Sectarianism and Cultural Mandate

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Sectarianism and Cultural Mandate. Mennonites have, possibly from almost the beginning, been concerned about their identity in relationship to the world, and especially the cultural forms it takes. Separation from the world, the idea of two kingdoms, nonconformity to the world, and rejection of domination by state and state church, are only a few of the emphases which have expressed this concern. A central theological and normative thrust therefore has been how the "colony of heaven" or the "people of God" has been expressed in history and what God really desires of his covenanted community.

Non-Mennonite scholars and church officials have been less unsure about what the Mennonite tradition really was: (1) The Roman Catholic tradition has defined the Anabaptist-Mennonite stream as heretical, irrelevant, and hence a sect. (2) Protestant scholars and ecclesiastics have been less sanguine, but have still maintained that it was a sectarian movement, emphasizing marginal and deviant factors at the expense of central historical Christian teachings. (3) Sociologists and church historians have attempted to be more neutral and objective, defining sectarian in neutral terms and in fact proposing that the sectarian may be closer to the essence of Christianity than the "mainstream churches" of Christendom.

The essential difference between sect and church was that the church expresses God's design through cultural forms and by dominance while the sect is defined as expressing God's design though rejection of cultural dominance by forming voluntary congregations of believers (Troeltsch; B. Johnson).

One of the most trenchant sociological and theological analyses of the sectarian-culture debate has been H. Richard Niebuhr's "Christ and culture" typology in which he designates the Mennonites as desiring a "Christ against culture" (Niebuhr). His thesis that the Mennonites have opposed culture is, however, a thorough misunderstanding of Mennonites, because they never have rejected culture as such, only those expressions which they think hinder the kingdom of God expressing itself. Hence "selective acculturation" is a far better analysis of Mennonite attitude toward culture (Eaton). Mennonites have always subordinated specific cultural forms to the primacy of community life (Redekop, 1976). The wide range of selective acculturation by Mennonite groups, and the significance they attach to the subtle variations proves the point.

The sectarian image, stance and identification has been more of an occupation of outsiders, the domain of academics and ecclesiastics. "Entering the mainstream culture" is hence not a self-conscious Mennonite relinquishment of the "sectarian" stance, rather the process of the continual adoption of cultural forms in its life. But the question remains -- how does cultural adaptation affect the "spiritual covenant"?

The enduring debate for Mennonites has been, "What does it mean to be faithful to God's Kingdom?" The inevitable development of particular sub-cultural forms, i.e., ethnic traits (Redekop, "Ethnic", 1984) has been a major dilemma for Mennonites, for they have been unable to rest easy with the fact that any religious life expresses itself in a particular cultural form. Hence the debate about Mennonites being a sectarian or ethnic group or a religious church, especially as exacerbated by the inroads of Fundamentalism and evangelicalism (Kraus), has intensified in recent years. This debate has of course been to a large extent the result of adopting the prevailing Christian popular theology. This is doubly ironic because while this debate and self-doubt is going on, Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and belief system is being increasingly propounded by non-Mennonites as the most relevant and exciting system of theology, especially by proponents of liberation and feminist theologies.

How do Mennonites today understand themselves and what is their identity? Using the scholarly literature of North American analysis as our guide, though that may be an inadequate base, we find that earlier researchers have indeed adopted the view that Mennonites were a sect group, and that the beginning of the missionary thrust signaled the end of the sectarian stance (Kauffman, 1931). More subsequent research and theorizing attempted to analyze and describe the loss of sectarianism on the part of Mennonites (Harder, Redekop, Kyle).

This was followed by an understanding, spearheaded by E. K. Francis, of the Mennonites as a religious movement becoming an ethnic group. Many rank-and-file Mennonites, as well as religious leaders, influenced by evangelical Christianity, accepted this description as fact, and actively began to oppose and reject the ethnic nature of Christianity, not aware of the fact that they were saying thereby that Christianity could be 100 percent American and be Christian, but could not be some unusual mixture of European and American and still be Christian.

Recent Mennonite analysis of self-identity proposes that the Anabaptists and Mennonites were a movement, and that the identifying traits or boundaries of the group are not the cultural forms, but the ideology (the "Anabaptist Vision") which served and serves to orient the Mennonites to their true heritage. Thus there can be a pluralism among Mennonite communities because the cultural forms are not as important as the "unifying" vision of the " radical covenant." Hence the entrance of Mennonites into the professions, and urban living is possible without destroying the Mennonite "colony of heaven."

There is a considerable crisis in Mennonite identity in the late 1980s, as indicated by the literature on it (Redekop and Steiner, 1988). A recent conference on Mennonite self-identity (1986) attests to the importance of the issue. Participants proposed that sect and ethnicity are not adequate to define Mennonitism, that we must look at the ideology (the covenant) to understand what it means to be a Mennonite. In the realm of theology and Christian faith, Mennonites are increasingly engaging the larger Christian community and challenging many presuppositions but on the sociocultural level, Mennonites still tend to remain isolated.

Does the attempt at total faithfulness result in a particular lifestyle and cultural form, or does lifestyle have little or nothing to do with faith? If the former answer is taken, the ethnic question will continue to plague Mennonites (Redekop, "Ethnic," 1984). If the latter is taken, the issue of identity will fade as the impact of this belief makes itself felt in the congregation. Mennonite understanding of the implications of the "two kingdom" theology for cultural expression and forms has never been clear, because of the anti-intellectualism that has developed, and precisely because of the way "separation from the world" itself affects the analysis. This issue remains one of the most urgent problems in Mennonite life and thought. For additional theological analysis see the works by Yoder, Erb, and Burkholder as listed below.

See also Church-State RelationsGovernment, Theory and Theology ofNonconformityPolitical AttitudesRestitutionismSociopolitical Activism


Burkholder, J. Lawrence. "The Problem of Social Responsibility From the Perspective of the Mennonite Church." PhD diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1958; published Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988.

Eaton, Joseph. " Controlled Acculturation." American Sociological Review 17 (June 1952).

Erb, Peter C. "A Reflection on Mennonite Theology in Canada." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 179-90.

Francis, E. K. In Search of Utopia. Glencoe: Free Press, 1955.

Harder, Leland. "The Quest for Equilibrium in an Established Sect." PhD diss., Northwestern U., 1962.

Johnson, Benton. "A Critical Appraisal of the Church-Sect Typology." American Sociological Review 22 (February 1957).

Kaufman, E. G. Mennonite Missionary Interest. Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1931.

Kraus, C. Norman, ed. Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979.

Kyle, Richard G. From Sect to Denomination. Hillsboro: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1985.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951.

Redekop, Calvin. "The Mennonite Identity Crisis." Journal of Mennonite studies 2 (1984): 87-103.

Redekop, Calvin. "The Sectarian Black and White World." PhD diss., U. of Chicago, 1959.

Redekop, Calvin. Free Church and Seductive Culture. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.

Redekop, Calvin. "Anabaptism and the Ethnic Ghost." Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1984): 133-46.

Redekop, Calvin and Samuel J. Steiner, eds.  Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. New York: MacMillan, 1931.

Wach, Joachim. Church, Denomination and Sect. Evanston: Seabury-Western, 1946.

Yoder, John H. The Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame U. Press, 1984.

Author(s) Calvin W Redekop
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Redekop, Calvin W. "Sectarianism and Cultural Mandate." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 26 Sep 2022.

APA style

Redekop, Calvin W. (1989). Sectarianism and Cultural Mandate. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 26 September 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 806-807. All rights reserved.

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