It happened again the other day. That predictable conversation that begins with, “So what do you do?”, traverses through the awkward terrain where it is discovered that I belong to that most bizarre and incomprehensible of categories—“pastor”—thus placing myself outside the boundaries of ordinary humanity, and ends, inevitably, with a tortured query about what kind of creature, exactly, a Mennonite might be. I can almost write the script by now: “You’re a what?” “Why would you want to do that?” “Don’t Mennonites drive horses and buggies and wear only black?” “How many kinds of Mennonites are there?” “You’re a what?! Add a few variations here and there, for colour and variety. Rinse and repeat.
So, I started to write a post about my discomfort with names and labels and the ways in which they limit and restrict conversations… about how I don’t like labels like “Mennonite” very much, even though I am grateful to and for those who have gone before me, even though I know that there is no such things as an un-traditioned worldview, no such thing as a way of understanding oneself and living in the world that does not lean heavily, whether acknowledged or not, upon the intellectual, ideological and historical capital of the past. But then I realized that I wrote that post five and a half years ago. So I stopped.
As I reread my previous post and as I reflected upon the tired old conversation rehearsed above, it occurred to me that there’s another reason that I often don’t want to be known as a Mennonite. It’s not just my discomfort with the limiting nature of labels, not just the fact that I don’t particularly enjoy being associated with certain expressions of Mennonite-ness (past or present), not just the pragmatic reality that the word “Mennonite” can often serve as a barrier for postmodern folks who have little time for arcane historical and theological distinctions, not just that denominational differences can seem increasingly irrelevant in an era of dwindling church attendance and religious commitment. Each of these concerns resonates with me personally, to varying degrees, but there’s something else, too.
While I admire Menno Simons greatly, and while I think that his historical legacy is important, and while I am grateful for the many women and men who were emboldened to courageously follow Jesus through this man’s teachings, I simply don’t like the idea of so rigidly identifying myself with his name.
I don’t like the idea of calling myself a Menno-nite any more than I would like the idea of calling myself a Rick Warren-ite or a N.T. Wright-ite or a John Piper-ite or a Miroslav Volf-ite or an anyone-ite (although, admittedly, some of the above options are immensely more attractive than others!). I am a human being. I am a follower of Jesus. I am a husband, a father, a brother, a son, a friend, a neighbour, and a whole host of other things. But a Mennonite? Why should I name myself after some guy who lived half a millennia ago, who was a flawed human being, just like everyone else?
Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons, John Wesley, Jan Hus, Augustine of Hippo… the list could go on and on. And on. All of these people played an important role of the story of God once upon a time. All are worthy of the honour we accord them. But I suspect that none of them would have been comfortable having a movement named after them. I suspect the idea that words like “Lutheran,” “Calvinist,” and “Mennonite” being affixed to entire churches and denominations would have been abhorrent to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Menno Simons. And whatever these dear gentlemen might have thought of the idea, I think it is abhorrent that these words, these names have been used (and continue to be used) to spawn all manner of tribalistic nonsense that, aside from just being stupid and immoral, is profoundly damaging to the mission of the church.
I could be making too much of this. But I doubt it :).
I think of Paul’s exasperated exhortations to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)—Stop saying, “I follow Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I’m with Cephas.” You’re all in Christ!! Stop it with the stupid games and allegiances built upon the fragile castles of human personality, leadership style, theology, etc.
Or, more importantly, I think of Jesus words in Matthew 23:8-12:
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
As I read this passage, I think Jesus is going beyond simply putting the scribes and Pharisees in their place. He is making a profound point about the nature of human allegiance and our temptation to render inappropriate honour in inappropriate ways. His rebuke is for all of us. You are all students and you have one instructor. Stop elevating yourselves, stop climbing all over each other to make sure that the right people are elevated in the right ways with the right names. Stop implying that some people matter more than others because of what or how they think or do. Just stop. That isn’t how things work in this kingdom. In this kingdom, things have an upside down look and feel. We don’t honour people in the same ways and for the same reasons here. You have one Father, one teacher, one Messiah in this kingdom. So stop.
I get it that we all come from somewhere. I get it that none of us comes to Jesus in a vacuum. I get it that there is richness and diversity in the Christian tradition, and that it’s important to be honest and open about the “lenses” through which we interpret and live out faith in Jesus. I get it that there are some distinctions that really do matter, and that we have to use imperfect tools and terms to convey this because imperfect tools and terms are all we have. I get it that these names undoubtedly have too much historical and institutional weight by now to simply jettison because some guy with a blog is tired of explaining what a Mennonite is. I get all of this.
And maybe it’s just because I’m so tired of the “you’re a what?!” conversation…
And it’s not as if I’m going to be crossing off the word on our church sign or anything…
And don’t worry, I promise I won’t fly into a rage the next time someone refers to me as a Mennonite… At least I’ll try not to…
But I don’t want to be a Mennonite. I don’t want to be an anyone-ite. I don’t think that’s how we (should) do things in this kingdom.