Conrad Grebel (c. 1498–1526)
My journey toward Anabaptism began ten years ago when I transferred from a Christian university with strong ties to conservative Reformed/Baptist traditions. I began studies at Bethel College (Indiana) which has its early roots in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ and is now affiliated with the Missionary Church USA. It was a significant change in culture, and overall academic environment. All said and done, I was a student there for eight years completing two undergrad programs and two graduate programs….I learned a lot about myself, the history of Anabaptist and Wesleyan thought, and the influence of these traditions on various denominations and fellowships. Unfortunately, my learning experience was done a part from the life of a local Anabaptist congregation. I developed an incomplete picture of Anabaptism, a picture that wouldn’t be challenged until a few years later.
I grew up in a small town just a few miles away from the town of Goshen, Indiana. Many refer to Goshen as the “Mennonite Mecca” due to the high concentration of Mennonite congregations in the area along with it being home to Goshen College which is associated with The Mennonite Church USA. Additionally, Elkhart Indiana (another nearby city) is home to Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I think it’s safe to say that the larger community in which I grew up is significantly shaped by these institutions. Many of the Mennonite and Brethren leaders I knew from a distance had attended at least one of these institutions. Many of these leaders were active in their local fellowship’s congregational teaching ministry and pastoral oversight.
That being said, my early and ongoing encounters with these folks always left me wondering about the nature of their convictions. To be honest, the designation of “Mennonite” or “Brethren” equated to “universalist” in my mind. That is not to say that this is a fair generalization, as I now know that my experience is limited to a small number of people within that larger Anabaptist tradition. But, since I’m talking about the reasons for my hesitation in associating with a particular tradition, my observations in this area need to be mentioned. Simply put, gospel proclamation was low on the priority list, while “living peacefully like Jesus” was frequently lifted up as the goal of spiritual life. There was a lot of “good behavior” apart from good news.
While I was in college I decided that if I were to enter into the Anabaptist tradition, it would have to be a cautious entry. My concern is one of authentic discipleship over religious-cultural designations. I call myself an Anabaptist, but not because that’s the tradition that was handed down to me by my parents, but because it is the tradition that stands to best cultivate what the Spirit seems to be stirring in me. My journey is about what God is doing so that I may be more conformed into the image of his Son, not hiding behind religious designations so as to avoid the pressing questions of what it means to really follow Jesus.
So here I sit, also concerned about being lumped in with people who identify with an Anabaptist heritage, but who are functionally agnostic, pluralistic, or other. And amidst that concern, I realize that my worry is sometimes more about how I might be perceived among my Evangelical peers. So I’m trusting that the Spirit will guide me into all truth and that Christ will be at the center of whatever tribe I find myself journeying with.
Still more to come…