This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

How free is your church?

Amish Heritage Foundation executive director Torah Bontrager said her Amish upbringing restricted her from thinking critically about how to interpret the Bible or questioning her church’s rules. Yet she grew up esteeming Anabaptist martyrs who did those exact things.

A similar theme is echoed more mildly at the Anabaptist Identity Conference, an annual gathering for people from across the culturally conservative Anabaptist spectrum. At these events, there is an urgency to keep future generations from departing from the particular applications of New Testament teaching (such as rules about clothing and recreation) agreed upon by their church leadership.

At the most recent AIC in March, organizer Matthias Overholt said it’s important to maintain traditional practices across generations because the message of the kingdom of God can’t be transmitted outside a cultural context.

The fusion of faith and cultural identity isn’t limited to culturally conservative groups. At this year’s Lancaster Mennonite Conference Celebration of Church Life, Jeff Linthicum, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Berne, Ind., shared that he heard from people in his congregation who said they were pressured into baptism by their parents as a cultural rite of passage. This was a common experience in various Mennonite traditions, including the General Conference Mennonite Church, First Mennonite’s former affiliation.

Aren’t these phenomena antithetical to Anabaptism’s core emphasis on non­coerced confession of faith and religious affiliation?

It’s natural for people who cohere around marginalized religious views to seek to raise families who maintain those beliefs. Centuries of persecution will turn a faith group inward on itself, relying on biological reproduction to maintain its religious distinctions.

The irony is that when faith can’t be transmitted outside a cultural context, the result is a culture that may call itself Anabaptist but functions like a miniature version of a church-state union. An expectation of universal baptism that essentially confers community citizenship is uncomfortably similar to state-mandated church membership.

Can an 18-year-old truly voluntarily consent to baptism when the alternative — in some conservative Anabaptist communities — is that she will not otherwise attain full inclusion into her own community, or that he will not be allowed to marry within the community? Is a confession of faith a requirement to be part of the society one is born into? Isn’t that what Anabaptism was formed to protest?

Christian parents should encourage faith formation in their children. But the implied threat of significant loss casts doubt on whether some Anabaptists have made a truly free decision.

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