Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
Global Anabaptist: Stories from the global Mennonite church
On June 17, 1913, some 60 people, representing eight different missionary societies, met in Kikuyu, Kenya, for a landmark conversation about the future of the growing Protestant church in the region. Although the Kikuyu Conference of 1913 is largely forgotten today, the debate that unfolded at the gathering had far-reaching consequences. And the issues they raised continue to be relevant for the church today.
As in many colonial settings, the first Protestant missionaries to East Africa agreed to focus their efforts in distinct geographical areas, with the Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and other groups each concentrating their work in a defined region.
Over time, however, the introduction of the railroad, improved roads and new forms of employment led to growing geographic mobility. As a result, members of one Protestant church frequently relocated to regions that were dominated by another denomination. So the question emerged: Did newcomers need to “convert” to the new church, or could they participate in Communion and the life of the local congregation while still retaining membership in their home denomination?
When church leaders gathered at Kikuyu in 1913 to discuss the matter, the conversation took an unexpected turn. Instead of simply defining a policy regarding Communion and membership, participants asked an even more fundamental question: Should the growing Christian church in East Africa continue to replicate the historic denominational churches of the West? Or should it create a new body—a united Protestant church—defined by the distinctive cultural context and theological priorities of its indigenous members?
The questions raised by the Kikuyu Conference of 1913 have not gone away. In the coming decade, most of the major groups that emerged from the Protestant Reformation—Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed and Anabaptists—will commemorate the 500th anniversary of their origins. Those commemorations will inevitably recall the historical details of the founding heroes and remind members of the theological principles that were at stake in the divisions of the 16th century. What is less clear is exactly what these divisions 500 years ago mean for the global church in cultures and contexts far from Europe and North America. Should the church-dividing debates of the Reformation still matter to Christians in Ethiopia, Indonesia, Bolivia or the Congo today?
One way of answering that question was suggested by a recent gathering in Guatemala of nearly 120 Latin American Mennonite church leaders. Meeting as a “Consultation of Anabaptists in Latin America,” leaders from 19 countries recognized their shared challenges.
In many Latin America countries, theological identity is shaped within a complex kaleidoscope of Catholic, indigenous, liberationist, evangelical and neo-Pentecostal influences. The legacy of colonialism continues to find expression in political instability, autocratic forms of leadership, and vast disparities of income. And the insatiable North American hunger for illegal drugs fuels a booming narcotrafficking business, with all its attendant violence.
Yet as the group worshipped, read Scripture, reflected, prayed and argued together, several distinctive theological motifs emerged in response to these challenges. Most participants, for example, acknowledged that God’s gift of forgiveness, compassion and grace was to be shared with others, including those on the margins, and even the enemy.
The church, they agreed, was not an institution but a living community of real people, whose love for each other witnessed to the coming kingdom of God. True Christian leaders would be recognized by their humility and readiness to draw on the gifts of all their members.
To be sure, disagreements were also evident. Some church leaders took issue with the critique of neo-Pentecostalism, and not all were enthused about ecumenical conversations with Catholics. But the conversations were open and honest.
At stake was not a defense of “Mennonite” identity. Nonetheless, the consultation concluded with a strong affirmation for a distinctive witness in Latin America, one with an Anabaptist inflection.
The legacy of the Anabaptist movement still matters to the global Mennonite church 500 years later. And I hope the leaders who gathered in Guatemala in 2014 will also gather in Switzerland in 2025 to commemorate Anabaptist beginnings. But the goal is not the preservation of a denominational identity inherited from the missionaries.
Rather, it is to nurture a living tradition, enlivened by local readings of Scripture, strengthened by the insights of many members, enriched by conversations with other Christians, that bears witness to the gospel in a rich variety of cultural forms.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.
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