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July 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 3 · pp. 3–11 

Apples, Oranges, Anabaptists, and Mennonite Brethren

Frances F. Hiebert


When is an apple not an apple? Never, according to those whose perceptions of reality are organized in terms of cognitive categories that are determined by their boundaries. An apple remains an apple whether it be unripe, ripe, or rotten. Furthermore, an apple can never be thought of as an orange.

How do we as Mennonite Brethren define ourselves? We are a people and a church. Yet, we also know ourselves to be part of the community of the people of God at large. If we think of ourselves in terms of bounded sets such as those illustrated by apples and oranges, how does this affect our understanding of ourselves, our response to those who wish to join us, and our relationships in the wider Christian community? Are there other ways of perceiving ourselves—other cognitive structures—that would better explain who we are as Christians and Mennonite Brethren? As the process of urbanization continues among us, and our concentration in sheltered rural communities decreases, these questions become more urgent.

Ordinarily, people do not realize their own cognitive structures and systems. These lie deep within their consciousness at the level of paradigms and worldview. The following discussion of them is based on work done by Paul G. Hiebert, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. 1

In the past, according to Hiebert, it was thought that all people have cognitive categories. Recent studies in epistemology and especially of world view are showing that this is not the case. People construct differing mental categories to match their differing perceptions of reality.

People of Western cultures tend to draw clear boundaries around those things which they believe share intrinsic characteristics. Of course, {4} there must be some general agreement on certain definitive characteristics because, in actual fact, each object in the category will have its own individual characteristics. An apple may be red or green. It may have irregularities of shape or size. Still, everyone agrees that it is an apple and not an orange. This results in the definition of a particular bounded set. Such a mentality forces people to concentrate on the identification of common intrinsic characteristics in order to establish a clear boundary. The logical inference is that there can be no crossing of the boundary. Any apple has an ideal essence intrinsic to it that determines its place in the category. The only change in its status occurs if it ceases to exist. The essential and static characteristics of bounded sets clearly reflect their roots in ancient Greek philosophical thought.

A different way of creating cognitive order utilizes the model of a centered set. A centered set is not determined by its boundary, though it may have one; it is determined by its center. If the objects to be organized are moving towards the center they are considered to be in the set. Objects which in some sense may be considered near the center but moving away from it are seen to be outside the set. Thus, the boundary is determined by the relation of the objects to the center and not by essential characteristics of the objects themselves. A magnetic field is an example of a centered set, the pole being the center. Some particles are drawn towards the center and others repelled by it.

Centered sets are not static; they are dynamic. Objects within the set are always in motion—either toward the center or away from it. It follows that if they are moving toward the center, they are also moving closer in their relation to each other. It is by a change of direction that an object moves across the boundary of the set: toward the center is in, away from it is out.

Although there are other kinds of cognitive structures that have been explicated by analysts, the two just described seem best suited to the purpose of this discussion. In important respects, it may be that the bounded set mentality that we have absorbed with our Western culture is clearly in contrast to a more biblical worldview and also to our own Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage.


From the early beginnings in the sixteenth century it has been difficult to draw a boundary around the diverse pieces of the Anabaptist tradition. In fact, the problem of definition has become increasingly important to historians and theologians who seek to relate contemporary “children” of the Anabaptists to their roots in the sixteenth century. And it is surely significant on quite a different level when someone with a name like “Friesen” witnesses to her neighbor who may have a name {5} like “Sanchez” and invites her to church. Is it possible that scholars have been misled by the Western cognitive system? If so, it will be useful to look at the problem in terms of the two different cognitive systems described above.

A very helpful summary of contemporary research has been provided by the Dutch theologian, J. A. Oosterbaan. 2 He identifies one group of historians as those who seek to find a definition for Anabaptism by searching for its “mainstream” characteristics. These latter include an ecclesiocentric doctrine of the church, adult believer’s baptism, obedience of the believer to Christ, the understanding that the community of believers constitutes the true and visible body of Christ, and the doctrine of the infallibility of Holy Scripture. Generally, these historians agree that those characteristics belonged to the original Zuerich Anabaptists and to those who have kept their spirit alive until the present. However, this ecclesiocentric description of Anabaptists, which tries to draw the boundaries of Anabaptism by using typical identifying characteristics, does not explain the sometimes bewildering range of differences among them. This problem always seems to occur when entities are grouped according to a bounded set system (except perhaps in mathematics).

Oosterbaan points out that other historians have recently returned to the conclusion that Anabaptism must be discussed in light of the wider movement that includes the chiliastic and revolutionary groups. These scholars, among whom can be counted Robert Friedman, also believe that Anabaptists should be perceived as something more then a radical element spawned by the Reformation. They should rather be understood as a third party, distinct from both the leading Reformers and Catholics. Friedmann relates the various Anabaptist groups in terms of their common focus on “existential” Christian faith, not by the identification of common creedal characteristics. Anabaptists were concerned with “believing existence” or daily discipleship with the result that, according to Friedmann, they had only an implicit theology. In support of his assertions, Friedmann invokes Kierkegaard. John Christian Wenger similarly proposes that “the Anabaptists had an existential Christianity much like that of the strangely modern Soren Kierkegaard.” 3

Anabaptism is seen by this second group of historians to have been a restitutionay movement; it tried to restore the New Testament emphasis on the new birth and the new life. The new birth brings about a change in the direction of one’s life, and a commitment to discipleship keeps one moving in that direction. It was this focus on a new and continuing relationship to Christ, even if the interpretations and manifestations of that obedience took quite different forms, that was central to groups who had other diverse characteristics. {6}

This analysis seems to rely much more on a centered set than a bounded set cognitive approach. By using the centered set model, it is possible to show that these diverse groups deserve the common name, Anabaptist.

Professor Oosterbaan seems to agree that the identification of a common focus is the best way to show the unity of the various Anabaptist groups. He argues, however, that “existential faith” is too broad a term. Oosterbaan describes the common focus of Anabaptism as a “faith Gestalt” which is composed of an inseparable combination of theology and obedience which distinguishes Anabaptists from both the Catholic and the Reformed traditions. For the Anabaptists, obedience to the insights of theology is a basic tenet of theology. True belief is only that on which one is willing to act. Faith is not merely mental assent to “right” doctrine, but neither is it a subjective state that has little regard for the content of faith. This content is prescribed by Scripture in conjunction with the Holy Spirit at work in the heart of the believer.

Not only are the various Anabaptist groups better perceived as a unity by ordering them in terms of a centered set; it seems also that it is better to view their theology of discipleship itself as a centered set theology. Doctrinal differences are not absolutely definitive; the focus is rather on the individual believer’s relationship to the center of that theology, the living Jesus Christ. Not even Christology, but Christ himself is the focus. Early in the annals of Anabaptist history the dynamic relationship between Christ and the believer was explicated by Hans Denk as Nachfolge Christi. Even for Thomas Muentzer, the fanatical revolutionary of the Reformation, obedience to the “whole Christ, bitter aud sweet” was the supreme motivation for what other Anabaptists considered to be his misguided actions. Menno Simons chose to place 1 Corinthians 3:11 on the title page of all his writings. By this Menno clearly indicated what he believed about the Christocentric nature of the life of discipleship. In our own time Harold Bender, striking the spark that flamed into a “Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision” after the second World War, stated: “Discipleship [is] the most characteristic, most central, most essential and regulative concept in Anabaptist thought. 4

When Anabaptist theology is understood in terms of its Christocentric nature with the individual believer in a dynamic relationship to that center, other Anabaptist distinctives fall into place. Conversion means a conscious turning to Christ. The confession of faith which announces this new direction requires enough understanding (on the basis of Scriptural teaching) to establish the relationship. Therefore, infant baptism is rejected and baptism is administered only to those who are capable of confessing their faith. And the priesthood of all believers becomes an inviolable theological given. {7}


Although the Anabaptist theology of discipling seems better described in terms of a centered set, it must be admitted that Anabaptists have not always retained this emphasis. History gives some rather clear evidence that Anabaptist groups have come into serious disagreement about how to interpret in concrete terms what it means to follow Christ. By emphasizing their own understanding of discipleship, they have often, to some degree or another, returned to bounded set thinking. Then discipleship has degenerated into legalism and has been used to include people in, or exclude them out of, the set “Christian.”

Hans Küng, the contemporary Catholic theologian who seems himself to have strongly Christocentric theology of discipleship, succinctly describes how the process of boundary emphasis begins. It starts with the desire to be consistent and universal. But it may become all-consuming, even totalitarian. Remember, Küng writes, that the Anabaptist revolutionaries were absolutely intent in their religio-political fanaticism on bringing about a just, free, and peaceful “kingdom of Zion.” They ended with a cruel reign of terror. Whenever legislation takes over, the result is un-Christian totalitarianism. Of course, it must be assumed that Küng is not speaking here against the establishment of order in general. He is showing a movement along the continuum between words for the human predilection to absolutize boundaries in relation to Christian faith:

Finally, whenever the Church itself turned the Gospel into an infallible law (of teaching, dogma, morals, discipline), unspiritual force and bondage inevitably replaced Christian freedom and spiritual service. . . . the Church had to become a Grand Inquisitor and Jesus himself silently departed. 5

On the other hand, it must be asked whether any society, any form of ecclesia (even a brotherhood such as the Mennonites recommend), can be viable without the explication of certain norms. Is there not some minimal boundary establishment necessary for any group? Even Professor Oosterbaan, who believes that the basis for Christian unity is the recognition of the validity of each Christian’s personal faith, qualifies “faith” by saying, “insofar as it has a Christian-biblical character.” 6 J. Lawrence Burkholder makes the point that it is necessary to understand what is meant by discipleship to keep it from becoming an empty tautology in which every Christian tradition defines discipleship in terms of itself. Kierkegaard, writes Burkholder, observed in his day that everyone regarded himself a disciple. Burkholder then defines discipleship as “the concrete and realistic ‘imitation’ of Christ’s life and work in the context of the kingdom of God.” 7

It is important to recognize that boundary establishment is not {8} unimportant. It is the degree of emphasis on either the center or the boundaries that determines whether a group has a centered set or a bounded set conceptual orientation.

What may be perceived as one of the first instances of boundary establishment among Anabaptists occurred 1527 when Michael Sattler drew up the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession. It is noteworthy that the central truths of the Christian faith are not mentioned in the Confession. This is most probably because it deals only with those points in which the Anabaptists differed from the other Reformers. In other words, a boundary was being established. It is interesting, however, that the articles of the Confession were still couched in terms that are quite consistent with a centered set theology: because Christ did thus and so, we are also constrained to do thus and so.

Of course, if the Anabaptists’ theology was primarily ecclesiocentric, with their emphasis on discipleship growing out of their concept of the true church, then greater emphasis on the boundaries would follow naturally. The “true church” concept implies that there are established criteria for deciding who can be considered “in” and who “out” of the church. But William Keeney’s description of the early Anabaptists supports Oosterbaan’s contention that their ecclesiology was originally derived from their theology of discipleship, thus also supporting the postulate that Anabaptist theology emphasized the center. He says that the Anabaptists did not think of the church primarily as an organization or institution. They saw it first as a fellowship of believing Christians. Thus, the church could be assembled and reassembled wherever Christians found themselves. It could and did transcend national, political, and linguistic boundaries. The focus was on the local Gemeinde, a term which the Anabaptists preferred to Kirche. 8

But the temptation to become a Kirche, and even a Volkskirche, has not always been successfully resisted. In fact, the latter term best describes the reality of Anabaptist-Mennonite groups at certain times and places. At those times firmly established boundaries consisting of language, ethnic, and doctrinal distinctions in various combinations have regulated them. It seems that the Mennonite Church in the Russian environment had moved in that direction in the seventeenth century and exhibited many of the characteristics of the Volkskirche. 9


It was in this context that the group of eighteen families that later became the Mennonite Brethren separated themselves in 1860 from the mother church. Some historians perceive this action to have been a restitutionary movement, a return to the “pure” Anabaptist existence of the sixteenth century. It is admitted by most that an assorted combination {9} of social, economic, political, and personal motives were also involved but there is little doubt that renewal was a vital concern. A strange dual functioning of Mennonite civil and church authority answered to the Russian government. Church discipline was exercised politically and sporadically. Blind traditionalism, spiritual indifference, and ethnic pride are seen as having contributed to moral decay. In their Document of Secession they pressed charges against the “decadent church” and expressed their desire to return to the historic sixteenth century evangelical Anabaptism that was based not on birth but on rebirth.

But did they do that? Was there actually a return to Anabaptist origins in the sense of reclaiming a centered set conception of the theology of discipleship? John B. Toews, professor of history at the University of Calgary, has some thought-provoking comments on this subject. He notes that the secession itself established a cleavage (read “boundary”) and that premature institutionalization squelched some of the life-giving dimensions of the movement. The early delineation of doctrine in the Document of Secession had the unfortunate result of replacing a refreshing emphasis on brotherhood with a self-understanding that made them separatists from their own separatist society. Their theology quickly lost its evolving, dynamic nature and generated dogma from rediscovered experiential truths. Toews writes:

Certain innovative teachings which directed the Russian Mennonites to neglected aspects of the Anabaptist heritage now became a set of tenets undergirding an institution . . . Revolutionary ideas in the lives of individuals now became a part of the fabric of loyalties towards an institutional. . . . Certain doctrines tended to become sacrosanct. 10

All of this sounds very much more like boundary establishment than a return to a theology of discipleship in which there is emphasis on an existential life of obedience to Christ at its center. Of course, it is a matter of record that the process of institutionalization carries with it a tendency toward stagnation and boundary emphasis. Perhaps the need for renewal and revitalization is inevitable no matter how dynamic a movement may have been at its inception.

What is true in our Mennonite Brethren churches today? Are we bounded set or centered set thinkers? And what difference does it make? Perhaps one way to analyze our present situation would be to speculate about how the two different cognitive models would affect the way “Mrs. Friesen” might relate to her neighbor, “Mrs. Sanchez.”

According to bounded set mentality, Mrs. Friesen must quickly determine whether or not Mrs. Sanchez is a Christian. If not, she would consider it her clear duty to bring Mrs. Sanchez to a decision as quickly {10} as possible. If Mrs. Sanchez claims to be a Christian, Mrs. Friesen would want to know if she is able to name the date and time of her conversion. Then Mrs. Friesen would have to tactfully administer a rather extensive theological examination to determine whether Mrs. Sanchez’s beliefs and practices conform closely to those held by Mrs. Friesen herself. Does Mrs. Sanchez believe in the virgin birth, redemption by the blood, eternal security, etc.? Does she smoke, use alcohol, or dress immodestly? Does she regularly read the Bible, pray, and attend services at a church that can be considered truly Christian?

How is the church itself perceived according to a centered set mode? Paul Hiebert presents a picture of that kind of a church in Crucial Issues in Transcultural Theology. 11 In summary, there is a different concept of church leadership, one based more on Christian maturity than on the equal eligibility of all members; there is less emphasis on maintaining strict membership roles and less boundary emphasis that requires the exclusion of those who are not “true” Christians; and there is more emphasis on strengthening people’s commitment and obedience to Christ. The primary task of the church would be to build a core of committed disciples with a sense of community and lifestyle that would attract others. Of course, this does not discount the place of evangelism; the latter is understood to be a vital part of Christian obedience.

In addition, it would seem that using a centered set cognitive approach would allow for more cooperation between Christian groups. Christian unity could be perceived again as it was in the original Anabaptist vision. The Holy Spirit would then be understood to be the dynamic that brings people to a spiritual birth and draws them from all the diverse contexts of their own existence towards an obedience to the living Christ. Each one has the right and obligation to follow his or her own understanding of what that obedience means in personal life and in the corporate structures to which each belongs. But rather than placing ultimate value on any one structure, all human structures are relativized. There would be mutual respect and acceptance of each other’s commitment to Christ that acknowledges an invisible and as yet incomplete unity. When such Christians come together for study conferences or evangelistic endeavors, even if they did not resolve all their differences, the Spirit in which those events would be undertaken must be a greater witness to the Lordship of Christ than is a divisive emphasis on the strict delineation of boundaries. Our Saviour prayed to the Father that all his followers would be one. Should we not pray that prayer after Him?


  1. Paul G. Hiebert, “Sets and Structures: A Study of Church Patterns,” in New Horizons in World Mission, ed. D. J. Hesselgrave (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979). {11}
  2. J. A. Oosterbaan, “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 51 (1977): 171ff.
  3. John Christian Wenger, Even Unto Death (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1961), p. 90.
  4. Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Theology of Discipleship,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950): 26.
  5. Hans Küng, On Being A Christian (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1976), p. 559.
  6. J. A. Oosterbaan, “The Mennonites and the Ecumenical Movement,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (1967): 196.
  7. J. L. Burkholder, “The Vision of Discipleship,” in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, ed. Guy F. Hershberger (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1957), p. 143.
  8. William Keeney, “Unity and Disunity Among the Mennonites,” in Christian Unity in Faith and Witness, an unpublished manuscript prepared for the Centennial Study Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church, June 1960, on file at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Fresno, CA).
  9. Robert Kreider, “The Anabaptist Conception of the Church in the Russian Mennonite Environment 1789-1870,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (1951): 18.
  10. John B. Toews, “The Russian Origins of the Mennonite Brethren,” in Pilgrims and Strangers, ed. Paul Toews (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1977), pp. 96-98.
  11. Paul G. Hiebert, “Crucial Issues in Transcultural Theology,” Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary, 28-35.
Frances Hiebert is a program assistant in the Cross-Cultural Studies Program of the School of World Mission at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, California, where she is also studying for an M.A. in Theology.

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