My father cleaned out his bookshelves recently, and I acquired some more books about Mennonite history. One is a book I read with great interest when it came out in 1988, Why I Am A Mennonite. Almost every chapter is written by a Mennonite with a very traditional Russian or Swiss Mennonite last name.
As we grow more diverse, the question today is, “What holds us together as Mennonites/Anabaptists?” I hear this question often at Mennonite Church Canada, MC Eastern Canada, and at Mennonite World Conference (MWC). Why are we together, and what does it mean to be Mennonite/Anabaptist together?
Historical tradition influences many of us who were born into a Mennonite church family in Congo, Brazil, Indonesia or Canada. In a faith community that emphasizes adult choice, one’s community of origin does not result in automatic adult faith, but it is a very large influence. If one chooses an adult faith, it is most often within the community of faith where one is raised, even when one moves from country to country.
On the other hand, we share historical traditions that continue to shape all of us around the world. I love the story from 2012, when MWC was hosting meetings in Switzerland. A Congolese Mennonite leader stood by the spot where Felix Manz was drowned in 1527 for being a Radical Reformer. The leader passionately declared that if he wasn’t already baptized, he would choose to do it right there, in that very same spot. The stories of radical discipleship from the early Anabaptist martyrs continue to influence all of us around the world today. We are a faith community that takes discipleship seriously, and we share a history of what it means to be a Jesus-follower.
As Mennonite/Anabaptists we have been trying to write down what we believe for a long time. The first known confession of faith was written in Switzerland in 1527, the Schleitheim Confession. Confessions of faith grew longer over the years, with variations among the many different groupings of Mennonites. MC Canada shares a confession with MC U.S.A., approved in 1995, with a role of providing guidelines on belief and practice, creating a foundation for unity.
On the other hand, MWC does not have a confession of faith, although it has existed for nearly 100 years. In 2006, MWC created a short one-page “Statement of Shared Convictions.” It is clearly not a statement of shared beliefs that has held MWC together for the last 100 years!
So, what is it that holds us together, beyond our shared history and our statements of shared beliefs and practices?
Doug Klassen, MC Canada executive minister, says: “Our desire for a shared life in Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God propels us to have the faith needed to become part, and stay part, of the body.”
César García, MWC general secretary, says that “we are called to be a communion, to live in unity, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.” Communion is based on committed relationships of sacrificial love, with common purposes of fellowship, service, worship and mission.
Ronald Alexandre, pastor of Église de Dieu Réparateur des Brêches in Montreal, says that it is the simplicity of the Anabaptist/Mennonite vision in its call to discipleship in Jesus that encouraged the congregation to join MC Eastern Canada a few weeks ago.
Leah Reesor-Keller, MC Eastern Canada’s executive minister, recently said, “We’re here together because we believe we are called to walk together, and we’ve chosen to be companions for this journey.”
Arli Klassen is a member of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ont.; MC Eastern Canada; MC Canada; and MWC.