The first members of the Anabaptist churches in the 16th century chose to join that movement. Then severe persecution had a huge impact—many of the first generation even lost their lives. In time, for most of the Anabaptists’ spiritual descendants, the Mennonites, ongoing viability depended much more on retaining the children of the church more than on gaining new converts from the outside.
The survival of the Mennonite tradition depended on a change from their initial belief. From the first, they believed in the baptism of choosing adults—this separated them from other Christians who baptized infants. Later the practical focus was more on the community sustaining itself mainly by keeping its young people from choosing to leave.
For a long time, Mennonites differed a great deal from the surrounding society (most obviously by speaking a different language). So their young people rarely felt comfortable leaving—the shock was too great.
A number of years ago I became acquainted with a Hutterite community where the people mostly spoke German, where they were different from those of us on the outside. A few young people chose to leave, though. They called them runaways. Most of these runaways headed to a nearby city. When they got there, they felt lost, like fish out of water. They tended to congregate with other runaways, and in time most headed back to the Hutterite communities.
The viability of the Mennonite tradition today?
For mainstream Mennonites in the United States, those days are long gone. More than ever since the 16th century, Mennonites must choose to stay in the church. Our continued identification with this community is a choice. Hence the ongoing viability of the Mennonite tradition cannot be taken for granted.
The viability of the Mennonite tradition depends on Mennonite churches self-consciously embodying core Mennonite convictions. What are several of the basic convictions that are distinctively Mennonite? What is it we are choosing when we choose to identify ourselves as Mennonite?
In reflecting on these questions, I need to make clear that Mennonites have a great deal in common with other Christians that is important. Many basic Mennonite convictions are also basic Christian convictions. I focus here on distinctive convictions (recognizing also that Mennonites are not necessarily unique in these convictions).
Distinctive Mennonite convictions
1. Mennonite faith seeks to hold belief and practice together. The Letter of James puts it famously, “Faith without works is dead.” So did early Anabaptist leader Hans Denck, “No one may know Christ unless one follows him in life.” As I read Mennonite theology, I don’t always find myself in complete agreement with many things, but shining through from 1525 to the present is the conviction that you can never separate beliefs from practices—authentic theology must be on-the-ground theology; authentic theology must be lived theology.
2. Mennonite faith explicitly affirms pacifism as central to Christianity. This is commonly understood, but to me the word “explicitly” is crucial—Mennonite faith explicitly affirms pacifism. I have found myself on numerous occasions over the years in conversations with people who, when I identify myself as a Mennonite, immediately bring up the Mennonite peace testimony—not always with affirmation but always in a way that opens the door for direct conversation about peace and about following Jesus.
3. Mennonite faith seeks for its pacifism to express itself in practical works of service. This is to say, Mennonite pacifism over the centuries has cared a lot more about finding ways to put into practice the ethic of love, about finding concrete ways to serve, about meeting human needs and has focused more on acting than on developing sophisticated arguments. As John Howard Yoder stated, convictions that foster faithful living matter more than developing intellectualized arguments.
4. Mennonite faith understands commitments to particular nation-states to be secondary and affirms a strong international awareness. Back in the 16th century, Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler was executed for saying that he would refuse to defend Europe against the Turks with violence. Throughout their history, Mennonites have picked up and migrated to new locations when they have been prevented from practicing their faith. They have had the conviction that their loyalty to their faith community as an expression of the coming kingdom of God is a higher loyalty than their commitment to any human government.
5. Mennonite faith fosters active participation of all people in the fellowship, thus decentralizing power. This is an ideal that has not always been met, but the belief in the priesthood of all believers, that we are all on the same level before God, logically points in the direction of sharing power.
Holding belief and practice together
The central distinctive Mennonite conviction is the first one, the commitment to holding belief and practice together. In the Mennonite tradition, the key word has been “following.” Mennonites’ faith does not focus on the “mysteries” or on abstract creeds or on the sacraments so much as on listening to Jesus’ teaching and seeking to walk in his way.
It has been said that when approaching the Bible, Mennonites tend to start with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—in contrast with, say, Lutherans beginning with Paul’s Letter to the Romans or Catholics beginning with the Gospel of John. The differences among these three traditions to a large extent stem from their varied starting places.
The Mennonite approach to making the Sermon on the Mount teaching central to Christian faith reflects two key beliefs: (1) that Jesus’ life and teaching provide the basis for understanding the rest of the Bible and, indeed, all of life; and (2) that it is possible to obey, it is possible to follow Jesus’ way.
The conviction that Jesus’ life and teaching provide the key to understanding everything else stands in contrast to ways creedal Christianity tends to jump from the Virgin Birth to the crucifixion (for example, see the Apostles’ Creed: “We believe in Jesus Christ…who was…of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified…[and] rose again”—with nothing about what happened between Mary and Pilate).
The hopeful conviction that it is possible to obey Jesus, that God expects people of faith to embody Jesus’ way and that we are able to do so contrasts with the pessimism about human possibilities that has characterized much of Western Christendom, at least since the fourth century. Mennonites believe all Christians should be held to a high standard of ethical faithfulness and that such a standard may realistically be met by all who seek to, with each other’s help.
Faithfulness in response to God’s love
These core convictions of Mennonite faith—on-the-ground faith, the commitment to pacifism, service, open participation in community life, following Jesus—are best understood as responses to God’s love, not means to gain favor with God. Because God loves us, we respond with faithful living.
How then do we sustain Mennonite faith? One key is to recognize how much it depends on choices made by the rising generation of young people. We must simply, genuinely love our children and communicate to them a sense of vitality of following the way of Jesus. We must seek to live as disciples in a way that respects the spiritual responsibilities of each person and encourages all toward self-conscious choices to walk Jesus’ path.
The point then becomes that our children join us in the Mennonite community not out of obligation, not out of fear of what might happen if they do otherwise, but out of a free desire to share life in their life-enhancing environment. This means we ourselves must work together to make our Mennonite communities genuinely life enhancing.
As we foster genuinely life-enhancing Mennonite communities that welcome our own children, surely we will also attract others from the outside. These newcomers will be attracted because of our embodiment of Mennonite convictions and will be assets in sustaining our tradition.
[This article was published in The Mennonite, January 6, 2004.