Two good names

Mennonite or Anabaptist? Both have their place

Mar 13, 2017 by

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There are good reasons why Mennonite World Conference might want to change its name. Globally, “Anabaptist” resonates more widely than “Mennonite” to identify the peaceful, believer-baptizing Christians who gather under the MWC umbrella.

The most numerous Anabaptists in North America are Mennonites and Amish, but around the world the stories and labels get more diverse. One of the best examples comes from Ethiopia, where the world’s largest Anabaptist conference, the Meserete Kristos Church, proclaims Anabaptist theology right in its name. MKC translates as “Christ Foundation Church.” It is very Mennonite of the 255,000-member MKC to echo Menno Simons’ favorite verse, 1 Cor. 3:11, which proclaims Christ as the only foundation. But, as much as the MKC name is thoroughly Anabaptist, it is also intentionally not Mennonite. According to Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts, the Africa volume of the Global Mennonite History series, the Ethiopian churches that emerged from Mennonite mission work in the 1950s chose not to adopt the Mennonite name because it was foreign to their culture.

Several non-Mennonite groups are prominent in MWC. The 45,000 Zimbabweans who hosted the 2003 MWC assembly are all Brethren in Christ. Indonesia’s 111,000 Anabaptists are organized in three synods with names like Javanese Evangelical Church. The 17,000-member Fellowship of Christian Assemblies is the second-largest MWC group in India.

For our global fellowship, a name like Anabaptist World Community or Anabaptist World Communion would be more inclusive. MWC is right to consider the possibility of a new name .

Decisions to drop “Mennonite” from a name fall into two categories: 1) adjustments to recognize a constituency that is broader than Mennonites, and 2) retreats from Anabaptist identity. Examples of the former are Mennonite Mutual Aid becoming Everence in 2010, and Mennonite Foundation of Canada becoming Abundance Canada in 2016. (Everence says it has seen increased interest from other Anabaptist denominations and the broader Christian community since its rebranding.) Examples of the latter are the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren becoming the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches in 1987 and the Evangelical Mennonite Church becoming the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches in 2003. An MWC change would fit category No. 1.

When a denomination drops the Mennonite name, its Anabaptist theology and identity likely have already faded. For congregations, the connection between name and identity is less clear. A congregation that doesn’t reveal its Mennonite affiliation in its name might have a solid Mennonite identity, or it might not. But it probably is harder for a church to maintain an identity it does not openly proclaim.

Then there’s a unique case: Evana, the network of Mennonite congregations that formed in 2015. Its combination of “Evangelical” and “Anabaptist” submerges the words just enough that people might not catch the meaning unless it’s pointed out.

A key advantage of “Anabaptist” is its purely religious definition. Anabaptist theology thrives among Christians from diverse church traditions, without ethnic baggage. “Mennonite,” on the other hand, can refer to both a faith and a culture, a choice and a heritage. A couple of years ago, Canadian Mennonite published an article by a “Mennonite atheist.” People of diverse faiths or no faith who grew up Mennonite often find that cultural Mennonitism remains an indelible part of who they are.

Because Mennonite faith and ethnicity get tangled, people worry that the name hinders outreach. No doubt it does sometimes. But we have only ourselves to blame if we make the church a social club where only those with familiar genealogies feel at home.

If MWC drops “Mennonite” while upholding Anabaptist identity, it will have nothing to apologize for. Menno Simons wouldn’t have liked his name to be treated as sacred anyway. For countless individuals, congregations and denominations, “Mennonite” remains a good name, a strong brand. But for many others who’ve joined the movement Menno once led, “Anabaptist” will do just fine.

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