Leadership and Authority in Anabaptist and Mennonite History
Patterns of leadership and authority in Anabaptist and Mennonite groups have changed over the centuries. Historical trends in congregations and conferences have influenced present-day understandings and practices.
When the Anabaptist movement began in the sixteenth century, groups of Christians gathered to share a common life, study the Bible, admonish one another, pray, and make decisions. Within two years several leaders met near the Swiss village of Schleitheim in 1527*. They found consensus on several issues facing the young fellowships. One point of agreement referred to congregational leaders as "shepherds." According to Schleitheim the office* of shepherd shall be "to read the Scriptures, to admonish and teach, to warn, to discipline, to ban in the church, to lead out in prayer for the advancement of all brethren and sisters, to lift up the bread when it is to be broken, and in all things to see to the care of the body of Christ, in order that it may be built up and developed, and the mouth of the slanderers be stopped." In the following years "shepherds" were not the only kinds of leaders in Anabaptist congregations. Some were preachers, some admonishers, some overseers, some teachers, some bishops, and some servants of the poor or deacons.
Women shared more actively in church life among the sixteenth-century Anabaptists and Mennonites than in Protestant and Roman Catholic groups of the time. A few are known to have exercised teaching, evangelistic, eldering, and writing ministries. In the seventeenth century, Article IX of the Dordrecht Confession (1632)* included deaconesses as one of the "offices" in the church: "Also that one (i.e., the congregation) should ordain and choose honorable old widows to be deaconesses, that they, with the deacons, should visit, comfort, and care for the poor, weak, ill, distressed, and needy people, as also widows and orphans, and help to alleviate the needs of the congregation to the best of their abilities, 1 Timothy 5:9; Romans 16:1; James 1:27."
By the middle of the sixteenth century, Mennonites had generally moved toward a threefold pattern of ministry; consisting of (1) bishops or elders, (2) preachers or ministers, (3) deacons.
All of these persons were usually ordained for life. They generally also carried out their ministry in one place. This threefold pattern has continued to the present in many congregations. But it has, in this century, also changed in many other congregations. According to this pattern:
1. Bishops or elders are those to whom the "full ministry" has been committed. They have the authority to ordain, administer discipline, officiate baptism and communion services, as well as preach and teach. The bishop or elder has usually been chosen from among the preachers or ministers either by a majority vote or by lot.* Bishops' or elders' authority may be limited to one congregation or extended to several.
2. Preachers or ministers are those who help the bishops or elders in the ministry of the Word. They do not ordain others, have not been primarily responsible for exercising discipline, and have not regularly administered baptism, communion, and other ordinances. Nevertheless, preachers or ministers have usually been ordained for life.
3. Deacons have historically fulfilled many tasks. Their duties usually included caring for the poor of the congregation, assisting the bishop in the administration of the ordinances and in discipline, reading Scripture in worship services, and assisting bishops and preachers in visiting the sick. Traditionally, a man was ordained deacon for life, but in some cases could become a preacher as well as a bishop.
In the present century, women have been active as missionaries and Sunday school teachers in the Mennonite Church (MC). With few exceptions they have not served as congregational ministers. In some areas, deaconesses have played a minor role in the life and service of the Mennonite Church. In contrast to the Dordrecht Confession, the 1963 Confession of Faith* does not mention the office of deaconess.
In recent North American Mennonite (MC) history, there have been several trends. In some areas, the threefold pattern of ministry has been continued or slightly modified. In other areas, there has been a tendency to drop both the office of bishop and deacon, and to move in the direction of having one pastor. When this happens, congregations usually choose a board of elders or a church council which meets with the pastor for advice and counsel. Where the trend has been toward a one-pastor system, there has generally been increased or full financial support. Congregations have also often chosen a pastor from outside the congregation who has either Bible school or seminary training. The pastor often serves only for a limited time in one congregation, rather than "for life."
During the past twenty years other congregational leadership forms have arisen among North American Mennonites. Team ministries, elders in communal fellowships, shared leadership by a church council, and greater pastoral autonomy are a few of the leadership patterns which can also be found in Mennonite Church congregations.
There have also been significant trends in conference functions since the sixteenth century. Area conferences in the sixteenth century were usually gatherings of bishops or elders, sometimes with other ordained leaders. They met to develop common strategies for mission and evangelism, or to seek agreement on doctrinal and moral issues. They had no continuing organization which functioned between meetings.
Among North American Mennonites, district conferences began in the eighteenth century. Toward the end of the nineteenth century and during the twentieth century, district conferences began to exercise more authority among North American Mennonites. Examining and ordaining (or approving the ordination of) congregational leaders became an important conference function. The role of conference in formulating, deciding, and implementing discipline grew. Simultaneously, conference gatherings have not been limited to ordained leaders. They have included teaching and inspirational sessions, as well as action on conference policies. In addition, many conferences have staff persons and committees which cam out the work of conference between sessions.
Besides the district conferences, the Mennonite General Conference* (MC) was organized at the end of the nineteenth century. The Mennonite General Conference has usually functioned in an advisory role. It has not exercised as much decision-making authority as the district conferences. Nevertheless, it has been a major influence in the Mennonite Church life. It has adopted several significant statements such as the 1963 Confession of Faith. In 1971, the Mennonite General Conference was reorganized. It became the Mennonite Church with Regions, a General Assembly, a General Board, and other councils and program boards.
Trends in district conference authority during the twentieth century have varied from area to area. This has led to differing understandings and practices on the authority of the local congregation in relation to district conferences. According to Article VIII of the 1963 Confession of Faith, "The primary unit of the church is the local assembly of believers." The Bylaws of the Mennonite Church as adopted in 1971 at the Kitchener General Assembly reaffirm "the congregation's centrality in the life and witness of the denomination." At the same time the Bylaws affirm the tasks of districts and conferences which "may provide for fellowship, program sharing, or mutual guidance in such matters as polity and doctrine, leadership, and validation of ordination."
Mennonites in the twentieth century have also been influenced by other churches and Christian groups as well as by American society and culture. Growing individualism, widespread confusion of authority with authoritarianism, and modern organizational and management practices are present in Mennonite churches and church organizations. Through radio and television, American religious leaders have influenced Mennonites' expectations about leadership and authority in the church. Differing convictions on the role of women in church leadership are debated both among Mennonites and other Christian churches and groups.
These historical developments, changes, trends, and influences have shaped the Mennonite Church, Mennonite Conferences, and congregations in a variety of ways. In view of this variety and this history, what are the New Testament guidelines which can enable us as Mennonites to face the current challenges of leadership and authority? What changes may contribute to greater faithfulness? What changes may lead down the wrong path? We shall look first at the biblical guidelines, then at the implications of these guidelines for leadership patterns among Mennonites.
Seven Articles of
Schleitheim (Anabaptist, 1527)
Dordrecht Confession of Faith (Mennonite, 1632)
Mennonite Confession of Faith (Mennonite Church, 1963)
Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men (Mennonite Church, 1975)
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Mennonite Church/General Conference Mennonite Church, 1995)
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MLA style: Mennonite Church. "Leadership and Authority in Anabaptist and Mennonite History." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1981. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L42.html/L42_2.html.
APA style: Mennonite Church. (1981). Leadership and Authority in Anabaptist and Mennonite History. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L42.html/L42_2.html.