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Getting Personal: Unexpected Gift of Mennonite World Conference 2015

August 12, 2015

Over the last 30 years, Mennonites and Lutherans have been working on a reconciliation process stirring from struggle with “the condemnation of Anabaptists” in Lutheran printed confessions of the 16th century. The persecution and death of many of the early Anabaptists through burning, drowning and other methods of the day is documented and well known. The Lutheran World Federation and Mennonite World Conference bodies specifically have worked on moving beyond the past.

As a born and bred former Mennonite married to a born and bred former Lutheran, you can understand why attending a workshop listed as “From Condemnation to Healing of Memories: Lutheran-Mennonite Reconciliation,” drew me. It was led by two German pastors, one a Mennonite, Rainer W. Burkhart (below left), and the other a Lutheran, Michael Martin.


Seeing and hearing Martin and Burkhart was like having the early discussions—even arguments —that my future husband and I engaged in during our early dating days brought to life, and to positive fruition. Stuart and I lived Mennonite/Lutheran differences in theology and practice, and these two men helped to bring about a reconciled relationship of the worldwide denominational groups that resulted not in a marriage—I don’t think anyone wants or needs that—but harmony, forgiveness, and, if you will, healing. What better topic for my Finding Harmony blog, and indeed, writ through our family backgrounds (which I shared here of my father’s faith background, my father-in-law’s faith and upbringing, and most recently writing about charming little Lutheran-Mennonite-Presbyterian handbooks posted here).

The story of Lutheran-Mennonite reconciliation began in 1980 with the 450th anniversary of the writing of the Augsburg Confession in which Anabaptists (and many others) were condemned—sealing the fate of the Anabaptist movement’s early leaders and peasant believers. Following that 450th anniversary event, Lutheran leaders invited Mennonite leaders to help launch a dialogue process to understand and bring about healing for past differences. By 1988, formal negotiations were in place to proceed.


Rainer and Martin* both began their theological studies at a Lutheran seminary in Germany. Rainer recalls, upon first meeting Martin, with a nod to the historical background of the two groups, he said something like “I’m a Mennonite, but don’t be afraid. It’s not a contagious disease.”

A friendship between the two men developed and eventually Martin even served a Mennonite congregation for a number of years in Munich who were in need of a pastor, so the two were well suited to help with and even embody the reconciliation process.

Today both men serve congregations in their respective faith groups, and the two outlined their long friendship from seminary days when they stayed up half the night (“we were younger then”) hammering out the sharp and often fatal differences of the 1500s that resulted in Lutheran outright condemnation of Anabaptists, and a persecution complex for Anabaptists. “Anabaptist,” for the unacquainted, means re-baptized as an adult, which was punishable by death because it was a sin against the state church of the day where everyone had to belong to the church. (In a lighter aside, Rainer spent a moment consulting with the translator working to translate the workshop into German and noted to the audience that “Anabaptist” was a very difficult word to translate into German.)


Rainer and Martin’s long seminary discussions, (including suddenly realizing at 3 a.m. they were starving and cooking up a mess of spaghetti together) were the questions that were vital in the reconciliation consultations such as:

–What role does an older doctrinal writing (The Augsburg Confession) play in the church today?
–Should a denominational confession go so far as to condemn others?
–What do we believe about infant baptism and God? What role do humans take on (deciding when to actively believe and practice Christian faith (as in the theology supporting adult or believer’s baptism) and what is the role of God–how God acts on our behalf before we can even acknowledge God (as in theology supporting infant baptism)?
–Do we believe that God’s action takes priority over human action?
–What about Christian discipleship?
–What is the role of God’s grace?
–Why does one group encourage followers of Jesus to be conscientious objectors and the other support military service for its members?
–Is there a just war?

I won’t go further into the long process of consultations but the two men noted also practical outcomes like results for accepting the baptismal process of the other denomination:

–Mennonites would refrain from requiring re-baptism for Lutherans joining their ranks.
–Pastors could respect individual conscience on matters of military service and baptism.
–Both would be welcome at each other’s communion or Eucharistic services.

And regarding age old persecution and condemnation—(which was likely originally worded so strongly to prove or demonstrate the orthodoxy of Lutherans at a time when they were stepping away from the Catholic church), it was decided that even though today’s Lutheran and Mennonites had nothing to do with those old writings or actions, Lutherans as a body would ask for forgiveness as a healing step.


But Lutherans were not the only ones needing to make confession. At times Mennonite were guilty of (eek, can it be?) arrogance, name calling, and enjoying the victim role of “past martyr.” (Not active martyr, but throwing that past up in the heat of argument.) Anabaptists had for so long lived with their past history of “sons and daughters of those martyred for their faith”—would they find a new identity going forward?


Larry Miller (above left), former head of Mennonite World Conference for many years, noted that the gift of the Lutheran Church to Mennonites in this process was an opportunity for Mennonites to be freed from the past (should never be buried or forgotten) and freed to be brothers and sisters in the Lord, today.

This was all an unexpected and welcome gift for me. Praise be to God.

In Stuttgart, Germany, July 2010, at the meeting of the Lutheran World Federation, a healing service was included where persons were given the opportunity of accepting an anointing with healing oil shared by other participants.

Viewing that short video was a moving moment for me, too.

The equally long and painful conversations between me and my boyfriend—then fiance—and eventually husband played in the back of my mind. Here were two men, who were a living embodiment of not only the 1500s but the 21st century—who charted a path mirroring Stuart and I coming together across faith lines. This was a personal path which wasn’t always easy either, resulting in my father basically boycotting the Presbyterian baptismal services of our first two daughters, and mom “coming anyway” to the baptism of our youngest.


Our daughter, Tanya, with son Sam and husband Jon upon Sam’s baptism.

So it goes. Stuart and my dealings with “personal merger” resulted in joining a middle ground as Presbyterians. Scratch us and we might bleed Lutheran or Mennonite, but underneath we bleed Christian. We can be thankful that truly bleeding for the devotion of our ancestral fathers and mothers, in faithfulness to Christ’s own martyrdom, is rare. But not rare enough (thinking of Charleston SC) in these times.


What personal or church stories does this bring to mind for you?


That’s all of my posts from Mennonite World Conference, I think! Link to first one; link to 2nd one.


*Bios for Burkhart and Martin in English are hard to track down online, so here is a little more about them in English, from the Mennonite World Conference program book:

[Rainer W. Burkhart is a Mennonite pastor in Germany, member of MWC executive committee and Faith and Life Commission, co-secretary of Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue in Germany 1989-1993, and co-chair of International Lutheran-Mennonite Study Commission 2005-2008. Michael Martin is a Lutheran pastor in Germany, member of the church governing board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bavaria, and head of the department for ecumenical affairs and church life. He ministered in a Mennonite congregation in Munich from 1992-1996, and is chair of the task force of the Lutheran World Federation to follow up on the reconciliation process.]


From → Faith, Family Life

  1. I did not attend that workshop but I was moved by the plenary greetings brought by Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. (When do official greetings ever bring tears to your eyes?) My husband taught at a Lutheran college for five years in the 1970s, where we were warmly received and our Anabaptist heritage honored. We were allowed to become “associate members” of a Lutheran congregation, retaining our Mennonite church membership, and given forums for explaining pacifism and active peacemaking, which many of our Lutheran friends fully supported. As a bonus we later acquired the sweetest Lutheran daughter-in-law. But to see this reconciliation-in-practice become official, at the highest level of the churches, is surprisingly meaningful.

    • I would have liked to hear those plenary greetings as well if they were that moving! I should check the videos available. Thanks for sharing your own family and personal connections. Loving this! Thanks, Nancy.

  2. Confession (as a pun) and reconciliation are written all over this post. I liked especially your closing comment: “Scratch us and we might bleed Lutheran or Mennonite, but underneath we bleed Christian.”

    Cliff and I resisted the infant baptism of two of our Lutheran grand-children though we attended the service, but are happy they are reviewing catechism as they reach the age of knowing (aka accountability). Ironically, two other “Lutheran” grandchildren were baptized at ages 9 and 11 in a Baptist church by their uncle – a decision their parents made and a pleasant surprise for us.

    • So Marian, I thought you and Cliff are Presbyterian, or am I mistaken. I remember Myron Augsburger once saying, when he was pastor of the multi-denominational “Mennonite” church Washington Community Fellowship in D.C., how he struggled to be present at the infant baptism of a couple who requested that for their child. He recalled how he thought of his forebears dying for that issue while the sacrament was taking place. I do appreciate the infant baptism theology that pays attention to God acting on our behalf in grace before we knew anything, as well as definitely feeling ultimately children and adults must decide for themselves whether they activity follow Jesus and Christian faith. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, as always, Marian. And your fun with a pun. 🙂

  3. Forgiveness is a powerful force. So is time.

    I spent a year at Valparaiso University, a Missouri Synod affiliated institution. There I learned a little more about Lutheran theology, but even more about certain characteristics I previously thought were Mennonite but now recognized as German.

    The identity of martyr is not easily removed. Nor is shame for violence of the past. But the embrace of former enemies gives us hope and a glimpse of heaven.

    Thank you again for your reporting and your personal reflections here, Melodie. Glad you know reconciliation on a personal level too.

    • You’ve offered some impactful additional statements–and an interesting tidbit about your experience at Valparaiso. With this workshop, it was particularly meaningful to have both these pastors be died-in-the-wool Germans–and a reminder of both my and Stuart’s great greats (times 4?) coming from similar areas of Germany. Thanks too for the reminder that shame is a feeling that’s also hard to shake. Um hum.

  4. I miss my German Missouri Synod Grandmother……………………..just sayin’

    • Wow. I didn’t know! Glad you’re sayin’! What is the last name of your grandmother?

      • My grandmother was Inez Catherine Leininger……this is her maiden name. She was Alsatian She was a Lutheran her entire life and knew her German language as well as English. We had a special bond…..I would take the train and spend 1-2 weeks with her every summer. The other weeks I was volunteering at my favorite camp. : – )

  5. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler permalink

    I am lapping up your offerings here…because I also live in several cross denominational situations. I love to hear being welcomed, each, to our ways of serving communion and all the other odd things we do. Thanks for sharing all of this.

  6. Dolores, glad to know you enjoyed this–love the “lapping up!” My content hits on lots of areas and sometimes I ponder, will anyone even read this?! Yes, to the uninitiated, one could certainly see communion, baptism, anointing–as odd things!

  7. Elaine Hooley permalink

    Why is Anabaptist difficult to translate into German? Much of our beginnings were in German speaking areas of Europe. I always thought that Anabaptist was a translation of the German Wiedertaufer. Not a criticism, but I’m certainly curious.

    I enjoyed your take of this subject. One certainly is forced to examine one’s beliefs when encountered by those who believe differently. I love and identify with your statement, “Scratch us and we might bleed Lutheran or Mennonite, but underneath we bleed Christian.” To paraphrase Paul, all our denominational identities are dung compared to embracing Christ and being embraced by him.”

  8. Elaine, I presumed the translator was not acquainted with Anabaptism and if she was an English speaking person translating to German, she might have not understood the “ana” thinking it was like “anti” — as do others who are not acquainted with the word. I don’t know, that was my guess. Thanks for the German word–my semester of German study certainly did not get that far! And also thanks for your reminder of Paul’s take our denominational identities as “dung compared to embracing Christ and being embraced by him.” Amen & thanks for chiming in.

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