By Dick Barrett
2023 marks 25 years since I joined the Mennonite Church. It has certainly been an interesting journey, first as a congregational member, then an associate pastor, lead pastor, and now as a conference minister. As I found myself on a one-month sabbatical during December, it caused me to reflect on why I joined the Mennonite Church and what keeps me here today.
First and foremost, I am one of the fortunate few who when attending a Mennonite church for the first time had no preconceived thoughts or ideas of who the Mennonites are. It just happened that Clarence Center/Akron Mennonite Church was one of the many churches in the local Western New York community when my wife and I were searching for a church to attend and raise our family. What attracted me to the church was its emphasis on Scripture, discipleship, community, and their love and acceptance of who I was at that time in my life: a previously divorced Catholic police officer. As I was preparing for my adult baptism at age 39, I remember asking my pastor, “How is the congregation going to be with my previous divorce and having been Catholic?” He replied, “Some might struggle more with you being a police officer.” At the time I was not far enough along in my discipleship journey to think about how following Jesus might affect my vocation as a police officer.
While the congregation’s love and acceptance of me where I was currently at in my Christian journey was what first attracted me to the Mennonite Church, I needed to find out what they believed as Mennonite Christians. I read as much about Mennonite and Anabaptist history and theology as I could find. I even purchased and read most of the more than 1,000-page The Complete Writings of Menno Simons. While I found most of that reading helpful, what caused me to want to become a member was the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. I found its 24 articles with commentary to align with what I had been reading in Scripture the previous five years of my life. I was surprised at my original interview for licensing to be a pastor in the Mennonite Church when I was asked, “What articles of the Confession of Faith might you struggle or disagree with?” Since I found the Confession to be so grounded in Scripture, I didn’t think it was my right to choose. I still don’t.
Over the past 25 years it seems like many in the church have tried to put their own ideas and thoughts on what it means to be Mennonite and/or Anabaptist, some with biblical foundation and some without —so much so that it is hard to even come up with a definition of what it means to be Mennonite and/or Anabaptist today. Many churches are taking the word “Mennonite” out of their church name. For some this change is because of perceived misconceptions in their community about what they believe, and for others it is that they don’t want to be linked with other Mennonite groups. As someone who came from the outside and joined the Mennonite Church, this trend concerns me. Instead of taking the name “Mennonite” out of our churches to eliminate any misconceptions, maybe we should be clearing up the misconceptions by being faithful to our past and who we claim to be today.
Along with the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, when I think about what it means to be a Mennonite or an Anabaptist Christian I think of “radical love” and “radical discipleship.” When I use the word “radical” I mean “going back to the root of, the origin of something, foundation” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). I also use the word “radical” in the sense of being different than what one usually experiences. What attracted me to the Mennonite Church 25 years ago was that it seemed to represent something radical, something different than what I was experiencing in the outside world, where many claimed to be “Christian” but didn’t seem to be living the type of life Jesus taught or lived, including myself. I became keenly aware of the sin that was residing in me, how I was living my life, my need for repentance and transformation, and my need to turn my life over to Jesus as both Savior and Lord.
In a culture that is so divided on just about every topic that is presented to us, it is hard to hold what seem to be polarities together. But that is what God demands of his people. It is what Jesus demonstrated and taught during his life here on earth. It is not a coincidence that the great Shema found in the Old Testament — “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) — is preceded by the Ten Commandments. Obeying the Ten Commandments was a part of the Israelites loving the LORD their God.
Jesus was just reiterating the Shema when he responded to the question, “What is the most important commandment?” Jesus replied, “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no greater commandment than these” (Mark 12:29-31). In his Sermon on the Mount he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). And in his last words recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20a). For those who are in Christ, we are called to obey God’s commands, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love one another.
“Radical love” and “radical discipleship” are two sides of the same coin; they go hand in hand with following Jesus. The original Anabaptists and Mennonites seemed to be good at being able to hold the two together, perhaps because many were the persecuted in the culture in which they lived. For those of us today who have been raised in the American culture (even as Mennonite Christians) where we face little or no persecution, we seem to pick and choose who and how we want to love and what life and teachings of Jesus we want to follow.
As we follow Jesus together into the future seeking God’s direction for us as a conference of Anabaptist/Mennonite churches, may we heed his call to both “radical love” and “radical discipleship.”