Anabaptist siblings: Brethren renew historic connections with Mennonites

Nov 11, 2015 by and

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Since its founding in Ger­many in 1708, the Breth­­ren stream of Anabaptism has been associated with Mennonites, particularly for their shared opposition to war. Yet both groups have often overlooked their connections. Now efforts are emerging to rectify that.

Members of the 303rd unit of Brethren Volunteer Service — Grace Elkins, Brandon Gumm and Michael Himlie — give a high five during their orientation. — Church of the Brethren

Members of the 303rd unit of Brethren Volunteer Service — Grace Elkins, Brandon Gumm and Michael Himlie — give a high five during their orientation. — Church of the Brethren

Mennonites and Brethren can together be better agents of reconciliation, said Church of the Brethren general secretary Stan Noffsinger, because of their “common tradition and desire to be a people of God’s shalom and Christ’s peace in a time of so much violence in the world.”

The Church of the Brethren is the largest Brethren body and the only one seeking to expand its relations with other Anabaptists. This year, for the first time, the denomination was included in Mennonite World Conference’s global census of Anabaptist groups, including those that aren’t MWC members. MWC counted only North American Brethren.

“It’s a symbolic move to re-emphasize the Anabaptist part of our heritage. It’s also a symbolic move to reaffirm a positive working relationship with Mennonites and other Anabaptists,” said Jeff Bach, director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.

Noffsinger said the denomination is not looking to join MWC or merge with other bodies. And he and others in the denomination emphasize the COB had never left Anabaptism but have always maintained traditional positions such as pacifism, believer’s baptism and the church as voluntary community.

MWC general secretary Cesar Garcia said the COB was listed in the census because of its stances on baptism and peacemaking.

“MWC wants to respect the fact that the COB identifies itself as part of our Anabaptist tradition,” he said. “We include in our census all churches, groups and colonies that identify themselves as part of the Anabaptist tradition.”

Garcia noted that some groups, such as the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (formerly the Evangelical Mennonite Church), do not want to be included.

History of cooperation

Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites trace their origins to the Radical Reformation of the early 16th century, which birthed Anabaptism. The Brethren started nearly 200 years later under the leadership of Alexander Mack, a member of the Reformed church who was influenced by Pietism. It was revival movement that, instead of an outward adherence to doctrine, stressed an inward, emotional faith resulting in ethical living.

Mack and others saw that daily discipleship best expressed by the Mennonites.

“They thought they were the closest to what the church should be,” said Denise Kettering-Lane, professor of Brethren studies at the COB’s Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind.

In 1708, after being convinced of the necessity of believers baptism, Mack and seven others re-baptized themselves in the Eder River at Schwarzenau, Germany, starting the Brethren movement. The first Brethren immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1719, settling at Germantown.

Like Mennonites, the Brethren were pacifist, adopted plain attire and avoided dancing, card-playing and other worldly vices. And like Mennonites, they would repeatedly split. Today, the descendants of the Scharzenau Brethren in the United States are found in 10 groups across the cultural and theological spectrum, ranging from the horse-and-buggy Old Brethren German Baptist Brethren to the fundamentalist Conservative Grace Brethren to the mainstream Church of the Brethren.

The COB is the largest, with 116,000 members in more than 1,000 congregations, with the greatest concentrations in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Brethren and Mennonites have a history of cooperation and interaction since the beginning. Most notably, the two groups plus the Quakers — known collectively as the historic peace churches — started holding meetings together after World War I, when many drafted church members suffered harsh treatment because of their opposition to participating in war. These meetings led to the creation of Civilian Public Service in 1940 to provide conscripts a way to maintain their convictions.

In 1945, the General Conference Mennonite Church established a seminary in Chicago, where it was affiliated with the COB’s Bethany Theological Seminary. The Mennonite seminary moved to Elkhart, Ind., in 1958 and is now part of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Bethany relocated to Richmond in 1994.

Since then, Brethren and Mennonites have continued to periodically work together on various projects, such as Sunday school materials, a hymnal and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Brethren and Mennonites continue to collaborate on the Believers Church Bible Commentary. Three congregations are members of Mennonite Church USA and the Church of the Brethren: Florence Church of the Brethren-Mennonite, Constantine, Mich.; Morgantown (W.Va.) Church of the Brethren; and Shalom Community Church, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Noffsinger attends the meetings of the Council of Moderators and Secretaries, which comprises leaders from Mennonite Church USA, U.S. Mennonite Brethren, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Brethren in Christ and Missionary Church. COB representatives had ceased participation years ago for financial reasons, Noffsinger said, but he resumed the practice because of their commonalities.

“It’s a very natural relationship,” he said.

Lessons to be learned

Kettering-Lane attributes the renewed interest in Anabaptism to commemorations in 2008 of the 300th anniversary of the Brethren’s founding. Now, she said, she hears people wonder if the COB has lost some of its identity.

Kettering-Lane and Bach each said that by the mid-20th century, the COB became more acculturated and more ecumenically minded. It was a charter member of the World Council of Churches in 1948 and has cooperated with non-Anabaptist groups in mission work, starting churches that were not Brethren. Well-known interdenominational organizations such as CROP, Church World Service and Heifer International started as COB initiatives.

Meanwhile, the denomination was moving away from distinctives such as discipline and plain dress.

“The Brethren were willing to drop some of these boundaries to associate with all those other groups,” Kettering-Lane said.

Yet that ecumenism is also a strength that Mennonites might learn from. Kettering-Lane said the COB, one of the smallest members in the World Council of Churches, is surprisingly influential and so can promote Anabaptist values.

“We kind of have a disproportionate voice to the size of our body,” she said.

Malinda Berry, AMBS professor of theology and ethics and a lifelong Mennonite, was introduced to the COB’s ecumenism while on the Bethany faculty for five years. She believes the denomination’s experiences could benefit Mennonite Church USA.

“A discussion of the pluses and minuses of that could really help us,” she said.

Mennonites have long shied away from interdenominational relations out of fear that beliefs and practices from the outside could undermine the church.

“We don’t want to taint ourselves, so we shave off the unholy part,” said Berry, who moved to AMBS last year. “But what if that’s sin?”

Another potential lesson for Mennonites is what Kettering-Lane calls the Brethren’s “lightness of being.” From her observations and experiences — she attended First Mennonite Church in Iowa City while earning her doctorate from the University of Iowa — Mennonites seem like an older, more serious older sibling, she said, which comes from their martyr heritage. Brethren have largely been spared from persecution throughout their history.

But that is also something the Brethren can learn from, since the historical weight of martyrdom is so prominent in Mennonite life and thought.

“You seem to have a better sense of your own identity,” she said.

Tim Lind, a member of Florence Church of the Brethren-Mennonite in southern Michigan, said the range of cultures and ethnicities in the global Anabaptist church could benefit the Church of the Brethren. While Mennonites and related groups are found in 56 countries, the COB is present in only eight.

Lind, who served with Mennonite Central Committee in Africa and worked for MWC, noted the importance of “an understanding of the value and challenges of diversity, how you make them your own, how you deal with them.” He added that it’s not just of international significance but locally as well.

Correction of perception

How Brethren and Mennonites will be affected by any new developments is a huge question mark. Everything is still new and largely informal.

“It might take a while for some of the rank-and-file members to comprehend all of what this relationship means,” Bach said.

One big variable is who will be in church leadership. Noffsinger, the enthusiastic advocate, is stepping down as COB general secretary after 12 years on the job.

Among all the future possibilities is the importance of a correction of perception. It’s easy to consider Mennonites, plus the Amish and Hutterites, as the full roster of Anabaptists, given their common origins in the 16th century.

“My sense is that there is a degree of resentment about that among Church of the Brethren people,” Lind said. “They feel that exclusion.”

Said Noffsinger, “Mennonites equate Anabaptists to Mennonites. But we really are Anabaptist.”

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