My wife, Aleisha, and I live in Phoenix, AZ and have just started attending a church a few blocks from our house. We’re beginning the work of making friends, getting connected, finding a place. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the tradition and church I was raised in. Many of my dearest friends I met there – much of who I am was developed there. Still, it’s really complicated. If church is the family of God, and if that community is where we figure out who we are and who we should be, then it really matters what we’re telling each other.
The Mennonite story is one filled with oppression and relocation. The tradition takes its name from Menno Simons, born in the Netherlands in 1496. Simons became a priest at age 28, and then split away from the Holy Roman Empire’s Catholic church after reading scripture, something he was afraid to do for his first two years as a priest. Reading led him to first deny transubstantiation and later the infant baptism taught by the Catholic church. After being a preacher for several years “without spirituality or love as all hypocrites do,” he had something of a spiritual awakening after witnessing the death of three hundred radical Anabaptists killed by authorities, his own brother, Peter, among them (Galli, 2000). “For nine months thereafter [Simons] essentially preached Anabaptist doctrine from his Catholic pulpit, until he finally left the church and…fully cast his lot with the radical Reformers” (Galli, 2000). These radical reformers would later take his name and call themselves Mennonites.
Relocation of Mennonites to America came in various waves and for varying reasons, a common theme being the desire to practice a non-resistant faith in freedom. Steve Nolt notes three prominent groups of Mennonites who came to the New World: Mennonites from Germany (Swiss and German), Russian Mennonites, and a third group which will be of special interest in this paper. The Mennonites from Germany settled largely in Pennsylvania from round 1680-1710 (Nolt, 1999). According to Steve Nolt, these Mennonites identified largely with the German speaking subculture already present in north-eastern America, though they only comprised a very small part of it. While they understood themselves as distinct from mainstream American society, “political life was less a cooperation with worldly state coercion and more an expression of commitment to and identification with a friendly ethnic community. In many ways Mennonites within Greater Pennsylvania found an acceptable and comfortable ethnic identity in Pennsylvania German culture. (Nolt, pg. 490).
Russian Mennonites whose privileged status was revoked by an order of St. Petersburg in 1870 made up another migrant wave (Saul, 1974). About a third of the Mennonite population in Russia migrated to the great plains of North America. Russian Mennonites found somewhat less of a subcultural identity among other immigrants with which to identify. “America’s Russian Mennonites forged an ethnicity that tended to create cultural islands in the midst of larger American society” (Nolt, pg. 494). This German speaking group of Mennonites started their own print publications as well as primary and secondary schools. Yet, similar to the Pennsylvania German Mennonite ethnicity, the Russian Mennonites envisioned their faith as “one piece of a broader identity that in turn connected them to neighbors or an ideal across the ocean. In both cases ‘secular’ culture – as each group defined it – did not threaten faith” (Nolt, pg. 496). Neither of these groups, the Dutch or the Russian Mennonites, became homogenous with mainstream American culture. Yet both saw their identity as a people as something which allowed them to live at peace with and integrate to a certain extent with the society around them.
A Third Kind of Mennonite
Juxtaposed alongside these two Mennonite visions of identity in the New World is a third group of Anabaptists. The Dutch and Russian Mennonites forged a cultural identity which in some way harmonized with surrounding society. This was not characteristic of this third group of Mennonites.
“What was different for these Mennonites was not their need to separate themselves from what they considered worldly American society but their lack of an alternative community with which to integrate…the church itself became an alternative and primary community and means of identity. H. Richard Niebuhr’s characterization of Mennonites as representing “Christ against culture” probably fit these Mennonites best…[they] tended to define themselves more in terms of their specific beliefs and religious practices…[living] as strangers in an American frontier shaped society. ” (Nolt, pgs. 496-497).
This third group of Anabaptists built the institution of Mennonitism, seen as a third way and not distinctly Protestant or Catholic. “Activists constructed a world of alternative Mennonite structures— eventually able to handle everything from denominational business to personal financial services” (Nolt, pg. 498). These alternative structures included published written content, private schools, missional efforts, financial loans for conscientious objectors, insurance agencies, credit unions, retirement centres, boys’ and girls’ camps, psychiatric hospitals, and travel agencies.
“The new ethnic Mennonite could send her children to school, save money, buy insurance, invest savings and plan vacations all through Mennonite institutions.”(Nolt, 499)
When this third group of Mennonites found no sub-culture into which to integrate their distinct identity, they built their own from the ground up. The result was an Anabaptist belief system operating within its own institutional infrastructure. Mennonites already viewed the world from a largely dualistic perspective. Now the in the world but not of the world mantra could be applied in almost every facet of life. This paper will focus on this third group.
Key Scriptural Texts and Interpretations
In a paper published by the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Steve Nolt observes, “Even a brief review of Mennonite history leaves one unsure whether this topic is best framed as a discussion of religion and ethnicity, or religion as ethnicity.” (Nolt, pg. 485) Mennonites find a great amount of personal meaning through their religion, so that lifestyle seems a more appropriate word. Kevin Gushiken notes, “Ethnic groups cultivate identity by constructing “group boundaries and social solidarity” (i.e., by defining and preserving ethnic thickness)…Ethnic thickness or thinness is the degree to which a person’s identification with a particular group is important or not important” (Gushiken, pg. 34). The third group of Mennonites possesses a profound sense of ethnic thickness. This ethnic identity is based largely on a specific interpretation of certain New Testament writings.
Historically, Mennonites have favoured a rather literalistic reading of scripture and certain Pauline texts in particular. Below, I will outline some of the key texts and attempt to demonstrate how these readings serve to construct gender roles and establish the normative, everyday in the Mennonite church.
In I Corinthians 11, Paul writes to the church at Corinth regarding guidelines for the church in worship. The Mennonite church has historically interpreted this passage as a call for women in the church to cover their head with a veiling when praying or prophesying. And since Paul also calls believers to pray without ceasing, many Mennonite churches require women to wear the prayer veiling continually. The veiling then also serves as a symbolic tool – women who cover their heads are easily identified as part of the Mennonite church.
I Timothy 2 is another key passage. Here, Paul gives instructions for how women ought to dress. “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (I Timothy 2:9-10). Deuteronomy 22:5 states, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.” Combining these passages, many Mennonite churches do not permit women to wear pants, which are seen as men’s clothing, and require either dresses (or “cape dresses” which are specially sewn so that less of the bodily form can be detected) or skirts. Wearing jeans (or other legged pants), shorts, or dresses which accentuate the female form is seen as sexually provocative and as a violation of Paul’s command for women to dress modestly as well as the Deuteronomistic restriction on cross dressing.
In I Timothy, Paul goes on to write, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing” (I Timothy 2:11-15a). From passages such as this, the Mennonite church has established that only men must be permitted to teach or have authority in worship settings. Women are permitted to participate in some ways, so long as their role in not one of authority over an adult male in the church, for instance: playing an instrument to accompany a male worship leader, teaching a women’s Sunday school class, caring for children, giving a personal testimony to the congregation, etc.
The third group of Mennonites has consistently found themselves existing outside the bounds of secular society. Originally, this was due to a lack of subculture with which to integrate the Anabaptist value structure in the New World. However, isolation from broader society is also largely intentional. In the Mennonite church there is often the notion that other Evangelical Christians have failed to differentiate themselves from the secular in really meaningful ways. The Mennonite church has found effective ways to accomplish this self-othering through the use of symbols. The members of most church denominations are not easily distinguished by their clothing. However, Mennonites have long set themselves apart in this way. Today, Amish men are easily distinguished by their long beards and black (or straw) hats while women are seen wearing long, plain dresses with bonnets to cover their head. Since most of the Amish travel by horse and buggy, their ethnic identity is easily observed even when passed on the road. In the following sections, this paper will observe Mennonite churches which (like the one I was raised in) which have thrown off many of the limitations embraced by the Amish (horse and buggy transportation, no electricity, homemade clothing, etc.) but which still insist on symbolic otherness by way of physical identity markers.
Many of the third-group Mennonites are descended from the Amish and employ some of the same strategies in symbolic distinguishment. Along the continuum of more and less conservative Mennonites, there are different ways of symbolically differentiating from the secular world. In more conservative Mennonite churches, men are required to wear suspenders rather than belts, and members can drive only black cars. It is of particular interest to note however, the methods employed as some Mennonite churches become less and less distinct from other Protestant denominations. There is a tendency to project the othering symbols onto women in order to conserve a distinct identity while permitting men to look and act like members of contemporary secular society.
The Head Covering
The Mennonite church interprets much of Paul’s instructions to the early church as normative teaching for the church throughout history. According to their reading, which is a distinct minority in contemporary theology, women must pray and prophecy with their head covered by a symbolic veiling. This veiling serves to fulfill Paul’s command about covering the head as well as symbolize women’s submission to men in the Christ-man-woman headship order. Women must also wear the veiling (and their hair up in a bun) in public spaces in order to signify this headship, and because they may desire to pray outside of a worship service. The result is that Mennonite women bear a symbol to the world on their heads at all times – they belong to a certain church, and they submit to the men of that church. Before any word is spoken or any act is committed, they bear a visible image which ties them to a conservative Christian belief system. They are symbolically other than the secular society into which they enter when they leave the home or the Mennonite church. Since Paul makes no comments regarding men’s outward appearance in worship (other than perhaps not having wearing long hair), the head of a Mennonite man looks the same as that of any other man one might see in the marketplace. He is not identified as Mennonite through a symbolic image on his head.
Dresses, Skirts, and Nikes
Traditionally, women in the Mennonite church were required to wear dresses when they were in worship settings or outside the home. More conservative denominations also prohibited any kind of graphics or logos on clothing. In some activities such as swimming or hiking, long pants or “modest” shorts may have been permitted. Today, some Mennonite churches still employ this as a normative requirement for Mennonite women. However, many of the children of these more conservative Anabaptists have reimagined what it looks like for women to dress “modestly.” In most of the Mennonite churches I’ve attended, women are required to wear skirts. In this way, women are permitted a bit more freedom in their clothing choices while still remaining easily identified in the public and private sphere as Mennonite.
Mennonite women today are often seen wearing name brank apparel, such as Nike shoes or other name brand clothing. They are able to participate in society’s status-signifying markers by purchasing trending brands and styles, so long as they still maintain a dress code of a long skirt to cover their legs and head veiling to cover their hair. This is evidence of the Mennonite church’s willingness to integrate into mainstream meaning-making narratives in some manner while still attempting to retain a distinct ethnic identity. Mennonite men in this environment are no longer participating in the cultivation of a symbolically other identity. They are permitted to dress in the same manner as other males in contemporary society. If you pass a Mennonite woman at Walmart, she is immediately identifiable as part of the Mennonite church. If you pass a Mennonite man, it is not in any way clear from mere appearance what religion or ethnic identity he is associated with. Mennonite women alone bear the burden of wearing the symbolic otherness which the Mennonite church hopes to keep as a core part of its identity.
Consumption & Regulation
I once heard a Mennonite man speak about his experience of finding a home in a new Mennonite church after being raised in one which tended toward hard legalism. He spoke, with a smile, about his surprise in finding this new church which had very few rules at all. However, he stated that whether or not we make them, there are always rules. This gentleman’s insight is a profound one. Whether or not there is a codified collection of rules or not, a group will establish a status quo – what is normative and what is out of bounds becomes familiar to those within the culture. In many ways a narrative embodied by the collective can be much more effective at enforcing the status quo and quelling resistance to it than can a document of rules. When acceptance into the culture or ethnic identity is predicated on keeping unwritten, but very present, rules, each one who keeps the code stamps their signature on an embodied narrative.
Who Makes the Meaning?
Power to shape the structure of community lies in the ability to assign meaning. Likewise, authority to govern rests on leaders’ ability to assign meaning. The United States Government possesses great power in that they are vested with the responsibility of telling the people what the constitution means and how that meaning will be instituted. The government assigns meaning by imposing codes and regulations – what it means to be law abiding in this town is to drive at 55 mph, and it means such because they have decided and said so. Meaning assignment is present is every aspect of culture, and those with power are those whose declarations about what things mean are accepted. When the declarations of the government are meaningless to a people, there is disorder and anarchy. This is described in the book of Judges as “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Great implications for gender roles and leadership structure lies in the Pauline texts described above. Much, perhaps most, of the nuts and bolts of Mennonite ethnic identity is built from their interpretation. Therefore, the ones who interpret those texts, whoever assigns them their functional meaning, holds a great deal of power. In the Mennonite church this has been almost exclusively men.
Since the Mennonite church does not permit women to have authority over men, and teaching of any kind is viewed as authority, women are excluded from any hermeneutical work. The interpretation, handling, and teaching of scripture is an exclusively male task. Other leadership roles which require decision making on behalf of the church (such as finance committees, mission boards, building fund managers, etc.) must be filled by men. Women are deemed unfit for this kind of work, either because their femaleness renders them inadequate for the task or because of an interpretation of scripture which restricts women from authoritative positions. In a letter to the editor of a Mennonite newspaper, a reader submits a nice summation of the Mennonite church’s historical attitude towards women.
“It doesn’t matter what [women] feel any more than it matters what I feel. It only matters what God says in His Word. Scripture does not say that women cannot lead but it does say that they are not to have authority over men. This is if they lead, they are to lead women and children, but not men. I say to these women and others that if you desire true fulfillment, then obey Christ and forget what you “feel”.(Davis, 1993)
The narrative is clear and powerful; God has restricted women to domestic, submissive, quiet roles. If that seems inequitable, undesirable, or out of step with their gifting, it is because women are resisting the true fulfillment God intends for them.
I was born and raised in the Mennonite church. For as long as I can remember the vision of life I consumed through worship services on Sunday morning and evening and through weekday life among community members was highly complementarian and male run. That preachers, worship leaders, deacons, and those in charge of anything other than food, flowers, or hospitality were male was normative. As I grew older, I was trained to develop into a leader in these kinds of roles while the girls I grew up with prepared to take on the submissive, quiet role afforded to them. One morning in the young adult Sunday school class, the teacher announced he would be gone the next Sunday, and someone would need to fill in to teach. An awkward silence pervaded the room as none of the male members of the class spoke up – it was taken for granted this was a task no female was capable of. Finally, someone broke the silence, and jokingly suggested the teacher’s wife could fill in; we could just spend the time giving each other back massages. Everyone laughed. Obviously teaching a group of people from scripture is beyond a woman’s capability, though perhaps physical service to a group would be appropriate for her skill set.
After I graduated high school, I began regularly attending the congregational meetings which took place from time to time to make collective decisions and dialogue about the future of the church. These gatherings were called “men’s meetings.” Decision making and open debate was an activity appropriate for men; if women were interested, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. The church operated from a very democratic style of leadership. Almost every issue was put to a vote: should the church buy new speakers? Who should lead VBS? Who would be the new Sunday-school superintendent? How much money would go towards missions? These were all decisions in which male members had equal voting power. In her paper Me Tarzan, Son of Menno-You Jane, Mennonite Mama, Katie Funk-Wiebe writes about gender roles in the Mennonite church.
“For men, legitimate authority to do theology is achieved by education, position, knowledge, personal charisma, and the wisdom of experience in church life. But often gender has been the first prerequisite. Young men are elected to positions in church councils or boards of elders ahead of highly experienced and educated women. Men have the authority of tradition backing them as polemicists; men have always been leaders in thought in the Mennonite church. Our Tarzans have been our male theologians. Our Janes have been our Mennonite mamas.”(Funk-Wiebe, pg. 12)
The decisions about how the church would be structured and who would fill which positions was decided democratically, but women were excluded from this decision-making process. In the Mennonite church, femaleness is an image which defines a woman’s identity much more than her gifting, experience, or skill set. By producing a vision of male competence and female domesticity, college educated women of the church are excluded from meaning making structures, like voting in meetings, which include seventeen-year-old “men”.
Paths to the Good Life
The Mennonite church has long championed a dualistic ontology in which “us” and “them” are easily distinguished. This commitment to doctrinal purity through intentional othering was also prevalent in the fundamentalist churches before the Evangelical movement (Smith, 1998). By intentionally separating from “worldly” structures through conscientious objection, prohibition, commitment to tightly-knit community etc., the Mennonite vision remains potent and distinct. Historically, conservative Mennonite and Amish communities deemed education to the 8th grade as sufficient for children who would then join a workforce trade or find a husband. The possibility of a college education has in recent decades become a more plausible option for young people in the Mennonite church.
After graduating high school, I enrolled in a four-year program to study communication. At college, I was able to integrate into the student body identity. Aside from my decidedly theologically conservative background, I was largely undifferentiated from other college students. I was able to flow freely between the world of the Mennonite church and the world of liberal arts college. My female friends from the church did not have the same experience. They were required to bear the identity of symbolic otherness at all times. In the marketplace, in college, in restaurants, in every social environment, they were easily identified as different and other. They are often asked why they wear a veiling or why they always wear dresses and skirts, the marks of symbolic otherness. They are not able to navigate seamlessly between the sacred and the secular as men are. The church’s vision for them is one of marriage and then childbearing. In the past both Mennonite men and women expressed their commitment to being separate from the world through worn symbols. More recently, that task has been relegated solely to women.
Marriage is the expected ideal of young folks in the Mennonite church. Because of the passive, receptor identity perpetuated in all the ways discussed, women are expected to wait for a male partner to approach them romantically. They may reciprocate affection shown (or not), but to approach a male with romantic interest would be decidedly non-normative. Because of the difficulty women experience in moving between the church community and the marketplace, most unmarried Mennonite women take jobs at local Mennonite-run businesses. In this space they can safely maintain the church’s dress code requirements and be sure to not rise to a position of authority over a man. They are expected to work while they wait for a Mennonite male to approach them romantically.
If they should resist the prescribed image of veiled and skirted submissive woman in order to make themselves romantically appealing to non-Mennonite men, they would find themselves in stark violation of cultural expectations expressed through an established female identity. The projected ideal is produced and maintained in this way. The line between “in” and “out” is as clear as adherence to outward identity markers, symbolic othering tools which make the lines between “us” and “them”/ “church” and “society” vividly clear. Mennonite males on the other hand are free to move between secular and sacred spaces and are unbound by symbolic othering identity markers. They might romantically pursue women who are inside or outside of the church while working at a job inside or outside the Mennonite community. This feminine ideal serves as a uniting image, the fabric of the ethnic identity.
Accepting and Resisting
In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard B. Hays examines the work of feministic theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, writing, “The patriarchal household became the model for the church, and women were explicitly relegated to subordinate roles. Schüssler Fiorenza suggests…emergent early Catholicism suppressed Christianity’s original egalitarian impulses…Even though their alternative vision lost out historically to the power of patriarchy, it stands as a faithful witness to ‘Jesus’ alternative praxis of agape and service” (Hays, 271).
Each new generation of Mennonites enters the space of establishing the ethnic identity. They must reckon with both living in the world and integrating an Anabaptist theology which recognizes Christians as set apart, a remnant operating from a different value system. What symbolic inventory will be employed in the quest to shape this set apart identity? This identity has been largely preserved through easily identifiable outward symbols worn by women. It seems a distinct theology, a way of being is much more difficult to teach and to recognize than simply instituting dress codes. Anabaptist theology is rich with distinctions such as non-resistance, believer’s baptism, and practiced generosity. Yet these “images” are much less potent, much less effective at creating cultural boundaries than physical markers.
The Amish have long practiced shunning, the disowning of those who fail to keep the community’s rules. While the Mennonite church has mostly abandoned this practice, the same effect is achieved by establishing a rigid status quo in which there is little grey area. Those who do not bear the appropriate symbols are in clear violation of the ethnic norm. This creates an ultimatum in which members either conform to the idealized image or leave the community, and it serves to implement a strong, homogenous identity. The status quo is developed through a very conservative biblical hermeneutic handled exclusively by men and carried out exclusively by women. Sexist gender role expectations are normative, and very little room for resistance or negotiation is present. These identities and ideals are produced by the men with the power to assign meaning and consumed through teaching and observance of (and participation in) the status quo of the everyday.
A Way Forward
Some of the Mennonites who came across the Atlantic to the New World found themselves estranged from all that was familiar. Like the children of Israel, they were forced to build their own ethnic identity and the systems needed to support it. Yet like Israel, the Mennonite church has often forgotten its charge to bless the nations – too often, Mennonites have built barricades between their communities and outside world. As new generations renegotiate the narrative of being in the world but not of the world, they must renounce the sexism which has pervaded the Mennonite church in the past. There is real power in the core tenets of Anabaptist theology, power enough to sustain an ethnic identity which has previously handed women the task of maintaining identity through symbolic othering.
The Mennonite church must reject the patriarchal church structure described by Schüssler Fiorenza and work toward “an enGendered story” (Funk-Wiebe, pg. 21). This story ought to recognize women as capable of exercising their gifts in hermeneutical and leadership work. It must listen incorporate their voices and empower them to demonstrate the otherness of the Mennonite way of being in the world through more than easily identifiable outward markers. Traditional Mennonite narratives have discouraged diversity and championed stereotypical gender identities through the rigid enforcement of a male-determined status quo. Inviting women into the spaces of meaning assignment (like voting, teaching, and leading) is the only way the Mennonite church will rid itself of its pervasive sexism. This would allow for a truly unique Anabaptist identity which would not rely on merely external tools for symbolic othering.
Some Resources I’ve Found Helpful
“Gender Roles and the People of God” (book) – Alice Matthews
“The Things We Do To Women” (podcast episode) – Christianity Today
“Me Tarzan, Son of Menno – You Jane, Mennonite Mama” – Katie Funk Wiebe (article)