What are Anabaptists becoming?

Feb 9, 2015 by and

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ELKHART, Ind. — Pastors Week participants at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary pondered metaphors of rhizomes, a flame, a midwife and mestizos as they heard challenges to trust God more fully and to share authority more widely.

Drew Hart, an African-American pastor and blogger who focuses his doctoral studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Phila­delphia on Anabaptism and black identity, addresses a full chapel during Pastors Week at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. — Jason Bryant/AMBS

Drew Hart, an African-American pastor and blogger who focuses his doctoral studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Phila­delphia on Anabaptism and black identity, addresses a full chapel during Pastors Week at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. — Jason Bryant/AMBS

The biblical text from 1 Cor. 3:11, declaring Jesus Christ as the only foundation, became the theme for the Jan. 26-29 annual gathering of pastors and church leaders. In addition to answering the question of what Anabaptists are today, five presenters, three preachers and 200 event participants also explored “where culture blurs theology.” Presentations and discussions mixed affirmation and critique of the Mennonite church and the neo-Anabaptist movement.

In the opening session, Mennonite World Conference vice president Janet Plenert suggested the image of a rhizome for the worldwide Mennonite church. A rhizome, she pointed out, is an extensive root system that sends up shoots to create new plants that share a single genetic code.

“The growing edge of our denomination seems to be new immigrant groups or new models of being the church,” she said. “If we are to see an Anabaptist expression of Christianity flourish, we need to embrace a rhizomatic understanding of our ecclesiology. It will be less homogeneous and it will be robed in a greater variety of cultural expression, language and richness.”

Lighten the grip

Greg Boyd, best-selling author and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., spoke from the point of view of someone new to the Anabaptist faith.

“We have to accept and even celebrate that the face of Anabaptism is going to change, and to change in some radical ways,” he said. “The challenge is to lighten the grip . . . to welcome people who are going to look very different.”

He noted that diversity is a kingdom necessity but also emphasized that Mennonites and other Anabaptists must never give up what is distinctive about their faith, including the centrality of Jesus in the Bible and in life, bearing witness to Christ with faithful living and loving enemies.

The centrality of Christ pervaded Boyd’s two presentations, including an evening lecture at College Mennonite Church in Goshen.

Loosen authority

Drew Hart, an African-American pastor and blogger who focuses his doctoral studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia on Anabaptism and black identity, called on the Mennonite church to put less emphasis on traditional names and families and to loosen their hold on power and authority.

“Can we enter into a mutual relationship in which people who come into the church actually shape and change and transform who we are collectively?” he asked. “That’s what hasn’t happened. In the Mennonite church there still is a colonizing way of being, expecting everyone to assimilate. People of color have been willing to come in and receive, but it doesn’t seem to be functioning both ways.”

He fears Anabaptists are turning away from the vulnerable.

“We need to be open to receive others as a gift,” he said. “The Mennonite church needs the black church more than the black church needs the Mennonite church.”

Mennonite Church USA moderator Elizabeth Soto Albrecht said Anabaptists were the mestizos (descendants of mixed races) of the 16th century.

“We were a mixed group of people with diverse beliefs coming together to seek Christ,” she said. Because of that history, “we have danced all the dances, from isolation to accommodation to assimilation.”

With assimilation to North American culture has come a culture of violence.

“We have created enemies among each other,” she said.

Soto Albrecht, like Hart, called on the church to embrace people of color with more integrity.

Vulnerability key

David B. Miller, associate professor of missional leadership development at AMBS, challenged traditional Mennonites to be more vulnerable as they relate to people of color and newcomers to the church.

“Guess what? We’re going to get it wrong,” he said. “We might need to be forgiven — by persons of color, by women. In which case, we will be honoring them as priests. When I take the risk of getting it wrong and the other person can correct me, they become my teacher. If I need to be forgiven, they become my priest.”

Miller’s presentation, along with several of the sermons during the week, challenged the church to trust more fully in God, reflecting the theme that Christ is the church’s foundation.


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  • Fred J Morgan (Jeff)

    Perhaps it is just the title that raises the hairs a bit, anabaptist belief used in a denominational reference. I do not know why, often we living in the belief that the Anabaptist of Old is a denomination of today followed in the now wide and broad watered down “Mennonite” denomination. I guess culture blurs theology primarily where the “world” with it’s values dictate theology. Jesus Christ was the center of the Anabaptist faith and not the world. When you make changes to any established belief system you become denominational breaking off into groups and calling yourself a church and labeling it under a denomination. Bu I think, an Anabaptist would say that, if your belief does not set Jesus Christ and the words as spoken in the Bible but instead allows the theology of those which pervert the words of Christ and find excuses to bypass or ignore certain parts as written for all to understand in his word, then it is not the God of Anabaptist you worship but one of man. Most who started the belief were in fact Catholic priest who discovered what was taught and mandated by the church and Pope was in fact contrary to what Jesus taught. Remember, you do not go to an Anabaptist Church by name, you probably attend a denomination like Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite or the like. To my knowledge, the anabaptist did not call Anabaptist, they just believed in the Bible as being true and written for all to understand without the ‘trained or knowledgeable’ to translate. Thus for example; the words or Jesus on in Matthew 19 does not allow divorce except for fornication and then remarriage is causes adultery.. how many trained men are the cause of this plain statement. Or perhaps Paul need interpretation in 1 Corinthians 11… Well certainly, living by the actual words un-interpreted by our denominations make living in the world with it’s values difficult.. Picking our denomination allows us to choose how we wish to follow Jesus, which rules to follow and which to simply state “that’s not what it means”. But Anabaptist theology was quit simple… debating how the world, culture and man is changing it is really an argument based on the premise that “Anabaptist’ belief is something that changes with the world and is simply is false or unwarranted since in fact the statements of Jesus and Biblical following in the Bible do not change (except in translations to a degree). Perhaps the argument would be how the denomination which claim to follow the Anabaptist beliefs, such as “Mennonite” (those following the teachings of Menno Simons on how to live in the Anabaptist belief system) have become affected by culture and change. I guess it is just strange to me comparing a belief in which the followers went to their death instead of compromise of the words of Christ with the washed down denominations of today which bend to the will of political correctness and the Biblical interpretation of the times.easy living.

    • Scott Coulter

      Jeff,

      I appreciate your desire to live by the Word of God without
      dilution or compromise. I agree that it is very easy to explain away
      (or simply to ignore!) norms of righteousness, justice, and holiness
      that make us uncomfortable. And this should give every one of us pause.

      The
      early Anabaptists’ desire to live simply according to the words of
      scripture, plainly understood, sets a high standard. But when I look at
      the history of the early Anabaptists, I don’t see unanimity among them
      about what scripture demands. For example, the early Anabaptists were
      divided on how a married person in the church should relate to his/her
      spouse when the spouse is shunned.

      This leaves me skeptical
      about my own or anyone else’s ability to “plainly understand” scripture,
      without theological interpretation. And my lived experience with sister
      and brother Christians throughout my young adult life makes me slow to
      simply reject the theology of those who disagree with me as evidence of
      their sinfulness or their unregenerate minds.

      One of the things I
      have appreciated about the Anabaptist tradition as I first encountered
      it when I came to a Mennonite congregation shortly after college is the
      humility with which I saw many Anabaptist-Mennonites interpreting
      scripture. I consider it at least as possible that I am wrong about my
      interpretation of scripture/Christian ethics as it is possible that the
      person I disagree with is wrong. And surely we have to admit that we are
      both engaging in interpretation.

      I believe that sitting down and
      reading scripture together, prayerfully, with open ears, minds, and
      hearts, is essential to being the people of God. This will involve
      interpretation; it will involve doing theology; and it will not likely
      lead to perfect unanimity of thought. Hopefully it will give us practice
      loving one another, and help us recognize Jesus in our midst.

      In Christ,

  • Rainer Moeller

    The traditional Anabaptist lifestyle included: self-sufficiency, industriousness, frugality, communal self-help, no claims on strangers or “society”.
    Intelligent newcomers would try to learn from the traditional Anabaptist lifestyle. I don’t expect them to “assimilate” (the horror!), but if they want to cultivate a different lifestyle, why for God’s sake do they join Anabaptism?

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