Mennonites, Evangelicals, and the Sexuality Debate in Christian Higher Ed (Devin Manzullo-Thomas)

Devin Manzullo-ThomasToday we welcome back to the blog Devin Manzullo-Thomas, director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College. I’ve asked Devin — whose research often takes him to the intersection between Anabaptist and Evangelical Christianity — to provide some perspective on the decision by two Mennonite members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities to hire employees in same-sex marriages… and on the response from the CCCU’s evangelical members.

By now, you’ve probably heard the news: In late July, two Christian colleges stirred up a bit of controversy with two simple words.

Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) — Mennonite schools in Indiana and Virginia, respectively— announced on July 20 their decision to add “sexual orientation” to their schools’ nondiscrimination policies. The decision opens the door for both institutions to hire staff and faculty in same-sex marriages.

The announcement received attention from both secular and religious press. It also put the schools somewhat at odds with their sponsoring denomination — Mennonite Church USA — which earlier in July affirmed its position on “traditional marriage” (one man, one woman) yet also passed a resolution — despite ongoing ferment within the church — extending “grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

CCCU LogoThe announcement prompted a brief statement from the Board of Directors of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), in which both Goshen and EMU hold membership. This policy change is a first in the CCCU.

In their statement, the CCCU directors promised to process this policy change in “deliberative and consultative” ways, including “calling all member presidents to discuss this issue.” The statement gave no timeframe for a final CCCU response, though some reports have suggested that the policy change may result in Goshen’s and EMU’s expulsion from the organization.

Given the intensity and controversial nature of the national conversation about human sexuality and Christian higher education, it’s not surprising — though it’s quite admirable — that the CCCU is choosing conversation over swift action. Yet some voices in the CCCU have demanded a sharper, faster response. As World magazine reports,

Dub Oliver, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., estimated at least 40 institutions would withdraw from the CCCU if it delays its decision until next year. He said his institution is not in doubt about keeping its biblical position on marriage, but he’s unsure if it will end up being with the CCCU or in a new organization: “I just need to know who we’ll be standing with.”

The brewing tension reflects the political, cultural and religious climates in which the CCCU finds itself. [Ed. – A few hours after we posted this, Union University announced that it is withdrawing from the CCCU over the Goshen and EMU policy changes.] Yet there’s more to the story.

Goshen College
Licensed by Creative Commons (Liz DeCoster)

It’s worth noting that the schools making this policy change are both Mennonite. Mennonites and other Anabaptists (like the Brethren in Christ or the Mennonite Brethren) have long functioned on the margins of the (predominantly Reformed) American evangelicalism embodied in the CCCU. Yet they’ve also been key players in the development of Christian higher education since mid-century.

Exploring the post-World War II journeys of American Mennonites and evangelicals — sometimes intersecting, sometimes diverging — offers some much-needed context for the contemporary moment.

As historian Molly Worthen has pointed out in her delightfully written and analytically nuanced book Apostles of Reason, both disenchanted fundamentalists and quiet-in-the-land Mennonites were on an evangelical trajectory in the years during and after World War II. For fundamentalists like Reformed theologian Carl F. H. Henry and minister Harold Ockenga, that trajectory took the form of “neo-evangelicalism,” a project to return evangelical faith to its once-held place of cultural dominance. This project involved a simultaneous reformation of fundamentalist dogmatism and rejection of mainline Protestant hegemony. Neo-evangelicals would be “geared to the times” (to borrow the slogan of Youth for Christ) while clinging to the “old-time religion.” In 1942, they launched the National Association of Evangelicals, a para-church agency intended to unite born-again believers in the cause to return an evangelical worldview to the center of American civic and religious life.

Harold S. Bender
Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) – Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

For Mennonites like Harold Bender and Guy Hershberger, an evangelical trajectory took the form of “neo-Anabaptism,” a project to give historical and contemporary legitimacy to Radical Reformation faith. In 1943, Bender delivered “The Anabaptist Vision” as an address to the American Society of Church History—a paradigm-shifting exploration of Mennonitism. As an academic treatise, the talk tore down dominant caricatures and defended Anabaptism as a subject worthy of study within mainstream academia. As an exploration of Mennonite self-identity, it emboldened Mennonites to step outside their ethnic enclaves, equipped them with a necessary apologia for Christian pacifism, and enjoined them to a religious identity that Bender called “evangelical Anabaptism.” Hershberger’s work — especially his groundbreaking 1944 War, Peace, and Nonresistance — functioned in much the same ways.

For a time, these trajectories converged. Neo-Anabaptist Mennonites continued to see religious faith as a life of discipleship, while neo-evangelical fundamentalists — shaped by a starkly Reformed theology — continued to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture as a guide for Christian conduct. Even so, their shared desire for religious legitimacy bound them in a common cause. Anabaptist groups like the Brethren in Christ and the Mennonite Brethren formally joined the NAE; some of their members even assumed leadership roles in the organization. Meanwhile, neo-Anabaptist Mennonites like Bender and, later, John Howard Yoder engaged in sustained dialogue with neo-evangelicals on issues of war and peace. Outside the NAE, Anabaptists took the helm of para-church agencies like Youth for Christ, while presidents of Eastern Mennonite College (now University) and Messiah College helped to found the Christian College Consortium (a forerunner of today’s CCCU).

These converging trajectories ultimately diverged, however, amid the cultural and political tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, as both traditions struggled to maintain unified responses to the provocations of the Vietnam War, the civili rights movement, the counterculture revolution, second-wave feminism, the global food crisis, and other developments.

Among neo-evangelicals, two factions emerged: Arch-conservatives like businessman J. Howard Pew and Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell demanded unreservedly pro-capitalist and pro-nationalist positions, while a more progressive faction — described by one contemporary observer as “young evangelicals” and headlined by Sojourners founder Jim Wallis and feminist Sharon Gallagher — pursued women’s equality, pacifism, and social justice.

Meanwhile, Mennonites also felt the reverberations of social upheaval. Defenders of Bender’s vision of nonresistance — politically quietist and oriented toward humanitarian service rather than social protest — chided those who employed the “peace witness” in resisting the Vietnam draft, joining civil rights protests, and lobbying Congress to end the war. Anabaptist groups across North America hotly debated the biblical authority for women’s ordination; while more progressive conferences began to place women in pastoral roles in the 1970s, others threatened to divide over the issue well into the 1980s and beyond. Meanwhile, a growing chasm also developed over the orientation of “mission” in an Anabaptist context: Was the church’s primary duty to address social inequality and provide relief, or should it concentrate on more traditional activities like evangelism and church planting?

Sider, The Chicago DeclarationSome of these challenges drew Anabaptists and evangelicals together. Ronald J. Sider — a BIC-born professor and theologian — served as a emergent leader for the progressive wing of neo-evangelicalism, organizing the gathering that led to its earliest manifesto and authoring one of the movement’s signature texts, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977). (Sider would later admit that his Anabaptist heritage decisively shaped the argument of the book.) Quite provocatively, he argued that “If they were consistent, Evangelicals would be Anabaptists and Anabaptists would be Evangelicals,” and he urged his Anabaptist denomination, the Brethren in Christ, to “dare to become evangelical” by avoiding the extremes of both fundamentalism and Protestant liberalism, echoing the third-way rhetoric of early neo-evangelicals.

Yet on the whole, Anabaptists and evangelicals chose different paths in the late twentieth century. Progressives won the day within the major Mennonite denominations, concluding a decades-long theological move from nonresistance to justice and smoothing out the historic differences between Mennonites and the secular social-justice left. (When these denominations merged in 2002 to form Mennonite Church USA, several conservative groups splintered off as alternatives to the perceivedly progressive MCUSA.)

By contrast, the irenic, unity-driven project of neo-evangelicalism collapsed under the opposing pull of right- and left-wing factions, with the Jerry Falwell-led Religious Right emerging from the rubble to capture the national imagination and successfully shape Reagan-era politics.

Boyd, Myth of a Christian NationMore recently, the popularity of Anabaptist voices within evangelicalism — think of Christian nation myth-buster Greg Boyd, or “ordinary radical” Shane Claiborne — suggests something of a renewed convergence between evangelicalism and Anabaptism, especially for young Christians who reject the church-state union forged by Falwell and his contemporaries. Meanwhile, the ongoing fragmentation within Mennonite Church USA over same-sex unions — the hemorrhaging of congregations and conferences, and the splintering off of new denominational alternatives like the “evangelical and Anabaptist” Evana — reflects a more fundamental reality: that the cultural tensions and transformations implicit in the community’s move from nonresistance to justice have not been fully resolved.

The simmering debates within the CCCU — Will Goshen and EMU be expelled? Subordinated to affiliate membership? Will they leave voluntarily? — may seem like a significant rupture within the evangelical coalition. But as it so often does, historical reflection provides another perspective.

As the unfolding of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has shown, both collaboration and conflict, convergence and divergence have long characterized encounters between Anabaptists and evangelicals.

By reflecting on that history, we might approach the present moment in a more nuanced — and more humble — way.

11 thoughts on “Mennonites, Evangelicals, and the Sexuality Debate in Christian Higher Ed (Devin Manzullo-Thomas)

  1. Thanks for this fine essay and summary of the state of the situation and what has led up to this. I’m a pastor of a progressive Mennonite congregation in Columbus, Ohio, members of Mennonite Church USA. One of things I’ve appreciated about Mennonite identity in North America is that we have quite a bit of freedom to cross some lines of affinity groups, such as the mainline and evangelical worlds. You observe that there may be a renewed convergence with the Anabaptist/evangelical worlds. I see that happening in some cases. There are also a good amount of us who are finding lots of convergence with the worlds of Anabaptism, UU’s, and progressive Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc. The ethical focus of Mennonites and emphasis on following Jesus beyond simply ‘believing in him’ opens these kinds of doors. I’m grateful Goshen and EMU are leading the way with CCCU and would be saddened if affiliate universities disassociate.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Joel! Couldn’t agree more about contemporary Mennonite ecumenism — it certainly goes beyond the recent “Anabaptist/evangelical convergences” I’ve described here. The work of Mennonite World Conference, for instance, is a striking example of the convergences you describe; there are plenty of other examples, I’m sure.

  2. While cooperation among evangelicals and Anabaptists has been part of the story in the 20th century, tension among the groups has also occurred. The author could have cited examples where an evangelical identity subsumed an Anabaptist heritage, as was the case with many Anabaptist groups in the 20th Century. Take for example, the defenseless Mennonites (now called the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches). In their case, Mennonitism was a “cultural barrier” for engaging with broader society. Although originally thoroughly Anabaptist, by the end of the 20th century they had lost their peace position, withdrawn support from Mennonite Central Committee, and removed Mennonite form their name – instead claiming an evangelical identity, or moreover, one that was more pro-military, more inerrant, less peculiar, and more socially palatable. The same movements could have been said of the Missionary Church movement (which, having been influenced by Wesleyanism, was among the first Anabaptist groups to license women in ministry), which moved away form Anabaptist roots and drifted more towards Reformed theology.

    While there certainly has been cooperation among Mennonites and evangelicals, there also exists a tension among the too, particularly among the conservative brand of evangelicalism which cozies up to closely with American political and military priorities.

    1. To finish…I do think that Mennonites are wary that evangelical identity could subsume Mennonite identity, as is the case with the examples above. I think this is in part because evangelicalism is so much bigger than Anabaptism.

      1. Those are really good points; what is the takeaway for you? “We have met the enemy, and he is us?” The real assimilation pressures worried over in Christian colleges as “secularization” are actually spread around the field of their friends and relations rather than concentrated in some sort of monolithic state ideology?

        I am sure you can find the reality and fear of “evangelical assimilation” in every minority segment of the evangelical coalition; perhaps that coalition is nothing but minorities who all feel threatened by the influence and assimilation pressures of the others. The larger traditions (Reformed, Baptist, Lutheran) are composed of multiple denominations aligned along a left-right spectrum with a history of internal feuding and splits, but then each umbrella tradition also tends to look at the others with fear and suspicion. Continental reformed traditions feel they’ve been digested by inerrantist fundamentalism, free will Baptists have a long running battle with Calvinists within and without, some Lutherans are technically prohibited from praying and worshipping with pretty much any other denomination. I don;t know if anyone would say they are proud of this situation, but it has been studiously maintained by many different people who think they are doing what is vital to preserve their distinctive essence.

    2. Jeff: Thanks for your comment! You are absolutely right to point out that some Anabaptists (mostly Mennonites, I would argue) have seen evangelicalism as incompatible with or as a threat to their distinctive religious identity. The two groups you reference (Egly Amish/Defenseless Mennonites/Fellowship of Evangelical Churches and Missionary Church) are often cited as examples of a “declension thesis”: the argument that evangelicalism corrupts Anabaptist thought and practice on matters like peace/nonresistance, simple living, and the gathered church. My own tradition — the Brethren in Christ Church, which has Anabaptist roots but also reflects the influence of 20th century evangelicalism — is another group sometimes cited as proof of the declension thesis.

      While the declension thesis accurately reflects certain dynamics in post-World War II American religious history, it also has its flaws. Some Anabaptists have seen evangelicals as missional allies or dialogue partners. The book Chris suggested, The Activist Impulse, is one scholarly effort to critique the declension thesis on these grounds; another example, focused on the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches you’ve cited above, is <a href=""Tim Erdel's article in the July 2015 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review. It was this strain of thinking that I followed in my post.

      Nevertheless, your suggested corrective is much needed in my analysis: I should have pointed to the tensions implicit in evangelical and Anabaptist interactions, as much as I pointed out the efforts at cooperation and collaboration.

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