April 2003 In This Issue


Few convictions are more central to Anabaptist-Mennonite theology than the principle of voluntary, or believer’s, baptism. Becoming a Christian, argued the radical reformers of the sixteenth century and countless believers after them, was a genuine choice-a conscious decision to accept God’s gift of grace, to earnestly follow the life and teachings of Christ, and to share actively in the life of the gathered body of believers through the discernment of scripture and mutual accountability. Then, as now, the doctrine of believer’s baptism offered a clear basis for the separation of church and state and guaranteed the freedom of the individual conscience. No one-neither an infant nor an adult-should be compelled against their will to become a Christian.

Yet however clear believer’s baptism may have been in theory, the principle has also triggered a number of vexing questions that have refused to go away over the course of the past four and a half centuries. Mainline Protestant theologians, of course, have always regarded believer’s baptism as a subtle form of works-righteousness, a recrudescence of the old Pelagian heresy that makes humans the agents of their own salvation. Within the tradition, Anabaptist communities have frequently struggled with the meaning of “choice” in a context where children are nurtured in the faith almost from the moment of their birth. Anxious discussions about the appropriate age of baptism nearly always hinge on what, exactly, qualifies as the “inner transformation” for which water baptism is the “outward sign.” And more recently, the postmodern critique of the autonomous self has further complicated our understandings of individual choices: according to many thoughtful contemporary theorists, decisions about faith and ethics are shaped much more profoundly by the narratives and communities that we choose to live within, than by a highly conscious intellectual process of adjudicating among various competing truth claims.

At the very least, the principle of believers’ baptism suggests an inherent open-endedness, even instability, within those groups that embrace it as a cardinal point of belief. Since on going group survival depends on the renewed allegiance of each generation, the free church is always only one generation away from extinction.

Thus, it may be understandable why Mennonite scholars have focused so little attention on the phenomenon of what sociologists call “defection”: that is, the decision on the part of those who were born and raised in Mennonite families not to join the church (or to leave it after their baptismal vows). From a denominational perspective, studies of defection are investigations into failure-not the sort of thing that sponsoring agencies are generally eager to invest resources into studying. Yet the topic of defection should be of more than merely passing interest to those who care about the long-term health and vitality of the church.

Knowing how many people choose to leave the Mennonite church, and ascertaining the reasons behind their decision, opens up a series of important questions regarding the nature of religious decision-making. A careful study of defection could deepen our understanding of the role of Christian education and catechesis in faith development; it could inform us about the salience of broader environmental factors-e.g., social and political events-in the shaping of religious allegiance; and it might encourage us to make more informed choices about the appropriate balance between the prophetic and the pastoral in the content of worship and teaching. More careful attention to those who have left the tradition would help to clarify whether people are being “pushed” out of the church-experiencing active rejection-or whether they are being “pulled” by the attractiveness of other options. And such a study would provide a clearer understanding of where restless souls are heading: are they leaving Christian faith altogether? or are they merely redirecting their spiritual pilgrimage within the context of a different denomination?

The essays gathered together in this issue of MQR will not offer definitive answers to these important questions. But they are one small effort to open up a broader discussion-and, I hope, further study-of this fascinating and complex topic. Nearly two years ago I invited more than twenty people, each of whom had been raised in a Mennonite community, to reflect on their decision not to remain within the Mennonite church. My letter of invitation was intentionally open-ended, encouraging both an autobiographical and an analytical response. To help provide some sense of shared structure to the essays, I asked participants to identify several dominant, or distinctive, themes that they recalled from their Mennonite upbringing, and then to relate the process of their disenchantment with the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. I further suggested that authors might reflect on ways in which Anabaptist-Mennonite themes have continued to shape their religious perspectives or practices; and to summarize their perceptions of the contemporary Mennonite church.

The invitation generated an immediate flurry of correspondence-much of it, as it turned out, with individuals who decided for one reason or another not to contribute an essay to the special issue. In the end, however, eight people generously agreed to my invitation. The result of their creative thinking is this special issue: a collection of voices from beyond the edge of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition offering insights into the fascinating and complex journey that led them away from the Mennonite community.

That the issue contains only eight essays means that readers should be very cautious about assuming that these reflections are a representative sample of the larger group of former Mennonites. For example, only two women are included in this issue (invitations were extended to many more). Readers will also note that a disproportionate number of contributors write out of academic settings. Although this undoubtedly reflects the stylistic demands of an academic journal, it also has likely skewed the sample toward those who are more self-conscious and analytical about their decision to leave the Mennonite church. Perhaps most significant is the relative absence of evangelical, or theologically conservative, voices in this sampling (again, invitations were offered). A great deal of anecdotal evidence would suggest that many of those leaving the Mennonite church during the second half of the twentieth century have done so in pursuit of a more evangelical theology, a more vibrant, spirit-centered worship style, or a greater emphasis on personal piety rather than the shared corporate distinctives that have traditionally characterized Mennonite ecclesiology. Yet such voices, unfortunately, are missing in this issue. These caveats serve as a reminder that the perspectives offered in this issue are necessarily limited and impressionistic; but they also serve as a challenge to other researchers to pursue a more rigorous study of this topic in the future.

Several underlying motifs seem to emerge within the personal and particular details of these eight accounts:

1. Mennonites are confused about church authority. The Anabaptist-Mennonite emphasis on the priesthood of all believers has an egalitarian ethos that tends to be uncertain about where authority in the church resides. At least some of the authors in this issue-especially those attracted to high church traditions-found episcopal forms of governance, a strong teaching office and a high regard for tradition to be a welcome antidote to the subjectivity and disorder they perceived in Mennonite ecclesiology.

2. Mennonites have an impoverished aesthetic of worship. Several of these same writers chafed at the austerity and sterility that they encountered in Mennonite forms of worship. Other traditions seem to offer a greater appreciation for styles of worship that draw on all of the senses, not just the ears. Thus, the rituals of the sacraments, the drama of the liturgy, images of the saints, the use of incense and a general celebration of the visual arts opened new aesthetic dimensions to worship that they had not encountered in Mennonite settings.

3. Mennonites promote a burdensome ethic of perfectionism. The Anabaptist-Mennonite belief in the freedom of the will and the insistence that the gospel bear fruit in daily life led some of the writers in this issue to characterize Mennonites as trapped in a theology of works-righteousness and a legalistic set of ethical expectations. In their judgment, other religious traditions provide a more satisfying under-standing of God’s grace as a gift, embedded in the freedom of the gospel and incarnated in the church through the mystery of the sacraments.

4. Mennonites have a needlessly sectarian understanding of the church.
For some of the contributors, the legacy of Anabaptist persecution and a separatist ecclesiology have created a culture of sectarianism that artificially separates Mennonites from the broader Christian church. Explicitly or implicitly, Mennonites seem to view themselves as the True Church, which fosters a kind of spiritual arrogance vis–vis other denominations and makes it hard for them to engage in ecumenical conversation. Some essayists found many of the characteristics that they valued in Mennonites to be also present in other denominations as well, but shorn of the sectarian sense of aloofness.

5. The Mennonite worldview is not sufficiently moderm. Several contributors, though not all, found the Mennonite church of their youth to be anachronistic and culturally regressive, unable to adapt its language and worldview to the rational assumptions of the Enlightenment and modern social science. For them, the distinctive elements of Mennonite “faith” were really socially constructed products of a rural ethnic sub-culture that are simply not sustainable in the complex, compromised world of modernity.

To be sure, these brief summaries do not exhaust the rich variety of critical insights captured in the essays that follow. Nor do they adequately communicate the many expressions of appreciation for aspects of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition that some individuals continue to cherish, even long after their departure. But they do suggest something of the direct, sometimes bracing, critique that follows in this issue, a critique that ultimately runs deeper than the idiosyncrasies of each personal story.

A critique should never be confused with Truth itself. Still, in our on-going pursuit of Christian faithfulness we would do well to listen carefully to the voices of those whose pursuit of Truth has led them beyond the boundaries of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.

– John D. Roth, editor

The Mennonite Quarterly Review
In This Issue