Losing peace, leaving identity

Jul 23, 2014 by

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Groups have been trying for years to bridge the gap between Mennonitism and evangelicalism, but that bridge has always been unstable and inevitably fallen. Is another crash looming?

The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite churches, as mapped by The Mennonite Encyclopedia in 1955. — Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite churches, as mapped by The Mennonite Encyclopedia in 1955. — Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

This month, the U.S. Mennonite Brethren will decide whether or not to backtrack from their historic opposition to taking up arms — by dropping their Confession of Faith’s directive against serving in the military.

The Confession currently says, “In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible.” The proposed revision says, “As in other peace churches, many of us choose not to participate in the military but rather in alternative forms of service.”

Adopting this change could indicate that U.S. Mennonite Breth­ren are on a path that has already led the Evangelical Mennonite Breth­ren, Evangelical Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Missionary Church Association to abandon their Mennonite identity in favor of mainstream evangelicalism.

Those denominations, all now known by other names and only vaguely acknowledging their Mennonite heritage, were founded on spiritual renewal, personal conversion and mission work — all of which they saw, often correctly, as lacking in the larger Mennonite church.

These groups also initially upheld one of the Anabaptist tradition’s greatest distinctives: rejection of military service. The Evangelical Mennonite Society of Eastern Pennsylvania (which became part of the MBIC) unequivocally declared in 1867, 10 years after its founding: “We believe that war and blood shedding are not conformable to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ.” The EMB and EMC, each organized in the late 1800s, even included “Defenseless” in their original names to underscore their commitment to nonresistance.

But that commitment started to wane by mid-20th century. Already in 1922, the EMC dropped Bluffton College (now University) from its list of approved schools because, according to the denomination, it downplayed salvation in favor of social actions, such as war resistance. The fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Marion, a Wesleyan college in Indiana, remained acceptable options. (Fifty-two years later, a survey found only one EMC minister had a degree from a Mennonite school.)

In the 1940s, the EMC, MCA and EMB (as well as the Mennonite Brethren) joined the National Association of Evangelicals, further exposing themselves to countervailing influences.

During World War II, pacifism was mortally wounded among the evangelicals, as evidenced by the paltry number of young men who entered Civilian Public Service. Church periodicals carried few articles on pacifism, and few ministers preached or counseled draftees about it. When the MCA hired a new president for its Fort Wayne Bible Institute in 1945, it chose a recently discharged U.S. Army chaplain.

The EMB was a shining, temporary exception. It sent nearly two-thirds of its draft-eligible men to CPS, the highest percentage of all Mennonite groups. During the Korean War, however, delegates couldn’t even pass a brief statement reaffirming their peace position. In 1970, the denomination severed its ties with Mennonite Central Committee because of the agency’s lack of evangelistic efforts.

The EMB had joined the other groups in the evangelical mainstream, with its emphasis on saving souls, individual relationships with God and limited emphasis on discipleship and community. All had, in practice if not official doctrine, become neutral on pacifism. In fact, pacifism had long been seen not just as optional but as an obstacle to outreach. How could those who fought for their county accept the Good News and feel welcome in the church if they were being told their vocation was at odds with Christ’s teaching and example?

The denominations essentially codified their abandonment of Mennonitism when they changed their names. The MBIC was the first, becoming the United Missionary Church in 1947. In 1969 it merged with the MCA, which never had Mennonite in its name, to form the Missionary Church. The Pennsylvania portion of the MBIC remained independent and kept the name until 1959, when it changed to Bible Fellowship Church. The EMB became the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches in 1987, and the EMC renamed itself the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches in 2003.

Might the U.S. Mennonite Brethren be next?

Rich Preheim is a freelance writer and historian from Elk­hart, Ind.

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  • Stephen Johnson

    The Mennonite church as a whole has seen a significant decline in the strength of its peace stance over the last 25 or so years (at least in the US). I see the single biggest cause as the political polarization that has taken place. Issues such as abortion pushed many Mennonites towards the most conservative or the most liberal candidates. The candidates who are most conservative also tend to be the most nationalistic and militaristic. Those with the strongest peace stance tend to be the most liberal.

    Instead of recognizing that God’s kingdom is neither Republican or Democrat many within the church have allowed themselves to be pulled into the US/THEM mentality. If I see something on Fox News or MSNBC it most be true. Radio ministers that for years promoted basic values have become increasingly political. The message of Jesus seems to be less important than attacking those that support THEM. I can’t remember the last sermon or discussion we had at church on our peace heritage. Is it any wonder that we are losing our identity?

    • Berry Friesen

      Well said, Stephen. And yes, I agree that partisan polarization entered our church through the so-called Christian conservatives (who are actually Wilsonian neo-liberals in their views of the world and the need for U.S. domination of it).

      That’s history. Today, with a Democrat in the White House, those who understand the harm that “Christian conservatives” have done to our church can actually do something to reverse the harm: we can boldly disavow our allegiance to the Democratic Party and to the President that has overseen the destruction of Libya, Syria and now Ukraine, expanded the use of weaponized drones in Pakistan and Yemen, created his own every-Tuesday kill-lists, and done more to undermine a free and independent press than any president since Wilson.

      For our church to be set free from the partisan bondage you describe, one side or the other has to seek its OWN healing, not just the healing of the other side.

      • Stephen Johnson

        I think you are missing my point (maybe I wasn’t clear enough). The issue is neither the conservatives or the liberals but our inability to separate the Kingdom message from that being served by the worldly powers. For example being truly prolife means more than being opposed to abortion. It encompasses our peace stance. It encompasses feeding the hungry. It means viewing that non-Americans are also created by and equally loved by our Creator and treating them that way.

        Getting ourselves tangled in the propaganda of a single party prevents us from recognizing that Gods word transcends both party lines. We have become so focused on the worldly message that we no longer recognize the rightness of those who happen to fall in the other political spectrum. This isn’t the fault of the world but the fault of the church. We need to spend more time focusing on God’s message and less time focusing on the messages fed to us by Fox News and MSNBC. We are in real danger of becoming of the world as well as in it.

        • Berry Friesen

          Stephen, here is what I think you are saying. in Jesus we have a political vision that is neither liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic. And I agree with you.

          But I have found over the years as I speak the way you are, conservatives will agree when a Democrat is in the White House and the liberals will agree when a Republican is in the White House. That’s because it serves one’s partisan interest to bad-mouth partisan politics (using your kind of language or whatever) when the other team’s guy is in charge, but not when one’s own team is.

          Now, during the Obama era, is the moment of truth for us liberals, when we will decide whether we still are committed to winning the D/R derby. Conservatives had their moment when Cheney-Bush ran the show.

          So tell me, what is it in your comments that I don’t understand?

          By the way, two years ago a group of us put up a website called VoterWitness2012. It included an invitation to pledge not to vote for either a D or an R for president in 2012. Around fifty people took the pledge.

          • Keith Hostetler

            The need for repentance and salvation and recognizing Christ as the divine answer drives our actions whether it be aiding the poor, swearing of oaths, or killing our enemies. Not the other way around. Those who hold to the teachings of Christ and his offer of salvation through repentance and obedience are what I think the anabaptists would have called true Christians.

            Peace should not characterize Mennonites but following the teachings of Christ and allowing Him to be Lord should. That of course means that we are peaceful, BUT we should make it clear that Jesus is the reason we are peaceful people. We don’t love people and the “peace stance” because it is nice, political and hip, we do peace because Jesus told us to. I fear we are losing many from our congregations because we teach peace love and acceptance of all things without the Godliness, Lordship and Holiness of Christ and the need for a savior.

            It sometimes seems that we no longer trust the power of God to transform lives but increasingly rely on social sciences, political strategies and voting as our go to way of challenging structures of power and violence rather than prayer repentance and faith. Perhaps we should ask ourselves which methods are most effective at bringing healing hope and change.

          • Elaine Fehr

            Very well said, Keith. Thank you! From much of what I’m reading at this website, I ‘m concerned that “Social Justice” is a greater driving force for many in this circle instead of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

          • Stephen Johnson

            What you are describing is a symptom of allowing partisan politics to usurp the message of the Kingdom. As long as we the church allows the spirit of the world to Dominate the Holy Spirit and the message of Jesus we will increasingly see the church losing our identity.

            I do not consider myself either conservative or liberal or maybe I should say I am both depending on the specific topic of discussion. I have plenty of issues with both sides so maybe that means I am bad mouthing both to serve my partisan agenda. However, the editorial we are responding to is about the peace churches drifting away from what has been a core to the identity of church. I believe that my contention which really has nothing to do with who is in office but what we allow our minds to ingest is the primary reason.

            Note-I try to keep fairly current with the news (national, World, and church) and I was unaware of the invitation you mention. For it to have any meaningful impact it would have to be better publicized.

          • Berry Friesen

            Yes, it could have been better publicized.

            Yet within Mennonite media, VoterWitness2012 received decent coverage. MWR published a guest blog from me encouraging readers to decline to vote for either of the two major parties’ candidates and including a link to the voter pledge and the website (VoterWitness2012.org). During the entire month of October, 2012, Mennonite Church USA published on its website an ongoing dialogue among four individuals (including me) about the election. This feature was publicized to all MC USA congregations. My contributions to the dialogue advocated not voting D or R and encouraged instead the voter pledge. Jesus Radicals published on its website a similar essay from John Stoner.

            Given that amount of publicity, I was disappointed that only 50 individuals took “the pledge.” The low number seemed to indicate pretty high loyalty to participation as either a Republican or a Democrat in electoral politics.

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