National Lutheran News

Lutheran church builds bridges, works toward healing with Mennonite neighbors

This summer the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) made a significant step in building bridges with the Mennonite church. At the Eleventh Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), delegates asked the Mennonites for forgiveness for past persecutions, namely violent persecutions of Anabaptists (the root of the Mennonite church) during the Reformation era.

The formal apology was based on work done by the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, 2005-2009, which produced the report “Healing of Memories: Reconciling in Christ,” which was approved by the LWF Council in 2009.

Lutheran World Federation (LWF) President Bishop Mark. S. Hanson, holding a pine foot-washing tub, leads participants from the plenary hall to the Alte Reithalle for a “Service of Repentance” — a special church service that followed the historic July 22, 2010, reconciliation action between Anabaptists and Lutherans at the Eleventh LWF Assembly in Stuttgart, Germany. Janet Plenert, executive secretary (Witness), Mennonite Church Canada, and vice president of the Mennonite World Conference Executive Committee, is shown at left. Copyright: Lutheran World Federation

The reconciliation effort from the Lutheran church  is beginning to shift the ways the Mennonites express their faith.

According to a release from Lutheran World Information (LWI), in the report “Lutherans repent for violent persecution of Anabaptists and for ways in which Lutheran reformers supported persecutions with theological arguments.”

The statement asked for forgiveness from “God and our Mennonite sisters and brothers” for past wrong doings and the ways that Lutherans subsequently forgot or ignored this persecution and have continued to describe Anabaptists in misleading and damaging ways, according to LWI.

The Rev. Mark Hanson, president of LWF and presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said, “This public act of repentance, with many delegates on their knees, was a powerful witness to the healing of wounds in Christ’s body, the church. With tears in our eyes, we heard promises of God’s mercy in Christ and words of forgiveness from Mennonite sisters and brothers as we received and shared God’s gift of forgiveness and healing.”

For members of the Mennonite Church, the asking of forgiveness is broadly significant. David Boshart, executive conference minister of Central Plains Mennonite Conference, said that after 400 years of largely being ignored, Mennonites are taken aback that they are being noticed by larger affiliations, like the Lutheran church.

A history mostly unknown

The Rev. Joetta Schlabach, pastor of Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis, feels that the interest in the Mennonite faith, which has about one million members nationwide, from the much larger Lutheran church “validates the Mennonite faith.”

Both Boshart and Schlabach have found that their Lutheran colleagues and friends in ministry were largely unaware of the Anabaptist persecution during the Reformation, prior to a few years ago. However, in the Mennonite tradition, the persecutions have shaped the way they understand their faith.

“A lot [of Lutherans] don’t know the history way back. In confirmation, Lutheran students don’t learn about the memory of ‘those naughty Anabaptists.’ Mennonites remember, while Lutherans are not taught that,” Schlabach said.

Now the reconciliation effort from the Lutheran church, as well as the Catholic church, also working on reconciliation efforts with Mennonites, is beginning to shift the ways the Mennonites express their faith. Throughout their history, Mennonites have claimed a martyr tradition. However, recent acts of reconciliation are beginning to shift the way Mennonites are articulating their faith.

“To talk about the martyr tradition, Mennonites tend to wear it as a badge of honor, in a way. We have formed our identity in ways that are not very healthy — we are ‘more holy’ than others because we have been tested by fire,” Boshart said. “When Lutherans want to reconcile, it takes away that badge of honor. We now have to ask what it means to be a reconciled church. It is an identity shift. It will shape how Mennonites see ourselves,” he said.

“A lot [of Lutherans] don’t know the history way back.”

Boshart also notes that, along with the shift through the acts of reconciliation, Mennonite theology is at a point that it is “coming into our own” and in recent history is being recognized for its uniqueness.

“Today we are being discovered by traditional Christian traditions,” Boshart said, noting that many are seeking guidance from the Mennonite tradition.

“We are grateful for the partnership,” he said.

Schlabach, a lifelong Mennonite, said she has great ecumenical partnerships in her congregation and has worked with several Lutheran pastors throughout her ministry, as well as pastors from other Protestant denominations.

One recurring theme that Boshart has found is that while mainline denominations are currently experiencing steep membership declines, they are seeking advice from the Mennonite church on how they have survived for so long without “being propped up by the powers of society.”

“Mainline Protestants and Catholics have traditionally been supported by the state and society,” Boshart said, noting, “We have things to learn from the Protestants, as well.”

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