The “Anabaptist sensibility” and Mennonite signifier [Theological memoir #10]

Ted Grimsrud—February 2, 2021

I first learned about Mennonites back in the late 1970s. I had two points of entry—pacifism and Christian community. In the summer of 1976, right after I graduated from college, I met my first Mennonites when I visited a Christian community called Reba Place Fellowship in the Chicago area. At the about the same time, a close friend of mine was taking a summer school class at Regent College in British Columbia on Christian pacifism from Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

Finding connections with Mennonites

Over the next four years, I tried to learn more and more about Mennonites. One of the things I learned was that Mennonite origins went back to the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century Protestant Reformation. In the Fall of 1980, my wife Kathleen and I took things up a notch and enrolled at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now called, interestingly in the context of what is follow in this post, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary).

It was our first deep immersion in a Mennonite community. We talked a lot with our many new friends about the relationship between the original radical 16th century Anabaptists and contemporary Mennonite communities. In retrospect, it feels only somewhat facetious to say that we experienced a bait-and-switch operation. We loved AMBS and through it were drawn into the Mennonite world. Then, when we experienced more of that Mennonite world, we saw an entirely different—and much less attractive—face of Mennonitism. Of course, no one was actually trying to mislead us, but the contrast between our first and our later impressions became pretty painful.

Still euphoric from our time at AMBS, we did become Mennonites in 1981. That is, we joined a Mennonite congregation and committed ourselves to working in the Mennonite world. We embarked on parallel careers that led both Kathleen and I to become pastors in Mennonite congregations and professors at a Mennonite college. We still belong to a Mennonite congregation, but by now our feelings about Mennonites are very complicated. Most of the time, we would say we don’t feel like we ever did truly “become Mennonites,” try as we might.

The question of the relationship between “Anabaptistness” and “Mennoniteness” has remained a vexing one for us during all these past 40 years. I’d say that a big part of my complicated relationship with Mennonites has been my desire to influence Mennonites to draw more heavily on our Anabaptist heritage. My perspective now that my career as a paid professional Mennonite religionist has ended is possibly a bit jaded and even cynical. I’m still interested in the questions (hence this essay), but my sense of urgency is greatly diminished. I’m no longer seeking the embodiment of the “Anabaptist vision” so much as wanting to ease into an “Anabaptist sensibility.”

My tensions with the “Mennonite” signifier

I received a rude awakening concerning Mennonite ways in the late 1980s, after about ten years of mostly positive experiences. Kathleen and I joined a wonderful little congregation on the West Coast and I eventually became pastor there. When I completed my first year of pastoring, my congregation requested that I be ordained—seemingly a mere formality. However, we were blindsided by the strong opposition from several conference pastors, including one who was on the Leadership Committee. That pastor’s refusal to approve my ordination led to a difficult several years before finally the approval came. After that, though, I never felt comfortable among that region’s Mennonites and after a seven-year pastorate, moved away.

Ever since then, I have felt many tensions in my relationship with institutional Mennonitism. I have always been interested in pushing things in what I believed was a more Anabaptist direction. This approach is one that Mennonite conferences and schools have treated with suspicion. I drew a great deal of inspiration from the Anabaptists and from the teaching I received in my Mennonite education and from many of my Mennonite friends. I felt that a lot of the hostility I faced from Mennonites, especially in that first conflict over my ordination, has actually been because of my efforts to embody the convictions I had been encouraged in by my Mennonite teachers. So, it’s not surprising that it has all been confusing.

I have also realized that the tensions I have experienced run deep in the Mennonite culture of North America. Certainly, among many of the Mennonites I have been aware of since the 1980s, Mennonitism has often meant something quite different from Anabaptism. I have concluded that my idealism about being a Mennonite contrasted with what many Mennonites have wanted—included many Mennonites in leadership roles in Mennonite institutions. They weren’t seeking to be more Anabaptist. As it turned out, I never really did find a home. I cared a great deal about Mennonitism. But now, count me as a disappointed former Mennonite wannabe.

While there are many factors in my experience these past forty years that have led to my disillusionment with Mennonitism, I have to note that our sojourn among Mennonites has led to a great deal of happiness too. We have made many wonderful friends, been part of a number of excellent congregations, and been given many opportunities for meaningful ministry. So, there has been a lot of good to go along with the disillusionment.

The ideals that drew me into the Mennonite world have remained intact. In fact, my disillusionment has to do with the ideals not being embodied—not the ideals being refuted. It is because I still believe most of what I learned from Mennonites and the Anabaptist tradition that I have mostly given up on being a Mennonite.

What are American Mennonites?

Most recently, I have learned that in many rural counties in the US that contain a high percentage of Mennonites (including the one I live in), voters affirmed the re-election bid of Donald Trump by large margins (74% here in Rockingham Country, VA). My point is mainly about how unsurprising this is. Most Mennonites in the US, it appears (“Mennonite” understood in a broad sense), affirm the presidency of this extraordinarily anti-Christian office holder. There’s a lot to be said about Mennonite support for Trump, about what it says about the actual convictions that characterize this tradition now, but for now my point is simply to illustrate why I don’t find the Mennonite signifier a helpful signifier for my convictions—even as those convictions owe a great deal to the education I received in Mennonite communities.

The Mennonite rank and file, it appears, has become more politically engaged—at least in terms of voting—while moving further from a sense of applying their peace tradition to the wider world, further from a critique of wealth and power, and further from a commitment to living at harmony with nature. My personal disillusionment has to do with another aspect of Mennonitism, though, as I have had little direct involvement with the kinds of Mennonites who support Trump.

For me, the most difficult element is how I have experienced among Mennonites a severe disconnect between idealism and institutionalism. I have certainly had conflicts with individual Mennonites over the years, but the most profound occasions of pain I have experienced have been due to Mennonite institutions. Regional conferences have aggressively sought to refuse and remove my ordination as a Christian minister. A conference successfully did remove Kathleen’s ordination. Deeply hurtful discrimination against earnest believers has been expressed on conference and denominational levels. Mennonite colleges have been cold and harsh in ending the employment of several of my friends. And many more stories easily come to mind as well.

I have not mainly been disillusioned because Mennonite institutions have had to make difficult decisions and at times have faced deep complications due to the sharply differing perspectives among their constituents. Such difficulties are inevitably part of having institutions. What have been problematic are the processes leading up to and following difficult decisions. The actions have too often not reflected efforts to treat the people involved as full human beings worthy of respect, honesty, and compassion as the decision-making processes unfold. Mennonites may not be worse at such unkindness than other people (though, it is possible they are worse). However, these occasions of disrespect that I have seen in various institutions across the US have not been necessary—hard decisions can be joined with respect and compassion. When they are not, that seems blatantly to contradict the ideals Mennonites espouse.

The other “Mennonite” problem I have experienced that I want to mention to illustrate my disillusionment has been the proclivity to exert great energy at establishing and maintaining boundaries that exclude those who are not considered to be “safe,” or “orthodox,” or “subservient,” or “morally pure” enough. This focus on boundaries contributes to authoritarianism and tribalism that seem deeply in tension with ideals such as communal discernment, shared power, compassion toward the vulnerable, welcome of the stranger, and various other social dynamics that seem closely to follow from the life and teaching of Jesus.

My disillusionment even as I still hold to the convictions that drew me to Mennonites has made emphasizing “Anabaptism” as a signifier more attractive to me. Such an emphasis might better point toward a Jesus-centered, pacifist, hierarchy-suspecting, communally valuing tradition without some of the difficult baggage of the Mennonite signifier—and Mennonite institutions.

Qualifying the use of “Anabaptist”

In wanting to affirm Anabaptism as a core signifier for the theological convictions I affirm, I should first emphasize what I am not trying to do.

I am not looking for a normative vision that has timeless authority. I am not looking for a moment in time when people got Christianity right that can in turn provide us with a blueprint for how to get it right now. However, I do think that the historical events in 16th century Europe do provide us with an inspiring example of people who sought with great determination and integrity to embody the core teachings of Jesus.

I am not interested in a return to a golden age, nor am I interested in holding the Anabaptists up as high-level exemplars. They were fallible, fragile people who made many problematic choices and embraced many problematic beliefs. Plus, they struggled profoundly with sustaining their faith communities in the face of tremendous obstacles, not least the intense violence of the religious and political powers that be. They provide us with inspiration. They had many profound insights. In some ways, they were pioneers in their practices of faith. We have a lot to learn from them. But our responsibility is to seek peace and healing in our present world in our own distinctive ways, not to recover some past golden age.

Finally, I am not interested in using Anabaptism as the basis for creating or enforcing boundaries between “true believers” and the others. One of the appeals to me in using the language of Anabaptism instead of Mennonite is that we have far fewer institutions and formal structures that go by the title “Anabaptist” as opposed to “Mennonite”. A person can be kicked out of a Mennonite congregation, defrocked by a Mennonite conference, or disemployed by a Mennonite organization—all in the name of protecting Mennonite identity markers. Such actions are much less likely for people who seek to be Anabaptists. Perhaps embracing an “Anabaptist” rather than “Mennonite” sensibility can be a way to be less hurtful and more welcoming.

What an “Anabaptist sensibility” involves?

With “Anabaptist sensibility” I try to describe an orientation to faith, not establish a school or system or label. I think of a perspective that is non-coercive, non-institutional, non-controlling, and non-authoritarian. However, I also think it is useful to have a term that may provide a focus, a way to differentiate this orientation from, say, a Catholic, an evangelical, an Orthodox, or a mainstream Protestant. The Anabaptist sensibility links with an independent manifestation of Christianity, to some degree distinct from those others just mentioned.

Let me offer a brief and ad hoc summary of Anabaptist characteristics. Some generally recognized theological elements of the Anabaptist sensibility would include the following: (1) The life and teaching of Jesus are central, more so than highly developed doctrines such as “Christology” and various “attributes of God,” more so than a “flat” approach to the Bible that reads all elements as on the same level, and more so than later Traditions that de-center the gospels in place of the teachings of church leaders; (2) faith is understood in non-dualistic ways that seek to integrate faith and practice, the material and the spiritual, the divine and the human, et al; (3) the Bible is read as a historical, concrete, practical, story-oriented, and human conversation partner. The Bible and leadership in general are seen in non-authoritarian ways.

In the 16th century, the first Anabaptists tended to get into trouble. Thus, when we ask what got them in trouble, we are also asking what were some of their central convictions. On this, I will suggest four themes:

(1) The Anabaptists established themselves as church communities free from state control and from the dominance of the state churches. In the debates that led to the first Anabaptist baptisms in January, 1525, the issue was framed as one of whether they would accept the state’s demand that they limit their push for reform by continuing to baptize infants. The Anabaptists saw infant baptism linked with the lifelong membership of all citizens in the state church, signaling to them the subordination of the faith community to the political structures. Such subordination would, in their view, compete with their highest priority on following Jesus’s way. By breaking with the state-church and refusing to submit to the state’s domination expressed through infant baptism, Anabaptists were not simply guilty of heresy; they committed sedition, rebellion, a capital offense. They were executed by both Catholics and Protestants; to all of Western Europe they were rebels.

(2) A second and closely related reason the Anabaptists got into trouble was their refusal to participate in or even support the state’s wars – especially in the 16th century, wars with the Muslim Turks invading from the south. The Anabaptists were not universally pacifists. However, the evidence does point to strong support for pacifism among most Anabaptists following the Schleitheim Confession’s explicit rejection of the sword in 1527. A common complaint against the Anabaptists was that they refused to take up arms to defend their nations—especially to defend Christian Europe from the Turks. In doing so, they were seen to threaten the security and wellbeing of their societies.

(3) The Anabaptists posed a threat to the cultural consensus due to their upside-down sense of social power and hierarchy. One of the main commonalities for the various Anabaptist groups was their rejection of church hierarchies and top-down leadership (anti-clericalism). This stance of deep suspicion towards established power dynamics was a source of conflict between the Anabaptists and their society.

(4) A fourth characteristic is the alternative economics that characterized Anabaptist communities. They valued economic sharing, supporting people in need in their communities rather than the accumulating of wealth that at the same time was driving nascent capitalism and the emergence of European empire building with the “discovery” of the New World. Anabaptist groups worked at mutual aid and wide-ranging sharing of wealth. These practices ran against the grain of the broader society and occasioned much scorn and criticism from those outside the Anabaptist movement.

All these emphases, theological and practical, remain as relevant as ever in our present world. We need Anabaptist sensibilities more than ever—both to challenge Christianity better to embody the way of Jesus and to witness in our wider world of more peaceable paths.

The influence of Anabaptist sensibilities continues to spread, often in quiet and unofficial ways. If I am disillusioned by many of my experiences among Mennonites, I also highly value Mennonites for helping to keep Anabaptist sensibilities alive. My hope in writing about “Anabaptist sensibilities” is to help that heritage remain available—more so, as a way of seeing the world in light of faith than as any kind of organization or impressive movement.

[More Theological Memoir blog posts]

7 thoughts on “The “Anabaptist sensibility” and Mennonite signifier [Theological memoir #10]

  1. Thanks for welcoming us into your journey and for continuing your reflection and growth into your retirement years. You continue to be a blessing in our lives. Norm & Julie

  2. Ted, I so much appreciate this reflection. Even though “born a Mennonite” we of course always choose who and how we identify “our people” or our home base and how we connect or identify as Mennonite. I just hope using the word “Anabaptist” doesn’t cheapen or trivialize the word. I identify with and appreciate your words, thanks.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story. I echo some of your experience and many of your thoughts on this subject. My own introduction to Mennonite Church came by way of urban missions in my hometown, Cleveland, during high school. Later while at art school, I visited a Grand Rapids, MI church that was somewhat charismatic. My experience at AMBS clued me in to the varieties of Mennos and the feeling that their subculture differed from my own. I had my initiation at being excluded as a non-Menno during my Elkhart days. We have bounced between Mennonite, Church of the Brethren and some mainline congregations over the years. We have always looked at historic peace churches as our favored option, but not all of them were interested in the peace witness. One thing that became clear in our last attempt at membership in a Mennonite congregation was that we have never converted to Mennonitism. While some other non-ethnic Menno friends had and fit in with the church better than we, we were always in tension with the cultural lodge experience. Tired of being welcome, but not really part of the family, we departed. We are currently members of a mainline congregation, but I continue to wrestle with the context as I view church through an Anabaptist colored lens. Another realization is that I am and have been more interested and identified with the movement aspects of Christianity and Anabaptism, rather than the institutionalized versions. Peace.

  4. Ted, thanks much for the self-revealing and sincere thoughts. Not much was surprising, my having read your blog from time to time over recent years. But I appreciate some of the further details, and the historical info of very early Anabaptists.

    I’d studied that a little during my Biola U. days, and later in teaching Church History. You probably recall it is of personal/family interest as well as theological or life-principle interest for me.

    My mother’s family line goes back at least to the eighteenth century as Mennonites, perhaps well earlier. I believe it was both her grandparents who came to Kansas in or around 1870 in a sizable community migration from Georgia, Russia, fleeing forced military service, as the same line of Dutch-German Mennonites had a couple or so generations prior… that time leaving Prussia for Georgia via a rigorous land journey.

    Anyway, tho not able to fellowship in Mennonite churches most of even her formative years, or later, she retained that “tribe-acquired” hardiness and willingness to live simply. It was via her and some of her relatives and a college roommate that I gained mainly just a general knowledge of the beliefs, traditions and such.

    Some years later, I became fascinated with the diversity among Mennonites, even within my extended family. It tended to the more conservative side, but had a few folks, and some of the married-in’s, much more progressive.

    I had gone that direction myself by the time of the last extended family reunion I attended, about 2000, and I found little of real attraction among those extended relatives, almost all of whom I had barely met. And not that they were other than very “nice” people.

    My sense now, after studying religious dynamics, belief structures, and related issues in fair depth, is that Mennonites are like virtually all religious people in groupings of various kinds… more driven by cultural forces within and surrounding their families and communities than by deeply thought-through and firmly-held principles.

    And the serious misjudgment or “selling out” as to Trump support among such a high percentage is a major disappointment, though not, now in my better-informed days, surprising.

  5. Ted, thanks for this article. Though I’m a “cradle” Mennonite, I have similar sentiments, having chosen until recently to live on the far-flung fringes of Mennodom.

    There is a difference between identifying, even celebrating, Mennonite/Anabaptist distinctives in the context of other faiths (or even non-faith worldviews), versus engaging in myopic Mennonite/Anabaptist exceptionalism. Ironically, the “Only Mennonites….” sentiment draws from the same well as American exceptionalism – equally as shortsighted, and ultimately just as embarrassingly provincial.

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