A Gift from the Past

Sometimes the subjects for my blog postings are matters I have been mulling over for weeks. At other times I come up with something quite fresh that I am still processing. This week is one of those, because my subject is the Mennonite tradition, a five-centuries-old stream of European Christianity which, as far as I know, does not have a congregation in New Zealand. It is named for the Dutch believer Menno Simons, a sixteenth-century Catholic priest who through study of Scripture and wrestling with the theological issues of the Reformation, came to hold a firmly Anabaptist faith. So who are the Anabaptists, who are the Mennonites, and why have I been captivated by this 500-year-old movement this week?

Well, its once again my habit of listening to podcasts while at the gym. Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids Michigan (not Seattle, that is a completely different church) is a place that often has interesting preachers dealing with intriguing sermon topics, and I listen to one of their podcasts a couple of times a month, along with my favourite snippets from National Radio and the occasional meaty offering from John Piper. The lead teaching pastor at Mars Hill is Rob Bell, known to many of us through the catchy Nooma series of Biblical discussion igniters. Whether he is getting too busy with other things, or its just that the church is huge (over 10,000 at worship), I don't know, but this month they inducted a new teaching pastor, Shane Hipps. The sermon I heard was his message on that occasion, more of a personal story than a biblical sermon. Sean came to Mars Hill from a Mennonite Church in Arizona, and it is that connection that got me thinking, reading and writing about the Mennonites.

I do know a little about this faith tradition, whose adherents include the smaller grouping known as the Amish, those Pennsylvania Dutch Christians who forgo farm machinery or automobiles, dress very conservatively, and practise a form of separation from the world mimicked here by the Cooperites. However not all Mennonites are Amish, and many are perfectly ordinary. The one Mennonite minister I know best was Canadian, a guest lecturer at one of my postgraduate university courses some years ago. Dr. Jonathan Bonk is the Director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut, and editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. He was raised in Ethiopia, where he and his wife also served as missionaries from 1974-1976. He is passionate about motivating Western Christians to grapple with issues of wealth and poverty in Third World missionary situations, but other than that he came across as a follower of Jesus not unlike the rest of us; in the lecture room, he wore casual modern clothing, carried a laptop and communicated by text and email. Clearly not all Mennonites are Luddites.

In this first sermon at Mars Hill, Shane Hipps took some time to tell the congregation about being a Mennonite, because the church was not his spiritual "family of origin". Raised in a standard American evangelical tradition, he experienced a crisis of faith when he realised his personal Christian paradigm did not connect with questions people in his world (the advertising industry) were actually asking. Instead, he found that, in essence, they were saying “I don’t really care what your faith does for you when you die, I care about what your faith does for others while you are here.” Searching church history for something that made more sense, he "stumbled on" the Mennonites, this group of Jesus-followers who took the Sermon on the Mount seriously, and practised peacemaking, service of the poor, and the pursuit of justice. Since Mennonites also highly valued the Bible, and Christian community, Hipps went looking for a local congregation, and found Trinity Mennonite in the city in Arizona where he lived.

Hipps explained to the folk in Michigan that Mennonites are Anabaptists, and what that term means. A lot of what he said can be found on the Trinity Mennonite website or at thirdwaycafe, a surprisingly upbeat webpresence making connections between Mennonites around the world.

"Anabaptists represent a stream of faith that emerged 500 years ago in Europe. At about the time Reformers were challenging the Catholic Church, a small group of people in Switzerland were studying the Bible. They came to the conclusion that Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount. As a result they emphasized peacemaking and the practice of non-violence and the belief that the church should be a voluntary community. You see back then church wasn’t a voluntary thing. You were born into it. And baptism wasn’t just religious, it was a civil function, used to create a citizen for tax purposes."

In other words, as well as being Pacifist, this little-known group of non-Conformists were the first to challenge the intertwining of Church and State that characterised nearly all sixteenth-century European communities. They felt the church should be a gathering of only those who chose to follow Jesus. For this reason they stopped baptising infants and starting rebaptising (ana-baptising) adults. Except that they didn't see it as repeating the act, since infants were not able to choose the Christian faith. Although Anabaptists like Menno Simons were around at the same time as (or actually before) the great Reformers Luther and Calvin, they had a very different emphasis. By stopping infant baptism they angered the state, which needed to know who its citizens were, and by (re-) baptising adults they angered the Catholic Church, and even the Protestants, whose Reformed theology still included a place for infant baptism. Both the Catholics and the Reformers began arresting and executing Anabaptists for religious and civil crimes. Hundreds were burned at the stake or, more often, drowned in rivers, in an intentional irony. Because the Anabaptists practiced non-violence, they refused to fight back and instead withdrew from the cities and formed isolated rural communities. It was a painful beginning, but it profoundly shaped them, and they remained distant from mainstream society for many generations. Only in the last fifty years have the Mennonites rejoined mainstream society. Currently there are over one million members world-wide.

Mennonite beliefs and practices vary widely, but following Jesus in daily life is a central value, along with peacemaking.There is still a strong emphasis on community, Jesus as the centre, and justice and peace as expressed in the “Sermon on the Mount” and the Gospels. This practical and communal polity appealed to Shane Hipps and his wife Andrea, and over time he discerned a call to ordination and leadership within that Arizona church. Five years on, he is moving to Mars Hill, in a call and transition which involved the discernment and cooperation of the elders at the sending church in Arizona.

I don't know what kind of a preacher Shane Hipps will turn out to be, time will tell (there are a few antagonists out there already!!) but there were three things in his story that caught my imagination.

First was the ancient practice of gathering a "Clearness Committee" to discern a call. Shane Hipps had already said No to the suggestion he apply for an associate pastor position at Mars Hill, when the leaders from there came back to him and said they had prayerfuly discerned he was the one to "come on over and help them." Although both heart and head told him this was a very long shot on their behalf, Hipps believes in the God who speaks, and so subjected his response to a Clearness Committee, who meet for silence and prayer, asking open questions over several hours but not giving the candidate advice, guidance or analysis. He admits he stacked the group with Trinity elders who had an interest in keeping him! The outcome of that experience was that a deep and unnameable shift took place within him, whereby he became profoundly bonded to the people at Mars Hill before he even knew them. This practice of communal listening to God has a deep appeal to me and I can see myself using it in our own faith community.

Second is the Mennonite commitment to living out the lifestyle of Jesus in our own time. This, to me, is the best way to connect with postmodern seekers who have no alignment with the institutions we call church. Yes, it does mean that communities like Mars Hill Bible Church an be accused of glossing over prized gospel truths like the substitutionary atonement but the original Mars Hill (Areopagus) address tells us there is apostolic precedent for that. The Sermon on the Mount deals with nitty gritty issues like sex, money and power, and brings a much-needed practical focus to balance gospel presentations that focus only on issues of sin and redemption. heaven and hell. I wont forget Hipps' cutting charge that our faith come across as being more about "what happens to me when I die" than what happens to others while I'm here.

Thirdly, Shane Hipps pointed out that Mennonites over the centuries have endeavoured to avoid the category of heretic, the notion that you’re either out or in. I don't know how this ties up with the Amish practice of excommunication and shunning, clearly there are boundaries set in those Old Order communities, but for the urban Mennonite churches there is an openness and grace not unlike that found among the Quakers. Hipps explained this by saying Anabaptists had suffered as victims of hate and fear and didn’t want to recreate that It doesn't mean laissez faire, they take beliefs seriously, crumbs they died for those beliefs, but rather to acknowledge that there are different valid perspectives on matters of faith. Mars Hill has that kind of "wells not fences" approach too.

Evangelistically this is utterly valid, but ecclesiologically I'm not sure how much I can buy into that philosophy. My mother church is Reformed, a confessing church where beliefs are articulated in every baptism, communion, ordination or induction service. But I notice that my faith family these days (Baptist) doesn't place such value on confessing or "professing" faith. At our baptisms there are testimonies but no vows, at our inductions there are commissioning prayers but no promises, and even when we receive people as members, there is no public statement of alignment with the cause of Christ, let alone the vision of the church. I find that deeply disconcerting, but I wonder now if its an Anabaptist thing, After all, the spiritual forbears of the Kiwi Baptist Churches, the English Baptists of 400 years ago, were a tributary of the European Anabaptist movement. It would not be surprising if something of that passionate grace still beats in hearts in Manukau New Zealand.

What do you think??