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Mennonites have always had difficulty with ecumenical movements, given that Anabaptism arose in the 16th century as a protest movement against both the old and the new establishments. That difficulty or tension does not take away the problem nor does it permit one to frame the issues of the 20th century in terms identical with those of the 16th century. There is no death penalty for rebaptism; there are no dramatic public disputations; there is no absence of belief by the mainline churches in pluralism at least not in North America and Western Europe. The major new development is the proliferation within the Mennonite households of faith, leading to two great expressions of Mennonite ecumenism: the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the Mennonite World Conference.

MCC is a coalition of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ who vary from Old Order groups to progressive Mennonites with their educated clergy and programs and institutions for outreach. The staff, the volunteers, and the supervisory committees display a great range of Mennonite cooperation. The most visible demonstrations of this cooperation are the Mennonite relief sales where the MCC constituency, from the Amish to the progressives, is present. Beyond this there are always relationships outside the Mennonite borders arranged by MCC as illustrated by the five-person delegation representing the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists from the Soviet Union which visited North American Mennonites during the summer of 1987.

Mennonites have utilized several strategies in relation to the ecumenical challenge. The first has been to accept full membership in the mainline ecumenical bodies. In the case of the World Council of Churches (WCC) there are only two Mennonite conferences which are regular members: the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit of the Netherlands, and the Vereinigung der deutschen Mennonitengemeinden of Germany. The Zaire Mennonites were members of the World Council starting in 1973. Five years later they withdrew.

The Zaire experience also illustrates the ecumenism which can be forced upon the Mennonites in the 20th century. In 1971 President Mobutu announced new laws recognizing the Roman Catholics, the Kimbanguist community and the Church of Christ in Zaire. All Protestant churches and mission agencies including the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission were required to work through the Church of Christ in Zaire or close their work in the territory. The Disciples of Christ, Baptists, Community of Light, Presbyterians, the (Swedish) Evangelical Community, and Mennonites complied with this coerced ecumenical mechanism in forming the Church of Christ in Zaire (CCZ).

In the Soviet Union there was another variant of coercion in the requirement for churches to be registered with the government. Most Mennonite congregations complied with this request. But the Christian radicals or purists refused to register, risking imprisonment, fines, or both.

On the mission fields Mennonites have often joined the mainline councils of churches. They have accepted comity agreements whereby territories are allotted to selected mission boards in order to avoid duplication. The children of missionaries have attended boarding schools like Woodstock School in India and the Morrison secondary school in Taiwan, which were sponsored by interdenominational boards. The Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, Maharashtra State, India is supported by a coalition of conservative denominations including three Mennonite conferences: the Mennonite Brethren (MB), the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) and the Mennonite Church (MC). In Zaire the Institut Supérieur de Théologie de Kinshasa (Senior Institute of Theology of Kinshasa) includes three Baptist conferences, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, and two groups of Mennonites.

In North America there has been another strategy by which Mennonites accept full membership in an evangelical interdenominational organization. The Mennonite Brethren of Canada joining the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada provides a case in point. The Conference of Mennonites in Canada (GCM) indicated it would seek to join both the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Council of Churches. In the United States the General Conference Mennonite Church was a charter member of the Federal (National) Council of Churches but withdrew during World War I because of the councilios support of the war.

The Vancouver meeting of the World Council of Churches in the summer of 1983 illustrated the strategy that may be the most frequently used pattern, namely, attending the council as a delegated observer without a vote. Such an observer is sent by his or her conference, which is recognized by the WCC or a similar group as having the privilege of attendance but without the right to speak or vote. Alongside the Vancouver sessions the historic peace churches and peace organizations had a Ploughshares coffee house with lectures by Ronald Sider, John Howard Yoder, Ernie Regehr, and the former Paul Verghese, a Goshen College graduate now known as Bishop Paulus Mar Gregorious of the Syrian Orthodox Church of India.

Another approach commonly used by North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches has been a selective membership in specialized ecumenical agencies: Project Ploughshares and Project North in Canada bring together Christians of many backgrounds to deal with peace and native concerns, respectively. In both the United States and Canada there are programs concerned with community justice, victim-offender reconciliation, mediation, refugees, and material aid in cooperation with both government and ecumenical bodies. Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario is a Mennonite academic institution, legally and functionally related to a secular provincial university and to three other church related colleges: Catholic, Anglican, and United Church of Canada. There is also the Mennonite sponsorship of workshops on special issues to which Christians of many backgrounds are invited. For example, in Paraguay in 1986 the Mennonites sponsored a peace conference that was attended by German Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists. In North America the progressive Mennonite conferences fully approve of ministers who join local ministerial associations or state or provincial councils of churches.

Thus, 20th-century Mennonites and Brethren in Christ have a pattern of cooperation among themselves in MCC and in Mennonite World Conference, and with certain ecumenical agencies. The variety of ecumenical strategies throughout the world suggest that Mennonite isolation is now rejected except among conservative and Old Order Mennonites.

See also Comity; Inter-Mennonite Cooperation; Pietism


Berg, Hans Georg vom, eds., Mennonites and Reformed in Dialogue. Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1986.

Proceedings of the Mennonite World Conference XI Assembly, Strasbourg, 1984. Lombard IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1984: 90, 54-64, 360.

Smucker, Donovan E. "Report from Vancouver: Faith Overcomes Ambivalence" and John Rempel, "A Postscript to the Sixth Assembly," Conrad Grebel Review, 2:2 (Spring 1984): 117-37.

Author(s) Donovan E Smucker
Date Published 1989

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MLA style

Smucker, Donovan E. "Ecumenism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 30 Sep 2023.

APA style

Smucker, Donovan E. (1989). Ecumenism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 September 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 257-258. All rights reserved.

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