Based on a sermon given at Hephzibah Mennonite Church on October 30, 2016.
If the title were “Why I Chose to Be a Conservative Mennonite,” I would probably say, “Because my parents taught me and led me in that direction.” Or maybe, “Because I grew up in that church and thought it was right.”
But why do I choose to continue to be a part of this movement? While past events certainly make it easier to stay where I am, my reasons are much deeper than that. My heart is here, and I want to stay here. I find something in the conservative Mennonite movement that is rare in general Christianity.
The conservative movement was born out of a burden among Biblically-minded brethren. In good conscience, they could not be organizationally tied to churches that were laying aside the teaching and application of Scripture. Across North America in the mid-twentieth century, churches and groups separated themselves from mainline Mennonite conferences, forming new associations, fellowships, and conferences to maintain Biblical churches and Anabaptist distinctives. Many of us may not realize the extent of their painful sacrifices.
One of my goals is to revitalize the vision that began the movement. The differences between mainline Mennonites and conservative Mennonites have grown exponentially since then, underscoring the wisdom of the pioneers who made the difficult decision to separate. I challenge us to follow their stand for truth rather than drifting along in the wake of mainline groups.
While conservative Anabaptism has much to be appreciated, it is not without problems and imperfections. I also want to encourage us to perfect our application of Biblical principles and consistently live by them.
We are often perceived as a fringe group with radical ideas that is barely surviving. I challenge that perception. Recent history has shown that churches that maintain conservative positions tend to grow, while churches blown to and fro by liberalism’s innovations tend to lose out. Here are a few comments by others on the trends within Christianity:
Joe Carter, an editor for The Gospel Coalition, made this statement: “If we look back 50 years (to 1965), we can see a clear and unequivocal trendline: liberal denominations have declined sharply while conservative denominations have increased or remained the same.” He then quotes a number of supporting statistics.
Chris Backert, in a blog post on Fresh Expressions, lists the percentages of membership loss experienced by various mainline Protestant denominations in the last fifty years. The numbers range from 33 to 55 percent. Furthermore, he states that nearly half of all mainline Protestant congregations have memberships where the majority is over sixty-five years old, signaling future decline as aging constituencies pass off the scene.
An article by Steven Nolt published in 1993 presents statistics showing that conservative Anabaptist churches in North America have grown in the previous 15 years by roughly 50 percent. Growth among “mainline” Mennonite churches was in the single digits, except for the Brethren in Christ, which grew 63 percent.
My point is this: accommodation to our culture and to our natural bent is not the answer to maintaining a growing, vibrant church. Churches and families who fail to stand for truth will pay a heavy price in both the spiritual decline of their members and in diminishing membership and support. Discipleship is costly, but a genuine commitment to Jesus Christ is rewarding. It will attract the honest heart, while accommodation breeds little loyalty.
I hope that we understand that the conservative Anabaptist movement is based on more than a few distinctive doctrines. We do have distinctive beliefs compared to broader Christianity today, but our differences lie on a much broader foundation. In that foundation, I see at least four concepts.
1. Conservative Anabaptism views Christ as Lord of all.
We see Christ as divine, as eternal, and as Co-creator with the Father. We see Him as the one who has fulfilled the Jewish Covenant and established the New Covenant with His church. We see Christ as the perfect example. We do not view His teachings as optional, but as incumbent upon every Christian for all time.
We see Christ as our King, Who is worthy of all glory, honor, and obedience. While many other Christians would agree with these statements, there is something different in our perspective that brings us out at a different place.
2. Conservative Anabaptism believes in the authority of Scripture.
Christ says we will be judged by His words. He that rejecteth me, and receiveth, not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day (John 12:48).
We search for the plain sense of Scripture by seeking to compile all it has to say about a subject. We believe that Scripture is to be understood literally unless it is clearly figurative. The Sermon on the Mount is certainly not figurative. The parables of Christ are generally figurative, but His interpretations are to be taken literally. We interpret individual Scriptures in a way that is in harmony with the whole. If our interpretation contradicts other passages, we seek for a consistent understanding. We give more weight to clear words than to ambiguous ones.
We make a clear distinction between the Old and New Covenants. While we can learn much from the Old Testament, to apply it directly to the New Testament church can leave us with a contradictory theology.
3. Conservative Anabaptism practices brotherhood in the church.
We are responsible for each other, and support each other materially, spiritually, and socially. Some of the early Anabaptists were asked at baptism if they were willing to devote their possessions, and even their lives, for the brotherhood if there was a need.
We practice Matthew 18 to resolve our differences. That implies a willingness to humble ourselves by going to our brother, explaining ourselves in love, and then accepting the church’s resolution.
We are accountable to each other. We make applications to Biblical truths that are binding upon the brotherhood. That may happen in various ways. There needs to be a proper balance in the roles of leadership and laity, involving both. There are conferences and fellowship meetings, members’ meetings, brothers’ meetings, conferring councils, and ministers’ meetings, all to promote a faithful application of the Scripture.
4. Conservative Anabaptism practices separation from the world.
In 1943 Harold Bender wrote "The Anabaptist Vision," a classic defense of our historical beginnings and a challenging evaluation of our beliefs. He said this about how the New Testament church and the world relate to each other:
“An inevitable corollary [consequence] of the concept of the church as a body of committed and practicing Christians pledged to the highest standard of New Testament living was the insistence on the separation of the church from the world, that is nonconformity of the Christian to the worldly way of life. The world would not tolerate the practice of true Christian principles in society, and the church could not tolerate the practice of worldly ways among its membership. Hence, the only way out was separation.”
We cannot reduce the tension between the Christian and the world on a few issues like sports and fashion. The church and the world are opposites in their perspectives on life, and the disciple of Christ should have a vastly different mindset that will translate into a separated lifestyle.
"The Anabaptist Vision" is worth reading. It defines Anabaptism with three unique concepts upon which it was founded: discipleship, brotherhood, and love, and nonresistance.
Discipleship is the act of following Christ according to Scripture. It includes the concept of a disciplined church, where not only purity of doctrine and life are upheld, but also where all members of the body help and support each other.
Brotherhood is the concept of people who voluntarily come together to form the church, living together as a community of love, caring, sharing, and serving together.
Love and nonresistance is the way we relate to all people, especially those antagonistic to us. Jesus gives us no other option.
Do these concepts stir you? Something within the redeemed soul should rise to embrace them, even though the flesh struggles against them. The worldly church views these three concepts quite differently than we do and allows contemporary culture to shape it. Let us never be enamored with the winds that track back and forth in Protestantism, luring people away from Christ and Biblical principles. We have something worth preserving and propagating.
Sustainable. Effective. Replicating.
The conservative Anabaptist model of church has shown itself to be sustainable, effective, and replicating.
Sustainable is a buzzword in agriculture. Some agricultural practices are less sustainable than others; that is, they would eventually make farming difficult or impossible, for instance, irrigation with high-salt content, eventually leaving the land unproductive.
There are spiritual parallels—practices that destroy the church and leave it unable to function as God designed. To deny the inspiration and authority of Scripture is one example. To label as evil what God calls good, and vice versa, is another.
Effectiveness may be more subjective. Are our programs doing what they are designed to do? Does Sunday school cultivate Bible study? Is preaching transferring the Word of God into our hearts, making us living epistles to others? Are our prayer meetings bastions of worship and petition, and does our giving bring glory to God?
Replicating means that we are making disciples as Jesus commanded. Are we bringing in new members as well as establishing new congregations? Are our churches building strong believers and godly homes, and calling the lost around us to a commitment to God? Are our children embracing our values and lifestyle? Are we raising wise leaders?
How do conservative churches of today compare to those of past generations? We probably have a mixed report card. We have a stronger stand on alcoholic beverages and other vices, and our doctrinal positions and preaching may be stronger. On the other hand, we are more individualistic and prone to church splits, reflecting a weaker perception of the church’s authority. Perhaps the challenges we face with contemporary technology are even more difficult than those our fathers faced with the advent of cars and television.
One lesson we seem to have learned relates to organizational size. Although there is a certain critical mass in which a brotherhood needs to function well, bigger is not always better. Ten congregations of one hundred people will usually accomplish more than one congregation with a thousand members. Perhaps twenty to fifty would be even better. We don’t have to unite in one conglomerate to succeed. I believe, however, that there is value in several congregations working together.
While we do not need to be organizationally linked to large groups with whom we have little contact, we should be able to work together with others who share our basic values. There are two extremes in outside relationships: one is to be so afraid of others’ influence that there is a circle-the-wagons mentality. The other is to have no boundaries on fellowship, to be wide open to anyone who considers himself to have a kinship to us. The healthy viewpoint is to have brotherly relationships with those with whom we share doctrinal positions, even though we may have slightly different applications.
As we work together in our local brotherhoods and cooperate with others in the larger movement, we are accomplishing more than simply growing in numbers. Conservative Mennonites have mission programs in many parts of the nation and the world. Christian Aid Ministries is doing about the same amount of disaster relief and aid to the poor of the world as Mennonite Central Committee, although supported by a smaller group. Conservative Mennonites are providing basic levels of clinical health care in mission settings, and even here in the USA. We have schools for our children, and infrastructure to support them. There are winter Bible schools for our youth and thriving publishing houses.
I do not say these things to lift us up. It is only by God’s grace and God’s blessing and God’s principles that this is possible. I share these things to encourage us to believe in this movement, embrace it, work for it, and cooperate with each other in building it.
Where growth is needed
I hope that I have conveyed an appreciation for our churches. We are not faultless, however, and I would like to underscore four areas that call for our attention.
We need to grow in brotherly living, in which we freely and lovingly share our opinions, and then submit to each other in areas of application. While God does see us as individual children, He largely works with us cooperatively as a family, as a church.
We need to grow in brotherly loving, in which we can accept hard things from each other and respond with grace. We should be known for gentle and caring attitudes. We give each other the benefit of the doubt, freely forgive, and refuse to hold grudges. We look for the good in another and embrace it.
We need to grow in having a Christ-like concern for the lost. Jesus gave the Great Commission not just to give us something to do, but to redeem humanity back to Himself. If you have a wayward loved one or can imagine what it would be like to have one, you can sense something of God’s heart toward His human creation. He longs to restore all people to a relationship with Himself and expects us to share that burden.
We need to grow in preserving the significance of voluntary church membership as a steadfast commitment to being a disciple of Christ, free from the control of this world and one’s sinful flesh. It means a complete yielding of oneself, an eagerness to serve God and others, and cheerfully submitting to His kingdom and our local church.
I deeply appreciate the conservative Mennonite church. We need not be ashamed of what it stands for. May we, as God’s people, follow God’s ways and achieve God’s purposes.
Based on a sermon given at Hephzibah Mennonite Church on October 30, 2016.