Tag Archives: David Bercot

“The Holy Scriptures Must Be Our Ruling Standard”

A couple weeks ago I posted a quote from David Bercot that received quite a bit of interest. Bercot asked us to acknowledge that Mennonite customs and traditions—“things that are added to us that are not biblical requirements”—can “add up and become quite a hurdle” for genuine spiritual seekers.

What Bercot said was not unusual. It is very easy to find other people saying the same sort of thing. And, to be honest, it is also easy enough to find people who say pretty much the opposite—who believe that prescribed Mennonite traditions aren’t much of a barrier if someone is really serious about following Christ.

A testimony alone is not proof of the truth of a claim. What makes Bercot’s words compelling, however, is the life behind his words. Bercot has a pretty solid track record of both preaching and living radical “kingdom Christianity.” His words about cultural barriers have credibility because his life testifies that he is willing to make hard choices for the sake of following Christ. Do I agree with him at every turn? No. Do I listen when he talks? Yes. He has earned our ear.

When words are backed up not only by a life but also—and this is even more important—by the weight of Scripture, then we should listen carefully. Such is the case with the words of a man I’d like to introduce in this post.

Gerhard Roosen was a name I didn’t recognize until I encountered him in my studies this past month. But for generations of Mennonites and Amish his name was familiar indeed, perhaps nearly as widely recognized as (though less important than) the name Menno Simons.

Gerhard (or Gerrit) Roosen (1612-1711) was a Mennonite bishop in northern Germany. He  is famous today mostly for the catechism he published when he was 90 years old, the Christliches Gemütsgespräch or “Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith and the Acknowledging of the Truth Which Is After Godliness in Hope of Eternal Life (Titus 1:1, 2), in Questions and Answers for the Rising Youth, by Which They May Be Incited and Encouraged to a Wholesome Practice of Life.” The common English title is simply Roosen’s Catechism.

Published in Germany in 1702, Roosen’s catechism is “the first complete German Mennonite catechism in existence.”1 It was reprinted in German or English at least fifteen times from 1769 through 1892 in various North American communities, as well as more recently.2 Robert Friedmann observed that “few books have met with such general approval among Mennonites everywhere as the Gemütsgespräch, the outstanding catechism of the church as a whole.”3 This catechism is one helpful window into Mennonite theology in the pre-revivalist, pre-Daniel Kauffman era. You can read an English translation here.

According to Melvin Gingerich writing in 1970, this catechism “is still being read by the Amish.”4 This use of Roosen’s catechism by the Amish is somewhat curious to me, given that Roosen was not Amish and, what is more, that he strongly critiqued some practices of the Amish.

It is this critique by Roosen of some Amish rules that I’d like to share here. I want to talk about Roosen’s letter rather than Roosen’s catechism. But I also want us to remember that behind Roosen’s letter is the trusted leader who wrote Roosen’s catechism. As with Bercot and his words, the life behind the words makes the words more compelling. And more importantly, we should consider Roosen’s appeal to Scripture.

Here is Melvin Gingerich’s introduction to Roosen’s letter and to Roosen, whom he calls a “man of deep piety and moderate views”:

For the time before Jacob Ammann, leader of the conservative schism which appeared in Switzerland in 1693, no [Anabaptist] 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 costume. In 1697 a deeply respected and very influential leader and an elder of the North German Mennonites, Gerhard Roosen, wrote a letter to the Alsatian brethren protesting against the strict rules on clothing that had been made by Jacob Ammann.5

And here is Roosen’s letter, written when he was 85 years old:

I am sincerely grieved that you have been so disturbed by those who think highly of themselves, and make laws of things which are not upheld in the Gospel. Had it been specified in the apostolic letters how or wherewith a believer should be clothed, or whether he should go in this or that country and this were disobeyed, then these had something of which to speak; but it is more contrary to the Gospel to affix one’s conscience to a pattern of the hats, clothes, stockings, shoes, or the hair of the head (Colossians 2:14-18), or make a distinction in which country one lives; and then, for one to undertake the enforcement of such regulations by punishing with the ban, all who will not accept them, and to expel from the church, as a leaven; those who do not wish to avoid those thus punished, though neither the Lord Jesus in His Gospel or His holy apostles have bound us to external things, nor have deemed it expedient to provide such regulations and laws. I agree with what the Apostle Paul says in Colossians 2 (verse 16), that the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is not obtained “in meat or in drink,” nor in this or that, in the form or pattern of clothing; to which external things our dear Saviour does not oblige use.

Wherefore then does our friend, Jacob Ammann, undertake to make laws of such things for the people, and to expel from the church those who will not obey him? If he considers himself a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and advocates a literal administration of the law, then he must not wear two coats, nor carry money in his purse, or shoes on his feet. [Matthew 10:10.] If he does not adhere to the letter of his Lord, how dare he insist on obedience form his fellow men, in regulations he has not received from his lawmaker? Oh, that he might do as the Apostle Paul has done, in the fear of the Lord; showing meekness to all men. [Titus 3:2.] The apostle’s advice is: that the “strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak” [Romans 15:1-7].

In all of Paul’s letters we do not find one word in which he has given believers regulations concerning the forms of clothing they should have, but in all things he instructed them to “condescend to men of low estate” [Romans 12:16] according to all decency and modesty. [See 1 Timothy 2:9.] I hold that it is becoming to adapt the manner of dress to the current customs of one’s environments; but it is reasonable that we abstain from luxuries, pride, and carnal worldly lusts [1 John 2:16-17], not immediately adopting the latest styles of fashionable clothing; which is certainly something to be reproved, but when it has come into common usage then it is honorable to follow in such common apparel, and to walk in humility. But, thanks be to God, I do not want showy array or worldly lusts, and have always continued wearing nearly the same pattern of clothes; but if I had dressed in modern fashion, should I then, for this reason, be excommunicated? This would be an injustice, and contrary to the Scriptures. The Lord has, indeed, made regulations in the church of God, for punishment of the contentious, and those conducting themselves contrary to the ordinances of God, as set forth in the Gospel. Herein it must be determined whether the things we wish to bind are also bound there, or are commanded to be bound.

The Holy Scriptures must be our ruling standard; to this we must yield, not running before it, but following, and that not untimely, but with care, fear, and regret; for it is a dangerous venture to step into the judgment of God and bind that which is not bound in heaven.

So much written in love and truth for your service and instruction in things worth while. I can hardly leave off writing to you. The beloved heavenly Father and God of consolation sustain and strengthen you in all oppressions, and bless you in body and soul, to His honor and to your salvation. Amen. From me, your brother, Gerhart Roosen of Hamburg.6

I think Roosen overstates his case just a little. It is perhaps not strictly true that “in all of Paul’s letters we do not find one word in which he has given believers regulations concerning the forms of clothing they should have.” Roosen would have done well to acknowledge Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:8-10:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

He could also have mentioned 1 Peter 3:3-5:

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands…

These apostolic exhortations match what we generally find in the earliest Anabaptist writings—general admonitions to a humble modesty of dress, a few specific examples of the kinds of adornment to avoid, and a focus on developing a Christ-like spirit and character, but an absence of regulation attire or long lists of clothing rules.

Roosen’s letter could have been strengthened by mentioning these passages, for their emphasis matches his very well. But, to be fair, we should acknowledge that when Roosen claimed Paul gave no “regulations concerning the forms of clothing,” by forms Roosen quite likely meant specific clothing designs or styles (cut of coat, etc.), not merely clothing adornments. If that is what he meant, then Roosen was fully correct in his claim.

The question of clothing rules is more complex than two or three testimonies or letters. (If you want to read more of this history, I recommend Melvin Gingerich’s book Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries as one very helpful place to continue.) History is littered with countless numbers who have affirmed words such as Roosen’s and then abused grace as a license for vain and sensual living. And the cultural pressures we face today regarding clothing are not the same as the ones the Anabaptists faced in Roosen’s day.

That said, the Scriptures have not changed, and the gospel has not changed. True regeneration of heart and lifestyle happens the same way today as it did in Roosen’s day, which is the same way it happened in the time of Jesus and his apostles: by grace. J.S. Coffman realized this as well as Roosen did, and he said similar things near the end of his life.

If Jacob Ammann did not get the idea of uniform clothing rules from Scripture, where did he get it? He certainly didn’t get it from the first generation of Anabaptists, for historical records indicate that while they were being persecuted they were indistinguishable from their neighbors based on their clothing.

I’m sure there were many influences on Ammann’s thinking, but here is one important one: the world around him. Ammann’s clothing rules were a worldly idea. What do I mean by this? What I mean is that in northern Europe, and in Switzerland in particular, the Reformation era was a time of multiple civil laws about clothing. Gingerich explains:

These laws attempted not only to freeze the social classes but also to keep the lower classes from spending too much money on luxury items. As illustrations of this kind of ordinances, one can cite the Zurich Ordinance of 1628, the Basel Ordinance of 1637, the Zurich Ordinance of 1650, and the Nuremberg Ordinance, which named what each class was expected to wear and what was forbidden them.7

“In cities of Switzerland,” writes Gingerich, “this kind of legislation… became increasingly strict so that city councils ‘even went so far as to prescribe the length of certain garments, length of shoe points or height of bonnets.'”8

Jacob Ammann was very familiar with these laws, for he was a tailor. As a tailor, he was responsible to tell his customers what kind of clothes they were permitted to wear. If he failed to do this, he and his customers could be fined. It seems that when Ammann became an Amish bishop, he advocated a similar rules-based approach within his church. In fact, he went beyond the civil laws which prohibited lower classes from wearing ornamentation reserved for the upper classes, and beyond what some previous Anabaptists had done in forbidding certain specific excesses for all their members (such as crimson linen or high-heeled shoes). His regulations were so specific and extensive that they resulted in a regulated uniform attire.

This is what I mean when I say that Ammann’s clothing rules were a worldly idea. In trying to avoid conformity to the worldliness of upper class clothing, Ammann conformed to a very worldly method: detailed clothing regulations. Perhaps now we can better understand why Roosen so strongly objected, and why he kept pointing to the gospel and emphasizing that “the Holy Scriptures must be our ruling standard.”

It is not easy to discuss such topics well. In writing this, I am taking risks. Some may agree with me so strongly that they show no patience for anyone who wants to nuance things differently. (If you’re a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.) Others may disagree strongly, thinking I am undermining our ability to preserve a godly lifestyle. (If you’re a nail, then every solution feels like a hammer.) Others, whether they agree or not, may sigh when they see me getting on my hobby horse again!

I readily admit that each of us tends to have our pet topics, and that one of my central concerns is the question of how our Anabaptist churches can do a better job of rooting both holiness and loving unity—at the same time—in the gospel of grace. To the extent that the gospel is my pet topic, I do not apologize. Where I have undeniable gaps and imbalances, I remind you that this blog is intentionally focused and not designed as a one-stop-meets-all-needs source of spiritual nourishment. I also invite your responses to help balance my thinking.

Let us be patient with each other as we seek to understand our Anabaptist history and—more importantly—the Scriptures better. Let us give each other time to grow in our understanding and in living lives made holy by grace. But in our patience, let’s keep prodding each other back to the apostolic testimony, back to the gospel, and back to Christ.

I invite your responses in the comments below. May you be clothed in the grace of Christ—and may it show in the clothes you wear!

  1. Robert Friedmann. “Christliches Gemütsgespräch (Monograph).” GAMEO (1953); available from < http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Christliches_Gem%C3%BCtsgespr%C3%A4ch_(Monograph)&oldid=106756>; accessed 18 April 2015.
  2. John C. Wenger. The Doctrines of the Mennonites (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 111.
  3. Robert Friedmann. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries (Goshen, IN: Goshen College, 1929), 144. Quoted in Wenger, Doctrines, 111.
  4. Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970, dist. by Herald Press), 18.
  5. Ibid., 18.
  6. Ibid., 19-20.
  7. Ibid., 15.
  8. Ibid., 11; quoting J.M. Vincent, “Sumptuary Legislation,” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan, 1931), Vol. 14, pp. 464-66.

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Is a “Radical Lifestyle” a Hurdle for Seekers?

One conversation that caught my ear at the Anabaptist Identity Conference last month was a segment of a panel discussion called “The Turtle Wins.” David Bercot was asked a question from the floor:

I’m concerned about the mentality that would lead us to think a radical lifestyle is a hurdle, or makes it—is going to reduce the attraction of the gospel, [unclear] make us less effective in our mission in the world.

The moderator helped clarify the intent of the question: Does our radical lifestyle pose a hurdle for seekers and make us less effective in our evangelistic mission? (“Radical lifestyle” was left undefined, but the questioner was asking about the lifestyle of conservative Anabaptists.)

This is how David Bercot responded:

I personally do not find the legitimate expressions of biblical lifestyle, radical Christianity, to be hurdles or barriers. It’s the ones that are Mennonite custom and traditions, those are what make it hard, because other things you can explain to your children, your spouse, say, “Well, hey, it’s right here in the Bible, you know. It may seem strange just because everybody else has dropped it, but it’s in the Bible.” But when you try to explain, you know, why you have to wear a plain coat rather than something else—and some of those are little things that, sure, you know, we can conform to—but, yeah, they can add up and become quite a hurdle. Sometimes it’s forgotten that we have families, too. We have relatives. You all have a blessing that your aunts, your uncles, your grandparents are all Anabaptist. You have family reunions—well, you know, we have family too. And the more things that are added to us that are not biblical requirements, they’re just to fit into Mennonite culture, make us look that much strange and different to our families. And we care about them as well. And I don’t know where the perfect answer is. There just… I think there needs to be a sensitivity that, yeah, everything cuts both ways. If it’s a commandment of Jesus, I think we seekers are often as ready or more ready [Dean Taylor: “yeah, amen”] to take, just bring it on—yeah, we wanna follow Christ wherever that leads us. But if it’s purely culture, um, I don’t scoff at that, because I realize that the Mennonites have developed a wonderful culture, and it’s nice to plug into someone else’s culture, not have to reinvent the wheel. On the other hand, like I say, it does present barriers, and I think it would be something that would be nice to, in our circles, to just recognize that, hey, these are some hard hurdles for seekers, and what can we do to at least show that we’re sensitive and that we appreciate what they’re facing instead of, “Well, you’re proud, that’s the problem why you won’t, you know, wear, you know, a coat with hooks and collars, cause you’re proud,” you know, and it has nothing to do with pride.

I think that it is crucial for us ethnic Mennonites to listen closely to what David is saying: “Mennonite custom and traditions, those are what make it hard… they can add up and become quite a hurdle… things that are added to us that are not biblical requirements… it does present barriers… these are some hard hurdles for seekers… and it has nothing to do with pride.”

I was glad David had the courage to say what he did, and I was sad that he didn’t receive stronger agreement from the ethnic Mennonites who shared the stage with him at the time.  As David said, the answers aren’t always easy, but can we do as he invited and “at least show that we’re sensitive and that we appreciate what they’re facing”?

You can listen to this discussion for yourself here. (Go to about 33:20 for the interchange quoted above.)

For more of my reflections on this conference, see my post “What I Learned at AIC 2015 about How to Use the Bible.”

Do you have truth you can share in love on this subject? Share your insights in the comments below.


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What I Learned at AIC 2015 about How To Use the Bible

This past weekend I was blessed to attend most of the Anabaptist Identity Conference, held this year near Napannee, Indiana. This was the 10th AIC, and it lived up to its reputation as an event which gathers a provocative diversity of speakers and listeners.

We heard an Amish speaker (David Kline) explain the benefits of organic farming, and during one meal I sat across the table from a retired Goshen College history professor (Theron Schlabach). David Bercot shared with surprising candor his experience of how hard it is for most non-Anabaptists to ever join an Anabaptist church, given our cultural additives and our reluctance to let “outsiders” have a meaningful voice in shaping our churches. In contrast, Matthias Overholt, dressed in a plain brown suit and sporting a massive beard, animatedly preached the importance of “visible reminders that we are not a part of the world’s culture.” Beachy, Hutterite, Charity, Holdeman, MCUSA, Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, first-generation Anabaptists, unidentified plain Mennonites, and more–we all mingled without bickering for a few days and enjoyed GMO-free meals together. Some even traveled all the way from Down Under just to learn more about the Kingdom that turned the world upside down. Organized by the hippy-Anabaptist Overholt brothers, it was an earthy little bit of heaven on earth.

I don’t plan to give a detailed report of the weekend. The talks should soon be posted online here so you can listen and ponder for yourself. [Edit: See also the reviews by Rich Preheim and Theron Schlabach at the Mennonite World Review.] It would be interesting to discuss John D. Martin’s remarks about participatory church meetings  and observance of the Lord’s Supper (we need more of both) and Chester Weaver’s observations about how we have been shaped by Fundamentalism (some pro, mostly con). Suffice it to say that throughout the entire weekend I sometimes said “Amen,” I sometimes shook my head and agonized over error, and I always enjoyed the immersion education experience.

So, keeping things fairly general and naming names judiciously, here are some things I learned at AIC 2015 about how to use or not use the Bible in our preaching and teaching.

  1. Do call each other to passionately follow Jesus. Dean Taylor’s favorite question is so helpful: “What if Jesus really meant every word he said?” We need to hear more, not less, about following in Jesus’ steps, obeying his call to radical discipleship. The AIC always does well at this, and for that I am grateful.
  2. Don’t pit Jesus against Paul. I overheard one of the speakers in conversation, suggesting that it might be wise to place less emphasis on Paul’s writings. I believe he was suggesting that focusing on Paul’s writings tends to increase church conflict and distract us from following Jesus. I think this is a sad misunderstanding. I’ve written at length about this in my essay “Red Letter Reductionism,” which you can find here.
  3. Do emphasize that obedience is crucial. Head knowledge without obedience is useless. Preach the Sermon on the Mount! Keep James in the canon, for sure! And don’t hide disobedience behind either theological sophistication or a plain suit and cape dress. Again, AIC generally does very well on this point.
  4. Don’t say theology is unimportant. I heard one AIC speaker say “We are not theologians.” Another speaker (David Bercot) had a book on display entitled Will the Theologians Please Sit Down? (Full disclosure: I have not read the book through, so I may be wrong; but my sense from the title, excerpts, and some reports is that the book is not as well-balanced as some of Bercot’s other books. At minimum, I sense some readers are using it to bolster an unhealthy whole-sale rejection of theology.) Ironically, every one of the AIC speakers is obviously a theologian himself! This was evident by the multiple explanations (sometimes generalizations) of how Anabaptist soteriology (theology of salvation) and ecclesiology (theology of church) is different from that of Protestants. Theology is inescapable and essential.
  5. Do learn from historical examples of interpreting and obeying the Bible. One of AIC’s greatest strengths is its emphasis on history. Chester Weaver’s talks on Russian Mennonites were fascinating! AIC always includes such historical talks. Incidentally, the discipline of studying how the church in the past has understood and obeyed the Scriptures is called historical theology–more evidence that AIC is full of theology, despite some protests to the contrary.
  6. Don’t rely more on history than on the Scriptures. One of AIC’s greatest weaknesses is its emphasis on history. (No, I am not contradicting myself.) AIC speakers are very concerned with statistics about how few Anabaptist children have remained in the churches of their parents. They trace the patterns of the past and issue warnings about the future. Make no mistake: I definitely share some of their concerns. But I am even more concerned when I hear almost no appeal to Scripture during a panel discussion on how cultural traditions affect our ability to pass on the faith and integrate non-Anabaptists. (I raised my hand too slowly to add my question: How should 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 affect both our approach as witnesses and also our goals for the kind of self-identity that we want our disciples to adopt?) Some AIC talks referenced much Scripture faithfully and effectively. Others, not so much.
  7. Do shape your sermons around Scripture. One of the best AIC talks this year was one by Ernest Strubhar, where he traced through the whole Bible the big story of the war of Satan against God. This is theology–biblical theology! Some of Strubhar’s Bible texts are notoriously difficult to interpret, and I quibbled with a handful of details in his sermon. But the big picture that he painted was faithful and powerful, providing a real hopeful foundation for radical discipleship.
  8. Don’t pull Scripture out of context to bolster your own claims. Unfortunately, another sermon this past weekend did not use Scripture so faithfully. By his own admission, the speaker’s key text was used out of context, with key words being interpreted differently than what they actually meant. This text was used to structure the speaker’s entire sermon. In this way, the speaker brought an aura of Scriptural authority to his own ideas, using God’s word to make his own words sound more convincing. This is very dangerous indeed. Ironically, the real meaning of the speaker’s text, when read in context, actually undermines (in my estimation) one of the speaker’s main claims!
  9. Do invite others to critique your Bible teaching. This is another strength of AIC. After each talk there is a brief Q and A session. The Overholt brothers do a good job as moderators, allowing and encouraging honest feedback and questioning. The speakers also welcome this, evidencing grace and humility. Mutual critique is also built into the roster of speakers, since they represent a variety of backgrounds. It would be good to see more of this feedback encouraged in our regular church meetings!
  10. Don’t pit the Scriptures against Christ. Several times at AIC 2015 there was an evident tension between the Written Word and the Living Word. Several times questioners felt a need to ask a speaker to clarify himself on this point. But it is irrational to try to know a person while downplaying his words. The liberal modernists of a century ago claimed that we could follow the Christ of faith even if it was impossible to gain certainty about the Jesus of history. They believed that the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection could not be trusted, yet they tried to salvage a mystical Christian faith. Today we can see where “Christ” without Scripture has led the churches that embraced this liberal modernism. I think all the AIC speakers would eagerly affirm the trustworthiness of Scripture. But true trust involves more than affirming that Scripture is true; it also involves drawing our own conceptions of Christ and his kingdom from the full Scriptural witness. Some of the AIC speakers do this very well. Others didn’t always display as much functional reliance on Scripture as I would have liked.
  11. Do call each other to passionately follow Jesus. Okay, this is a repeat of my first point, but worth repeating. This is AIC’s greatest strength, and it is the very best way that you can use the Bible in your own preaching and teaching.

I came away from AIC 2015 with multiple blessings, including a renewed desire to live among a body of believers that listens well to the Written Word as a vital witness to the Living Word. I wouldn’t feel at home in every church group represented at AIC. But I am thankful to all the speakers for honestly sharing their hearts and prodding us to better follow Jesus.

Do you have anything to add to this list? What would it look like if you made a similar list based on how the Bible is used in your church pulpit? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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