"The more I learn about George Fox, the less I like him...!"
Pastor Bob uttered that comment with a wry smile on his face and the congregation uttered a slight chuckle. But he wasn't kidding. Some things he found in his own personal study about George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends (more commonly known as Quakers) had rubbed Bob the wrong way. Perhaps it was the fact that the strident, illustrious George Fox used to break up whole church services by arguing with people over where he saw them as wrong. Maybe Bob was originally attracted to "The Quakers' denunciation of ministers and public officials and their refusal to pay tithes or take oaths" and liked the revolutionary aspects thereof, only to find out later that Fox held to a strict inward Puritan morality and opposed drinking and the arts. Whatever the reason, there's a delicious irony to Pastor Bob's public honest regarding his discomfort with Fox: It came during Bob's tenure as a Senior Pastor of a Friends Church.
Anabaptist/Mennonites do not seem to have quite as colorful a figure in their background as the Quakers have in George Fox. Speaking for myself, as one who was saved in an Evangelical branch of Quakerism and who now attends a Mennonite church, I've not noticed that any of the early Anabaptist writers enjoy the same popularity & familiarity within and without their own sect the way George Fox does. (Quakers, along with Mennonites and Brethren, are collectively known as the historic Peace Churches.) Perhaps it's partly because the closest thing to George Fox that ever emerged would be individuals like George Blaurock, who wound up burned at the steak and left very little in the way of a written legacy!
Pastor Bob's tenure was marked by controversy and turmoil. He eventually earned himself a reputation as something of a Liberal: skepticism over the historical accuracy of The Bible, a tendency to focus more on psychology than Biblical Preaching, a general rejection of the literal existence of Demonic powers. And a firestorm rocked the congregation when it was proposed by certain individuals that the church should host a "Gay and Lesbian" group. As time went on, the little congregation dwindled down to its smallest attendance in recent history. Eventually, Bob would decide pastoring was not his calling and resign his post as a minister of the Friends Church.
It's too bad really, that more people who aspire similarly to work among Mennonites don't familiarize themselves with their rich history and heritage the way Bob did so with George Fox. Perhaps they would come to similar conclusions, that "the more I know them, the less I like them." In fact, let me be be so bold as to assert: some individuals should decide they don't have much in common with the Anabaptists and move on.
Anabaptism today seems to host a plethora of different theological identities that are disaffected with the mainstream Church at large. There are those on the Liberal side, attracted to the aura of "hipness" in being a Mennonite and the Progressive Social concern that comes with it. These are the ones most likely to openly question certain commonly held views, such as whether Homosexuality as a sin. There are those on the more Conservative side who identify themselves as Anabaptist, and are characterized by rigid Biblicism, the practise of strict holiness & discipleship, a skepticism of voting and Government sponsored Social Welfare, and a healthy dose of Hyper-Patrtiarchialism. Both sides share in common a view that much of Evangelicalism has been given over to an idolatry of materialism, militarism, and an obsession with bizarre Bible Prophecy theories.
I propose that both the two identified schools of thought above contain elements of them that do intersect with Classical Anabaptism, but both contain elements that Anabaptists should purge themselves of, in order to survive in the 21st century as a viable force. The following discussion will explain why.
Modern-day Liberalism seems very attracted to Mennonites due to their holding to pacifism and the simple life. Howard Loewen, a former Prof at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary once related to me that the World Council of Churches had asked the different Historic Peace churches to submit statements on Peacemaking for the WCC historical archives (even though Mennonite Brethren don't participate in the WCC). Personally, I think that's wonderful! I wouldn't think twice if it were me as far as cooperating with such a request. But here's the rub: it was the more Liberal leaning WCC that made the request. More mainstream Evangelical groups have been slow to grasp the value of Peace Churches and their legacy. What happens when the dialogue goes so much in that direction, to where we seem to be in dialogue with Liberals but not so much with Evangelicals? You probably get the results I've experienced in encounters with different online Mennonite groups wherein they espouse a view of Jesus as being about "love peace & tolerance" -which he certainly was- and leave out the demand for discipleship, the heralding of the Kingdom of God, and the prophetic utterance of the impending destruction of evildoers, all of which were also indicative of the ministry of Christ.
Such lofty views of Christianity that has churches throwing out their Holiness distinctives and embracing a more inclusive policy of "welcoming" that questions no ones lifestyle, is speaking a different language from our Anabaptist forebears. Consider this item in the very first formal document of Anabaptist doctrine, the Shleitheim Confession of Faith:
Article II:We have been united as follows concerning the ban
We have been united as follows concerning the ban. The ban shall be employed with all those who have given themselves over to the Lord, to walk after [Him] in His commandments; those who have been baptized into the one body of Christ, and let themselves be called brothers or sisters, and still somehow slip and fall into error and sin, being inadvertently overtaken. The same [shall] be warned twice privately and the third time be publicly admonished before the entire congregation according to the command of Christ (Mt. 18). But this shall be done according to the ordering of the Spirit of God before the breaking of bread, so that we may all in one spirit and in one love break and eat from one bread and drink from one cup.
Far from a mushy, "sloppy-agape'" approach to "inclusiveness", the Schleitheim confession called for removal of unrepentant sinning Christians! But don't miss the rationale given therein: They were supposed to administer this purge before they took communion and for the purpose of unity of all the congregation "But this shall be done according to the ordering of the Spirit of God before the breaking of bread, so that we may all in one spirit and in one love break and eat from one bread and drink from one cup." Unity in a pure walk with God was the goal, and dispelling the unrepentant from their midst was seen as instrumental to achieving this unity.
Or consider a latter Anabaptist voice, that of Pilgram Marpeck, who wrote in his "Expose of the Babylonian Whore" many such strident denunciations as the following:
"Since the evidence of our eyes, our experience, and the witness of Scripture which sufficiently discloses itself through the action and favour of God, and which is now also understood through the events which are everywhere unfolding according to the Word of the Lord, all of God's creatures should tremble and be afraid of the stern judgement of God on his awesome day which is to come (Isa. 24[:21ff.]; Jon. 2[:?], 3[:4], Zeph. 1[:7-18], 2[:2], 3[:8]). The fact that the ruined, sodomitic, perverted, abandoned, and seductive world does not comprehend this nor show any fear means that the Scripture in the Lord's Word is even now being fulfilled where it says that in the time of Lot and Noah they ate and drank, married and gave in marriage without any alarm, until they were altogether destroyed (Luke 17[:26-30]).
"Already the world overflows with the evil that once lay hidden in the mystery of wickedness. This mystery is now being exposed through her own shame, just like a secret adulteress who for a long time deceived her husband under a false cloak of pious faithfulness and has now quite brazenly gone public. She has assumed all the wiles of a whore in order to seduce and deceive others with her thousand-fold cunning and skill. The whole world is now full of error and seduction, and all generations on earth are drunk with the wine of fornication, Rev. 18[:3]. Only a few are shocked and have struggles of conscience from which the pure fear of God and true insight flow."
Hear an example of what the founder of the people known collectively as Mennonites, Menno Simons says in several places, here being his treatise on Sincere and True Repentance:
"Therefore awake, and behold the doings of the world. On every hand you see nothing but sensuality, wine bibbing, infernal pride, lying, fraud, avarice, hatred, strife, adultery, fornication, war, murder, hypocrisy, open blasphemy, idolatry, and false worship, Hos. 4:11; Mic. 6:14; Gal. 5:19 21; in short, nothing but a powerful persecution of all that God teaches, commands and enjoins. Who can relate the terrible and alarming condition of the world at the present time? yet they (the wicked) want to<> call themselves the holy christian church. Oh, no! they who do such things, saith Paul, shall. not inherit the kingdom of God, 1. Cor. 6:.9,10; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:5. Oh, ye men awake and see for yourselves, for thus saith the word of the Lord, Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye be born from above ye shall not see the kingdom of God, Jn. 3:3. Also, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," Jn. 3:5, and again, " Verily, I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," Matt. 18:3. What does it ,profit to speak much of Christ and his word, if we do not believe him, and obey his commandments? Again, I say, awake and banish the accursed unbelief with all unrighteousness from your hearts, and live a pious, penitent life, according to the scriptures; for Christ says, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish," Luke 13:5. Here do not understand such repentance as is taught and practiced by an erring world, which consists only in an outward appearance and human righteousness, such as hypocritical fastings, pilgrimages, praying and reading Pater Nosters and Ava Marias, hearing frequent masses, auricular confessions, and the like hypocrisies which Christ and his apostles did in no wise teach and command. Hence it cannot be a propitiatory sacrifice, but rather will be a provocation, and tend to excite the divine displeasure."
But taking things a step further, we should consider one other aspect of Early Anabaptism, that of the willingness to die under persecution. What does it take for one to be able to love ones enemies and be willing to be drowned or burned at the stake for one's beliefs? Well it takes a work of the Spirit for sure. But what does all that entail? It's especially poignant to consider this question at this point in time, as the week I'm writing this, the death of several Amish schoolchildren in Lancaster County, PA has been in the news. The media has certainly not missed the Amish people's willingness to extend forgiveness in the face of tragedy. (At the same time, very little has been said regarding the fact that they got those ethical directives from Christ himself.)
I would like to call this characteristic of people who are able to forgive their enemies a Biblical Naivete, for want of a better term. By that I mean, if they could display a bumper sticker slogan that has been popular in contemporary times it would be "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!" And they didn't seem to have any problem with believing that all of the Bible is from God, as even a sample reading of some Anabaptist Primary Documents will show.
Believing that suffering for the Gospel is something we can and must do, is a thing that can only be accomplished by faith- faith in the Work of the Spirit, and Faith in the Bible as the Word of God. What would happen to the witness of these people if they for even one minute allowed themselves to entertain notions like those of The Jesus Seminar, or any other similar questioning entity? Well the answer is obvious, they would have given up long before they got to being burned at the stake.
Let Harold S. Bender in his renown Anabaptist Vision summarize these people for us:
"The dreadful severity of the persecution of the Anabaptist movement in the years 1527-60 not only in Switzerland, South Germany, and Thuringia, but in all the Austrian lands as well as in the Low Countries, testifies to the power of the movement and the desperate haste with which Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian authorities alike strove to throttle it before it should be too late.
"Finding, therefore, that the customary method of individual trials and sentences was proving totally inadequate to stem the tide, the authorities resorted to the desperate expedient of sending out through the land companies of armed executioners and mounted soldiers to hunt down the Anabaptists and kill them on the spot singly or en masse without trial or sentence. The most atrocious application of this policy was made in Swabia where the original 400 special police of 1528 sent against the Anabaptists proved too small a force and had to be increased to 1,000. An imperial provost marshal, Berthold Aichele, served as chief administrator of this bloody program in Swabia and other regions until he finally broke down in terror and dismay, and after an execution at Brixen lifted his hands to heaven and swore a solemn oath never again to put to death an Anabaptist, which vow he kept. The Count of Alzey in the Palatinate, after 350 Anabaptists had been executed there, was heard to exclaim, 'What shall I do, the more I kill, the greater becomes their number!'
"The extensive persecution and martyrdom of the Anabaptists testify not only of the great extent of the movement but also of the power of the vision that burned within them. This is most effectively presented in a moving account written in 1542 and taken from the ancient Hutterian chronicle where it is found at the close of a report of 2,173 brethren and sisters who gave their lives for their faith.
"No human being was able to take away out of their hearts what they had experienced, such zealous lovers of God were they. The fire of God burned within them. They would die the bitterest death, yea, they would die ten deaths rather than forsake the divine truth which they had espoused....
"They had drunk of the waters which had flowed from God's sanctuary, yea, the water of life. They realized that God helped them to bear the cross and to overcome the bitterness of death. The fire of God burned within them. Their tent they had pitched not here upon earth, but in eternity, and of their faith they had a foundation and assurance. Their faith blossomed as a lily, their loyalty as a rose, their piety and sincerity as the flower of the garden of God. The angel of the Lord battled for them that they could not be deprived of the helmet of salvation. Therefore they bore all torture and agony without fear. The things of this world they counted in their holy mind only as shadows, having the assurance of greater things. They were so drawn unto God that they knew nothing, sought nothing, desired nothing, loved nothing but God alone. Therefore they had more patience in their suffering than their enemies in tormenting them.
"The persecutors thought they could dampen and extinguish the fire of God. But the prisoners sang in their prisons and rejoiced so that the enemies outside became much more fearful than the prisoners and did not know what to do with them."
In times past, Anbaptists were asked to stand for their belief that Christ calls us to live peacefully, even to the point of death. Today in many Mennonite circles another time-worn presuppostion is being challenged in similar fashion: That of seeing Homosexuality as a sin in the eyes of God.
At this point, I am not going to take on the task of defending a particular view of Homosexuality from the texts of Scripture. I reccomend for anyone who wants to delve futher into this topic, please visit the explosive website of Robert Gagnon, who's done tireless, exhaustive, head-above-shoulders scholarship on the Bible's view of same-sex sexual relations. In time, I intend to present my own views on the matter, as I think the question may call for a fresh new paradigm for interpreting the Biblical data on the matter. For now, Gagnon will get you to where I'm going.
But back to the topic at hand: isn't it interesting how the Biblical Naivete of Anabaptists seems to always be under fire? We have been told for centuries of the impracticality of the Sermon on the Mount, of following Christ in the Way of the Cross. Now we are being told how silly, impractical and archaic is the belief in "one man and one woman as the basis for Marriage. But Jesus taught that as well.
Another thing which seem to be pervasive in many Mennonite circles is the tendency to drive a wedge between us and other Christians. Especially those dreaded Evangelicals. Odd, when one considers that Menno Simons himself used that term.
The Seminary I attended is very unique in it's make up. Originally called Western Evangelical Seminary, it was more recently taken over by George Fox Unversity and renamed George Fox Evangelical Seminary. So it was foundned as a Methodist/Evangelical/Wesleyan Holiness school and taken over by a (nominally) Quaker institution. Along the way, it has picked up a lot of different staffmemebers for mdiferent backgrounds. Today you can get your Pastoral Theology from a Lutheran, your Greek taught to you by a Quaker, your Old Tesament from a Free Mehodist, and your Dean of the Seminary is Mennonite Brethern.
Guess what, folks? Rubbing shoulders with other Christians didn't make me lose my Peace and Justice distinctives, start giving money to TBN or vote straight Republican. If anything, I was greatly enriched by the prescence of other persepctives, even as I often (vocally) disagreed with them.
What kind of spirit must be afoot among Mennonites today that seem to be trying to tag Evangelicals with such a broad brush? I presonally believe it's a desire to escape the accountability of the larger church and forge our own path, regardless of the wisdom of such a venture.
Perhaps those who are driving such agendas for the Church to change, need to do what Pastor Bob did: study the roots of their faith and decide whether they really fit that picture at all?
In Part 2 of this essay, I plan to examine the opposite end of the spectrum, that of hardcore Conservativism and how it does or doesn't play in Mennonite Circles.