As Mennonites, most of us have grown up in our particular religious environment accepting the teaching which we received. Certain Scriptures have been associated with the practices unique to us but we may have never made a personal study of them to assure ourselves of their logic in view of their entire Biblical context. It is easy to be caught up in being part of a religion without having a true connection with God.
What do we believe to be the essence of the Gospel? Does anything set us apart from mainstream evangelical Christianity? How do our beliefs and practices align with that of our forefathers at the time of the reformation? Does our experience complement our theological beliefs or is our faith primarily an exercise of the intellect? These are questions which we ought to be asking ourselves.
Our denominational heritage began during the reformation when a group of believers were determined to follow the Scripture regardless of the cost. God’s approval of their commitment was obvious by the vibrant testimonies they gave as they confronted their persecutors. Their newfound standing with God along with the joy and peace it brought to their hearts was confirmed by the confidence with which they faced their execution. The Presence of the Holy Spirit within them is shown by the boldness and wisdom of their testimonies as recorded in the “Martyrs’ Mirror”.
A godly preacher of modern times, Paris Reidhead, in a sermon entitled, “The Great Apostasy “(Falling Away), addresses a problem experienced in every spiritual awakening in history. He assumed that the prophesied “falling away” already began in the first century of the Church’s existence. The initial believers experienced a dynamic salvation. Sadly very quickly in succeeding generations their children mentally embraced a creed without having a real regeneration experience. The result was a church that practiced ritual but did not have a knowledge of God. Denominations are often begun when people realize the deadness of the established church and God’s Presence and Power comes upon them as they fully pursue Him. Tragically the pattern of falling away usually repeats itself in following generations.
This appears to be the case with our spiritual forebears. Too soon in Mennonite history a heated argument over some Biblical practices occurred which resulted in the birth of the Amish church. In all probability the original joy of God’s Presence had been forgotten and replaced with a blind zeal to duplicate all the external expressions of the fathers. Was the Spirit of God still present Who would have led His children into paths of peace?
The Amish church continued its obsession with following tradition for the following centuries. At one point in history the Amish were willing to refrain from sharing their faith with others in exchange for the privilege of owning their own farms and being exempted from military service. A far cry from apostolic Christianity!
I came on the scene in the Amish community (albeit not Old Order) in the middle of the twentieth century. The Amish at the time had very little knowledge of Bible teaching. Church consisted of a ritualistic following of their fathers’ customs. Some individuals within the community discovered a genuine faith in spite of the low spiritual temperature of the church but they could find themselves despised because of their sensitivity to spiritual matters. Immorality, alcohol abuse and unbecoming behaviour were rampant.
There seems to have been an identical situation in other Mennonite groups right down to making promises to be silent about their faith in exchange for otherwise religious freedom. Then during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spiritual revivals spilled over from Protestant denominations, having a positive effect on segments of the Mennonite population. Mennonite men and women experienced conversions and brought their newfound faith back to their communities. When this happened an interest in Bible study took place and churches again realized from Scripture the reasons for practices somewhat unique to the denomination. Of course, among those converted, many evils which had become the “norm” were recognized and forsaken. Bible schools were started, Sunday schools established and some evangelistic and mission work carried on. As this took place in North America, another spiritual renewal was experienced in Russia and the Mennonite Brethren church was born. While many churches rejected this evangelical emphasis, the movements would have influenced some of their people in a positive way towards a real faith within the context of their church.
To be continued…