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This article was written in the late 1950s and reflects the state of theological writing and thinking among Mennonites at the time.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of ethics in the life and testimony of the Anabaptist-Mennonites. Throughout their history, Mennonites have sought above all to be holy, pure, and obedient to Christ. Consequently Mennonite preaching, writing, and piety have had a strong ethical emphasis. In fact, the ethical emphasis is so predominant in the writings of Menno Simons and others, that one is sometimes tempted to say that for Mennonites Christianity and ethics are one. At least it is fair to say that Mennonites have given ethics a position of centrality not generally found in Protestantism. Whereas Protestantism has had the tendency to separate faith from conduct in theology and in life as a protection against a religion of works, Anabaptists and Mennonites have held them closely together. It is probably premature to say what are the soteriological implications of the position given ethics by Mennonites. Suffice it to say the statement of James that "faith without works is dead" represents a concern of Mennonites out of all proportion to a concern for the dangers of a religion of works.

The importance of the ethical life for the Mennonite understanding of Christianity appears in connection with the Anabaptist conception of discipleship. In his "Anabaptist Vision," H. S. Bender declares that for the Anabaptists discipleship was the essence of Christianity. "First and fundamental in the Anabaptist vision was the conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship." By discipleship the Anabaptists meant the ethical life of radical obedience. "Discipleship" was a concept that meant "the transformation of the entire way of life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be fashioned after the teachings and example of Christ." Further examination of the Anabaptist vision with its almost exclusive preoccupation with ethics, notably nonresistance, non-swearing of oaths, a new concept of the church, and nonconformity to this world, would reinforce the conclusion that discipleship means a conception of Christianity in which "the Christian life is defined most basically in ethical terms."

The full significance of this understanding of Christianity is realized when it is compared with the Protestant Reformation in general. Whereas the Reformation was interested mainly in a reinterpretation of the way of salvation and consequently focused upon the subjective experience of grace and the inner enjoyment of the freedom of the Spirit, Anabaptism concentrated on the objective, concrete, outward manifestations of the Spirit. "The great word of the Anabaptists was not 'faith' as it was with the reformers, but 'following' (Nachfolge Christi)" (Bender). Noteworthy is the fact that Anabaptism had little to say about the great questions of faith in relation to divine acceptance. The question of the Anabaptists was, "What does it mean to follow Christ as a disciple?" Hence ethics was central in emphasis and inseparably tied to faith.

In view of the consuming desire of Anabaptists and Mennonites to live ethically it may seem strange that no American has written to date a Mennonite ethic as a theological discipline, although this has been done by the Dutch theologians de Bussy and Hoekstra, although not in the Anabaptist spirit. Numerous tracts, letters, monographs, and articles have been written on specific subjects such as nonresistance, separation, the oath, community, mutual aid, business, marriage, dress, and stewardship. However, no one has attempted to treat ethics systematically as a separate theological discipline. Possibly the principal reasons for this omission are the same as those which account for the paucity of theological literature among the Mennonites in general. Mennonitism has fostered a simple piety and a theological naiveté that has, to be sure, penetrated at times to the heart of the Gospel but which for that very reason is incapable of theological sophistication. More directly, the very simplicity of the Mennonite approach to ethics has tended to obviate a study of the methodology of ethics. In the absence of an explicit Mennonite ethic it is necessary therefore to generalize from numerous writings over a period of four hundred years and draw conclusions from approved Mennonite practice. It should be noted, however, that Guy F. Hershberger's War, Peace, and Nonresistance (1944) has served the Mennonite church in recent years virtually as a volume on Christian ethics despite its limited scope. Furthermore his book, The Way of the Cross in Human Relations (1958), comes even closer to meeting the need for a Mennonite ethic. Still to come, however, is a volume that seeks to set forth answers to the problems of basic Christian ethics.

Methodologically Mennonite ethics must be understood first and fundamentally as Biblical ethics. The exclusive source of ethical instruction is the Bible - more precisely the New Testament. The Biblicism of the Mennonites comes through most impressively in the settling of ethical questions. Sufficient for a valid imperative is a clearly stated command of Christ to His disciples or a command by one of the apostles. The norms of Mennonite ethics are simply the life and teachings of Christ as contained in the New Testament. Christ's earthly life has been regarded as a pattern to be followed in filial obedience. Generally speaking, Mennonite ethics belongs to the imitatio Christi tradition.

Nowhere does the imitation of Christ motif comes through more clearly than in the Schleitheim Confession (1527) (see Brüderliche Vereinigung). Here the only criterion of valid instruction regarding specific ethical questions is the earthly life of Christ, His teaching, or a testimony to the life of Christ from an apostle. Concerning the sword, for example, the answer is clear and summary: "Christ teaches and commands us to learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly in heart and so shall we find rest to our souls." Concerning whether a Christian should pass sentence in worldly disputes and strife the answer is, "Christ did not wish to decide or pass judgment between brother and brother in the case of the inheritance, but refused to do so. Therefore we should do likewise. They wished to make Christ King, but He fled and did not view it as an arrangement of His Father. Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness? For He Himself says: He who wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Of course it must be conceded that all systems of ethics which deserve the name Christian take Christ and His teachings seriously. But the really significant factor that distinguishes one system from the other is how the teachings of Christ are used and what is put alongside the example and teachings of Christ within the system. Very seldom do we have a system of ethics that rests on Christ's teachings alone. Even those systems that claim to rely exclusively on the revelation in Christ are very likely to inject historical or philosophical considerations unwittingly. At least it may be said that all ethical systems that take seriously the life of the world and suppose that Christians are responsible for the social and political order inject on the ground floor of ethics certain norms outside the New Testament. The conflict between the perfectionism of Christ's ethic and the ambiguity of the world order makes some concession to a lower ethic necessary. Accordingly, Catholicism has drawn from natural law in Stoicism; Lutheranism has met the problem by the theory of the two realms; Calvinism has lowered the requirement of love to conform to the theocratic ideal of the Old Testament; modern theologians have entered considerations of historical relativism, contextualism, or anti-rationalistic existentialism. The uniqueness of Anabaptist ethics lies in the fact that it accepts the New Testament as the sole norm, assuming that the ethic of discipleship in the New Testament is essentially uniform and that it is a historical necessity and possibility for the church.

It should be remembered, however, that the Mennonite approach to ethics, namely, Biblical command and direct obedience, takes place within the church, the body of Christ, and under the direction of the Holy Spirit. This helps to qualify the legalistic tendencies within Mennonite ethics and to prevent it from becoming nothing more than a detached rationalistic systematization of Jesus' teachings. There is a sense in which the Anabaptists not only imitated Christ but participated in Christ as a living present reality. To be sure, the indwelling Spirit of Christ was not intended to provide an elasticity not permitted by the Biblical injunction. However, it did provide a spiritual context in which the Biblical text came alive in ways not true of later generations of Mennonites, who often succumbed to the spirit of legalism. Also it should be remembered that there has always been a certain childlike naiveté in Mennonite ethical thinking that, having precluded excessive rationalization of Jesus' teachings, has saved them from the despair of Tolstoy and of certain liberals by whom Jesus' teachings were considered a universal possibility.

In this connection it should be pointed out that, according to Mennonite thinking, Christian ethics is expected only of committed Christians. This may seem self-evident. On the contrary, the history of Christendom presents many occasions when Christian ethics have been adapted to the practical possibilities of total populations and were at times for that reason virtually equated with civic morality. But for Mennonites, Christian conduct issues from a vital experience of faith. In fact, it is only on the basis of complete commitment that the radical demands of discipleship are meaningful. Hence Christian ethics are really church ethics when viewed from the standpoint of the ethical agent as well as the context of decision-making.

Basic to the Mennonite ethics is the idea of the church as separated from the world. The dualism of the church and the world provides the comprehensive framework for the Mennonite outlook on duty. The church is defined as the "people of God" (I Peter 2:9) corresponding to the new age, described otherwise in the New Testament as the kingdom of God. Christ lives among the people of God and calls them away from evil in its many forms. The world is defined as the rule of evil. The world takes many social forms and is ever at war with the church. Therefore the church seeks to be non-conformed to the world by living according to the principles of the kingdom of God. According to Schleitheim, "All creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who have come out of the world, God's temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other."

One of the perennial problems of Mennonite ethics is to know where to draw the line between the church and the world. In the realm of theology the line is drawn quite clearly. The reality of God and His work of salvation, including the history of Israel and the true church together with appropriate attitudes and deeds of love, forgiveness, tenderness, and faith, constitute one realm. Satan and his work of opposition, including all evil men, angels, and institutions, constitute the other realm. But in the cultural situation where the church and the world are mixed, it is not always easy to know where to assign certain aspects of cultural life. Hence Mennonites have always been confronted with the task of passing ethical judgment on every major cultural change. Sometimes this has led Mennonites to freeze certain approved cultural patterns and to be suspicious of change in general. On the other hand, sometimes the church has been tempted to discard the task of cultural criticism. The dynamic character of modern change has accentuated the problem of change and consequently certain Mennonites have come to the conviction that the uniqueness of the Mennonite witness in the modern period is at stake.

The central idea of the Christian ethic according to Mennonites is love. Christ not only commanded love (Luke 10:27), but His life and death on the cross gave love concrete meaning. In the cross of Christ the love of God was manifested for the world and the love that is expected of Christians ethically is a re-enactment of the drama of redemption. In other words, the emphasis is on sacrificial love even though Mennonites use the term love to cover relationships of mutuality. Mennonites have clearly perceived that the full meaning of love is known supremely in the cross and the Christian ethic therefore must start with nothing less than complete self-giving.

One of the implications of the love ethic is non-resistance. For over four hundred years Mennonites have accepted nonresistance as the way in which Christians respond to evil. As an absolute principle, nonresistance has had a profound effect on all aspects of Mennonite life, psychological, economic, and political. Belief in nonresistance has expressed itself in conscientious objection to war. Also Mennonites have refused to be drawn into industrial conflict. Furthermore Mennonites have by and large refused active participation in politics. On the personal level, they have interpreted the principle of nonresistance to forbid litigation and, what is more important, they have interpreted it to imply the way of suffering love in cases of personal disputes and misunderstandings. But nonresistance has been regarded not simply as a negative principle. It has been an expression of outgoing redemptive love that looks to healing and reconciliation. For this reason Mennonites have sought to find alternative ways of service during times of war and attempts have been made to find creative alternatives to industrial strife and litigation.

Mennonites have always recognized that nonresistance means suffering and so from the very beginning Christianity and suffering have been linked together. "Living under the cross" has been considered normal Christian experience. Anyone acquainted with Mennonite literature knows that many of the finest and most expressive tracts, hymns, and historical accounts uphold the inevitability of suffering and also the necessity of suffering as a direct implication of true discipleship. As a result of the prolonged intensity of suffering the result has sometimes been a psychology of suffering and frequently suffering has fostered a general attitude of retirement and quietism.

Another implication of the love ethic is brotherhood. This is the form which love takes among those who have been reconciled to God and to one another. Brotherhood love expresses itself in a sense of mutual responsibility for the total welfare of the members of the church. The brotherhood church as the body of Christ is held together by common commitment to meet one another's needs in the spiritual, moral, and material realms. Some of the finest moments of Mennonite life are moments of sharing, especially in times of emergency. Since much of Mennonite history has been a history of persecution, brotherhood mutuality has often constituted the difference between life and death. Sharing has been practiced not only within various congregations but between churches in various countries. During the modern period permanent organizations have taken up the task of mutual aid as the needs have become more numerous and complex.

The principle of brotherhood is also important for ethics in so far as brotherhood has affected the entire community life of Mennonites. Mennonites have traditionally sought to live near to one another, often in semi- or complete isolation from the main centers of population. Accordingly the brotherhood church and the community have frequently been described as one reality. The church, family, farm, school, and business have constituted what may be called "religious community." A deliberate effort has been made within the Mennonite communities to inject the ethic of love into all areas of life. Sometimes the community life of Mennonites has been more instinctive than deliberate. Nevertheless Mennonites have always sought to live together in such a way that the principles of brotherhood may be extended into the social realm.

The form which community life has taken among Mennonites has varied greatly. Its most extreme expression has been Christian communalism. Most notable is Hutterianism with its practice of "full community." Among the Hutterites Christian mutuality is understood to mean the abolition of private property. It means also group authority over areas of life normally thought to lie within the province of the individual. Within the Bruderhofs every aspect of life is directed toward brotherhood, including the family and economics. The significance of the Bruderhof lies in the fact that it lifts sharing above an occasional response to specific needs. The Bruderhof involves nothing less than a structure of mutuality. Sharing is a continuous and all-embracing experience.

Among most Anabaptist and Mennonite groups brotherhood has not been organized as systematically as among the Hutterites. In the "open communities" of American Mennonites brotherhood responsibilities have been less pervasive and comprehensive. Most Mennonite groups have made a larger place for self-determination. It is customary for individuals to make their own decisions with respect to marriage, vocation, education, and mobility, subject of course to accepted moral standards, and usually subject to the restriction of no marriage outside the church, and no business and social affiliations which would violate the "unequal yoke" proscription of II Corinthians 6.

Having said this, however, it is important to remember that the brotherhood has fostered many traditions and cultural expressions that have had powerful ethical influences. The Mennonite community has been guided to a considerable extent by traditional attitudes and practices, often in the absence of a reasoned and articulate ethic. Ethical decisions have been made by Mennonites largely from the standpoint of what the church has approved in the past. At any rate, Mennonite ethics have been mainly community ethics rising out of a deep sense of belonging to a common life.

A discussion of Mennonite ethics would not be complete without a statement regarding the Mennonite attitude toward the total social order, especially from the standpoint of social justice. With respect to the concern for social justice Mennonites have not entered into this realm except in a few instances, whether as individual participation or as a church. It is true that the early Anabaptists spoke out against religious persecution and the early Pennsylvania Quakers of German Mennonite background (not Mennonites as once thought) were among the first in America to protest against slavery, but as a rule Mennonites have not addressed themselves to the great social and political problems of society. Their reluctance to become involved in the struggle for justice has a number of roots. Certainly one is nonresistance, which when applied to the realm of social change runs counter to the inevitable coercive balances of power and counter to the spirit of the world. The Christian's calling lies primarily in the work of the church and the Christian community rather than in the work of the world. The Christian must be concerned with the realm of redemption with consequent attitudes of minor concern for the world order. The Mennonite concept of "the church leads the Christian to withdraw his major energies from active participation in the general program of world betterment and attempted reconstruction of the entire non-Christian world order and focus them on the building of the Christian community. His hope for the world is the church and the creation of a Christian social order within the fellowship of the church brotherhood" (Bender).

The withdrawal of the Mennonite church from the realms of justice and law does not mean, however, that Mennonites have had no social outreach. The truth is that Mennonites have supported an outstanding program of social service in the form of relief and voluntary service in almost every nation of the world during the past forty years. In fact, Mennonites are among the most active in this area. Undoubtedly the present program of world relief and voluntary service has received much of its stimulus from a search for a moral alternative to military service. However, this is not the only reason. The basic reason is that Mennonites have rediscovered the service motive in discipleship at a time when the world has undergone two major wars and a number of major social revolutions.

One of the consequences of Mennonite involvement in world relief and rehabilitation is a growing interest in the world and its problems from a Christian point of view. This has raised the question of whether Mennonites should not become more active in shaping social and political policy. This is another way of asking whether and in what way Mennonites can witness to government and lesser social powers without forfeiting the position of nonresistance and the primacy of the church in the life of the Christian. Undoubtedly this question has far-reaching consequences for Mennonite ethics.

The problem of social witness and action should also be seen in connection with the rapid assimilation of American Mennonites in the economic and social life of the nation. Especially since World War II, the Mennonite community has lost much of its agrarian isolation, through the forces of urbanization and mass communication. This constitutes nothing less than a crisis in Mennonite ethics, since Mennonite ethical thinking has largely assumed a more or less controlled community. Today the environment of American Mennonitism is secular America. Having lost much of its sociological base, Mennonitism is faced with the question of how to work out a community ethic in a secular environment. Undoubtedly this question calls for a new sense of realism among Mennonites and a critical analysis of such basic ethical concepts as love, justice, and power.

Preoccupation with the categories of social ethics should not lead to forgetting that Mennonites have traditionally held to strict standards of personal morality, such as sexual purity, honesty, Christian attire, and Christian entertainment. Drinking, smoking, and attendance at questionable places of amusement have been discouraged. Instead, Mennonites have been encouraged to live a simple and modest life of godliness. One of the finest treatments of Mennonite ethics, particularly from the standpoint of personal morality, is John C. Wenger's Separated unto God. In this volume, the non-conformed life is described in its manifold relations to the forces of good and evil in society.

In the course of their 400-year history, scattered as they have been by migration from western Europe to Russia, and to North America and South America, and varying in type from urban (in Holland and northwest Germany) to exclusively rural (Russia, South America, and until recently the United States and Canada), Mennonites have not always maintained a uniform ethical pattern. Particularly in western Europe has there been some deviation from the above outline. This sketch applies most accurately therefore to the Mennonites of the United States and Canada. No attempt has been made to review the history of ethical theory as developed among the Mennonites of Holland by such men as Hoekstra and de Bussy; nor to trace ethical developments in that country.


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Author(s) J. Lawrence Burkholder
Date Published 1959

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Burkholder, J. Lawrence. "Ethics." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 27 May 2022.

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Burkholder, J. Lawrence. (1959). Ethics. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 May 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 1079-1083. All rights reserved.

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