Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2013
It used to be that the question “what makes a Mennonite?” probably would mainly have confused North American Mennonites. A Mennonite was simply born into the family, church, and broader Mennonite fellowship. Now it’s true Mennonites practiced believers baptism with its implication that actually becoming a formal member of the Mennonite church required a choice, a conscious commitment.
So there may have been a bit of a tension between one’s birthright Mennonite identity and one’s official, based-on-church-membership Mennonite identity. But for generations the large percentage of those born into Mennonite families stayed in the fold—and few “outsiders” entered the church community. So to be a “Mennonite” was a straightforward, uncomplicated thing that had most of all to do with birth into the community.
The effects of Mennonite cultural assimilation
This has all changed in the past 130 years. As North American Mennonites have assimilated, this has meant that the boundaries separating the Mennonite world from the outside have become increasingly permeable. More people born into Mennonite families have left, more new Mennonites have entered the fold, and various theological currents from the outside have shaped Mennonite congregations.
People who track such things are worried about Mennonite demographics, especially in relation to the make up of Mennonite Church USA (and also, perhaps, Mennonite Church Canada as well as other Mennonite groups). As a rule, Mennonites are getting older. Due to smaller families and young people leaving the church often not to return, the overall numbers of church members are shrinking and those who remain tend to be older.
One way to speak of these dynamics is to say that more and more, being a part of the Mennonite community is a choice. People who are born into find it easier to leave and people from the outside find it easier to enter the community (at least to some extent). Fewer people all the time, it seems, are making this choice.
So, is there a future for the Mennonite tradition? One small part of reflecting on this question is simply to think about what a “Mennonite” is—or, as I ask in this post’s title, “what makes a Mennonite?”
The label “Mennonite”
Part of how we might approach this question is to work first at defining “Mennonite.” I suggest we can think of three distinct senses that a person might affirm the label Mennonite:
(1) Institutional—This sense is the easiest to measure. By “institutional Mennonite” I have in mind those with formal membership in a congregation that has membership in a Mennonite denomination—specifically, for the purpose of these reflections, Mennonite Church USA. These are the numbers that have been going down in recent years.
It would be interesting to know the percentages of institutional Mennonites who have been born into the community and who share basic Mennonite convictions, but the label applies to all in the congregations regardless of family background or beliefs.
(2) Genetic—By “genetic Mennonite,” I refer to people born into a family with Mennonite ties. These are the people for whom terms such as “ethnic Mennonite” and “Mennonite name” apply. After having been around Mennonites for more than three decades, I have learned most of the “Mennonite names.” When I encounter people with names such as Yoder, Friesen, or Swartzendruber, I tend to assume they are Mennonites or have Mennonite ancestors. Usually that is the case.
(3) Theological—By “theological Mennonite,” I refer to people who affirm core convictions of the Anabaptist tradition. What matters most of these convictions is, of course, contested. There have been various formulations. One of the most widely used summaries has been that offered by Harold Bender, now 70 years ago. In a much circulated article, he gave the central points of what he called the “Anabaptist Vision”: First, “the essence of Christianity is discipleship”; second, “voluntary church membership based upon true conversion and involving a commitment to holy living and discipleship”; third, “the ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships.”
A more recent and slightly more detailed summary came from the Mennonite World Conference’s list of “Shared Convictions”:
- God is known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator who seeks to restore fallen humanity by calling a people to be faithful in fellowship, worship, service and witness.
- Jesus is the Son of God. Through his life and teachings, his cross and resurrection, he showed us how to be faithful disciples, redeemed the world, and offers eternal life.
- As a church, we are a community of those whom God’s Spirit calls to turn from sin,acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, receive baptism upon confession of faith, and follow Christ in life.
- As a faith community, we accept the Bible as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance, in the light of Jesus Christ to discern God’s will for our obedience.
- The Spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all areas of life so we become peacemakers who renounce violence, love our enemies, seek justice, and share our possessions with those in need.
- We gather regularly to worship, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to hear the Word of God in a spirit of mutual accountability.
- As a world-wide community of faith and life we transcend boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender and language. We seek to live in the world without conforming to the powers of evil, witnessing to God’s grace by serving others, caring for creation, and inviting all people to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Prior to the cultural assimilation of North American Mennonites, this threefold distinction (institutional, genetic, and theological) would not have made much sense to most Mennonites. Membership and birth went together. Most people born into Mennonite families at the proper time joined the church. Few came in from the “outside.” So, Mennonites talked little about their theological convictions because most of their theological was embedded from birth on up.
In our current circumstance, though, the distinctions among the three points has become crucial. One of the reasons, I would suggest, that the Mennonite tradition may not have a hopeful future is the difficulty in letting go of the “genetic Mennonite” dynamic and revitalizing the “institutional Mennonite” dynamic in light of clarity and passion about the “theological Mennonite” dynamic.
A historical challenge
I was challenged to think about these issues again (or still!) by an article I recently read: Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84.4 (October 2010), 507-549, even though the article itself was not addressing the issues I am thinking about—maybe it’s the fact that the article does not address these issues that stimulating my reflections.
This is a deeply researched essay that focuses especially on two characters who were “genetic Mennonites” who were directly involved genocidal activities as part of the Holocaust. Gerhard Rempel himself is identified as professor of history emeritus at Western New England College. His current status in relation to the Mennonite tradition is unclear. He appears to be a direct descendent of Mennonites who were involved in the terrible events recounted in his essay. But his own relationship to Mennonites is not stated.
Rempel’s use of “Mennonite” in his article raises many questions for me. He does does not say what he means by “Mennonite” as he tells about two individuals in particular who he identifies as Mennonites who directly participated in the Nazi-directed genocide of Europe’s Jews.
It seems likely that the two men discussed were “Mennonite” only in the sense of number two. One for sure had been born into a Mennonite family but had long before left the Mennonite community when he engaged in his genocidal activity. So, in what sense was he a “Mennonite” at all? Is a “genetic Mennonite” who is neither a member of a Mennonite congregation nor an adherent to Mennonite convictions actually a “Mennonite”? Would the fact that Hitler came from a Catholic family mean we should talk about “Catholics and the Holocaust” when we specifically have in mind Hitler’s role? I’d think not.
This is an interesting question in relation directly to Rempel’s argument and the discussion of Mennonites in Europe in relation to the Holocaust. That is an important issue, but it would take some careful discussion to have the discussion happen in a way that was enlightening about Mennonites. I’d think we would need to discuss Mennonite communities, not isolated individuals who had few if any direct links to those communities.
Right now, though, I am more interested simply in the more general question about the meaning and usefulness of the Mennonite label. I believe that work on the third aspect of the label, “theological,” is essential if the Mennonite tradition is to have a future. My sense is that among the North American Mennonites I am most familiar with, this work is not a particularly high priority. Partly, they don’t like the category “theology” for reasons I’m not totally clear about. Partly, they aren’t that interested in self-reflection about deep-seated convictions, even if we can come up with a term other than “theology” for such reflection.
However, the institutions in the Mennonite world of North America may be calcifying and losing vitality. Some have lost their Mennonite identity, even giving up the name “Mennonite,” over time in the past 130 years. Institutions (especially those related to voluntary membership such as churches) require a vital sense of vision, purpose, and identity to be life-enhancing and sustainable.
The genetic sense of identity has lost most of its relevance. Notions of “ethnic Mennonites” and “Mennonite names” have actually become offensive to some of us who have voluntarily chosen to identify with the tradition (including joining Mennonites institutionally). It feels pretty strange and off-putting to see people who have actually repudiated their Mennonite identity and officially joined with other traditions treated as “Mennonite writers,” for example, while people who have joined Mennonite congregations and affirm Mennonite theology are at times treated as “other-than-Mennonite.” It’s as if the definition of “Mennonite” follows mainly from the lazy and superficial identifier of a surname that can be recognized as “Mennonite” regardless of the convictions and actions of the one bearing it.
However without the enlivening of the practice of theological reflection (that is, self-conscious reflection and conversation about the core convictions that shape faith and practices) it is difficult to imagine a very positive future for Mennonite institutions. The theology will not die, but how much will it be linked with this specific tradition?