Nonconformity’s perils

Pride of separatism sacrifices relationships

May 13, 2019 by

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Born from schism as a mark of truest obedience to the Lord, Anabaptists are better at breaking than binding.

When the Reformation didn’t reform enough 500 years ago, Anabaptists went further, many paying the ultimate price: execution at the hands of churches that were indistinguishable from state authorities.

Their deaths purchased a tradition of nonconformity that was carried on by conscientious objectors to war — to name one example — who made decisions not because they were easy but because they were right.

And, though pride is the gravest of sins for Mennonites, the pride we derive from our nonconformity runs deep.

“And be not conformed to this world,” writes Paul in what Christ surely meant to include in the Sermon on the Mount’s appendix (Rom. 12:2).

It’s a bit ironic. Despite the high value we put on fellowship and community — and the mortal dangers of individuality — the non­conformist posture thrust upon us by persecutors was quickly and seamlessly merged into Anabaptist identity.

Be not conformed to the world. Be not conformed to the government. Sure, no problem.

But it can quickly snowball. Be not conformed to the denomination? The conference? Celebrate being at variance?

There are more than 70 Anabaptist groups in the United States. A critic might wonder if Anabaptists can agree on anything. Because we aren’t just called to be unconformed, we must also not be yoked to unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14). Today’s hyperpartisan times don’t need Paul’s help stoking divisions.

Our nonconformity comes naturally, and is biblical, but becomes dangerous when we allow it to frame relationships both personal and ecumenical.

In their April 20 response of forgiveness to government representatives’ 2017 apology, Swiss Mennonites offered a positive example to their North American counterparts when they pledged “to critically assess the consequences of a nonconformist posture.”

“The striving for a life consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ has not always sought for peaceable relations with everyone living in the land,” stated the Swiss Mennonite Conference in a declaration.

At our best, we can reflect the example Christ offered of sacrificial love for others. At other times, it becomes easy to play the passive aggressive victim and check out if we don’t get our way. Jesus may have been a nonconformist, but he also found a way to stay relational.


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