What is a Mennonite?

A Portrait of a Mennonite

What comes to your mind when you think of the Mennonites? Good cooks? Horse and buggies? Hard working farmers or construction workers? Shrewd business owners? Volleyball? Thrifty penny-pinchers? Modesty? Legalistic pulpit-pounders? A cappella singing? Non-resistant pacifists? Veiled women? There are many Mennonite “stereotypes” and they often vary greatly from each other. This begs the question, “What does it really mean to be a Mennonite?”

Today, nearly five hundred years after the movement began, many conservative Mennonites in America can trace their roots back to Switzerland and Germany. Let’s begin by looking at these two cultures.

The Swiss culture tends to be very individualistic, serious, and cold. The Swiss are very private people who tend to keep to themselves and stay out of other people’s business. They are also known to be frugal, clean, and sticklers when it comes to rules, especially in the banking industry. Because of these characteristics, many people regard Switzerland to be the safest country for offshore banking, and they were also one of the only countries that managed to remain neutral in both World Wars!

German people also tend to be more reserved and distant, and this is not a “hot-climate” culture by any stretch of the imagination. Hard work, efficiency, and discipline are key aspects of this goal-oriented culture, sometimes at the expense of diplomacy. Germans thrive on schedules and rules, tend to be very traditional, and have a love for sausage and for baking bread.

I realize that I just painted two cultures (that I really know very little about) with a very broad brush. Not all aspects of every culture apply to every individual. However, as I did this research I was struck with the fact that many parts of the conservative Mennonite culture would probably be better described as “Swiss” or “German.” While many Mennonites have a Swiss/German background and culture, the core of Mennonite belief runs far deeper than these cultural tendencies.

Where did the name Mennonite originate?

Anabaptism was born in 1525 (for a more thorough look at the beginning of Anabaptism, read Bryce’s article “Worth Dying For”) in the countries of Switzerland and Germany. Around ten years later, the Roman Catholic priest Menno Simons joined the Anabaptist movement in Holland and by 1544 the Dutch Anabaptists were referred to as “Mennonites” after this influential leader. By this time the Reformation was in full swing but much of the Protestant movement was a spiritual and political movement. Menno and other Anabaptist leaders believed in a total separation of Church and State and that the Bible was the ultimate authority for life, regardless of what the State said. For this, the early Mennonites were brutally persecuted. Notice that they were not persecuted because they were goal-oriented or frugal, but because they held the Word of God above all else!

A Belief or a Culture?

The name “Mennonite” is no longer associated with a group of persecuted religious fanatics. In fact, sometimes I think that the term “Mennonite” has become far too cultural. While many people do recognize Mennonites for holding the doctrines of nonresistance and the headship veiling, more often we hear of the “Mennonite game,” Mennonite cooking, or a Mennonite work ethic. These days it seems that this adjective often refers to “a carpenter with a good work ethic,” or “a mother of eight who makes good food,” or “someone who acts Swiss/German” instead of “a radical follower of Jesus Christ.”

In Radi-call’s theology posts over the next several months, we will be looking at the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith. This document holds the same core beliefs as the original Mennonites of the fifteenth century, and though it was written over fifty years ago, it is still widely used as a basis for doctrine by many conservative Mennonite churches today. Take a look at Article 1.

Article 1. God and His Attributes

We believe in almighty God, the eternal Spirit who is infinite in His attributes of holiness, love, righteousness, truth, power, goodness, and mercy. This one and only God has revealed Himself as existing eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Father

We believe that God is the Creator of all things, a God of providence, and the Author of our salvation through Christ. Although He is too great to be comprehended by the human mind, through Christ we can truly know Him. In redeeming love He entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham, later with the people of Israel, and has now made through Christ an eternal covenant in which He offers to the human race the forgiveness of sins and the blessings of divine sonship to those who will repent and believe.

The Son

We believe in Jesus Christ the divine Son of God, who was with the Father from all eternity, who for our salvation took upon Himself human nature, and who by His redemptive death and resurrection conquered the forces of sin and Satan and atoned for the sins of mankind. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, and in God’s redemptive purpose was crucified. He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now as Lord and Christ at the right hand of the Father intercedes for the saints. He is the Lord and Savior of all Christian believers, and the coming judge of the living and the dead. We believe in His full deity and full humanity according to the Scriptures.

The Holy Spirit

We believe in the Holy Spirit, who was sent by the Father and the Son to bring to individuals the redemption of Christ. We believe in His personality as set forth in the Scriptures: that He loves, searches, testifies, guides, empowers, and intercedes for the saints.

“Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963.” GAMEO. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2016.

This is the nucleus of the Mennonite belief system. The Mennonite church is not founded upon the Swiss/German culture, but upon these truths. Christian truths. Truths worth dying for.

Culture is not a bad thing. I appreciate hard work, despise being late, and love homemade bread as much as the next guy. However, to claim the legacy of the Mennonite name is not to claim its culture. It is to claim the heart of the original Mennonites, a heart to serve God and obey His Word above all else and at any cost.

Troy Troy Stauffer’s home lies just outside of Hershey, PA (the sweetest place on earth) but he is currently living in Indiana, serving as the men’s resident adviser of Elnora Bible Institute. He is 22 years old, the eldest child with four brothers and one sister. Here are a few of his favorite things: sports, ice cream, gas below $2/gallon, being with friends, videography, strategy games, water scenery, electronics, math, a perfect trial balance, singing, playing piano, music in general, and most of all Jesus Christ.

4 thoughts on “What is a Mennonite?

  1. Good article. I’ve often noticed the parallels between “Mennonite culture” and German/Swiss culture. We do well at keeping traditions.

    It seems other denominations are known for specific beliefs regarding Biblical interpretation, but Mennonite beliefs are often largely unknown while our cultural values are easily identified.


  2. >>…to claim the legacy of the Mennonite name is not to claim its culture.
    >>It is to claim the heart of the original Mennonites, a heart to serve God
    >>and obey His Word above all else and at any cost,

    Wowza, Yowza, that is an excellent statement!!! I don’t think I’ve read such a rich, succinct and meaningful summary of the matter. Original Anabaptism is where the LIfe is. Somehow that original Life must be recovered. Very well stated, Troy. Very well stated indeed.

    Ad Fontes. Back to the Source.


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