This article was originally published by The Mennonite

The liberal litany

Tolerance and innovation are given greater priority than tradition and Scripture.

During my adult life in the Mennonite church I have heard a litany of contentious issues: prayer coverings and plain coats, restrictions against radios and TV, divorce and remarriage, women pastors and nonresistance to justice.

You can add your own variations to this litany and you can add the latest iteration.

At our Scottdale (Pa.) congregation’s sharing time, a detailed story of Paul Erb and mixed bathing was added to this list of progress. I suppose the point was to emphasize how unimportant these issues seem today.

One could add theological issues such as the uniqueness of Jesus, his divinity and humanity; the gender of God, the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures; and our hope of eternal life and a green earth. We know the ending to this litany.

What was once ignored, prohibited and sometimes even denounced has become acceptable, in some cases even embraced.

Mennonite Church USA archives.
Mennonite Church USA archives.

Often one hears a triumphal tone about the list.

We are the future, or, especially if you’re my age, we are with the younger generation. This one-tune litany often emanates from our academic centers with the comments all going in one direction, value added with a left-wing political agenda. But in order to have nuanced or critical discussion, conservative thought should at least be welcomed. So let’s begin.

Is the self-defined progressive direction of our future inevitable?

Is the Anabaptist Christian trajectory over almost five centuries linear in an individual freedom direction? Might this litany seem more cautionary as a formula for demise rather than a glorious path to a progressive Anabaptist future?

I’ll mention several reasons why some skepticism of the liberal litany might be appropriate: church history (the tradition), practical realities (conservative energy) and biblical literacy (evangelical grounding).

In church history, the cautionary reflex to a liberal litany is the image of being greeted by a Doopsgezinde lesbian pastor with a dozen congregants in a large historic meetinghouse in Amsterdam.

Total membership of the Dutch Mennonite Conference has diminished to under 8,000. If the image seems a stereotype, it is not altogether unfounded; check Mennonite church in the Netherlands on Wikipedia or the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO).

Today’s Dutch are hardly the standard bearers of the Anabaptist tradition except as a cautionary story.

We learned that already 100 years ago, when Amos D. Wenger, the first president of Eastern Mennonite University (then School), Harrisonburg, Va., traveled around the world with the realization that normative, Anabaptism had moved to the Americas. By mid-century Harold S. Bender of Goshen (Ind.) College and The Anabaptist Vision would have agreed.

A young grieving widower, Wenger may have been in a melancholy mood in his travels of visiting European Mennonites (especially the Dutch), but he ended with global mission efforts, especially what became the Mennonite church of India. By our century, the new Anabaptists and Menno­nites that emerged from these international Mennonite mission efforts make up the majority of the Mennonite World Conference membership today. This thought would have cheered Wenger.

But let us start with the conservatives, from Jacob Amman (1693) in Switzerland to the Kleine Gemeinde in 19th-century Russia. The Anabaptist tradition can also be told as the continuing renewal and ongoing vitality that emerges more out of communal church commitment than out of individual Western freedom. If you are confused, ask the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in North America or the Old Colony Mennonites spread all over Latin America who is carrying the tradition. These groups still believe in what the Dutch Mennonites had long since discarded in the Dortrecht Confession of Faith and the Anabaptist hymns and prayers.

They are the predominant carriers of the living tradition today.

Here in North America, during the 20th century, these traditional and conservative Anabaptists have outgrown other Mennonite groups by resisting the liberal litany, not by embracing it. Steven M. Nolt and Royden Loewen in Seeking Places of Peace (2010) give total Anabaptist membership in North America at 531,775; of these, 139,000 belong to Mennonite Church USA and Canada.

Three out of four Anabaptists in North America are among the evangelical or traditional groups who do not see inevitability to a liberal litany, except as a cautionary story not to become like the Dutch or their neighbors in Mennonite Church USA or Canada.

Even the popular culture is aware of this reality.

When the Ben Affleck character’s love interest in last year’s movie Gone Girl dresses up with a white, buttoned-up blouse (we’re supposed to think virtue and health), she is called a “****ing Mennonite.” Still, her conservative image is closer to the Anabaptist norm of fertility and future than would be her liberal number.

OK, a confession: Most of us are at home with at least some of the liberalizing practices and beliefs I listed; we’re not joining the Amish or Hutterites.

Even these traditional groups have changed practices over the decades. But have they not benefitted from some skepticism toward trendy innovation in church practices? Might even Mennonite Church USA members have some communal DNA among our membership, people who nurture community rather than individualistic triumphalism and even arrogance?

If the liberal litany is inaccurate in defining the broader Anabaptist tradition historically, a part of its problem is that it has no parallel to the conservative’s energy in respecting the tradition. The liberal litany assumes tolerance and innovation as the greatest virtues of the Christian faith. Hence, if same-sex marriage is presented as a newfound practice, that is all the more reason to remain skeptical. Conservatives have the tradition as a bulwark against what comes labeled as innovation.

Having said that, many conservatives would not even believe same-sex behavior is so newfound in spite of its current prevalence in the courts, films and TV. They believe same-sex marriage is as old as the pagan practices the ancient Hebrews and later Christian teaching proscribed for about 19 centuries. What had been settled doctrine for centuries should hardly be changed by Western cultural tastes of the last several decades.

If the conservative Anabaptists reject the liberal litany, the evangelical Anabaptists have similar impulses.

Here the response comes less from the tradition than from a basic biblical literacy. Evangelical Anabaptists here in the Americas can read the Spanish, English and the German Bible. They even give themselves some credit for understanding its meaning. As tradition is to old orders, the Bible is to the evangelicals; it has authority.

Most evangelical and traditional Anabaptists will accommodate themselves to liberal Western host cultures in giving equal rights and increasing freedom to all as citizens. It’s what makes North American culture such a livable community, with its tradition of personal and religious freedom and the rule of law. But evangelical Anabaptists stop short in giving this same legitimacy in the church because of the Scriptures.

Membership and Christian commitment are voluntary, and evangelical Anabaptists give a higher authority to the biblical teaching of encouraging marriage of a man and a woman. They may arrive at this position from a plain reading of the Bible or from the most sophisticated historical and critical reading of the texts in their schools. Today’s evangelical Anabaptist culture can provide both.

If the authority of the Bible and the surrounding culture are in conflict, generally for evangelical Anabaptists, the Bible’s teaching trumps the culture’s popular wisdom. Most evangelical Anabaptists are Christocentric and confess to being disciples of Jesus. They would read and teach both parts of Jesus’ saying: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

This evangelical Anabaptist ethos also permeates most of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in Africa, Asia and South America. They will be as offended as their North American counterparts if they are greeted and harassed in Harrisburg, Pa., next summer by a phalanx of Pink Menno shirts.

This reflection began at a Laurelville Menno­nite Church Center weekend in Mt. Pleasant, Pa., where some friends mentioned that the Walnut Creek congregation was leaving Ohio Conference and Mennonite Church USA. In Holmes County, Ohio, Walnut Creek is the original Amish Mennonite church from which the area’s many Anabaptist groups take their roots, dating back to the beginning of the 19th century. Walnut Creek Mennonites likely had other priorities than debating the denomination’s sexual agenda, so their decision is understandable. Other congregations have taken similar steps.

Still, for many of us, it is also regrettable.

Denominationally, we are diminished when these large, evangelically oriented and traditional congregations leave us. Now fewer of their voices are heard within the denomination, providing alternatives to the liberal litany.

Meanwhile, many of us will remain members of the most liberal communion of Mennonites in North America, and I at least have no illusions of the moral and theological directions that have been set in motion. We will continue to diminish ourselves numerically, financially and spiritually. (Yes, I know other points of view are readily available on the many blogs of the Mennonite periodicals.) I have simply tried to give a denominational overview because this is the area in which I’ve worked all my adult life.

On the local level, every region and congregation will have its own stories and sources of hope. Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, Laurelville’s young families bring us new energy; a Bhutanese immigrant group and a young Mennonite congregation in Pittsburgh add hopeful vigor. Meanwhile, two new (Beachy) Amish Mennonite congregations have begun in the nearby countryside; all these groups have lots of children and young adults, including Pittsburgh Mennonite Church.

So I am grateful, often hopeful, and take some consolation from the British Christian and bibliophile Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who responded to his own century’s liberal impulses: “It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure.”

Miller LeviLevi Miller is a member of Scottdale (Pa.) Mennonite Church. He writes a blog——where he’s releasing his memoir, Signifying: The Education of Levi Miller.

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