In a recent message on “apostate Mennonitism” Brother Aaron Shank, the Eastern Pennsylvania bishop, described the great depths of sin into which the old Mennonite Church has fallen. From the Gospel Herold Brother Shank read “shocking” bits of evidence that the old Mennonites now make room for questioning the deity of Christ, for collaborating with Roman Catholics, for accepting homosexuality, and that they blaspheme God in their presentation of Christ and the Scriptures.
Apostasy is as dreadful as that. It is a spiritual octopus that gets a hold on Christians en route to glory and sucks them slowly down to hell. Several hundred thousands of my fellow Mennonites have already succumbed to the slimy grasp of its tentacles.
How can we kill the monster?
How can we conquer apostasy?
Brother Aaron Shank says we must do three things:
1. We must adhere faithfully to our dress standards.
Brother Shank said: “It has been proven from history, by Mennonite history, that when they give up their nonconformity, we give up our simplicity of appearance, when we give up our distinctive attire, it has been proven by history that our thinking becomes warped as it relates to the total structure of Biblical truth, and we move into worldliness of all kinds. . . . ”
Short dresses, fancy sleeves, small coverings, high heels, dolled up hair, and other things were discussed in detail by Brother Shank as being the sure symptoms of apostasy.
2. We must maintain one worldwide church standard, and stick to one application of Biblical principles.
Brother Shank discussed the legendary tragedy of the old Mennonite mission to Tanzania in detail. He “proved” from history that deviations in covering styles or dress patterns lead to church-wide apostasy, and summed it all up by saying, “We must have the same basic standard on our mission fields as we have at home!”
3. We must love the church and respect its leaders.
Brother Shank quoted Hebrews 13:7, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto the the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation,” Then he went on to say, “I would like to give my testimony tonight that I believe—I say this humbly, I say this as humbly as I know how—that I believe we have the finest group, the most capable group, and the group with the greatest integrity, of leaders that I have seen in my life. . . . I think we have the most capable leaders, spiritual leaders, and leaders of integrity that the church has seen in my lifetime.”
Following numerous other comments, Brother Shank closed his discussion with a call to loyalty: “We must love our church and love the principles and practices of the church . . . we must love them . . . we’ll have to love it! If we don’t love, if we can’t love the practice of separation we’ll lose it! That’s the problem! That’s why its being lost! People don’t love it! They do it under constraint, because we have to, and the next thing you know we’ve lost it!”
Another elderly bishop, Brother Mervin Baer of the Fellowship Churches, also fears apostasy and “impending disaster” for the non-conference Mennonite movement. In a recent article he shared his concerns by beginning with a retrospective view:
The history of our churches has been short and interesting. Its beginnings were small but resulted in phenomenal growth. God has richly blessed our efforts to extricate ourselves and our families from the advancing apostasy of the established conference churches. We now have a retrospective view of about thirty years of history of our own making. . . . We call ourselves the Fellowship Churches with the main body spread continent wide, bringing the frightening name of Nationwide Fellowship.
In the main, God has abundantly blessed with an internal cohesion which has brought us together in a strong unity of faith. We have seen most of our posterity embrace the divine principles of sound church life under the blessing of the Lord. Our Bible Schools and Bible Study Fellowships have provided the ever necessary indoctrination and social contacts for healthful growth.
A host of men have been ordained to serve the church and the Lord has blessed with a strong stable ministry. We have also started foreign mission work largely concentrated in “third world” areas. The Lord has blessed this work to the salvation of many souls. All this has grown and been blessed by our Almighty God as we have followed His leading and direction. . . .
But then, he adds:
“Some problems have also been associated with the work. . . . Unless we carefully evaluate and give direction to our current problems and resolve them concurrently, we could follow the dame path of apostasy we successfully evaded in our beginnings thirty years ago. A lingering unresolved question among us is methods and means of church government. . . . Congregational government is so often associated with the heretical idea of autonomy. . . . The burden of this whole message is on this point. Autonomous freedom, so called, is death to orderly church life. We hear the cry of hierarchy and power structures in an unscriptural uprising against proper scriptural order and church life. Individualism, organized and aggressive, can be the only outcome of this false idea of autonomous freedom. . . . Men of proven spiritual stature have become involved to the hurt of the church. A continuation of present trends indicates impending disaster. What is our answer? . . . The Bible is absolute as to the dividing line between right and wrong. That dividing line is at the place of rebellion. . . . What is needed today is a Spirit-filled leadership, ready to stem the tide of individualism that is sweeping over us.”
Do Brothers Shank and Baer have the answers to curbing apostasy in the Mennonite Church? Will our plain dress, our uniformity, and our loyalty to Mennonitism and its leaders really keep the monster at bay?
If so, we Mennonites have heard the answer many times before—but it has never worked.
Since the sixteenth century the thread of Anabaptist-Mennonite history has been rolling from its spool. Every so often an anti-apostasy group within the movement cuts off this thread. The Amish did it first.
Jakob Amman cut off and preserved the “thread” in 1693. At that time he said in German what Brother Shank and Brother Baer now say in English. He fought against change. He demanded strict outward uniformity, a universal standard, and an unwavering loyalty to his church. The Amish have survived to this day—but the monster has gotten them.
The Reformed Mennonites did it next. John Herr cut off the “thread” in 1812. His message against the old Mennonite Church bears a startling resemblance to the messages of Brother Shank and Brother Baer. He loudly condemned apostasy. He fought change. He demanded strict outward uniformity, and an unwavering loyalty to his church. The Reformed Mennonites have survived to this day—but the monster has gotten them.
The Stauffer group did it next. Jacob Stauffer cut off and preserved the “thread” in 1845. His book, the “History of the So-Called Mennonite Church” is a strikingly familiar story, because like Brother Shank it focuses on the awful condition of the Lancaster old Mennonite conference. The Stauffer group (soon it was groups) fought change. They have preserved with amazing accuracy the clothing patterns of 1845, just as the Amish preserved the patterns of 1693. They demanded strict uniformity and an unwavering loyalty to their church. The Stauffers have survived—but the monster has gotten them.
The Old Order groups did it next. Jacob Wisler cut off and preserved the “thread” in 1872. In his struggle against John F. Funk and the Great Awakening, Bishop Wisler used much of the same language as Brother Shank and Brother Baer. His Old Order movement fought change. To this day the Old Orders demand strict outward uniformity and adherence to the clothing styles of 1872, even though this means that they must enforce, in places, the wearing of the long neck tie and a band of lace around their women’s coverings. The Old Orders have survived, with thousands of members—but the monster has gotten them too.
The non-conference Mennonites did it next. In the late 1950s the leaders of this movement followed the steps of Jakob Amman, John Herr, Jacob Stauffer, and Jacob Wisler in denouncing the apostasy of the old Mennonite Church. Like the Amish three hundred years earlier they cut off the “thread” and elevated the clothing styles, the order of meetings, and the leadership structure of mid-twentieth century Mennonitism to the level of sacred tradition. Like the Reformed Mennonites, the Stauffers, and the Old Orders, the non-conference movement has demanded strict outward uniformity and the unwavering loyalty of their church members. And like these groups they are slipping into the grasp of the monster!
Is there anything we can do?
If we wish to learn anything from history, should we not learn that the thread-cutting procedure (a sudden freeze-up of tradition to halt apostasy) leads us directly into that which we are trying to escape? Tradition exalted to the height of scriptural authority, and forced outward uniformity, leads to a slow spiritual death. An over-emphasis on loyalty to the church leads to unconditional loyalty and the ultimate destruction of religion.
The Anabaptists were people given to constructive, premeditated change. They died as martyrs rather than submit to the demands of dead religion. The Anabaptists steadfastly resisted Luther’s, Zwingli’s, and the pope’s calls to obedience—because they were unwaveringly loyal to Jesus Christ.
We do not know that kind of loyalty. Neither are we supposed to know it.
Four hundred fifty-three years ago a handful of men committed to following Christ left the Reformed church in Switzerland. They—Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Jörg Blaurock, and others—were not Mennonites. They were not denomination founders. No. History has distorted them. They were simply a group of Swiss believers who got together and did what followers of Jesus have always done. They never dreamed of calling themselves an “ite” or an “ism.” They just called themselves brothers.
Almost at the same time, groups of Christians began to gather in homes in southern Germany. Using a German dialect, they also did what true followers of Jesus have always done.
And would you know, at about the same time, yet another group of Christians—in the Netherlands—began to gather in homes to learn about the way of Christ. They called themselves brothers of the covenant and identified one another with the greeting, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” To this was replied, “Amen.”
Conjointly these three movements, with other related groups became known as Anabaptists. And out of them, as you must know, came our Mennonite denomination.
Is modern Mennonitism that which Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons had in mind in the 1500s? No, I am convinced it is not. The thread of Mennonitism does not come from the spool of Anabaptism.
Are the Mennonites of today the “legitimate heirs of the Anabaptist movement” as one non-conference writer puts it? No. Modern Mennonitism more accurately depicts what the Anabaptists left than what they became. The statements of the brothers Shank and Baer are echoes of Luther and Zwingli, not of the Anabaptists.
Nobody inherits the church. The church cannot be handed down as an heirloom from one generation to the next. Christianity is nothing but a movement that spreads and grows and flourishes as the Holy Ghost directs.
Handed-down Mennonitism appears to me as little more than a counterfeit for the Christianity the Anabaptists knew. My loyalty to it will not keep me or my children on course, because Mennonitism itself has gone off course. Modern Mennonitism is an expressway whose many lanes, conservative, liberal, and moderate, all lead to apostasy. It is that which hides what the Anabaptists had (the real thing) from our view. Or worse yet, it is a trap . . . of the monster.
Watch your step, brother.