Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of Interchurch Relations for Mennonite Church USA.
Some Mennonite historians and others have suggested that ever since the debacle in Munster in 1534 Anabaptists (and their Mennonite descendants) have been skeptical of the Holy Spirit. Prophets who claimed special spiritual insight led Anabaptists to set up a kingdom where polygamy and armed battle were blessed.
The Munsterites were defeated and many of them killed. These events caused leaders in the diverse and scattered movement to search themselves and re-calibrate. Violence was again repudiated for followers of Christ and spiritual enthusiasm was held suspect. Some claim that the shame of these events have been etched deep into the collective Mennonite psyche.
The part of the Anabaptist movement that survived and persisted in local worshipping bodies and networks of congregations, it is argued, became word-centered and externally oriented. The Bible, read carefully, frequently and with Jesus at the center, was to be trusted, rather than claims of special spiritual insight. How we live our lives, not the fervor of inner experience, was the test of a disciple.
This had its upsides and its down-sides. A Biblically oriented people committed to living out their faith could also become a rigid and legalistic people, who made small shades of difference a test of belonging. A corrective often becomes one-sided in response. Suspicion of spiritual enthusiasm has often led to neglect of the life of the Spirit. Every generation or two it seems, a heart-centered and Spirit-oriented renewal movement has emerged among Mennonites — and far too often hived off.
What would it look like to hold earthly Jesus and the Holy Spirit together; head, heart and hands; peace and grace; inner journey and outer journey?
This desire is part of what has led some Mennonites to seek out relationship with Pentecostals. Not that they’ve got all the answers, but maybe we can learn something from them. Likewise Pentecostals have been seeking out Mennonites, anticipating they might gain something in the process.
And so, for eleven years, Mennonite Church USA and the Church of God, Cleveland have been in relationship.
First small groups of church leaders and seminary professors met. Then we started inviting representatives as guests to our assemblies. Then senior leaders met and built relationships.
This fall we are embarking on what we hope will be a more formal four year dialogue.
Six Mennonites and six Pentecostals will spend three days together, worshipping, sharing testimonies, presenting formal papers and discussing them. The theme of the Oct. 15-18 meeting in Cleveland, Tennessee will be the “Power and Presence of the Spirit.” Each group will look at the role of the Spirit in our theology and history. Subsequent topics for conversation might be “Following Jesus in Daily Life,” and “In the world but not of the world.” It is hoped that at the end of this dialogue papers and reports can be shared more broadly for the benefit of both of our churches.
Mennonite representatives will be Gerald Shenk (chair), Alan Kreider, Nancy Bedford, Elizabeth Soto, Gayle Gerber Koontz, and Jamie Pitts. I am grateful to each of these people for entering into this dialogue and sharing their time, perspectives and experiences. Please hold them and their Church of God partners in your prayers.