My theological leanings don’t define me. Each one of us is God’s creation, the apple of his eye. That’s where I intend to reside.
Yet, identifying the framework through which we view Scripture, and acknowledging the nuances of our traditions and how they shape our faith, can help us understand each other.
There is a deep stirring among many today who have grown up in conservative Anabaptist churches. In a recent article, I wrote about everything I love in the Anabaptist tradition. Here, I share things that frustrate me.
What I share isn’t definitive of everyone or every church in conservative Anabaptist circles. Rather, they are weaknesses I have noticed.
1. Conservative Anabaptists have undervalued robust theological training.
In general, conservative Anabaptists are skeptical of higher education. People have stated directly to me that the more educated one gets, the more liberal one becomes.
It simply isn’t true.
Gaining knowledge will bring change. But if we change, is that necessarily “going liberal”? What if change leads us to be more faithful to Scripture?
What if we are mistaken in our interpretation? How are we going to know we’re heading down the right track if we do not rub the edges of our thinking against another line of thinking?
In my experience with the conservative Anabaptist church, few Bible teachers know the theological basis for getting the results they hope to accomplish in their students.
What is sin? Is it merely doing bad stuff?
How does the Law correlate with the rest of Scripture?
Why do we practice things like the head covering? Is it simply a part of being modest?
What does it mean to not be conformed to this world? Does it mean we don’t watch movies?
When was the last sermon you heard addressing holiness, conformity or submission that included a rich explanation of the gospel?
Each of these questions pokes at places where I think we have been theologically negligent. As a result, we raise generations of people who long for more in a sermon than just telling how we should or should not live. They’re thirsty. And in their thirst, they are willing to go anywhere to find something to quench it.
2. Conservative Anabaptist churches lack intentionality in church structure, leadership training and discipleship methods.
Most conservative Anabaptist churches do things the way conservative Anabaptist churches have done them for centuries. Not that there is anything wrong with tradition.
But is the lot the healthiest way of choosing church leaders?
What about consideration of giftings and personality?
Why don’t we intentionally seek out young leaders and train them, so they know how to cast vision, care for people pastorally, communicate with clarity and influence people?
Is our church structured well for taking care of those in need? Or do people tend to fall through the cracks? Why do they fall through the cracks? Have we ever thought of changing structure so they don’t?
Is our church structured so women, single or married, or young adults have a voice? Or does our church structure primarily cater to men, specifically, married men with money?
What happens when someone comes to faith? Is it assumed they are learning to read and understand Scripture for themselves, or do we have plans and people designated to walk with new believers as they come to know Christ more?
3. Conservative Anabaptist churches have idolized our way of life and interpretations of Scripture.
If you don’t bake your own bread, change your own oil, design your own brochure, you are not being a good steward. Unless you abstain from TV, refuse to wear skinny jeans and drive a dark-color vehicle, you are assimilating to the world.
But what if you don’t have time for a Bible study with a new believer because you’re busy baking bread, changing oil or designing brochures? What if the delight you take in your seven-room, three-bath house is just as worldly as watching TV?
4. Conservative Anabaptist churches have “church standards.”
Where in Scripture do we find “requirements” to be a part of the church? Yes, there are basic beliefs that church leaders are exhorted to teach their flocks. We can point to Acts 15 as an example of what was required of Gentiles in the early church.
But Acts 15 is pretty vague compared to most conservative Anabaptist churches.
My biggest frustration with church standards is that we focus more on keeping people in line with the standards than on teaching biblical theology. Most of our church standards are merely one expression of many biblically faithful ways to live as a Christian.
5. Conservative Anabaptist churches choose applications based on fear.
We wear the head covering “all the time” because “What would happen if we didn’t? Would our children quit wearing it altogether?”
We wear long pants and long dresses because we want to make sure we’re not a stumbling block for someone who struggles with lust. I’m not saying we should never consider the implications of what we wear. I am saying that too often our applications aren’t chosen from a desire to be faithful to Scripture but from a fear of “being bad” or “going down a slippery slope.”
This tends to be how church standards get developed. Instead of returning to Scripture and developing a theological foundation for what we do, we put in place a church standard that says, for example, one must to wear a large veiling because we’re afraid of people wearing smaller and smaller veilings until they no longer wear any.
6. Conservative Anabaptist churches are externally focused.
No one seems too concerned about someone’s spiritual well- being until they start wearing a different style of clothes or quit wearing the head covering.
It’s OK that people take notice when externals change. Obviously, something’s going on within that person.
But too often, we seem out of touch with the hearts of our people. We don’t know the wrestlings of their souls.
I’m not saying everyone should know everybody’s else’s struggle. But are we reaching out to those we can? We could do a better job of teaching on heart issues instead of merely the externals of our faith.
7. Conservative Anabaptist churches are ethnocentric.
I recently heard a prominent conservative Anabaptist speaker address music at an Anabaptist conference. He basically said any music that moves the body is sensual and not godly.
A man from Africa stood up and said, “In Africa, we can’t help but dance even when we sing the hymns.” The speaker responded by saying the Africans were singing the song wrong. They need to find a way to sing the hymns so they don’t move the body.
I could not believe what I heard. Can we not recognize that this is a cultural difference? Do we not have space for other cultures?
What do we do with the places of Scripture that exhort to praise the Lord in dance? Where is the humility to acknowledge that worship and the manifestations of the gospel will look different in other cultures than in our own?
8. Conservative Anabaptist churches function more like the Catholic church we came out of than true Anabaptists.
Disagreement with church authorities gets taken as more rebellious and heretical than unfaithfulness to Scripture.
Immorality exists, yet gets covered up.
We have extrabiblical hoops and hurdles new believers must jump through in order to be upstanding members of the church. It smells awfully close to indulgences. Perhaps the only difference is that you don’t pay for our hoops and hurdles, and we at least still profess salvation is by faith.
But we are oh so close to the corruption we came out of.
Yes, I have frustrations with the conservative Anabaptist church. But the frustrations don’t define my overall experience with it.
Furthermore, I know many pastors share my frustrations. Many long to see changes similar to what I’ve expressed. That’s why I’m not ready to throw in the towel on the conservative Anabaptist church.
Do we need a reformation of sorts? Yes.
Is there a shift happening within the Anabaptist church today? I think that’s clear.
What is core of Anabaptist theology that we don’t want to lose as we shift?
Asher Witmer is a husband, father and writer living with his family in Los Angeles where they are members of a Biblical Mennonite Alliance church and he pursues a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi, Calif. He recently published his first book, Live Free: Making Sense of Male Sexuality. He also wrote a corresponding post affirming elements of conservative Anabaptism at asherwitmer.com/everything-i-love-about-the-anabaptist-tradition.