Anabaptist Vision:
Was it Visionary Enough for Women?

This article was originally published in The Conrad Grebel Review, 12/3, (Fall 1994), 309-19 and appears here with the publisher’s permission.

A first grader when “The Anabaptist Vision” was distilled and published by Harold S. Bender, I did not encounter it in a formal academic way until I was a teen in a Mennonite history class at Iowa Mennonite School. J. C. Wenger’s Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine served as an introduction to the three central characteristics of Mennonite belief: discipleship or following Jesus, a volunteer church separate from the world, love and nonresistance in human relationships.

However, my informal connection with the Vision has been lifelong. Most of my childhood and adult years were lived in large Mennonite communities. Linkages with Mennonite agencies and institutions have been multiple. I have pondered Jesus’ radical teaching about God’s inclusive Way; I both value and critique the Christian church (in general, and the Anabaptist-Mennonite expression in particular) within a world of many faiths. To be a true neighbor or friend has occupied my thought and actions. While studying and claiming Anabaptist heritage, I yearn for “more than has been.”

I begin this article with my conclusion: Bender’s Vision was useful, in fact quite essential, for a point in time. It focused and summarized central beliefs that needed ownership by a people who could benefit from a keener sense of identity. These beliefs were valid and a faithful expression of what had distinguished their Anabaptist forebears. But the Vision has not proven to be adequately visionary. That is, while its principles were noble or resolute enough, other dimensions of culture, theology, and socialization were not in place to facilitate or realize it.

My judgment is less a statement about Bender than about his context and the fifty years since then. It reflects my perception of the experience of Mennonite women, some details of which I will focus on here. It acknowledges that as long as patriarchy was dominant and unchallenged, wholeness of vision was impossible—for women or men. In “The Re-Membering of the Mennonite woman.”1 Al Reimer includes the insight of Marlene Redekop into the idolatry inherent in patriarchy. Sin multiplies when a woman is nudged to love her Mennonite husband/father/patriarch by sacrificing her own identity, voice, and presence.

According to historian John A. Lapp, “Mennonite vision is always greater than the reality.”2 Bender’s Vision did point in a worthy direction when that was needed. It served as incentive and it prompted loyalty. But as with all things human, it had limits. Or the time had not yet come for further questions to help shape it. While it has served as an ideal, it often fails in lived experience. To be honest in this admission is healthy. Depending on one man’s view rarely proves satisfactory for those whose experience differs distinctly from his, and depending on a “hero” weakens personal accountability. To expect to “re-vision” vision is sacred work for each generation. Such factors affect how I re-visit Bender’s Vision as a Mennonite woman.

Re-formation was the setting for our Anabaptist heritage. Changes in the basic ideas or patterns of living were deemed essential, in order for believers to witness faithfully to God’s Word as they understood it. Conflicting views surfaced; protest followed. Just as vision required re-vision in the 1940s, so fifty years later a similar need emerges. But this article looks backward more than forward.

Whether the Vision was the cause or not, church life was important during my childhood. Faith was sung in freedom or expressed in Sunday evening “topics” presented by many members. Both of my parents taught adult Sunday School classes, Mother for fifty years. Together, adults expected to discern the meaning of biblical texts; no elite privilege fit with our volunteer body of three hundred fifty members. But few of them spoke in paragraphs of Scripture, as did early Anabaptists.

In yearly revival meetings, a guest speaker invited honest choice about becoming a believer or about re-commitment to discipleship with Jesus Christ. Baptism followed instruction from the Dordrecht Confession of Faith and occasioned a white dress and the first “covering.” The examination service two weeks before the biannual Lord’s Supper—marked with a common cup—was no less somber than foot washing.

Several times as a teen I expressed my Directed choice about who should be a minister for Lower Deer Creek Church. For that, my choice carried as much weight as did that of saint Chris Hershberger, Cory the wife of John Y. (the bishop), or any Sunday School teacher. But we let God have the final word through a responsible “lot” experience. Women could be prophets, if not priests. Nurtured in the congregation, three of us with seminary degrees still wait to be invited back to preach.

Bender’s “Vision” was not equipped to counter the established social order, to reconstruct texts like 1 Cor. 14:34-35: “Let your women keep silence in the churches . . . they are commanded to be under obedience . . . for it is a shame for women to speak [preach] in the church.” Discipleship, defined (for women) as obedience and self-denial, reinforced silence. It affirmed patriarchal roles and thus limited status for women. Lydia Harder explains how “discipleship was ‘internalized’ to mean submission and support for the structures of the church.”3 But for men service and nonresistance challenged the socialized status quo. Thus, church leaders used the Bible to oppress as well as to free.

How incongruent imposed silence would have been for early Anabaptist women! Indeed, from Yoder and Hochstetler’s Biblical References in Anabaptist Writings of Menno Simons, The Martyrs’ Mirror, and Dietrich Philips’ writings—the 1 Cor. 14 text appears twice in Philips, once in the Mirror and never in Simon’s writings.4 That statistic says volumes! And the 1 Tim. 2:11-12 text, quoted to restrict women from teaching, appears once in the Mirror but in neither of the others.

Yet the literal interpretation of such texts stood firm among ‘old’ Mennonites in Iowa and elsewhere. Interpreters remained uninformed of what was being quoted from the Corinthians in 1 Cor 14 as distinct from Paul’s own words. They ignored how the writers of the Gospels and Acts challenged social barriers. Embedded in patriarchy, Mennonite women and men would have resisted a liberating change in view and practice. What Bender’s “Vision” stated about love was not applied to truly mutual human relationships.

John Y. Swartzendruber often quoted Romans 12: 1-2 or 1 Cor. 11: 2-16 in sermons. To be a living sacrifice unto God and nonconformed to this world—especially in dress for women—came through loud and clear. The Gospel Herald added its influence. From 1883 to 1900 it referred to nonconformity five times, but produced a surge of 158 such references in the next twenty-year period. From 1920 to 1940 there were thirty-eight references; from 1940 to 1960, forty-five; and from 1960 to 1980, twelve.5 So I faced a hurdle as an eighth grader. To play in the band or on a summer softball team, which involved wearing a uniform with slacks or jeans, conformed to a worldly trend!

A further example of the negative side of discipleship was the Mennonite Church’s stress on the prayer veiling for women, “frozen as a bonafide symbol” between 1910 and 1950. Some wore it to reflect a humble stance before God when in prayer, to be loyal to a biblical text as interpreted, or to indicate individual subordination to group ethnicity.6 But from the pulpit I heard that it was intended to be a constant reminder of woman’s limited role. A husband is “head” of his wife; women were to submit and men to rule. For “he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man” reinforced a profound difference in value, even if denied by leaders of either sex.

Power through interpretation and preaching reigned. A mindset of repression after the Second World War, influenced by the 1920s and by authority figures like Daniel Kauffmann, defined doctrine and Mennonite meanings. Even though “the number of contributions per year from women to Herald of Truth and Gospel Herald grew from 42 in 1884 to 173 in 1904, to 360 in 1910 . . . there was no deviation from the theme of women’s submission to men or from the importance of the prayer covering as symbol of that.”7

Few church leaders or historians have conceded the harm done to human relationships and radical discipleship in the process. J. K. Zook tried, when he opposed those who objected to women as missionaries teaching and speaking.8 Ninety years later Tina Hartzler described the struggle: “Self-denial and self-sacrifice were the cardinal virtues of my life.”9 And Gayle Gerber Koontz notes that all the male writers in Freedom and Discipleship: Liberation Theology in an Anabaptist Perspective (published in 1989) ignored “explicit reference to gender as another category that can profoundly affect theological and ethical perspectives.”10

A recent dissertation by professor Marcus Smucker of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries totally overlooked the effect of submission for women when he addressed the theme of self-sacrifice among Mennonites. Granted, all are called to self-sacrifice, but the impact of the patriarchal blessing of male control and female submission to men dare not be ignored if our vision is to have integrity. Certainly, Jesus refused both to dominate and to be dominated as he “loved others more, not himself less.” But to counter accepted social hierarchy is not the pattern of Jesus that has been urged on Mennonite women. That abuse of children and women by Mennonite men has occurred follows from the way that Scripture has been socialized and from the denial of the harm done.

In Bender’s “Vision” and discussions of it, nonresistance and love are combined. Valid in part, might this combination not mislead too? Betty Hochstetler examined “The Mennonite Theology of Peacemaking and Process of individuation and Differentiation in Mennonite Lay Women.”11 Her sampling of twenty-five women showed that they understood Anabaptist teachings of self-denial, obedience to external authority, and discipleship focused on serving others quite well. But socialized to self-negation (self as sinful), women also need to possess a healthy self-love as grace from God. For “a person cannot give to God (or others) that which s/he does not have.”

An old story in Jewish rabbinical literature tells of two Russian peasants sitting at an inn. Turning to this friend Alexei, Ivan says, “I love you Alexei.” Says Alexei, “What hurts me Ivan?” Ivan responds, “How would I know what hurts you?” Alexei says, “If you don’t know what hurts me, you don’t love me.” Ruth Krall describes Christian love as owning how we oppress and exploit, learning the pain of dispossessed people, admitting privilege and power, and being inclusive.12 Could Mennonite Vision be re-visioned using that list?

As a child, I learned that being neighborly expressed godly love. It made private space public; it shared with a person in need—the meaning of agape. Being neighborly resulted in boxes being filled with canned jars of fruits or vegetables and headed for a mission church group. It formed Mennonite Mutual Aid of Iowa, cared for mental health needs, and later started Mennonite Disaster Service.

Love in action linked people. Peter and Elfrieda Dyck’s European relief slides impressed us as teens. Sister Ella, a deaconess cousin in Newton, Kansas, was committed to Christian service and a communal way of life. This too followed precedent. When Pastor Theodore Fliedner visited Holland in 1823, he heard a Mennonite minister ask the widows of a church to visit the sick of Amsterdam. On his return to Kaisersworth, Germany, Fliedner transplanted the idea, starting a Deaconess Order in 183613 Also relevant here are writings by Lois Barrett and Katie Funk Wiebe.14 Three centuries before, “deaconess” Elizabeth Dirks had patterned Clare of Assisi and others, back to strong leaders like Phoebe of Romans 16.

Distinct patterns occurred also during World War II as many young Mennonite men chose not to go to war. The stigma was less, compared to that experienced during World War I or for Mennonites in Europe. But to object to war because of conscience was part of personal and collective “separation from the world.” Conscientious objection counselors were harassed; young men seeking military exemption were scrutinized for consistency. While few daughters of America met a Selective Service board, I recall that Anabaptist women both lived and died because of conscience. And Mennonite women found alternate responses. A shop called a “cutting room” was built in Kalona, Iowa, to sell supplies for making clothes for relief. That eight thousand Mennonite immigrants arrived in Canada brought war’s reality closer to churches there.

An organization that shaped women’s experience preceded Bender’s writing of “The Anabaptist Vision.” The Mennonite Women’s Missionary Society (MWMS), begun around 1912, was taken over by men when it was absorbed into the Mennonite Board of Missions later in the 1920s. General Conference women also had an “uphill battle for [organizational] recognition and acceptance from their hierarchy.”15 Sharon Klingelsmith’s study might well be required reading for all who assume that Bender’s Vision was adequate for women.16 “A separate organization [MWMS] in which women exercised executive authority and handled large amounts of funds did not fit into a church ideologically committed to women’s subordination,” notes James Juhnke.17 Clara Eby Steiner and friends were victims of the Daniel Kauffman generation that “reconstructed Goshen College, phased out the relief commission, disciplined and excluded change-minded congregations . . .”

A perceptive article by Carol Penner reviews the MWMS fiasco.18 Penner compared Melvin Gingerich’s and Klingelsmith’s respective accounts from 1963 and 1980. The latter examines women’s lives from different angles, noting the subordination inherent in separate spheres. A recurring verb in Penner’s study is “usurp,” as men feared women’s capable control of their time and tasks. The conflict dealt with a legitimate effort for autonomy thwarted by officialdom. The Vision’s call for love in human encounters, had it been in place, would likely not have altered this.

John Howard Yoder’s “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality” reports on influences absorbed by Mennonites during the decades prior to the publication of Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision.”19 John F. Funk (publisher), John S. Coffman (evangelist), Daniel Kauffman (editor), John Horsh (ethnic identity shaper), a cluster of men (biblical interpreters from the Eastern U.S.) and Bender (teacher and agency leader) borrowed from Protestant mainstream and fundamentalist groups. Yoder suggests that these men, who had been on the edge of Mennonite life, chose to return to the center to synthesize what each had garnered elsewhere. The resulting grafting of revivalism, missionary activity, ordinances, piety, and more was not Anabaptist. Not until Bender’s Vision did concern for renewal reach back to the sixteenth-century heritage.

Another key shift occurred with the coming of new institutions: colleges and the Mennonite Board of Missions, a structure with fourteen conferences. These centers, where the more mobile and educated collected, left most congregations behind. Instead of shaping their own views, women too allowed men to determine matters for all. A division between centers and roots emerged. People in these centers defined Mennonite identity, while the churches drifted with the American cultural mainstream. Next, the centers began to accuse each other, appealing to different models of renewal.

College professor and writer Edward Yoder’s profound assessment of the Mennonite church in the first half of the twentieth century quietly entered his private journal.20 In reflecting on writing Sunday School lessons, he states: “I do not cater to the millennial and Scofieldian viewpoint in my exegetical comments.” These quarterlies were combined by opponents “for possible theological and doctrinal errors . . . [resulting in] quite a long list.” Bender warned him that Yoder would “find it impossible to satisfy the aroused radicals.” For exchange in Civilian Public Service camps, Yoder’s 1942 pamphlets, edited by Bender and titled “Our Mennonite Heritage,” developed themes of the simple life, nonconformity, brotherly love, and peace and nonresistance.

Yoder’s March 8, 1931 entry describes the six years that he gave to the study and translation from the Latin of Conrad Grebel’s seventy letters. Invited into this project by Bender and Ernst Correll, Yoder found it “afforded a good glimpse of Renaissance Latin” plus extensive reading in the letters of Zwingli and Erasmus. “Mrs Yoder typed the translations as they were ready” reflects the common role difference. (To learn more of Elizabeth Horsch Bender, the competent spouse of Harold, see Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 1986.).

Guy F. Hershberger’s introduction to Yoder’s Journal identifies 1944 as a “Mennonite watershed” year.21 Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” and Hershberger’s War, Peace and Nonresistance were published; Mennonite Mutual Aid was organized; that year’s Mennonite General Conference, “called as a last desperate effort to deal with the . . . distrust which had continued since the mid-thirties,” achieved reconciliation, thanks in part to Sanford C. Yoder’s choice words.

When in grade school, I knew that church leaders Sanford Yoder, Melvin Gingerich, Guy F. Hershberger, and Edward Yoder (my uncle) were from my native Kalona, and that J. D. Graber’s roots were not far away in Wayland. What prompted that breadth of wisdom from rural cornfields? Why had those leaders left the area? What might never have emerged had they stayed? Paul Erb and other Mennonite leaders were also out house guests of my parents; college connection and friendship tied with faith. My Mennonite roots spread.

I wondered little then about women: Mother’s strong influence in home, church, and community left little doubt. My father valued her strengths; others called her “Herman Bessie.” Such identity through a husband recurs in the report of women who attended the Mennonite World Conference of 1952: “Sisters Allen Erb, Anson Horner, Paul Mininger” et al.22 Learning later to know Verna, Clara, Minnie, and Alta Mae for their own contributions to local and global Mennonite thought and vision has been essential.

Rod Sawatsky defines vision as “ideal moments.”23 He credits Bender for providing the Mennonite minority in America with identity or with clarifying what Anabaptism and “normative” Mennonitism is not. Bender gave them self-knowledge, corrected dimensions of their self-image, and tried to make the ideal relevant for the present. While Mennonite scholars, before and after Bender, explained the essence of Anabaptism in differing terms, they were purposeful about their history. That they were less aware or willing to admit how social conditioning shaped their content affected women’s experience of the ”Vision.”

Few doubted that discipleship was the core of both Anabaptist and Christian faith. Features of discipleship noted by J. Lawrence Burkholder include obedience to the Great Commission, love and nonresistance, a separated life of holiness, and suffering in the spirit of cross-bearing.24 For Bender, discipleship meant bringing the whole of life under the lordship of Christ, openly taking a stand for and practicing his teachings; transforming the personal and social into a new order that images Jesus; and forming his church through shared truth, tasks, and material goods.25

Feminist Mennonite women theologians bring further questions and insight to such issues. They ask how a new social order can be known if the power and authority of men over women continues. For feminists, who extend full personhood to woman as well as men, the concept of “lordship” distorts both human-human and human-divine relationships. Because Jesus was male and chose a male group called the Twelve, most believers justify extending more personhood to men—“lord” figures. Socialized by a patriarchy which values women less than men, they fail to see that Jesus came precisely to confront social limits that cast some, including women, to the margins. What and how he taught countered those established norms. That Jesus was human is what saves and depicts God’s inclusive Be-ing, not Jesus’ maleness.

People socialized to consider maleness as normative also fail to absorb how radically Jesus validated women who denounced social barriers in speech and action. He included women among his disciples. He first told a woman who he was (John 4). His parables gave weight to women’s experiences as much as men’s. Martha’s confession of Jesus (John 11:27) was no less bold than Peter’s. A courageous, prophetic woman modeled discipleship by anointing Jesus the Messiah (Mark 14) Women first told of Jesus’ resurrection (which Paul fails to acknowledge in 1 Cor. 15). These texts are a protest par excellence of the social order of whatever century. These truths, male leaders ignored.

But feminists insist on their truth. A re-formation break as bold as that from Catholicism may be ours to claim and join if we will choose to be faithful to Jesus the Christ. But we must re-imagine the Vision. We must re-new-convert-turn from-a social order that allows any human hierarchy. Mennonite men have not been radical.

This re-imagining goes beyond the early Anabaptist focus on the “bitter Christ.” Feminists might claim Jesus foremost as faithful Friend, but many metaphors fill out the picture. Only Jesus depicted grace, utter inclusion, and love that sets a unique standard. For Anabaptists, to follow Christ separate from Catholic or state religion led to physical hardship or suffering. Adult baptism on confession of faith led to death—it challenged current views; discipleship entailed obedience as defined. To applaud re-formers for their stance, for their time, is useful. To shape faithful discipleship for the twenty-first century will smash current idols.

While Anabaptist women upheld and died for the same belief system as men, the prevailing social order was not firmly protested. Male rule caused—and causes—physical and emotional suffering for women; submission caused—and causes—the death of Spirit within divine creatures. So, Mennonite women theologians are re-examining, through women’s distinct experiences, the theological concepts of suffering and atonement. Because the metaphor of the Cross was abused through a double standard, women theologians question the wisdom of cross-bearing when called to be voiceless or powerless while men control. Such cross-bearing denies the fullness of Jesus’ death for all. But rather than reject the cross, feminists will use it to protest suffering, to transform human patterns. Not until these patterns change will women and men express true discipleship. Not until all socialized oppression ends—between people of different races, colors, faiths, sexual preferences, religions, nationalities, economic positions—will it emerge.

A promising view of discipleship by Mary H. Schertz demonstrates responsible, feminist biblical work and re-vision.26 A creative view of discipleship combines biblical text with theology. It depicts genuine relationship—between people and with the Divine. Being a responsible interpreter of texts is key to discipleship for Schertz; all believers are to carry out this sacred task. A correct reading means receiving the story from whoever has Truth, not only from those regarded as powerful by society. In Luke 24, women had made the profound linkage between Jesus’ teaching in Galilee and the empty tomb. The disciples were asked to credit the women’s faithful insight as agents of God. With social inclusiveness required of Jesus’ followers, the marginal—including women—believe in themselves as readers, based on their experiences of God. To interpret expresses their obedience. Through Jesus, discipleship occurred—and occurs—within a relationship of grace. Through humility as worship, it surfaces anew.

Discipleship has known many hues. It has been identified in different decades as humility, as adhering to the disciplines of the church, as doing justice, as being a responsible interpreter of the biblical text. Historian Richard MacMaster suggests that humility replaced suffering as an expression of nonconformity or separation. Schertz describes it as “to be comfortably human in relationship with the Divine.” And soe the re-shaping goes on, depending on new insight, world events, conflicts among people who claim love as a guiding principle, and discontent with the mediocrity that accompanies dependence.

May the re-visioning proceed, and may all be convinced that women will be central to shaping it, lest the denomination perish!