Mennonite or follower of Christ?

Dec 18, 2017 by

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

If the early Anabaptists were alive today, I am quite certain the Mennonite church would run them out of their congregations.

I realize that’s a pretty strong statement, and not altogether fair. But I’m willing to stand by it nonetheless.

The early Anabaptist leaders, such as Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Michael Sattler and others, began to question the status quo of the institutionalized church. Should the church really baptize infants? Should a believer take oaths or go to war? Even more, they questioned the ruling of a council as being more authoritative than the Spirit’s leading in people’s lives, as was commonly accepted in their day.

Imagine with me: You’re in a church meeting and someone stands up and asks what should be done about such and such. The pastor responds, “The leadership team will decide about that.” Sounds pretty normal, right?

But that’s the type of thing early Anabaptists began questioning.

Should church leaders be able to make whatever rules they want? What if something is being done that is not in Scripture? Do we just go along with it?

These are the questions we are facing today.

Somehow, over the course of a few hundred years, a passionate movement about believer’s baptism and separation from church and state has become a movement of sullen, strict sticklers for coverings and modest clothing. A movement focused on getting back to Jesus has now gotten distracted from Jesus and is primarily focused on maintaining a way of life. At best, we’re trying to get back to early Anabaptism.

But early Anabaptism wasn’t about Anabaptism. It was about Jesus, his Word, and being as faithful to him as possible.

If we are to truly follow in our Anabaptist forefathers’ footsteps, we’d focus again on Jesus; not on Anabaptism.

This is why most people eventually leave Anabaptist churches. Sure, there are those who leave because they are disgruntled in relationships. But from the stories I keep hearing, most people who become dissatisfied with their Anabaptist (or Mennonite) church are so because they feel it’s more about being Mennonite than being a follower of Christ.

Some of us have had relatively good experiences in the Mennonite church (or Anabaptist church at large). We’ve been taught salvation is not by works, but faith alone. Works are the result of our faith (we do make sure to add that on). Our pastors have taught on the Holy Spirit and Its manifestations in the church.

But there is a big difference between prescribed belief and actuality.

What is more important? That a girl wears a one-piece dress that goes to the ankles, or that she comes to know the love God has for her and how good and beautiful and right her sexuality is?

I would hope (and believe) we’d all say the latter is most important. The former may be an appropriate lifestyle application as a result of understanding God’s wonderful intention for her body, but getting the right dress on doesn’t guarantee someone fully comes to know God and his design.

If this is true, and if we actually believed understanding God’s design for our sexuality would help us know how to clothe ourselves in a way that honors his design, why do we spend more time hashing out dress standards than teaching on God’s design for sexuality?

Let me share another example. What is better proof of a Spirit-filled life? That someone dutifully follows the rules of his church, or that he has a deep hunger for Jesus, loves to make music and constantly tells others about what God is doing in his life?

I would hope (and believe) we’d all say the latter is better proof. It may lead someone to be conscientious about what the leaders of his church desire, but any ol’ Joe can obey rules. It takes God’s Spirit to cause someone to worship him.

If we truly believe God’s Spirit within a person will lead him to righteousness, why do we get more concerned when he breaks church rules than when he isn’t responding in surrendered abandon to Christ?

I know far too many young people who are obeying themselves to hell. They’re toeing the line; they’re talking the talk, but they don’t know Jesus. Only, the church isn’t concerned because they’re following the rules.

I realize many who are in Mennonite churches would be concerned for such people. But it’s this kind of thing that causes people to question what we’re really trying to be: Mennonite, or a disciple of Christ?

Should our teaching be founded more on a confession of faith than on Scripture? Then why do we spend so much time reiterating the articles of our confession?

Not that the articles are bad. From what I’ve read, I agree with the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith. But it is incomplete. They are cherry-picked Scriptures. I may never fully understand the historical context that led the leaders in that day to emphasize those Scriptures, but if we truly believe the Bible is God’s Word and is all we need for faith and righteousness, why don’t we spend more time going back to the Bible as opposed to the articles?

And if we truly believe the Bible, why aren’t we more honest with the fact that the Bible itself doesn’t claim to be all we need for faith and righteousness? Jesus is (Rom. 3:22, 2 Tim. 3:15). Jesus made a way for us to live in relationship with God Almighty by the power and continual presence of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8, 1 John 2:27).

I believe for too long the Mennonite church has framed Scripture and other Christians in a way that makes itself look best. Don’t get me wrong; all denominations do this. But since I’m talking about growing up Mennonite, I’m going to talk about the Mennonite church.

Problems arise, however, when people begin experiencing and expressing things beyond what the “council” can control. Just as Grebel with Zwingli, young leaders today are questioning the way the church is run and the beliefs it stands upon.

I remember the first time I went to Bible school. One of my friends there talked about this person who claimed to follow Christ, but didn’t really live a close walk with God. In my mind, I pictured someone sleeping around with different women, not really pursuing a relationship with God, and not a part of any kind of Christian community. But then I met the person, and was a bit shocked.

He looked respectable. His countenance looked as bright as mine or my friend’s. He even went to church; it just wasn’t a Mennonite church. And they believed some things Mennonites don’t believe.

I felt almost lied to.

It wasn’t that this man wasn’t walking with God (I don’t know what his spiritual life was fully like). Rather, it was more that this man was no longer Mennonite.

We have framed the Christian faith in a way that suggests unless a person is Mennonite, or believes the same things Mennonites believe, he is not actually walking with God. But then when someone develops relationships with Christian people outside the Mennonite church and are given more spiritual input and love and life then what they were given in their Mennonite church, they feel lied to. They no longer trust the people they grew up believing.

Why should we blame them? Wouldn’t you struggle to trust if you discovered something actually wasn’t as you were told it was?

These are the reasons why most people leave. They are issues I wrestle with, and if I only looked at this aspect of the Mennonite church, I’d be gone in a heartbeat. But there are a few things that give me pause.

Because of these flaws in the Mennonite church, should one leave? And does it take leaving the Mennonites to become a true disciple of Christ? Are people who leave finding anything better? Why is it better (or why not)?

Asher Witmer is a husband, father and writer living with his family in Los Angeles and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi, Calif. This is the second post in a series about being Mennonite at, where this post first appeared.

Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Berry Friesen

    This essay strikes me as an excellent example of the mistaken premise with which the American churches–conservative and liberal manifestations alike– engage questions of congregational life. Here is that premise: “with the help of the Holy Spirit and those sitting here in this circle, we can come up with a better church than the one we now have.”

    Nothing about joining a transcendent, centuries-old “cloud of witnesses.” Rather, we proceed in the confident assumption that with the invocation of the Spirit and a careful reading of scripture, we can do much better than those who went before us in the faith, notwithstanding the fact that we all (conservative and liberal alike) have been shaped by the wealthiest, most imperial and most individualistic society in human history.

    I am not persuaded.

  • Julia Smucker

    Much of what this is describing is the inevitability of structure – even of institutionalization, though I’m not using that word in a strictly negative sense. I’ve thought much about how counter-institutional movements must eventually either become institutional themselves or die out, and I’m no longer convinced as I would once have been that this is necessarily a bad thing. With our human nature as social creatures comes an inescapable need for structure; we just have to strive to be more faithful within those structures (and yes, this may mean, as in the example given, being less presumptive or gossipy about other people’s spiritual state especially if we don’t know them well, while also holding each other accountable and speaking truth in charity).
    For an extended discussion on the virtue of stability, I recommend Gerald Schlabach’s book Unlearning Protestantism, which is not really what it sounds like but speaks to the practice of what he calls “loyal dissent.” — Julia Smucker

    • Conrad Hertzler

      I think you are right. Asher is writing from his point of view of having grown up in a pretty conservative church. I understand what he is saying because I grew up in the same culture. But it’s not just Mennonites who struggle with trying to put structure in place and not finding themselves elevating that structure above true worship of God. Other denominations do the same thing if they were honest. My wife, a Mennonite, when to a conservative Baptist college and had students coming up to her on a regular basis to present “the plan of salvation” because they noticed she wasn’t Baptist. A bit amusing, but it helped me to see that any issues I have with the Mennonite church are not solved by leaving it and joining a different denomination. The tendency to put our symbols and structure (which can be a good thing) above true worship (not a good thing) has been around for a long time and is not going away any time soon.

  • Walter Bergen

    with respect brother asher, the question is a false dichotomy.
    as menno simons sought to follow Christ, so ought we to do so. we look back on the lives of Peter Riedemann, Hans Hut et al for inspiration as they applied the leading of the Spirit and their reading of Scripture, in unsettled times. They too sought to follow Christ in life, unto death.
    we ought to seek to follow Christ wherever we are. That each of us fails in perfection is a given. That our brothers and sisters fail in this regard is also a given. We are a fellowship of failed saints. The better question is, how shall we seek to obey the commands and embrace the affection of Christ the King in whatever church, denomination and circumstance we find ourselves in.
    I am part of MC Canada. For better, and in these days for worse. But this is my church communion. And I love my communion. And I seek its welfare daily. That I am disappointed in this endeavor is also a given, but the calling is not to seek perfection in performance, but perfection in obedience.
    Hence, I do not seek to leave the communion I am part of, nor do I seek leave to do so. This is my family of faith in which I endeavor to be faithful. I am a follower of Christ in the Mennonite Church. I commend you to find that path for yourself.
    in christian affection

  • Rainer Moeller

    Every religious movement begins with “enthusiasm” – a preference for the unorganized, undisciplined etc. Then this adolescent state of mind leads to frictions (of course, every enthusiast proclaims his own individual religion).

    And then hopefully, the more grown-up members form a new institution. Only then the movement gets its different and peculiar character which hopefully will make visible a peculiar form of Christian life to which people can take refuge.
    You only can take refuge to something which has a peculiar “gestalt” or pattern and where you know what expects you and is expected from you. (But this peculiar gestalt will best be kept up by newcomers who joined the institution just because of its gestalt. Not by the children and grandchildfren of the founders.)

    • Julia Smucker

      I think it needs both: the newcomers and the inheritors. –Julia Smucker