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 Netherlands, wrote:

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 years?

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 Bijbel.

(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?