Groups have been trying for years to bridge the gap between Mennonitism and evangelicalism, but that bridge has always been unstable and inevitably fallen. Is another crash looming?
This month, the U.S. Mennonite Brethren will decide whether or not to backtrack from their historic opposition to taking up arms — by dropping their Confession of Faith’s directive against serving in the military.
The Confession currently says, “In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible.” The proposed revision says, “As in other peace churches, many of us choose not to participate in the military but rather in alternative forms of service.”
Adopting this change could indicate that U.S. Mennonite Brethren are on a path that has already led the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Missionary Church Association to abandon their Mennonite identity in favor of mainstream evangelicalism.
Those denominations, all now known by other names and only vaguely acknowledging their Mennonite heritage, were founded on spiritual renewal, personal conversion and mission work — all of which they saw, often correctly, as lacking in the larger Mennonite church.
These groups also initially upheld one of the Anabaptist tradition’s greatest distinctives: rejection of military service. The Evangelical Mennonite Society of Eastern Pennsylvania (which became part of the MBIC) unequivocally declared in 1867, 10 years after its founding: “We believe that war and blood shedding are not conformable to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ.” The EMB and EMC, each organized in the late 1800s, even included “Defenseless” in their original names to underscore their commitment to nonresistance.
But that commitment started to wane by mid-20th century. Already in 1922, the EMC dropped Bluffton College (now University) from its list of approved schools because, according to the denomination, it downplayed salvation in favor of social actions, such as war resistance. The fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Marion, a Wesleyan college in Indiana, remained acceptable options. (Fifty-two years later, a survey found only one EMC minister had a degree from a Mennonite school.)
In the 1940s, the EMC, MCA and EMB (as well as the Mennonite Brethren) joined the National Association of Evangelicals, further exposing themselves to countervailing influences.
During World War II, pacifism was mortally wounded among the evangelicals, as evidenced by the paltry number of young men who entered Civilian Public Service. Church periodicals carried few articles on pacifism, and few ministers preached or counseled draftees about it. When the MCA hired a new president for its Fort Wayne Bible Institute in 1945, it chose a recently discharged U.S. Army chaplain.
The EMB was a shining, temporary exception. It sent nearly two-thirds of its draft-eligible men to CPS, the highest percentage of all Mennonite groups. During the Korean War, however, delegates couldn’t even pass a brief statement reaffirming their peace position. In 1970, the denomination severed its ties with Mennonite Central Committee because of the agency’s lack of evangelistic efforts.
The EMB had joined the other groups in the evangelical mainstream, with its emphasis on saving souls, individual relationships with God and limited emphasis on discipleship and community. All had, in practice if not official doctrine, become neutral on pacifism. In fact, pacifism had long been seen not just as optional but as an obstacle to outreach. How could those who fought for their county accept the Good News and feel welcome in the church if they were being told their vocation was at odds with Christ’s teaching and example?
The denominations essentially codified their abandonment of Mennonitism when they changed their names. The MBIC was the first, becoming the United Missionary Church in 1947. In 1969 it merged with the MCA, which never had Mennonite in its name, to form the Missionary Church. The Pennsylvania portion of the MBIC remained independent and kept the name until 1959, when it changed to Bible Fellowship Church. The EMB became the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches in 1987, and the EMC renamed itself the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches in 2003.
Might the U.S. Mennonite Brethren be next?
Rich Preheim is a freelance writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.