It was a friendly letter, gently written, but made a claim that always makes me grind my teeth. The writer had come across an old article of ours that called Menno Simmons, founder of the Mennonites, a heretic. A Mennonite herself, she objected.
On Sunday, she’d heard a young man teaching Sunday school attack the pope without understanding what he was saying. Then on Monday, looking up Jan Hus, she found the article, which she thought did the same thing in reverse. She had a point about the writer not knowing what he was saying. The article wrongly claimed that the Quakers and the Amish were Mennonite, for example, and called Quakers “conventional Protestants with an emphasis on peace,” which would surprise both Quakers and conventional Protestants.
She wanted respect from both sides, and rightly. “I’ve suggested to our ministry team and I shall suggest to you that the message of Jesus Christ is so rich, so full, that our churches should be focused on the Gospel alone,” she wrote. “To tear down another faith — especially by someone who is unfamiliar with it — only serves to draw attention from the message of Jesus. It is a distraction from what we all as Christians should be focusing on.”
Yes. And no. Yes, don’t tear down a faith, especially one you don’t understand. But no, don’t focus on “the Gospel alone” as Mennonites understand it. I don’t raise this to be contentious. But the appeal to an abstract “Gospel” absent the Church (and the life she passes on to us) as the pillar and ground of truth is something the Catholic can’t let pass. That’s not what “the Gospel” means. We would be unfaithful to the Gospel if we didn’t object.
I’ve myself long admired the Mennonites in general, and the ones I’ve known in particular. They range from near-Amish to near-Evangelical, separated from the first by being less strict and more engaged with the wider world, and from the second by being more committed to their community and a simple way of living. Their major theologian, John Howard Yoder, author of the Anabaptist classic The Politics of Jesus, became a professor of theology at Notre Dame.
The Mennonites live one form of radical Christianity. The world would be a much better place were more Christians Mennonites. The Church would be greatly improved did more Catholics live the Faith as seriously as the Mennonites do, and in some of the ways they do. We’d have a much greater witness to a world that desperately needs it.
But I’d also have to say that as much as we admire our Protestant brothers of all sorts, and brothers like the Mennonites especially, we can’t grant the common Protestant assumption about the “the Gospel alone.” The Gospel includes all the gifts God has given us. The presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, given to us bodily in the Mass and adored in the Tabernacle, is a huge gift, a world-forming and world-changing gift — and a normative and necessary part of living the Gospel in the world. For all Christians, but only Catholics and a few others know that.
Menno Simmons literally turned his back on it. He led people away from it. He may have been perfectly sincere and have felt he had good reasons to do so. The Church of the time may have pushed him away, making him feel he had no choice. But in leaving, the Catholic believes, he not only gave up the blessings of life in the Church, he rejected essential ways God gives his grace to man.
The Gospel Alone
It may be indelicate, unkind, uncharitable, and also pointless to call him a heretic. I wouldn’t do it. The word doesn’t illuminate. It tends to alienate others, as it did the writer, and puff up Catholics. It was a serious mistake just to dismiss Menno Simmons without appreciating what he was trying to do, and what the movement he started has become.
But Simmons did preach a version of the Gospel without truths and gifts (and not just the Eucharist) the Church knows Jesus gave us. That’s not nothing. It’s a partial Gospel, which may save, the way simple food will keep you alive. The Church, preaching the full Gospel, offers a feast.