new Mennonite Life logo    September 2000     vol. 55 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

Requisite Conditions for Identity and Vision

Karl Koop

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Karl Koop and Robert Kreider in conversation
(Credit: James C. Juhnke)
The words "Anabaptism" and "Vision," which appear in the title of this conference, remind us of Harold S. Bender's Anabaptist Vision statement that was given as a presidential address at the American Society of Church History in 1943. Bender's statement was one of the most influential documents for Mennonites in the twentieth century. It revised Anabaptist historiography and gave new credibility to Anabaptist and Radical Reformation research. It served to give identity and direction to Mennonites, who, in the first decades of the twentieth century, were caught between two influential religious streams--fundamentalism and liberalism. Bender's statement opened the possibility of a third way for Mennonites, namely, a return to the example of the New Testament church, modelled faithfully by sixteenth century Anabaptists. Further, it was quite successful in uniting North American Mennonites, particularly of the Swiss South-German tradition, around three principles, namely, discipleship, community and non-resistance. These principles, and the assumptions surrounding them, effectively served a generation of leaders in the church and academy, who were trying to come to terms with the challenges of modernity in the post WWII era.

Much has changed since Bender delivered his now famous manifesto, and it is doubtful that his words have the same power and effect as before. In the area of sixteenth century studies no serious scholar would hold to Bender's depiction of the early Anabaptists. In the last thirty years several correctives to Bender's version have emerged, portraying a far greater differentiated and complex Anabaptist story. Nevertheless, it is my view that what unites Anabaptists and Mennonites around the world today comes close to Bender's three-point vision. Most churches in the Anabaptist tradition agree that discipleship, community, and peace are central components of the Christian life. Controversy emerges when the relative importance of these components in relation to other Christian teachings are considered; or when Mennonites come together to discuss how these components ought to be actualised in the church and world. The points of unity for Anabaptists and Mennonites often become the points of highest contention. To give definition and shape to the terms "discipleship," "community" and "peace," therefore, may be the most urgent task for Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups at the present time. That, however, is not what I wish to do in this address. My concerns are more methodological in nature; that is, I want to bring into view what I consider to be the requisite conditions that may allow for identity and vision to emerge. With this in mind I offer five theses for consideration.

1. Our identity and vision must be grounded in God. God must be the starting point, not only of all our theological and ethical reflection but also the ground of our very existence. For some this may be so self-evident that it need not require further discussion. I believe otherwise. Anabaptist and Mennonite churches, particularly in Western culture, are increasingly in danger of living in the absence of God. Today the alternatives to Christian belief are numerous, ubiquitous and compelling. The question concerning the truthfulness and relevance of the Christian faith affects most everyone. That a divine reality exists beyond ourselves must, therefore, be our most explicit confession of faith.

The specificity of this confession must be grounded in a Trinitarian God. This specificity is not about medieval metaphysical abstractions such as how Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are consubstantial with God the Father, and so on. Rather, to talk about a Trinitarian God has to do with how the Scriptures narrate the story of God's work in the world. It is about how we live and have our being within God's self-revelation in creation, and more importantly, within the framework of God's revelation as revealed in the history of Israel, and most importantly, in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the ongoing activity of the Spirit. This revelation and ongoing action of God is the proper source for reflection on theological ethics, peace, spirituality, ecclesiology, and the communitarian and liturgical life of the church.

2. Our identity and vision must be shaped by the Christian Scriptures. Christian faith and discipleship lives with and from the Bible. Scripture has an informational function, but more importantly it is a fundamental source of inspiration, imagination and courage. Interpreted in the context of community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures serve as a primary orientation for the Church as it bears witness to God's revelation most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Our goal should be to immerse our selves in the biblical witness and be shaped by its story as we seek to live faithfully in the world.

3. Our identity and vision will emerge more clearly when we are in dialogue with our historical and theological tradition. The Christian church must be forward looking as it seeks to fulfil its mission in the world. At the same time it cannot move ahead without taking cognisance of the fundamental points of reference that have guided previous generations through uncertain and often dangerous waters. Knowing the tradition for Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups means more than a brief history lesson in early sixteenth century Anabaptism. Our tradition stretches over a 475 year history that is inextricably tied to the history of the church since the time of Christ. Our particular Mennonite history was divergent at the outset. In the 20th century it has become multi-cultural and global. If our diverse pasts and current multi-ethnic and multi-cultural realities are not taken seriously, our present efforts at unity will come back to haunt us.

Taking our tradition seriously can be a liberating experience. It is not some normative externally fixed authority that must be repeated, and neither is it without flaw. Our tradition is rather a constantly changing expression of belief actually representing a plurality of perspectives, which can provide an orientation for the future. Examining our tradition is an opportunity to join a conversation about the essentials and nonessentials of the faith. Such a conversation can provide the grammar that the church needs as it reflects on the grounds and content of the Christian faith.

4. Our identity and vision should emerge within the framework of the universality and the ecumenicity of the Christian church. While our own tradition is worthy of consideration, we cannot faithfully bear witness of the gospel in isolation. We cannot view ourselves as a people apart in a self-sufficient world of our own. Our tradition and denomination is not in sole possession of the truth. There are many gifts of the Spirit and these have been given to the church universal. Each Christian community contributes a valuable emphasis to the larger body. This is an emphasis that has a biblical basis and is pneumatologically given. We need each other. We can learn from others, as they learn from us. We need to take seriously our place in those contexts where churches and denominations are in conversation with each other. We need to join together in common missional purposes and together bear witness of our "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Eph. 4: 5). It is in such contexts that our identity and vision for the future can emerge.

To take this one step further, if we take the Spirit's presence in the world seriously, we will need to recognize that this Spirit moves in ways beyond our understanding; that the Spirit is not only present in the church universal, but actively present in all of creation, revealing the truth of God's love, justice and peace to those who are willing to see and hear. As Christians, committed to the gospel, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, we are called to witness to what we believe, and also to hear the witness of others as they have experienced the divine presence in their lives. We live now in a single interdependent world and it is no longer possible to ignore or merely condemn those who are different from us. To do so will inevitably lead to our own destruction. We must learn to encounter others, seek to understand and appreciate the insights of others and find bases for living in harmony with one another.

5. Our identity and vision will emerge most clearly in the context of doxology and mission. Critical reflection and dialogue are essential components required for the church as it seeks to find its identity and vision at the present time. The heart of the Christian life, however, is also the encounter with a personal God who seeks communion with us and who calls us to bear witness of the good news in the world. When we know, love and worship this God, and when we are, as a collective body engaged in mission and service, our identity will emerge and our vision will become clear. The most faithful contributions that have emerged from our denomination in the past century, in my view, have come from those persons who have not only been able to think creatively, but have in fact been doing their thinking in the context of worship and mission.

These, then, are what I consider to be the requisite conditions that allow for identity and vision to emerge: We must be grounded in a Trinitarian God, shaped by the Christian Scriptures, in dialogue with our historical and theological traditions, within the framework of the universality and the ecumenicity of the Christian Church and in the context of doxology and mission. As we seek to live out our identity and vision in the new millennium, may God go with us and may we respond in faithfulness.