An evaluation of the Anabaptist doctrine of nonconformity

Jan 22, 2020 by

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There’s a weird Anabaptist doctrine I don’t think many millennials understand. It might be one of the biggest obstacles for new believers, and the final straw for those who choose to leave.

This doctrine determines, perhaps more than anything else, how we relate with society at large, the clothes we wear, what we do for entertainment, the music we listen to, what kind of jobs we choose, and even the friends we allow into our lives.

Nonconformity.

Separation from the world.

What every conservative Anabaptist feels at some point in their lives (unless they live on an isolated colony) is that they are distinctly different from everyone else around them. Even other Christians.

Why are conservative Anabaptist different from everyone else, and why will this difference be felt by every conservative Anabaptist at some point in their life?

There are certainly the theological differences, and there are plenty of cultural dynamics. But every religious sect has theological differences. Every subgroup has cultural dynamics.

The doctrine of nonconformity, however, seems expressly focused on outward appearance and uniquely emphasized today by conservative Anabaptists.

This is where we get the idea that we should not wear jewelry, watch movies, drink alcohol, smoke, have medical or life insurance, wear lay-down suits and ties, listen to contemporary music, have long hair, play organized sports and so much more.

We are not to be conformed to this world, so conservative Anabaptists have done their best to distinctly separate themselves from anything worldly.

The reason I don’t think millennials understand this very well is because we as millennial Anabaptists increasingly do more and more “worldly” things.

I think, in part, we do these things because the doctrine of nonconformity has become a permeation of our greater theology. However, we’re rarely taught how anyone derives this doctrine from Scripture, much less how any scriptural references to this doctrine are speaking of specifically external things.

Rather, we simply throw the phrase “we are to be set apart” or “we are not to be conformed to this world” around whenever making decisions.

It’s a strong part of our culture. But I don’t think millennials really know why. And I’ll be honest, if the doctrine of nonconformity is simply suggesting we should not embrace the fashions of this world or enjoy the entertainment other people in the world enjoy — in other words, if this doctrine is all about being noticeably different from the world — I don’t really buy into it either.

But could there be something deeper and even more biblically profound? Could it be this doctrine actually leads to something especially beautiful?

There is a growing sense among my generation that it really doesn’t matter what we do.

It really doesn’t matter what clothes we wear, music we listen to, movies we watch, restaurants we frequent, books we read, sporting events we take in, as long as “my heart is right with God.”

Most of us are probably rolling our eyes even at some of the suggestions I’m giving. We’re tired of so much focus on externals. And I get it. I feel awkward throwing these suggestions out there.

But I’m seeing something happen in my generation that concerns me.
I hear more talk about being “disillusioned with God” among my generation than I did 10 years ago. I’d be tempted to brush it off as the result of getting more experience in life. But as I talk with older folks, I get a clear sense it hasn’t always been this way. According to pollster George Barna, only 10 percent of Christian 20-somethings have resilient faith today.

Not only are people disillusioned with God, they seem to struggle with a lack of clarity about life, have less meaningful relationships and face anxiety over experiences with church. Depression rates in America have been at an all-time high since the turn of the century.

I’m beginning to wonder if it really doesn’t matter what we do.

In our attempt to correct a hyper focus on externals, have we communicated a wrong message that you can do and get into anything and it won’t affect you spiritually, emotionally or mentally?

Could it be that we have created a false dualism within ourselves suggesting that one can watch movies with graphic sex or violent scenes and participate in holidays celebrating the dead without it affecting outlook on life, ability to hear and commune with God, or passion for things that nurture life and disdain for things that harm it?

And could it be that taking in media that tell stories championing values contrary to those God says is best for mankind scars our trust, hinders our understanding, or dismantles our satisfaction in the gifts and experiences God has designed for us?

There was an era of European history where Christianity held political power and drove social trends. We taste this in America because American establishment comes from Europe. It’s acceptable to be Christian, if not still respected.

Unlike most of the Christians around the world, Christians in America have the freedom and ability to develop and popularize their art in music, movies, books, paintings. So in a sense, we still somewhat share the era of history where Christianity has political and social power.

However, it’s different today in that if a Christian pastor loads himself up with all kinds of money from offerings (money laundering) and spends it all on clothing, experiences or vehicles (self-indulgence) people are fairly quick to call him out. The church will probably fire him.

The era in which the doctrine of nonconformity evolved from was not this way. Lay people were not allowed to call out the hypocrisy and immorality of church leaders.

Clergy sold indulgences to the people as a way of decreasing the punishment a person would receive in Purgatory. Pastors made money off of people paying for their sin. The pastors then took that money and lived lavishly while others lived in poverty. Many church leaders were not even born-again believers.

What stood out to the early Anabaptists was that the church is to be made up of committed disciples of Jesus Christ. The only way to purify a church that had already been so infiltrated with unsaved members, then, was for the church to completely separate into its own Christian society.

And so birthed the doctrine of nonconformity. How this looked exactly in a believer’s life or in a church community varied from the Mennonites to the Swiss Brethren to the Hutterites and beyond. In recent years, however, it seems the separation from the world has not been so much about accurately conforming to Christ but about simply looking different.

With every generation there have been new phenomena forcing Anabaptists to clarify again what it means to live separately from the world. They will be forced to reckon with what it means to be conformed into the image of Christ and not into the image of their own selves.

But have we missed something as this doctrine got distilled throughout the generations?

Who is conformed to the world: the 21-year-old who plays softball every Saturday night, or the old bishop who boasts an 80-acre farm with newly renovated milking equipment on a pristine hillside setting for his perfectly painted house?

What’s being more like the world: to think that good works get you into heaven, or to think that not wearing a covering keeps you out?

I think we’ve lost what it truly means to be “set apart from the world.” I think we’ve missed what it means to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

And I think our generation is suffering psychologically from solving the problems of one extra-biblical conclusion with another.

The story of Scripture is all about God inviting people into a relationship with himself where all their security, all their joy, all their hope, all their inner peace, all their identity is found in Yahweh and the life he designed mankind to experience back in Eden.

It’s a story of the human struggle with constantly looking for security, joy, hope, peace and identity in things the gods of this fallen world have provided. Often times, these things are perversions of good gifts Yahweh intended for humanity.

But we’re not sure Yahweh’s gifts will actually fulfill. We don’t trust he can actually supply our need for acceptance, happiness and peace.

So we get a little more stylish haircut or put on a little more makeup. We drive a nicer looking car or build a more admirable house.

We work and work and save and save so we’re never left with the feeling of not being able to possess whatever we might lay eyes on that seems to promise a deeper sense of release, a fuller sense of rest, or a greater sense of self-confidence.

The apostle Paul tells us to “not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of (our) mind, so that (we) may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).

The same plague that haunted Adam and Eve haunts all of humanity through the ages to each of us today.

We become slaves to our work, trusting the stability of steady income instead of accepting our Father’s care for us if we only seek first His kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33).

We immerse ourselves into the noise of media, because the quietness of meditating on God’s Word brings to surface all the insecurities, doubts and emotional and relational conflicts we face on a weekly basis. We’re unconvinced God actually cares, actually is involved, and actually will bring good and peace out of the inner chaos we feel.

The cosmic struggle throughout scripture is over man’s allegiance to Yahweh or gods of this world.

To be conformed to this world is to take on the mindset that we can be God. It is to reach for the idea that we can decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil.

To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is to acknowledge we are not God, we do not decide what is good and what is evil. Yahweh does.

We are not transformed by refusing to wear certain clothes. We are not transformed by saying spiritual prayers. We are not transformed by adhering to a strict set of beliefs. We are not transformed by abstaining from particular foods, activities, or entertainments.

We are transformed by accepting as reality what God calls good and what God calls evil, and allowing it to shape the way we think about this life.

As we think on these things, we have Holy Spirit ability to recognize truth versus lies, whether we’re having a conversation among religious friends or watching a 19-second commercial during Monday Night Football.

Some circles have made an identity out of being plain and opposite of the world. They mistakenly call this being transformed by the renewing of their mind.

Jesus taught that a person is not defiled by what comes into her body, but what comes out of it (Mark 7:18-23). If we’re not careful, we can focus on keeping bad stuff out when trying not to be conformed to the world, all the while allowing bad ways of thinking, relating with people and talking about others to spew out of our innermost being.

Each of us face the choice every day of whether we will accept by faith that Christ has given us peace with God (Rom. 5:1), or reject it and try attaining peace through obedience and good works.

What’s most devastating about obedience and good works motivated by an attempt to gain peace with God is that it warps them into superstitious rituals instead of letting them be genuine acts of worship.

Movies, fashions and activities conform us to the world not because they exist and we partake in them, but because we have bowed to them as the satisfiers of our soul’s deepest needs. But plain suits, homemade jam and black cars will also conform us to the world if we are thinking that through a simpler way of life God bestows a greater blessing.

You and I are broken at the core of our being.

This is why movies, fashion, sports, work or anything we turn to becomes dangerous. If we are more immersed in them then we are in God’s Word, we begin believing their truths, thinking thoughts aligned with their thoughts and not thoughts aligned with God’s.

Jesus has given you peace with God, do you believe it (Rom. 5:1)? Jesus has empowered you to walk in the way of truth and life, will you obey it (Phil. 2:3-13, Eph. 2:1-10)?

Jesus cares so deeply about your wellbeing that he’s given you a letter of how life works best, will you read it (2 Tim. 3:14-17)?

This is what it means to have one’s heart right with God. It’s what it means to not be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of the mind.

Asher Witmer is a husband, father and writer living with his family in Los Angeles where they are members of a Biblical Mennonite Alliance church and he pursues a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi, Calif. He recently published his first book, Live Free: Making Sense of Male Sexuality. This is condensed from a longer version at asherwitmer.com.


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