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Spring 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 1 · pp. 26–37 

The Mennonite Brethren and American Evangelicalism: An Ambivalent Relationship

Richard Kyle

North American Evangelicalism has been a source of tension and ambivalence to Mennonite Brethren, impacting both relationships within the fellowship and with other Mennonite bodies. Mennonite Brethren are ambivalent in their attitudes toward mainstream Evangelicalism, ranging from a strong sense of kinship to one of near contempt. Also, the influence of Evangelicalism on the Mennonite Brethren has produced some tensions with other Mennonite conferences, who are perceived as “less evangelical.” Moreover, the incorporation of beliefs and practices from American Evangelicalism into the Mennonite Brethren fellowship has fostered divisions within the conference—even threatening the unity of the denomination.

Contemporary Evangelicalism is so diverse as to defy common stereotypes.

The issue of American Evangelicalism roughly has divided Mennonite Brethren into two camps. One group would want to be known as Anabaptist-Mennonites because they emphasize doctrines going back to the radical reformers of the sixteenth century, namely the believers’ church, discipleship, {27} nonconformity and the peace witness. Another segment of the Mennonite Brethren think of themselves as more Evangelical than Mennonite. They feel a stronger affinity with mainstream Evangelicalism than with Mennonite groups. They emphasize the pietistic tradition, with its focus on individual salvation and personal devotional life. 1

DEFINITIONS

The Mennonite Brethren are certainly Evangelicals in the historic use of the term. They strongly emphasize the new birth and the proclamation of the gospel. But are they “evangelicals” in the sense that this term refers to American Evangelicalism? To what extent are they part of this large, diverse movement? In part, one’s response to these questions depends on how one answers several questions. Who are the Evangelicals? Are the Anabaptists part of American Evangelicalism? To what extent are the Mennonite Brethren Anabaptists? The words evangelical and evangelism are often used incorrectly to mean the same thing (i.e., evangelical equals evangelistic). Both terms come from the same Greek word, euangelion, the good news. However, evangelical is something you are, evangelism is something you. do 2 But who are the Evangelicals? In a very broad sense, an Evangelical is anyone who stands in the biblical tradition and is devoted to the good news that we can be partakers of God’s redemptive grace in Jesus Christ. 3

But the issue is not this simple. Evangelicalism is a complex phenomenon and despite many scholarly writings on the subject, it is very difficult to pinpoint. 4 Evangelicalism can be defined both theologically and sociologically. Also, the term evangelical has taken on different meanings in divergent historical and cultural contexts.

Of importance for this essay is whether Evangelicalism is defined in a broad or narrow sense. Whether the approach be theological, sociological or historical, any expansive approach to Evangelicalism must include not only the Anabaptists but also the Mennonite tradition. However, some Mennonite scholars have defined Evangelicalism more narrowly, regarding it as a twentieth century American phenomenon. 5 Given this approach, the relationship of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition to Evangelicalism is more tenuous. {28}

NORTH AMERICAN EVANGELICALS: DEFYING A COMMON STEREOTYPE

While Evangelicalism is a global phenomenon, it originated in western Europe and has had its greatest force and vitality in North America. 6 Thus, it may be understood as a religiocultural phenomenon distinctly related to North America. The world view of Evangelicalism is deeply rooted in the theological tradition of the Reformation, in European Puritanism, and later in American Puritanism and the First and Second Great Awakenings in North America. In fact, Evangelicalism has endeavored to remain doctrinally faithful to this generally conservative tradition. 7 The theological core of contemporary Evangelicalism can be identified by its adherence to the following distinctives: the belief that the Bible is the inerrant/infallible Word of God; the belief in the divinity of Christ; and the belief in the efficacy of Christ’s life, death, and physical resurrection for the salvation of the human soul. 8

Behaviorally, American Evangelicals can usually be characterized by an individual and experiential orientation toward spiritual salvation and religion in general. The Christian faith is experiential. The individual must be born again. Individuals must have a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior from sin and a commitment to him as Lord. Following such a conversion, an Evangelical in one way or another usually seeks actively the conversion of sinners to Christ. 9

Contemporary American Evangelicalism is highly diverse, drawing elements from several theological traditions. James Hunter sees four major religious traditions in contemporary Evangelicalism: the Baptist, Holiness-Pentecostal, Anabaptist, and Reformed-Confessional traditions. Each of these traditions has its respective distinctives that have been passed on to contemporary Evangelicalism. Of these four traditions, the Baptists are presently the dominant one. 10

From these major traditions many subgroups have been drawn, each with their own particular emphasis. 11 As a result, American Evangelicalism evidences a bewildering diversity. Timothy Smith has argued that Evangelicalism is like a kaleidoscope. It is made up of fragments as diverse as black Pentecostals, Mennonite peace churches, Episcopal charismatics, Nazarenes, and Southern Baptists. 12 Thus, Evangelicalism should be seen as a conservative movement. It is conservative insofar as it differs from liberalism, which does not maintain {29} the basic theological principles of historic Christianity. Evangelicalism is a movement in the sense that it cuts across specific denominations and embraces all people who have had the “born again” experience and who seek to convert sinners to Christ. American Evangelicalism thus maintains a unity only in a very broad sense. 13

Evangelicalism encompasses considerable social and ethical diversity as well. Evangelicalism in America is a large subculture built around certain religious beliefs and practices. In lifestyle, Evangelicalism is also a conservative movement, maintaining a moderate asceticism in respect to values and ethics. While there is considerable diversity in these areas, Evangelical orthodoxy has spawned an “orthopraxy” after a fashion. This “orthopraxy” usually pertains to personal morals rather than the issues of social justice, where there is less agreement. Included are prohibitions against sexual immorality, drunkenness and loose behavior. 14 While Evangelicals come from no one social class, overall they are most widely represented among the moderately educated lower and middle income groups. In respect to their relationship to society at large, there is also diversity, ranging from extreme separatism to considerable involvement. The recent trend, however, is towards an accommodation with society. 15

MENNONITE BRETHREN:

Rooted in Anabaptism

In any attempt to relate the Mennonite Brethren denomination to American Evangelicalism, several problems arise. As indicated, contemporary Evangelicalism is so diverse as to defy common stereotypes. Moreover, the Mennonite Brethren are somewhat polarized regarding the issue of Evangelicalism versus Anabaptism. Furthermore, the Mennonite Brethren in the United States have bought into popular American Evangelicalism to a greater extent than have their Canadian counterparts. This situation has developed for several reasons. The Mennonite Brethren migrations to Canada came later than they did to the United States. Thus, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren have had less exposure to the forces of acculturation and have maintained their cultural identity more than have the United States Mennonite Brethren. Moreover, they have {30} not felt the impact of fundamentalism and dispensationalism to the extent that their counterparts in the Unites States have. 16

These problems, notwithstanding, the Mennonite Brethren should be regarded as a subgroup within a larger diverse subculture3/4North American Evangelicalism. However, because the roots of the Mennonite Brethren are in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, they have distinctives that set them apart from many other Evangelicals. But such distinctives do not mean that the Mennonite Brethren are not part of the mosaic that makes up North American Evangelicalism.

The Anabaptist tradition, while diverse in itself, embodies certain distinctives that set it apart from the other traditions found in American Evangelicalism. While maintaining a concept of individual salvation, the Anabaptist view on this issue tends to be less subjectivistic and more rational and objective. Also, the Anabaptists emphasize the solidarity of the church community over the rights of individual believers. The tradition has maintained a strong orientation toward discipleship, social justice, the peace witness, and the separation of church and state. Even with such distinctives, scholars such as Timothy Smith, James Hunter, Robert Webber and Kenneth Kantzer place the Anabaptists within the scope of both historic and American Evangelicalism. 17

Of the major Mennonite denominations coming out of this Anabaptist tradition, the Mennonite Brethren are regarded as the most Evangelical, largely because of their contacts with non-Mennonite Evangelicals. Beginning in Russia and continuing in North America, the Mennonite Brethren have had close relationships with several Evangelical bodies. These groups have had a substantial influence on the Mennonite Brethren, moving them closer to mainstream Evangelicalism.

The Impact of Pietism

In Russia, they encountered Pietists, Baptists and Darbyites, who can be seen as a form of the Pietist movement. The impact of Pietism was substantial. The Mennonite Brethren Church began as a renewal movement, and Pietism provided a powerful impetus to such reform. Pietism, with its affinity to Anabaptism, revitalized the practice of the believers’ church by insisting on the experiential reality of personal salvation and the fellowship of all true believers. The Mennonite {31} Brethren movement was literally born in a spirit of missions. Pietism, in fact, did much to infuse the brotherhood with this passion for missions. On the other hand, Pietism did not stress discipleship and has tended to weaken Mennonite Brethren ethics in respect to nonresistance. The Darbyites, followers of John Nelson Darby, brought the Mennonite Brethren into contact with dispensationalism and a tight millennial eschatology. Together these two movements encouraged the Mennonite Brethren to develop close contacts with other Evangelical groups, a development that would continue in America. 18

The Mennonite Brethren and Baptist relationships in Russia may be regarded as substantial. The German Baptists contributed to Mennonite Brethren congregational life in respect to church organization, missions, pastoral leadership, hymnody, evangelism, theology, and perhaps even in the mode of baptism. However, the Baptists made their major contribution in the area of missions. After 1889, the Mennonite Brethren in Russia trained most of their missionaries in Baptist schools and sent many out under the American Baptist Missionary Union. By the time the Brethren were able to establish their own missionary program in North America, their theology of missions, missions strategy, and methods of church planting were largely an adaptation from the Baptists. 19

In North America, the Mennonite Brethren increased their contacts with outside religious groups, especially those of an Evangelical persuasion. Late nineteenth-century America, with all of its enthusiastic revivals and religious pluralism, only served to widen the trend that had begun in Russia. On the frontier, their revivalism and fervor did not seem so out of place. They encountered Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Lutherans and other Mennonites, plus a wide array of religious movements including millennialists, prohibitionists, universalists, and revisalists. 20 As the Twentieth Century progressed, the list comprised many other groups including dispensationalists, fundamentalists, perfectionists, charismatics and Evangelicals. The greatest overall impact on the Mennonite Brethren experience in North America came from the Baptists, dispensationalists, fundamentalists and contemporary Evangelicalism.

Many cultural and religious forces-including the Baptists, dispensationalism, and fundamentalism-have helped pull the Mennonite Brethren closer to the mainstream of {32} American Evangelicalism. In particular, the training that many Brethren received at Baptist seminaries and Bible schools, which usually emphasized fundamentalist and dispensationalist teachings, brought new ideas into Mennonite Brethren circles, thus fostering an eclectic theology. Of these groups, the Baptists had the strongest impact, chiefly in the area of church polity. Among other cultural factors, Baptist teaching helped encourage a move from the multiple ministry to the North American pattern of a salaried pastor, church council, and church programs. In addition, dispensationalism, and especially fundamentalism, have weakened the Mennonite Brethren teaching on nonresistance, and thus have helped to move the fellowship closer to mainline Evangelicalism. 21

The Mennonite Brethren embraced the basic components of American Evangelicalism: an insistence on biblical authority, the experience of “born again” religion, and evangelism as the central purpose of the church. Consequently, with the decline of Mennonite Brethren sectarianism, especially the breakdown of cultural isolation, and an increased Americanization, the fellowship has naturally moved closer to modern Evangelicalism.

Still, the extensive use of the German language by Mennonite Brethren presented a barrier to cooperation with the non-German speaking Evangelicals. Thus, the real breakthrough had to await the transition to English and did not come until about the 1940s. The Evangelical Foreign Missions Association was born in 1943. The Mennonite Brethren immediately affiliated with this organization, and have been active in it ever since, even being involved in key leadership roles. In 1945, one year after the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals, the United States Mennonite Brethren Conference joined this conservative organization. Since 1960, the Mennonite Brethren in Canada have tried to relate more meaningfully to other Evangelical groups. The Mennonite Brethren as individuals and churches have been active in the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada since its founding in 1964 and presently the Canadian Conference is officially affiliated with the organization. 22

MENNONITE BRETHREN AFFINITIES WITH EVANGELICALS

In ways—some consistent with historic Anabaptism and {33} some in opposition to it-the Mennonite Brethren show a close relationship to American Evangelicalism. To a large extent, Evangelicalism is a theological movement intent on protecting the boundaries of historic Christianity. The Mennonite Brethren are certainly orthodox and conservative in their theology, maintaining the historic Christian faith to the degree that most Evangelicals do, perhaps even more so. Currently, there is little doubt among Mennonite Brethren that God exists, that miracles happened as recorded in the Bible, that Jesus’ resurrection was physical, that Jesus will actually return to earth, that Satan as a personal devil is active in the world and that there is life beyond the grave. Members also agree that the Bible is divinely inspired and the infallible Word of God, that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that there was a flood in Noah’s day. 23 The Mennonite Brethren have never been theological liberals and there is little indication that they are moving in that direction.

In their spiritual life, Mennonite Brethren resemble the average American Evangelical. The “born again” experience, so essential to Evangelicalism, is alive and well in Mennonite Brethren circles. Most (91 percent) Mennonite Brethren reported a particular point in life when they had a conversion experience. A high percentage (85 percent) claimed to engage in daily private prayer. Half reported family or group worship in their household. About three-quarters participated in evangelistic activities. 24

In the area of specific moral practices, the Mennonite Brethren are at least as rigorous as mainstream Evangelicalism. Over ninety percent believe that the following are always wrong: becoming drunken, smoking marijuana, premarital sex, extra-marital sex and homosexual acts. Between forty-five and seventy-five percent believe that the following are always wrong: smoking tobacco, marriage to a non-Christian, gambling, divorce for reasons other than adultery, viewing adult movies, and moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages. 25

The Mennonite Brethren, especially the United States Conference, are rapidly becoming assimilated into American culture as has popular Evangelicalism. Mennonite Brethren sectarianism, cultural isolation and separation from the world are largely things of the past. 26 Mennonite Brethren have become affluent relative to their forefathers, certainly relative to most people in the world, and probably relative to most {34} North Americans. 27 Since World War II they have been moving from the farm to the city and are the most urbanized of the major Mennonite groups. Their educational level has increased. They have become upwardly mobile, rising to positions of leadership in North American society. All of this success has come at a price, namely the breakdown of Anabaptist distinctives. The traditional emphasis on discipleship, social justice, and the lordship of Christ have all receded. Most significant, only about half of the Mennonite Brethren currently uphold their historic peace position. Many Mennonite Brethren have bought into values so prevalent in contemporary Evangelicalism: subjectivity, personal feelings, self-improvement, pragmatism, materialism, and rampant individualism. 28

RESPONSES TO EVANGELICALISM

Such an erosion of Anabaptist distinctives has caused some Mennonite Brethren to distance themselves from American Evangelicalism, even denying that they have a place in this movement. Some Mennonite Brethren even view American Evangelicalism with contempt. In part, such a stance is derived from a narrow view of Evangelicalism. Contemporary American Evangelicalism is seen primarily as an offshoot of fundamentalism. In fact, Evangelicalism is often equated with fundamentalism. This view largely ignores the Evangelical traditions not related to the modernist-fundamentalist controversy and the many Evangelicals who elected to remain within the liberal denominations. Moreover, this position feeds on the excesses of fundamentalism, (e.g., nationalism, militarism, materialism, subjectivism, and anti-intellectualism) and lumps all Evangelicals into the same mold. This stance also focuses on the differences between American Evangelicalism and the Mennonite Brethren, while ignoring the significant points of agreement. In some ways this view reflects the old sectarian mind-set which has long been a part of the Mennonite-Anabaptist tradition.

Some Mennonite Brethren distancing themselves from American Evangelicalism have often reasserted Anabaptist distinctives. They have called for a new sectarianism, based on Anabaptist theological principles, to replace the old cultural sectarianism that has gone by the way. Mennonite Brethren {35} are to renew their commitment to discipleship, peace, and social justice. 29

However, such a reassertion of Anabaptist principles is only part of the answer. Whether some like it or not, the Mennonite Brethren are part of the kaleidoscope that makes up North American Evangelicalism. To deny this is to take a narrow and incorrect view of American Evangelicalism. Because Evangelicalism does not share some important Anabaptist distinctives does not mean that the Mennonite Brethren are not part of North American Evangelicalism, any more than it means that Pentecostals are not Evangelicals because mainstream Evangelicals do not speak in tongues.

Rather, Mennonite Brethren should regard North American Evangelicalism as a vital but diverse movement, and affirm their relationship to it. They should see themselves as a subgroup in this large movement. At a time when the significance of denominationalism is declining in America, Mennonite Brethren need to reassert their historic distinctives, but they should not allow these positions to erect unnecessary barriers to cooperation with other Evangelicals. While avoiding the excesses of fundamentalism and popular Evangelicalism, Mennonite Brethren need to accentuate what they have in common with other Evangelicals. Instead of distancing themselves from American Evangelicalism, the Mennonite Brethren can make a healthy contribution to the movement and serve as a corrective to some of its less desirable traits. In the other direction, American Evangelicalism has something to offer to the Mennonite Brethren. It can temper some of Anabaptism’s less desirable traits, namely a vulnerability to humanistic, liberal and social gospel tendencies.

NOTES

  1. Katie Funk Wiebe, Who Are the Mennonite Brethren? Hillsboro: Kindred Press, 1984, 4; Harold Jantz, “Who are the Mennonite Brethren?” Christian Leader (August 12, 1980) 3.
  2. Richard Quebedeaux, The Worldly Evangelicals. New York: Harper and Row, 1978, 52; J.D. Allan, The Evangelicals. Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1989, 2.
  3. Quebedeaux, Worldly Evangelicals, 6, 7.
  4. Robert E. Webber, Common Roots. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978, 25. {36}
  5. C. Norman Kraus, ed. “Introduction: What Is Evangelicalism?” in Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1971, 9; C. Norman Kraus, “Anabaptism and Evangelicalism,” in Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, 175, 176.
  6. James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 6.
  7. James Davison Hunter. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983, 7, 8. See also Bernard L. Ramm, The Evangelical Heritage. Waco: Word Books, 1973; Bruce Shelley, Evangelicalism in America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, 25-52.
  8. See Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 7; John H. Gerstner, “The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith,” in The Evangelicals. Eds. David P. Wells and John D. Woodbridge. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975, 21-36.
  9. Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals. New York: Harper and Row, 1974, 4; Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 7.
  10. Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 7, 8.
  11. For a list of fourteen subgroups see Webber, Common Roots, 32.
  12. Timothy L. Smith, “The Evangelical Kaleidoscope and Call to Christian Unity,” Christian Scholar’s Review 15/1 (1986): 125-40; George M. Marsden, “Unity and Diversity in the Evangelical Resurgence,” in Altered Landscapes. Ed. David W. Lotz. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, 63.
  13. Quebedeaux, Young Evangelicals, 4; Marsden, “Unity and Diversity,” in Altered Landscapes, 63.
  14. Hunter, Evangelicalism, 50.
  15. Quebedeaux, Young Evangelicals 1924; Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 9, 55. See also Quebedeaux, Worldly Evangelicals; Jon Johnston, Will Evangelicalism Survive Its Own Popularity? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
  16. Richard Kyle, “The Mennonite Brethren and the Denominational Model of the Church: An Adjustment to the Pressures of North American Society,” Mennonite Life 42/9 (1987): 31; Rodney J. Sawatsky, “Denominational Sectarianism: Mennonites in the United States and Canada in Comparative Perspective,” Canadian Journal of Sociology 3 (1978): 239-241: John E. Toews, “Theological Reflections,” Direction 14 (Fall 1985): 66, 67.
  17. Webber, Common Roots, 32; Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 7, 8; Smith, “Evangelical Kaleidoscope,” 125-140; Kenneth Kantzer, “Unity and Diversity in Evangelical Faith,” in The Evangelicals, 38, 39.
  18. J. B. Toews, “Mennonite Brethren Identity and Theological Diversity,” in Pilgrims and Strangers. Ed. Paul Toews. Fresno: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1977, 134-140; Abram J. Klassen, “Roots and Development of Mennonite Brethren Theology to 1914.” M.A. Thesis, Wheaton College, 1966, 103-120; 159-162; Hans Kasdorf, “Reflections on the Church Concept of the Mennonite Brethren,” Direction 4/3 (1975): 339.
  19. Albert W. Wardin, “Baptist Influences on Mennonite Brethren with an Emphasis on the Practice of Immersion.” Direction 8/4 (1979): 33-37; John A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1975,79; Toews, “Mennonite Brethren Identity,” Pilgrims and Strangers 141; Jacob J. Toews, “The Missionary Spirit of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia,” in The Church in Mission. Ed. A. J. Klassen. Fresno: Board of Christian Literature, (1967), 148-151; Abram J. Klassen, “The Mennonite Brethren Confessions of Faith.” S.T.M. Thesis, Union College of British Columbia, 1965, 128; Klassen, “Roots and Development,” 185. {37}
  20. Clarence Hiebert, “The Development of Mennonite Brethren Churches in North America,” Pilgrims and Strangers, 117-124.
  21. Toews, “Mennonite Brethren Identity,” Pilgrims and Strangers, 142, 143; J. B. Toews, “The Influence of Fundamentalism on Mennonite Brethren Theology,” Direction 10/3 (1981): 20-29.
  22. A. E. Janzen and Herbert Giesbrecht, comps. We Recommend. Fresno: Board of Christian Literature, 1978, 15, 16, 167, 168, Toews, A History, 386-390.
  23. J. B. Toews, et al. “Mennonite Brethren Church Membership Profile,” Direction 14/1 (1985): 13, 14. See Hunter, Evangelicalism, 19-49.
  24. Toews, “Church Membership Profile,” 19, 20.
  25. Toews, “Church Membership Profile,” 22.
  26. See Richard Kyle, “The Concept and Practice of Separation from the World in Mennonite Brethren History,” Direction 13/1,2 (1984) :34-43; Richard Kyle, From Sect to Denomination. Hillsboro: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1985, 104-114.
  27. Abe Dueck, “Economics, Faith, and Practice,” Direction 14/2 (1985): 50.
  28. Toews, “Theological Reflections,” 61, 65, 66.
  29. See John H. Redekop, A People Apart. Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1987; Peter M. Hamm, Community and Change. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987.
Richard Kyle is Professor of History and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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