Nonconformity in Anabaptist History

The 2013 colloquy hosted by Faith Builders was a time of presentation and discussion about the topic Separation and Non-conformity. Val Yoder, Nathan Yoder, and Wendell Heatwole prepared papers and gave presentations on the topic. Here are their papers.

A chronicler of the Hutterian Brethren has left us with the oldest known written account of the first adult baptism of the 16th century Anabaptist movement. After explaining how that after prayer Georg Blaurock “stood up and asked Conrad Grebel in the name of God to baptize him with true Christian baptism on his faith and recognition of the truth,” and telling how subsequently the others were baptized by George, the chronicler stated, “This was the beginning of separation from the world and its evil ways” (Hutterian Brethren 45). While this account was written some decades after the fact, it is noteworthy that the chronicler stated the significance of this watershed event in terms of separation from the world.

Early Anabaptists grasped the concept of separation from the world readily. For them the world was not only unholy and unrighteous practices counter to the teaching of Scripture and the will of God, but also that union of state and church, now known as Christendom, which opposed and oppressed them. In their so-called “doctrine of two worlds” or “two-kingdom theology,” the state, with its sub-Christian duties and non-Christian conduct, was closely identified with the sphere of Satan (Stutzman 35, 36).

Scripture depicts two, and only two, spiritual worlds which are in opposition one to the other and to which all mankind pertain. Separation and nonconformity have to do with how believers in the Lord Jesus Christ—those who have been freed from Satan’s world and brought into the kingdom of God (Eph. 2:1-10; Col 1:12-14), who have been created by God to be like Himself in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24), who are disciples of Jesus Christ being conformed to His image (Rom. 8:29; 12:1-2), and who live in the world but are not of the world (Jn. 17:11-19) should relate to the ungodly societies and cultures in which they live (2 Cor. 6:14- 17; Tit. 2:11-14).

Whether consciously or otherwise, the apprehension of this theological truth provided a simple basic framework for life which, particularly for conservative Anabaptist people, undergirds their worldview almost one-half a millennium later. Consequently separation and nonconformity to the world is not an ornament or even a room in the Anabaptist house of doctrine, it is one of the main beams resting upon the foundation of Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). To lose the understanding and practice of separation from the world is to lose the truth of Scripture as well as part of the genius of Anabaptism.

Evidence of Separation Among Anabaptist People

Separation makes its appearance rapidly in the documents of Anabaptism and in secondary sources. But first a note of explanation and clarification. Who are the Anabaptists and Mennonites to whom this study refers? Historians of Anabaptism have criticized the H. S. Bender generation of scholars as being overly selective of who qualified as an Anabaptist. Then, the charge goes, those scholars defined normative Anabaptism in terms of those whom they had selected, thus misrepresenting the Anabaptist movement as it actually was. Whatever the validity of that criticism, the fact remains that certain personalities, teachings and practices were, or became normative in this sense: a historical flow of major Anabaptist church traditions are traceable to some Anabaptist springs and streams and not to others which dried up and left no ongoing historical legacy. The sources represented in this study are largely those within that historical flow. While the early resources are both Swiss/South German as well as Dutch/North German, the later focus is on the Swiss/South German branch in North America, particularly the Mennonite Church as opposed to the Amish and streams flowing from that branch. The Mennonite Church in focus has been designated as (Old) Mennonites, then later as The Mennonite Church (MC) and presently is part of the composition of the Mennonite Church USA. That historical stream represents the spiritual and ecclesiastical heritage of many conservative Mennonites, who separated themselves organizationally from that church in the last half of the 20th century, and has influenced other present-day Anabaptists who are outside of that stream, whatever their ethnic or ecclesiastical background.

In 1527, with the nascent Swiss Anabaptist movement in danger of disintegration from both internal and external forces, a meeting was held at or near Schleitheim, resulting in a written statement around which the movement coalesced. While not a full orbed confession of faith, the Brotherly Union of a Number of Children of God Concerning Seven Articles brought cohesion and direction. Both the text and the accompanying cover letter make explicit reference to separation. Following an “apostolic” greeting, the letter reads: “Dear brothers and sisters, we who have been assembled in the Lord at Schleitheim on the Randen make known, in points and articles, unto all that love God, that as far as we are concerned, we have been united to stand fast in the Lord as obedient children of God, sons and daughters, who have been and shall be separated from the world in all that we do and leave undone. . . .” The letter goes on to point to false brethren who “are given over to lasciviousness and license,” from whom the recipients must separate, having “crucified their flesh with all its lusts and desires” (Yoder 35).

Besides the mention of separation in the cover letter, an entire article is dedicated to separation. Article IV begins by saying, “We have been united concerning the separation that shall take place from the evil and the wickedness which the devil has planted in the world, simply in this; that we have no fellowship with them, and do not run with them in the confusion of their abominations” (36, 37). The document continues in making significant reference by indirect quote from the classical separation passage which has its beginning in 2 Corinthians 6:14. The united brethren then make specific application:

From all this we learn that everything which has not been united with our God in Christ is nothing but an abomination which we should shun. By this are meant all popish and repopish works and idolatry, gatherings, church attendance, winehouses, guarantees and commitments of unbelief, and other things of the kind, which the world regards highly, and yet which are carnal or flatly counter to the command of God, after the pattern of all the iniquity which is in the world. From all this we shall be separated and have no part . . . . (38).

Article VI, concerning the sword, is also significant in terms of Anabaptist separation from the world because the “sword,” in its larger meaning, refers to the state. The fourth point in that article speaks to the appropriateness of serving as a magistrate:

. . . [I]t does not befit a Christian to be a magistrate: the rule of the government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the Spirit. Their houses and dwelling remain in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. The weapons of their battle and warfare are carnal and only against the flesh, but the weapons of Christians are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God (40, 41).

Thus the document by which the Swiss/South German Anabaptists defined and regrouped themselves established separation from the world as a foundation principle, both as it applied to Christian living and in relating to the state. Further, it applied separation specifically. 

There is abundant evidence that while “nonconformity” was not a buzzword—in fact there is no direct equivalent in the German language, and that word became commonplace only after Mennonite idiom became Anglicized several centuries and a continent later—early Anabaptists not only understood but practiced the concept of taking their cues for Christian living from Scripture rather than simply following cultural conventions. In the very first year of Swiss Anabaptism (1525), Johannes Kessler described them by saying, “They shun costly clothing, despise expensive food and drink, clothe themselves with coarse cloth, cover their heads with broad felt hats. Their entire manner of life is completely humble” (Gingerich 14).

In the Anabaptist ferment to the north, both Menno Simons and his fellow-laborer Dirk Philips sounded the theme of separation. Writing on the new birth in 1537, Menno says, “We are taught . . . that we must not love the world and the things therein, nor conform to the world . . .” (Wenger, Complete Writings 101). In Foundation of Christian Doctrine, he writes, “No other kingdom do we know, teach, and seek, than that of Christ which shall endure forever, which is neither pride nor pomp, gold nor silver, eating or drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For we confess with Christ that our kingdom is not of this world” (200). And in a letter to a church giving instruction on discipline, Menno writes, “Remember that you are the Lord’s people, separated from the world, and hated unto death” (1045). 

Of special interest is a hymn by Menno Simons, stanzas II and III which read:

When I in Egypt still stuck fast,

And traveled calm broad paths of ease,

Then was I famed, a much-sought guest,

The world with me was quite at peace;

Enmeshed was I in Satan’s gauze,

My life abomination was,

Right well I served the devil’s cause.

But when I turned me to the Lord,

And gave the world a farewell look,

Accepted help against the evil horde,

The lore of Antichrist forsook;

Then was I mocked and sore defamed,

Since Babel’s councils I now disdained;

The righteous man is e’er disclaimed!

(1065, 1066)

Regarding Menno, both J. C. Wenger, the editor of his Complete Writings, and H. S. Bender, who contributed a brief biography, attribute to him belief in separation and nonconformity. Wenger says “It is plain that Menno had a sound view of . . . Christian separation and nonconformity” (vii). And Bender’s evaluation is that “He called for a genuine change of life and the faithful practice of the Christian way of life as Christ taught it, the life of righteousness, holiness, purity, love, and peace. For him Christianity was more than faith only; it was faith and works. And this practical Christianity meant for Menno . . . a thoroughgoing separation from the sin of the worldly social order” (29).

Dirk Philips likewise appealed to the principle of separation from the world. In An Apology or Reply, after having cited various Scriptures, he writes: “These and similar words, which are abundant in the Scripture, testify clearly to us that true Christians and disciples of the Lord are not one with the world, but are delivered, chose, and separated from it. And, therefore, they may have not fellowship with her false worship and evil works, 2 Cor. 6:14; I Cor. 10:14; Eph. 5:11” (Dyck 178). In the same tract Philips also writes, “. . . [T]rue Christians must serve God the Lord according to his Word alone and may not conform themselves to the world, Rom. 12:2, nor maintain her false worship nor carry out an evil appearance (just as Paul says, ‘Abstain from every evil appearance’), 1 Thess. 5:22, as though they were truly one with the world to have her friendship (which is yet enmity with God), James 4:4. . .” (189).

Another early Anabaptist document giving witness to the belief and practice of separation and nonconformity is the Strasbourg Discipline, a set of 23 regulations drawn up in 1568 by the “preachers and elders from many places at Strasbourg,” with subsequent renewals and additions. The Discipline is a practical and administrative document rather than a doctrinal one. Item number 20 reads, “Tailors and seamstresses shall hold to the plain and simple style and shall make nothing at all for pride’s sake” (Strasbourg Discipline).

While the first Anabaptist “confession of faith” has an explicit article on separation, a survey of 12 subsequent and readily available confessions from 1554 until 1660 shows none with an article specifically dedicated to separation from the world. (The “Thirty-Three Articles” of 1617 has an article entitled “separation,” but it actually deals with shunning.) Nevertheless two of those confessions speak rather pointedly regarding matters we would categorize as separation and nonconformity. The first of those is the “Concept of Cologne,” (1591), a concise conciliating statement between Anabaptists who had become estranged over issues of doctrine and church discipline. While the nature of the document may not have lent itself to detailed specifics, the practical matters it speaks to indicates that the signatories of this document understood Christian living to run counter to the practices and values of the world, and that it was incumbent on the church to bring discipline to bear on those whose lives reflected the world.

  • [W]e have discussed our apprehensions concerning the growing inclination of the merchant class toward temporal greed and the vanity of ostentatious clothing, which imitate the world rather than displaying the humility of Christ. And because these are insidious, creeping sins, and it is to be feared that they will lead many to destruction, although one can hardly prescribe for anyone how much business he should do or what he should wear, yet we desire that each of us would restrict his business activities and dress modestly, indeed that he might enlighten the world in all he does, and not attire himself like the world, after the manner of the discontented and the insatiable. For this reason we have agreed that all who keep watch over the House of God should censure the members in all faithfulness and in the power of the Scriptures . . . (Koop 121, 122).

Anabaptists. In what is commonly referred to as the Thirty-Three Articles (1617), under the heading of “Good Works,” we read:

  • Truly, where the kingdom of God is received in the heart through the clear light of God’s word, there the deadly works of darkness (like the night before the clear sun light) must be removed, departed from, and disappear. . . . And as obedient children of God in everyway [sic] express the nature of Christ. . . . [P]ride must be seen as the beginning of all destruction (Tob. 4:10; Gen. 3:5); it originates from the heart (Mt 15:19) and reveals itself in clothing (Sir. 19:25; 1 Pet. 3:3; 1 Tim. 2:9), housing, speaking, eating, and drinking. Lay aside everything and arm yourselves against these with the humility of Christ (Matt. 11:29; Titus 2:1; Gal. 5:19). For all vain pleasures of the world exist in drunkenness, feasting, unchastity and similar things (Koop 235, 236).

Two things particularly noteworthy in this quotation are the juxtaposition of the kingdom of God with the world, and the inclusion of housing, speaking, eating and drinking in addition to clothing as areas of concern.

As is true today, many people in the Anabaptist stream took separation and nonconformity very seriously, leading to ruptured fellowship with those who saw things differently. Dutch Anabaptists, as well as northern Germans, were racked with dissension and division already in Menno Simons’ lifetime, and extending well beyond the middle of the 17th century. In fact, the enduring Dordrecht Confession (1632), later adopted by the Swiss Brethren (1660) and carried to North America, emerged during this time in an attempt to bring unity from among the chaos. Interestingly, the Dordrecht Confession has no article or specific reference to separation and nonconformity. (Incidentally, the presence of both liberal and conservative tendencies and factions, even in the early centuries of Anabaptism, should caution us against being too simplistic or categorical in proof-texting “what the Anabaptists believed.”)

Gerald Biesecker-Mast, in commenting on the schismatic 16th century period of Dutch Anabaptism, attributes some of their tensions to matters of what we would call separation and nonconformity. He writes, “Following the death of Menno, an influx of Anabaptist refugees from Flanders into Friesland precipitated one of the most bitter and longstanding divisions among the Dutch Anabaptist communities. The Flemish refugee communities were culturally different from the Frisian Mennonite congregations, less concerned with plain clothing than were the Frisians but critical nevertheless of Frisian wealth as displayed in expensive homes and furnishings” (Biesecker-Mast 203).

In commenting further he says, “Most of the issues that precipitated the conflicts, whether they involved the proper form of the ban, the proper lifestyle of Christians, the reputations of elders, or involvement in real estate deals, originated in the shared commitment to a visible alternative community of believers who live separate from the world, ‘without spot or wrinkle,’” . . . (205). Harold Bender agrees with Biesecker-Mast’s analysis when he writes, “practically all the schisms among Dutch Mennonites from 1570-1700 involved questions of nonconformity.” He goes on to say that “until recent time, practically all schisms among Mennonites dealt with practical issues of separation and nonconformity” (Nonconformity 890, 891).

Separation and Nonconformity in Dress

An area of particular focus for Anabaptists/Mennonites is, and always has been, clothing and personal appearance. While documents already cited show that, a few more examples will be given. In a tract entitled True Christian Faith in which he defended the brotherhood against charges of legalism, Menno Simons condemns people who “. . . say that they believe, and yet, alas, there are no limits or bounds to their accursed haughtiness, foolish pride and pomp; they parade in silks, velvet, costly clothes, gold rings, chains, silver belts, pins and buttons, curiously adorned shirts, shawls, collars, veils, aprons, velvet shoes, slippers, and such like finery. They never regard that the exalted apostles Peter and Paul have in plain and express words forbidden this all to Christian women. And if forbidden to women, how much more to men who are the leaders and heads of their wives!” (Wenger, Complete Writings 377). This is but one of many references to dress in Menno Simons’ writings. 

A forty-one stanza song of personal testimony and admonition, written by an Anabaptist in the Simmental and published in 1662, contains these lines:

Of clothes there is no lacking, with much unneedful pride,

And manifold silk ribbons and trim of every kind,

As our own age has now disclosed, to which the Lord God is opposed.

Those who such things are leaving much money can be saving.

There would be goodly colors that by themselves do grow;

Such are the ones for wearing—we find it written so.

Sheep wool itself has varied hue which is quite inexpensive too;

One could, to this submitting, still dress in manner fitting.

Besides these explicit admonitions on clothing, the poet, in his song, also mentions righteous business practices, honest labor, and temperance in eating and drinking (Ruth, Lancaster 95, 96).

Another window into Anabaptist practices comes from a Reformed pastor from the Swiss Emmental writing in 1693 to persuade his parishioners that they could be good Christians without becoming Anabaptists. In regard to their clothing he writes, “In their distinguishing themselves in outward clothing from all other honest people, do they not thereby make it understood that they are not averse to being recognized among the people so that one can immediately say, ‘This is [an Anabaptist]’”. More specifically he said, they “wear no collars around the neck” and wear “nothing embroidered or of lace or anything else that our rural people consider pride and ostentation in dress” (Ruth, Lancaster 127, 128; Gingerich 22).

Moving on to North America, a German Pietist who lived for a short while in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania around 1750 wrote concerning Mennonites that “These people [are] modest . . . and upright in their conduct. They wear plain clothing; proud colors may not be worn by them” (Ruth, Lancaster 265). And L. J. Heatwole, a prominent Virginia bishop, wrote in 1922 when he was 70 years old that, “the early habits and customs of dress among pioneer Mennonites in Virginia were strictly in keeping with the principles of separation from the popular styles of their time” (Gingerich 32). 

While sources relating to Anabaptist/Mennonite “preaching” and practice regarding attire are sizable, particularly for the North American scene, how did dress play out as a separation and nonconformity issue? One of the themes running through the story of Anabaptist/Mennonite attire is pride. It came through the 1525 description by Johannes Kessler when he said, “Their entire manner of life is completely humble.” It came from the pen of the Simmental poet in the words, “much unneedful pride.” It came through the Strasbourg Discipline when the church leaders declared, “Tailors and seamstresses shall . . . make nothing at all for pride’s sake,” and it comes through other previously cited sources as well. It is also evident from the records of The Mennonite Conference in Virginia. They discussed the subject of pride at length in August 1865 and “unanimously resolved to guard against pride, and the fashions in their various forms and keep them out of the church as much as possible” (Gingerich 8, 10). Twelve years later the same district conference revisited the issue of pride according to this minute:

55. Pride—The subject of pride was again discussed, and the following resolutions adopted:

  • RESOLVED 1, That the wearing of finger-rings, breast-pins, ornamental shirt fronts, cuffs, fashionable collars, ruffles, roached or otherwise fashionable hair, is inconsistent with word of God.
  • RESOLVED 2, That the brethren and sisters be required to be faithful to their promise in conforming to the rules of the Church in regard to dress.
  • RESOLVED 3, That the superfluous ornamenting of houses or other buildings, either in the manner of building or in decorating the walls and tables with pictures, etc., is inconsistent and contrary to the word of God.
  • RESOLVED 4, That every brother or sister neglecting to comply with thee promises, with regard to conformity to the rules of the church, shall be visited and reasoned with.
  • RESOLVED 5, That the actions of this Conference be presented to the Churches in the several districts at meetings appointed for that special purpose (Virginia Mennonite Conference 16).

Pride was antithetical to humility—a virtue which should characterize believers, and which was a particularly dominant theme among North American Mennonites from the last half of the 18th century and for much of the 19th (Schlabach 28-32). Pride expressed through personal appearance was simply a worldly vice and an expression of worldliness from which believers should separate (Ruth, Lancaster 741, 742). The appeal to pride most likely tells us two things. First, until the 20th century with its increasingly sultry values, pride rather than explicit immodesty was the pressure point of worldliness in dress. Secondly, Anabaptists and their spiritual descendants saw the clothing issue as a mark of worldly pride rather than a mark of separation from the world (or as an expression of nonconformity) as it is sometimes viewed today. In fact the current practice among many conservative Anabaptist people of consciously prescribed, regulated attire, including perhaps the idea of it being a visible and/or symbolic mark of distinction from the world, is of relatively recent origin in the sweep of Mennonite history.

According to Melvin Gingerich in his book, Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries, prior to the time of Jakob Ammann (1693), “no documents have been found prescribing a definite form of dress, although a degree of uniformity of style was achieved in some groups by forbidding certain styles and colors of costumes” (Gingerich 18). This is not to say that clothing was unregulated; rather it was regulated by proscription instead of by prescription. For example, an extensive footnote by Gingerich gives an incomplete listing of rules adopted by an Old Flemish Anabaptist group in1659, all of which are prohibitions, some very specific (“That Christians should not wear high-heeled shoes or shoes decorated with white yarn, nor two straps, or spy-holes”), and not all related to clothing but none stating a uniform or prescribed practice (18, n.12).

A statement by Heinrich Bullinger, Ulrich Zwingli’s successor at Zurich, is sometimes used to support the thesis that Anabaptists did prescribe clothing patters. He describes some Anabaptists whom, he says, “one can call the separated from the world. . . These want to have nothing in common with or like the world. Because it is written: You shall not be conformed to the world . . . therefore they make rules about clothing, whereof, of what form and shape, and how long, wide or big they shall be.” While this clearly describes prescribed separation and nonconformity, the context of Bullinger’s writing from which this is quote is excerpted indicates he was referring to a group of Anabaptists distinct from the norm. An appeal to this as a basis for saying early Anabaptists practiced prescribed nonconformity is somewhat like saying, on the basis of the Munster episode, that early Anabaptists were militaristic (Gingerich 21, 22).

Perhaps only a fine line exists between proscribed and prescribed dress. In a study of the Dutch Mennonites published in 1743, a German author indicates quite a range of practice from the extremely conservative to the pistol-packing liberal wings. Among the more conservative groups, according to C. Henry Smith’s telling, “Worldliness in all its varied forms was carefully guarded against. The cut of a man’s coat and the style of a woman’s dress were still a matter of strict regulation.” He goes on to say, “Black was the acceptable color for both. Buttons, shoestrings instead of buckles, wall pictures, stained glass, and portraits were all on the proscribed list,” which indicates concerns regarding appropriate Christian lifestyles extended beyond matters of personal appearance (Smith 134). Apparently Smith overly generalized. According to Melvin Gingerich, the source document does not mention the “cut of a man’s coat and the style of a woman’s dress” (Gingerich 24). Yet the question remains, can strict prohibition, combined with group practice combine to produce, in effect, a normative standard in regard to separation from the world, be it in dress or in some other area of Christian living? J. C. Wenger seems to think so. He says that while dress was regulated, “the Swiss and South German Mennonites never seem to have developed any specific religious garb; they remained simple Christians avoiding the luxury and ostentation of the rich.” Yet they became recognizable as such in part by their plainness of dress, which over time tended to develop into a standard way of dressing. (Dress 101; Wenger, Separated 81).

Admonitions and prohibitions targeted at pride gave way to aggressively promoted prescribed plain clothing among the large body of (Old) Mennonites. This was true among those district conferences associated together in a Mennonite General Conference (to be distinguished from General Conference Mennonites), as well as the large body of Mennonites comprising the Lancaster and Franconia Conferences which did not join the General Conference (Ruth, Lancaster, Narrated throughout Part 6; also see Ruth, Maintaining the Right Fellowship). Melvin Gingerich states that “between 1865 and 1950 in the district and general conferences . . . no less than 230 resolutions were passed on non-conformity in dress which was more than on any other subject. Many of these called for the wearing of a definitely prescribed garb” (28). While General Conference was not able to mandate to its constituent membership, its denominational structure and organized influence moved the church to greater, though sometimes reluctant uniformity, especially among the leadership.

What led to this shift toward uniformity? John Ruth notes that it was rooted “in simplicity and humility [that] had been cherished for centuries among Swiss-deriving Mennonites as positive strands in the fabric of the gospel of Christ,” and he believes it was part of a defense against young people being lost to the world (Ruth, Lancaster 737). In his study, Melvin Gingerich is inclined to think that “earlier the weight of tradition had been sufficient to maintain the practice of wearing simple clothes that had a degree of uniformity without any teaching being done on the value of uniformity as an end in itself,” though he concedes that “there may have been local rulings or even conference rulings which were either not written or else not preserved” (34). But plainness was threatened by the loss of Mennonite isolation and the leveling of society through American democratization and standardization of dress. In fact, the very concept and practice of separation and nonconformity was considered endangered. The leadership responded by stressing not only simplicity, but uniformity as well (Gingerich 28,148; Juhnke 130-132).

We must not assume Mennonite leaders were primarily motivated by a sociological impulse for Mennonites to be a distinctive group in society, although J. C. Wenger appealed to the “sociological value of external symbols of dress as aids in the maintenance of a group-consciousness and group-solidarity,” and appeared genuinely concerned that in 1951 (the time of his writing), never before was the church “in danger of losing all external evidence of nonconformity to the world” as it was then (Wenger, Separated 85). Whatever sociological factors may have been involved, consciously or otherwise, there is no reason to doubt, for example, that when the Mennonite General Conference formed a “Dress Committee” to bring “all our people to the Gospel standard of simplicity and spirituality,” its highest motivation and concern was spiritual (Juhnke 130).

The Scope of Separation and Nonconformity

Our lengthy examination of clothes raises the matter of the scope of the Anabaptist and Mennonite conception of separation and nonconformity: was worldliness shrunk down to dress, or was it as large as Scripture reveals Satan’s sphere to be, touching on values, attitudes and all sorts of social and cultural matters? Mennonites did see worldliness as larger than clothes as previous citations show. Besides clothes, another large chunk of the world involved recreation and entertainment. Franconia Conference rulings and warnings in the 1880s and ‘90s highlight these as well as other concerns: “Women’s surprise parties and ladies’ fairs; brethren joining in horse companies, fairs, and gambling; traveling to Atlantic City with organized excursions and their ‘hard class’ of people; going to any such outing on Sunday; drinking at public sales or at bees such as for shoveling snow or raising buildings; stopping at an inn to eat after a cornhusking; and letting Mennonite ministers preach in any chapel which had a choir or a Christmas tree” (Schlabach 70).

Yet the Mennonite record shows some inconsistency in regards to separation and nonconformity, as seen, for example, through the eyes of a Swiss immigrant living in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s where her husband was teaching music in a Mennonite community. In a letter home to her parents she said that while Mennonites belonged to “a class of people who do not believe in luxury, we found, in two attractive homes, that all the rooms were furnished according to the latest styles, with gorgeous beds, armchairs, chests of drawers, desks, tables and curtains.” Speaking of their bedroom, as guests in a Mennonite home, she wrote, “The magnificent beds covered with artistically worked spreads, the floors covered with Turkish rugs, all dazzled our eyes. Costly drapes covered the windows. We stood there transfixed. Never would we have expected such things in a Mennonite farmhouse. We will find the same thing, my dear husband said, when we accept other invitations” (Gingerich 30). That such a display of wealth was perceived, at least by some, to be inconsistent with a separated life is confirmed in a caustic epistle from Lancaster bishop Christian Herr (1780-1853) to his distant cousin and antagonist, John Herr, Reformed Mennonite leader. By the evidence of their fine ornamented homes, the “spirit of worldly riches is flourishing in your fellowship as [well as] among others,” he wrote (Ruth, Lancaster 516).

Another area of some inconsistency particularly noticeable among Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Mennonites in the 18th and 19th centuries was political involvement. This is well documented both in Lehman and Nolt’s book on Mennonites and Amish in the Civil War and especially by John Ruth in his narrative history of Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Among other things, Mennonites were involved as county commissioners, in electoral politics and by serving jury duty (Ruth, Lancaster 492, 503-504; Lehman 78-79). Perhaps Lancaster Mennonites were particularly vulnerable to this close association with “the sword” having gotten in on the ground floor in settling that frontier woods as Anabaptist immigrants. There they found themselves not only increasingly freed from the shackles of being persecuted non-citizens but constituting a significant portion of the population as well.

Whether inconsistencies were a result of too small a “worldview,” or carelessness and carnality, inconsistencies are not the whole story. In its last major resistance to the forces that would sweep the Mennonite Church (MC) over the falls of acculturation, the Mennonite General Conference, meeting in the summer of 1955 adopted a “Declaration of Commitment in Respect to Christian Separation and Nonconformity to the World.” The last paragraph in the introduction, as well as the specific topics addressed, demonstrate comprehensiveness and consistency on the conceptual level, however much it was falling short in practice in the local churches:

We believe that union with the Lord Jesus, with its ensuing nonconformity to the world, is not a matter of ecstasy or mere emotion, but that it is a devotion of love and faith which calls for a resolute discipleship in life, a holy obedience to the precepts of the Word of God, lived in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Christians are called upon by Christ to “make disciples of all nations.” They are not to withdraw from all contact with society, but are to labor actively to bring all people to the obedience of the faith. It is also our understanding that a Christian separation and nonconformity to the world apply to all of life including the areas hereinafter specified.

Areas specified were Christian love, attitude toward possessions, courtship and marriage, dress and external experience, the clean life, worldly organizations, recreation, simplicity of worship, and speech (Mennonite Church).

Separation and Nonconformity as a Mind-set

While looking for specific examples of how separation and nonconformity were applied, such as in dress and taboos, we must not overlook the ethos of separation that has been a part of the Anabaptist/Mennonite historical mind-set. James Juhnke gives us a glimpse of that ethos when he writes concerning the Mennonite experience in the American Revolutionary period that it “vindicated and enhanced the doctrine of separation from the world. . . . Although they were part of a regional language and culture group known as ‘Pennsylvania Dutch,’ they remained politically and socially marginal to American public power. . . . Swiss-Americans of Amish or Mennonite background inherited and developed a religious tradition which made a virtue of their marginality” (Juhnke 34).

This aloofness or withdrawal from society reflected in the Swiss Anabaptist tradition has its roots in the very formation of the movement. While they engaged society in debate and evangelism, the early Anabaptists were oppressed by the state and separated from the state by Biblical persuasion. They existed on the margins of society both by conviction and by necessity. When they came to feel at home in America, they began to lose that sharp sense of separation from the world, conforming themselves to normal cultural conventions and involving themselves in the political arena. That story, as it played out in the 20th century Mennonite Church (MC), is told by Ervin Stutzman in his book, From Nonresistance to Justice. 

From time to time bitter experiences as nonresistant people in America during times of war, such as the Revolutionary War mentioned above, caused Mennonites who had become somewhat comfortable in their niche in society to strengthen their identity as a separate people (see Lehman and Nolt). Another such time was during World War I. While going through that difficult experience, the Franconia Conference resolved that “we have learned that the world expects us to be separate. We therefore consider it advisable to abstain from voting.” The war experience even convinced a General Conference Mennonite pastor from Ohio to write of the need for more distinct separation “if we want be recognized as different by others and stand firmly on our peculiar Mennonite Principles” (Juhnke 245).

John C. Wenger also alludes to the Mennonite ethos of separation when he asks, “What then did nonconformity mean to the members of the Mennonite Church in the nineteenth century?” He answers his question in part by saying, “The Word of God asks Christians not to be as the world, and by the world Mennonites tended to think more or less of all of society outside of their own fellowship. Long years of persecution in Europe, and of having been different from other Christians . . . had imbedded in the Mennonite soul a deep suspicion of the ‘world.’ They felt instinctively that the most acceptable occupations were first of all farming, then engaging in such trades as carpentry or painting or operation small businesses . . .” (Wenger, Separated 81). 

On a personal note, I experienced the ethos of Mennonite separation and nonconformity as one who grew up in a Mennonite home. I knew instinctively that participating in my public high school sports program, either as a spectator or an athlete, was out of the question, or that being an airline pilot was not an option because of dress requirements. Admittedly my concept of the world was not nuanced. And I’ve been affected by inferiority, embarrassment, shame and timidity for believing and being different. Yet the sense of separation from the world that was ingrained in me as a child and which I experienced as a student is still a valuable companion functioning somewhat like a conscience to keep me from friendship with the world (James 4:4).

Late 19th and 20th Century Mennonite Church Nonconformity

While separation is as old as Anabaptism, nonconformity as a term, understood first and foremost to mean not to be dressed like the world, began to be used widely around the turn of the 20th century with the reinvigorated emphasis on applied separation in the (Old) Mennonite Church (Gingerich 8). That coincided with what some have considered to be a Mennonite awakening or quickening which resulted from various influences, among them revivalism and the progressive spirit of the age. Whatever one’s views of this era, whether an advancement for the church, or a departure from the Mennonite genius, those in the vanguard of the movement, according to Theron Schlabach’s analysis, made a subtle but significant shift in the Mennonite conception of salvation. Historically Anabaptists/Mennonites, unlike the tendency among Protestants, “did not narrow salvation down to one forensic process or ‘plan’ or transaction.” Rather, while they believed that salvation was rooted in the redeeming work of Christ, it was, in the words of John F. Funk, “by repentance, faith in Christ and a willingness to obey the word of God in all things that we become converted and true children of God” (Schlabach 316, 317). Consequently salvation was more than an event, it was an ongoing process.

The shift to thinking of salvation as a plan and an event seems to have been with no intent to minimize the importance of Christian obedience, and perhaps was motivated in part by the understandable need to call the unregenerate to decision. But this subtle shift had the effect of placing salvation and practical Christian living into different conceptual categories. The initial getting right with God, involving regeneration, justification and so forth was called “salvation.” Some areas involving Christian living came to be called “restrictions.” The transition, both in the conception of the word “salvation” and the use of the word “restrictions,” came to be institutionalized in Daniel Kauffman’s doctrinal books and in the statement of Christian Fundamentals adopted in 1921 at Garden City, Missouri (Schlabach 317, 318). The conference which adopted this statement, made in response to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, expressly declared that “this statement does not supersede the eighteen articles of the Dort Confession, which the Church still confesses and teaches” (Confessions of Faith 685). Nevertheless it came into its own right as a statement of faith. Article XIII is entitled, “Of Restrictions” and includes Christian duties to the state, the separation of church and state, nonresistance, personal appearance, non-swearing of oaths, secret orders and life insurance—a catchall of separation issues. 

Apparently “restrictions” was not conceived as a substitute word for separation. Article X of this Garden City statement is entitled, “Of Separation,” and states, “We believe that we are called with a holy calling to a life of separation from the world and its follies, sinful practices and methods; further that it is the duty of the Church to keep herself aloof from all movements which seek the reformation of society independent of the merits of the death of Christ and the experience of the new birth.” It’s unclear to me why the contents of “restrictions” are separated from “separation,” other than the possibility that “restrictions” had assumed a life of its own as negative commands of God (Stutzman 64).

The incoming tide of greater rigor and regulation of separation and nonconformity among Mennonites in North America of Swiss-South German heritage crested by mid-20th century. Many church members were increasingly galled by clothing and cultural restrictions, and viewed nonconformity as isolation from the world— a world which had been opened to them by the experiences of World War II, and which many wanted to engage for Christ. Apparently even many church leaders had conformed to the non-conformed dress expectations of the church without having a deep commitment to it (for example, Ruth, Lancaster 737, 743, 814). While there were attempts to revitalize nonconformity by broadening its scope, and calls to redefine and reconceive it positively as “transformity” and “dynamic discipleship,” the tide had turned against “cultural” nonconformity (Toews 224, 225). H. S. Bender and J. C. Wenger, both prominent Mennonite Church scholars and churchmen wrote in the Mennonite Encyclopedia in 1957, “The struggle to maintain true Scriptural nonconformity continues to be a major problem for the Mennonite Church (MC). With the acceleration of cultural change in American life and the pervasiveness of modern American urban cultural influences through almost universal advertising, periodical reading, radio, and television, even the most withdrawn groups are subjected to pressures to surrender principles, not to speak of the more open groups” (Nonconformity).

The story of the “more open groups” is summarized in the book, From Nonresistance to Justice: “As the Mennonite Church moved from being a sectarian society toward becoming an engaged and assimilated society, it struggled to maintain definitive communal boundaries. Mennonites responded to several threats to the doctrines of nonresistance and nonconformity during this period. In the early 1950s Mennonites [sic] leaders emphasized the importance of nonconformity with some articles in Gospel Herald and a major book by J. C. Wenger. But at least partly due to the shifting patterns of authority, as well as increasing assimilation, efforts to maintain nonconformity in dress largely failed by the mid-1960’s. Although the leadership viewed nonconformity as a twin to nonresistance, the younger generation disdained nonconformity as an appendage to be surgically removed” (Stutzman 148, 149).

Some churches and individuals resisted the outward flow of the tide of nonconformity into the world, resulting in major partings of way and realignments beginning in the 1950s. Ironically the words of Bender and Wenger—“the struggle to maintain true Scriptural nonconformity continues to be a major problem for the Mennonite Church,”—were descriptive not only of their era, but seem prophetic a mere half-century later. This time it applies to us who were not the “more open” groups; to us who have our roots in the Amish tradition; to us whatever our ethnic, cultural or faith background as conservative Anabaptist/Mennonites.

Conclusions and Applications

So what is the value of having surveyed the history of separation and nonconformity? We need to recognize that history not only describes, it directs in that many churches reflect something of a historical tradition. At its best historical tradition offers accumulated understanding and stability. It represents time-tested solutions and helps successive generations avoid many mistakes by building on the wisdom and experience of earlier believers.

But tradition can become confining and suffocating. It can become stuck in time and offer solutions that better served a different era. Tradition can become so pervasive that tradition itself becomes the point rather than the application of principle. We must recognize that in the application of separation and nonconformity, most of us do represent some degree of historical tradition. We should appreciate the experience and wisdom it represents, and the stability it offers and not be too cavalier in assuming we suddenly have full and sufficient insight for rapid and radical new applications.

A complementary historical value is perspective. Perspective allows us to view our understanding and practice in a larger context. It may reveal the cause for some peculiarity, show the consequence of certain choices, suggest the validity of other options, confirm the wisdom of present practice or indicate relative importance.

What can we learn and apply from this brief survey of separation and nonconformity in Anabaptist history? I suggest five dimensions of a historically informed doctrine of separation and nonconformity.

Biblically Based

While Anabaptism arose in a particular political and social context, it was primarily a spiritual quest predicated on the Bible (Estep xi-xiii). Has Anabaptist/Mennonite separation remained rooted in deep spiritual soil, or is it primarily nourished by ethnicity and sociology? Granted, spiritual beliefs and values need to be applied and lived out in social and cultural contexts. But separation and nonconformity driven by anything less than its Biblical base is certain to crash into dissention, dysfunction, disuse or misuse. To the degree that Anabaptist people over the centuries rooted their separation in Scripture, they were one in essence with those who signed the Brotherly Union in 1527, in regards to the basic meaning of Biblical separation.

The Biblical basis for separation and nonconformity, properly grasped and taught, brings both legitimacy and understanding to the issue. It answers the question of why? Why must we scrutinize our culture and live counter culturally in so many different ways? Because all cultures are permeated by the world—“the secular order of society, together with its thoughts, beliefs, interests, motives, attitudes, practices, institutions, and systems that are contrary to God’s will” and under the control of Satan, God’s enemy (Proceedings 55). Those who are of the world are outside of the saving grace of God’s Kingdom. Believers who love the world and have friendship with the world are committing spiritual adultery and have no claim to the promise of a saving relationship with God (1Jn. 2:15; Jas. 4:4-5; 2 Cor. 6:17-18).

However, separation and nonconformity, deprived of its Biblical basis, becomes an instrument for which it was not intended, and a tool to supplant the Gospel of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ. Separation is not a means to salvation, a way of upholding a standard of meritorious righteousness (Rom. 3:20-22; Phil. 3:4-9; 1 Pe. 1:18-19). We also need clear thinking that while conversion results in works of righteousness, which a life of separation and nonconformity reflects, and this walk of obedient righteousness must be undertaken seriously and conscientiously, we are ever dependent on the righteousness which comes by faith in Jesus Christ rather than on one which is through meticulous and scrupulous separation and nonconformity to the world (Rom. 4; Gal. 2:14- 21).

Neither is separation and nonconformity a means to achieve holiness of life. Holiness is the result of the work of God in cleansing us from sin and separating us unto Himself (1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 4:24; Tit 3:4-7). The progressive aspect of holiness in a believer’s life is “simply” the practice of that which God has so graciously brought about in our lives. Holiness is perfected in the sense that as we walk with the Lord, with all that entails, we grow more into His likeness. It seems that sometimes in our history we have used various standards of separation and nonconformity as a benchmark for God-approved holiness by which to judge the spirituality of others. While there is room for honest differences concerning the merits and wisdom of specific applications, and while unity of thought as well as submission are essential elements of church life, separation resulting in holier-than-thou attitudes and acrimonious church splits (sometimes over the minutest of details) has lost its way.

A Biblical basis for separation and nonconformity guides its application. The point is not to be social nonconformists, arbitrarily distinctive or even to set up marks of separation. Rather, we are to be as separated and non-conformed as obedience to Christ and His Word makes us, and as being cleansed from all “filthiness of the flesh and spirit” takes us (2 Cor. 7:1). Employing such devices as amoral cultural, linguistic and geographical fences for purposes of separation from the world raises the question of whether one is trying to achieve isolation rather than separation from the world (also see Acts 15:19).

Positively Framed

In an address to the Fourth Mennonite World Conference (1948), entitled “The Limitations of Nonconformity,” Paul Mininger observed that nonconformity, being entirely negative in its meaning, “does not furnish any general or specific guidance to the individual or the church in the development of the Christian life or in meeting moral and spiritual problems. The principle says ‘do not’ but gives no suggestion as to the direction in which one ought to go” (Proceedings 57). What shall we make of the negative character of separation and nonconformity?

First, we do poorly to unhitch nonconformity to the world from its teammate, conformity to Christ (Rom. 8:29; Gal. 4:19; Col. 3:10). These are simply the negative and positive aspects of progressive sanctification. John C. Wenger captured the fact that separation is part of a larger purpose by the well-stated title of his book, Separated unto God. Positioning separation and nonconformity as a necessary part, but only a part of a larger whole brings understanding and appreciation for its role in living a holy life.

Secondly, the validity of separation and nonconformity is not diminished by its negativity. Six of the Ten Commandments, we will recall, are stated negatively. And Paul, in light of the promise of God to be our Father, and the privilege of us being His children as a consequence of separation, exhorts us to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Cleansing ourselves from worldly contaminants of body and soul—negative actions—produces the positive result of growth in Godlikeness. 

Thirdly, while we need not feel apologetic for a negative doctrine, knowing its Biblical basis and positive good, the doctrine of separation and nonconformity is well served by framing it in terms of liberation rather than only in terms of restriction (Col. 1:13-14; 2 Tim 2:24-26). A positive focus on separation as liberation from the enslaving and degrading values and practices demanded by conformity to the world should enhance appreciation for this fundamental Biblical teaching and stimulate a more genuine and consistent practice among Anabaptist believers. 

Fourthly, while separation and nonconformity are negative terms, must its application only be negative? Might a given church address the implications of being in the world but not of the world holistically—not only in terms of what is restricted but what is recommended or required? As we have seen, this approach has been taken at times in Mennonite history in regard to dress, beginning at least in the 19th century. But it finds very little reach outside of dress. Interestingly, while the Old Covenant prescribes specific ways the Israelites were to be separated from the peoples around them, the New Covenant does not. Perhaps rather than simply assuming that any prescription of separation and nonconformity is incompatible with the New Covenant, this distinction between the covenants is a reflection of the transnational and multiethnic nature of the church, and the need to tailor applications as local conditions and cultures warrant.

Comprehensively Applied

Over the centuries, has the Anabaptist/Mennonite conception of worldliness been too narrow? Has separation and nonconformity been conceived primarily in terms of personal appearance? Have we focused on a few boundary markers while overlooking where we may have imbibed worldly values and attitudes resulting in more conformity to the world than we might care to admit, and inconsistencies which onlookers find both perplexing and amusing?

Certainly a lot of focus over the centuries has been on dress. The personal nature of dress, and the motives associated with personal appearance readily lends attire to be an indicator of the heart. Since we all wear clothing and it’s so easy to use clothing as a means of self-expression and identification, the concentrated attention on separation and nonconformity in personal appearance is understandable. Yet the historical record shows the church addressing issues of worldliness beyond clothing and accessories.

The early Anabaptists probably conceived the scope of separation and nonconformity more clearly than has been the case of some of their spiritual descendants. They had no Mennonite culture to carry them along, no long-standing established Anabaptist norms to support them. They understood the reality of the world, which included the state and the established churches. For them, separation from the world was not primarily an issue of attire, but of applying Scripture, in a way they had never done before, to the realities of their lives, socially, politically, culturally, ecclesiastically and economically. Over time as the Anabaptist movement aged, with some people withdrawing and becoming more secluded and isolated, and others receiving greater tolerance and acceptance as members of society, the forces that come with time had their effect. On the one hand, general patterns of belief, thought and practice became established and indicated a path to follow. On the other hand, as Anabaptists/Mennonites became more able to function freely in society the world no longer stood out in such bold relief—the lines between the world and the Kingdom of God became blurred in some people’s thinking and practice. Then present too was the inevitable spiritual battle each Christian must wage, and the lure of the world to which some, both individually and corporately, succumb, while still retaining Mennonite identity. 

Those have been continual dynamics over the centuries as Mennonites have lived in the world but have had a greater or lesser sense that they were not to be of it. Consequently the level of comprehensiveness and consistency has varied. The historical record shows the church wrestling with and addressing issues beyond personal appearance. And the 1951 publication of Separated Unto God by J. C. Wenger is an outstanding example of a broad based approach to separation and nonconformity. How well conservative Christians in the historic Anabaptist tradition relate all the dimensions of their lives to being separated unto the Kingdom of God is another matter, and begs the question, how can the church comprehend and embrace the Biblically based, broadly applied and culturally fitting life that the reality of living for God in the sphere of Satan’s world demands? Of particular challenge to 21st century North American Anabaptists is recognizing and responding to worldly beliefs and values. To the extent these are imbibed, the fruit may have a ruby glow but the core is rotten.

Consistently Practiced

If separation and nonconformity is conceived too narrowly, or if social, cultural and ethnic forces become dominate, however subtly and unconsciously, the result will be inconsistency. After reviewing some of the action and reaction to uniform plain dress in the (Old) Mennonite Church, Gingerich makes this observation: “Unfortunately, the struggle over bonnets, neckties, and ‘plain coats’ often partly obscured the underlying principles of the issue. Behind the struggle were the issues of nonconformity to standards not set by Christian idealism, modesty, and simplicity of life” (Gingerich 153).

If Gingerich is suggesting that sometimes people contended for practices without adequate attention and appreciation for the principles which gave rise to them, he is articulating a perennial problem in the practice of separation and nonconformity, one which fosters so much inconsistency of practice be it in personal appearance or in other areas. The question is, how can the reality of separation and nonconformity to the world permeate a believer’s spiritual worldview and seep from all his pores as he lives his life? Too often, it seems, a few issues become paramount and symbolic, diverting attention away from the real issues and principles, thus leading to inconsistency of practice. The inconsistency may involve embracing a form for practicing nonconformity but the function of which fails to address the worldly issue that called for a non-conformed response. It may also involve appropriating some “marks” of nonconformity while other values and practices reveal a life still gripped by worldly mindedness.

According H. S. Bender, the three-pronged fork by which separation and nonconformity has been carried forward in Anabaptism over the centuries has been tradition, indoctrination and discipline (Nonconformity 891). Tradition and indoctrination in particular are relevant to a consistent practice. Tradition by itself is wholly inadequate and easily contributes to inconsistency as time separates practice from principle. Paul Mininger gives a warning word regarding tradition when he writes, “where the emphasis is primarily upon the externals of the Christian life, the group tends to perpetuate these outward forms by a process of social conditioning rather than through giving insight and understanding with the purpose of securing voluntary acceptance. This blind conformity to the social group, even though it is the church, cannot but result in stagnation and sterility (Proceedings 58). 

Yet tradition is not without merit in that at its best it can represent accumulated wisdom and provide stability. To be effective, the accumulated wisdom of tradition needs both to be refreshed and respected. It is refreshed by successive generations appreciatively thinking through what has been handed to them, holding to what is good, adding their godly wisdom and making it their own through thought and not mere convention. It is respected by recognizing that those who have walked this life with God before us may have something of value to contribute to our own walk. And respect for tradition, in turn, is enhanced by the refreshing process. Indoctrination—thorough and convincing teaching—may be both the greatest challenge and the greatest mechanism for the church to promote consistency. It’s a challenge because we are so easily blinded to inconsistency, especially if we’re steeped in thoughtless tradition. Through the work of the Spirit, thorough and convincing teaching is the church’s greatest resource because commitment based on comprehension and conviction orders a person’s life.

Intentionally Transmitted

While there seems to have been ebb and flow in Anabaptist understanding, commitment and practice of separation and nonconformity over the centuries, the fact remains that separation and nonconformity is imbedded both in Scripture and in Anabaptist conviction. That means that Biblical Christianity in the historic Anabaptist tradition must include teaching and applying this foundational doctrine in whatever geographical and cultural setting. It is not a distinctive doctrine and cultural tradition peculiar to North American Mennonites of Swiss heritage but irrelevant elsewhere. Rather the spiritual reality of two kingdoms in opposition is a Biblical truth that all believers everywhere need to reckon with; what does that mean for me personally, for us corporately as we walk with the Lord “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15 NKJV)?

The spiritual heritage that those who have embraced conservative Anabaptism enjoy does not guarantee that successive generations will value and practice separation from the world in any comprehensive and consistent way. Parents who simply assume their children will follow after them, and churches that naively suppose the next generation will continue on in paths of faithfulness, without giving thought to the perils along the way, may find themselves disappointed. Sometimes one is amazed at how quickly an entire church jettisons separation and nonconformity. Is it possible that such a seemingly rapid collapse takes place from having lived off the “interest” of spiritual heritage while the “capital” was being squandered? How can we avoid losing the knowledge of this truth, and the blessing of its practice which has been sustained to a greater or lesser degree since the rise of Anabaptism?

Four enduring threats to separation are inadequate teaching, the effect of wealth, ineffective churches and the pressure to assimilate into society. Our teaching must start with the spiritual reality of two, and only two spiritual kingdoms. Christian conduct, when rooted in that understanding, becomes meaningful beyond obedience to assorted commandments of God and principles of Scripture. Wealth is a subtle competitor to God for our hearts (Mt. 6:19-21, 24; Col. 3:5). One of its subtleties is that we can think we are pious Christians when in fact wealth is corrupting us—our affections, values and life-styles. The effect of wealth is reflected in the “Concept of Cologne,” cited earlier, which spoke of “the growing inclination of the merchant class toward temporal greed and the vanity of ostentatious clothing, which imitate the world rather than displaying the humility of Christ.” Effective churches are fertile soil for producing holy living, of which separation and nonconformity is a vital part. Churches have the potential to be effective when a committed community of believers who have received life through the Gospel are living out Christian discipleship and brotherhood discipline lovingly and holistically. Separation and nonconformity finds stony soil in the hearts of those young people who have found what to them is meaningless law and condemnation where they should be learning grace and discipleship as it flowers and fruits amid congregational teaching and life. Finally, the world has always, and will always try to squeeze us into its mold. Will we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by that pressure? Do we intend to transmit the Biblical doctrine and Anabaptist legacy, or do we simply expect (or hope) it will happen? Will we rise to the challenges, reflecting in our lives, and in the church, the glory of the Lord, being transformed into His likeness with ever increasing glory?

This article is the first in a collection of three articles on Separation and Nonconformity that was shared as a presentation at the 2013 Colloquy hosted by Faith Builders.

Works Cited and Referenced:

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