Category Archives: Anabaptism

Is the “Benedict Option” a Believers’ Church Option?

Ted Grimsrud—September 21, 2017

[What follows is the text of a paper I presented at Goshen (IN) College on September 15, 2017. It was part of the conference, “Word, Spirit, and the Renewal of the Church: Believers’ Church, Ecumenical and Global Perspectives”—the 18th Believers’ Church Conference. The paper is drawn from a series of blog posts I wrote in May, 2017.]

I want to talk about the book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel Books, 2017) by journalist, blogger, and religious thinker Rod Dreher. This book that has received an unusual amount of attention. I believe it challenges and helps illumine a distinctively Believers’ Church approach to “Christ and culture”—with both similarities and differences. I have four parts to my talk: First, description and affirmation; second, critique; third, a response to Dreher’s emphasis on same-sex marriage as a paradigmatic issue; and fourth, a sketch of a “Believers’ church option.”

Description and Affirmation

It is important to keep Dreher’s stated agenda and his intended audience in mind as we consider his book. He writes to and about conservative Christians (politically and theologically—Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants)—so progressives of any kind who read him should expect to feel as if they are overhearing a conversation they have not been invited to join. There is a lot to criticize in the book, but I don’t think it should be criticized for not spending much time presenting a careful argument to Benedict Option (or, “BenOp”) skeptics. That is not Dreher’s agenda.

Dreher hopes to inspire a joining together of Christians of like mind in resistance to the downward spiral of American culture heading toward, he might say, a pit of moral relativism, individualism, and hostility toward “orthodox” Christians. The goal is to inspire a counterculture that will have the ability to sustain “traditional” faith in this world.

I agree that the general question how Christians might practice our faith in life-giving ways in a culture that seems all too bent on death should be at the center for all of us. I see two particularly attractive elements to Dreher’s presentation. The first is that many of Dreher’s concerns and criticisms of contemporary American culture are perceptive and demand respectful attention. The second is that his sense of the calling Christians have to invest themselves in creative countercultural formation seems right. Continue reading

The Peace Position During a Time of War

Ted Grimsrud

[Workshop presentation at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary School for Leadership Training, Harrisonburg, VA, January 17, 2005]

I grew up the child of a father who fought in World War II and a mother who also served in the U.S. military during that war. Our family definitely was not heavily militaristic, but I certainly would willingly have gone into the military myself had I been drafted when I was 19. As it turned out, the draft ended the year I turned 19 as the Vietnam War wound down. In the several years after that, I thought often and intensely about military service and my faith. When I was 22, through a kind of mystical awareness, I came to a clear conviction that I could not, at the same time, be both a follower of Jesus and a participant in or even supporter of warfare.

Only at this point did I first learn of the Mennonite tradition, with its long held refusal to fight in wars. I loved what I learned and, about 25 years ago, joined the Mennonite church. I continue on the process of faith seeking understanding—what does the peace position mean? What’s basis? How might it be put into practice?

Defining “pacifism,” “nonviolence,” and “nonresistance”

The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare. Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight.

Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness. Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love. In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality; there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.

The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism. I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms. One distinction would be to say that “pacifism” focuses more on underlying principles and values, “nonviolence” more on tactics and actions.

“Nonresistance” is the more traditional term, widely used among Mennonites, for the refusal to fight back against evil. Typically, it has carried the connotation of witnessing to peace more through living as an alternative community in some sense separate from secular politics than through direct engagement.

The Bible’s witness to peace

My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare. The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting. Continue reading

Question authority

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—July 27, 2014—1 Samuel 8:10-18; Romans 13:1-4; Mark 10:42-45

I want to talk this morning about political philosophy. Now, I don’t suppose many Mennonite preachers today—or ever—have done sermons on political philosophy. But like I say to Kathleen when she asks, on occasion, what in the world are you doing, I say, I’m just trying to keep you guessing.

Actually, I think Mennonites should talk about political philosophy—and understand that we have important resources for political philosophy in our tradition. The key theme, I think, is authority. Mennonites are not nearly faithful enough to our Anabaptist heritage in relation to authority. Not that many Mennonites I know have been socialized to question authority—though doing so was essential in the beginning of our movement in the 16th century. I’d like to float a provocative thesis this morning—when we question authority we take a necessary step in developing what we could call an Anabaptist, or , to be more presumptuous, an authentically biblical, political philosophy—that is, to question authority can be an act of faithfulness.

A political awakening

But first, let me tell the story of the beginning of my political awakening. When I was a kid, I lived for sports. Sixth grade was when we first had school sports where we played other schools. After football and basketball, we’d have both baseball and track. In my eighth grade year, we thought we’d have good teams—I was excited.

Then, something terrible happened. I still remember the moment clearly. We walk into our classroom one morning and see this written on the board: “Students who wish to compete on the baseball and track teams must have crew cut haircuts. There will be no exceptions.” Now, Elkton (Oregon) Grade School in the late 1960s was not a hotbed of hippy subversion. I had only recently let my hair grow out from my standard crew cut, but it wasn’t even as long as my hair is now. Nor was anyone else’s. But there were several of us who believed this was an unreasonable demand and refused it. Continue reading

Part of the Conversation? “Neo-Mennonites” and Mennonite Theology

Ted Grimsrud

[This essay was written about twenty years ago while I was pastoring a small “neo-Mennonite” congregation in Eugene, Oregon, for a festschrift honoring Gordon Kaufman. By the time the essay was published in 1996, I had left Eugene, co-pastored with my wife, Kathleen Temple, in a large, rural, pretty traditional Mennonite congregation in the midwest for two years, and gotten a job as theology professor at Eastern Mennonite University. I revised the essay in 2002 hoping to have it published again in a theological journal. That didn’t work out. I’m putting it up now mainly because I realized I hadn’t posted it on my PeaceTheology.net site yet. I also think the ideas are still relevant as Mennonites continue to struggle with the future of their tradition.][1]

The early years of the 21st-century are a time of challenge for Mennonite faith.  Mennonite churches are engaged in an intense conversation (not always self-consciously) concerning the meaning of Christianity in a tumultuous, rapidly changing world.  One of the central issues in this conversation is simply whose voices will be heard.  How will Mennonites define their faith, order their communities, prepare their young people – and who will have voices in this defining?

We face the challenges of defining major new ecclesiastical structures with the formation of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.  This time of defining new structures has thus far been fraught with stress as various kinds of fault lines have been exposed and unprecedented conflicts have emerged.

This essay reflects on this issue of who partakes in Mennonite conversations about the future of their faith.  I believe our best approach is to affirm that all the voices within the current broad community of Mennonites are to be respected parts of the conversation.  To make such allowance requires an awareness of the identity of these voices.

I want to speak of one set of voices in particular, what I will call the voices of “neo-Mennonites.”  I am a bit unsure of the best shorthand term for the general perspective to which I am referring.  I will use “neo-Mennonite” as a non-value laden term[2] to refer to people who affirm at least many of the elements mentioned by Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman in his 1979 book Nonresistance and Responsibility:

Many persons – especially younger professional people, well-educated and living in settings quite far removed, at least culturally, from traditional rural Mennonite communities – feel the need for an interpretation of the Mennonite perspective which breathes more freely the atmosphere of the contemporary life and culture in which they are so deeply involved.  They do not wish to give up some of the basic insights and convictions of the faith in which they were raised, but the only interpretations of that faith which are readily accessible do not seem to address the questions and problems they are facing. [3]

I will argue in this essay that “neo-Mennonites” should be seen as a legitimate part of Mennonite conversations on all levels concerning the big issues that face Mennonites in the new millennium.  I will focus my concern mostly on theology, but I mean to suggest that church-wide conversations on all aspects of church life should welcome the “neo-Mennonite” perspective as a legitimate part of the Mennonite “circle.”

I do not argue that the “neo-Mennonite” perspective should be privileged, but simply that it be respected as part of the conversation.  That is, the process of discernment Mennonites are required to enter into will be most fruitful if understood as a process in which all the appropriate voices are heard and taken into account.  One of Mennonites’ biggest danger in facing our contemporary challenges is to ignore or silence voices from within our existing communities.

The “neo-Mennonite” perspective exists now within the circle of the Mennonite church.  Even if not well understood, or even acknowledged by many in the churches, it is part of what the Mennonite faith community has become.  Rather than seen as an alien perspective, or one to be resisted, it should be seen as one voice in the Mennonite choir. Continue reading

A Pacifist Reading of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective [A paper proposal]

[Ted Grimsrud]

 [Back in June 2006, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary hosted a conference reflecting on the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (a few papers from the conference that were published in Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2007, may be read here). I prepared a proposal for a paper that was accepted by the conference. However, after writing the proposal I learned that the conference would conflict with the birth of our first grandchild so I had to withdraw from the conference. Unfortunately, I never wrote the paper, either. I just recently rediscovered the proposal and found that I still like it and still hope to write such a paper. I post it here hoping to stimulate a bit of discussion and also in order to link with posts I have put up at my ThinkingPacifism.net blog on “How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources.”]

The Mennonite Church USA identifies itself as a peace church.  In many circles, were people to be asked what is most distinctive about Mennonites, the large majority would mention pacifism as one of MC USA’s most characteristic distinctives.  This paper will test this perception with a close reading of the first eight articles of the Confession from a “radical pacifist” perspective.  These first eight of the 24 total articles are clearly marked off as the core, overtly theological content of the Confession.

The paper will examine several other fairly recent Protestant Confessions for comparison’s sake.  None of these other Confessions are from traditions that understand themselves to be pacifist.

In what ways is the core theological content of these other confessions similar to and different from the Mennonite Confession?  Do we see evidence that the pacifist commitment of the Mennonite tradition leads to different articulations of this core content?  We will be testing the assumption that the difference between pacifist and non-pacifist theologies should be expected to lead to noticeably different articulations of theological basics. Continue reading

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

Ted Grimsrud

Two presidential election cycles ago (2004), I published an essay reflecting on how committed Christian pacifists in the Anabaptist tradition might function as citizens of the United States.

I understand my main argument to be that we have to work within three stories: (1) the Anabaptist story of costly commitment to witness to Jesus’ way, (2) the democracy story that reflects a commitment in our country to participation in the social order by all people in a society, and (3) the empire story that all too often has characterized the United States and our way in the world.

I suggest that those committed to story #1 who live in a society that at least to some extent retains a commitment to story #2, should exert all the energy they can to critique and try to counter story #3.

Given present day debates among peace advocates in the United States around our current presidential election, I thought I might take the chance to post this article on this website.

Ted Grimsrud. “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.

Here also is a post I put up on my Thinking Pacifism blog on September 30, 2012, that explains why I will vote (ambivalently) for Barack Obama this time.

Anabaptist versus conventional theologies

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.5

[Revised version of  “Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 23-36.]

Is there such a thing as “Anabaptist theology” for the present day? Is seeking to construct a distinctively Anabaptist theology an appropriate task for the 21st century?

John Howard Yoder did not consider himself a systematic theologian, and as far as I know would not have called himself a constructive theologian. However, his work certainly directly related to the task many Mennonites, and others who would also think of themselves as spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists see as vital for the viability of Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities—namely, self-conscious work at articulating their theological convictions in ways that might provide sustenance to their tradition.

Yoder’s model I will call “practice-oriented” theology. To help understand Yoder’s approach, and why it’s an exemplary model for those of us engaged in the work of constructive Anabaptist theology for the 21st century, I will first look at a somewhat different model for contemporary Anabaptist theology and reflect on the differences between these two models.

Tom Finger’s contemporary proposal

Tom Finger, like many other Mennonite writers wrestling with the challenge of working within the Anabaptist tradition (notably a marginal perspective in the history of Christian theology), seeks to find links of commonality with more mainstream traditions. In doing so, he takes an approach I will call “doctrine-oriented” theology.

Finger’s work has many characteristics unique to his own perspective, certainly, yet in relation to the key points I will focus on, his approach is at least somewhat representative of the general approach taken by Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians seeking rapprochement with mainstream theologies.

I understand the central characteristics of “Anabaptist theology” to be centered in an integration of theological convictions with ethical practices.  The ethical commitments of the sixteenth century Anabaptists such as their pacifism, their emphasis on economic sharing, and their rejection of the subordination of the church to nation-states, reflected a distinctive theology that placed central importance on commitment to the way of Jesus in costly discipleship. Continue reading