Of course there are different Mennonite groups, even in our area. We have the more contemporary types with modern worship and social activism[i] and we have the more conservative and traditional groups that appear almost as Amish who happen to drive black vans. The group in town was from one of the conservative sects.
We talked about the idolatry of patriotism within the churches and the need to reject the cheap grace so often proffered by the Evangelical mainstream.
I explained to him how we've struggled to find a church home in this area. The vast majority of the congregations are theologically liberal.[ii] Every town has a little United Methodist congregation and many have a mainline Presbyterian Church as well. Early in the 20th century the area was heavily settled by Italians and Poles leading to an explosion of Roman Catholicism and the anti-catholic anti-immigrant second wave of the Klu Klux Klan was to the surprise of some quite popular in this area. Even just a few years ago people were still finding Klan uniforms in old dusty attics uncovering lost secrets about deceased grandfathers.
I explained to this Mennonite how we longed to find a congregation that adhered to the Bible and didn't worship at the altar of the American Empire. He was more than sympathetic. But then I raised the issue of communion and their host of regulations.
He assured me their long list of requirements to be a member of their community was in accord with the Bible, but then could not argue the case from the Bible for a single one. Somehow rejecting worldliness and pride translated into a no mustache, a black hat and black jacket...and definitely no pin-striping on your car.
In fact the question of Biblical justification seemed foreign to him, as if it were something he merely took for granted. He didn't grasp the concept of 'binding the conscience' of others. When I drew parallels between Roman Catholic traditions and their own he couldn't see the connection.
The issue of course is one of authority. We would critique the Roman Catholics as having taken it unto themselves a right to create (from thin air) a myriad of traditions. We would call them superstitions a label every Roman would deny.
I pointed out the Mennonites do the same thing. Of course like the Roman Catholics, they don't believe their traditions to be will worship or self-imposed religion either. They too try and make lame Biblical arguments for their clothing peculiarities and regulations which for them are just as much acts of devotion as the rosary is for a Papist.
It's ironic that among all these legalist groups since the essence of their faith is tied to the code (or Ordnung as the Amish call it)...that's basically what they spend their time talking about. That is their faith. That is the foundation of their fellowship. If you think they spend their time talking about the Bible, you're quite mistaken I assure you!
They criticize groups more liberal than they are as being worldly and criticize groups more conservative than they are as being legalist. It's no different in Fundamentalist Baptist or Holiness circles. They love to criticize the 'worldliness' of other groups and yet, oh how they react when someone goes farther and are more conservative than they are. It's a proverb in our house...there's nothing more angry and bitter than an out Baptist-ed Baptist.
It's a wretched existence.
He admitted that we could visit their church and encouraged me to do so but said they practiced Closed Communion. Of course since Communion in their theology is essentially a meaningless symbol they don't practice it very often anyway. In order to take Communion you must 'sign-on' to their list of life and piety requirements, almost all of which are extra-Scriptural.
If you refuse to do this, then you cannot take Communion with them. Of course denying someone the New Covenant sign is not excommunication to them. They don't see it as denying your status as a Christian. That's not the issue for them. The sign and symbol demarcating the Church from the World is not the Covenant sign given by Christ. No, it's the code. The Supper ends up just functioning as the equivalent of a Masonic secret handshake. What really matters is your membership in the group...a membership determined by criteria rooted in historical and sociological concerns...one not found in Scripture itself.
In the end they're first class Pharisees. In their zeal to be humble and reject their world they have misunderstand what it is to be worldly. Wearing black and not focusing on your appearance is an act of humility.
And yet it is their appearance that marks them out. It is their appearance, their uniform that identifies them. They focus on it to the extent that you're denied status as a Christian unless you adopt it. They don't focus on their appearance or find pride in their dress? Quite the opposite. Like the Pharisees they revel in and find affirmation in their superior status and in the fact they have it right and those around them do not. It's their obsession.
It was much the same with the monks and with all forms of asceticism. The monks wore rough cowls and shaved their hair into a tonsure. What was meant to be humbling in fact became a badge of pietistic pride. This is exactly what Paul is talking about at the end of Colossians 2. And in 1 Timothy 4 he flat out identifies such 'bodily' forms of religious exercise as demonic.[iii]
They may not wear flashy clothes and primp in front of the mirror, but their appearance is what they are all about.
They would look down on the guy wearing the $1500 suit and gold rings (as would I) but they're no different. They are apparently blind to the fact that the dozen or so of their number on the streets of Titusville was gaining great attention. Everyone was looking at them. Their appearance more than anything was getting attention. Morally the only difference is they're not trying to project power. Or are they? Perhaps their scope is a bit more limited. Power in the form of spiritual tyranny is also dealt with extensively in the New Testament. Galatians 4 reads:
17 They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them.
I'll grant that in our culture today if you're non-tattooed, non-pierced, and you're not exposing cleavage or wearing an obscene t-shirt, then sure that alone will gain some attention. If your children comport themselves with sobriety and don't have a 'tween' or 'teen' style or 'look' then indeed you will stand out.
But with these folks, like the Holiness people, like the Baptists....it's a look they're after.
Speaking of Baptists I found it ironic as I walked into another grocery store a few minutes later (we usually hit more than one) there was the good Fundamental Baptist girl we see all the time. She works there and sticks out because her hair is quite long and she always wears a denim-style long skirt. Of course she also struts about with obvious contempt of those who 'don't have it right' and is quite unfriendly to any woman wearing pants. My wife enjoys throwing these people off. One week she'll wear a long skirt and she too has long hair, and they'll think ah, maybe this family is one of us. I'm afraid I don't fit the bill. I'm too scruffy and don't look anything like a Baptist. We chuckle as we often see these people staring at us and trying to figure out what we are.
But then next week my wife will wear pants and totally confuse them. I always figure they probably think she's just married to an unbeliever since I don't look conservative enough to be saved.[iv]
Anyway in the end the conversation was pretty disappointing. They're simple folks and humble in one sense. In another sense they're anything but. A kind of humble pride.
I said, "How sad that here you have a family that wants to adhere to Scripture and rejects the violence and idolatry the rest of the Churches have embraced and yet, we can't have fellowship with you because I won't wear a little black hat."
He really didn't have much to say. He just assured me that their rules were protections that kept them from the world and helped insure their children would embrace the faith. To be part of the Church you have to live a life of holiness. I agreed but I said the Bible determines what holiness is, not the traditions of men.
I said my piety is in question because of this?...I gestured to what I was wearing. I had just come from work. I was wearing a pair of carpenter pants, work boots, a button down shirt and a work jacket.
"Well," he said. "We don't really look at it that way."
I told him I had to go as I could see my family in the parking lot beginning to load groceries.
Denominations are a curse. The claim of 'True Church' is implicit within every denomination. These Mennonites are probably just a little more candid about it. In their zeal to protect the Church, by excluding others on a non-Biblical basis they are guilty, very guilty of the sin of Schism.
That's great that they're out on a Friday night passing out literature and trying to talk to folks, but the Black Hat gospel isn't going to win anyone over. Only a handful of people who motivated by fear will say 'Stop the world, I want to get off' and find the answer in a group like the conservative Mennonites. There is such a comfort in being part of a group and the codes and lists are also a form of comfort. You have a standard a checklist to compare yourself to. As long as you can check the boxes...you're at peace. You know that you're right.
It's the same works gospel the Pharisees had.
Ultimately we find that these groups are intimidating and unapproachable to people. I was watching other people as he passed out literature to them. No one wanted to talk to him. I'll admit as an unbeliever I would have found him intimidating.
And ironically when my wife does wear pants and just looks like a regular non-uniformed person...we get a lot of people talking to us. We're not intimidating and they see we have nice well behaved kids...and they want to talk to us.
It's a little different around here. The skirts are a fashionable thing in the city. If we're in Pittsburgh no one looks twice if my wife is wearing a long skirt. But around here because of all the sects, the skirt is a religious statement. If you're a 'normal' mom you wear jeans or pants and a Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirt. Well, that's certainly not a look my wife would adapt.
Can't something in the middle work and still be compatible with Christianity?
I'm sorry but if I am to abandon the Word as the sole governing authority for the Church and the Christian life, then I'm not going to go and join with the Mennonites. I prefer something more rooted in history, something more tactile. I prefer a tradition that doesn't make me dress up in a clown suit and one in which I can at least have a beer now and then.
[i] The post-Niebuhr groups
[ii] This area was heavily affected to Mennonite Circuit Riders in the 1800's. This was the new frontier right after the American Revolution and opened up in the late 18th and early 19th century and many of the town signs bear 'founded' dates of 1795 or 1810. With the discovery of oil outside of Titusville Pennsylvania in 1859 the area exploded with population and industry and then began the slow decline into Rust Belt status in the 20th century. As Southeastern Pennsylvania's population expanded into the network of metropolitan areas and joined with the massive Mega-city stretching from Boston to Richmond, the Amish and other groups moved west seeking rural areas to settle. This area though built up at one time was never urban and then and far more so now contains many large tracts of forest and in places good farm land.
[iii] Many misread this passage and think he's talking about aerobics or weightlifting. The exercise he speaks of has absolutely nothing to do with sports. Many argue that Paul was pro-sports because he said it profits 'a little'.
Just to clarify there's nothing wrong with sports in moderation, but nor is it a way to exercise Dominion either. The Christian High School I attended believed American football was an act of worship. It's one thing to ski or race but with physical sports like football in order to be effective (at least for me playing on defense) the only way I could play well was to literally work myself up and want to absolutely pulverize the guy across from me or the one carrying the ball. I had to get myself into a state...one I would certainly reject post-conversion. I think the whole competition issue can become problematic let alone the disgusting immoral spectacle that is modern American entertainment style sports. If someone wants to participate, go right ahead. I won't bind your conscience but the last thing I'm going to do is get excited about someone like Tim Tebow. His faddish star seems to be waning. Good riddance.
[iv] My friends and I always chuckle about the Baptist pastor we knew in the Air Force. "You gotta look like you're saved!"
What did that entail? "Well fellas, you need to tuck your shirts in and sorry...I think you need to shave even on your days off."