Not as exceptional as we think

Photo: Klim Musalimov, Unsplash.

Sometime in the early 1970s, the Holmes County, Ohio, congregation into which I had recently been baptized underwent a painful division. At the time, the obvious explanation for the split focused on the new pastor. Though raised in a Mennonite setting, he was sharply critical of the cultural habits and insularity of traditional Mennonites who seemed oblivious to the spiritual needs of the unchurched. But he also thundered against the progressive currents he detected in Mennonite institutions, which he regarded as evidence of cultural assimilation. 

The solution was an eclectic mix of American fundamentalism (with a strong emphasis on biblical literalism); Scofield dispensationalism (with frequent warnings of Christ’s imminent return); an embrace of the charismatic movement (along with the gifts of prophecy, healing, and tongues); a new focus on evangelism (including a local tract ministry, frequent revival meetings and strategies for church growth); and regular testimonies from representatives of the Gideons, the Christian Business Men’s Connection and Campus Crusade, with its “Four Spiritual Laws.” 

The tensions that ensued eventually resulted in a church split, with half of my friends joining their families to form a nondenominational community church just up the road. 

For many years, I understood the division mostly as the accident of personality or the unfortunate result of a search committee’s bad choice. But over time I’ve come to recognize that the tensions were part of a much larger sociological and cultural reality — structural forces were playing out in our drama that went far deeper than the vision or personality of a single pastor. 

Indeed, at the time my congregation was coming apart, numerous other Mennonite congregations in Holmes County were embroiled in divisions. Similar dynamics replicated themselves in Mennonite communities across North America.

Understanding church life through the lens of sociological currents does not come naturally to most Mennonites. We are accustomed to thinking of the church as a distinct culture, a people “called out” of the world. Voluntary baptism marks the entrance into a community whose life together is distinct from the surrounding culture. Whether the markers of that identity are grounded in distinctive dress, pacifism, simple living or radical discipleship, we consider ourselves resident aliens, a people apart. Our sense of exceptionalism is reinforced by a martyr tradition of ancestors who paid for their convictions with their lives.

In an underappreciated book, Disquiet in the Land: Cultural Conflict in American Mennonite Communities (Rutgers, 1997), sociologist Fred Kniss sought to understand the deeper sources of conflicts in Anabaptist-Mennonite history. Kniss identified more than 200 church-­related conflicts between 1870 and 1985 and noted that they clustered in four waves, each corresponding to a time of exceptional cultural tension within the nation as a whole. 

His book does not discount the power of ideas or theology to shape identity. But the conclusion is unmistakable. Even the Mennonites and Amish, who seek to separate themselves from the world, cannot escape culture’s profound influence.  

I am grateful for Mennonite voices that have encouraged women in leadership, named the realities of racism in our midst, supported LGBTQ inclusion and denounced the Doctrine of Discovery. But these impulses did not originate within the church. In virtually every instance, progressive discourse among Mennonites mirrors language borrowed from the larger culture. 

The same is true of conservative voices. All the themes my former pastor regarded as hallmarks of Christian faithfulness were borrowed from American culture, which, in later incarnations, would include the influence of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh-style radio programs, the rise of Christian nationalism and the racial resentments of White rural America.

One of the most painful realities of the current divisions splintering the Mennonite church is every side’s perception of itself as a prophetic minority, heroically resisting the secularizing forces of the culture that seem antagonistic to the truth of the gospel. Yet, as the 16th-century Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier wrote, all of us are embedded in the world “up to our necks.”

The call to be nonconformed to the world has not changed. But the path of nonconformity begins with humility and confession — what the early Anabaptists called Gelassenheit — yielding ourselves to the movement of the Spirit, the example of Jesus and the possibility of being converted again and again.  

John D. Roth

John D. Roth is project director of MennoMedia’s Anabaptism at 500.

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