A friend of mine asks fascinated questions about my lifestyle as a conservative Mennonite.
Is it true you drive only black cars?
How does a bald Mennonite woman pin on her cap?
Can Mennonites make rum cake?
How can you maintain your Mennonite-ness in a modern world?
Her questions got me thinking. What is Mennonite-ness? Is it merely a set of unusual lifestyle choices, as she believes it to be? Is it something worth maintaining?
I’m a conservative Mennonite who grew up in a church where cape dresses and a prayer veiling were required for women, where members didn’t vote and where visiting the local bowling alley — which served alcohol — was considered conduct unbecoming of a Christian.
Walking through Walmart recently, I noticed a display of inspirational books emblazoned with pictures of well-known Christian speakers along with phrases like “Become the person you were meant to be”; “Make your dream come true”; “Find abundant happiness.”
The message is clear: What’s in the Christian game for me?
It is a message that runs contrary to what Jesus taught when he said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35, King James Version).
We conservative Anabaptists understand something about the difference between the two messages. We maintain our dress and lifestyle guidelines in part to maintain the self-sacrificial lifestyle Jesus taught. We don’t want to swallow the me-first message — though, when we are honest, we must admit our efforts to follow the message of Jesus-first are woefully inadequate.
We hold our Anabaptist heritage as precious. We’ve heard the stories. Those early Anabaptists stood against great pressure for the things that are cornerstones of our faith:
Simplicity. They turned away from the complex, organized social strata of the state church to a simple, Christ-centered gospel.
Personal responsibility. Every man, every woman on equal footing before God. No riding into the kingdom of heaven on the cassock tails of a cleric. No initiation rites for unknowing infants.
Discipleship. They turned away from state church tradition and died to follow a Man and a Book.
We conservative anabaptists all have family members in mainstream Christian churches. “You’ve lost the Spirit; you’re bound by the letter,” they tell us. “Now that we’ve left all that behind, we have freedom. Salvation doesn’t come through works.”
But with a picture in our mind of the two kingdoms — one a dazzling thing of beauty and power, the other plain and rather ugly, beset with blood, sweat and tears — we hold grimly to our trivialities. Cape dresses, sober vehicles, no television, no rum. These are our security in a fast-paced, ever- changing, materialistic society.
Anabaptists today are part of a complex network of churches, split-offs of churches and split-offs of split-off churches. Most conservative Mennonite churches have agreed on a set of written standards, and many are guided by a complicated hierarchy of who associates with whom.
The standards and social hierarchy are the result of a people deathly afraid of becoming “worldly.” We’ve seen it happen so often. We’ve watched what we believe to be biblical principles of separation, nonconformity, nonresistance and wearing the head covering flung away to the winds of newer, bigger, better and filled with the Spirit.
Seeing the losses, conservative Mennonites work to tighten security and build walls against the encroaching world. Ironically, the higher we build our walls, the more complex grows our religion — and the more we destroy the simple biblical adherence we are trying to preserve.
This is the irony of conservative Mennonite-ness.
But the irony doesn’t stop with conservative Mennonites. Mainstream Mennonites also can become so enamored with preserving their heritage or protecting the reputation of their churches that they lose the simple message of the gospel they admire in their forebears.
Mennonite-ness is not the gospel. One day it will crumble, along with every other religion, institution and dogma devised by human minds. Only the gospel of Christ, pure and simple, drenched in blood and rather ugly, will stand.
Should we build on anything less?