Holdeman Mennonites reinforced their identity as a church set apart from the world at an international meeting in November.
Known officially as the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the denomination gathered more than 10,000 members for a general conference, the first since 2015, on Nov. 15-17 at Cadence Bank Arena in Tupelo, Miss.
Compared to other Anabaptist groups’ assemblies, attendance was robust for a body that counts about 27,000 members around the world.
In the Moundridge, Kan., main office near a series of maps dotted with pins representing every congregation, conference services director Shawn Giesel spoke of how impressed he was that more than a quarter of those in attendance were youth.
“One of our older ministers said every generation must define the faith for their generation,” said Giesel, who also served this year as conference secretary. “When you think of thousands of people ages 16 to 25, and hear their conviction and connection to Scripture, you can’t measure the impact on the future as they define the faith for their life.”
The plain-dressing conservative group, which traces its roots to the 19th-century Mennonite reformer John Holdeman of Ohio, encourages converts through extensive publishing and tract ministries.
Denominational doctrine maintains that the Holdeman church is the true visible church — a position that inspires and strengthens a separate identity — while affirming other Christians’ salvation as well.
Although Holdeman beliefs spell out clear positions on separation from the world and separation of church and state, Giesel said the impact of divisive politics and fringe conspiracy theories prompted leaders to strengthen those positions at the meeting.
“Outside of World War I for conscientious objection purposes, we have never had a statement of our noninvolvement in politics and the separation of church and state,” he said. “Perhaps by virtue of the available information and misinformation, and the general political climate, we’ve found it significant to establish our position.”
The adopted resolution noted that “vigilance is required to deal with divisive spirits and pride that promote an attitude of superior knowledge and attack the unity of the Spirit with resistance towards the church, government and secular laws.”
The resolution on separation from the world called for a revival of nonconformity to resist a host of outside influences. Holdeman Mennonites are increasingly bombarded with the encroachment of communication technology, which can erode purity and propriety.
“We try to understand how to order our lives, and that involves fickle fashions, affluent lifestyles, involvement in sports,” Giesel said. “In all that, we’re trying to figure out where God’s people fit into things, and the general conference addresses that.”
The conference prohibits television and radio, requires filters for Internet use and stipulates plain appearance, with beards for men, head coverings for women and modest clothing.
“We are being drawn away with independent thinking and a lack of self-denial,” the resolution stated. “God has been patient with us and is giving us another opportunity for all of us to confess our negligence in areas of modesty, fashion, lifestyles, technology and attitudes.”
Hand votes are taken first by delegates (deacons and ministers), followed by a second vote of everyone, including women and youth. If there is a difference, debate is reopened.
“Many of the votes affect young people more than others,” Giesel said. “When it came to debate about cellphones, it was nearly unanimous everywhere.”
Every phone has a camera these days, prompting delegates to revisit a 2015 decision that relaxed the prohibition on photography, because photos had become necessary even for occupations like manufacturing and construction.
Conference attendees clarified the 2015 decision to reinforce the difference between necessary photos and photos for vanity and pleasure.
“There is good direction in the 2015 conference decision, but our misplaced affection allowed more liberties than God was pleased with,” stated the resolution.
The Holdeman spirit of separation from the world had inspired a 1993 resolution prohibiting playing in public parks due to concern that organized and late-night sports would result in improper witness. In reality, many people and congregations use parks for family outings and congregation or school picnics. Conference attendees voted to relax the resolution with an addition that allows for moderate and cautious use of public parks.
Other decisions that changed longstanding positions included adoption of a liability insurance policy for church administration, “in view of the litigious society that we live in” and approval of a 2020 proposal to implement retirement plans.
“We believe the economic environment in which we live requires us to reevaluate our planning and provision for retirement years,” wrote the Ministers and Deacons Council in the resolution. “We feel that this consideration need not conflict with the church’s historic conviction on interest as it relates to covetousness and oppressing the poor. We do not feel it is for the church to administer retirement plans.”
The denomination plans to hold a general conference every seven years. Previously, the interval had varied.