Opinion: Why am I a Mennonite?
by James M. Branum
I’m a Mennonite by choice1, meaning that I’m not an ethnic Mennonite but rather one that chose the faith. There is of course a long history of “Mennonites by Choice,” especially since the heart of the Anabaptist tradition (which the Mennonites are a part of) is rooted firmly in the ideals of voluntary faith and adult commitment to that faith by baptism.
Recently I’ve been told that by some well-meaning Mennonites that I’m not a “real Mennonite.” The concern for them wasn’t my ethnicity or my religious heritage, but rather the fact that my beliefs are not what they consider to be within the boundaries of Mennonite orthodoxy.
In light of this, I’ve decided to write this essay of explanation.
I started attending Joy Mennonite Church in November 2003 after having spent my prior years bouncing back and forth between the Churches of Christ (from birth through 1997, and again from about 2002-2003) and non-denominational charismatic churches (where I spent 1997-2002). Before I came to Joy, I was already convinced that many of the Anabaptist teachings were true. And this wasn’t just a head knowledge but a deep resonance in my heart with the values of peace, social justice, simple living, and a radical loyalty to Jesus over that of one’s nation.
Over the coming months, I learned a great deal more. I remember Moses (our pastor at the time) telling me that Mennonites are different because we don’t use force or power to try to make people do the right thing, but rather respect the free will of others. This revelatory thought changed how I saw my faith and how I related to others.
By the Spring of 2004 I was ready to join the church, however, there was one looming question for me. Would the church accept me because of what I believed about hell?
I had grappled with the idea of a literal hell for the previous few years and had become convinced that there was no way that a truly loving God would feel the need to torture sinners for eternity simply because they believed the wrong thing. Or to say it another way, I could no longer believe that a righteous Buddhist or Muslim was condemned forever simply because they didn’t have the right understanding about who Jesus was.
So one Sunday, while eating lunch with Moses & Sadie (his wife), I asked them, “I’m not sure I believe in hell anymore. Is that a problem?”
Moses’ answer was to the point, “I’m not sure I do either.”
This was when I knew I had found the right church.
Of course, not everyone at Joy agreed then or now on this issue. And we disagree about other issues too. While we’ve mostly agreed on the importance of the core Anabaptist beliefs, we’ve disagreed on how these beliefs are best lived out. And we’ve certainly disagreed on other theological issues. But we’ve still found ways to get along and work together.
A few years later, Moses retired from the pastorate. Another member of the church (a former Baptist pastor who left the denomination, in part because of its tilt towards fundamentalism) was called to be our pastor, while I was called to be our new Minister of Peace & Justice, a new position which consisted of me preaching once a month and coordinating our congregation’s peace & justice ministries. Along with this, the new position was seen as a way to support my pro-bono work as a lawyer in defending soldiers seeking an early discharge from the military.
By way of explanation for my non-Mennonite readers, in Mennonite Church USA, the church polity is that the congregation calls its ministers but the regional conference effectively approves the call through a credentialing process. In this process, I was given a choice between two paths, either to be ordained (a longer process, where one receives a credential that is good for life and transferable between different ministries) or to be commissioned (a shorter process, where one receives a credential that is only valid for a specific area of ministry). I chose the commissioning process.
As part of his process, I was given a series of questions to answer in writing. On one of the questions, I was asked to examine the Mennonite Confession of Faith, and to indicate which parts I strongly agreed with and which parts I strongly disagreed with. As I recall my only major issue of disagreement was over the Confession’s stance on homosexuality. Interestingly, I don’t think I mentioned the issue of a literal hell in my response (Article 24 of the Mennonite Confession of Faith does briefly mention hell, but there is no discussion of it being a literal place of eternal torment), but I think this was because I honestly didn’t think it was that controversial of an issue in Mennonite circles.
After responding to the conference’s written questions (both about theology as well as my own personal faith journey), I traveled to Newton, Kansas to be questioned in-person by our regional conference’s pastoral leadership commission (a board composed of our conference minister as well as some of the other ministers and pastors from our conference). As I recall, there was some tension between myself and some members of the panel on some issues (notably the homosexual controversy and my Jesus-centric way of reading scripture), but it seemed that most of the panel members were ok with me and my views. In the end, the panel voted to accept me.
I knew that not all of the members of the commission agreed with my theological perspective, but I think they did believe that my beliefs fit within the spectrum of beliefs accepted by the conference and our denomination. And this same commission accepted the man who would be come our pastor as well, despite the significant theological differences that he and I had. (the new pastor was a moderate Evangelical Mennonite while I was a very liberal Mennonite)
This acceptance of diversity extended to our congregation as well. While most of our members believe, as I do, in the morality of absolute resistance to war and military service, we also have a minority who believe that military service could be a moral act that is rooted in a desire to make the world more peaceful. The key is that we have found ways to continue to engage in dialogue with each other and still accept each other as brothers and sisters.
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The next few years were challenging ones for us as a congregation. The new pastor and I (and other church members too) sometimes butted heads – especially during that first year, but in time, we found ways to get along and to work together on areas of common concern.
Recently the environment of inclusion changed. A few members of the church felt that certain areas of theological orthodoxy were essential in determining who may serve in church ministry roles, while others have continued to argue for a more inclusive approach. (There were of course other issues at play too, but they go beyond the scope of this essay) These debates have made others question whether people like me really belong in this church or not. And I’ve asked the question myself, do I really belong?
The conclusion I came to is that I am very much a Mennonite, the reason being that I try to follow the teachings of Jesus and that I still want to continue to be part of the community of those who seek to follow his core radical teachings.
The challenge of course is to define what are the “core radical teachings of Jesus.” I think a good summation of these beliefs is found in the book, The Naked Anabaptist (FYI, the book title refers to an attempt to define the tradition not as something bound in German/Swiss/Russian-based Anabaptist culture of the 18th century, but rather to get to the “naked truth” of what the tradition might look like without the cultural baggage).
A recent issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review did a review of the book and pulled out a good summary of what the book claims are seven core beliefs of the Anabaptist tradition today. I want to share them again here:
- Jesus is our example, friend, redeemer and Lord.
- Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation.
- Western Culture is emerging from the Christendom era.
- Associations of the church status, wealth and force and inappropriate and damage our witness.
- Churches are to be communities of discipleship and mission, friendship, mutual accountability and multivoiced worship.
- Spirituality and economics are interconnected.
- Peace is at the heart of the gospel.
These 7 points do a good job of summing it all up and our points that I can strongly affirm.
And I think these are points we can and should agree on. They serve as a good summary of the core teaching that Joy Mennonite (and the broader Mennonite tradition) affirms. Outside of these points, we will of course disagree. And even within these points, we will likely disagree on how these values are best lived out.
And let’s not pretend otherwise. There are many points of potential disagreement outside and even within our limited points of unity. A few points where we won’t agree include:
- Does hell exist as a literal place of eternal torment?
- Are non-Christians our brothers and sisters too?
- What are the boundaries of moral sexual conduct for consenting adults?
- How exactly scripture is inspired?
- Is it moral to drink alcohol in moderation?
- Should Mennonites pay taxes?
- Should Mennonites vote?
- Is it moral to drive a car?
- Is it moral to eat meat?
- What should our worship services look like?
There are a lot of other things we could disagree about. The key is that these are all things that we can disagree on in good conscience.
Even the big question of exactly how atonement works is something that Mennonites can disagree about in good faith. (see commentary on Article 8 of the Mennonite Confession of Faith and its discussion of three of the major atonement theories)
As to the points of agreement, we must be realistic. Even the limited points of unity are not easy things to unite behind. We are swimming against the current. To oppose the values of the American empire, to reject “status, wealth and force,” to refuse to isolate our economics from our faith — all of these things are counter-cultural values. It is tough to live out these values and because of that we will often fall short. But I think these values are worth striving for, and worth praying for. We should be persistent in seeking after these things.
In short, the Mennonite tradition embraces the revolutionary ideal of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a shalom vision that dares to imagine and work for a world that exists in peace, harmony, justice and completeness.
This vision, and the loving community I’ve found at Joy Mennonite (imperfect as it is) is why I am still a Mennonite.