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Challenging, and even negating, particular authorities and even authority in general, in the name of individual freedom and personal autonomy, has been the Western liberal project at least from the time of the Protestant Reformation, through the 17th-century and 18th-century Enlightenment, the national revolutions, and 20th-century liberation movements. Authority became, in this process, a negative category to the degree that in the late 20th century it was for many a pejorative term equated with authoritarianism. The tyrannies of totalitarian dictatorships in this century have particularly added credence to this perspective.

The consequent juxtaposition of freedom and authority is, however, problematical. While the pursuit of freedom is a Christian goal, and much of the liberal project has contributed immensely to the emancipation of individuals and groups of people from dehumanizing forces, it is wrong to assume that either individuals or communities can exist without some defining authority. Freedom requires authority.

Authority is that which grounds our being, beliefs, and actions, and that which legitimates who we are, what we believe, and how we live. This is true for individuals and groups alike. Such authority can be chosen freely, or imposed by overt or covert means. Some students of the subject argue that an authority is truly authoritative only when freely chosen. While this may generally be true, the question remains: what do we really choose freely? But even those authorities chosen relatively freely can lead to either bondage or freedom. From a Christian perspective, true freedom results only when chaos, fear, and self-centeredness are replaced by purpose, love, and service; all else is bondage. The merits of any authority, to whatever degree chosen or coerced, are judged by this standard: does it produce freedom or bondage?

God is the ultimate authority, and all that is truly authoritative is derivative from God. This Christian affirmation implies not least that authority is good, even as God is good, but in order to be good it must be in keeping with the nature of God as revealed most perfectly in Jesus Christ. Those authorities which do not contribute to understanding humanity or ordering the world as intended by the Creator and incarnated by the Re-creator are merely temporal or temporary. From an Anabaptist and Mennonite perspective, all authorities must be relativized by this standard. Mennonite history accordingly is replete with examples of saying "no!" to authority. How consistent and persistent Mennonites are on this issue is another matter.

How is God known authoritatively? God the Father is known in Jesus the Son through the work of the Holy Spirit. Wherever this Spirit rules, God's authority is present. This same Spirit authorized and authorizes the Bible, the most authoritative witness to God's being and activity.

The Anabaptists and their Mennonite heirs share in the Protestant principle: sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone"). As such their primary authoritative referent is the Bible, rather than Scripture plus tradition as understood by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In turn, Mennonites also share in the Protestant problem: whose reading of Scripture is authoritative? The absence of an authoritative adjudicator to rule on contesting claims, is a major reason both for the divisions within Protestantism as well as the numerous subdivisions within the Mennonite family. Additionally, the Mennonite quest for a pure church made the Protestant problem greater, since authoritative definitions of purity in each unique cultural context were lacking.

Authority accordingly is a problem for Mennonites, not only on the larger theoretical level, but also on the operational level. Operationally, among Mennonites, authority is sometimes identified but more frequently is not identified; it is sometimes formulated, but typically only implied. A discussion of Mennonite understandings of authority, such as this, is largely a matter of identifying the implied.


While all Anabaptists in the 16th century and Mennonites since then have agreed that the Bible is uniquely authoritative, a series of issues remain. Firstly, is authority vested in the words of Scripture or in the spirit of the Word? The Swiss Brethren and Menno Simons tended to the former or biblicist stance (words of Scripture) when they maintained, for example, that what the Scriptures do not positively teach and command is forbidden. Hans Denck represented the latter approach. For him the Bible was not identical to the Word of God -- even as the material world is secondary to the spiritual world, so the outer word (Bible) serves the inner word (spirit). Pilgram Marpeck and Hans de Ries sought a balance to avoid either extreme. This balance continues to be a challenge as the options are redefined, for example, by the more fundamentalist and more liberal currents within modern Protestantism.

A second issue is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Pilgram Marpeck again provided a model here that has gained considerable currency among contemporary Mennonites. To oversimplify, the New Testament fulfills what the Old Testament promises. In turn, Jesus Christ in his life and teaching, death and resurrection, is the interpretive (hermeneutical) key to all Scriptures both Old and New. Biblical authority, then, is nuanced to recognize that the Incarnate Word revealed in biblical words and by the Spirit is the judge of the relative authority of those words. Yet, to continue the circle, the biblical words establish the norms for our understanding of both the Incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit. Biblical authority is dynamic, not static; it is a living force, not a dead letter.


While the Scriptures are authoritative, leaders called to interpret the Scriptures have been granted a derivative authority throughout Mennonite history. The nature and degree of that authority especially in relation to the church community, remains controversial.

Anabaptist and Mennonite leaders gained authority at various times and places either by their charismatic urgency, by their faithfulness to a tradition, or by successfully fulfilling a functionally defined role (to use Max Weber's categories). Most early Anabaptist leaders were protestors against the status quo and frequently did not gain formal legitimization from a church community. More recently some evangelists and other leaders who have urgent messages, powerful personalities, and are skilled communicators have similarly gained authority more charismatically than through formal authorizing means.

By contrast, at least from the time of Menno Simons, a more traditional leadership pattern emerged. Bishops or elders, preachers or shepherds, and deacons were authorized through ordination. Called by the community and confirmed by the Spirit, frequently through the vehicle of the lot, the leader's authority rested more in the position than the person. Today this type of authority is fully operative primarily in the traditionalist (conservative) Mennonite communities, such as the Old Order Mennonites, Old Colony Mennonites, and Amish, where the office of bishop remains both the authoritative and organizational center of the community

With the adoption of denominational structures beginning in the mid-19th century, the more "progressive" Mennonite groups gradually shifted from the authority of bishops to that of democratic and bureaucratic structures, from the authority of tradition to that of education, and from the authority of office to that of function. Individuals now volunteered for leadership roles, typically by pursuing theological education, or gained leadership through employment in one of the many agencies and institutions of the church. Congregations increasingly called leaders from this pool of volunteers. The selection, ordination, and evaluation of these candidates, in turn, were premised on functional criteria rather than on the authority of office. Ministry was thus professionalized. The old threefold ministry structure largely disappeared, to be replaced by professional pastors.

Pastors, in this most recent model, are hired to serve as the leaders of those who have hired them. Their authority is at best ambiguous! The 1960s credo "Question authority!" challenged the church and its ministers. Correlatively, a new emphasis on the priesthood of all believers suggested not only that all Christians are called to minister according to their gifts, but also, by extension, that those called to lead can claim no unique authority. Hence, pastors have the responsibility but not the authority to lead. Authority theoretically resides with the congregation, but functionally frequently devolves to particular boards or committees whose expertise is not necessarily in ecclesiological matters. The issue of the relationship of leadership and authority accordingly remains ambiguous in this most recent leadership model.


In important ways both the Bible and leaders are secondary authorities to the church, even though the Bible is normative for both the church and its leaders. Devoted students of Yahweh and followers of Christ wrote and edited the various books of the two testaments, and the church adopted the Jewish canon and established the canon of the New Testament writings. The Bible is thus the product of the people of God -- the church. Leaders, too, are chosen by the church from within the church; they are nurtured by the church and subject to the church.

Church authority for Mennonites is ultimately congregational authority. The local congregation, rather than supracongregational structures or leaders, is the final arbiter on all matters, be they internal or external to the congregation. This localized authority is premised on the responsible actions of each Christian. Even as each Christian comes to faith individually and voluntarily joins a congregation through adult baptism, it is assumed that each Christian hears the word of God and is responsible to act upon that hearing in and through a congregation. The Bible is thus read and understood within the context of the congregation. This is the "hermeneutical community." In more recent Mennonite history, ministers and scholars might be seen as specialized authorities on biblical interpretation, yet the Anabaptists were distrustful of the learned, who allegedly distorted the "plain and simple word." A populist distrust of the educated remains to this day among Mennonites. Even biblical scholars must remain subservient to the discerning and admonishing authority of the church. Each member is thus subservient to the authority of the congregation and subject to its discipline.

Beliefs, Experience, Practice

Despite their congregational polity, most Mennonite congregations belong to larger intercongregational bodies, which define their commonality in various authoritative ways. Here only the common definitions of orthodoxy, orthopraxis and orthoexperience can be noted.

The Mennonite tradition is strongly confessional even if not creedal. Creedalism is frequently seen by Mennonites to emphasize correct doctrinal formulation at the expense of personal transformation. Mennonite confessions, such as the Dordrecht Confession of 1632, by contrast, function as the authoritative indicators of the community's common mind on numerous doctrinal and ethical issues. Although not liturgically recited, they serve as the basis for inclusion (defining necessary beliefs for baptismal candidates), and for exclusion (by their implicit definition of heterodoxy).

At certain times and places confessional orthodoxy was augmented and possibly even superseded by orthoexperience. Certain normative religious experiences surrounding conversion, or at least a normative expression of those experiences, became authoritative. Especially under the influence of various revivalist and charismatic currents, authority for some is located experientially.

Orthopraxis has served as a primary authority throughout Mennonite history. Correct action defined either negatively (what ought not to be done), or positively (what ought to be done), are constants in defining normative Mennonitism. Such formulations of orthopraxis, in turn, can be powerfully authoritative.


History, or better said, tradition, has further served as an authoritative referent for Mennonites. Mennonites have defined themselves consistently by recounting their particular history. Beliefs, action, and change are tested against tradition to determine legitimacy. In this century appeal has particularly been made to 16th-century Anabaptism as the historical norm to judge the Mennonitism that followed.

Interestingly, despite their theoretical stance of sola scriptura, Mennonites have in fact retained tradition as authoritative. The Christian community over time read the Bible, interpreted and applied it, and accordingly created a normative tradition of interpretation. This tradition is not closed; rather it is open to renewal and new readings, but the tradition using code concepts such as "is it Anabaptist?" still determines authoritatively if new perspectives are legitimate. Tradition thus joins Scripture as authoritative.

Do Scripture and tradition, community and leaders, orthodoxy, orthoexperience and orthopraxis as understood and implemented by Mennonites, free or bind according to the norm of freedom provided by the incarnation? This is the test of legitimate authority for Mennonites.


Burkholder, John R. and Calvin Redekop, eds. Kingdom, Cross and Community. Scottdale, Pa., 1976.

Dyck, Cornelius J. "Early Ideas of Authority" in Studies in Church Discipline (Newton, 1958: 35-56.

Harrison, Paul H. Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition: a Social Case Study of the American Baptist Convention. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1959.

Klassen, William. Covenant and Community: the Writings, and Hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.

Sawatsky, Rodney J. Authority and Identity: the Dynamics of the General Conference Mennonite Church. North Newton, Ks: Bethel College, 1987.

Sawatsky, Rodney J. "Defining Mennonite Diversity and Unity." Mennonite Quarterly Review 57 (1983): 282-92.

Author(s) Rodney J Sawatsky
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Sawatsky, Rodney J. "Authority." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 Jun 2024.

APA style

Sawatsky, Rodney J. (1989). Authority. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 45-47. All rights reserved.

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