This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Kingdom movement balances obedience, freedom

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a small third-floor room on the campus of Harvard University, about 20 people pack the space — some sitting on tables or windowsills — just before lunchtime on a Saturday to learn about the story of the Old Testament.

The group is called The Society for the Two Tasks, a Christian organization on campus that studies topics relating to Scripture, Christian apologetics, church history and Jesus’ teaching. It takes its name from a speech by Charles Malik given in 1980 at Wheaton (Ill.) College, arguing that the church had two tasks set before it, saving the soul and saving the mind.

On March 31, Suan Tuang, a medical student at Harvard, attempts to survey Old Testament history in less than an hour. His audience is a mix of postgraduate and undergraduate students, some other adults, a 16-year-old and some elementary-age children who frequently answer questions about the Bible faster than the older listeners.

The children’s father is Finny Kuruvilla, who often does the teaching but has given the platform to Tuang this week. He is also a leader of Followers of the Way, a 5-year-old network of churches begun in the Boston area. They take their inspiration from the early church and later movements, such as Anabaptism, that have sought to restore apostolic-era teaching and practice to the church.

Finny Kuruvilla preaches at a meeting of the Followers of the Way in Medford, Mass., on April 1. — Rachel Stella/MWR
Finny Kuruvilla preaches at a meeting of the Followers of the Way in Medford, Mass., on April 1. — Rachel Stella/MWR

FOTW is part of an unofficial, organically rising movement called Kingdom Christianity that is attracting people from plain Anabaptist groups who want to obey New Testament teachings but question their home churches’ additional requirements for church membership.

The name comes from the book The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down by historian David Bercot, whose teachings on the writings from the church’s first three centuries have made him a popular speaker among conservative Anabaptists.

Kingdom Fellowship Weekend, an annual meeting that features leaders like Bercot and Kuruvilla as speakers, has drawn more than 1,000 people.

In an interview, Tuang, who moved to the United States from Myanmar when he was 16, said he was looking to follow Jesus without compromising.

“The community and fellowship that is present is nourishing my spiritual life,” he said.

Tuang met Kuruvilla through the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. He has attended FOTW meetings for about two years and has been “part of the body” for nine months. He said he previously identified as a nominal Christian.

“I was looking to take my faith seriously, and I wanted a community, a body that would enable me to do that,” he said.

Quest for literal faith

FOTW has two church communities in the neighboring Boston-area suburbs of Medford and Malden; a community in Kampala, Uganda; and one in Richmond, Va. While the members prefer to identify simply as Christians and avoid labeling themselves as Anabaptist or another name that sounds denominational, a Mennonite influence is present in the group.

Kuruvilla, who has an evangelical background, started FOTW in 2013 after spending a few years with an Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church congregation on a quest to connect with Christians who practiced New Testament teachings literally.

However, he objected to the imposition of behavioral and lifestyle standards beyond the instruction in the Bible.

“We try very hard not to impose extrabiblical standards on one another,” he said. “We have the idea of seeing man-made traditions as something to be very careful about. . . . They ultimately take people away from the simplicity of following Jesus.”

Some FOTW members who come from a traditional Mennonite background voiced similar concerns.

Genuine spirituality

In Malden, Rosene (Weaver) Wine’s living room resembles a small preschool. Her three little boys quickly abandon their toys to stand at the front window, mesmerized by the truck coming to pick up the garbage at their apartment complex. Her 5-week-old daughter sleeps peacefully on the couch.

Three brothers watch a garbage truck arrive at their apartment complex in Mal­den, Mass. Their parents, Joe and Rosene (Weaver) Wine, grew up in the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and now are part of Followers of the Way in Malden. — Rachel Stella/MWR
Three brothers watch a garbage truck arrive at their apartment complex in Mal­den, Mass. Their parents, Joe and Rosene (Weaver) Wine, grew up in the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and now are part of Followers of the Way in Malden. — Rachel Stella/MWR

Wine grew up in Berks County, Pa., as part of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church. Her husband, Joe Wine, also grew up in the EPMC in Lancaster County, Pa.

“We both really craved a genuine spirituality in a community setting,” she said. In her home church, she said, there was “more emphasis on maintaining tradition than [on] biblical obedience.”

Their family made some long-distance visits to FOTW before moving there in July 2017. Wine said she appreciated FOTW’s focus on seeking the truth.

“Instead of church tradition being the focus, the focus is on biblical truth,” she said. “There’s openness to change in pursuit of the truth.”

She said the blending of cultures made more room for various opinions and applications of faith. For example, the women wear head coverings but choose the styles, which don’t necessarily look “Mennonite.”

“Before, when someone asked me why I was dressed the way I was, I could just say, ‘I’m Mennonite.’ That was a culture people recognized,” she said. “Now, when I say, ‘Because I’m a Christian,’ other Christians might be offended because they think I think I’m better than they are.”

Instead of relying on identifying with a Mennonite culture, she now has to continually re-evaluate her personal convictions in order to defend them.

A life’s pilgrimage

In Medford, Earl Wenger tells of a lifetime of spiritual pilgrimage, beginning with his childhood among horse-and-buggy-driving Old Order Mennonites and young adulthood with the Nationwide Fellowship Churches, a plain Mennonite group.

In 1994, he and his wife, Joan, left Nationwide “in search of a people who were excited about serving God and not merely content with following church rules,” he said.

After moves to Oklahoma and Wisconsin, experiencing the dissolution of two churches, and the death of his wife in 2005, he came upon FOTW and decided to try fellowshiping with them for a year, beginning in May 2017.

Wenger doesn’t have a firm belief about to what extent a congregation should regulate Christian behavior beyond New Testament instruction.

“Can we regulate how Christians live?” he mused. “What is simply making an acceptable application of the Word of God, and what’s adding to the Word of God?”

In his view, churches typically go one of two directions — “the more rules, the better or the less rules, the better — the focus is on rules, and not about what brings glory to God,” he said. “So many plain people do not know why they do what they do. They don’t really know the Scriptures that well. I’m one of those people.”

One thing he appreciates about FOTW is its focus on reaching out to non-Christians and inviting them to know Christ.

“It doesn’t matter how theologically correct any group is,” he said. “The driving force has to be a genuine love for souls.”

The missional emphasis is behind FOTW’s commitment to urban living.

“A fisherman doesn’t go to the most isolated part of the lake to fish,” Wine said. She said she recognized there were good aspects of rural living that she felt her children were missing, and it was a change from the traditional Mennonite identity of being “the quiet in the land.”

“The Bible has so much to say about evangelism and spreading the truth,” she said. “I don’t think that means being quiet about your faith. . . . I don’t think all Christians need to live in urban settings, but more should.”

Starting a college

Kuruvilla and other members of FOTW, together with a similar congregation in nearby Woburn whose members come mainly from the International Church of Christ, are spearheading the establishment of a liberal arts college named after Anabaptist martyr Michael Sattler, who is considered the main writer of the 1527 Schleit­heim Confession.

Less than 10 miles from Harvard, Sattler College proclaims its tuition will be around $9,000 per year and all its students will study Greek and Hebrew. The first class of 26 students has been accepted, and they will begin their first semester this fall, with a 100 percent discount on tuition for their first year.

One is 18-year-old Hannah Milioni, whose family is part of FOTW.

“I’m really interested in the language courses,” she said. “It’s super useful to be able to read the New Testament in Greek for Bible studies.”

About two-thirds of the accepted applicants are from traditional Anabaptist backgrounds.

A Sunday in April

On Sundays, afternoon services at Medford are held in the living room of Jeremy Horning, a great-great-grandson of Old Order Mennonite Bishop Moses Horning, who in the 1920s did not expel members who owned cars, leading to the 1926 division between the car-driving Weaverland Mennonite Conference (also known as “Black Bumpers” or “Horning Mennonites”) and the horse-and-buggy-driving Groffdale Old Order Mennonite Conference.

Horning’s parents left the Weaverland Conference, and he grew up in the Nationwide church. Now, with his wife and three children, he is one of the oldest members at FOTW, which he joined after reading Kuruvilla’s book, King Jesus Claims His Church.

“Taking the teachings of Jesus seriously is non-negotiable,” he said.

On April 1, there is almost no mention of it being Easter Sunday, in keeping with the avoidance of traditions beyond what the New Testament outlines. Wenger, the song leader, chooses one traditional Easter song from Hymns of the Church, compiled in 2011 by John D. Martin of Chambersburg, Pa.

Around 30 adults and children sit on folding chairs in Horning’s living room. Tuang gives a short message. Then Kuruvilla talks about Jesus’ teaching of “love your enemies” from Matthew 5, quoting from Tertullian, a North African Christian writer of the second and third centuries.

After a potluck supper, conversation lasts late into the evening while children play.

Close connections

Close community is one of FOTW’s core values, which is why the Medford and Malden groups have separate congregations despite being around five miles apart. Between the two groups, there about 80 people, roughly two-thirds of whom are children and youth.

Members live in shared housing or as near to each other as possible. The closeness fosters accountability that members feel is necessary for their shared participation in communion.

While there is no book of rules, Kuruvilla’s book and the many recorded sermons present the community’s ideals. Would-be members are interviewed about their beliefs and spend time with a few people in the community, who then recommend whether the addition would be a good fit.

“The danger is that when you have a list of rules, it can harden people, . . . as opposed to trying to understand principles,” Kuru­villa said. “We’ve found that if you want to have people truly believe something with their heart, . . . it’s much better to have that holistic approach.”

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