For The Sake of the Kingdom:
A Call for Twenty-first Century Mennonites
to Reclaim the Evangelical Heart
of Our Anabaptist Heritage

Eric A. Kouns
Executive Secretary
Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship

Part Three:
Contemporary Anabaptism -- Where Is It Headed?

Any Anabaptist self-examination should begin with an honest appraisal of the degree to which contemporary Anabaptist scholarship has been influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and the theological liberalism it has spawned. I submit that, for all their efforts to preserve and defend their perception of the essence of historic Anabaptism, contemporary scholars have abandoned, or at least radically reinterpreted, important elements of orthodox Christianity (in the areas of bibliology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology, for example.)

Contemporary Anabaptism emphasizes some worthy tenets -- the importance of the believing community, the church; a call to serious discipleship; a spirit of service; a commitment to peace and nonresistance. But such an agenda, if it does not spring from a life-transforming encounter with God through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, has little more to commend it than any other appeal to altruistic humanism.

Writing in the Summer 1995 issue of the Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship Newsletter, I listed what I perceived to be the ten most important issues facing contemporary Anabaptism along with a brief discussion of their implications and consequences for the church and the kingdom. As I review that list five years later, I conclude that little has changed in the interim, and so I am repeating that list in this context.

  1. Confidence in the Bible as the authoritative, inspired, infallible Word of God is steadily eroding, despite our protestations to the contrary. Biblical interpretation is too often shaped and influenced by contemporary culture. Attitudes and behavior reflect modern sociological and psychological theories more than an understanding of the historical interpretation of the Bible. This problem lies at the heart of all other issues facing contemporary Anabaptism.

  2. Orthodox Christology is under assault. Contemporary Anabaptist scholarship is raising questions about the traditional interpretations of the person and work of Christ, particularly the purpose of His crucifixion. In a Gospel Herald article a few years ago, J. Lawrence Burkholder wrote:
    Mennonite Christology has changed. For many, Jesus is no longer God incarnate, the mysterious God-Man whose spiritual message was characterized by the claim that 'my kingdom is not of this world.' Rather, Jesus is now viewed primarily as a sinless prophet calling for social change in anticipation of the kingdom of God on earth. (from "Mennonites on the Way to Peace," GH, February 19, 1991)

  3. An inadequate concept of human sinfulness and its consequences is distorting awareness of the need for repentance, forgiveness and the new birth. The Pauline concept that unbelievers are "dead in trespasses and sins," needing nothing so much as forgiveness and new life, has given way to the idea that humans are basically good and need simply to be encouraged to "follow Jesus." This distortion of Biblical truth leads to a faulty perception of the purpose of the cross of Christ and the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. If contemporary Anabaptism wishes to reinterpret the crucifixion and the nature of personal salvation, it should also acknowledge that it has departed from orthodox Christian teaching in that regard.

  4. Evangelism, which I define as the proclamation of Jesus' sacrificial death as the only solution for the problem of human sin, has been displaced as the focus of the church's mission in favor of programs to address humanitarian and social needs. This is a logical outgrowth of the changes in the perception of human sin and the nature of salvation. Writing in the Mennonite Weekly Review in 1994, Willard Unruh noted that "there has been a shift in theology. My grandmother believed non-Christians went to a Christless eternity, but I don't hear that concern now. I sometimes wonder if support for Mennonite Central Committee isn't to some extent a part of our materialism. Things are so important to us that we have sympathy for those who are impoverished materially. But spiritual deprivation is another matter." ("Do We Still Believe In Missions?" MWR, July 28, 1994.)

  5. An emphasis on discipleship, which I define as a voluntary decision to follow the teachings and example of Jesus, along with an essentially utilitarian approach to the Bible, has resulted in a diminished appreciation for spiritual discipline, personal piety and holy character. A focus on discipleship which does not begin with a call to personal conversion and new birth, however, is not sufficient to address the great inner needs of people in an age marked by hopelessness and despair. It offers no more motivation to follow Jesus than to pursue any other form of altruistic humanism.

    Discipleship is not a means to grace, it is a response to grace. While critical of the sacramentalism of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy -- a sacramentalism of eucharist, baptism, confirmation, etc. -- contemporary Anabaptism verges on a sacramentalism of discipleship, a sacramentalism of community, where what God intended to be a response to His gift of grace has become the means by which it is to be attained. But the New Testament is clear. We are not called to obey in order to be blessed. We are called to obey because we have been blessed, immeasurably, in Christ. "Now you are light in the Lord; walk (therefore) as children of light." (Ephesians 5:8)

  6. The influence of theological liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, post-modernism, and extreme feminism in Anabaptist/Mennonite educational institutions portends a generation of church leaders without an adequate foundation in orthodox Christian doctrine. Under the influence of contemporary culture, these intstitutions have abandoned the historical Anabaptist approach to scripture, and virtually nothing merits the designation 'heresy.' This lack of foundation is coupled with a curriculum, particularly in the seminaries, which is long on relational skills and short on Biblical exegesis and preaching. The result is pastors and church leaders with an inadequate sense of God's call, an uncertainty about the pastoral role, a hazy vision for ministry, an indistinct body of foundational convictions, and a sense of frustration as they stand at the interface of religious tradition and post-modern society.

  7. Erosion of confidence in the Bible as the authoritative Word of God has issued in cynicism toward all forms of authority, including leadership, church tradition, and historical interpretations of Biblical truth. Consequently, there are few absolutes anymore, all behavior is relative, and practices once denoted as sin (e.g. divorce and homosexual activity) become ever more commonplace and acceptable. Voices that call for adherence to traditional mores are derided as narrow-minded and unloving.

  8. Overemphasis on existential ('here and now') discipleship has resulted in a loss of the sense of transcendence in Anabaptist/Mennonite worship. Public meetings of the church focus more on the participants than on the Lord. Anabaptists need to recover an awareness of the presence of God among His people, especially when they meet for corporate worship.

  9. An inadequate understanding of the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit has resulted in a religious experience that lacks both power and passion. Where among us is God displaying miracle-working power, touching lives, bodies, and relationships, bringing wholeness, health, and peace? And how many of us eagerly anticipate such manifestations?

  10. Excessive focus on human responsibility and insufficient emphasis on the grace of God have led to self-righteousness and spiritual pride. Our greatest need is for God to touch us with a heaven-sent, Holy Spirit empowered revival, resulting in humility, brokenness, and abandonment of all confident in the flesh as we throw ourselves on the mercy and grace of God for spiritual renewal.
Contemporary evangelicalism may be failing this generation through its shallowness and its tendency to adopt the techniques, the mindset, the values of the society it is supposedly attempting to influence for the kingdom of God. Contemporary Anabaptism is failing this generation because it calls people to a discipleship without a proper beginning, and thus it loses its distinctiveness amid the cacophony of voices telling us what we ought to do without offering us a compelling reason why and without pointing us to the source of power that makes it all possible.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Download Full Document

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