Secret Societies, commonly called lodges, are oath-bound fraternities with more or less secret grips, signs, ritual, and the like, the most significant perhaps being the Freemasons. Persons unite with secret societies for the fellowship they provide, for the sense of security they afford, sometimes for financial benefits, and for the religious ritual they offer. It is often also a matter of prestige to be a member of a lodge. One of the oldest lodges is the Ancient Order of Free and Accepted Masons, a fraternity which probably had its beginnings in the trade guilds of the Middle Ages but which claims to have been originated by King Solomon in ancient Israel. Until the 19th century no Mennonite would have wanted to join a lodge nor would he have been accepted into lodge membership. But in the last hundred years, as Mennonites have become somewhat more culturally assimilated, there has been a tendency in the less strict congregations to tolerate lodge membership on the part of members.
The official position of the various Mennonite groups has remained one of opposition to lodge membership, however. There are five reasons for this opposition. For one thing Mennonites in all lands have always been opposed to the oath, and secret societies are oath-bound. Christ said, "But I say unto you, Swear not at all" (Matthew 5:34). In his excellent exposition of this prohibition of the oath, Christian Neff shows that Christ intended His words to be taken at their face value, for lesser oaths involving the temple or its altar are wrong precisely for the reason that they ultimately involve a real oath taken in the name of God (Matthew 23:16-22). It would therefore be impossible for a Christian who rejects the oath to unite with an oath-bound organization. But more than that, the oaths sworn by various lodges are particularly offensive by their severe sanctions, so that even some Christian denominations that do not oppose a simple legal oath nevertheless object to the oaths sworn by the Masons; this is true of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, for example.
A second reason for the Mennonite objection to membership in secret societies is the desire to be free and open witnesses for Christ and His Gospel. Christ Himself said that He had taught nothing in secret. His teaching and program were open to all. He had no secrets (John 18:20). Mennonites, seeking to follow their Lord in this respect, do not believe that it is right for a Christian to have a part in organized secrecy.
The Mennonites as a brotherhood type of church seek to avoid any inconsistent use of titles. They feel that the church should consist of believers who are spiritually on one level. Historically they called each other brother and sister. It is therefore impossible for them to reconcile the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 23:8-10) against employing such common titles as Rabbi, Father, or Teacher, or such near-blasphemous titles as Worshipful Grand Master, as are used in secret societies. The hierarchy of the lodge is for Mennonites irreconcilable with New Testament Christianity.
A fourth objection which is sometimes raised against lodges is their supposedly sub-Christian ethics. A lodge member, for example, may swear not knowingly to have carnal relations with the wife, sister, or daughter of a fellow lodge member. Why not, ask some Christians, simply become a Christian and live a holy Christian life? It is of course recognized that many lodge members would not stoop to immorality of any kind.
The most serious objection to membership in such secret societies as the Masons is their offering salvation to those who keep the rules of the lodge. All members expect to go to the "Grand Lodge Above" fully prepared to meet the "Supreme Architect of the Universe." This position is held whether or no the member believes in Christ. But Christians hold fast to the clear word of Christ that He is the only Door, that no man can come to the Father but by Him (John 10:1-18; 14:6). The apostolic message was that only through Christ could men be saved (Acts 4:12).
The Mennonite position on secret societies is set forth in the various constitutional and disciplinary standards of the several groups. In the Mennonite Church (MC) all district conference disciplines forbid lodge membership. The Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference (MC) of 7 October 1881, for instance, indicate in section 20 that membership in secret societies is "strictly forbidden." Article XIII of the "Christian Fundamentals" adopted by Mennonite General Conference (MC), 24-26 August1921, declares that secret orders are "antagonistic to the tenor and spirit of the Gospel." In its "Declaration of Commitment in Respect to Christian Separation and Nonconformity to the World," adopted by the Mennonite Church General Conference on 26 August 1955, it is stated: "We also reaffirm our age-long opposition to secret and oath-bound fraternities and lodges, holding that the principle of organized secrecy is wrong in itself, that the swearing of oaths is prohibited the Christian by the plain word of our Lord, that the hierarchical titles of the lodge are unbecoming to humble followers of Christ, that Christians ought not to be unequally yoked with non-Christians, and that in many cases lodges erroneously offer salvation to their members on other grounds than the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Lodge membership is therefore a test of membership in the Mennonite Church."
The current constitution of the General Conference Mennonite Church (1953) declares that the General Conference "believes that membership in oath-bound secret societies . . . is contrary to such apostolic admonitions as: 'Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers (II Corinthians 6:14-15).'" The earlier constitution (1896) contained a long article against secret societies, declaring that "no congregation which tolerates among its members those belonging to secret societies shall be admitted into Conference." The General Conference Mennonite Church (GMC) long had a "Lodge Committee," whose assignment was to produce literature and promote teaching against "the lodge." Among the resolutions reported by this committee and adopted by the Conference was the following (1899): "Resolved that the General Conference takes a positive stand against every kind of secret society, and that the conference considers it as necessary in order to maintain this position, that the member churches declare at the Conference, if and with what success they have laboured at cleansing their churches from members of secret societies and the Conference herewith announces that if it is found that some churches still tolerate secret society members to remain unmolested in the church, that such churches shall no longer be considered as members in the Conference." However, in spite of the vigorous position historically taken by the GCM Church, the autonomy of the local congregation and social pressures have resulted in some lodge membership in certain areas, especially east of the Kansas-Nebraska line.
The Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church also has maintained a strong position on secret societies. Its Confession of Faith contains the following declaration: "Concerning the joining of lodges or secret societies we believe and confess that there is no scriptural basis which would permit Christians to join with lodges and secret societies in view of the many unchristian practices of these organizations such as horrible oaths which members must take and because the name of our blessed Lord and Saviour is omitted or rather excluded from them." In former years all baptismal candidates were required to promise that they would not join a secret society. In many churches this practice is still continued.
The constitution of the Evangelical Mennonite Church (Kleine Gemeinde) states (1956) that church members "should not belong to a worldly or secret lodge." Other smaller Mennonite bodies have similar positions. There is no evidence of a position against secret societies by European Mennonites. However, except for the Masonic Lodge, there are few such societies in Europe. Occasionally more liberal Mennonites in Holland and North Germany have joined the Masons.
An Article on Secret Societies (Published by the Lodge Committee of the General Conference of Mennonites of North America, no date indicated-1915).
Derstine, Clayton F. The Yawning Pit of Lodgery. Eureka, IL, 1921.
Funk, J. F. "Freemasonry Again." The Herald of Truth. August 1868: 113-15.
Hartzler, J. E. "Secret Societies." Bible Doctrine. Scottdale, 1914: 560-74.
Kauffman, Daniel. "Secret Societies." Doctrines of the Bible. Scottdale, 1928: 522-31.
Krehbiel, H. P. History of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America II. Newton, 1938: 73 ff., 271-79.
Krehbiel, H. P. Unsere Stellung zu den Geheimen Gesellschaften und Warum. Berne, 1898.
Kuiper, R. B. et al. Christ or the Lodge. A Report on Masonry. Philadelphia.
Oberholtzer, J. H. "Geheime Gesellschaften." Der Wahre Character von J. H. Oberholtzer (1860): 50-54.
Schroeder, David and Esko W. Loewen. "Loyalty and Lodges." Studies in Church Discipline. Newton, 1958: 173-81.
"The World of Hiram Abif." Time (25 July 1949).
Voices Opposing the Lodge or Secret Societies Heard at the General Conference of the Mennonites of North America. Berne, 1901, German ed. same year.
Voth, H. R. Gibt es Verhalt-nisse unter uns, die ein Werben von seiten der geheimen Gesellschaften unter unsern Gliedern begunstigen? Und wie begriinden wir unsere Stellung diesen Gesellschaften gegeniiber? Gretna, 1910.
Wenger, J. C. Separated unto God. Scottdale, 1952: 191-96.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 493-494. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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