Mennonite or Anabaptist?

Both have their place — and either way, it takes extra effort to keep a unique identity

While creating Anabaptist World, we thought a lot about how to define its purpose. We talked about an Anabaptist flagship publication. An independent journalistic ministry. A forum for Anabaptist voices. We made a list of core values and wrote a mission statement.

Still, we haven’t exhausted the possibilities. Here’s another description: Anabaptist World is both a mirror (reflecting who we are) and a beacon (pointing to what we might become).

Thus we lift up the ideal of a faith community:

Deeply rooted in Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage; and

Confident of our unique contribution on the larger Christian scene.

Is this a mirror, or a beacon, or both?

Perhaps it is more of a beacon. Ap­preciation for our historical identity and confidence in our unique value are not characteristics Mennonites always possess in abundance.

Too often we’ve treated our Anabaptist-Mennonite identity as an embarrassing secret. Sometimes we hide it behind a “community church” name or an undefined abbreviation.

For a long time I resisted any pro­posed name for this magazine that didn’t have the word “Mennonite” in it. I didn’t want to be part of a trend away from the historical name.

But Anabaptist World, combined with “Mennonite news, inspiring stories” as a tagline, grew on me. We’ve heard from readers who agree that it feels right. It encompasses a movement of Christ-centered life and belief that’s broader than the Mennonite churches — broader, in fact, than any institutional church.

My eventual enthusiasm for the Anabaptist World name has eased (but not erased) my doubts about other relatively recent changes like Conservative Mennonite Conference becoming CMC and Lancaster Mennonite Conference becoming LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches.

On one hand, a name doesn’t prove anything. If a congregation or denomination teaches and practices the Anabaptist version of Christian faith, its actions will speak louder than any words on a sign or a website.

On the other hand, names are important. It’s hard for a church to maintain an identity that goes unnoticed unless you read the fine print.

Mainstream evangelicalism has a strong pull, especially on those who don’t claim a distinct identity. It takes intentionality (that’s churchspeak for “extra effort”) for a Community Bible Church to be truly Anabaptist.

In fact, it takes intentionality for all of us.

In almost any context, “Anabaptist” works as an inclusive rallying point. Evana, a network of congregations that formed in 2015, combines “evangelical” and “Anabaptist.” Mennonite Brethren embrace an evangelical Anabaptist identity. Mennonite World Conference is considering a name change to emphasize “Anabaptist.”

A key advantage of “Anabaptist” is that people almost always understand it as a religious term. “Mennonite,” on the other hand, can bring to mind either a religious group or a white, European-­heritage ethnic community and its cultural traditions.

There are people with no current connection to a Mennonite church who consider themselves Mennonite. And that’s not wrong. If the word defines their cultural or religious identity, they have every right to use it.

The problem with “Mennonite eth­nicity” is when those with long bloodlines in the church claim favored status.

Although “Anabaptist” has its own problems (it sounds like “anti-Baptist,” and it’s a bit of a misnomer, as actual rebaptism is rare), there’s no ethnic baggage weighing it down.

People of diverse cultures, races and religious backgrounds embrace the term. Globally, it resonates with Christians who don’t use the Mennonite name but gather under the MWC umbrella. For instance:

Zimbabwean Anabaptists, who hosted the 2003 MWC assembly and are Brethren in Christ.

Indonesian Anabaptists, who will host the 2022 assembly and are organized into three synods with names like Javanese Evangelical Church.

Ethiopian Anabaptists, whose name, Meserete Kristos, means “Christ the foundation,” and are the world’s largest Anabaptist body. (Their seminary collaborates with Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana to offer a Master of Arts in Theology and Global Anabaptism.)

Will our identity foster unity or division? Unearned privilege or empathetic connection?

Directing us to unity inspired by Jesus, who humbled himself and gave up his divine privilege (Philippians 2), Indonesian pastor Danang Kristiawan writes on MWC’s website: “When people allow racial, ethnic and religious identities to ignore others outside their own identity, that is when the mind of Christ invites us to go beyond our identities to engage with others.”

Mennonite or Anabaptist? Both have their place in a global fellowship that makes room for everyone who seeks the mind of Christ.

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. Read More

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