Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Love Wins" Six Months Later


by Mason Slater
on September 5, 2011

It’s been over six months since a video trailer for Love Wins sparked countless blog posts, late night debates, and one (in)famous Tweet.

Now, with a little distance between us and the initial fireworks, I thought it might be an appropriate time to offer a few reflections on Love Wins and the reaction to it.

1. The Reaction On Both “Sides” Was Too Often Driven By Emotion And Sensationalism

Because this discussion evolved mostly online, and because everyone involved saw so much at stake in this discussion, tensions were high, grace was a rarity, and rushing to judgment was the norm.

Case in point, thousands of people speaking out against a book they hadn’t read. This of course resulted in people who appreciate Rob feeling like he’d been treated unjustly, and instinctually coming to his defense – often before they had read the book either.

Also, the way the media discussed the book was entirely unhelpful, leading to false impressions of what Rob was saying and stoking passions in a debate that was difficult enough to begin with.

Soon the book became a boundary marker: those who were sympathetic to Love Wins were often deemed liberal at best and universalist heretics at worst (and at times driven from their church), while those who took issue with the book were accused of being unloving or even wanting people to go to hell.

None of this did justice to those involved.

2. There Was Much Worth Saying In Love Wins, Though Little Of That Was New

Ironically, very few of the ideas in Love Wins were new, despite the controversy they caused. Rob says as much early in the book.

In fact most of the book was solidly Evangelical and restated points about the doctrines of heaven and hell that were already being made by authors like Scot McKnight, Mike Wittmer, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright.

Books such as Surprised by Hope or Heaven Is a Place on Earth had already started to refocus Christians on a biblical hope which looks very little like Christian pop-theology or Dante’s fiction. A focus on new creation, resurrection, heaven coming to earth, and how our eschatology influences our ethics – none of that was new to Love Wins, but all of it needed to be said.

3. Some Of The Questions Rob Raised Were Needed, Because The Traditional Answer Is Lacking

After the book was released Rob was often criticized for his questions. At times just because he raises so many of them, but often because he questions the way we hold doctrines that are considered central to the faith.
But it’s naïve to think these questions originated with Love Wins. People have been asking many of the same questions around kitchen tables and over cups of coffee for a while now.

Rob was simply articulating what many of us were already saying.

And there is a reason these questions are being asked with increasing volume – the traditional answers are often intellectually and theologically unsatisfying. The ways we talk about the nature of God, about heaven and hell, about the fate of the unsaved, these are words which matter. And much of the time how we speak of these things seems radically out of place with the rest of the biblical story.

Whether we agree with Rob’s answers, there are many areas in which I think he was right to raise questions and push for us to do better.

4. On A Few Issues Rob Went In An Unhelpful And Unbiblical Direction, Which Made The Rest Easy For People To Dismiss

Many of the books written against Love Wins focus on a handful of problematic sections, and then on the basis of faults found there quickly dismiss the rest of the book.

The thing is, some of the critiques are spot on. There are ideas in Love Wins which are impossible to support from the text, and others that rely on reading the text in ways which are questionable at best.

Ideas like infinite chances to repent after death, for example.

I have no interest in pretending there were not problematic areas to Love Wins, there most definitely were and we should own up to that. But the way some bits of shoddy exegesis and speculation became an excuse to dismiss the rest of the book, and even to ignore the questions Rob raises, seemed to be missing the larger point.


So, what do I think of Love Wins after six months? It was a provocative – albeit flawed – book, which raised questions we need to be able to openly discuss, and was often restating solid evangelical thinking with a bit of Rob Bell flare.

In the pages of Love Wins Rob states that he doesn’t intend the book as a final word, but as the start of a conversation. Personally I think it’s a conversation worth having, and I hope Rob continues to be a part of it.

Ask an Evolutionary Creationist

Ask an Evolutionary Creationist... (Dennis Responds)

by Rachel Held Evans
September 6, 2011

dennisToday I’m thrilled to share biologist Dennis Venema’s responses to your questions for “Ask an Evolutionary Creationist.”

Dennis has a PhD in genetics/developmental biology from the University of British Columbia. He teaches at Trinity Western University, and his research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling. Dennis is part of the BioLogos Foundation, an organization committed to promoting a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound. He blogs at Biologos.org.

I’ve always found Dennis’ perspective to be challenging, accessible, and full of grace. I hope you learn as much from him as I have!

1. From Scot: Could you explain the difference between creationism, intelligent design, and "evolutionary creationism"?

“Creationism” is one of those words that almost always needs clarification. For many, “creationism” is synonymous with Young-Earth Creationism, the view that the Genesis narratives are to be taken literally. This view holds that the entire cosmos is around 6,000 years old, that the fossil record was laid down almost in its entirety during a literal, global worldwide flood, that God created humans directly out of dust, and that Adam and Eve are the progenitors of the entire human race. The organization Answers in Genesis is probably the best-known proponent of this view.

Old-Earth Creationism typically holds to a local flood, and accepts Big Bang cosmology. Despite agreeing with mainstream science on these issues, they deny evolution: they believe that the vast majority of species (and especially humans) were independently created by God during earth’s long history. Old-earthers also hold to a literal Adam and Eve as the progenitors of our entire species. Reasons to Believe is the best-known organization that promotes this view. You can read one of my (somewhat technical) critiques of their anti-evolutionary genetics arguments here.

Intelligent Design (ID) is a view that many feel is a form of creationism, though the ID Movement itself often rejects the label, claiming that it is strictly an alternative scientific view. The ID Movement is a “Big Tent” approach for all and sundry who reject at least some part of evolutionary biology. As such, there are Young-Earth Creationists, Old-Earth Creationists, and others within the movement. The main ID view is that some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution, thus indicating that they were “designed” – a word that functions as the equivalent of “created” within this group. The Discovery Institute is the best-known organization for promoting ID. I’ve spent a lot of time critiquing the ID movement, and you can find much of that material on the BioLogos web site (do an author search there using my name).

Despite their (large) differences, all of the above positions deny some aspect of modern science. The only Christian perspective on origins that fully accepts mainstream science is the Evolutionary Creation / Theistic Evolution view. This view holds that science is not an enemy to be fought, but rather a means of understanding some of the mechanisms God has used to bring about biodiversity on earth. This view accepts that humans share ancestry with all other forms of life, and that our species arose as a population, not through a single primal pair. There are different views within the EC community on whether there was a historical couple named Adam and Eve – some hold that there was, and that they were selected by God from a larger population as representatives. Other folks in the EC community feel that Adam and Eve are typological figures, such as a representation of the failure of Israel to keep the covenant. The science (human population genetics) is clear that our species arose as a population, and that is what I have focused on (since that is my area of expertise). I try to leave the theology to others, but often folks want to talk theology on these points, not science.

2. From Paige: What has been the most compelling evidence for you personally that has solidified your position as an evolutionary creationist? 

'Green Plant' photo (c) 2009, Corey Harmon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Well, the evidence is everywhere. It’s not just that a piece here and there fits evolution: it’s the fact that virtually none of the evidence we have suggests anything else. What you see presented as “problems for evolution” by Christian anti-evolutionary groups are typically issues that are taken out of context or (intentionally or not) misrepresented to their non-specialist audiences. For me personally (as a geneticist) comparative genomics (comparing DNA sequences between different species) has really sealed the deal on evolution. Even if Darwin had never lived and no one else had come up with the idea of common ancestry, modern genomics would have forced us to that conclusion even if there was no other evidence available (which of course manifestly isn’t the case).

For example, we see the genes for air-based olfaction (smelling) in whales that no longer even have olfactory organs. Humans have the remains of a gene devoted to egg yolk production in our DNA in exactly the place that evolution would predict. Our genome is nearly identical to the chimpanzee genome, a little less identical to the gorilla genome, a little less identical to the orangutan genome, and so on – and this correspondence is present in ways that are not needed for function (such as the location of shared genetic defects, the order of genes on chromosomes, and on and on). If you’re interested in this research, you might find this (again, somewhat technical) lecture I gave a few years ago helpful. You can also see a less technical, but longer version here where I do my best to explain these lines of evidence to members of my church. For those wanting even more info, a few years ago I recorded a series of lectures given to my non-majors, intro biology class that explored evolution and Christian responses to it in depth.

3. From Rob: I have trouble with randomness in natural selection. Why is it essential in scientific terms that evolutionary development is random? How does that fit with the notion of a God who is involved in the world? …Random evolution would not be theism (or it wouldn't Biblical Christianity). It would be deism; the Great Clockmaker who set everything in motion and then kept hands off. Why is randomness essential scientifically, and how does a Christian accept it theologically?

'DNA' photo (c) 2010, Keith Ramsey - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
I think you mean randomness in mutation: natural selection is anything but random (it’s a process whereby certain variants in a population reproduce more successfully than others). Evolution has a random component (mutations arise that may be detrimental, neutral or beneficial) and an emphatically non-random component (the different variants within a population do not all reproduce at the same frequency, meaning that the next generation will not be exactly like the previous one). So, as a whole, evolution is not random since it has a strongly non-random component. Evolution is actually remarkably good at producing similar results over and over again: consider how similar ichthyosaurs (descended from terrestrial reptiles) and dolphins (descended from terrestrial mammals) are. That’s the non-randomness of evolution at work. Some evolutionary creationists have argued that this non-randomness of evolution is a way that God uses evolution to shape His creation (the best work on this topic is Life’s Solution by noted Cambrian paleontologist Simon Conway Morris).

4. From HMV: I agree with you that the evidence seems to point to evolution being true. I've read Biologos and the old Evolution and Evangelicals blog. I've read books where people try to rework theology in light of this scientific knowledge. And yet, I'm left feeling confused and unsatisfied about doctrines like sin, the Fall, salvation, etc. What about you--have you found a satisfying way to maintain your evangelical theology in light of evolution?

This is a tricky question, because it hinges on the inherently subjective term “satisfying.” What I might find satisfying you might not – and in order to answer the question I have to guess at what you mean by it.

Personally, the concept of Divine accommodation has been helpful to me. This is a theology that has a long heritage in Protestant circles (e.g. Calvin). In a nutshell, it’s the idea that God, in his grace, brings himself down to the level of the audience he is communicating with. For Genesis, that audience is an ancient near-eastern culture, not our modern scientific one. For Genesis, my view is that God wants to communicate that he is the Creator of all that there is, that he has given humanity a special image-bearing role within it, but our sinfulness has broken that relationship, et cetera – but that he doesn’t see a need to give them a science lesson first.

I would recommend Denis Lamoureux’s book I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution and, though not directly related to science, Peter Enns’ book Incarnation and Inspiration may also be helpful to you (it certainly was to me).

5. From Chris: From the perspective of an evolutionary creationist, what meaning and value do you extract from the creation accounts in Genesis and why would they be important for the Christian faith if they can't be taken literally?

See the answer above – I see the Genesis narratives as God graciously reaching down to an ancient culture in order to communicate to them that he is their creator, that they are alienated from him, and that he desires that they be restored to fellowship through his offer of covenant with him (ultimately pointing to the need for God to step into history himself as the One who can keep the covenant on our behalf).

6. From Paige: I'll never forget sitting in one of Dr. Charlie Liebert’s classes several years ago and hearing him ask the question: "What came first, death or sin?" If we believe that there was no death before sin, it causes a wrinkle in our ability to hold to the theory of evolution. As a scientist, this question caused him to reexamine the evidence. How have you personally dealt with this "wrinkle?"

Yes, if you believe that no death of any kind (plant, animal, bacterial) occurred before human sinfulness, then this precludes an evolutionary view, since the fossil record is (obviously) a record of things, well, dying. If you hold that no human death came before sinfulness, then it depends on what you call human (there is a gradation of forms leading up to the modern human skeleton in the fossil record, as well as the overwhelming genetic evidence that we arose through an evolutionary process) and what you consider sin (i.e. when did we become accountable to God for our actions?). There is also the long-standing observation that God decrees that Adam and Eve will surely die the day they eat of the fruit – and then they live for several hundred years after the fact. I’d also recommend reading through Romans 5:12 – 8:17 (which, as you know, is all about Adam, sin and Christ as the second Adam) and making a mental checklist of how Paul uses the term death in this passage. References to physical human death are in the minority – suggesting that Paul’s understanding of what is going on in Genesis has a lot more nuance than a simple literal reading would imply [(e.g., spiritual death)].

7. From Jane (from her husband, an atheist): All of the questions posted so far approach the topic from the viewpoint of assuming belief in a god. As an atheist, I don’t share that assumption. (For those who might not appreciate it, evolution offers a mechanism for understanding the existence of living organisms that doesn’t require the existence of a god.) If you transitioned from an anti-evolutionary/pro-intelligent design view to an evolutionary creationist view a few years ago,” why didn’t you keep going and just embrace evolution and drop the theistic aspect?

'Stained glass' photo (c) 2007, Börkur Sigurbjörnsson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Your question implies that there is a natural trajectory from accepting evolution to rejecting God. As a theist, specifically an evangelical Christian, I don’t agree with this point, though I understand where you are coming from. Let me explain.

Your assumption, that “evolution offers a mechanism for understanding the existence of living organisms that doesn’t require the existence of a god” holds weight only if one has the view that “natural explanations” and “theistic explanations” are a zero-sum game. This is a God-of-the-gaps approach, where God has less and less to do as we understand more and more how nature works (and a view I reject - [deism v. theism]). Logically, if I held this view I would view science as an inherently evil activity, since any natural explanation diminishes the activity of God from this viewpoint. Your view is also one that science cannot establish as correct, since science cannot speak to the absence of divine action in an observed phenomenon.

If, on the other hand, one believes that “natural explanations” reveal the means by which God ordains and sustains his creation, then “natural explanations” are not a threat to theism at all, but rather a window into the ways God acts in the world. This is the view I hold, and it too is a view that science cannot establish. Both theistic evolution and atheistic evolution are philosophical / theological interpretations of what science can establish: evolution.

As for “drop(ping) the theistic aspect” – this would imply that my faith was based on a particular understanding of creation such that I would question my faith when I questioned the mechanism of creation and/or my interpretation of Genesis. This wasn’t really an issue for me, since my faith was, and is, based on believing that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the resurrected Lord of the entire world (to roughly paraphrase how N.T. Wright puts it) and that the resurrection is God the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ messiahship (as a sinless, suffering servant that, mystery of mysteries, turns out to be God Himself, incarnate). None of that belief was ever predicated on a specific interpretation of Genesis with respect to scientific details, and as such, accepting evolution as a mechanism by which God creates did not alter those beliefs. (If you’d like to see a rational, historically-rooted investigation of the credibility of the resurrection, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God is the standard by which others are judged.)


Interview Series:

And look for Justin Taylor’s responses to “Ask a Calvinist” on Thursday.


82 Comments - See all Comments to Rachel's blog post


Select Comments by Dennis and Rachel:

Hi Tideb,

Thanks for the comments. I've read your comments a few times, and it still seems to me that you are working with the assumption that if there is anything at all to theism, there should be gaps in "natural explanations" to be found. I don't agree, as you might suspect. My view is that what we experience as natural explanations are in fact part of the providence of God ordaining and sustaining his creation. I fully recognize that this is not a scientific view, as I pointed out in the original post. Why do I accept theism (specifically Christianity)? Because of my views on who Jesus was, and that the resurrection took place. Is that science? No, like many things in life, it's a mix of logic, faith and historical reasoning. If you're interested in a substantial treatment, see Wright's book on the resurrection I reference above.

It seems to me that you lean towards naturalism / scientism, the view that only science can arrive at truth, and that nature is all that there is. I understand that view, and I respect it, even if I don't agree with it. The challenge for scientism is that it is based on a philosophical premise (that science is the only source of truth) that science itself cannot establish through the scientific method. One blogger I follow is a philosopher (and not a theist) who frequently calls out folks in the new atheist camp over this issue. His name is John Pieret, and I'll post a link to one of his recent blogs on this topic below. John can say it better than I can, and it's worth a read.

In short, I think both sides need to be epistemologically humble. We agree that the scientific method is a powerful means to discover truth about how the world works. I view that truth as a revelation of how God works in the world through natural means. You, I think, view that truth as indicating that no God (or gods) is/ are necessary for nature to function. The main point I'm trying to make is that neither position is something amenable to the tools of science.





I think Matt's suggestion is a good one - a regular biology textbook coupled with your guidance that the science is a window into how God created. As far as I know there isn't much on the Evolutionary Creation view for children (yet). My own kids are 8 and 6, and this issue is something I face as well.

Pete Enns (a biblical scholar and colleague at BioLogos) has recently published a homeschool Bible curriculum, though, that you may find helpful:

Dennis' suggestions are fantastic. I'd add:
  • The Language of God by Francis Collins,
  • The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton,
  • Saving Darwin by Karl Giberson,
  • Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne - Jerry's an atheist, so he doesn't offer much insight into the faith/science conversation, but for some reason his presentation of the evidence for evolution made the most sense to this English major!

Ask a Mennonite

This is a great introductory article on the Mennonites, Amish and Anabaptists. From where we live in the Grand Rapids area, 90 minutes south of us, is the rural farming area of Shipshewana, Indiana, known for its Amish and Mennonites farms, families, schools, and community. Earlier this summer my family and I visited this area for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed the culture, the beautiful woods and fields, the food and the strong family bonds exhibited in the area. Needless to say, we had many interesting, and sometimes provocative, discussions about counter-culturalism, the practice of strong family roles, overly harsh separation practices from loved ones, and industrial regressionism in the face of technological necessities like fresh water well pumps, transportation, financial systems, and making money from the Goyim (Gentiles) of society. On the down side, we met several wives and young adults either struggling for personal survival within their Amish heritage or learning to live alone from the once-close families they grew up within until they were shunned when chosing to enter the modern-day world of society. This was sad and it broke are hearts to hear these occasional stories making us wonder where Jesus' gospel of love ceased to end as an holy commandment to follow as a believer, a mother, father, pastor and neighbor.

Coincidentally, Shane Hipps, who is mentioned later in this article, is one of our pastors at our church, Mars Hill (Grandville, MI). He hired on approximately 2-3 years ago in 2009/10. Shane co-pastors with Rob Bell, each sharing the pulpit with the other in a strange mix of TCU Texas Christian University meets Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary - or, Anabaptism meets Emergent Christianity. Similar to the Mennonite word game, we have two brothers in the Lord sharing the same Jesus Tradition - one approaching it from the older order of Christianity (now updated) and the other from the Evangelical expression to a Post-Conservative Evangelical Expression, as they each explore the ramifications and meanings of their faith in relationship to the Emergent Church Movement. But no, they are not related, and balance one another out very well.

- RE Slater


Ask a Mennonite…(Kurt responds)

by Rachel Held Evans
August 16, 2011

kurtThe interview series has been such a success, I’m planning to extend it through the fall! Thanks so much for bringing these interviews to life with your thoughtful and respectful questions. I don’t know about you, but I’ve really learned a lot.

Today Kurt Willems responds to our questions about Mennonites and Anabaptism.

Kurt is writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He’s a contributing writer for Red Letter Christians, and has also written for The Ooze, Emergent Village, and Sojourners. I hope you will consider subscribing to Kurt’s Pangea Blog; there’s some great stuff there.

- Rachel


From Dustin: Were you raised Mennonite? If so, did you ever go through a time where you questioned your faith and explored other options? If you were not raised Mennonite, what caused you to consider that tradition and eventually subscribe to it?

This is a wonderful question. Yes, I was raised “Mennonite.” Actually, I’m part of an offshoot group called the Mennonite Brethren. You can read about how the M.B.’s came to be here. I can trace both sides of my family tree to the MB movement that fled persecution during the late 1800’s. My Great Grandpa Penner boarded a ship in the dark of night to find a new home that would be hospitable to their way of life. My Willems side of the family has similar stories.

So, yes, I was raised Mennonite, but here’s where things get interesting… I wasn’t raised Anabaptist. Two distinctive convictions that shaped the Anabaptist (broad Mennonite tradition from the radical reformation period) way include: 1) nonviolence and 2) suspicion of earthly governments (nationalism). By the time I was being reared in the church, only a slim minority actually held to these views. Basically, I grew up in an environment that felt like straight-laced evangelicalism with a unique ethnic culture (Mennonites are known for their food and quilts).

It wasn’t until I started reading books by emerging church types that the question of nonviolence came back to my attention for serious consideration. Prior to this, I believed that choosing peace was irrational and that just wars were necessary in a fallen world. Then, I entered seminary (Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary [Mennonite Brethren]) and my initial questions grew legs. And about 3 years ago, after growing up Mennonite, I embraced the Anabaptist view of theology. This view puts Jesus in the center of how we interpret the rest of Scripture and how we understand the full revelation of God. And within that center we take seriously the Sermon on the Mount, believing that discipleship is a radical reorientation of lifestyle. Essentially, I grew up Mennonite Brethren but not Anabaptist. Now, I’m authentically both.

From John: Could you give an overview of the different sub-denominations within Anabaptism? How united are Anabaptists in theology, faith, and practice?

mennonite-bretherenThe Anabaptist movement is connected in many ways. But unlike many churches that have their roots in Christendom, we Anabaptists are “non-creedal.” For us, the New Testament and the peace witness of the early church serve as our center.

Because of this, our movements have held many common characteristics such as – believer’s baptism, the priesthood of all believers / the church, nonviolence, interpret Paul through Jesus rather than Jesus through Paul, non-hierarchical leadership, and the kingdom of God as a counterculture – but we’ve never had any authoritative creeds to unite us. Just shared values.

Today, many Anabaptist groups exist in North America and beyond. All of them reflect the values listed above (at least in theory), but express them in their own way. At one extreme you have the Amish. I’ve never met an Amish person and they are as foreign to my experience as they might be to a Baptist or Methodist. On the other end of the spectrum, you have some of the major denominations that are united under the umbrella of Mennonite Central Committee (our social justice / mission organization). These denominations include: Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ. Several other Anabaptist groups also exist, but I’m not connected to them personally.

From Rachel S.: There is such a wide variation between Mennonites in terms of theology and lifestyle. Are there major conflicts that occur within your tradition?
Conflict? We are people of peace… we NEVER HAVE CONFLICTS :-) Next Question.... Okay, I’m being facetious here. Certainly we have conflicts. At the local level, theological issues continue to arise in my particular denomination. We have many pastors who were trained in conservative evangelical seminaries and many congregants that are pro-war, etc. This creates interesting scenarios for those of us who still hang on to our Anabaptist heritage.

Not only so, but we’ve had to wrestle with women’s issues, homosexuality, the atonement, and many of the same conflicts that other denominations are facing as well. Not only so, but the whole “emergent” issue continues to create divisions and controversy in our movement. Interestingly enough, those who are more Anabaptist in their theology and ethos, tend to be more open to emerging church authors and issues. Consider this quote from Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist: “The Anabaptist movement began as a loose-knit coalition of groups who were forming in various places across central Europe – the sixteenth century equivalent of the ‘emerging church.’”

From Zeckle: I respect the Mennonites and Quakers' stand against violence. After studying some of the teachings, I am finding myself to be more of a pacifist. I find in my own tradition (as well as other traditions), the thought that pacifism means doing nothing, just sitting by as violence occurs. What is the Mennonite understanding of pacifism? And how does your tradition deal with Matthew 10:34—“Don't imagine I came to bring peace to the earth, I came to bring a sword”--which seems to be the quote against pacifism among many in my tradition?

First, pacifism is not passivism. This might be the worst caricature that ‘just war’ Christians create when describing this perspective. For this reason, most of us now prefer the language of nonviolent resistance.

As far as a “Mennonite understanding of pacifism,” I’m going to defer that question to a series I wrote called: Nonviolence 101. I think that my series on this subject will address most of your questions. I will simply add that various shades of gray exist on this complicated issue.

Finally, Matthew 10.34. That’s always an interesting one. The problem is that in Matthew 5 Jesus says: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!” (Matthew 5.39, The Kingdom New Testament). I’d begin my answer then by saying that we need to take the whole of Matthew into account when interpreting the meaning of this verse in chapter 10. Then, we need to keep the sword passage in the context of the rest of that passage. It clearly is speaking of the division that will take place because of Jesus. His followers are bound to endure divisions from family, friends, culture, etc. Not only so, but following Jesus may lead to suffering the results of non-peace… even counting the cost of discipleship by carrying their own cross and following Jesus (10.38). Jesus knew that his mission during this age would lead to suffering, not peace. This doesn’t negate our call to be peacemakers but amplifies how difficult this task will be. Much more could be said about this, I recommend this commentary.

From Justin: Is there any situation, ever, in which the use of violence would be acceptable?

Not for followers of Jesus. However, a few things need to be said.

First, the state is given the authority to use the sword to “punish evil doers” for the sake of reducing violence from running out of control (see this article). Notice that in passages such as Romans 12-13, the assumption of Paul is that the people of God are completely distinct from the sword bearing officers. Therefore, violence in its most reduced form is allowable by those who are part of the pagan police / military, but the assumption of the New Testament is that Christians do not participate in this practice. On the few exceptions, see this article.

Second, Anabaptists would do well not to judge the motives of those Christians who take up arms for their country. Although we may believe that this activity is contrary to how we understand Jesus, others disagree. For those who don’t share our perspective, this doesn’t mean that they are not authentic followers of Christ. They most likely have pure intentions for serving in the way that they do. Nevertheless, we do need to take this issue seriously and continue to show the church that violence only begets violence and is contrary to God’s intention for his people.

Third, a bit of humility would do us Anabaptists a bit of good. We don’t know how we will respond in the worst of situations (Hitler, Spouse attacked, etc.). Our hope, is that we’ve spent so much time connecting to our heavenly Father that when a situation arises, that we will respond out of an outflow of how Christ is transforming our inner life. The more we confront the violence within, the more the peaceful Spirit of Christ will inform our response to physical confrontations.

From Chrystal: Would you talk about the role of women in the Mennonite tradition? What types of ministry roles are women allowed to hold? Are there differences between women's roles in the home versus in the church?

In all three of the major Anabaptist Mennonite denominations (Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and Mennonite Brethren), women serve as pastors in various roles. My tradition, the Mennonite Brethren, may be the most restrictive of the three groups. I personally am an egalitarian, which is a view shared by every professor at our denominational seminary, but if memory serves me correctly… we still don’t ordain women. We license them as pastors, but not ordain women yet. Not sure why this is. Nevertheless, the Mennonite movements tend to be fairly open to women in leadership, if not completely open.

Amish and some other Anabaptist groups do not share an egalitarian view.

flickering-pixelsFrom Brian: Can you discuss some of the Mennonite views of Technology. I've read Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps (Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, MI), a former Mennonite pastor, and was impressed by his thoughts. As a technology geek, I'd like to hear more from a Mennonite perspective.

I think Shane Hipps is the best resource that I know about. If any reader of this post can list others, please do! I reviewed his first book called The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture here. Shane is a wonderful reminder to the whole church that tech stuff can be great, but can also unintentionally alter the message we are communicating. I can’t recommend his books enough!

From RM: Can you explain the main differences between the Amish and the Mennonites? I almost always package the two together... are they similar at all? My extent of knowledge of Amish culture is a high school trip to Lancaster, PA and Beverly Lewis books. While I love the traditions and heritage, the philosophy and theology seem harsh. Are Mennonites the same way?

As I already said above, I’ve never interacted with the old order or Amish Mennonite groups. I’d say that the only commonalities that exist are the list of values from question #2 and that we both emerged from the radical reformation. Things like shunning and extreme exclusivity are unique to Amish and Hutterite groups for the most part.

Note: Check out Janet Oberholtzer's response to this question in the comment section. Janet grew up Old Order Mennonite in the Lancaster, PA area and can shed some light on that particular sect.

From Russell: What are some great Mennonite Authors and Influential members that have helped you in life?

There are some great books by Anabaptist authors! Let me list a few of them:

From Rachel E.: What exactly is the Mennonite name game?

Question: What do you call 3 naked Mennonites in a blizzard? Answer: Wiebe – Friesen – Fast (We Be Freezing Fast!)… this is an introduction to the game. Basically, in the Mennonite world, names mean something.

For instance, my last name is Willems. This is a well-known Mennonite name. On the other side of the family, my last name is Penner… another Mennonite name. Basically, whenever I find myself in the presence of a fellow Mennonite (especially those who know the history well), we find that we are connected some how. Either we are related or this person knows someone who is related to me.

In the process of playing, you find out some interesting things. For instance, I once met my second cousin for the first time at a non-Mennonite’s apartment in college. We never knew we were related! Or, there was the time I dated a girl with whom I shared a mutual second cousin. Of course this mutual cousin was related to each of us through different sides of the family, so this girl and I were not directly blood relatives. Then, there’s the fun stories about folks who get married and find out that they are second cousins after the fact. Mennonites (until recent times) marry Mennonites. The product… a family wreath instead of a family tree! This is why the “Mennonite game” is so easy to play. Luckily, I married outside so there is not a chance that my wife and I are related.


Thanks to Kurt for taking so much time with these questions and providing us with so many additional resources. Check out the rest of the interview series:


Good interview Kurt. So are Oberholtzers or Hoovers (my maiden name) related to Willems :)

RM asks about the difference between Amish and Mennonites ... let me see if I can provide an answer to that.

I was born and raised as an Old Order Conservative Mennonite near Lancaster, PA which has a large population of Mennonite and Amish. Both my parents' families were part of a strict traditional "horse and buggy" Mennonite church that forbids cars. My parents changed to a more liberal (relatively speaking) church (known as the Weaverland Conference) in their 20's ... but many of my aunts, uncles and cousins are still with the "horse and buggy" church.

So we had (only black) cars as I grew up, but the women's dress was very conservative, similar to Amish women. Long dresses, uncut hair worn in a bun under a head covering. No jewelry, no radio, no TV and no fun. (not quite, but it felt that way to me) Each community had a simple basic church house where we sat through 2 to 3 hour services on hard wooden benches every Sunday consisting of sermons, hymns (acapella) and prayers. There was no Sunday School, no classes, no missions outreach, little to no involvement in the community around us ... we kept to ourselves. My family has all stayed in the conservative Mennonite world ... but my husband and I have been exploring the world outside of the boxes of our childhoods since our twenties.

All Amish and Mennonites stem back to the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century. They followed the teachings of a dissatisfied priest named Menno Simons. In the late 1600's Jacob Amman felt the Mennonites needed to be stricter and he wanted the church to practice "the ban" ... shunning members that left the church. A large majority of Mennonites didn't want this, so he broke away forming his own church. People that followed him became known as the Amish.

This began an endless series of fractures and splits within both the Amish and Mennonite churches that continues today. Which is why there are so many different groups ... each having a unique set of rules/traditions to follow.

Over the centuries, some differences between them have become more pronounced.

The strict Amish sects don't have church buildings, they meet in their homes and still preach in German. Most Amish avoid modern inventions, especially technology. The Old Order Amish forbid cars, tractors and electricity, while the New Order Amish allow electricity, but still forbid cars. Then there is a small group that now drive cars ... they are known as the "[New] Car Amish." Most Amish live in sheltered [or, cloistered] communities, keeping mostly to themselves. They tend to frown on education past 8th grade. (For a great view of the Amish, read the new book "Growing up Amish" by blogger Ira Wagler ).

Both the Amish and the conservative Mennonite churches have strong teachings on the male/female hierarchy. They would never ordain a woman ... sadly woman are often viewed as not spiritually qualified for any leadership positions and never attend church or conference leadership meetings other than to cook lunch.

There is a wider diversity of Mennonites then there are Amish. They range from the strict "horse and buggy" church my parents grew up in to churches that are very progressive, have no dress code, value higher education, use all modern inventions/technology and embrace the gay/lesbian community (not sure if they ordain them). Other than the most conservative ones, most Mennonite churches/conferences are involved in some level of missionary work with the more progressive ones having their own mission organizations and colleges.

Whew ... long comment, sorry.

Thanks Janet! Note: Janet was kind enough to take me on a tour of Amish Country when I was doing research for my project. She introduced me to all kinds of interesting people...and we even got to visit a one-room schoolhouse! Also, she fed us chicken tortilla soup one night and I've used that recipe at least four times now. :-)