In our little village of maybe one thousand souls, there are five Mennonite churches. If you count the two Amish churches, there are seven churches that share common beliefs. Most small towns have only one church. Why does Kidron have so many?
To understand why, you have to look back at how things started. In the 1500′s, a group known as the Radical Reformers staked their faith on a simple idea: They would demonstrate their love for God by trying to follow his teachings exactly.
They said that baptism at birth did not follow the New Testament example. They believed in separation of church and state, an idea that would show up in the USA constitution 200 years later. They tried to live their lives according to a literal understanding the teachings of Jesus Christ. (Click here to read the Schleitheim Confession, which spells out their theology.)
Because their interpretation of what God expected them to do didn’t match up with common beliefs at that time, those who joined this group were horribly persecuted. The lucky ones were drowned, hung or decapitated. Some were burned alive. Some were horribly tortured, even tortured to death. But, despite these hardships, those who survived stood firm for what they believed was right.
The so-called Radical Reformers learned from this experience. They learned that doing the right thing matters. They learned that you must be willing to pay any price to stand up for what is right.
Many different Protestant groups trace their roots to this branch of the Reformation, including the Mennonites and Amish. Most of the folks living in my hometown of Kidron (including myself) and all of the members in each of its seven churches all claim those same Radical Reformers as the founders of their faith.
Kidron was first settled in 1819 by a group of 27 Mennonites, including my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Daniel Kirchofer. More Mennonites followed, and soon Kidron became a Mennonite enclave.
The problem was that even though nearly everyone in town shared the same faith, they still couldn’t agree on what God expected. About 60 years after the first settlers arrived, the town’s first church, Sonnenberg Mennonite, split over whether prayer meetings in homes should be held. And, this was only the start. Again and again groups split off to form new churches or switch between existing ones. They argued over whether there should be Sunday School, over what kinds of musical instruments should be used during services and over how people should dress.
Today, one of those five Mennonite churches still clings to conservative standards of dress. But, the other four aren’t significantly different. The two Amish churches are, well, Amish. I know folks who attend both churches, and I can see differences in the way they believe. But, the differences are small enough that casual visitors don’t usually perceive them.
When I look back over this history, it fills me with sadness. Why were there so many fights? I’ve seen how the enmity that grew from those arguments lasted, in some cases, for decades. I can’t help asking, was it really worth all the fuss? Were these folks, many of whom shared my faith, really arguing over what was right, or just arguing over their rights? I have a personal stake in the answer because many of them were my blood relatives.
The distinction between arguing over right and arguing over your rights may be small. But, it must be understood. Sticking to what is right is important; it may even be important enough to sacrifice your life for. But merely wanting to be right, or insisting on winning for the sake of winning, is just plain wrong.
To learn more, I talked to some folks who remembered one of the most recent splits. Kidron Mennonite Church split from Sonnenberg Mennonite in the 1930′s. My grandfather was a charter member. Forty years after it happened, he still believed that he did the right thing. Exactly why the argument started, however, wasn’t so clear. And, he readily admitted that there wasn’t many differences left between the two churches. At least, none that were worth arguing about any longer.
And, I recently learned something surprising about that split. Jacob Moser was the minister at the Sonnenberg Mennonite Church. His leadership had been spurned by over 300 worshipers, who left to form Kidron Mennonite Church. It’s hard to imagine the bitterness and hurt that boiled up during the split, which developed over two years of arguments. Yet, Jacob provided the land for the dissenters Kidron Mennonite Church.
Did he do it for the money? Maybe. But, in this community, land is held for generations and not readily sold. I believe he sold it, not for money, but as an olive branch, extended in a spirit of love and forgiveness. I believe that despite the hot words that I’m sure were thrown his way, he was willing to go the extra mile and shake hands with the very folks who said he said he was in the wrong.
That’s the spirit I want to emulate in my dealings with folks around me. There’s definitely a time to stand up for what is right. As someone told me recently, “We have to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.” But, even as we stand up for what is right, we have to make sure that we’re not just standing up for what we want. There has to be some higher moral ground worth defending. And, most importantly, there has to be a place for forgiveness.