Fundamentally flawed: How Mennonites failed to be faithful

Oct 23, 2017 by

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I grew up believing my Mennonite religious tradition originated as a part of the Anabaptist movement. I would’ve been incredulous if someone had told me then that our theological underpinnings originated from a completely different source and most of our practice comes from a much later time.

It has taken me decades to fully come to the realization that conservative Mennonites (and especially those in the Charity movement) are not Anabaptist anymore. We have, in fact, as a result of absorbing teachings from other sources, morphed into something quite different.

The evolution has been slow over many generations, but the difference is profound and the implications are deep. We might self-describe as Mennonite or Anabaptist, but are, in reality, something else entirely and very different from our ancestors.

If you want to see the contrast, compare us (conservative Mennonites) to our Old Order cousins and consider how differently we approach things. We share the same genetic origins (and surnames) yet not much as far as our theological ideas and practices.

So, who is real and who is the impostor?

Consider that everything from Sunday school to revival meetings to four-part singing to our eschatological perspective to Zionism is not originally Mennonite. Those were things added (sometimes with great controversy) often only a generation ago or within the past couple centuries. They are things that originated from various Protestant movements.

Our relatives from a generation or two ago swallowed fundamentalist theological innovations hook, line and sinker. They did so without realizing the divergent path this represented. It might have begun with a subtle change of focus, but the difference in final outcomes is huge. We have gone from from a question of “Is it Christlike?” to “Is it biblical?” and many of us don’t even know why that’s a problem.

Our ancestors might have been radical followers of Jesus. Yet, most of us, despite our additional Mennonite packaging and a little Anabaptist flair, added back in to make us feel special about ourselves, are plain old biblical fundamentalists.

What is biblical fundamentalism?

It is a new idea. It is a conservative Protestant reaction to modernism. It is a hermeneutical system that reimagines “Word of God” to be a book to be read rather than something far more dynamic and alive. It turns belief in Jesus into a process of finding a code of ethics in Scripture and creating doctrine — but misses the essence of what it means to truly follow him.

Biblical fundamentalism is an extension of a Protestant idea. In fundamentalism, the religious experience is centered on Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) and neglects a large swath of Christian tradition. It is a heresy only possible since the invention of the printing press. Before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, in 1440, and widespread literacy, it would have been a hard sell to convince people that God’s Word came to the masses primarily in book form.

Fundamentalists have literally deified a book; they made it an object of worship and yet have irrationally thrown aside the institution of the church that delivered it to them. They have essentially made Holy Scripture a coequal part of the Trinity, synonymous with Jesus Christ, usually at the expense of the Holy Spirit and almost always at the expense of church unity. If we look at the long-term results, the fruit of the Protestant reformation has undeniably been the the fracturing of the church into smaller and smaller bits.

The Scripture-alone view has led to many bizarre interpretations of the text and a hyper-individualism that makes our unbelieving neighbors seem forbearing and cooperative by comparison. It has led to a religion characterized by legalism and dogmatism. Making the Bible into an infallible object has led to weird fixations on particular translations, like KJV-onlyism, that make no sense considering that the original text wasn’t written in old English.

In many cases biblical fundamentalists are simply conservatives stubbornly reading their own preconceived ideas back into the text (or proof-texting) rather than taking an honest and open Berean approach.

Fundamentalism started out of fear and as a defensive posture against higher criticism and modernism. It is limited because it is based on assumptions that are wrongly taken as infallible truths.

It is a religious perspective that never leads to unity or true brotherhood because it is based on personal interpretation rather than a collective and historical understanding through the church body. In Protestantism, everyone has become his own pope and his own individual understanding of the Bible his only god.

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

Anabaptism quickly lost its way after a good start. It soon devolved from radical faith that challenged everything into a religious tradition that couldn’t be questioned. But despite that, it maintained a distinct community ethic and (after reigning in violent factions) developed a strong peace witness. Ideas like nonconformity and nonresistance were passed down as a teleological “who we are” rather than a theological argument.

However, that “who we are” was too often missing the spiritual component that inspired it. As a result, many Mennonites over the past few centuries started to look for energy from outside of the Anabaptist tradition. Protestant movements that led to biblical fundamentalism have long had an appeal to conservative-minded Mennonites. Pietism, revivalism and biblical fundamentalism have all breathed life into what had become dead orthodoxy. But these movements did not share the same theological underpinnings of original Anabaptism. And, instead of helping, they have further eroded the Mennonite community, as many splits since then bear witness.

Biblical fundamentalism took root in the Mennonite culture when the longtime standard of the Schleitheim Confession (established in 1527) was supplemented in 1921. The adoption of “Christian Fundamentals” represented a dramatic change of thinking from anything truly Anabaptist. It mirrored the polemic (or apologetic) style of the Protestant theologians and borrowed language from their work “The Fundamentals” which is the basis of ‘Christian’ fundamentalism. The shift in priorities is clear, we went from a more practical lived-out ideal to an argumentative obsession with our “doctrines” and a new fixation on a particular brand of biblical literalism.

Our more scholarly and fighting approach has backfired. The Mennonite church has split multiple times along “conservative” and “liberal” lines since then, both sides using their own interpretation of the Bible as their basis and coming out at different conclusions. Our going from a perspective that prioritized loving submission to each other to one that elevates an individual’s own (personal, dogmatic and inerrant) interpretation of Scripture has not worked well for us. It continues to bear the same fruit of division in our denomination as it did in Protestantism in general.

Sadly, we have increasingly farmed out the discipleship duties of the church brotherhood to “Bible institutes” and foolishly turned to fundamentalist icons like Bill Gothard, Michael Pearl or Ken Ham for our understanding of Scripture. And worse, while a liberal arts education is viewed as a potential pitfall, biblical fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones (where racial segregation was enforced until the 1990s) and Liberty University (whose founder gave his full-throated endorsement to a divisive and immoral political candidate) are not seen as dangerous.

Why?

Because we have become something different from what we claim to be.

Fundamentalist indoctrination has now become woven into the fabric of our Mennonite experience and is indistinguishable from our authentic Anabaptist heritage to most born into our denomination. We teach our children lyrics like: “The B-I-B-L-E, now that’s the book for me, I stand alone, on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” or “I love the Bible, I love the Bible, I love the Bible, it is the word of God.” That is cringe-worthy when you consider those songs are fundamentalist propaganda with little basis in Scripture and are priming a child’s confirmation bias for life.

In their embrace of fundamentalism, conservative Mennonites have lost the fight for the soul of Anabaptist tradition. Many of have confused the fundamentalism of the past century with a “third way” Anabaptist heritage and are fooled into thinking they are winning the war when they are actually fighting for the other side. In reality, while we think we are still Anabaptists, we have been invaded and conquered by our former persecutors.

How was authentic Anabaptism different?

True Anabaptism, while having very high regard for the Holy Scripture, understood the importance of community of faith and attempted an orthodoxy around simple obedience to the instructions of Jesus. It was Christocentric rather than bibliocentric, meaning that the words of Scripture were to be illuminated through the life of Christ and via the Spirit. The focus, as a result, was less on theological navel-gazing and more on living true evangelical faith or real-world application.

Gelassenheit, or the idea of self-surrender and resignation to God’s will, meant submission to the body of believers. Early Anabaptists understood the importance of community of faith, the part that community (and discipleship) played in salvation of the individual, and taught that faith produces a practical change in lifestyle.

Fundamentalism, by contrast, puts emphasis on personal experience, stresses the importance of dutiful Bible reading, takes a cerebral (modernist) approach to understanding Biblical text and often gets mired in the theoretical.

Authentic Anabaptism was more teleological than it was deontological in that it was more about just “being” rather than it was interested in creating theology or a system of rules. While fundamentalism reduces Jesus to the level of Moses, a man trying to establish a code of ethics and a new doctrinal framework as a means to salvation, the Anabaptist perspective was to take emphasis away from the individual, to place an individual in a community of faith (representative of God’s kingdom) and then practicing love toward each other. It was less “the Bible says so” (supported by a position paper) and more “this is what we are,” using spiritual fruit as evidence.

Our Old Order brethren still carry on at least the vestiges of an Anabaptist perspective with their focus on maintaining a community of faith. That, at very least, provides them with some stability and a little protection from being blown hither and thither by the winds of doctrine. I can see this in my Amish coworkers who exhibit a simple practical faith as if it is breathing for them. Sure, they might not loudly proclaim themselves “born again” or be able to give a detailed explanation of every practice, but they do have something we as modern “conservative” Mennonites have lost.

Modern Mennonites, like other fundamentalists, are taught to depend on themselves and take an extremely individualistic approach to matters of faith. We do not see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers (other than to argue with them in men’s Sunday school class) and are quick to split over what we see as “more biblical” based on our own personal interpretation. We have lost the concept of the body of Christ (and our being the incarnation together) that once made us unique.

Why has Anabaptism failed?

Anabaptism started on the right track, but subsequent generations have abandoned what was a teleological (and Spirit-led) faith for something manufactured, deontological and fundamentalist. Sure, we have more theological knowledge than ever, but we lack spiritual wisdom to contextualize, comprehend or properly apply what we know.

It is bizzare that we cling to fundamentalist innovations of the past century as if all truth depended on it (things like revival meetings, Sunday school, modern eschatological interpretations and Creationism) yet neglect the richer traditions of the church. Even our Amish brethren celebrate important days on the Christian calendar (Pentecost and Ascension Day) that are forgotten by most of us. Anabaptism has failed, in part, because it separated itself from the greater cloud of witnesses and universal church that together represent the body of Christ.

We failed also because we, like many religious fundamentalists today, study the Bible thinking a book alone can lead us and this is a complete rejection of the means that Jesus said would be provided for those who believe. Jesus promised that we would have the Holy Spirit to “teach us all things” and stressed living in simple obedience through those means — with loving submission to each other as something central. That is something quite different from a mental assent to a bunch of religious doctrines or dogmas.

We fail because we face backward toward our ancestors as if they hold the answers for today and forget that those before us looked forward, full of the Spirit. They did not dwell in the past. Instead, they were dependent on each other and had Christ as their head. We should not be trying to recreate their movement or looking for fundamentals. We should instead be in full and sincere pursuit of faith as they were.

What to do?

We would do well to be humble about our heritage, consider the fallibility of our own inherited base assumptions, and reach for an understanding broader, deeper and richer than our own. Yes, being a Mennonite is as good a place to start as any other, but it cannot be where we remain or it leads to spiritual stagnation.

Living faith fossilized into mere Biblical fundamentals is no better than the dead orthodoxy or the faithless modernism it was supposed to protect against. Faith is something that is supposed to be lived out while moving boldly in a direction and is not something reducible to a set of theological propositions.

Joel Stoltzfus of Milton, Pa., grew up in a Keystone Mennonite Fellowship congregation and now attends an Eastern Orthodox church. He blogs at Irregular Ideation, where this post first appeared.


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  • Berry Friesen

    Very interesting essay. I am glad Stoltzfus has found a spiritually vital home with the Eastern Orthodox. I agree that sometimes we Mennonites have looked in the wrong places when borrowing spiritual vitality. Three reservations came to mind as I read.

    (1) The essay’s arguments are too categorical and in some instances contradictory. For example, consider this sentence, written by an author who repeatedly criticizes Mennonites for being schismatic: “Yes, being a Mennonite is as good a place to start as any other, but it cannot be where we remain or it leads to spiritual stagnation.”

    (2) I don’t understand why Stoltzfus has a problem with Moses, the man who led the ancient Hebrews to a communal identity as “a kingdom of priests.”

    (3) Fundamentalism often embodies the individualism of Western liberal culture, as Stoltzfus says, but why in this essay is there no reference to the part of the Western church that has embraced individualism most enthusiastically: progressive Protestants?

    • Edward Pearce

      I don’t think the problem is with Moses. The problem is with those fundamentalists who would reduce Jesus to another Moses, and promote the Bible to Messiah.
      Edward Pearce

      • Berry Friesen

        Thank you for your answer, Edward. Jesus styled his ministry after Moses’ in many ways. It would be silly to try to drive a wedge between them, which is what Stoltzfus tries to do. And yes, both Jesus and Moses called forth a community of witness, one inspired by the spirit of YHWH and evidenced by counter-cultural behavior and norms. So when Stoltzfus tries to confuse those realities with his many words, I see a red flag: be careful here.

  • Helena Unruh

    Very comprehensive. I wish you had a “layman’s” version for Holdemans who do not have the education to fully understand this. Oh see now I do see you linked the harder words.
    It would be interesting to read more reasons for the “splits” that you write of. Good job.

  • Maretta Hershberger

    I grew up in a small, rural (and pretty conservative) Mennonite community, and I remember that when I eventually went to seminary and actually studied Anabaptist theology, I was astonished to realize that I had not grown up Anabaptist at all, but more of a weird mix of fundamentalism/evangelicalism with plain clothes thrown in. I am no longer Mennonite, but everything you have written resonates. Thank you for putting it all into words. – Maretta Hershberger

  • Loren Yoder

    As I read different authors, it is interesting how the idea keeps coming up that we take the Bible too literally or we lift it up too high. Why is that? What is the purpose behind this? I can’t help but wonder if satan is trying to put doubt in peoples minds so everyone can “decide” for themselves what is truth.

    • Wilbur H. Entz

      You are so very correct, Loren! The fact that Stoltzfus does not give the Bible proper authority tells us his theology is fundamentally flawed. It is this kind of theology that does not take the 1st chapter of the Bible, i.e. Genesis 1, literally. It also does not take the better theologians such as Luther and Jonathan Edwards seriously enough.

      • Loren Yoder

        Yes, Wilbur, we are on a precarious path that could very well affect eternity for many people. May God’s mercy call us back to settled truth.

  • Edward Pearce

    Not being Mennonite, I can not comment on Joel Stoltzfus’ piece, except to say that it sounds entirely believable. Having grown up Methodist, and having spent the past 35 years of my life as a Quaker, I know the same phenomenon occurs among other groups. It is not just that the views of people in any given group morph over time, but those who make the greatest claims that they are holding true to the founders are the ones who are shifting the fastest.
    I think Paul knew what he was talking about when he said in 2 Corinthians 3: 6 that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.—-Edward Pearce

    • Veronica Zundel

      That 2 Corinthians quote is so very relevant for the Protestant, especially evangelical, churches today.

    • Rainer Moeller

      The Quakers are spiritualists, but have split just as often as the Mennonites – with other words, fundamentalism is not the cause of the splittings.
      On the other hand, the Mennonites – even if fundamentalists – have been much more impressive in practical life, as representants of self-sufficiency and menial/manual support. (Quakers, as I admit, were admirable in a more “negative” way, by not participating in the public sins of the time.)

  • James H. Little

    I am very glad to see this being discussed. I think as a church we have lost our luster. I believe our founders looked to a need to reform the church to it’s state before Constantine paganized and statenized Christianity.

  • Rainer Moeller

    Whatever Anabaptists have been – all of them since around 1700 have found a way to boycott the pagan cult of modernity (and insofar of “the world”). There are a lot of different ways to do this. Some cling to hooks and eyes, others cling to a “literal” interpretation of biblical texts. At any case, both are admirable for their standoffishness against modernism.

  • Veronica Zundel

    You are absolutely spot on here. A few years ago I searched online for Mennonite churches in Austria. I found six church websites and not a single one mentioned peace. A couple of weeks ago, as part of a series of ‘Reformation 500’ talks in Canterbury, England, I gave a talk on Anabaptist hermeneutics which made exactly the points you are making here, finishing with the Hans Denck quote ‘I hold the Holy Scriptures above all human treasures, but not so highly as the Word of God’. Do email me at vez@makewrite.demon.co.uk if you would like to see a copy.

  • Conrad Hertzler

    I have read this argument from Joel on another social media forum as well. I, too, see a danger in Anabaptists becoming too fundamentalist in their approach to Christianity and Scripture. However, unlike Joel, I do not reject biblicism in favor of experientialism as he seems apt to do. I don’t find the song “The B-I-B-L-E” to be cringeworthy as Joel does. The Bible is our standard and the Bible reveals to us who Jesus is and was, and the example that He gave us to follow. When Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will “lead you into all truth”, I would be cautious about claiming that promise as one for all of us to follow as the Apostles did. The Holy Spirit does reveal truth to us but only as it is supported by Scripture. We do live in community and learn from one another. Again, this is something that is commanded and supported by Scripture and I would never accept something as truth from my brother which contradicts that which Scripture has already stated. By no means to I advocate that our Anabaptism should be defined by a set of rules, but I urge us to never lose our high view of Scripture.

  • Bill Rushby

    “Stoltz”: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

  • Gene Mast

    It is a bit of an over generalization to say an entire group of people believe one thing or another, our own perceptions being projected onto our subject. This piece sounds like nothing so much as the sort of dismissal of where one came from before they were enlightened, that you often get from people who reject their origins. The logic escapes me whereby one concludes that since the Mennonite conservatism of one’s youth is insufficiently faithful to Anabaptism, deserting that particular stream of Christianity for Eastern Orthodox or the Protestantism of the Lutherans makes any sense. If you have concluded that Anabaptist thought is in error, fine, make your case. If you think one particular group has strayed past the point of being worthy of support, leave. But why is it necessary to denigrate a group for a lack of faithfulness to a philosophy when moving to a group that makes no effort whatsoever to adhere to that peculiar manifestation of faith? I am not terribly familiar with the Charity group, and perhaps idolatry is their policy, though I sincerely doubt it, but from where I sit the greater danger is the tendency to down play the importance of scripture in favor of personal revelation, which allows one to pretty much make it up as you go along.

    It seems unreasonable to insist that every children’s ditty contain every aspect of faith, with every nuance in emphasis practiced by a particular group. A song can make a point while not making every point. I also fail to get terribly upset by the adoption of Sunday School, really failing to see it as a sign of our progress down the slippery slope to abject apostasy.