Why I Am Mennonite, Matt R Rittenhouse, April 1999 (United States)
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Anabaptism has been through many changes and transformations over the last 500 years. From the time of Luther and Zwingli to present day evangelists Anabaptism has changed along with the world, yet has kept a safe distance away from the world. Mennonite values present themselves as a modern day compromise of Anabaptism. Standards of Anabaptism are next to impossible to uphold in a modern day society. Today's standard of living would demand too much from an original Anabaptist. There are too many insecurities in the world that we must have insured.
Safety and well being of individuals and family must be considered, without financial security these are hard to guarantee. I sometimes question whether this is a matter of security or a lack of faith. Throughout the Middle Ages Mennonites had no security. This was during times of suffering and massacre, yet Anabaptism survived due to persistence of faith. Keep in mind that culture was completely different in the Middle Ages. In present day there are no such issues as there were then. In America we have freedom of religion. We are free from persecution from society and government. We are part of a commercialized economy in an industrious world. Being a Mennonite today is much different than a being Mennonite in the Middle Ages. We must look to our past, both heritage and doctrine, and apply it to modern day needs, issues and desires. As we discover our heritage and understand their beliefs we must choose whether we agree with those beliefs or discard them and find a faith that is appropriate.
My own understanding of being Mennonite resulted from understanding the past and viewing myself as Mennonite in the present day society. I was raised Mennonite, as were both my parents. As I matured, I learned to form my own opinions and place value on what I had been taught. I held onto ideas that I felt were correct and let go of those that do not apply. As I have studied the history and doctrine of Anabaptism and Mennonites, I have come to understand myself as a Mennonite today. James Urry, author of None But Saints, begins by stating, "Mennonites are the heirs to the Anabaptist movement of the Reformation." Anabaptism was conceived in the early to mid 1520s in southern Germany and Switzerland. Leaders such as Luther, Zwingli, and Sattler deserve respectable credit as fathers of the Anabaptist movement. They were labeled as Anabaptists because of their rejection of infant baptism. Mennonites then received their name from Menno Simons.
Anabaptists and Mennonites suffered years of persecution. As means of escape they traveled throughout Europe. As a result of this traveling the Anabaptist faith was spread throughout Germany, Switzerland, and into Russia. By no means did they have the majority, but Anabaptism was rising. Eventually freedom of religion was granted in some countries and the Mennonites could come out from their shelter. They could openly practice their beliefs and doctrine without public persecution.
According to Harold S. Bender, author of The Anabaptist Vision, there were three points that were prominently emphasized by the Anabaptists that set them apart from other religions. The first is new ideals upon the essence of discipleship as a Christian. This involves strictly modeling ones life after Christ. There is to be an "outward expression of the inner experience." Faith alone will not save one's soul, one's actions must make others aware of the grace of God.
The second point of the new Anabaptist vision was a focus a new concept of church. This involved adult baptism, nonconformity and community. First of all baptism must be a decision made as an adult. The conscientious decision must be made to follow Christ. This can not be possible as an infant, for they can not understand the meaning of Christianity.
The principle of nonconformity regards setting oneself apart from the rest of the world. Conrad Grebel is quoted as saying, "True Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter." Christians are humble individuals with an evil environment surrounding them. Anabaptists also practiced a strong sense of community. This involved sharing possessions and always helping those in need anyway possible. For some this involved communal living, others it meant a common welfare system and sharing.
The third and final point that Bender mentions is the practice of love and nonresistance. This is an understanding to refuse all forms of warfare and violence. Instead, one is to forgive and find other forms to resolve confrontation other than violence. This also involves modeling one’s life after Christ. Christ did not use acts of violence towards others, therefor Anabaptists do not use violence.
It is around these three points that I build my personal basis of understanding of what it means to be Mennonite. As I stated before, Mennonites are a modern day compromise of Anabaptists. The world around us has simply changed too much for us to live as Anabaptists did in the Middle Ages. We are not given these “opportunities” to face persecution and undergo suffering as witness to the Lord. Society has changed and there is no reason that one should suffer as in the past. As far as the economy and providing just enough goods, rather than for profit, we need that financial security today. It is these Anabaptist characteristics that Mennonites have chosen to leave aside, and make a compromise between the world and Anabaptism.
Regarding discipleship, I believe that I am to model my life after Christ. I am to reflect upon his example in everyday living. I apply this to relationships with friends, family, strangers and especially God. Bender claims that “following” was most important to the Anabaptists. Faith is essential, but “following” is the part that requires breaking out of one’s comfort zone and being able to publicly stand strong in the Lord. It is easy to have faith if there is little confrontation with outside society. This is along the same idea that David Joris had, with his introduction of Nicodemism. He promoted the idea that it is acceptable to lie about your beliefs as long as your inner faith remained strong. This was to avoid persecution and execution. The situation is not as drastic today in that we will not face death for our beliefs, but we are still a minority. There are still temptations to relate to the outside world and step over the fine line of what is acceptable as a Mennonite. With faith in Christ I am able to stand firm by my beliefs. As we stand by our beliefs our hearts are burden free. If we are honest in hearts, God will read our hearts and be aware of our true discipleship.
Bender’s second point was that of the church and being a part of that church community. The issue of baptism is addressed here. I believe as the Anabaptist/Mennonite doctrine states, that baptism should be as an adult, or as a conscious decision based on an understanding of Christianity. If an individual is not aware of the commitment they are making to Christ, that commitment is insignificant. An honest, sincere assurance must be made to Christ that you are willing to follow God's will and carry out His work here on Earth.
A strong sense of community and fellowship is addressed in this topic of church as well. As we are baptized into the church we are then a part of a close family with God as our Father, not only our creator. In this community we are all brothers and sisters, and act as a family does. When there is need for aid we lovingly offer it to whoever may need it. When one is hurting, the congregation as a whole feels pain. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. I appreciate the sense of community the Mennonite church offers. It gives a sense of belonging and close friendship that is not evident in the outside world where self and individualism is promoted.
A third ethic that is a part of the Mennonite doctrine that I relate with is that of peace and nonresistance. Christ demonstrates patience, kindness and understanding. As Mennonites we are to handle confrontations rationally and with out the use of violence and warfare. In today's world with hunger for power and profit, violence is a way of life that has proved acceptable by societal standards. As a Mennonite I oppose those standards and stand strong in my stance against the use of violence. I do believe that my stance is not only because of the fact that I have been brought up as Mennonite, but it is a genuine instinct to resolve conflicts without the use of violence. In conclusion Mennonites are a result of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptist heritage played a significant role in developing the Mennonite doctrine to the point at which it stands today. Being Mennonite is not only following patterns that have already been laid, simply because they were given as order. We must choose to do what feels right on our hearts. I often pose the question to myself, if I was not Mennonite would I act the way I do. I believe that my natural instincts are parallel to that of my faith and I do not have to rely on what I have been taught, but rather I agree with what I have been taught.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.
- James Urry, None But Saints, (Canada: Hyperion Press Limited, 1989), 34.
- Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944), 20.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 21.