“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 [amazon text=Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries&asin=B007ETO0II] 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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24 thoughts on ““The Holy Scriptures Must Be Our Ruling Standard””

  1. The first act of humility of any serious person of faith from a religious is admitting their many presuppositions brought into their studies. (On topic of presupposition: http://principiumunitatis.blogspot.com/2008/01/presuppositionalism-fideism-built-on.html?m=1 ) We worry about what others are removing as far as our own idea of right application of Scripture and not enough about the assumptions we take into Scripture. Those ideas brought in including a notion that the Bible supplants Jesus as king and ruler of the church.

    1. Joel, I hear what you are saying. On the other hand, when a king gives written instructions, it does no dishonor to adhere to those instructions as our best standard for how to honor the king.

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. If those instructions are coded (and they are in layers of metaphor that even confused those listening to Jesus in the flesh) then we need to have the interpreter first. I believe most of the problems in the church are caused by those who have Scripture but not “the mind of Christ” to interpret it correctly. To them the Bible becomes a tool for division rather than a reason to love.

  2. Dwight, thank you for a well-written and informative article. It is so helpful to better understand how we got to where we are on the clothing issue. A week ago we were discussing this very thing in a member’s meeting. I would enjoy directing some people to this post but I’m not sure how to do it in a non-condemning way.

    1. Will, I’m glad you found this helpful. How to share it fruitfully with others? I’m not sure I know an obvious answer, though I identify with what you’re feeling. God bless you as you pray and ponder…

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Very interesting stuff. I do agree with Roosen’s point that we should aim for “decency and modesty” and his protest against uniformity for the sake of uniformity and coercion (in this instance by the strong leadership of Jakob Ammann) was more or less correct. Decency and modesty are Biblical, uniformity less so. Although I hasten to add that it is right for a church to clarify some boundaries of decency and modesty, to avoid a slippage toward a lower common denominator. Coercion (which usually involves a lot of excommunication or threats to that end) and uniformity for uniformity’s sake are to be avoided. Don’t mistake uniformity for unity, they’re not the same thing.

    The Amish-Mennonite split in the 1680s or 1690s or so, is a very instructive episode, one about which I need to study more. Suffice to say that it was a tragic event and one that could have been avoided through more Christ-likeness on both sides. For those of us who like our “Anabaptist heroes” this episode and others shows us their humanity. Like us, they didn’t always deal with the issues of the day all that well!

    1. Good thoughts, Roger. Some of what you wrote reminds me of what I read on Frank Reed’s blog today:
      “From “Proscription to Prescription” has not been a useful move.
      Proscription lists and forbids things that are harmful for you and for us.
      Prescription requires things that may or may not be Biblical at all. This provides for measurable, external, objective factors to determine internal holiness. It also provides for control of an entire community. A nice system but hardly Biblical.”

      I share your curiosity to learn more about the Amish-Mennonite split. We usually hear only a very selective sampling of Anabaptist history, and we usually underestimate how complex it can be to understand history well. (I’m aware my own account here is necessarily simplified.)

      Thanks for the comment.

  4. Dwight,

    We’ll written.

    “The Holy Scriptures must be our ruling guide”.
    However, men like Jacob Amman and his ilk are somehow able to get the Scriptures to support everything thing they teach including their practices of banning perceived opponents. And they do it quite successfully as many people remain in these situations, afraid to move lest they bring down on themselves the wrath of God Himself.

    My point is that Christ Himself must become the hermeneutic with which we approach, study and expound the Scriptures if we are to avoid manipulating it and imposing our own thoughts on it. (Not that I felt you were doing that)

    On this line you might enjoy reading N. T. Wright’s “Surprised by Scripture” and “Jesus, a Theography” coauthored by Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet.

    P.S. An extreme example of the manipulation of Scripture I spoke of above is how one Mennonite congregation could find in Scripture why it is very important for men to wear beards and ten miles down the road another congregation convinces it’s members, ostensibly from Scripture, why it is important for men NOT to wear a beard.

  5. Thanks, Dwight for your humble, gentle pursuit of Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Hard questions challenge our assumptions and our “comfortable” expressions of Christianity. But Jesus calls us to a life of radical discipleship, cross-bearing, and surrender. It is with brothers and sisters, like you, who embody the spirit and tone of your writings that I want to learn more fully how to follow Jesus. I’m so grateful we can share the journey together. God bless!

    1. J. Mark, thanks much for your very kind words. You encourage me and challenge me to speak faithfully! I share your desire to grow and to do it together with other hungry Christ-followers. Blessings to you as well!

  6. Wow, what a bombshell! Glad to find your website. I’ll be following you, I appreciate your excellent research and writing.

    A big eye-opener for me as a young person was taking Milo Zehr’s Anabaptist History class and discovering that our revered Anabaptist forefathers were just as much flesh and blood as anyone else. Suddenly “staying true to our Anabaptist heritage” took on an entirely different meaning. Living here in Poland, where you can still buy Goldwasser vodka originally produced by Mennonites, I’ve realized that there are many parts of my heritage I’m not proud of. Thank God that His abundant grace through Jesus Christ is sufficient for every sinner, religious or not!

    1. Interesting thoughts, Lavern. Thanks for commenting. Glad you found this helpful! And yes, I agree that we really don’t know our Anabaptist history as well as we often think we do. (I’m most certainly including myself in that statement!) Blessings!

  7. Much encouraged by your writing. I fear many church leaders use the binding and loosing doctrine to enforce their own words and give themselves an authority that doesn’t belong to them. Let’s get back to the Bible and the true foundation which is our Lord Jesus Christ!

  8. Enjoyed that post and I probably should get the book “Mennonite Attire Through 4Centuries”. (although I’ll admit for me dress is something I “ignore” to focus on what seems more important :P)

    Your passing comment that “they were indistinguishable from their neighbors based on their clothing” is a quote I’ve always taken for granted was true, but recently had been reading Martin Luther’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount and in it he seemed to contradict this. He notes, for example, that the “false prophet Anabaptists sectaries” … “dress in gray coats…” Some more:

    “…Anabaptists say… stop…dressing like other people…” p263

    “…they say, one must not wear satin or silk, red or variegated clothes.. .” p264

    “…they go further, and say: He who wants to be a Christian must not share in civil authority, or bear a sword, or have anything of his own, as it is with us; but he is a true Christian who proves it by his works, forsakes everything, does not accept any secular authority and rule; dresses in a gray coat; suffers hunger and sorrow, etc. These they call fruits of the Spirit.”

    (“gray coats” are elsewhere noted to be the coarse attire of the poor…)

    Luther is scathing in his critique of Anabaptists, but usually what he thinks is terrible about Anabaptist is recorded historically accurate. So I’m curious if you would have a sourced scholar who says “they were indistinguishable”?

    once again, enjoyed the blog!

    1. Thanks, Matt. I appreciate the comment, and those are helpful quotes from Luther.

      In answer to your question, my comment about early Anabaptist being “indistinguishable from their neighbors based on their clothing” is a summary of what I understood J.C. Wenger to be saying in some words of his in the Mennonite Encyclopedia, as quoted by Gingerich. Wenger says, “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… The Dutch Mennonites, even more than the Swiss, did not adopt special religious garb. When Dutch believers were apprehended it was not by means of identifiable peculiar clothing. As early as 1550 a Dutch Mennonite martyr told the bystanders at his execution that if he could name 20 fellow believers in the crowd, he would not do so: this would indicate that they wore no special garb. In 1572 a brother pressed his way through a crowd to encourage a man who was to be martyred, and then merged again with the crowd before the authorities could seize him: this again points to the fact that the Mennonites of Holland at that time wore no distinctive garb.” Wenger tells one more story that confirms the same reality even for church leaders.

      I think the common thread that makes sense of all the evidence in Gingerich (there is more than Wenger) and Luther is that the vast majority of early Anabaptists seem to have simply adopted the simple attire of the lower classes. That distinguished them in contrast to the Protestant reformers, but it still left them “indistinguishable” from the poor.

      I should also mention that Gingerich includes one (somewhat confusing) quote from Bullinger that may suggest that some “deviant groups” of Anabaptists (not the “Grebel-Schleitheim line”) instituted much stricter clothing rules, something that Bullinger “did not consider… to be normative for the movement” (quotes here are from Gingerich’s analysis).

      One more response to your comment: I agree that there are things more important than clothing, and I understand and affirm your approach of usually focusing on such things. However, I don’t think we should underestimate how important issues like clothing rules can be to someone who is being asked to adopt an entirely new clothing culture in order to join a church. As someone who moved from a BMA setting to a Beachy setting, I felt that hurdle emotionally for the first time. And I felt this as a hurdle despite growing up in a conservative Midwest Fellowship setting. How much greater might this hurdle feel to most of those who have no Anabaptist background whatsoever? In such cases, I don’t think we should conclude that the hurdles our brothers and sisters face are unimportant. (I suspect more of my Beachy friends might feel the same dynamics more clearly if they moved into a community where their only church choices were either Amish or Protestant churches!)

      To be clear, I’m not writing this because I think you’re belittling those who experience clothing regulations as a hurdle, but because I wanted to clarify my own reasons for sharing this post and others like it. Thanks again for your very helpful Luther quotes.

  9. I am late in responding because of being busy working since May, 2015. I appreciate your willingness to provide a forum for some much needed discussion.

    My first introduction to Gerhard (or Gerrit) Roosen was in Peter Hoover’s book “The Secret of the Strength”. He has some variations in the translation of Roosen’s letter. Roosen understood what I call biblical gospel obedience. The gospel is not only for those from our Mennonite culture. Doesn’t submitting to this gospel truth mean we will receive believers from other biblical cultures with different biblical applications and practices? “— God is no respecter of persons (or culture): But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” Acts 10:34,35 The gospel does not compel believers to all follow a certain culture or applications. Paul asked, “Why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” Gal. 2:14
    Good intentions and reasons for rules can blind us to unintended consequences of rules. Whenever we make a rule we are ruling against mercy. Therefore to be just we must be sure they are necessary from God’s perspective. To be merciful and just as God is, we must accept all applications and practices within biblical bounds as God does. Therefore, isn’t it dangerous for any church to let their biblical applications rule out other biblical applications and practices? Wouldn’t that be neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy, and the command to receive one another? Rom.15:7

    Leonard Gross, an Anabaptist historian, believes that Jakob Ammann was influenced by Menno Simons. Was Menno influenced by worldly clothing regulations over a 100 years before Jakob Ammann? The Dutch Mennonites had such regulations before Jakob Ammann’s time. Leonard Gross says: “—Menno Simons’ Foundation Book indeed serves as the primary causal factor, ultimately, of the break within the Swiss brethren ranks, in 1693. Jakob Ammann, consciously or otherwise, took on Menno’s ideas, but also his authoritarianism and individuality, in a manner that most Swiss brethren could not fathom, emotionally or intellectually.—-”

    About 100 years before the Amish division, persecution of the Dutch Anabaptists stopped. Peter Hoover says, “Instead of warning people against them, they joined in making fun of their many divisions and small-minded rules.”

    God bless you for promoting gospel truth, Eugene Weaver

    1. Eugene, thank you for adding your comments here. You ask good questions, and I find myself largely in agreement with your suggested answers. We need a renewed willingness to stand under Scripture and let it rule our preferences and cultural practices, many of which are not wrong, but may be wrong to impose on others.

      Your comment inspired me to just now download a Kindle version of Hoover’s book, which I’ve often heard referenced but never yet read. Thank you.

      Could you clarify where the Leonard Gross quote comes from? Might it perhaps come from his introduction to Golden Apples in Silver Bowls? Do you have a book and page number for that quote? I agree that Menno Simon’s legacy is mixed on such matters. While I do think he had the best interest of the church at heart, was a merciful man in many ways, and pushed back against some who were more extreme in their vision for a perfectly pure church, I still think some of his authoritarian methods have encouraged others to take a top-down and prescriptive approach to church decision-making that seems at odds with what I see in the NT.

      Even the best of us have imbalances that, if followed zealously by others, will bear bad fruit. We need to listen to each other and to Scripture to gain a more Christ-like pattern.

      Thanks much for joining the conversation!

  10. Hello Dwight,

    I see that this post is almost three years old now, but I find it interesting nonetheless,especially since we’re having a conversation about clothing in our own community.

    My main reason for commenting is that, as someone who currently lives in an Anabaptist community with some basic requirements for clothing, I would like to challenge the assumption that all clothing requirements are man-made burdens. Now, I concede that they often end up being just that, but that’s because people aren’t, by and large, entering our Anabaptist communities voluntarily. They’re entering through birth and then later, psychological manipulation.

    Ideally though, people would enter these intentional communities by choice. This would mean, of course, that we would “lose” some of our young people but that is simply the price we would have to pay for more authentic, diverse communities.

    That said, there is no harm in agreeing on uniform practices for a certain community–so long as these practices are entered into voluntarily and always bearing in mind that this is NOT the only way to live out Christianity. I would argue that there is a longstanding tradition in Christianity of various orders agreeing on how they wish to live out certain lifestyle issues (i.e., various Catholic orders, Plymouth Brethren?, and of course various Anabaptist groups, both past and present).

    In the best case scenario, deciding on specific expression for clothing–and not only clothing but also technology, diet, choice of occupation–can save us a lot of energy and time and anguish that would otherwise be spent trying to reinvent the wheel every day. Ideally this would give us more time for getting to the true work of the Gospel which is binding up wounds, both spiritual and physical, and making disciples. Think of it as a professor deciding which convention is to be used in her class (MLA, Chicago style, etc.), so that her students can get on with the more important work of writing papers.

    Of course that is not to say our specific expression of Christianity can never be re-evaluated or that allowances can never me made.

    Please understand that I wish simply to give my perspective and not to come across as contentious and/or simplistic.

    On a side note, I think that given the long and storied history of Anabaptism one can find some “Anabaptist” who will support whatever view we wish to promote. In that way, Anabaptism is a bit like Google:) The passage from Goosen is interesting and I hadn’t been aware of it, but you also have to take into account that other Anabaptist writers might have said something different (though I suppose the burden of proof is on me to find one).

    Also, we should take into account that, since the Hollywood era, the clothing discussion has, of necessity, changed significantly; especially the discussion on women’s clothing. Asking ladies to wear a tastefully-made cape dress is not such a horrible, stifling thing to ask if you take into account the vast, cosmic scheme of things. Of course this is not to say allowances can never be made if a woman finds sewing difficult, etc.

    I hope at least some of that makes sense. I enjoy reading your blog from time to time.

    Best regards,
    Gideon Yutzy

    1. Gideon,

      I apologize that I did not find this comment until tonight. Technical glitches. :-/

      I have meanwhile responded to your similar comment over on Rosina’s blog. So, with apologies to you, I’ll copy my response here, with the disclaimers that I know it only responds to one of the points you raise above, and that I know you have already responded to this response on her blog!

      That said:
      Gideon, thanks for sharing your thoughts… I think you are right in noting a similarity between our conservative Anabaptist churches and the historical practice of voluntary communities. And you may be right that the most pragmatic (my word) path forward for such churches is to more explicitly embrace the model of being a voluntary community. And there is certainly a long tradition within Christian history of such communities.

      I am somewhat hesitant to embrace this model, however, for a variety of reasons that I have not yet fully thought through. Some overlapping questions:

      * Would following such a model actually mean that our congregations become something other than churches? I think it is true that historically many (most?) such voluntary Christian communities (monasteries, convents, etc.) existed outside and alongside the churches where most Christians gathered. Would history suggest that following such a model would require us to be honest and give up the name of “church” for our groups?

      * Building on that thought, and more importantly, do we see any NT model for such extra-church voluntary communities? I do think we see missional groups that functioned somewhat independently from local churches, though often sent out from them (Paul and company). And we do indeed see that such groups sometimes had mission-shaped expectations that excluded others from joining (Paul and John Mark, etc.). But is that not different from a non-traveling voluntary community that sets rules less for missional purposes than with the stated aim of assisting its members in holy living (and, sometimes explicitly stated, of withdrawing from the world)?

      * Do we see any positive example in the NT of a local congregation consciously setting extra-biblical (or extra-gospel, in the days before the NT was compiled) requirements for membership? Do we see any positive examples of knowingly making it difficult for other Christians to join a local church? Do we see any positive examples of assuming that such Christians can just find another less restrictive church nearby? Or is the picture that of working toward a gospel-shaped unity where any Christian would be fully recognized (communion, etc.) in any other church, and this despite the natural challenges of cultural differences that may make one naturally (in the flesh, apart from the Spirit) feel more at home one place than another (Jew vs Gentile)?

      * Is the church really a “voluntary” community in the same sense that a monastery or Bible school is? Is it not, rather, the body of Christ to which all believers must/do belong? In that sense, is it not involuntary rather than voluntary (for the believer)?

      In short, I think there is a place for missional groups that, by nature of their evangelistic goals, have some extra-biblical constraints. And I think there is room for some voluntary stationary communities (Bible schools with rules, discipleship groups, maybe even monasteries, etc.) with extra requirements, as long as they don’t see themselves as replacing the church and as long as their members are also seen as being part of something larger–the church. And I also think that in a local church there will be extra-biblical practices (such as installing an Internet filter for a person who is struggling with porn) urged upon individual members at times as part of the discipling process of the church in that person(s) life. But I am less sure that there is biblical warrant for placing many (only four in Acts 15!) such rules upon a group that calls itself a church. Currently I am of the understanding that the nature of the church (universal and in its local expressions) stands against such an approach.

      I realize that there is a certain movement right now that is advancing what they call “the Benedict Option” for the church. I don’t understand it well, but the basic idea seems to be that of Christians more or less withdrawing from society and building their own communities with a robust Christian (sub)culture that will be strong enough to survive the coming “dark ages” of a morally rotting society around it. (From the blurb of a book that popularized the idea: “Rod Dreher argues that the way forward is actu­ally the way back—all the way to St. Benedict of Nur­sia. This sixth-century monk, horrified by the moral chaos following Rome’s fall, retreated to the forest and created a new way of life for Christians. He built enduring communities based on principles of order, hospitality, stability, and prayer. His spiritual centers of hope were strongholds of light throughout the Dark Ages, and saved not just Christianity but Western civilization.”)

      I have mixed feelings about this idea. Some Anabaptists, reasonably, see this idea as an affirmation of what Anabaptists have been doing all along. And there certainly is a place for developing a Christian culture that is apart from the culture around (though it must still remain engaged or it will have lost its very identity as a gospel-proclaiming community).

      But I say all the above to say this: If I have mixed feelings about Christians as a whole pursuing “the Benedict Option” in relationship to society, my feelings are even more mixed about the idea of a sub-group of the church doing a “Benedict Option” in relation to the rest of Christ’s church by setting up extra-biblical rules.
      I have lots of other thoughts I wish I had time to write–including about the interpretation of Acts 15 (I do not agree that it is an argument from silence to note that there are no clothing rules there) and about what it means to be a biblicist (“If it’s not in the Bible, it’s not legitimate” is a simplistic definition, I’m sure you’d agree).

      Meanwhile, to be fair to you, I’ll copy here a key paragraph of how you responded over on Rosina’s blog:
      As for the Benedict Option, Dwight, while I enjoyed the book, that type of lifestyle is not at all what I was advocating. We shouldn’t be a cloistered order or group or church, (or whatever you wish to call it). We should be in and among the world; we should NOT be preserving some kind of superior civilisation either, as I understood the Benedict Option to be saying we should do with Western civilisation (or at least some romanticised form of Western civilisation).

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