April 2005 Harder

Review Essay:

Fernando Enns on Mennonite Ecumenism


Fernando Enns, Friedenskirche in der kumene: Mennonitische Wurzeln einer Ethik der Gewaltfreiheit. [English translation: The Peace Church in Ecumenical Context: Mennonite Roots of an Ethic of Nonviolence.] Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 2003. Pp. 364.

Since the early 1950s, the historic peace churches’the Brethren in Christ, the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonites and the Quakers’have become increasingly aware of their place in the context of the larger Christian family of churches. In part, this is because these churches have grown in their sense of responsibility to and within the ecumenical family. In part, it is because churches outside the historic peace church circle have taken note of the peace churches and have invited their understandings of Christian faith and life. To a significant extent, the historic peace churches have ?come of age? in relation to the ecumenical movement.

In Friedenskirche in der kumene: Mennonitische Wurzeln einer Ethik der Gewaltfreiheit, Fernando Enns addresses this development at its growing edge. Since the book is not yet accessible to those who cannot read German, I will begin by offering an abbreviated brief summary of the book, and follow this with some review comments.



Enns introduces the burden of his book by observing that the ecumenical movement, as represented by the World Council of Churches (W.C.C.), has again and again challenged the peace churches to bring their witness to the ecumenical table. To some extent, the historic peace churches have responded positively, evidenced most recently in their role in preparing for the decision of the W.C.C. in 1998 (Harare, Zimbabwe) to enter into a ?Decade to Overcome Violence.? But over the years the historic peace churches? witness within the ecumenical context has suffered significant limitations. The witness has been welcomed and received by the other churches largely at the social-ethical level. Yet the ecclesiological framework that provides the coherent structure and texture for the historic peace church witness has been largely disregarded.

It is doubtful, Enns claims, that the peace church witness will find its authentic and full place in ecumenical discussion if its contribution is not presented and understood within the framework of the peace church theology of the church. Furthermore, considering the persistent quest of the ecumenical movement for a Christian unity based on a common ecclesiology, it seems opportune that the historic peace churches should enter ecumenical discussion by placing their understanding of ecclesiology on the table. But this would require that the historic peace church first come to a more profound understanding of its theology of peace in the context of its theology of the church. It is the burden of Fernando Enns’s book to contribute to a deeper self-understanding of peace church theology and to encourage the historic peace church to share its peace witness responsibly in the ecumenical context.

Chapter 1: Ecclesiology within the Ecumenical Horizon

Over the past fifty years the theme of ecclesiology has been at the center of theological discussion in the ecumenical movement. Is it possible for the historic peace churches to find a place within this dialogue? The author argues that the ecumenical movement’s more recent consideration of the Trinity as the basis for ecclesiology holds promise for such participation. First, the concept of Trinity, with its suggestion of diversity within unity, affords a more inclusive ecumenical basis than earlier foci provided. Second, trinitarian discussion has focused attention on crucial biblical themes, such as ?people of God,? ?body of Christ? and ?temple of the Holy Spirit.? Third, trinitarian doctrine evokes the concept of community (koinonia, Gemeinschaft), a theme amenable to the historic peace churches. Finally, trinitarian theology holds together the inevitable tension between essence and existence, between an articulation of the ?believing church? (geglaubter Kirche) and the ?experiencing church? (erfahrener Kirche). This appeals to the historic peace churches? attention to praxis. In short, the historic peace churches appear to have an important and welcome role to play in the ongoing ecumenical theological conversation.

Chapter 2: Toward a Definition of the Historic Peace Churches in Confessional Terms

The historic peace church presupposes its location within the ?free church? movement. All church groups within this movement hold to the separation of church and state along with a commitment to the singular Lordship of Jesus Christ and to the kingdom of God. Within the free church group, some claim a ?peace church? identity. As a general picture, Enns characterizes the peace church group as strongly anticlerical, voluntaristic and congregationally structured, with nonviolence as the central requirement of communio. The term ?historic? means that historical roots of the group reach back into primitive church history in line with ?jesuological? claims of the early church. The term ?peace church? applies to those Protestant free churches that claim the peace position on confessional grounds, and name nonviolence as the sign of their ecclesial identity.

To lend focus to the discussion, Enns concentrates on the Anabaptist-Mennonite stream, one of the larger groups within the historic peace church tradition. The author argues that this is an identifiable group, despite recent attempts to dissolve Anabaptist-Mennonite identity in polygenic origins. There is, after all, a common history stretching from the sixteenth century to this day, yielding a sense of one community of faith. There are commonly accepted regulative principles such as an emphasis on the life and teachings of Jesus, an ethic of love and the church as a voluntary alternative community of disciples. There is a common commitment to the local congregation and to the hermeneutical community. There is a social-ethical commitment within a context in which both empirical and eschatological dimensions are valued. Church is understood as a messianic community of reconciliation with a commitment to practical discipleship.

Chapter 3: The ?Messianic Community’: Ecclesiological Aspects in the Writings of John Howard Yoder

In this chapter, Enns begins by outlining the contributions of John Howard Yoder to his own peace church tradition and to the ecumenical movement in the area of ecclesiology. Briefly stated, Yoder’s focus is on the relationship between church and world, and his central axiom is the cross of Christ. In Yoder’s view the church originates in Nachfolge Christi, the making of disciples who follow the nonviolent way of Jesus. The ?messianic community? that is spawned in this way proclaims the reign of God. The mission of the church has a double focus’to nurture a ?contrast society? while engaging the world in dialogue.

By way of critique, Enns argues that Yoder presents a perfected idealistic picture of the church, with little room for ambivalence, weakness and indecisiveness. Yoder fails to thematize the tension between faith and experience. Further, Enns suggests that Yoder overplays his central motif, the kingly reign of God, at the expense of the pneumatological motif of the work of the Spirit.

While Enns is critical of aspects of Yoder’s thought, he gives him prominent recognition for his explication of the peace church position in the ecumenical context, and recognizes his writings as singularly helpful for the historic peace churches? ecumenical dialogue. Yoder offers to the ecumenical community a fresh way of thinking biblically about the relationship between the universal church and the local community, between the essence of the church and its practice, between ecclesiology and ethics. He challenges the church to incorporate nonviolence as an identity-forming axiom of ecclesiology. In short, Yoder’s theological writings give indication of the dialogical stance that the historic peace churches can assume in ecumenical discussion.

Chapter 4: The Voice of the Historic Peace Churches in the Ecumenical Movement (W.C.C.)

For the peace church to have a significant voice in dialogue with other churches, the discussion should focus first on ecclesiology. Unfortunately, the contributions of the historic peace churches to ecumenical dialogue are usually limited to peace issues, partly by their own design and partly by others? interests. Yet discussion on ecclesiology is basic to discussion on peace. In dialogue, the genuine confessional profile of the peace church comes into its own. The peace churches will need to confidently present their distinct identity as noncreedal, nonhierarchical and strongly congregationalist. Furthermore, theology of church and of peace are basic to the historic peace church understanding of baptismal confession, the celebration of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper, and the conception and exercise of ministry.

Enns notes that the shift to trinitarian-centered theology in ecumenical circles holds new promise for ecumenical dialogue with Mennonites. To be sure, the systematic-theological foundation of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition rests on a strong Christology, with the central axioms being the life of Christ (discipleship), the cross with its call to nonviolence and suffering, and the resurrection with its emphasis on the reign of Christ. At the same time, for the historic peace churches, the ecumenical movement’s focus on trinitarian theology provides a fresh point of entry into ecumenical dialogue. Important for the peace churches, who presuppose an integral link between theology and social ethics, are the implications of the trinitarian participation of the three Persons with one another for an understanding of ecclesiological dimensions of holy community and of nonviolent relationships. Enns suggests that the sociability of God and a trinitarian-based ecclesiology necessitate the confession of nonviolence in principle. The Anabaptist-Mennonite theology of Gemeinde and Gemeinschaft (community and communality) find their theological basis in the Gemeinde of the triune God and in the Gemeinschaft of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Enns proposes that dialogue with churches of the ecumenical movement on these aspects of trinitarian theology promise fruitful insights both for the historic peace churches and for others.

Chapter 5: The Historic Peace Church (Mennonite) in Bilateral Dialogue

In this chapter the author reviews four recent bilateral dialogues of Mennonites with other churches’the Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans and Catholics. The Baptist, Reformed and Catholic conversations were international in scope. Dialogues with Lutheran church groups were held in Germany and in France. (More recently a Mennonite-Lutheran dialogue was held in the United States.) The resulting papers and reports provide a valuable key to the ecclesiological self-understanding of the Mennonite Church. The dialogues also provide a testing ground for ecumenical methodology and theology. After reviewing each of the dialogues, Enns asks four questions.

(1) Is the peace church capable of dialogue? It appears from the reports that the dialogues fostered open discussion in an atmosphere of positive relationships. There was a desire to overcome differences and move on rather than to focus primarily on negative events of the past or on divisive issues. This said, Enns notes that the question of accountability is not clear. To whom are the dialogue partners accountable? This remains a question particularly for the peace church where authority rests with the local congregation.

(2) Is the theme of community, central for Mennonites, important to the other churches? Enns notes that for the Baptists, attention to the individual supersedes interest in community. For the Reformed tradition, community is not tied to (adult) baptism or to discipleship. Thus it appears, on the basis of these samples, that Anabaptist-Mennonite theology has something unique to offer to the discussion on ecclesiology.

(3) Do the other churches find themselves in agreement with Mennonite theological thinking on nonviolence? According to Enns, this remains an open question. The Mennonite Church and the Reformed Church converge in their emphasis on participation in society as well as their role in exercising a transformative function over against society. However, the Reformed are not as decisive about nonviolence. Whether the sociality of God and a trinitarian-based ecclesiology necessitate the confession of nonviolence in principle needs further exploration.

(4) Is the church in ?exilic existence’? The dialogue between Mennonites and Lutherans finds some agreement on this question, as seen in the Lutheran expression of the ?Confessing Church.? But there is divergence in that the peace church understands itself as a ?contrast society? with a prophetic witness rather than presuming to be the voice of society. With respect to the Mennonite Church’s self-understanding, the peace church would gain valuable insight for its role as an alternative society by engaging in an exploration of the exilic experience of Israel. On the basis of his survey of bilateral interchurch dialogues to date, Enns is hopeful that historic peace church engagement in ecumenical dialogue can provide a significant arena for the peace witness. Dialogue should also help to open and strengthen the borders of peace church ecclesiology and to correct certain aspects of it.

Chapter 6: Prospect: Ecclesiogenesis from a Peace Church Perspective and a Trinitarian Foundation

In this final section, Enns ties together his observations thus far by introducing potential contributions and prospective developments of the historic peace churches in ecumenical contexts. His thoughts are organized under five headings, each of which reflects an aspect of ecclesiology.

Koinonia: trinitarian community. The historic peace churches should consider trinitarian theology with seriousness, not only because trinitarian theology has become direction-setting in ecumenical discussion, but because such a foundation, with its emphasis on the social character of God, is decisive in many ways for the role of community (koinonia), so important to the peace church. Ecumenical discussion on this level has the potential to strengthen the theological underpinnings of the historic peace church witness, to help the peace church achieve significant dialogue with other churches and to suggest internal corrections.

Leiturgia: worshipping community. People-of-God-in-community constitutes an experience of worship, centered in trinitarian baptism and in the Lord’s Supper as communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The peace church celebrates baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a confession of communion with Christ, thus transcending its own local borders to unite, through the work of the Holy Spirit, with the church universal. While the individual is important in worship, the peace church tends to over-individualize and over-localize baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Diakonia: faithful community. Unlike the mainline churches, which generally focus apostolicity on particular callings within hierarchies, in the peace church the entire congregation, understood as ?kingly priesthood,? takes ownership of apostolicity. The peace church also makes a strong point of standing in discontinuity with the ruling society. These features, among others, shape the context and understanding of the church’s apostolic service. While churches of the congregational tradition have had a tendency to separate from the world, the challenge for the peace church is to take an exilic (?Jeremianic’) stance in the world. In the area of diakonia, there is potential for historic peace church contributions and learnings in ecumenical discussion.

Martyria: holy community. The peace church locates the church as communities of discipleship in whose witness (martyria) and sign-character the will of God for the whole world is represented. The church’s witness, as an expression of her confession of the lordship of Christ, is constitutive of her belief, and becomes one with her belief in the central and identity-forming principle of the nonviolent way of Jesus even unto death on the cross. In her refusal to engage in violence, the peace church demonstrates the inseparability of ecclesiology and ethics. She will not reduce ethics to an individual decision of conscience, but gives the community of faith as such an ethically determined character. The historic peace church is a persistent challenge to the ecumenical community, opposing every attempt to disconnect ecclesiology from ethics, to separate the essence of the church and the function of the church.

Ecclesia viatorum: community on the way. The ecumenical community has welcomed the ethical witness of the peace churches. This bodes well for dialogue on the ecclesiological level, which must be a dialogue in progress (viatorum). The quest for the relationship between ecclesiology and Trinity represents one significant aspect of this dialogue to which the peace church tradition can make a contribution. The peace churches keep two theological sources in mind while engaging in such dialogue: the hermeneutical community in its specific locale, and the biblical witness. The dialogue in each locale is guided by the narratives of Abram, Isaac and Jacob, of Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. The identity of believers is shaped by baptism, by witness and by experience. The relationship between Trinity and church should serve the larger ecumenical quest for the calling of the church in our time. These considerations suggest the promise of fruitful ecclesiological discourse among the historic peace churches as well as between them and churches in the ecumenical context.


Fernando Enns’s Friedenskirche in der kumene is of great significance for the Mennonite Church, for the wider historic peace church and, potentially, for the ecumenical movement. The central point of the book, that the theological peace position of the historic peace church is inseparable from its ecclesiology, invites the historic peace churches to a new level of self-understanding with respect to its peace witness. The two belong together in the sense that peace theology comes wrapped in a peace church theology, and cannot be comprehended or sustained apart from its ecclesiological package. This central point is the genius of the book.

Though this integration of peace and ecclesiology may not be new for some, Enns presents a challenge to the peace church as it engages in inter-church discussion. Given the longstanding search in ecumenical circles for a common ecclesiology, what would it mean for the historic peace church to enter this discussion with the view that ecclesiology and peace are theologically inseparable? It is one thing to discuss peacemaking as such with other Christians. Individuals and interest groups will readily express their interest in strategies for nonviolence and reconciliation. It is quite another to challenge the churches to be peace churches, with the assumption that, in accordance with the Gospel, this is what the peace witness requires.

There is at least one venue where this kind of dialogue has begun to happen, namely in the first stages of the recent International Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue (1998-2003), which Enns treats briefly (299-301). The five-year Report of the Dialogue bears the overall title ?Called Together to be Peacemakers.? This very title, with its invitation to interchurch community (?Called Together’), implies the hope for oneness of community in the pursuit of peace. In the second chapter of the report, ?Considering Theology Together,? the Catholic-Mennonite dialogue partners show how their theological discussion moved in three stages over five years: from a comparative view of Mennonite and Catholic ecclesiology (stage 1), to a comparison of respective theologies of the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the eucharist/Lord’s Supper (stage 2), to the theology of peace (stage 3). In the third stage the Mennonite delegation did in fact present its theology of peace as part of what it means to be a peace church. The Mennonite view was then compared with the Catholic understanding, characterized as a peacemaking church. For a first round of discussion on the intersection of church and peace, this interchange on the international level was assessed as fruitful. That said, Enns is correct that the dialogue needs also (perhaps primarily) to engage churches at the local level.

One of the unique aspects of Enns’s approach in Friedenskirche in der kumene is his appeal to trinitarian theology as a potential bridge between peace church theology and discussion on ecclesiology among the mainline churches within the ecumenical movement. While the doctrine of the Trinity was assumed as part of an Anabaptist-Mennonite belief system, it has not gained status as a matter of central interest or as an organizing principle in Mennonite theological reflection. Enns develops the view that trinitarian community (Gemeinschaft) between and among Father, Son and Holy Spirit provides a basis for reconciliation and oneness (in the midst of diversity) in the church and between the church and the world. In short, as a foundation for ecclesiology, the Trinity necessitates a nonviolent church. With this approach, the author illustrates his basic point: the historic peace church, together with its understanding of ecclesiology, has an obligation to participate in the ecumenical quest for the faithful church.

Having noted the Enns’s contribution with appreciation, I conclude with two concerns. First, given the longstanding Anabaptist-Mennonite commitment to the primacy of the biblical text both for the task of developing confessional statements and for doing theology, would it not be incumbent on the peace church to focus its self-presentation mainly on the biblical text? In this way the appropriate legacy of peace church methodology would undergird the peace church’s theological self-understanding. This is said not to discourage dialogue under the rubric of trinitarian theology, but to ensure that the peace church upholds, as primary, that method which is in continuity with its historic witness.

Second, while it is understandable that the author limits his discussion to the ecumenical context, it should not be assumed that with this he has covered the ?waterfront? as far as the Christian church is concerned. There are many church denominations and communities beyond those represented in the World Council of Churches. What is the possibility for dialogue with churches outside the ecumenical movement? What obligation do the peace churches have to share their understanding of the Gospel with all Christian churches? What would determine the approach to dialogue with ?free churches? that are not peace churches? With the vast number of churches internationally that are part of the new Pentecostal movement? Or with churches that show little interest in pursuing church unity?

We are indebted to Fernando Enns for providing a compelling case for the historic peace church to take up its responsibility within the ecumenical context, and for stirring our imagination to think of other contexts in which to engage the church and the world in witness to peace, justice and nonviolence.

The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Fernando Enns on Mennonite Ecumenism
*Helmut Harder is emeritus professor of theology at Canadian Mennonite University.
MQR 79 (April, 2005)