In our present culture there is a lot of labeling that goes on. Two of the more popular political labels are “liberal” and “conservative.” The terms are broad, but give a general idea of the approximate leanings of the person being discussed. When talking about spiritual things, those terms typically refer to how literally a church group interprets and applies the Bible in its theology and to the lives of its members.
I was raised with a deep respect for the Scriptures and my college training only enforced that view. (For those who might wonder, becoming Catholic has given me an even deeper reverence for the Scriptures as the written Word of God.) When I began this journey, my measuring stick was the Bible and my desire was to be as Biblically correct as possible. In my view, those churches which were most conservative in their interpretation of Scripture were the ones to look to for the truest understanding. Also, I was grateful to have one friend who was interested and willing to study these things with me. Her husband took an interest as well and they ended up studying together. Since both her husband’s background and Nolan’s were Mennonite (and she and I had grown up in the same EMC church as well), it was natural to look to the Mennonites first.
“Conservative Mennonite” is a broad term for a number of church groups who subscribe to Mennonite theology and strive to live it as authentically as they can. There are, of course, varying opinions on how that is to be lived, but they are in agreement with one another on most points. You can identify them most easily by their mode of dress.
Conservative Mennonite women wear dresses and head-coverings. The style and type depends upon the group, but the dresses are usually long, often with the bodice having two layers (the cape dress is typical). Sleeves are worn longer rather than shorter. Colors are usually pastels or dark. They also wear a head covering of some type, based on the teaching of I Corinthians 11. The most common is the white bonnet-style made of netting with the ties hanging in the back. Those familiar with the different groups can identify one from another by head-covering style.
Conservative Mennonite men typically don’t wear denim jeans, but they are seen here and there. Often the pants are kept up with suspenders rather than belts and shirts are plaid or plain, but not t-shirts (unless underneath). It’s pretty common that married men have beards, but not always mustaches.
As far as theology, Mennonites believe in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God which is to be obeyed in every respect. They emphasize the need for personal holiness, evangelism, obedience to authority, separation from the world and non-resistance in matters of war and violence. These are only the main points in a nutshell; obviously there are books written on Mennonite theology and the different nuances in the different groups.
As I said, since Nolan’s roots are Mennonite, considering Mennonite churches was a natural consideration. There are also conservative Mennonite relatives and friends, so it isn’t an unheard of thing in his family. I, personally, find their way of life, especially their strong sense of community and family, to be very attractive. In a world of constant change, they’re pretty slow to accept it. I like that. They put a lot more thought into accepting the latest gadgets than 99% of the rest of the population. They put a lot of emphasis on simple and plain living so that they are not distracted so much from seeking God. And they have a pretty good retention rate among their children. I can’t say that about a lot of churches today.
However, although Nolan could have been pretty comfortable with the non-resistance stance, I’m not. I come from a family that highly values the military. Pop served in the Army and had an extensive collection of books on the American wars (most of which I now have). I was always taught that we owe a great debt to our soldiers who have paid the price for our freedom. Also, I couldn’t find in Scripture where military service was forbidden to Christians. Soldiers were instructed to be content with their pay, not leave the army. Feeling I couldn’t be faithful to one of the major tenants of Mennonite belief, I started looking at other Conservative groups that were not Mennonite.
There are many churches who desire to live as the New Testament church lived. There’s a lot of talk about getting “back to the basics” of Christianity. However, as you can imagine, what that means varies widely.
I found some pretty vehement disagreements about things like cutting/not cutting hair, sleeve lengths, head covering types, etc. Can a Christian divorce? Can they remarry? In some groups if a family wishes to join, but the marriage is a second one, the husband and wife must separate. The children live with one parent while the other parent lives alone.
There are groups who teach that an adult child is to obey his parents his entire life, even after the child marries and has his own children. Then there is the question of courtship and marriage of children. Some groups are so limited that there isn’t anyone available for the kids because their theology is so specific on what the potential spouse must believe. Sometimes the requirements of courtship were such that I wondered how they could even meet a potential spouse.
The more groups I looked into, the more I became frustrated as well by the undercurrent of superiority that led to a lot of church splits. Once a split would happen, this one wouldn’t fellowship with that one because it allowed radios while this one didn’t. This one wouldn’t allow something while another one would, but neither provided any real reason from Scripture that stood up to questioning. I was also surprised by how few of them acknowledged that maybe, just maybe, people outside their church might just go to Heaven as well.
Then there was the issue that, for a lot of them, questioning on the part of women wasn’t allowed. Or, on the flip side, while preaching the absolute obedience to husbands on the part of wives, church leaders would instruct the women that, even if their husbands didn’t like it, because the Bible taught that women were to wear dresses and head coverings all the time, they were obeying God and could disobey their husbands in that. (However, there isn’t anywhere in Scripture that defines dresses as women’s clothing. That is something from Western culture, not scriptural mandate. Another post, another time…)
Even as I have worked on this post and read it over, I feel again the frustration of that time. I so badly wanted to know the truth and it seemed that not only were there a lot of folks claiming to know what that was, they were all claiming they knew they were right because of the “leading of the Holy Spirit.” Wow! If that’s the case, the Holy Spirit was awfully confused!