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    Winter / Spring 1997 [Newsletter Banner]

The Perils of Pluralism Why...Call...Ourselves
Discarding the Baggage
Perils of Pluralism
Owning Our Agenda

Let me illustrate. Contemporary Anabaptism today includes at least two widely disparate views of human nature and the character of salvation. Some Anabaptists, particularly among the scholarly community, influenced as they are by theological liberalism and the effects of Enlightenment thought, advance the perspective that human beings are born basically good, "loved and affirmed by God," but the trials of life damage us. In our pain God keeps caring for and healing us, calling us to be our true selves, with a love that is unconditional and beyond understanding. Very simply, people are good, then are hurt, then are healed.

"Classic Christian believers, however, (represented by EAF members among contemporary Anabaptist/Mennonites) hold that we are essentially fallen; we take to sin like ducks to water. Our unhappiness is caused less by external damage than by our interior impulse to be each a petty emperor, our selfishness spinning us into a pit of estrangement from each other and God. The depth of our sin proves the height of God's love, for only the great sacrifice of the Cross could rescue us; we accept it with humble gratitude, resolving to obey God's will though it often runs counter to our own. This 'dying to self,' because it conforms human will to God's will, has the side effect of healing and self-fulfillment. In short, people are fallen, then rescued, then obedient, then healed."

(Note: the above quote is taken from an article titled "Can't We All Just Get Along?" by Frederica Mathewes-Green, published in the July 15/22, 1995, issue of World magazine.)

These two perspectives are not simply variations on a theme. They represent two diametrically different ways of looking at life. They lead to different definitions of (and approaches to) evangelism. They look at the prevailing culture in different ways and come to vastly different assessments of its problems and their solutions. And, for reasons too complicated to explore here, the latter point of view is invariably undermined and displaced by the former unless the "classic Christian" position is carefully guarded and preserved. (This is why so much of the New Testament is devoted to warnings about the encroachment of "false teaching" and instruction in the defense of the faith.)

By identifying ourselves as evangelical Anabaptists, we mean to make it clear that doctrine matters to us, that it mattered to our Anabaptist forebears, and that many who call themselves Anabaptists today have forsaken some of the major tenets of historic, orthodox Christianity.

Ethical Implications

A second additional benefit of identification as evangelical Christians is that it helps to keep us on track socially and ethically. This second benefit flows directly from the first, since our doctrinal convictions give rise to our positions on social and ethical issues. Consider that fact in relation to the opposing views of human nature and salvation described above.

In the case of the former, where human nature is perceived as basically good, evil is not so much a personal problem as a systemic one. That is, humans do bad things because of the influence of a corrupt social system. Thus we look for means, often political, to rid society of evils such as poverty, racism, and injustice. In the absence of these systemic evils, human beings are free to develop and flourish to the full extent of their innate potential. In the process, individual responsibility for moral wrongdoing is minimized, since individuals simply react to the circumstances in which they find themselves. The solution: change the system and the individual will be changed.

In the case of the latter, where human nature is perceived as corrupt and fallen, social evil is the result of a society composed of sinful people. Humans do bad things because they are born "dead in trespasses and sins," as Paul notes in Ephesians 2:1. The way to rid society of evils such as poverty, racism, and injustice is, primarily, to preach the gospel so that the power of the Holy Spirit can transform the society one redeemed sinner at a time. In this way of perceiving reality, individuals are accountable to God for their own actions. They are not excused by appealing to the condition of society around them. Here the solution is: change the society by changing the individuals who make up the society.

If you have questions about which perspective has greater influence in your denomination, examine its official position papers and declarations. Do they call for individual repentance and conversion as a mark of spiritual revival? Or do they condemn societal ills, such as racism and injustice, in the abstract? Even in cases where personal sin is condemned and personal responsibility called for, is there an attempt on the part of some in the denominations to reinterpret those statements or a call to ignore them altogether?

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