Avoidance, in German Meidung, popularized by some American newspapers as the "Mite." Avoidance relates to the break in fellowship, religious and social, which is occasioned by excommunication from the church fellowship, and which amounts to almost complete social ostracism. (The term "ban" is properly applied only to the excommunication and not to the ensuing avoidance.) The New Testament places much stress on the intimate life of fellowship and sharing which shall characterize the life of the members of the Christian Church. On such a premise, when anyone grows cold in the Christian life and finally reverts completely to a life of sin, it naturally becomes the duty of the congregation to remove such a person from the fellowship of the church. Avoidance is the name given to the practice of having no fellowship with such excommunicated and impenitent sinners. The New Testament instruction is "not to eat" with such a person, "not to keep company" with him (1 Corinthians 5:11). The term "avoidance" is taken from Romans 16:17 where the apostle instructs the believers to "avoid" those who work against the peace of the church. Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to "have no company" with those who disobeyed his epistle (2 Thessalonians 3:14). 2 John 10 advises not to "receive into the house (neither bid God speed) him that brings not true doctrine."
The man who introduced the practice of strict avoidance or shunning of false or erring brothers and sisters into the life of the Anabaptists was Obbe Philips of the Netherlands about 1533-35. Obbe had to deal with the hazard of the fanatical Münsterites, and in order to cope with this danger to his immature flock he instituted a severe practice of avoidance; his followers were to have absolutely nothing to do with the Münster emissaries. When Menno Simons united with the Obbenites in 1536 he also adopted the teaching on avoidance and taught it throughout his life. In his Loving admonition (1541) Menno insisted that all excommunicated persons are to be shunned, "whether it be father or mother, sister or brother, husband or wife, son or daughter, without any respect of persons." Shunning is taught also in the Amsterdam Mennonite Confession of 1627 entitled Scriptural instruction, in the Amsterdam Confession of 1630 written by Jan Cents, in the Thirty-Three Articles of Peter Jan Twisck (Article 29) and in the Dordrecht Eighteen Articles of 1632 (Article 17).
It should be noted that this doctrine was held in an effort to be absolutely loyal to every instruction in the Word of God. It was not intended to be a harsh and cold legalistic punishment lacking love and kindness. This is set forth carefully in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith". . . such moderation and Christian discretion be used, that such shunning and reproof may not be conducive to his ruin, but serviceable to his amendment. For should he be in need, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or visited by some other affliction, we are in duty bound, according to the doctrine and practice of Christ and His apostles, to render him aid and assistance, as necessity may require; otherwise the shunning of him might be rather conducive to his ruin than to his amendment (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
"Therefore we must not treat such offenders as enemies, but exhort them as brethren, in order thereby to bring them to a knowledge of their sins and to repentance; so that they may again become reconciled to God and the church, and be received and admitted into the same-thus exercising love towards them, as is becoming" (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
Menno Simons frequently expressed his concern that avoidance be not carried to harsh extremes. Rather, it was to be observed "with prayer, tears, and a compassionate spirit, out of great love," its purpose being the winning again of the impenitent one. In 1550 Menno wrote: "Such unmerciful, cruel opinion and practice I hate from all my heart .... For my heart can not consent to such unmerciful treatment which exceeds the cruelty of the common heathen and Turks .... It is contrary to all teaching of the New Testament, and contrary to the Spirit and nature of Christ, according to which all the Scriptures of the New Testament should be judged and understood."
One of the problems which caused difficulty among the early Dutch Mennonites in the practice of shunning was whether or not to require marital avoidance of an excommunicated spouse. Menno Simons was always cautious about trying to enforce marital avoidance. At the height of his powers in 1550 he advocated leniency in this matter in case the parties involved did not feel inclined to practice marital avoidance. A case in point was one Swaen Rutgers, a sister in the Emden congregation who did not feel that she ought to shun her excommunicated husband. There were some who desired to excommunicate her also. Menno objected strenuously, indicating that he would never give his consent to such a course. As late as 1558, three years before his death, Menno was still of the same mind to be lenient in cases where avoidance would involve one's spouse.
In contrast with the Dutch Obbenites and Mennonites, the Swiss Brethren never practiced avoidance in the strict sense. They did seek to obey the passage "not to eat" with an excommunicated sinner, but applied it to the communion table rather than to all social fellowship. This lack of shunning was the chief point of church practice in which the early Swiss Brethren differed from their spiritual cousins in the Low Countries. In Menno's late years (1556) he was visited for two days by two Swiss Brethren ministers of the Rhineland, Zylis and Lemke, who hoped to be able to come to a common understanding with Menno on the subject of avoidance. This common understanding was not reached during the visit. Following their return home the two men wrote to Menno, also on the subject of avoidance. Menno replied with a small book, Thorough instruction on excommunication, in which he argued eloquently, even appealing to the Latin version of the Scriptures in his desire to show that excommunicated persons should be shunned.
Menno's treatise did not have the desired result, however. Zylis and Lemke decided to bypass Menno and address themselves directly to the congregations of the Low Countries. In their unfortunate epistle they brought personal charges against Menno, accusing him of being fickle, unfit to be a leader, a man whose writings were self-contradictory. They hoped by this method to wean the Mennonites of the Netherlands away from Menno and his doctrine of shunning, although Menno was fully supported by such other leading elders as Dirk Philips and Leenaert Bouwens. Grieved and aroused, Menno then wrote his last book in 1560, entitled, Reply to Zylis and Lemke . . . . One year later when Menno died, the difference between the Dutch and the Swiss was still unresolved.
In addition to his writings in the case of Zylis and Lemke, and his incidental discussions of the subject Menno was the author of two specific tracts on avoidance, viz., A kind admonition on church discipline (1541, found in CWMS, 407-418) and Instruction on excommunication (1558, in CWMS, 959-998). The first of these was included in all later editions of the Foundation-Book.
Dirk Philips (d. 1568) was even more sharp than Menno Simons in his advocacy and practice of avoidance. His Enchiridion (first Dutch ed. 1564, many Dutch and German reprints) contains the tract Een lieffelycke Vermaninghe (van den ban) first printed in 1558, a most vigorous defense of strict avoidance. A second writing on the subject, Naeghelaten Schrift van Ban ends Mydinghe, first published in Dutch in 1602 attached to his Van die Echt der Christenen, was also reprinted in both Dutch and German.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries the conservative groups among the Dutch Mennonites continued the practice of avoidance. Among the Mennonites of Prussia and Russia it was continued into the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1950s the Old Colony Mennonites, the Bergthaler, Sommerfelder, and Kleine Gemeinde in Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay, all of direct Prussian-Russian descent, still practiced avoidance more or less strictly.
In 1693 trouble arose among the Swiss and Alsatian congregations chiefly over the matter of avoidance. A young elder named Jakob Ammann desired to introduce the practice of shunning to Swiss churches. He was supported by some ministers, and opposed by others. The end was a division between the old-line Brethren and the new "Amish." Two and a half centuries later the Old Order Amish of North America still practice the shunning for which Jakob Ammann contended. It is not definitely known where Ammann got his belief in avoidance, but it is probable that he had access to the writings of Menno Simons and was influenced by them. (The first German edition of Menno's Foundation Book was in 1575, which contained a tract on avoidance.) Also it should be noted that the elders of the churches of Alsace at a meeting in Ohnenheim in 1660 adopted the Dordrecht Confession of 1632 with its article on shunning. Dirk Philips' Enchiridion (first German edition 1715) became very popular among the Amish because of its strong teaching on avoidance.
The most continuous and consistent practice of avoidance is that by the Old Order Amish in the United States and Canada, who have continued its practice down to the present day throughout their entire fellowship. The customary practice includes refusal to eat at the same table, even within the family, the refusal of ordinary social intercourse, the refusal to work together in farming operations, etc. The ban is imposed by the bishop with the consent of the congregation, and is applied even to cases where the only "sin" is transfer to another less strict Amish or Mennonite congregation. On the point of avoidance of such members who joined other more liberal Amish or Mennonite groups, before 1900 this practice was confined to the communities east of Ohio and the Swiss Amish of Allen County and Adams Co., Indiana. By the mid-20th century this practice had been introduced in some communities west of Pennsylvania, and caused considerable dissension. In fact the practice of avoidance has been the cause of dissension in many Amish communities at various times, with occasional mutual shunning by factional groups.
From the economic point of view, the "avoidance" amounts to a boycott, and on this ground has several times been challenged in court by excommunicated former Amish members, who have brought legal action claiming damages. The most noted case was that of Yoder vs. Helmuth, 4-7 November 1947 at Wooster, Ohio, which is reported and commented on in full in Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (April 1949) 76-98. John Holdeman, the founder of the group which now bears the name Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, was once sued at law by an excommunicated member in Williams County, Ohio. This group still practices avoidance, though not as rigidly as the Old Order Amish.
The Reformed Mennonites, who also still practice avoidance, likewise suffered several law suits in Pennsylvania.
Braght, Thieleman J. van. The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs' Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus Their Saviour . . . to the Year A.D. 1660. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1951: See index. Available online at:.
The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956.
Dordrecht Confession of Faith, Art. 17.
Gascho, M. "The Amish Division of 1693-1697 in Alsace." Mennonite Quarterly Review 11 (October 1937): 235-66.
Horsch, John. Mennonites in Europe. Scottdale, 1950: Chap. 38.
Kauffman, Daniel. Mennonite Cyclopedic Dictionary. Scottdale, 1937: Shunning.
Mast, John B. The Letters of the Amish Division of 1693-1711. Oregon City, 1950.
Rideman, Peter. Account of our Religion, Doctrine and Faith (1565) (1950): 132.
Roosen, Gerrit. Christian Conversation on Saving Faith (a catechism): Question 128.
Yoder, John H. "Caesar and the Meidung," Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (April 1949): 76-98.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 200-202. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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