Opinion: Chasm between ‘plain’ and ‘liberal’

Apr 13, 2015 by

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I attended parts of the Ana­baptist Identity Conference (“Conservative Anabaptists Reject Fundamentalism”). I had not been aware of these conferences, which have been occurring for some time. Such is the chasm in the Anabaptist-Mennonite family between the “plain” folks and us whom they call “liberal” Mennonites.

But I became aware when Chester Weaver, one of the conference’s featured presenters, invited me. Weaver explained that a main source behind his talks would be my book Gospel Versus Gospel, and he hoped I would listen and respond.

What I found was a fellowship of Christians dressed in distinctive, or at least humble, garb. The overwhelming majority wore clothing that suggested a close relationship to Old Order groups, and there were a few Old Order folks there, including David Kline as one speaker. (Kline, a fine author, is the Amish friend of Wendell Berry, the back-to-the-earth, back-to-basics American philosopher. Although formerly New Order Amish, Kline is now an Old Order Amish bishop.)

At the same time, great variety was visible among the plain attire, especially in patterns of women’s clothing and prayer veilings. And there seemed to be quite a sprinkling of “convinced” Anabaptists, people not reared in Anabaptist or plain churches.

The predominant mood seemed to be a quest for a piety that is both Anabaptist and deeply spiritual. I heard practically no rejection of Old Orders: Rather than criticism of perceived legalism, arbitrary rules, bishop power and such perceived errors, the tone communicated a positive quest for an Anabaptist spirituality.

These conferees used “Anabaptist” somewhat differently than “liberal” Mennonites do. These two wings of today’s Anabaptism agree on the centrality of discipleship, expressed visibly in life. But the remarks at the conference seemed more directed at daily life in the local church communities than at overt or explicit “prophetic witness” about “peace and reconciliation” to governments, societies and nations.

The hoped-for spirituality was not that of standard American evangelicalism. “Born again” certainly meant accepting Jesus Christ, but in the forms of obedience, yielding (one of Weaver’s talks was on Gelassen­heit) and Christ as mentor for this life.

Words of appreciation for Gos­pel Versus Gospel kept coming, to the point that I feared I would violate another emphasis of the conference, humility! Why the appreciation? Mainly, I am sure, because I had found genuine spirituality and much faithfulness in the history of American Mennonites and Amish prior to the adoption of revivalism and evangelicalism’s understandings of salvation.

Now plain people are finding that the book also helps them not to confuse their biblicism with that of militant Fundamentalism. (This refers to capital-F Fundamentalism, the historic and vociferous movement in Protestantism. If one distinguishes capital-F from small-f fundamentalism — a generic frame of mind that approaches truth as fixed around certain key beliefs that are not to be questioned or reinterpreted — perhaps many, even most, of the conferees did represent that kind of fundamentalism.)

Did the conference speakers appreciate my book too much? Perhaps Gospel Versus Gospel has become a source of self-congratulation for the plain groups’ separatism. I make no accusation, but I heard far more about being a faithful church than about a world that, however fallen, is still God’s creation, filled with people whom God loves.

Theron F. Schlabach is professor emeritus of history at Goshen (Ind.) College.


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