by Luke Wayne
The Mennonites are a group of denominations that originated with the 16th-century Anabaptists. The Anabaptists are a movement during the time of the Protestant Reformation that was primarily defined by their commitment to strict nonviolence, refusal to take oaths or serve in political or military office, and to the rejection of infant baptism in favor of baptism only of those professing repentance and faith.
As with many denominational groups, one can find a broad range of expression among Mennonites today. Among those churches that call themselves Mennonite, there are liberal groups that affirm many of the unbiblical morals, values, and practices of the secular culture at large and who preach a worldly message focused more on "social justice" and environmentalism than on anything resembling repentance and faith. On the other side of the spectrum, there are also "Old Order" Mennonites who reject media technologies, travel by horse and buggy, and generally keep to themselves. They seek separation from the world in quiet devotion to their own community of faith, often at the expense of any form of evangelistic effort.
Between these extremes are various groups that tend to emphasize in one form or another the Anabaptist distinctives of non-violence, believers' baptism, and separation from the world in communities of faith. Their confessions of faith often fall within the basic framework of historical, Protestant Christianity, affirming the Triune God, the sole authority of Scripture, and salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone.
A Brief History
The Anabaptist movement began in Zurich, Switzerland, where in the early 1500's a priest named Ulrich Zwingli had launched a reformation movement just as Martin Luther was doing in Germany.1. A group of Zwingli's students began to push for the Reformation to go further and faster than Zwingli or the local city council desired.2
A series of public debates was held to flesh out the issues. In the beginning, these focused primarily on the subject of the theology and practice of the bread and cup of Communion,3 but quickly spread to the topic of baptism and other central matters of church life and New Testament interpretation.4 The movement was largely one of discipleship and ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church.) The early Anabaptists agreed with the Reformers on theology,5 but disagreed on how to interpret the commands of Scripture regarding the Christian life and on how one was to define the local church and its relationship to the state and society as a whole.6
The teachings that most got the Anabaptists in trouble, however, were strict nonresistance and the full rejection of all oaths. They interpreted the New Testament to teach that the Christian should never use violent force for any reason, not even in self-defense or in the protection of the innocent, much less in national defense and military service. They also taught that no Christian could serve in political office because they understood Jesus' teaching on oaths to include a prohibition on oaths of office, and also saw the act of enforcing criminal justice as being a violation of strict nonresistance.7 For this reason, the Anabaptists were seen as seditious and dangerous to national security and were persecuted by the state in both Protestant and Catholic lands.
Due to both zealous evangelism and constant scattering by persecution, the Anabaptists spread across much of Europe.8 In the Netherlands, a former Catholic priest and Anabaptist theologian named Menno Simons became a defining figure in the movement.9 He wrote many letters of pastoral care for the Anabaptist congregations,10 apologetic outreach to the wild, prophetic radicals of the day,11 and robust theological defense of central Christian truths like the Trinity.12 It is because of Menno Simons that many Anabaptists came to be called "Mennonites."
By the 17th century, Mennonites began to immigrate to the New World in increasingly large numbers, where they established communities in both North and South America. 13 Their desire to avoid persecution and practice their faith freely, their preference to establish tightly knit farming communities outside of established social centers, and their increasing emphasis on separation from the world often led to levels of withdrawal from society that stifled evangelism.14
In the 19th-century age of revivalism, the Sunday school movement, and other developments in conservative American Christianity, some Mennonites saw a biblical work of the Spirit of God and began to incorporate some elements and methods of the American evangelicalism of the day. Others saw this as an unbiblical encroachment of the world. The latter largely became the Old Order Mennonites mentioned above. The former go in a variety of directions, some holding fast to their Mennonite and Reformation roots, others becoming a minor variation on the mainstream evangelical tradition, and still others drift away toward the values of the culture around them, ultimately becoming more liberal rather than more evangelical.
In general, Mennonite evangelism of the last two centuries has tended toward a more relational and service-oriented approach, and thus the Mennonites have excelled in medical missions and the establishment of hospitals, and they have even made contributions to modern medical research.15 They have not, however, tended toward producing many missionaries, evangelists, apologists, or rank-and-file church members equipped and sent out specifically to confront sin and reach the lost directly with the gospel, and they have never again seen the explosive growth of their early years.
Doctrine and Practice
The most common confession of faith among conservative and old order Mennonites is the 1645 Dordrecht Confession. It says of God:
Since we find it testified that without faith it is impossible to please God, and that he that would come to God must believe that there is a God, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek Him; therefore, we confess with the mouth, and believe with the heart, with all the pious, according to the holy Scriptures, in one eternal, almighty, and incomprehensible God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and in none more, nor in any other; before whom no God was made or existed, nor shall there be any after Him: for of Him, and through Him, and in Him, are all things; to Him be praise and honor forever and ever, Amen (Heb. 11:6; Deut. 6:4; Gen. 17:1; Isa. 46:8; I John 5:7; Rom. 11:36).
Of this same one God, who worketh all in all, we believe and confess that He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible; that He, in six days, created, made, and prepared, heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is; and that He still governs and upholds the same and all His works through His wisdom, might, and the word of His power (I Cor. 12:6; Gen. I; Acts 14:15).
And of our fallen state and need for redemption:
We believe and confess, according to the holy Scriptures, that these our first parents, Adam and Eve, did not continue long in this glorious state in which they were created, but that they, seduced by the subtlety and deceit of the serpent, and the envy of the devil, transgressed the high commandment of God and became disobedient to their Creator; through which disobedience sin has come into the world, and death by sin, which has thus passed upon all men, for that all have sinned, and, hence, brought upon themselves the wrath of God, and condemnation; for which reason they were of God driven out of Paradise, or the pleasure garden, to till the earth, in sorrow to eat of it, and to eat their bread in the sweat of their face, till they should return to the earth, from which they were taken; and that they, therefore, through this one sin, became so ruined, separated, and estranged from God, that they, neither through themselves, nor through any of their descendants, nor through angels, nor men, nor any other creature in heaven or on earth, could be raised up, redeemed, or reconciled to God, but would have had to be eternally lost, had not God, in compassion for His creatures, made provision for it, and interposed with His love and mercy.
And of the means of our redemption:
Neither baptism, supper, church, nor any other outward ceremony, can without faith, regeneration, change or renewing of life, avail anything to please God or to obtain of Him any consolation or promise of salvation; but we must go to God with an upright heart, and in complete faith, and believe in Jesus Christ, as the Scripture says, and testifies of Him; through which faith we obtain forgiveness of sins, are sanctified, justified, and made children of God, yea, partake of His mind, nature, and image, as being born again of God from above, through incorruptible seed.
While many modern Mennonite denominations have composed new confessions, these basic tenets of the historic Christian faith are still confessed and believed to be central to what it means to be Mennonite,16 at least by all but the more liberal Mennonite groups.
Mennonites utilize a plain, straightforward reading of Scripture and have tended to view the New Testament as pre-empting and superseding the Old Testament rather than seeking to harmonize the two. Mennonites often view systematic theology or appeals to historical contexts as attempts to avoid the truly radical nature of Christ's commands.17. Considered together, this explains many of the more distinctive Mennonite beliefs and practices.
For example, When Jesus teaches:
"do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also" (Matt. 5:39).
The Mennonite does not see this as compatible with the Old Testament teachings in which one was not to seek revenge, respond in force to an insult, or commit unlawful violence against another person, but was permitted to use force in defense of self or others when there is a legitimate threat to life. The Mennonite also says that it is rationalizing to consider that a slap is an insult, not a threat to life, or to set this next to other passages that seem to approve of the use of force to defend life. The Mennonite takes the statement at the simplest face value and strives faithfully to obey this understanding whatever the costs may be.
The same can be said for other traditional Mennonite interpretations, such as:
- The Christian ought not to take any oath of any kind at any time (Matt. 5:34-37).
- All believing women ought to wear cloth head coverings at all times (1 Corinthians 11:1-16).
- The church is to practice literal foot-washing as a ritual church ordinance alongside baptism and the Lord's Supper (John 13:14-15).
- Christians are commanded to literally kiss one another as a greeting (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20, etc.).
Most Christian denominations have come to more nuanced positions from these passages. They might explain, for example, that Jesus was not establishing a mere ritual in John 13 but was teaching an all-encompassing devotion to humble service to one another that was to permeate all areas of life throughout one's fellowship and discourse with one another as believers. Or they might point out that "greet one another with a holy kiss" was a common cultural expression meant to convey greeting one another in love rather than a physical description of how all believers of all times and places were to go about formally greeting one another. To the Mennonite, these kinds of explanations are side stepping the plain, literal words.
As one can see, these differences are matters of practice rather than central doctrine. The most significant difference between Mennonites and other denominations is this unique, woodenly literal and unsystematic interpretive method. It is this that gives rise to nearly all of the other differences.
- 1. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 11-12
- 2. ibid, 12
- 3. ibid, 37
- 4. ibid, 38
- 5. ibid, 178-199
- 6. ibid, 20
- 7. ibid, 40
- 8. ibid, 107
- 9. ibid, 160
- 10. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Herald Press, 1984) 1028-1061
- 11. ibid, 1019-1027
- 12. ibid, 489-498
- 13. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 268-269
- 14. ibid, 269
- 15. ibid, 269
- 16. John D. Roth, Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice (Herald Press, 2005) Kindle Edition, Chapter 1
- 17. ibid, Chapter 3