Ask a Mennonite…(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

The interview series has been such a success, I’m planning to extend it through the fall! Thanks so much for bringing these interviews to life with your thoughtful and respectful questions. I don’t know about you, but I’ve really learned a lot. 

Today Kurt Willems responds to our questions about Mennonites and Anabaptism.

Kurt is writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.   He’s a contributing writer for Red Letter Christians, and has also written for The Ooze, Emergent Village, and Sojourners. I hope you will consider subscribing to Kurt’s Pangea Blog; there’s some great stuff there. 


From Dustin: Were you raised Mennonite? If so, did you ever go through a time where you questioned your faith and explored other options?  If you were not raised Mennonite, what caused you to consider that tradition and eventually subscribe to it?

This is a wonderful question.  Yes, I was raised “Mennonite.”  Actually, I’m part of an offshoot group called the Mennonite Brethren.  You can read about how the M.B.’s came to be here.  I can trace both sides of my family tree to the MB movement that fled persecution during the late 1800’s.  My Great Grandpa Penner boarded a ship in the dark of night to find a new home that would be hospitable to their way of life.  My Willems side of the family has similar stories. 

So, yes, I was raised Mennonite, but here’s where things get interesting… I wasn’t raised Anabaptist.  Two distinctive convictions that shaped the Anabaptist (broad Mennonite tradition from the radical reformationperiod) way include: 1) nonviolence and 2) suspicion of earthly governments (nationalism).  By the time I was being reared in the church, only a slim minority actually held to these views.  Basically, I grew up in an environment that felt like straight-laced evangelicalism with a unique ethnic culture (Mennonites are known for their food and quilts).

It wasn’t until I started reading books by emerging church types that the question of nonviolence came back to my attention for serious consideration.  Prior to this, I believed that choosing peace was irrational and that just wars were necessary in a fallen world.  Then, I entered seminary (Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary[Mennonite Brethren]) and my initial questions grew legs.  And about 3 years ago, after growing up Mennonite, I embraced the Anabaptist view of theology.  This view puts Jesus in the center of how we interpret the rest of Scripture and how we understand the full revelation of God.  And within that center we take seriously the Sermon on the Mount, believing that discipleship is a radical reorientation of lifestyle.  Essentially, I grew up Mennonite Brethren but not Anabaptist.  Now, I’m authentically both. 

From John: Could you give an overview of the different sub-denominations within Anabaptism? How united are Anabaptists in theology, faith, and practice?

The Anabaptist movement is connected in many ways.  But unlike many churches that have their roots in Christendom, we Anabaptists are “non-creedal.”  For us, the New Testament and the peace witness of the early church serve as our center.

Because of this, our movements have held many common characteristics such as – believer’s baptism, the priesthood of all believers / the church, nonviolence, interpret Paul through Jesus rather than Jesus through Paul, non-hierarchal leadership, and the kingdom of God as a counterculture – but we’ve never had any authoritative creeds to unite us.  Just shared values.

Today, many Anabaptist groups exist in North America and beyond.  All of them reflect the values listed above (at least in theory), but express them in their own way.  At one extreme you have the Amish.  I’ve never met an Amish person and they are as foreign to my experience as they might be to a Baptist or Methodist.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have some of the major denominations that are united under the umbrella of Mennonite Central Committee (our social justice / mission organization).  These denominations include: Mennonite Church USAMennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ.  Several other Anabaptist groups also exist, but I’m not connected to them personally.

From Rachel S.: There is such a wide variation between Mennonites in terms of theology and lifestyle. Are there major conflicts that occur within your tradition?

Conflict?  We are people of peace… we NEVER HAVE CONFLICTS :-) Next Question.


Okay, I’m being facetious here.  Certainly we have conflicts.  At the local level, theological issues continue to arise in my particular denomination.  We have many pastors who were trained in conservative evangelical seminaries and many congregants that are pro-war, etc.  This creates interesting scenarios for those of us who still hang on to our Anabaptist heritage.

Not only so, but we’ve had to wrestle with women’s issues, homosexuality, the atonement, and many of the same conflicts that other denominations are facing as well.  Not only so, but the whole “emergent” issue continues to create divisions and controversy in our movement.  Interestingly enough, those who are more Anabaptist in their theology and ethos, tend to be more open to emerging church authors and issues.  Consider this quote from Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist: “The Anabaptist movement began as a loose-knit coalition of groups who were forming in various places across central Europe – the sixteenth century equivalent of the ‘emerging church.’” 

From Zeckle: I respect the Mennonites and Quakers' stand against violence. After studying some of the teachings, I am finding myself to be more of a pacifist.  I find in my own tradition (as well as other traditions), the thought that pacifism means doing nothing, just sitting by as violence occurs. What is the Mennonite understanding of pacifism?  And how does your tradition deal with Matthew 10:34—“Don't imagine I came to bring peace to the earth, I came to bring a sword”--which seems to be the quote against pacifism among many in my tradition?

First, pacifism is not passivism.  This might be the worst caricature that ‘just war’ Christians create when describing this perspective.  For this reason, most of us now prefer the language of nonviolent resistance.

As far as a “Mennonite understanding of pacifism,” I’m going to defer that question to a series I wrote called: Nonviolence 101.  I think that my series on this subject will address most of your questions.  I will simply add that various shades of gray exist on this complicated issue.  

Finally, Matthew 10.34.  That’s always an interesting one.  The problem is that in Matthew 5 Jesus says: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!” (Matthew 5.39, The Kingdom New Testament).   I’d begin my answer then by saying that we need to take the whole of Matthew into account when interpreting the meaning of this verse in chapter 10.  Then, we need to keep the sword passage in the context of the rest of that passage.  It clearly is speaking of the division that will take place because of Jesus.  His followers are bound to endure divisions from family, friends, culture, etc.  Not only so, but following Jesus may lead to suffering the results of non-peace… even counting the cost of discipleship by carrying their own cross and following Jesus (10.38).  Jesus knew that his mission during this age would lead to suffering, not peace.  This doesn’t negate our call to be peacemakers but amplifies how difficult this task will be.  Much more could be said about this, I recommend this commentary

From Justin: Is there any situation, ever, in which the use of violence would be acceptable?

Not for followers of Jesus.  However, a few things need to be said.

First, the state is given the authority to use the sword to “punish evil doers” for the sake of reducing violence from running out of control (see this article).  Notice that in passages such as Romans 12-13, the assumption of Paul is that the people of God are completely distinct from the sword bearing officers.  Therefore, violence in its most reduced form is allowable by those who are part of the pagan police / military, but the assumption of the New Testament is that Christians do not participate in this practice.  On the few exceptions, see this article.

Second, Anabaptists would do well not to judge the motives of those Christians who take up arms for their country.  Although we may believe that this activity is contrary to how we understand Jesus, others disagree.  For those who don’t share our perspective, this doesn’t mean that they are not authentic followers of Christ.  They most likely have pure intentions for serving in the way that they do.  Nevertheless, we do need to take this issue seriously and continue to show the church that violence only begets violence and is contrary to God’s intention for his people.

Third, a bit of humility would do us Anabaptists a bit of good.  We don’t know how we will respond in the worst of situations (Hitler, Spouse attacked, etc.).  Our hope, is that we’ve spent so much time connecting to our heavenly Father that when a situation arises, that we will respond out of an outflow of how Christ is transforming our inner life.  The more we confront the violence within, the more the peaceful Spirit of Christ will inform our response to physical confrontations. 

From Chrystal: Would you talk about the role of women in the Mennonite tradition? What types of ministry roles are women allowed to hold? Are there differences between women's roles in the home versus in the church?

In all three of the major Anabaptist Mennonite denominations (Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and Mennonite Brethren), women serve as pastors in various roles.  My tradition, the Mennonite Brethren, may be the most restrictive of the three groups.  I personally am an egalitarian, which is a view shared by every professor at our denominational seminary, but if memory serves me correctly… we still don’t ordain women.  We license them as pastors, but not ordain women yet.  Not sure why this is.  Nevertheless, the Mennonite movements tend to be fairly open to women in leadership, if not completely open.

Amish and some other Anabaptist groups do not share an egalitarian view.


From Brian: Can you discuss some of the Mennonite views of Technology. I've read Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps, a former Mennonite pastor, and was impressed by his thoughts. As a technology geek, I'd like to more from a Mennonite perspective.

I think Shane Hipps is the best resource that I know about.  If any reader of this post can list others, please do!  I reviewed his first book called The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture here.  Shane is a wonderful reminder to the whole church that tech stuff can be great, but can also unintentionally alter the message we are communicating.  I can’t recommend his books enough! 

From RM: Can you explain the main differences between the Amish and the Mennonites? I almost always package the two together... are they similar at all?  My extent of knowledge of Amish culture is a high school trip to Lancaster, PA and Beverly Lewis books. While I love the traditions and heritage, the philosophy and theology seem harsh. Are Mennonites the same way? 

As I already said above, I’ve never interacted with old order or Amish Mennonite groups.  I’d say that the only commonalities that exist are the list of values from question #2 and that we both emerged from the radical reformation.  Things like shunning and extreme exclusivity are unique to Amish and Hutterite groups for the most part.  

Note: Check out Janet Oberholtzer's response to this question in the comment section. Janet grew up Old Order Mennonite in the Lancaster, PA area and can shed some light on that particular sect. 

From Russell: What are some great Mennonite Authors and Influential members that have helped you in life?

There are some great books by Anabaptist authors!  Let me list a few of them: 

From Rachel E.: What exactly is the Mennonite name game? 

Question: What do you call 3 naked Mennonites in a blizzard? Answer: Wiebe – Friesen – Fast (We Be Freezing Fast!)… this is an introduction to the game.  Basically, in the Mennonite world, names mean something.  

For instance, my last name is Willems.  This is a well-known Mennonite name.  On the other side of the family, my last name is Penner… another Mennonite name.  Basically, whenever I find myself in the presence of a fellow Mennonite (especially those who know the history well), we find that we are connected some how.  Either we are related or this person knows someone who is related to me.

In the process of playing, you find out some interesting things.  For instance, I once met my second cousin for the first time at a non-Mennonite’s apartment in college.  We never knew we were related!  Or, there was the time I dated a girl with whom I shared a mutual second cousin.  Of course this mutual cousin was related to each of us through different sides of the family, so this girl and I were not directly blood relatives.  Then, there’s the fun stories about folks who get married and find out that they are second cousins after the fact.  Mennonites (until recent times) marry Mennonites.  The product… a family wreath instead of a family tree!  This is why the “Mennonite game” is so easy to play.  Luckily, I married outside so there is not a chance that my wife and I are related.


Thanks to Kurt for taking so much time with these questions and providing us with so many additional resources. Check out the rest of the interview series: 

Ask an Atheist
Ask a Catholic
Ask an Orthodox Jew
Ask a Humanitarian
Ask a Mormon 

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