‘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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  • Elaine Fehr

    The question is asked: “Can this reflection on the events of 1959 be useful in our current conversation?”.

    Comparing the events of 1959 to current events at hand is like comparing apples and oranges. The events in 1959 were a matter of traditions of man, in which God allows flexibility. Modest dress can be achieved in many ways without wearing the regulation garb pictured in this article. Dressing modestly in those other ways will not affect our eternal standing before God.

    On the other hand, the issue of today – same-sex marriage, is a defiant rebellion against God’s will, laws and principles. Scripture warns us that participation in homosexual activity leads to eternal death and destruction (1 Cor. 6:9). God does not allow flexibility in this area without serious repercussions.

    Hebrews 10 contains a sobering warning:
    “6 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”[e] says the Lord.[f] And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

    • Charlie Kraybill

      Who wrote the book of Hebrews? Nobody knows. The author is not identified in the book itself. Whoever wrote it seemed to be trying to imitate Paul’s style, so that readers would assume it was written by Paul. But serious NT scholars today are agreed that it is not an authentic Pauline letter. Therefore, why should we consider anything contained in this book to be authoritative in our modern context? Was the author of Hebrews — a willful forger — speaking on behalf of God? Are the words in the book of Hebrews the same as the words of God? I don’t think so. Besides, all this talk of fear and judgment, of fiery indignation and punishment, of dying without mercy — I don’t recognize any of it as having anything to do with the God I believe in. So, Elaine, the “sobering warning” you give us by quoting Hebrews 10 carries no weight with me at all. Would you like to try again?

    • Herbert Reed

      “The events in 1959 were a matter of traditions of man, in which God allows flexibility.”

      You obviously were not subjected to the same sermons on nonconformity which I was given a constant diet of during the 50s and 60s growing up in the Lancaster Conference. I can assure you that there was not a lot of flexibility involved as to what constituted “modesty” and “worldly” attire, with relevant Bible verses cited at every turn. If God was flexible on the issue someone failed to inform me. I was pretty much convinced that the only people getting into heaven were people who looked like those pictures.

      • Laura Weaver

        Herbert Reed is exactly right. There was no flexibility. I remember a case in which a young woman was denied baptism because of covered buttons on her cape dress!

        Laura H. Weaver

        • Elaine Fehr

          Thanks for sharing that. That’s a good illustration of how man-made regulations can differ from God’s laws and principles. Oh, the bondage that can spring out of the imaginations of mankind!

      • Elaine Fehr

        You could be right that I may not have been subjected to the same kinds of sermons on nonconformity. I grew up in a Mennonite church where we dressed modestly, yet modernly.

  • Linda Rosenblum

    Charlie- If you negate the authority of much of the scriptures, obviously, there is little common ground on which many of us can meet with you on. You are certainly welcome to believe as you wish, but for you to repeatedly argue that the scriptures are not God’s inspired word and the message God intended has not been preserved in them, you only will alienate those in the traditional view of the denomination even more. You will not find many coming to agreement with you. Linda Rosenblum

    • Charlie Kraybill

      Linda, truth is truth no matter where it is found. And all truth is God’s truth. So if it has become clear to serious NT scholars that the book of Hebrews was a Pauline forgery, what is the point in continuing to assert and believe that it is authoritative today? Asserting and believing will not make it true. You do yourself and the church no favors by insisting that the words contained in Hebrews are equal to the words of God when that is not the case. I’m not concerned about alienating denominational traditionalists. They will die soon. What I am concerned about is being relevant based on what’s happening in the field of biblical scholarship today. As long as traditionalists keep denying science and modern understandings of the bible, young people will continue to lose interest and drop out of the church. Traditionalists represent the dying past. Young educated scientifically-minded persons represent the future, if there is one.

      • Berry Friesen

        Charlie, I regard Hebrews of the inspired words of Priscilla, the Jewish teacher of Apollos and the sometimes leader of the assemblies in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus. She bore witness to the truth of Messiah Jesus to the Jews who were abandoning the Way of Jesus following the destruction of the second temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

        The binary choice you pose to Linda is too limited. We have other choices.

      • Linda Rosenblum

        And just where does faith come into the picture then? Can you not believe that the God who created the universe is capable of keeping his message true through the ages and through the writings of God-inspired humans? Linda Rosenblum

  • Berry Friesen

    So Elaine and Herb agree that the story John Sharp tells is evidence of a kind of failure. I find it worthwhile to reflect on why that is.

    Jesus told his disciples it was their responsibility to bind and loose, to name and forgive sins. They would be the continuing presence of the Messiah in the world, he said, a living witness to the righteousness and justice of the Empire of YHWH.

    The people in John Sharp’s story tried to faithfully live out that mandate of Jesus. Because they were sure that their salvation rested entirely in God’s mercy and grace, they confidently shaped a political community that bore witness to the saving way Jesus lived and died.

    But now Mennonites on both sides of the argument (whatever it is) join in repudiating not only the particulars of their approach, but the approach itself, and thereby also reject the mandate Jesus gave his disciples.

    Against the clear teachings of Jesus, we have convinced ourselves it is sin to understand ourselves as a community that stands apart from our time and place and offers the world a specific alternative to the way of empire. Thus, we are effectively paralyzed and can only retreat into liberal or conservative versions of gnosticism. Neither is good news.

    • Herbert Reed

      Actually I think John Sharp’s story is that of the successful overcoming of cultural based traditions in favor of preaching the Gospel on the part of Lancaster Conference. I don’t see it as a failure at all in terms of the larger church. Later there was a failure when a large group broke off from Lancaster Conference in 1968 over mainly cultural issues which resulted in many young people becoming estranged from the church – yes that was a failure and I do believe we face the same danger today.

  • Bruce Leichty

    Since I spend more time now than I would wish around people wearing neckties — even in California — perhaps I am qualified to say that it may also be perilous to our witness and mission to be associated with the style of these men. I am of course aware of the unprecedented growth and size of Meserete Kristos Church today, but still, the Good Book says that you shall know them by their fruits. Sorry Charlie. While I agree that the dress code of my strict Amish-Mennonite forbears and relatives could be and can be a distraction, nevertheless the revisionist in me has to at least pause a bit to wonder if the trade in imagery for the garb of usurers, bilkers, predators and desk-jockeys that Chester Wenger and his colleagues made 50 years ago was in fact a good or necessary trade.

    • John Gingrich

      The tragedy of the era of the plain dress in the church is that Christ’s call to a “Kingdom” life was made into simply a prescribed dress code. It led to a loss of the pursuit of true fruit of the spirit. But Bruce I think you bring up a good question we need to ask ourselves. What is our identity? Emerson says “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist” Christ says we must lose our lives to find true life. What does that mean? It’s not always clear, but at the least it means to always be very skeptical of current popular culture and trends. It means that we need to “try the spirits”. The current debate in the church over what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ in regards to the LGBT issue needs to be done without any fear of rejection by current culture. It requires the courage to sing with conviction “the world behind me, the cross before me…though none go with me, still I will follow…no turning back, no turning back.”

      • Charlie Kraybill

        The problem with assuming that “current culture” is ALWAYS to be avoided is that sometimes what’s happening in the surrounding culture is positive. Sometimes the culture actually makes incremental progress towards establishing the kingdom on earth. The civil rights movement was such a movement. And we had prophets within the Mennonite church (I’m thinking of Vincent Harding in particular) who urged the Mennonites to get on board the civil rights train, or get left behind. Unfortunately, the Mennonites decided that the culture was to be rejected on that one. And Vincent Harding realized that, in order to follow God’s will for himself and for God’s people, he had to leave the Mennonites. So here we are again. The current culture is making positive incremental steps towards the kingdom on earth, by welcoming and including our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers, in church and in society. And once again, Mennonites have an opportunity to get on board. Every day that passes in which the church fails to do so, more and more young people make the decision to leave the church so they can do God’s will elsewhere. Today’s Mennonite church, with Ervin Stutzman at the helm, is casting its lot with the elderly and moneyed traditionalists (the bulk in Lancaster Conference), most of whom will be dead and gone in 25 years. By that time, many young Mennonites will have left to find their place outside the Mennonite fold. And what will MCUSA have? A ton of regrets. That’s what.

        • John Gingrich

          Charlie, you read your prejudices into my comment. If the church had tried the spirits and followed Christ in their walk they would never have followed the culture that supported the segregation that was part of our history. Another example of not rejecting the “spirit of the age” was the German Mennonite church abandoning the non-resistance position leading up to the second world war and joining Hitler’s army. I did not state my position on what I believe the church should decide on the current debate. And I’m not that concerned about MCUSA or whether it will be alive or dead and gone as you say. The proof of faithfulness is not in numbers, just ask Jesus how many were left with him at the cross.

      • Bruce Leichty

        The other point I would like to make is that our generation (I am 60), despite the amazing advances in technology that we have seen in the past century, has a tendency to think that it is only these forbears of ours who struck the wrong balance between “in” and “not of” [the world]. What they did was irrational, narrow and lacking in biblical support. But now we have it right. All of it. I may have been as guilty of this type of arrogance as the next guy when it comes to certain subjects, but indeed we are called to do the kind of examination that John Gingrich is suggesting. And to a more humble and honoring attitude toward those whose accomplishments effectively allowed ours.

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