I’ve heard the question “What do Mennonites believe?” a lot in my life. It came up every once in a while during my childhood, and then it really took off when I went to college and met a lot of people for whom Mennonites were definitely not the norm.
Despite the fact that there is a book called What We Believe that I had to read for my baptism into the Atlantic Coast Conference Mennonite churches, I always had a hard time answering this question since it could entail so much.
That’s why I recently narrowed it down to five points. These five concepts are, more than any others, the baseline beliefs for Mennonites that set them apart from other denominations, including some other Anabaptist sects.
Keep in mind that Mennonite beliefs can vary from church to church and person to person. There’s no overriding, universally-accepted practices.
However, there are a fair amount of universally-accepted beliefs, whether they’re actively practiced in individuals’ lives or not.
This is a list of the bare-bones Mennonite beliefs that are shared across conferences, churches, and individuals:
- Baptism is a choice
- New Testament overrides Old Testament
- Be in the World — Not of the World
We’ll start with the belief that all Anabaptists embrace before jumping into some of the more Mennonite-centric stuff.
#1. Baptism Is a Choice
In almost every denomination of Christianity, baptism is a rite of passage that’s performed on a baby shortly after birth.
Once they’re baptized, they’re able to enter Heaven.
The reason this is so important is because many denominations — including Catholics — believe that people can’t get into Heaven unless they’re baptized, and that includes newborn babies.
(Which, if you think about it, is a horrid thing to tell someone who lost a child.)
Mennonites and other Anabaptists don’t believe in this “checklist” concept of Heaven. They generally believe that you get into Heaven based on your personal beliefs and the merits of your character.
So for Mennonites, baptism is a choice. They’re not worried about babies getting left in Purgatory by means of a technicality — they’re worried that someone understands the belief system and chooses to be an exemplar of it.
That’s why many Mennonite denominations choose to prohibit baptism until at least the age of 18 (although some allow it earlier). This is when someone can make the choice to become baptized by learning Mennonite history and beliefs while seeking counsel with a pastor or a member of a Mennonite conference.
Only when someone has gone through these discussion sessions and readings can they choose to become baptized.
At that time, there’s usually a brief ceremony worked into a normal Sunday church service.
The individuals to be baptized get in front of the congregation, discuss their story, and talk about why they want to become baptized. In my case, I and five other people in my graduating class
Individuals can be baptized with a little bit of water or full submersion, depending on what they want.
Afterward, there’s usually an informal welcoming session where members of the congregation meet, congratulate, and welcome the baptized into the church.
That’s because Mennonite churches have a membership system. This system requires all members to be baptized within an existing Mennonite church in order to be considered a member.
What are the benefits of membership?
I don’t actually know. I’m assuming your name goes in a database somewhere, but I haven’t heard much from my former church, congregation, or conference since I was baptized 13 years ago.
Regardless, we sped past an important part of the baptism process that we need to rewind to understand — learning and understanding Mennonite beliefs themselves.
The next four beliefs are all conveyed in that learning process. While there are more than just these four, these are the general notes you should know.
#2. New Testament Overrides Old Testament
In the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying he arrived on Earth to “fulfill” the old law, meaning the Old Testament.
This causes some confusion for people who have actually read the Bible for themselves (as opposed to having someone tell them an interpretation of it) since Jesus does a lot of things against the old law, including ignoring dietary restrictions and implying that women could divorce their husbands.
So what’s a good Mennonite to do?
Since Mennonites are a branch of Christianity, it means they accept the concept that Jesus was the Messiah of mankind.
That means they believe in Jesus more than they believe in the Old Testament (generally speaking).
For that reason, most Mennonites follow the New Testament more than the Old Testament. There’s some variance in this, especially once politics are taken into consideration, but this is the general sentiment of the existing Mennonite conferences.
In other words, if Jesus did something that didn’t follow traditional Jewish law at the time, then Jesus’ practice is what Mennonites will follow.
This is especially true for the next two beliefs that Mennonites hold.
Nonviolence is a key part of the Mennonite belief system. As we mentioned in our piece about Amish vs. Mennonite, the founder of the Mennonite faith (Menno Simons) embraced nonviolence after his brother was killed by a militant Catholic group attempting to retake a monastery.
After that, Menno renounced his Catholic priesthood and joined the Anabaptists before gaining popularity and distinction in the vein of nonviolence.
This was a pretty radical idea for the 1500s where countries settled disputes over minor insults with wars of attrition, and it continues to be an integral part of the Mennonite faith today.
The idea is that Jesus never had to act out in violence (at least it’s not recorded in the New Testament).
If someone truly wants to emulate the ways of Jesus, then they should likewise reject notions of violence.
Many Mennonites take this to the extent of the “turn the other cheek” metaphor. Even if you’re attacked, it’s better to remain passive and nonviolent than it is to retaliate out of anger.
This concept has morphed, especially in recent years. Mennonites can and do enlist in the military, commit crimes, and partake in other forms of violence or violence-adjacent activity.
Still, nonviolence remains a cornerstone of the Mennonite belief system, whether individuals observe it or not.
In conjunction with nonviolence, Mennonites believe heavily in the concept of forgiveness.
Again, this is a concept inspired by Jesus’ teachings and actions in the New Testament. In theory, it means that Mennonites reject the concept of “an eye for an eye,” as exemplified in the Old Testament.
Instead, Mennonites believe that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. It’s better to be able to forgive someone than it is to hurt them in response.
This is excellent in theory, but it’s also a challenging practice that looks different outside of a church sanctuary than inside of it.
However, it comes from Jesus’ final action after he was crucified where the Penitent Thief (in the Book of Luke) asked Jesus for forgiveness as he was dying.
This is juxtaposed with the Impenitent Thief, who was on the other side of Jesus and refused to ask for forgiveness.
Despite openly admitting to breaking one of the Ten Commandments and only meeting Jesus moments before his death, the Penitent Thief is forgiven.
This showing of grace — or undeserved mercy — is the underlying foundation for why Mennonites believe so heavily in forgiveness. It’s not just an empty gesture. It’s something that can help save someone’s immortal soul.
Altogether, these beliefs amount to a philosophical concept that Mennonites observe.
#5. Be in the World — Not of the World
In the Book of John, Jesus says something to the effect of “be in the world — not of the world.”
This is the umbrella concept that Mennonites follow, which encompasses other ideas like forgiveness and nonviolence.
The overarching idea is to resist the world’s tendencies toward violence and hate, instead making yourself an individual bastion of peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.
It’s the ultimate calling for a person who sincerely believes in the tenets set out by the Mennonite conferences, and it’s a daily challenge in terms of willpower.
(The Amish also believe this concept, but they take it to a far greater extreme.)
Regardless, this belief is core to the Mennonite experience. You can exist within the world and all of its machinations — but you’re called to stick to your principles, even when the world is forcing you otherwise.
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