Conversion is a complex term and broad in its usage. It is primarily used in a religious sense, but can be used more widely to describe any profound change of conviction or way of life. In its religious sense, the reference is generally to the initial stage of spiritual experience, as in moving from unbelief to faith in God, or in changing from one religious viewpoint to another. The change involved is perceived to be radical in nature and contains some element of reversal, i.e., a change between opposites. Although sometimes popularly associated with instantaneous change, the experience may take place over a longer period of time and, in any case, is usually preceded by preparatory influences and explorations.
Conversion is not self-defeating. Its exact nature and form depend upon the expectations of the belief system to which one is converted and, furthermore, upon the personality characteristics of the convert. Conversion can be described as intellectual, moral, or religious, depending on its focus in the human experience. In Christian conversion all three dimensions come into view, although differing accents appear in the various Christian traditions.
Conversion translates the biblical terms for turn or return. In the Old Testament the concept refers to the return of the people of God after leaving the way of God. The return involves both a spiritual renewal of relationship to God in covenant and a moral change toward upright living. It implies a restored life in community with the people of God. The New Testament takes up this viewpoint while expanding it. Conversion is given a special meaning by its linkage to Jesus' kingdom teaching. All are called to repent, to reorient their outlook in the light of the arriving rule of God in Jesus and his work. Even the pious in Israel must convert to this new reality that Jesus brings. This is the ground for the universal call to conversion that the church directs to people of every religious persuasion. Since the kingdom is identified with the person and work of Jesus the Christ, the call to convert (repent and believe) becomes a call to identify with Jesus Christ and to follow him. Repentance is the principal word in the New Testament to express the human decision to leave the old sinful life and to embrace the way of Jesus. Other concepts such as regeneration, new birth, new creation, justification, and sanctification speak of the divine work to effectuate and empower the new life in the believer. Conversion in the biblical sense is not just an inward, spiritual religious event; it is an event of exodus from an old life in a fallen social order into a new life in a renewed social order, which is the church. The entire person is involved in the change at the intellectual, volitional, affective, and behavioral levels.
The Anabaptists of the 16th century can well be described as a conversionist movement. They did not assume that people in the Christianized society of Europe were true believers. They directed a strong critique against that society for its moral decay and compromise. Their message was a call to renounce the life of general society and to take up a life of following Christ in the context of a believing community. Each member of the church was expected to exercise personal faith and to manifest the evidence of regeneration by a changed life. The Anabaptists, in contrast to later Pietism, had little interest in the psychological process and the inner experiences associated with conversion. They focused rather on the changed outlook on self and on the resulting changed behavior. The subjective experience, or the itinerary of the soul, is not explored. This aspect is neither denied nor suppressed; it is simply not seen as determinative. The means of conversion is the active grace of God mediated by the work of the Holy Spirit in response to faith. They insisted on baptism as a sign that conversion had taken place and rejected the concept of sacraments as the means of grace. The effect of grace was a real change in the self of the believer. Anabaptists were critical of other reformers who spoke of justification by grace its a change of status before God without equal emphasis on a real change in the believer. Neither did they distinguish sharply between justification as the initial experience, and sanctification as the later experience.
Conversion is the indispensable protection of the voluntaristic principle of the believers church. The Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition has not found it easy to preserve the earlier meaning of conversion. For a socially isolated and community oriented people, the depth of personal religious commitment in the new generations can easily he replaced with ethnic identity and cultural forms. Even where religious experience is deeply felt, there is less of a sense of sudden change than of a gradual nurturing of spirituality. The individual is formed by the community to such an extent that a personal spiritual identity can be missing or weak. Thus the meaning of conversion can be modified or lost altogether.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Mennonites have shown considerable openness to renewal influences such as Pietism, the revival and holiness movements, and, most recently, the charismatic movement. All of these movements make a greater distinction than did the Anabaptists between the initial experience (conversion) and later experiences, such as sanctification or baptism with the Spirit. As a result, many Mennonites have been led to a personal encounter of faith that makes conversion it meaningful concept, as in early Anabaptism. However, the close integration of faith and obedience, individual and community, and of new birth and Spirit, characteristic of the early movement, is attenuated or lost because these renewal movements have reflected other theological traditions and claims.
The sociological studies of Kauffman and Harder (1975) document and illustrate the variation of understandings on conversion among the Mennonite subgroups as a reflection of these influences. They also show that all contemporary Mennonite and Brethren in Christ groups continue to emphasize strongly a personal, life-changing faith in their members.
Conversion, from the Latin com, together, and vettere, to turn, means primarily a turning toward. Theologically, conversion is the changing of purpose, direction, and spirit of life from one of self-seeking and enmity toward God to one of love toward God and man (Century Dictionary).
In the English Bible the word "convert" is used seldom but the idea is very common and usually expressed by "turn" in a situation indicating religious connotation, such as, "And if thy people . . . shall turn again and confess thy name . . ." (2 Chronicles 6:24). In the New Testament this turning or conversion, commonly coupled with repentance, becomes a chief end of preaching and involves turning from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9), from vanities to the living God (Acts 14:15), from death to life (John 5:24). It is the beginning of a new life with all interests and powers of the being centered in Christ. Such a revolutionary and significant change is only conceived of as taking place by divine power, God alone creating the new heart and new spirit. "Regeneration" is employed, strictly speaking, to designate this act from the divine side, while "conversion" refers specifically to the voluntary act of the individual in turning from sin and seeking forgiveness and the new life. However, the distinction is not always maintained and the two words are often used interchangeably.
In the definitive expressions of Anabaptist-Mennonite faith and practice conversion has always occupied a key position. This is clear in 16th-century writings, testimonies, and confessions, and is reiterated in later representative writings. In all such discussions the approach is practical rather than theological and adheres closely to Biblical terms, expressions, and quotations.
Conversion-regeneration was fundamental. Early Anabaptist writers for practical purposes identify conversion with regeneration. In the same breath Menno Simons speaks of the heart "renewed, converted, justified, made pious" (Works I, 21), and also "Regeneration ... is an inward change which converts a man by the power of God" (Works I, 27). Furthermore, this single event, whether viewed from the divine or human side or from both together, was so important that it was basic to all else in the Christian life. Menno writes in his chapter on the new birth:
So also Dirk Philips: "Here the kingdom of God is absolutely denied to all who are not born again of God, and who are not created by Him anew after the inner man in His image . . ." (Enchiridion, 376).
Conversion was a prerequisite for baptism. The place of the conversion-regeneration experience in the early Anabaptist thinking was delineated clearly in contrast to other prevalent conceptions and was brought to focus in the matter of baptism. For the Catholic mind conversion consisted essentially in the acceptance of a creed and the authority of the church. The Reformers broke with this idea in principle and taught rebirth through faith as necessary to true conversion. In practice they were unable to carry it out in the indiscriminate membership of the state church. As a result regeneration became separated in thought from moral change, with infant baptism serving as the occasion for an inner spiritual regeneration which sometime later would produce the moral fruits of conversion. The Anabaptist-Mennonite fathers broke with the reformers at this point, insisting on the application of rebirth to all members of the visible church. They refused to see regeneration, conversion, and amendment of life as anything but a single transaction essential for all true believers. It was therefore essential for baptism, since only true believers could compose the church. The Schleitheim Confession in its first article expresses the position which was repeatedly reaffirmed: "Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who truly believe that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . and to all those who with this significance request it ... for themselves. This excludes all infant baptism . . ." (Mennonite Quarterly Review XIX, 1945, 248). Thus, through baptism, conversion became the key to voluntary church membership and the Anabaptist brotherhood, a pattern for free churches to follow.
A further point to be noted is that conversion-regeneration marked the entrance into a New Covenant of which baptism was the external sign and seal. The authority of God and God's word was always in the background and the believer entered the new life with a sense of absolute responsibility to obey. This became the foundation of Anabaptist piety; hence amendment of life and obedience to the word of Christ was a necessary concomitant of conversion. Thomas von Imbroich wrote (1558): "Penitent faith is confessed, and so to speak, sealed with Christian baptism. For, after baptism, a constantly good and godly life should follow" (Martyrs' Mirror, 356). This "good and godly life" was part of the expression of a deeper obligation to obedience under suffering which was well expressed by the Hutterite Peter Walpot in writing to the Polish apothecary Simon (1571). Simon had written that "so far everything has been easy and lovely." Peter replies, "It may be that you will suffer martyrdom, my Simon . . ." and then recounts the Hutterite sufferings—wanderings, imprisonment, bonds, death—and continues: "If you should be alone in such an experience, . . . then things will look otherwise. Then you will be for once pushed into the furnace of testing and it will become known what is in your heart. If you desire to become a true disciple and follower of Christ and a member of his church, then you must certainly prepare yourself for such experiences." This emphasis in thought on godly living and obedience in suffering was not based on the idea of performing good works and obtaining merit, which the Anabaptists were careful to disclaim, but on the necessary association of faith and love and the identification of the believer with the living Lord. Conversion was an integral part of the life that was to follow which they saw as "nothing but pure dying and suffering" (Martyrs’ Mirror, 355).
It would be misleading to assume that the ideals and practice of the 16th-century church have been uniformly maintained throughout the intervening centuries. Deviations have been brought about in three ways. First, with the cessation of persecution and with acceptance by society, the ideal of the suffering church became less distinct. Mennonites entered the world in a way impossible for their forefathers with consequent distraction from religious ideals. Conversion became less vital though the form of voluntary decision with adult baptism was always retained. Secondly, where the attempt was made to retain separation from the world on a racial, linguistic, or other formal basis the place of group membership by birth practically beclouded the importance of church membership by rebirth. Thirdly, there came the pietist-revivalist movement which tended to re-emphasize the place of conversion with its spiritual significance. New Mennonite movements arose based on spiritual experience and even cataclysmic conversion. These provided a needed corrective to formalism and secularism but often carried a subjective emphasis on conversion as an experience for its own sake, and by itself, disconnected from the life of suffering and obedience of the martyr days. In some modern Mennonite groups considerable weight is laid on a personal confession of a definite and precise momentary conversion experience as a prerequisite for baptism and church membership. This is particularly true of the Mennonite Brethren Church and related groups and the United Missionary-Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church. The course of these deviations can be traced in Mennonite histories and is well discussed in Robert Friedmann's Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries.
Augsburger, Myron S. "Conversion in Anabaptist thought." Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (1962): 243-255.
Beachy, Alvin J. The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation. Nieuwkoop: De Graff, 1977.
Braght, Thieleman J. van. Het Bloedigh Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen, Die om ‘t getuygenis van Jesus haren Salighmaker geleden hebben ende gedood zijn van Christi tijd of tot desen tijd toe. Den Tweeden Druk. Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts, … 1685. Part II.
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. Available online at: http://www.homecomers.org/mirror/index.htm.
The Complete Works of Menno Simons. Elkhart, 1871.
Dirk Philips, Enchiridion or Hand Book of the Christian Doctrine and Religion. Elkhart, 1910.
Dyck, Cornelius J. "The Life of the Spirit in Anabaptism." Mennonite Quarterly Review 47 (1972): 309-326.
Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, 1949.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of FIve Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1975, esp. 84-91.
Schmidt, Henry J., ed., Conversion: Doorway to Discipleship. Hillsboro, Ks.: Mennonite Brethren Pub. House, 1980.
Wenger, J. C. The Doctrines of the Mennonites. Scottdale, 1950. Appendices contain in conveniently accessible form English translations of five early confessions and catechisms, with their statements regarding conversion and regeneration.
Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978.
Zieglschmid, A.J.F. Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder: Ein Sprachdenkmal aus frühneuhochdeutscher Zeit. Ithaca: Cayuga Press, 1943: 456
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 704-705; v. 5, pp. 205-206. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Brunk, George R., III and S. F. Pannabecker. "Conversion." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C671ME.html.
APA style: Brunk, George R., III and S. F. Pannabecker. (1989). Conversion. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C671ME.html.