern Mennonite evangelical and the other a member of an Old Order group. The progressive Menno stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am a saved, born again, liberated believer who lives only by the Bible, the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible. Furthermore, that I’m being led only by the Holy Spirit, without any influence from mere human traditions or a set of rules imposed on me by others. I especially thank you that I am not like all of those Old Orders who base their salvation on good works and on doing whatever their church tradition says, and who reject everyone who doesn’t do the same.’

But the Old Order stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, an unworthy sinner.’

None of us, Mennonite or otherwise, is free of cultural influences that affect how we live out our faith. By definition, culture represents a community’s norms and way of life, good or bad, based on existing patterns or traditions. None of us is culture-less, and all of us do well to try to understand, in the case of our church life, which ones we’re primarily influenced by.

I see three different church cultures with which we Mennonites might identify:

(1) Prevailing Protestant church culture

Here the focus tends to be on one’s personal relationship with God, with a minimum of accountability to other church members in matters of lifestyle choices. When it comes to church life, the primary attention is given to what happens within the walls of specially constructed and dedicated buildings with features like steeples, stained glass windows and sanctuaries with elevated pulpits and neatly arranged pews. Church worship services are mostly led by members of a specially chosen and trained clergy who are separate from the laity, the ordinary members. The order of service includes a prescribed pattern of invocation, hymns, offertory prayer, pastoral prayer, 20-minute sermon, more hymns and a benediction, all at a set time on a Sunday morning. An additional hour is usually spent in Sunday school groups with grade levels patterned after those of public schools, and which meet in classrooms constructed solely for use for this one percent of their member’s weekly waking hours. Christian education and youth ministry staff are often hired for purposes of facilitating the teaching of faith to children and youth. Church business meetings follow Roberts Rules of Order.

Each of the above norms is culturally, rather than Biblically, determined. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad, but they illustrate how we are all affected by certain assumptions and practices from which we seldom deviate.

(2) Old Order (Mennonite and Amish) Culture

Here the identity and accountability of members are strongly associated with their faith community, which sets strong boundaries and provides clear direction for lifestyle choices — and also offers a high level of hospitality, security and support for its members. Such groups often meet in homes for worship, or in simple and plain meetinghouses, but also have a strong sense of commitment to working and fellowshipping with, fellow members throughout the week. Its leaders are normally nominated from within the group and then chosen by lot, thus their deacons, ministers and bishops are always from, by and for the people, the laos (the New Testament word from which the word laity is derived). Weekly Sunday morning worship services also follow well-rehearsed and predictable patterns that have roots in their 16th-century origins. The teaching of faith to children is seen as the primary responsibility of parents, and youth activities include softball or volleyball, service projects and Sunday evening hymn singings in member homes. Church decisions are made by their leaders, based on their hearing the concerns of their fellow members and reinforcing or modifying the congregation’s rules and discipline as they see fit. Sometimes, of course, the power invested in their ordained leaders can be abused.

(3) An idealized first-century church culture

Here the focus is on members trying to apply what they believe represents the early church’s way of living and worshiping to contemporary church life, recognizing that believers today face many questions and problems not even imagined 1,900 years ago. Such groups may choose not to own or maintain any church real estate, but encourage their members (the laos) to gather in each other’s homes for worship and fellowship. They are led by elders who see all members as equally called to exercise their gifts in the work of caring for one another and serving others throughout the week. Services may be early in the morning or later in the evening on Sundays or, to accommodate people’s schedules, at some other time (Sunday, the Lord’s Day, having been an ordinary work day in the first century). While elders often admonish, teach and exhort others in their services, every member is to be prepared to bring “a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation of a tongue” to encourage and instruct others. Decisions are made through Spirit-driven consensus, taking every member’s input into account. Such churches may stress “home schooling” in matters of faith rather than having a structured curriculum for their young, along with having adult mentors assigned to provide spiritual nurture for children, youth and for new members.

Which of these models is most affected by cultural factors rather than being purely based on the Bible? Again, we are all are subject to cultural influences, but probably none so much as those operating from prevailing Protestant (and/or Catholic) church norms.

A partial answer to the question, “Do Old Order groups follow culture rather than God?”, may in reality be, “Yes.” But I’ve never met a member of an Old Order group who believes anyone other than God can grant them salvation.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation.

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