Previous | Next

Fall 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 2 · pp. 54–59 

The Influence of Rising Educational Levels

John H. Redekop

The influence of higher education on conservative evangelical or Anabaptist groups has been a controversial topic for generations if not centuries. More specifically, the view that postsecondary schooling, on balance, undermines orthodoxy and conformity enjoys widespread acceptance, and for good cause. Even a cursory study of long-standing theological schools in Europe and North America, including Anabaptist developments in the Netherlands, indicates a broad rejection of the largely evangelical and conservative views which these schools espoused during their early years. Time and again higher education has destroyed evangelical zeal and faith-based ethics. Rigorous intellectual development at advanced levels has often produced people who view and explain God’s Word through an intellectual grid. Even in theological graduate pursuits the temptation to focus on the academic rather than on the experiential is strong. Such a focus tends to nurture a hermeneutic of suspicion which contributes some healthy questioning but which minimizes the centrality of the inner life.

In practical affairs, no less than in educational endeavours, higher education has at times not served the brotherhood well. The strong leadership which some well-educated Mennonite Brethren leaders gave to the unfortunate and ill-fated Self-Defense Corps (Selbstschutz) in Russia during the near anarchic years of 1917 to 1920 is a case in point. {55}

But we must be careful not to generalize too much. In many respects higher education has served the brotherhood very well. Educated leaders played key roles when the Mennonite Brethren Church was established in 1860 and have continued to be very influential. Over the years Conference schools and their students have provided vigorous and effective leadership and have usually been agents of renewal.

Until recently, North American Anabaptists have had little factual information concerning the significance of higher education in their own experiences. The 1972 Kauffman-Harder data filled part of that gap. With the release of the 1982 Mennonite Brethren data, we have an opportunity to assess current developments.

This essay draws attention to some major trends and themes relating to higher education, including professional education, among Canadian and American Mennonite Brethren, and provides some interpretations.

The basic educational and occupational data are noteworthy. Clearly, there has been a shift towards higher levels of education and a concomitant trend away from clerical tasks to professional/managerial as well as farming occupations. In 1972, 34 percent of the respondents were in professional/managerial vocations; by 1982 that figure had risen to 45 percent. The values, beliefs and practices of this growing sector will doubtless be increasingly consequential for the Mennonite Brethren.

The United States sector enjoys a substantially higher level of education, especially at the college level. In part this phenomenon is also reflected in vocational pursuits, but much less than the educational data would suggest. The explanation for the educational difference is probably two-fold. In the first place, quite apart from career preparation, attending college, especially a community college, is a well-established tradition in the United States, but less so in Canada. In the second place, Canadian Mennonite Brethren have a long-standing tradition of attending Bible institutes which may not be reflected in these data.

Educational trends in Canada and the United States are changing. Of Canadian Mennonite Brethren having only elementary education, 6 percent were under 30 years of age; the comparable United States figure was 15 percent. Of Canadians having college education, 52 percent were under 30 years; here the comparable United States figure was 37 percent.

College education in the United States did not correlate {56} highly with vocational pursuits as reflected in Table 4.5. Only 10 percent of Canadian farmers and 10 percent of Canadian clerical staff had college education, while the comparative United States’ figures were 26 and 36 percent. Graduate level education correlated more closely with professional career in Canada than it did in the United States.


The data presented thus far reflect several widely held assumptions. The first holds that Mennonite Brethren need to educate the younger generation in order to retain it. The establishment of numerous schools at all levels in North America illustrates the point. The evidence suggests that although in some respects education, especially at advanced levels, facilitates both indoctrination and retention, the phenomenon of being educated away from ethnic roots as well as traditional belief systems and ethics is an equally probable consequence.

A second implicit assumption is that the older generation must provide extensive educational opportunity for the younger generation so that the sons and daughters can progress economically. The data indicate that economic progress has been achieved but that the core community values have not thereby been significantly reinforced. In itself higher education seems not to be a very effective means for ensuring religious renewal or recommitment.

Whether the net effect is positive or negative, it is evident that various North American cultural values and forces associated with higher education are significantly influencing Mennonite Brethren. Thus, on balance, higher levels of formal education have resulted in a slightly lower commitment to fundamentalist beliefs but not to all expressions of Christianity. Further, higher education apparently creates greater liberality in moral practices, especially concerning certain traditional taboos, but in some respects it generates some very salutary ethical effects.

The influence of education on specific aspects of Christian faith and practice is noteworthy. Higher levels of education correlated positively with numerous scales: discipleship in general, stewardship, political participation, shared ministry (where scores improved about 50 percent moving from “elementary” to “graduate”), race relations and racial tolerance (education was the most important variable), accountability to church community, peaceful demonstrations, encounter with God (positive tone), Bible knowledge, {57} sense of direction in one’s Christian life, and willingness to serve in the church. Higher education also correlated in a marginally positive (curvilinear) way with evangelism, spiritualistic Christianity, and with sectarian or fully obedient Christianity. In all of the above areas, whether general support was low or high, it was higher for the more educated than for the less educated.

The following appeared to be unaffected by level of education: support for church programs, denominationalism, associationalism (fellowship, worship, Sunday school and general participation), personal conversion, relationship to God, encounter with God (negative tone), Bible study, diligence in prayer, and orthodoxy in beliefs. It may come as a surprise to some Mennonite Brethren that in these important areas the impact of higher education has not been negative; indeed, it has been positive.

The variable of higher education correlated negatively with the following items: capital punishment, marriage to a non-Christian, divorce, strict sexual conformity, owning stock in companies producing war material, and a fundamentalist perspective. Although in all of these areas support among the more educated was lower than support among the less educated, the actual levels of support were still very high.


  1. The data generated by these surveys reflect the views of those who have remained Mennonite Brethren. The data do not indicate to what extent the pursuit of higher education has produced casualties and loss of membership. Of course, substantial numbers of less educated Mennonite Brethren may also have left the brotherhood.
  2. On various ethical issues, Canadian responses ranked higher than did the American. Some of these probably did not reflect actual ethical differences but, concerning racism for example, were attributable to the fact that cotton does not grow in Canada or, concerning security matters, arose out of the fact that Canada has not had a military draft for more than a generation and is only a “middle” power.
  3. Because all pastors of the participating churches completed questionnaires, there was a slight skewing of the responses towards the educated group (17 percent in total) and, within the educated group, also a slight skewing towards those with advanced theological training. {58}


  1. Those Mennonite Brethren who attained advanced levels of education and remained Mennonite Brethren tended to strengthen the church. They have had this effect even while they also created tensions and problems. Accordingly, Mennonite Brethren should not view higher education mainly as a threat to the faithful church but as a means to achieve a more balanced and more thorough development.

    Additional education will not in itself provide solutions to most denominational, congregational, or personal problems, but in some areas the more educated cohort seems to have a more corrective influence than even the pastoral group. Although higher education can be a great asset, especially in recapturing a Biblical-Anabaptist vision, the brotherhood must defend its church schools against the university norms of emphasizing questions rather than answers, especially on ultimate issues.

  2. Mennonite Brethren with college or graduate education can help us avoid the pitfalls of extreme fundamentalism and of civil religion. In this connection all Mennonite Brethren need to acknowledge the close relationship between criticism and prophecy. The entire denomination will be the loser if it does not allow educated members to enunciate their insights and to call the brotherhood to obedience and authenticity, even if the call may appear to include some error and a tone of arrogance. The brotherhood needs to remember that congregations populated with relatively uneducated members tend not always to come out ahead. For example, with reference to pietistic Christianity, the data show that respondents with elementary education scored lowest.
  3. Mennonite Brethren with higher levels of education may be able to help the brotherhood formulate and adhere to a set of ethical principles based essentially on Biblical imperatives. But in order to have credibility, they may need to take more seriously certain traditional Mennonite Brethren ethical norms which, according to the data, are now being increasingly set aside. The stretching of liberty weakens credibility.
  4. In order to overcome accusations of “cheap grace”—right belief is easy—words must be substantiated by action. This admonition applies to all members, regardless of educational level. In all ethical assessments, the brotherhood must determine what is essential and it must also address the problem {59} of superficial compliance which may be nothing more than lingering conformity.
  5. In providing challenges and leadership, the educated church members and the church schools must take care not to deepen cleavages between leadership and laity but rather to build bridges between them.
John H. Redekop is moderator of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference and faculty member at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

Previous | Next