Name Tags (“Hutterite,” “Anabaptist,” or whatever)
Many call us
Hutterites. Most of us, at Elmendorf, speak a language we
identify as “Hutterisch.” Others identify us, more
specifically as “Schmiedeleut Hutterites,” or less
specifically as “Anabaptists.”
After becoming aware of this, Klaas, a believer from the
I must say that we
have always been wary of nametags. We want to characterise
ourselves as believers or brethren, not as neo- Anabaptists
or whatever. Not that we do not feel many many ties with
you and others, but names like Amish, Mennonites,
Anabaptist, were not taken up by the groups themselves but
given to them by others. Our previous group was called
Darbyists, or Plymouth brethren, names we in
earlier days abhorred. . . . I feel we always discredit the
power of the Lord in our practical life when we put up a
nametag. Paul points out the pride of the various groups
who state: "I am of ..." What strikes me most in the
history of the Anabaptist movement is their humility
(Demut). By the time they started calling themselves
Wederdopers / Doopsgezinden / Mennisten I feel they had
started to lose this original state of mind.
To this, our brother Peter replied:
I cannot help, as I
read this, to find myself inwardly siding with you. In your
analysis of the Anabaptist experience I think you are one
hundred percent correct. For that reason I have long
avoided using group names whenever possible. But is it
always possible? I have had some tough experiences in the
field. . . . We do not like the names Hutterite,
Anabaptist, etc. either (in the light of 1 Corinthians 3)
but are we honest by talking ourselves around them
completely? It is almost like insisting my name is just
"man," not Peter.” How could we live on the Minnesota
prairies in what is very obviously a “Hutterite Colony” and
suddenly say we are not Hutterites, just “Christians”? It
may be possible for new churches (churches without any
history) to identify themselves like this. But is it
possible for movements that have survived for hundreds of
To this Klaas responded:
Je voorbeeld met m'n
naam lijkt me wat minder van toepassing hier. God kent me
bij m'n naam (Ik heb u bij uw naam geroepen, gij zijt
mijn), en roept de mens vele malen in de Bijbel bij zijn
naam. Nooit hoeven we onze naam te verbergen. De groep
echter waar ik toe behoor mag niets anders zijn dan de
plaatselijke verwezenlijking van het lichaam van Christus.
In Antiochië werden ze voor het eerst christenen genoemd,
maar de term zelf vinden we nergens verder gebruikt in de
(In free translation: Your example with my name reminds me
of something else that would fit here. God knows me by my
name—I have called you by your name, you are mine—and often
calls men by their names, in the Bible. We do not need to
hide our names. The group I belong to, should be nothing
but the local representation of the body of Christ, so why
should we call it anything but Christian as in Antioch?
There they were first called Christians, but the term
itself does not appear in the Bible again.)
* * * * *
In conclusion Peter wrote:
I am sure all of you
recognise a complex issue here, for our times. How do we
identify ourselves? Is our means of identity important?
How can we honestly identify ourselves, without somehow
damaging the New Testament teaching of one, holy, true
bride of Christ? Some groups make it simple, of course, by
insisting they are the bride of Christ in its entirety. But
I am sure none of us hold to such an arrogant belief.
A month ago our local Mennonite Brethren congregation
changed its name to “Community Bible Church.” A fast
growing trend among other Anabaptist groups is to call
themselves “Christian Fellowships,” “Christian communities”
and the like. And anyone familiar with America knows that
“Churches of Christ,” “Churches of God,” “Churches of God
in Christ,” “Brethren,” “Brethren in Christ,” “Bible
Brethren,” “Grace Brethren,” along with Disciples of
Christ, Christian Believers, Apostolic Christians, and the
like, proliferate. Besides these we have the “Local Church”
movement of Witness Lee, and numberless “ministries” each
with a page or more on the web.
One could sit down like Ezra, astonished. Or wish this
entire confusion (if it is indeed confusing) would just
take wings and fly away.
But it won’t.
And as long as time continues, churches, like people, will
need and get names.
Several years ago a bold new trend in marketing produced
“generic products” (plain white boxes marked only “Corn
Flakes,” “Spaghetti,” or “Salt”). But the trend quickly
died. People insisted on knowing what kind of corn flakes,
spaghetti, or salt they were buying.
They will insist on the same for Christian churches.
For a number of years, as a young missionary, I tried
telling people I was “just a Christian.” But eventually I
began to feel sorry for them, and at the same time a bit
sneaky in the act—like a con man hiding my true identity.
Time after time, in airports, on the street, and in Latin
American cities I noticed the slightly exasperated look on
their faces (Groan . . . here we go again!) as they tried
some new tack to get out of me what I REALLY was. Finally,
after many a lame and senseless conversation I just up and
told them: “Look, we are a church that has come from the
Anabaptist movement. People call us Mennonites!” That
always cleared the air and gave us an honest place from
which to start talking.
With time, I have come to suspect the whole issue of what
to call, or what NOT to call ourselves, might be just
another word game. Or that every local church—no matter
what it calls itself or doesn’t—ends up “making its name”
like every John or Mary in town.
Since then I have stopped paying much attention to what
anyone calls himself (the most pretentious group names
notwithstanding), and just take people for who they are.
Then it is not confusing.
Do we gain anything by refusing to call a spade a spade?
Many groups insisting they are JUST CHRISTIAN (usually the
only Christians around) detest whatever identities people
give them. But should an unnamed person get upset if
someone calls him more than just “man”? Would we hurt
ourselves by just being straight-forward and humbly
admitting who we are?
What I have come to take from Paul’s admonition to the
Corinthians (in 1 Cor. 3:1-11) is that no particular name,
but the spirit of division and religious pride is sin. If
in any way I lift myself, my group, or my movement, above
others I am not like Christ. If I run after any man I run
in vain. Men and movements will let us down but Jesus
Christ and his Church go on forever.
The negative side of using church names is the association
it might form with people that hold to something far
different than we. But is that problem as serious as we
tend to think? I remember speaking with a Mexican policeman
in Chihuahua around 20 years ago. He knew I was a
Mennonite. Of course—he heard my wife and I speaking a
Mennonite language, he saw us dressed like Mennonites and
knew we lived on a Mennonite Colony. He also knew the
social and moral difficulties that colony was facing. But
in speaking with me he promptly learned I was a believer
and a fascinating conversation ensued. “I never met a
Mennonite Christian before,” he told me.
In his mind “Mennonite” meant something very much like
“Eskimo,” “Armenian,” or “Southerner.” No doubt that is
about all the word “Hutterite” or “Schmiedeleut” means to
most people today.
Names may sound strange or funny to us. We may use them
where necessary, and abandon them where convenient. In
themselves they are nothing to attack or defend—mere sounds
for identification. Could we live one with another if we
just left the matter at that?