What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Philip Shenk, April 2011
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Ethnically speaking I am a Mennonite. I grew up attending a Mennonite church, my mother was raised in a Mennonite home, and my father was raised in a Mennonite-related denomination. While there are some distinct cultural characteristics of being a North American Mennonite, I believe that truly being Mennonite means the personal adaptation of religious beliefs and practices that are in line with the early Anabaptist reformers. These Anabaptists challenged the assumptions of the longstanding Catholic church and the newly crafted ideas of Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Society, culture, and government have changed significantly from the 16th century and so has the standard of what it means to be a follower of the Anabaptist faith. The Mennonite faith is one expression of what it means to follow in that tradition.
First and foremost I identify myself as a Christian. Belief in God’s love and omnipotence as well the life, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ are the most important things to my faith. These core beliefs are shared by Christians everywhere. However, there are many more issues of faith that are less clear and are disputable amongst Christians. Primarily for this reason denominations are necessary to organize and mobilize Christians according to their interpretation of what it means to be Christian. My religious beliefs are most closely in line with those expressed by the Mennonite denomination. In the following paragraphs I will try to identify those core beliefs which separate Mennonites from other Christians and how I identify or differ with those ideas.
The issue of infant baptism is of core importance to the Mennonite faith and the source of the Anabaptist name. Being Mennonite means believing that following Christ is a conscious choice. This choice should be represented by baptism into the church and can only be made by those old enough to contemplate such issues. This is an idea supported by Scripture and in the life of Christ. Jesus himself was not baptized until an adult. Like the early Anabaptists I believe the practice of infant baptism is not scripturally based and developed through time as a way of conveniently merging state and church interests. We are not Christians by default, living the Christian life requires commitment and discipline and believer’s baptism is a representative of this viewpoint. Baptism by itself is not necessarily life-changing but is a symbol of the change one has experienced in his or her own life. I see my baptism as significant because that was when I made a conscious commitment to Christ in front of my church congregation and family.
The Anabaptist faith identifies with Martin Luther in that we are saved by God’s grace and not by church administered sacraments. However, the Anabaptists pushed this issue further and placed much significance of works as well as faith. When I read the Gospels this is the message that I hear. As humans we will always sin and fall short but we are saved because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. We will never be able to repay Jesus and we must accept this grace offered to us. However, Jesus also commands us to live lives of service, love, and humility and this call must be taken seriously. Growing up in a Mennonite environment I have taken for granted this dual emphasis on salvation and living out the kingdom of God in the present. I have seen this kingdom theology practiced in my own church and other Mennonite churches and for that I am appreciative.
The Mennonite church often references the Sermon on the Mount in determining how to live in a way supportive of the present kingdom of God. Although truth is revealed throughout all of Scripture, I see the Sermon on the Mount as an appropriate point of emphasis as it summarizes the points of Jesus’ ministry and Scripture in general.
One area of emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount is the call to live lives that are separate from this world. For the early Anabaptists this meant facing persecution. For modern Mennonites, this call to be separate from the world is far less threatening but should still be taken seriously. I don’t see the necessity in deliberating creating boundaries with the wider world such as by dressing plainly or rejecting technological devices. Rather we should see this call as reminding us that the values of this world are not always in line with Christ and our primary allegiance should always be to Christ. One way that I see modern Mennonites remaining separate is through an emphasis on community over the individual. Throughout Jesus’ ministry I see an emphasis on not living for self-seeking purposes. We are encouraged to live simply so that we can share our excesses with our neighbors in need. Although different Mennonites have different ideas of what it means to balance the individual versus community, I am glad that this is an issue taken seriously by Mennonites.
Traditionally Mennonites have held a strict view concerning separation of church and state. Government has changed significantly since the time of the first Anabaptists and right now there is no clear Mennonite stance on this issue. Some Mennonites such as those in Paraguay hold high position in political office meanwhile other Mennonites refuse to vote in elections. I believe that government is in place to promote the common good and I hope the Mennonite church adopts this viewpoint. Government is the most effective place to implement widespread social change. Although a reputation of corruption, dishonesty, and self-seeking policies seem to permeate government, Mennonites should not shy away from this entity, doing so would be a disservice to society. I still hold the traditional Mennonite position that government should not take positions in siding with any one religion. Not only can this result in persecution but throughout history faith and values have declined in Christian states.
Perhaps the most distinct feature of modern Mennonites to outsiders is the stance of pacifism and this is one area where my beliefs differ with those of the church. Like many Mennonites I take seriously Jesus’ call to love our enemies and to live in peace with one another. I believe that God loves everyone equally and so should we; across national borders, political views, and religions. However, I cannot come to the conclusion that violence is never appropriate. We are called to love our neighbors and in cases where our neighbors are being severely oppressed, violated, and slaughtered, we can only show love to them by doing everything within our power to protect them. This may mean using violence. Although violence breeds more violence it is unfortunately the most effective short-term solution. There are some cases where a long peace-building process simply won’t work due to the urgency of the situation. Although violence is in conflict with the Gospel teachings we must recognize that we live in a broken world and at times it is necessary to choose the lesser of the two evils. As shown through Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, we must remember that Jesus was more concerned with living by the nature of the law rather than the letter of the law. We are called to love everyone everywhere and this may mean using violence to prevent a greater evil.
Despite identifying this difference with Mennonite theology I would still identify myself with the Mennonite church. It is unreasonable to expect one’s beliefs to line up completely with a particular denomination, otherwise every individual would have a personal religion. The highest authority remains God but I need help to form a meaningful relationship with God. For this, I want the help of the Mennonite church as I know that the theology is properly focused and the community is strong, supportive, and active.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.