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July 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 3 · pp. 3–6 

Significance of the Anabaptist Vision for Mennonite Brethren

Henry G. Krahn

Mennonites in Europe and North America have been subject to many outside influences throughout the past 400 years and, according to J.H. Yoder, the Mennonites have been transformed in their very character. 1 In spite of these influences—some of them wholesome—the Anabaptist vision has not been altogether lost. A biblical orientation, voluntary service, believer’s baptism, mutual aid and missionary activities are evidences of the original commitment.

Dr. J.A. Toews, in his recent history of the Mennonite Brethren, refers repeatedly to the influence of the Anabaptist vision upon the theological and organizational orientation of the Mennonite Brethren conference. Several quotations reveal his conviction

The Mennonite Brethren church throughout its history has emphasized biblical authority on all matters of faith and practice. The early Brethren recovered much of the biblical orientation of apostolic Christianity and of the early Anabaptist movement. 2

The search of the early Brethren for biblical patterns and principles for the fellowship of believers did not occur in a theological vacuum, however, but in a definite church related and historical context. In their attempts to understand biblical revelation the brethren were influenced (perhaps much more than they realized) by their spiritual heritage as well as by the literature and ministries of contemporary evangelicals. 3

This emphasis on spiritual identity with the views of the Anabaptists and especially of Menno Simons is found repeatedly in the correspondence of the brethren. 4

Although there has been a weakening of the church’s theological foundations in recent times, the confessional documents of the Mennonite Brethren church to the present day strongly maintain this historical connection and orientation. 5 {4}

It is also possible to find support for this historic connection in the writings of P.M. Friesen, J.H. Lohrenz, F.C. Peters, C. Krahn, R. Kreider, and Ross Bender. To what extent the Anabaptist vision has been a significant guiding influence, however, has not yet been established.

Mennonite Brethren, like other Mennonite groups, have been influenced by a wide range of theological and ecclesiastical ideas. 6 Furthermore, identity with Anglo-Saxon culture in North America has exposed them to social and cultural influences not faced in Russian or earlier American experience. When considering all these influences, one might be nostalgic for simpler days when lifestyle, theology and church order were less encumbered. It may be more helpful, however, to view the past as an opportunity to rediscover roots, tradition and heritage which could provide continuing guidance in a search for an authentic church life.

Those of us who have found renewal in the rediscovery of our heritage are haunted by a belief that there is a distinct understanding of the nature of the church and its ministry which should shape the pattern of theological education, church life and ministry for our time. This inclination is supported by research which demonstrates that rediscovery of the Anabaptist vision was a contributing factor towards church renewal. Robert Kreider, in the article, “The Anabaptist Conception of the Church in the Russian Mennonite Environment” sees the influence of the Anabaptist vision in the developments which led to the establishment of the “Brueder Gemeinde” and the “Kleine Gemeinde.” 7 In his article, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” John H. Yoder refers to the recovery of the Anabaptist vision as an agency working for renewal within the Old Mennonite Conference. 8

The rich spiritual heritage of the Anabaptist-Mennonites indicates clearly that there were points at which the Anabaptists differed from their religious contemporaries. Examples include: nature of authority, nature of the church, meaning of baptism, the mission of the church, state-church relations and the pattern of ministry. The shape of these concerns was determined by the way they read the Scriptures and applied them in their particular historical situation. Questions of theology, ethics, church policy, missions and relations to the cultural environment were, moreover, determined by their understanding of the church. Their theology was, to use C. Krahn’s term, “ecclesio-centric.”

The crucial question is: How shall we make a judgment about the contemporary significance of our heritage? To put the question another way: In what ways does that heritage provide guidance in the development of church life, conference planning and mission activities? {5}

Recent developments indicate that the Free Church concept is more fully understood today than it was in the past. The list of scholars who have contributed to this cause is long, including North Americans and Europeans—many of whom represent other Christian traditions. It is also my view that Anabaptist-Mennonite history is being more systematically taught in M.B. schools than it was in the past. Both developments will prove helpful as we face the question of heritage and tradition.

Another factor which will influence the future of the Mennonite Brethren Church is that Mennonitism is breaking out of its ethnic and cultural isolationism. 9 Mennonite tendencies toward isolation were strengthened during their early stay in Russia by an aversion to the Slavic culture—which they considered inferior to their own. This tendency was reinforced by close association and identification of German culture with Mennonite faith. 10 Other factors contributing to their isolation were: nonconformity, lack of interest in missions, rural environment and ethnic character.

Mennonite Brethren are no longer bound by these cultural and ethnic factors as they have been in the past, at least not to the same extent. Most have abandoned the relationship between separate ethnic identity and religious life. Nevertheless, there continues a prevalent notion that Mennonitism provides something distinct to the religious life of the church.

J.A. Toews rather fittingly describes the changes which have been and are at work among Mennonite Brethren in the following statement:

During the relatively short period of a little more than one hundred years, the Mennonite Brethren have experienced the repeated impacts of tremendous cultural change. They have come from Europe to America; they have changed their language of communication from German to English; they have moved from country to city in large numbers; they have largely left agricultural pursuits and entered the various professions; and they have risen economically from lower classes to middle class in society. 11

In recent decades many traditional practices have been abandoned or challenged. Many old cultural barriers have fallen away in face of social contacts and educational and professional activities. Today, as never before, the MB Conference is being challenged to examine its hermeneutical procedures and its practical application to determine the constants and variables in its doctrine and practice. Extensive borrowings from a wide range of sources are affecting church government, {6} teaching and mission strategy. There is also evidence that some feel at home in the world and share the ideals which undergird the Canadian-American way of life.

J.A. Toews, speaking of the dangers and opportunities that confront Mennonite Brethren as they seek adaptation to the Anglo-Saxon way of life, states:

A sense of nonconformity and separation from the world, which was formerly reinforced by a linguistic barrier, can now be obtained only by a greater effort in systematic teaching of biblical principles and by cultivating a deeper spiritual life. Not all congregations have vision for the challenge of new opportunities on the one hand, and new dangers on the other, provided by the assimilation and the larger “outside language group.” 12

Despite these changes, I believe that the historical memory of being a pilgrim and alien people has not been eradicated. But this awareness of being a called-out people—a free people—needs to be nurtured. The opportunity to once again become a prophetic church has been provided by the complex interplay of changes at work in the Mennonite Brethren Conference.


  1. John H. Yoder, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” A. J. Klassen. Papers read at the 1969 Aspen Conference, p. 37.
  2. J.A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1975), p. 361.
  3. Ibid., p. 362.
  4. Ibid., p. 363.
  5. Ibid., p. 364.
  6. A most helpful paper on this subject is John H. Yoder’s “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” pp. 2-46.
  7. Robert Kreider, “Church in the Russian Environment,” MQR, 25 (January, 1951): 26.
  8. Yoder, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” pp. 10ff. He also identified those influences from without which have worked for renewal.
  9. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, pp. 324-330.
  10. Ibid., p. 324.
  11. Ibid., p. 323.
  12. Ibid., p. 326. John H. Yoder states in “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality”: “It does not suffice to say that the locus of renewal has moved from the grassroots to the center, leaving the grassroots prey to other forces.”
Henry Krahn is Associate Professor of History and Missions at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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