Who are the Mennonites?

We at Shalom go by the title “Mennonite” – the label is even part of our church fellowship name. But what, or who, is a Mennonite? Isn’t that another form of Amish? The short answer is that Mennonites are a Christian denomination, just like Baptists or Lutherans or Methodists. And yes, Mennonites share many similarities with the Amish church; in fact, the Amish and Mennonites and a few other groups are together known as Anabaptists, meaning “re-baptizers”. (What does re-baptizing have to do with anything? We’ll get to that!)

If you ask me, “What is a Mennonite?” and I have five seconds to respond, I’ll say this: “We’re a Christian group with some similarities to the Amish.” But that’s not the whole story, and that’s not all I would want to say. It’s just that the long answer takes more time to share. From its beginning in Switzerland in 1525 until now, the Anabaptist movement has included diverse leaders and groups with diverse convictions. Yet there are at least four common beliefs that set historic Anabaptism apart as a unique expression of Christian faith, and they all contribute to answer the question, “What is a Mennonite?”

Three of the four characteristics were pointed out by a Mennonite theologian and historian, Harold Bender, in his 1943 lecture, “The Anabaptist Vision”. Quoting both early Anabaptists and their opponents, Dr. Bender argued that three principles form the core of Anabaptist teaching:

  • The essence of Christianity is discipleship.
  • The church is a disciplined community of believers.
  • The ethic of love and nonviolence taught by Jesus applies to all relationships.

Many modern-day Mennonites recognize a fourth statement that resonates with the writings of the early Anabaptists and helps make sense of the first three declarations:

  • The Bible is intended to be read literally and simply obeyed.

In shortened form, we could summarize the statements as discipleship, Christian community, nonresistance, and literal obedience of Scripture. Many Christians in other churches prioritize one or more of these ideas, so there is much common ground between Mennonites and other groups, but the conservative Mennonite church makes some unique applications based on these four principles. Why do Mennonites refuse to go to war? Why don’t they baptize their infant children into the church?  Why do Mennonite women wear those things on their heads? Hopefully by unpacking the four statements one at a time over the next few posts, these questions will begin to be answered!

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