Does ‘Anabaptist Revisions’ Belong on the Evangelical Channel?

Does ‘Anabaptist Revisions’ Belong on the Evangelical Channel? January 8, 2019

“Are you sure you belong on the evangelical channel?” the Patheos director of content asked me over the phone. It’s a fair question.

A couple months ago over breakfast a pastor friend from my evangelical denomination expressed his concern with what he called my “Mennonitism.” He seemed to think Anabaptist theology is incompatible with evangelicalism and to equate Anabaptism with liberalism.

Melania Trump at Evangelical Leadership Dinner, 2018 / flickr

The irony is that the denomination in which we both pastor was started by Mennonites who had been kicked out of the Mennonite church for their progressive methods and ideals—like singing four-part harmony, holding tent revivals, and embracing women in leadership.

The suspicion can run both ways. Last fall evangelical historian John Fea spoke at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS, the seminary where I work) and was told in no uncertain terms by one Mennonite theologian in attendance that evangelical theology is itself responsible for the violence and racism prevalent in American society. After the interaction Fea wrote that he “realized that Anabaptism and Evangelicalism are quite different, especially when it comes to the theology of the atonement and the role that doctrine plays in Christian identity.”

Such supposed theological tension between evangelicalism and Anabaptism was even cited in Mennonite World Review as a reason Greg Boyd and company were recently removed as adjunct professors by Fresno Pacific University. In that case, though, Boyd is an evangelical pastor who’s been drawn to Anabaptist theology, and Fresno Pacific is affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren denomination, which has been influenced by evangelical theology. So it’s difficult to draw the line of demarcation between Fresno and Boyd as one between evangelicalism and Anabaptism. Who would represent each side?

A few years ago my friend Jared Burkholder and I edited a book, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, in which a number of historians and theologians explore the question of the compatibility of evangelicalism and Anabaptism. As good historians and theologians, our conclusion is: It’s complicated.

One of the contributors to the book, Tim Erdel (affectionately known by his students as “Brother Tim”), elsewhere wrote an article on the evangelical tradition in which he offers the most comprehensive definition of evangelicalism I’ve ever read. Erdel describes seven different historic definitions of “evangelical”—from the New Testament times to the twenty-first century—another nine contemporary definitions, a theological definition, and a couple sociological definitions to boot.

In light of Erdel’s article, my answer to the Patheos director about whether this blog belongs on this channel is: It depends.

It depends on how you define evangelical—and Anabaptist for that matter, but since this blog is devoted to unpacking Anabaptism, I’ll content myself for now with evangelicalism.

In the coming weeks, I’ll break down Erdel’s various definitions of “evangelical” to describe the ways it does (and the ways it doesn’t) apply to Anabaptists like me.

About David C. Cramer
David C. Cramer is teaching pastor at Keller Park Church in South Bend, Indiana, and managing editor at the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Al Cruise

    The bigger question is does the evangelical channel belong on Patheos? Would it not be more suited to be on Brietbart website?

  • Ha, well, I am night and day politically from Breitbart, so hopefully this page will provide some refreshing change for you.

  • AHH

    If you criticize Trump or the NRA or the court evangelicals who enable Trump you might get kicked off Patheos — that’s what happened to Warren Throckmorton.
    But somehow I don’t think that threat would stop an Anabaptist from speaking out prophetically if they felt called to do so.

  • Aphidman

    Be careful not to conflate all evangelical Christianity with some prominent early 21st Century American strains of evangelical Christianity. (This comment is not intended to be hostile to anyone.)

  • Al Cruise

    I will be reading it.

  • Al Cruise

    ” 21st Century American strains of evangelical Christianity.” Those strains have ” ALL ” the power and influence today on what is and is not evangelical , wether you like it or not.

  • I’m working on diminishing that power a bit, Al, though I guess I’m also a twenty-first century American Christian.

  • Al Cruise

    Those were his words, not mine.[ twenty-first century American Christian]. For what it’s worth I was a member of the Mennonite Brethren denomination, but the Church I attended, and the conference adopted TGC ” reformed theogly.” I left.

  • Aphidman

    I’m not so sure, based on my experience with non-American Christians who would identify as “evangelical.” Christians in Africa, in particular, come to mind.

  • If evangelicals ever want to provide a better definition of what an evangelical is, which is just broad enough to practically include all Christians, but just ambiguous enough for them to kick anyone out of the club that rubs them the wrong way… then maybe we can start this debate.

  • The Progressive section is nothing but Trump critics.

  • I would disagree with your “nothing but” characterization, but I agree that there is a lot of criticism of DT there, much of it well deserved.

  • Daniel G. Johnson

    So, are you going to invite Melania to an Anabaptist event?

  • There’s a whole history of Mennonite in Russia she might find interesting.

  • Daniel G. Johnson

    Maybe they need a shiny new tower.

  • ron

    I enjoy reading many of the articles, but I have to wonder if this distinction is , “Much ado About Nothing”? Meaning, how important is this label? Maybe to some, but in general?
    The discussion as it dissolved into trump though is very real. When I go out for my morning coffee I see and over hear several weekly “Bible Studies”, mostly all men or all women. Invariably, a short or long discussion of him and politics results.
    They are by definition, it seems, required to be very politically and socially conservative. the president is discussed in almost reverent, no make that very reverent terms. He is our savior from Satan. “I am completely convinced he is a true American patriot and will always do what is best for this country and for us the average person.
    When and how is it that religion and belief has become so entwined with a specific political party in just one country that didn’t even exist 2,000 years ago?
    With it there also appears to be the requirement that hate, fear, anger of everyone except a white anglo male dominated group of people, who must also agree with all their religious and political beliefs? Isn’t this a frightfully small portion of the world?
    I frequently remember the definition of a cult that says, “a cult is the church/religion/denomination down the street, BUT not mine”

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  • JimboFlex

    “was told in no uncertain terms by one Mennonite theologian in attendance that evangelical theology is itself responsible for the violence and racism prevalent in American society”

    That’s an interesting claim. Looks like historical revisionism on face value especially when placed in comparison against the 30 years war. On the other hand a Mennonite theologian casting stones at Evangelicals for inherent violence is going to bring up the Munster Rebellion.

  • He was speaking about evangelical *theology*, not necessarily any particular evangelicals. The claim seemed to be that doctrines such as penal substitution are inherently violent. And, yes, Mennonites have a lot of blemishes on their history, which even Mennonite theologians would admit.

  • He was speaking about evangelical *theology*, not necessarily any particular evangelicals. The claim seemed to be that doctrines such as penal substitution are inherently violent. And, yes, Mennonites have a lot of blemishes on their history, which even Mennonite theologians would admit.

  • JimboFlex

    I appreciate the response Mr Cramer.

    Regarding “evangelical *theology*”

    Maybe what he has to say has some merit but that’s going to exceptional difficult to prove. Pinning down evangelical “theology” is notoriously difficult because you have to point to a time period and a region (and trace it back to the ethnic roots). Not an easy task.

    About the only thing we can definitively say about evangelicals and their “theology” is give it a decade or two and it will change.

    “penal substitution”

    Interesting – I know Calvin had elements of this in his theology, although I am not sure about Knox. I take it this is not present in Mennonite theology?

  • Some Mennonites, such as the theologian mentioned, would not hold to penal substitution. Others, such as the Mennonite Brethren pastors who called for Greg Boyd’s dismissal from Fresno Pacific, would. As with evangelicals, there’s no consensus view among Mennonites.

  • fractal

    Fundamentalists/Evangelicals are more concerned with differences than commonality.
    Too bad.
    Mystics tend to celebrate what everyone has in common concerning their spirituality.
    Makes for more harmony and less dissension.