‘Regulation garb’ and the gospel

Nov 24, 2014 by

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In February 1959, Chester Wenger and fellow missionaries in Ethiopia — wearing business suits and neckties — met a delegation of Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.

With a loss of German language and geographical isolation as markers of identity, leaders of the “Old” Mennonite Church, beginning at the turn of the 20th century, focused on regulated plain dress as a visible sign of separation from the world and loyalty to the church. The illustration at left is from Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries by Melvin Ginge­rich, published by The Pennsylvania German Society, Breinigs­ville, Pa., 1970. The caption: “Mennonite ‘plain clothing,’ or the ‘regulation garb.’ ”

With a loss of German language and geographical isolation as markers of identity, leaders of the “Old” Mennonite Church, beginning at the turn of the 20th century, focused on regulated plain dress as a visible sign of separation from the world and loyalty to the church. The illustration at left is from Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries by Melvin Ginge­rich, published by The Pennsylvania German Society, Breinigs­ville, Pa., 1970. The caption: “Mennonite ‘plain clothing,’ or the ‘regulation garb.’ ”

The leaders were shocked, distraught, stunned and disturbed to see such disregard by the missionaries for conference regulations that required the wearing of plain coats — especially for ministers and missionaries. (Bow ties, on the other hand, were traditional and thus acceptable.)

According to one report, the delegates retreated to their place of lodging and wept. Lancaster’s mission board chair called this a “problem of major proportions.” Another member of the executive committee wrote that Wenger “of all people is the bottle neck” in reaching resolution on this issue.

The missionaries were devoted to modesty and simplicity, centuries-old Mennonite values, but a plain coat in Ethiopia was a detriment to their witness.

At home the regulation garb —prayer veiling and plain dresses for women and plain suits for men — was a marker of identity intended to create unity within the church and to be a constant witness to the world.

But in Ethiopia, special clothing for leaders set them apart and contradicted their efforts to teach and model the priesthood of all believers.

Furthermore, when wearing the plain coat, Mennonite missionaries were mistaken for Orthodox or Catholic priests, neither a happy affiliation. (Catholicism was a reminder of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia from 1935 to 1941.) Moreover, the plain coat tagged Mennonites as foreigners suspected of promoting an alien religion.

Contextualizing the gospel on the mission field, the missionaries believed, was necessary to effectively reach the lost for Christ. It did not need to rock the boat back home nor cause anyone to be labeled and denigrated. Missionaries needed freedom to build relationships and share the gospel. Indigenous churches needed freedom to develop appropriate expressions of discipleship.

The mission workers deeply regretted adding to the burdens of conference leadership.

They understood that in the minds of some this issue “threatened the very fellowship and unity of our beloved church.” Wenger cautioned against regarding the “Lancaster Conference Rules and Regulations” as an infallible document. Only the Bible was infallible.

Back home, Paul and Ann Ging­rich, a missionary couple on furlough, were called on the carpet by the mission board to answer for the recent developments in Ethiopia. They both remembered that day as an unpleasant interrogation. They were pressed to make commitments they believed they could not keep. Their return to Ethi­opia remained in question. Finally, without knowing how the board made the decision, the Gingrichs were approved for continued service and returned to Ethiopia.

But change was in motion. “Reclarification” of the differences continued. A series of teaching sessions in Lancaster helped conference leaders understand contextualization. Four years later, Paul N. Kraybill, who followed Orie Miller as mission secretary, asked Paul Gingrich to accompany him to Addis Ababa — to shop for business suits.

Now in 2014, Chester Wenger, with his wife, Sara Jane, is again at odds with the leaders of his “beloved church,” this time over same-sex unions. The issue is different, but reactions are similar, and the stakes are also high.

Can this reflection on the events of 1959 be useful in our current conversation?

Whatever our position on LGBT issues, Chester and Sara Jane Wenger’s long and faithful ministry calls for our respect. With my fallibility ever before me, let me be the last person to condemn this patriarch and this matriarch.

Portions of this story will appear in my forthcoming book, My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story, to be released by Herald Press in May 2015.

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.

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