CGR Vol. 38 No 2 (Spring 2020)

Title of Contents


Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews


This issue, devoted to the subject of Anabaptism and Disability Theology, has been organized and assembled under the leadership of Guest Editors Paul G. Doerksen and Daniel Rempel. Readers will encounter a diverse and stimulatng array of articles contributed by academics and practitioners, all helpfully surveyed in the Introduction. We heartily thank Paul and Daniel for their energetic and skillful management of this project. Also included in this issue are a Book Review Essay that examines three current publications on theology and the earth, plus two other reviews.

On CGR’s publishing schedule are issues on technology from Anabaptist/Mennonite perspectives, on land (based on This Land is Our Land, the latest book by Jedediah Purdy), and on “recovering from The Anabaptist Vision.” We welcome submissions of articles or reflections in keeping with the journal’s mandate to advance thoughtful, sustained discussions of theology (including biblical studies, ethics, etc.), peace, society, history, and culture
from broadly-based Anabaptist/Mennonite perspectives.

W. Derek Suderman, Editor

Stephen A. Jones, Managing Editor

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Introduction: Anabaptist Theology Needs Disability Theology

Paul G. Doerksen

Among the many streams of theological inquiry currently being pursued in constructive and interesting ways is disability theology. As is so often the case in this field, my own interest has been heightened by my personal context, specifically in relation to my brother Levi, my mother, and my involvement with L’Arche Winnipeg. In his early twenties, Levi was hurt badly in a catastrophic traffic accident, the result of which included significant paralysis (the diagnosis of quadriplegia). He lived as independently as possible for the rest of his life, and then, having spent the last three years of his life in the hospital, died in 2013 at age 54. Our beloved mother, Tina, after suffering several strokes and the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, experienced significant dementia before dying in 2016.

Among many other dimensions of relating to Levi and Mom, our family sought to reflect on the nature of our shared Christian faith and how we might be shaped by that faith, given the realities that we all faced, albeit in different ways. One of the blessings for me in the midst of all of this came in the form of John Swinton’s theological work, specifically his book titled Dementia: Living in the Memories of God.[1] My point here is not to rehearse Swinton’s argument, but simply to acknowledge how insightful, instructive, and shaping such a theological resource can be, not only to comfort the reader but to assist in, or even initiate, a grappling with what it might mean to be a faithful Christian disciple along with a person experiencing significant dementia or another form of what is commonly described as disability.

Further along the way, as I was teaching and studying, Stanley Hauerwas’s theological thought pressed me to reflect further about God, people, questions, and issues that animate the field of disability theology, in which Hauerwas has done considerable work.[2] Here I encountered the work of L’Arche communities, which later led to my joining the board of L’Arche Winnipeg for nearly a decade (and counting).

Much writing about disability, theological or otherwise, includes the kind of biographical and autobiographical material I  have  shared here.[3]  Indeed, inclusion of such personal dimensions can easily slip into a “presentation of credentials”—bona fides, as it were, that qualify one to write in the field. Brian Brock issues an appropriate warning concerning this kind of all-too-familiar gesture. Following Brock, I too want to disavow my (limited) experiences as giving me a platform from which to write. Similarly, in this collection of essays by a diverse range of academics and practitioners, the biographies of the authors insofar as they have certain kinds of experience with people with disabilities is not a qualifying criterion for inclusion.[4] Rather, it is more the case that we are collectively seeking to discover, to bring into view, in what ways Anabaptist theology and church life need disability theology.[5] It would be easy enough to see it the other way round, to suggest (ever so humbly) that Anabaptist theology can make unique contributions to theologies of disability, which may well be the case. What is clear, I suggest, is that the witness of people with disabilities—the reflections of people and their experiences—theologically pursued and framed has much to offer to the renewal of Anabaptist theology.

While I want to avoid imposing (retrospectively) a specific theme on these essays, I think that a thread can be readily identified: namely that Anabaptist theology needs disability theology. Thus Melanie Howard argues that Anabaptist hermeneutics characterized by a community-driven practice, Christocentric focus, and lived obedience may well lead to distortions that can be addressed by pairing those hermeneutical emphases with a cultural model of disability. Kathy Dickson asserts that Anabaptist theology in concert with disability theology can offer principles for action and decision- making that militate against the vagaries of cultural bases for considering and treating persons as “normal,” and presses for a renewed understanding of ways of being human in the image of God that can be embodied only beyond those societal norms. Dickson insists that disability theology can be crucially instructive to Anabaptist theology at exactly this point.

In a related vein, Jason Reimer Greig makes the case that Anabaptist baptismal theology needs to be re-visioned to honor more fully those with profound intellectual disabilities, an insight drawn from disability theology that can not only address issues specific to people with disabilities but apply broadly to a more faithful understanding and practice of discipleship. Melissa Florer-Bixler also deals with Anabaptist baptismal theology, but with a view to stripping away the emphasis on cognitive assent and rationalism that have so long dominated baptismal practice. She argues that people with disabilities should not be treated as exceptional cases; rather, they reveal to the church what should lie at the heart of believers baptism.

Drawing on a Kierkegaardian notion  of simplicity and purity of heart, Keith Dow sets forth the argument that Anabaptists, who claim to prize these dimensions of Christian expression, have much to learn about such matters from people described as having limitations and disabilities. In the final essay in this collection, Daniel Rempel counsels a retrieval of Gelassenheit—but not simply as an exercise of historical reclamation. Rather, he argues, people with intellectual disabilities can train Anabaptists in the practice of Gelassenheitthrough their prophetic witness, which is embodied in lives displaying a surprising liberatory power.

In each case, but in particular ways, these essays witness to a reality that is perhaps not transparent enough to those who live in it: namely, that Anabaptist theology needsdisability theology. More pointedly, the Anabaptist church needs people described as disabled if we are to live live of faithful discipleship.

Daniel Rempel and I shared the work of co-editing this issue. He provided the initial vision, and our working together has been an enjoyable and fruitful partnership. We want to express our gratitude to the authors who contributed essays to this collection. It has been a pleasure to work with all of them. We are also grateful to Derek Suderman and Stephen Jones, editors of The Conrad Grebel Review,for their openness to our proposal and for invaluable guidance along the way.

PaulG. Doerksen is Associate Professor of Theology and Mennonite Studies at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Daniel Rempel is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theological Ethics at The University of Aberdeen.

[1] John Swinton, Dementia:LivingintheMemoriesofGod(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).

[2] See for example, Stanley Hauerwas, SufferingPresence:TheologicalReflectionsonMedicine,theMentallyHandicapped,andtheChurch(Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1986).

[3] See for example, Ian Brown, TheBoy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2009); Frances Young, ArthursCall:A Journey of Faith in the Face of Severe Learning Disability (London: SPCK Publishing, 2014).

[4] Brian Brock, WondrouslyWounded: Theology, Disability,and theBodyofChrist, Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press, 2019), xiii.

[5] As Tim Basselin says, “The church needs a theology of disability to deconstruct societal and theological ideals of self-sufficiency and autonomy and to reconstruct ideals of community born in vulnerability, weakness, and dependence.” Timothy J. Basselin, “Why Theology Needs Disability,” Theology Today 68, no. 1 (April 2011): 47.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Jesus’ Healing Ministry in New Perspective: Towards a Cultural Model of Disability in Anabaptist- Mennonite Hermeneutics

Melanie A. Howard
ABSTRACT: Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutics can be characterized by a community-driven practice, a Christocentric focus, and a lived obedience to the biblical text. When applied to the interpretation of Jesus healing activity in the Gospels, these  characteristics could lead to problematic conclusions from a critical disability perspective. However, these Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutical characteristics can be fully realized and can contribute to the full flourishing of people with disabilities when they are paired with a cultural model of disability. This article suggests that such a pairing is beneficial, especially in the practice of interpreting Jesus healing ministry.


Jesus’ healings are a central component of the gospel narratives. However, for readers with disabilities, these healing accounts may sound insulting, disheartening, or dehumanizing. How then can these  important moments both be valued as a witness to God’s life-giving power and simultaneously contribute to the full flourishing of all people, including those with disabilities? Anabaptist-Mennonites  have  frequently  stressed the importance of a Christocentric focus in biblical interpretation as well as a lived obedience to the words of Scripture. However, in not being able to perform healings themselves, they may find it difficult to uphold these hermeneutical emphases in interpreting the accounts of Jesus’ healing of disability. Further, a traditional emphasis on the community practice of scriptural interpretation[1] could make this practice an awkward experience in communities that include people with the very disabilities that Jesus “heals.” A solution to this quandary might be found in the addition of a cultural model of disability to traditional hermeneutical practice. This model situates disability within a broad framework and broadens the discourse about it beyond individual persons to the larger cultural constructions of “normalcy” and disability in both secular and ecclesial environments. As such, this model coheres well with existing hermeneutics that prize (1) a community-driven interpretive practice, (2) a Christocentric focus, and (3) a lived obedience to the biblical text.

Anabaptist-Mennonite Hermeneutical Practice

Exploring the nuances of Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutics from the 16th century to present times is far beyond the scope of this essay. Nonetheless, while painting in broad strokes, I suggest that three prominent distinctives emerge, as I have already mentioned.

Perhaps owing to its roots in the Protestant Reformation, early Anabaptism shifted interpretive power away from individual leaders to a larger hermeneutical community. Stuart Murray attributes this shift to “the conviction that every member of the congregation could contribute to the task of understanding and applying Scripture.”[2] Contemporary Anabaptist- Mennonite hermeneutics likewise continue to be marked by this emphasis, as Palmer Becker[3] and Antonio González observe.[4] Beyond the communal nature of Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutics, a Christocentric approach to the interpretation of Scripture has resulted in using Jesus’ life and teachings as the lens through which to read it. This Christocentric hermeneutic arises out of Anabaptism’s high Christology. Although linked with communal practice, this focus does not necessarily precede it. The third characteristic, lived obedience to the Bible and not just a correct interpretation of it, arises out of what Harold Bender identified as the Anabaptist propensity to make discipleship the crux of Christianity.[5] As Ben Ollenburger put it, “The (prior) commitment of obedience to Christ is the sinequanonfor understanding the Scripture.”[6] This final characteristic is linked to the Christocentrism that makes Christ’s words the basis for ethical decision-making in community.

These three emphases are not the only hallmarks of Anabaptist- Mennonite hermeneutics. Rather, they represent its common methods and may appear in any order, with any variety of concentration.

Anabaptist-Mennonite Hermeneutics of Jesus’ Healings: An Implicit Medical Model?

While Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutical emphases are commendable, they can reify existing structures of social power rather than identify prophetic ways that interpretive practices could inadvertently endanger people with disabilities. I suggest that undergirding Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of Jesus’ healings, we might detect the implicit presence of a “medical model” of disability that could prove harmful, especially in light of the emphasis on the communal practice of hermeneutics and lived obedience to the biblical text. A medical model sees disabilities as individual “problems” to be corrected. This model defines disability as “an individual or medical phenomenon that results from impairments in body functions or structures; a deficiency or abnormality.”[7] Thus, the medical model’s goal is to “heal” those with disabilities.

There are significant problems with this model. First, it narrows the scope of personhood such that the identity of persons with disabilities is reduced to little more than their disability. Furthermore, it is deceptively insidious, in that it can be prone to the uncritical assumption that it is the most helpful way to understand Jesus’ healing activity, and it misses the larger socio-cultural significance of healing narratives. Unfortunately, an implicit medical model can be found lurking in the corners of Anabaptist-Mennonite scriptural interpretations. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace the reception history of Jesus’s healing ministry among interpreters,[8] I do wish to suggest how some Anabaptist-Mennonite responses to disability might stem from an implicit medical model.

Issues of disability have been raised in Anabaptist-Mennonite publications. In 1993, the Association of Brethren Caregivers published a collection of papers by authors within Believers Church traditions.[9] While this collection investigates the relationship between biblical interpretation and issues of disability, several essays thinly veil an implicit medical model of disability. For example, Robert Suderman’s essay, “A Biblical Theology of Suffering/Disability,”[10] includes in its title the conflation of disability with suffering.  This title  presumes  that disabilities  are  something with which one “suffers” rather than an aspect of individual identity that might be embraced. Similarly, Willard Swartley’s essay[11] views wholeness as the successful outcome of healing. Here we might detect an implicit medical model, whereby the absence of disability is equated with wholeness, and its presence is equated with something less than wholeness.

Beyond this publication activity, Anabaptist-Mennonites have been involved with social issues related to people with disabilities. For example, in 1989, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) published an occasional paper on “Development and Disability”[12] that pointed to MCC-sponsored activities related to issues of disability. Likewise, Paul Leichty’s recent history of North American Mennonite advocacy for people with disabilities suggests that the Mennonite community has shown sustained interest in attending to people with disabilities, especially in the form of group homes.[13] Nonetheless, without denigrating the good work that has already been done, the MCC publication recognizes a need for improvement. The authors of that document write, “Mennonite theology places a strong emphasis on community. . . . However, even with such an emphasis, Mennonites have not done a good job of including disabled persons in church communities and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) projects.”[14] Though offering a slightly different critique, Jason Reimer Greig also sees a need for improvement, suggesting that “the greatest poverty and suffering for the intellectually disabled has less to do with their particular impairments than with their lack of mutual chosen relationships. The church has often done a good job of offering ‘care’ to those with cognitive disabilities, but extending friendships to them has been another matter.”[15] As he observes, social power relations even within ecclesial communities have disadvantaged people with disabilities and failed to include their voices both as valued community members and co-interpreters of Scripture.

Given the emphasis on a Christocentric focus and a lived obedience to the biblical text, it is not surprising that an implicit medical model of disability might be employed within Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutics. A surface level reading of Jesus’ healing ministry could suggest that the primary result of his interactions with people with disabilities is a miraculous removal of their disability. Thus, a Christocentric hermeneutic paired with a focus on obedience to the text could easily lead to an argument that reasons, “Jesus is the lens through which to understand Scripture and construct a model for discipleship. Jesus himself performed healings that ‘fixed’ individuals with various disabilities. Therefore, to be a good follower of Jesus, we should also ‘fix’ individuals with disabilities.”

While  such  a  thought  process  could  make  sense  logically,  it  is problematic for at least two reasons. First, its implicit use of a medical model of disability and the interventions associated with it are susceptible to the same critiques discussed above. Second, while this progression of thought considers two of the three identified emphases within Anabaptist- Mennonite hermeneutical practice, it does not address the third, namely the communitypractice of hermeneutics. This practice suggests that individuals with disabilities should themselves be involved in interpreting Scripture. However, when this practice is conducted with an implicit medical model, the resulting interpretations could be harmful to these members of the hermeneutical community.

A Cultural Model of Disability in Hermeneutical Practice

I turn now to explore a cultural model of disability and its potential to bear good fruit when paired with traditional Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutical emphases. The positive aspects of a cultural model become apparent in Anne Waldschmidt’s exploration of this model vis-à-vis the medical model and the social models of disability.[16]  While acknowledging some benefits of a social model that understands the social-constructedness of disability, Waldschmidt ultimately argues for a cultural model that “considers impairment, disability andnormality as effects generated by academic knowledge, mass media, and everyday discourses.”[17] Both disability and “normality” are cultural constructs existing within larger discursive environments.

To be sure, the cultural model of disability is not wholly above reproach. Although it  improves  upon  the  medical  and  social  models by considering more wide-ranging cultural discourses, it is nonetheless limited in scope when considering multiple facets of personal identity. It may not be theoretically equipped to address an intersectional approach to identity that attends to race, class, and gender, among other markers.[18]

By not comprehensively accounting for these intersectional identities, it does not offer a perfect panacea. Nonetheless, it does provide an important perspective for biblical study. After considering the implications of other models for working with biblical texts, Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper argue that a cultural model is more appropriate because it considers the larger constructions of culture that affect how people with disabilities navigate the world and find full flourishing.[19]

Thomas Reynolds takes a similar approach to biblical interpretation. He frames much of his work on disability in biblical texts around the premise that cultures operate within a “cult of normalcy” that functions as a system of social power:

Normalcy is a force that flows according to strategic mechanisms of power that serve the conventions of the status quo, which in turn serves primarily those persons whose bodily appearance and abilities fall within a recognizably standard range. The normal then becomes representative of a community’s identity or sense of itself. . . .To state it plainly, the ‘normal’ is relative to a group’s values and aspirations, and, conversely so, what is attributed ‘abnormal’ (disease, disability, etc.).[20]

Given these codifi d systems of power, Reynolds suggests that disability provides a “prophetic counter to the cult of normalcy.”[21] Taking up a similar idea, Jason Reimer Greig notes that “the shalomof God . . . offers a bold counter-narrative to a culture that disdains those with intellectual disabilities.”[22] Disability can have the culture-shaping power to reorient reality, not unlike Jesus’ own message. Thus, the development of a hermeneutical community that values the voices of persons with disabilities allows for the growth of a prophetic witness against “the cult of normalcy.”

A Cultural Model of Disability Applied to Jesus’ Healing Ministry

The benefits of a cultural model of disability for understanding Jesus’ healing activity are apparent, especially when viewed in contrast to a medical model. The records of Jesus’ healings could suggest that “healing” disabilities is a preferred outcome. However, such a reading is problematic. As Edgar Kellenberger states,

The ideal of an overall healing activity by Jesus is not confirmed by the New Testament; however, this ideal often negatively influences the perception of the message of biblical texts. Reducing Jesus’ healing  service  to  a  success  in  the  sense of modern medical technology hardly represents the New Testament writings adequately. Such misinterpretation is a cynical blow against all people with a lifelong disability and with faith in Jesus Christ.[23]

Kellenberger rightly observes that the New Testament cannot sustain a belief that physical “healing” is always a possibility. We need only be reminded of the apostle Paul’s resignation to his unspecified “thorn in the flesh” that goes unhealed (2 Cor. 12:7-10, cf. Gal. 4:13-14).[24] Additionally, this limited understanding of Jesus’ miracles has the power to do real harm. Individuals with disabilities today may be given the mistaken impression that their faith is somehow insufficient, since their experiences do not conform to those of healed individuals in the gospels.

Furthermore, praising Jesus’ “healing” of disabilities could suggest that disability is a problem to be solved rather than a difference to be celebrated. As Jaime Clark-Soles asks, “[W]hy must we assume that every blind person is in need of physical healing? Not all blind people consider . . . themselves as in need of healing.”[25] Similarly, Nancy Anne Marie Delich notes that the identity of the Deaf community “does not stem from a medical or a disabled point of view, which focuses on the need to correct or augment hearing loss.”[26] Praising Jesus’ “healing” of people with disabilities assumes that such disabilities are problems to be eliminated. This inadequate view can be addressed by the intentional application of a cultural model of disability in the hermeneutical process. A cultural model suggests that Jesus’ healings were not simply the correction of physical impairments (though they were also that), and it situates them within ancient cultural constructions of health, wholeness, and social inclusion.

The social restoration present in those healings is evident in the accounts of Jesus’ restoration of a man with leprosy and a woman with a flow of blood. The Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 8:1-4/Mark 1:40-45/Luke 5:12-16) recount an event where Jesus not only provides healing from leprosy but gives instructions allowing the man to be reintegrated into his socio- religious environment. Where cultic laws called for the social exclusion of people with leprosy (e.g., Leviticus 13:45-46), Jesus addresses both the physical needs and the social integration of the man whose leprosy had formerly created barriers between him and his community. Likewise, Jesus’ healing of a woman with a flow of blood (Matt. 9:20-22/Mark 5:25-34/Luke 8:43-48) evinces more than a physical healing. This unusual bleeding could have excluded her from general society based on cultic laws such as those in Lev. 15:19-30.[27] Louise Gosbell suggests that this flow of blood would have cast doubts on the woman’s ability to perform the culturally expected role of child-bearer and hence limited her social power.[28] As in the case of the man with leprosy, here Jesus’ healing goes beyond the correction of a physical condition.

When viewing these texts through the lens of a cultural model of disability, they offer up several insights—and imperatives. The first is the inherently communal aspect of the encounters. Although the Synoptic accounts focus primarily on the interactions between Jesus and the healed individuals, they preserve what are inherently communal settings: amidst a crowd (Matt. 8:1; Mark 5:30/Luke 8:45) or in a city (Luke 5:12). While the individuals are geographically close to others, the cultural discourse that labeled their conditions as disabling had created a social distance that separated them from full inclusion in their communities. A cultural model of disabilityappliedtothesepassagesfromanAnabaptist-Mennoniteperspective reveals the extreme social power of cultural discourse to marginalize people. Additionally, it might capture how cultural constructions affect the portrayal of Jesus in the respective episodes. Ancient physiognomic views valued clear boundaries between bodies, boundaries which the bleeding woman violates. However, as Candida Moss has shown, Jesus also struggles to maintain clear boundaries as he “leaks” a stream of power that the woman accesses for her healing.[29]

Interpreters employing a cultural model would ask why the culture viewed the woman, not Jesus, as the person with a disability. Both bodies were in a public venue. Both bodies leaked. However, for the evangelists, it is Jesus who heals the woman’s leakiness, not the other way around. The cultural model may recognize that the woman exploits Jesus’ oozing disability to secure her own place in the social context. Thus, the illogical identification of the woman as disabled but the man as powerful both exposes the cultural constructedness of disability and points to how cultural constructions influence the emergence of a Christology that overlooks Jesus’ own disabling condition.

Applying a cultural disability model to an Anabaptist-Mennonite reading of these texts also highlights important implications for discipleship. These implications are most obvious when contrasted with those arising from the application of other disability models. Read with a medical model of disability, for instance, these healing episodes could provide a rationale for medical missions that focus on the physical restoration of those with various disabilities. Viewed through the lens of a social model, these episodes could suggest addressing access to healthcare.[30] However, the application of a cultural model yields a different response, stressing that Jesus challenged oppressive and hegemonic constructions of power. Such a reading suggests that the communal  practice  of  Anabaptist-Mennonite  hermeneutics should account for the ways people with disabilities might understand these episodes differently than readers who are temporarily fully-abled. As interpreters encounter these texts, a cultural model can illuminate how a lived obedience to the text today might involve advocacy that follows Jesus’ lead in challenging the “cult of normalcy” and the social power that it exerts, both within and beyond the hermeneutical community.

The inclusion of people with disabilities within the hermeneutical community addresses one significant drawback of a medical model in interpreting Jesus’ healings: a medical model discourages the traditional Anabaptist-Mennonite emphasis on the communal practice of hermeneutics. However, what the medical model cannot do, a cultural model can—by attending to cultural constructions of power that may work systematically to exclude people with disabilities. Likewise, the traditional emphasis on placing interpretive power within communities rather than individuals acknowledges the importance of shared access to that power. The inclusion and valuing of perspectives from people with disabilities contributes to communal hermeneutical practice and distributes interpretive power more equally. This sharing is not only in line with the cultural model’s focus on cultural constructions of power, but also demonstrates the importance of the larger hermeneutical community for Anabaptist-Mennonite interpreters.

Towards a Cultural Model of Disability in Anabaptist-Mennonite Hermeneutics

A biblical hermeneutic informed by a cultural model of disability is a fitting element for inclusion in Anabaptist-Mennonite theology, which often sees itself as a “third way” that avoids polarizing extremes and instead follows Jesus in challenging oppressive socio-cultural structures. A cultural model is likewise a “third way” approach, in situating disability within larger cultural settings rather than relegating it to merely a medical or social issue. As such, a cultural model is not a superfluous add-on to existing Anabaptist- Mennonite hermeneutics or an abandonment of time-honored emphases. Rather, when paired with existing emphases, it brings out the true flavor of Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutics. Just as the traditional emphases noted earlier—community practice, Christocentric focus, lived obedience—work together in concert, strengthening each other as they are practiced, so too does a cultural model fit with, and reinforce, those emphases.

Each of those emphases can highlight corresponding characteristics of a cultural model of disability. Just as Scripture is best interpreted within a larger communal context, so does a cultural model situate disability within a larger cultural  setting.  Hermeneutical  communities  engage  in the construction of meaning together. Where Anabaptist-Mennonite interpreters have focused on how meaning-making is practiced in relation to Scripture, a cultural model insists that meaning-making is also present in the construction of disability. That is, the same community that interprets Scripture also “interprets” disability.

Similarly, while Anabaptist-Mennonites have prized the place of Christ in the larger hermeneutical process, a cultural model of disability also prizes the personhood of individuals with disabilities in the midst of larger cultural constructions that exert normalizing power over them. The Christocentric emphasis upholds the importance of Jesus’ prophetic work in challenging oppressive systems of power. Likewise, a cultural model resists the ways disability has been culturally constructed to the detriment of individuals with disabilities. Finally, an Anabaptist-Mennonite approach complexifies the process of interpreting Scripture by pairing it with lived obedience to that text. Likewise, a cultural model of disability complicates simplistic views of people with disabilities by suggesting that they and the societies in which they live are a part of multifaceted systems that must be critically examined in order to understand disability and its effects. The cultural model resists the “wide gate” of a medical model that offers pat answers instead of the “narrow gate” of prophetic resistance (cf. Matt. 7:13-14).

In sum, a call for Anabaptist-Mennonite interpreters to adopt a cultural model of disability to inform their hermeneutical practices is not a call for anything fundamentally different from historical practice. Rather, it is in keeping with the emphases of traditional Anabaptist-Mennonite hermeneutics, and it may encourage interpreters to adopt a practice that embodies the best of the theological tradition while simultaneously affirming the full flourishing of persons with disabilities today.

Melanie A. Howard is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Biblical andTheologicalStudiesatFresnoPacificUniversityinFresno,California.

[1] I am grateful to my own “community” of co-interpreters, including Dr. Laura Schmidt Roberts and Payton Miller, who generously read and commented on an earlier version of this article. The article has benefitted from their keen observations, while its shortcomings remain my own doing.

[2] Stuart Murray, BiblicalInterpretationintheAnabaptistTradition(Kitchener, ON/Scottdale, PA: Pandora Press and Herald Press, 2000), 182.

[3] Palmer Becker, Whatis an Anabaptist Christian? (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Mission Network, 2008), 12.

[4] Antonio González, “Anabaptist  Hermeneutics and Theological  Education,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84 (April 2010): 207-28.

[5] Harold Bender, TheAnabaptistVision(Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976).

[6] Ben Ollenburger, “The Hermeneutics of Obedience: A Study of Anabaptist Hermeneutics,” Direction6, no. 2 (April 1977): 22.

[7] Justin Anthony Haegele and Samuel Hodge, “Disability Discourse: Overview and Critiques of the Medical and Social Models,” Quest 68, no. 2 (2016): 194.

[8] Payton Miller provides a map of broad theological literature against which to view Anabaptist-Mennonite interpretation. See Payton Miller, “Converging and Diverging Themes: A Synthesis of Contemporary Theological Literature on Disability,” Journal of Disability & Religion, January 2020 online,

[9] TheChurchandDevaluedPersons:CollectionofPapersonIssuesofDisabilitiesandMentalIllness(Elgin, IL: Association of Brethren Caregivers, 1993).

[10] Robert Suderman, “A Biblical Theology of Suffering/Disability,” in The Church and Devalued Persons (Elgin, IL: Association of Brethren Caregivers, 1993), 65-77.

[11] Willard Swartley, “Biblical Images and Theology of Healing,” in ibid., 101-16.

[12] Diane Driedger, Henry Enns, and Valerie Regehr, Development and Disability (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1989).

[13] Paul Leichty, “Mennonite Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities,” Journal of Religion, Disability, & Health 10, no. 1-2 (2006): 195-205.

[14] Driedger, Enns, and Regehr, DevelopmentandDisability, 3.

[15] Jason Reimer Greig, “ShalomMade Strange: A Peace Church Theology For and With People With Intellectual Disabilities,” The Conrad Grebel Review 32, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 40.

[16] Anne Waldschmidt, “Disability Goes Cultural: The Cultural Model of Disability as an Analytical Tool,” in Culture– Theory – Disability: Encounters between Disability Studies and Cultural Studies, eds. Anne Waldschmidt, Hanjo Berressem, and Moritz Ingwersen (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Verlag, 2017), 19-27.

[17] Ibid., 24.

[18] For discussions of related concerns, see Alfredo Artiles, “Untangling the Racialization of Disabilities: An Intersectionality Critique Across Disability Models,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10, no. 2 (2013): 329-47; Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear, “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses on Intersectionality,” JournalofLiterary& Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 2 (2010): 127-45.

[19] Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper, “Disability Studies and the Bible,” in New Meanings for Ancient Texts: Recent Approaches to Biblical Criticisms and Their Applications, eds. Steven McKenzie and John Kaltner (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013), 23-25.

[20] Thomas Reynolds, VulnerableCommunion:A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008), 48.

[21] Ibid., 21.

[22] Greig, “Shalom Made Strange,” 25.

[23] Edgar Kellenberger, “Children and Adults with Intellectual Disability in Antiquity and Modernity: Toward a Biblical and Sociological Model,” Cross Currents 63, no. 4 (December 2013): 465.

[24] On considering Paul as a theologian with a disability, see Amos Yong, TheBible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 83- 90.

[25] Jaime Clark-Soles, “Mark and Disability,” Interpretation 70, no. 2 (April 2016): 165.

[26] Nancy Anne Marie Delich, “Be Opened: Social Connectedness within and beyond the Deaf Community,” Journal of Religious Leadership 12, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 112.

[27] The issues of ritual impurity are complex and have been treated in a variety of ways that differ from the interpretation that I am offering here. See, e.g., Amy-Jill Levine, “Discharging Responsibility: Matthean Jesus, Biblical Law, and Hemorrhaging Woman,” in A Feminist Companion to Matthew, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2004), 70-87; Matthew Thiessen, JesusandtheForcesofDeath:TheGospelsPortrayalofRitualImpuritywithinFirst-CenturyJudaism(Grand Rapids,  MI:  Baker Academic, 2020), 69-96.

[28] Louise Gosbell, “The Poor, the Crippled, the Blind, and the Lame”: Physical and Sensory Disability in the Gospels of the New Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 263.

[29] Candida Moss, “The Man with the Flow of Power: Porous Bodies in Mark 5:25-34,” JournalofBiblicalLiterature129, no. 3 (2010): 507-19.

[30] See Willard Swartley, Health,Healing,andtheChurchsMission:BiblicalPerspectivesandMoralPriorities(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012). Swartley addresses healthcare access, and his approach exemplifies a social model of disability.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Disability and Mennonite Theologies: Resisting “Normal” as Justice Anytime and in a Global Pandemic

Kathy Dickson
ABSTRACT: The injustices brought to light by a pandemic like COVID-19 are pervasive and persistent for many people,  including  those with disabilities. These injustices are not merely the products of a pandemic; they are features of systemic marginalization based on cultural descriptions of “normal” that take socially constructed attributions of value and hold them up as standards for all people’s bodies. Disability theology and Anabaptist theology resist the culture of “normal.” These theologies call for a recognition of human value that works to move systems toward a “normal” that is just for all, in a time of a pandemic and in all times.


Words spoken in the critical moments that led to my aunt’s death haunt me to this day. I can still see the doctors in blue surgical coverings standing in the cove outside the ICU, facing us, her family. “Look, we have a woman with Down Syndrome here,” were the first words out of the lead doctor’s mouth. I heard everything else that was said, but those words punctuated every sentence for me. She was suffering; they needed to decide on a path and act quickly. Based on the doctors’ picture of what was happening, we agreed that we had to say goodbye, then held her and sang to her. One solitary tear lay on her cheek as she took her last breath. I recount those moments in my head like all of us standing there that day, convinced in the moment that it was the right choice. But the framing the doctor’s words gave to her death is the beginning of the haunt: “We have a woman with Down Syndrome here.” Diagnosis can surely offer a medical professional information that  bends the calculus of determinations when making end-of-life choices in the ICU. I have tremendous respect for the medical professionals who must make such calls every day, even when their training (or lack thereof) leads them to begin a family conversation in such a sterile way. But that framing has led me to more than a decade of reconciling with not only my aunt’s death but the way she died. The doctor’s opening statement and tone did not acknowledge our grief. Nor did it regard the incredibly high quality of life she had, one steeped in deep relationship with a community that extended far beyond those hospital walls with others who knew every ounce of her worth, purpose, and agency in the world.

Mennonite and disability theology communities and lines of thought have been a part of that reconciling work for me.[1] This is mostly due to how these theologies align in approaches to human worth, resistance to cultural concepts of “normal,” and how interdependence and community guide the work of justice, prioritized for the most vulnerable within unjust societal systems. These guiding theological dispositions not only stand as a witness in the midst of contemporary pandemic realities, including some framings of persons with disabilities as more expendable than others, but also serve as principles for action and decision-making that militate against a culture of what is “normal” at any time, including a global pandemic.

Primed for Theological Response: The Current Backdrop

Today, medical resources are scarce everywhere and concerns over healthcare rationing are heightened for persons with disabilities. In certain American states, policies have been drafted in which such conditions as “mental retardation” and “dementia” could move someone to a lower rung of the access-to-care ladder.[2] These policies may derive from Western capitalist assumptions about “normal” lives that describe human worth and quality of life in terms of ability and productivity, efficiency, and capacity. Just as important, they derive from the uncomfortable but unavoidable recognition of human fragility that COVID-19 has forced upon society at large, and from an accompanying desire to get everything back to “normal” as quickly as possible. Many disability rights groups have responded to these policies, citing laws that protect individuals with disabilities from discriminatory policies and procedures. Standing alongside those groups are theologies of many faith traditions, including Christian churches.

Ethicists warn that without specific guidelines designed for each state, the decisions of doctors may be influenced by unconscious bias against ethnic minorities, people with mental disabilities, and other groups. “This has been the most alarming concern for people with disabilities all around the world,” observes Catalina Devandas, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. “The highlight of this drama is that it seems to be the default reasoning of the mainstream society: The lives of persons with disabilities are not considered to be of as much value.”[3] Disability and religious scholar Rabbi Julia Watts Belser notes that disabled bodies have long borne the brunt of the politics of triage and medical rationing; “We live—so many of us—with the visceral knowledge that our lives are valued less.”[4] The National Disability Institute polled persons with disabilities across the US near the beginning of the pandemic; 60 percent said that they were very concerned about being adversely affected by healthcare rationing.[5] Moreover, self-advocates filed a complaint on rationing plans by hospitals early in the pandemic, with the Chair of Self Advocates in Leadership stating that “intellectually disabled people get denied care because of being seen as lacking value.”[6]

How society at large responds to persons with disabilities of many kinds has changed over time, largely due to the efforts of disability rights groups, advocacy, and the emergence of disability theology coming up against the tension of faith communities being exempt from the laws of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many of these efforts have pushed against notions of “normal” in terms of both bodies and cultural attitudes. COVID-19 has laid bare the “normal” structures of injustice in US society that many people have been privileged to ignore, and against which both disability and Mennonite theologies speak.[7] These injustices are not merely the products of a pandemic; they are instead features of a system that depends on the systematic marginalization of some people in order to maximize efficiencies for others.

Deconstructing “Normal” in Disability Theology

Theological anthropology asks the question, “What does it mean to be human, given the self-revelation of God?” Disability theologians in the Christian tradition underscore ways of being human in the image of God that are embodied beyond traditional norms. For instance, John Swinton states that “disability is a mode of human experience within which our accepted norms are challenged and reshaped as we encounter the fullness of what it means to be a human being in the rich diversity of God’s image.”[8] Hans Reinders contends that the truth about human beings is “grounded in God’s unconditional acceptance,” suggesting that theological anthropology should not begin in views about rationality, physical capacity, or even in an abstract account of relationship, but rather in commitments to each other, commitments that begin with bodies.[9] It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this contention. The space our bodies occupy means that our presence with each other is bodily. Thomas Reynolds observes that the integrity of the human is “neither a function of exchange value and productive ability nor a spiritualized body, but rather is based on God’s unconditional regard.”[10]

Early in the discourse of disability theology, Nancy Eiesland pointed to the embodiment of Christ as crucial to an understanding of humanity in light of disability. She referenced Luke 24:36-39, where Jesus appears to his disciples after his death and resurrection and builds a theological anthropology. The resurrected Christ proclaims that

God would be with us, embodied as we are, incorporating the fullness of human contingency and ordinary life into God. In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected Savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation. In so doing, this disabled God is also the revealer of a new humanity. The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.[11]

With disability compatible with full personhood through these theological lenses, the idea that disabled and other marginalized bodies are deemed not worthy, or not as worthy as others, is therefore the thing that is most “not-normal” and that calls for resistance within the systems driving definitions of “the norm.”

The term “normate” was first coined by disability studies leader Rosemarie Garland Thomson, who, according to author Kerry Wynn, used it to refer to the “socially constructed ideal image ‘through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings.’”[12] Amos Yong expands on Thomson’s definition; for him, “normate biases” denote the “unexamined prejudices that non-disabled people have toward disability and toward people who have them,” and that these assumptions function so normatively that the inferior status of people with disabilities is inscribed into the consciousness of society. He argues that “non-disabled people take their experiences of the world as normal, thereby marginalizing and excluding the experiences of people with disabilities as not normal.”[13] Normate perspectives are then presumed adequate for measuring the experience of anyone and everyone. Yong’s description of normate bias in the context of disability studies has obvious analogies to similar discourses about race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and postcoloniality, but as Carolyn Thompson points out, disability is often left out of discourses about justice in which race, class, and gender are givens.[14]

Whatever the reason for that, persons with disabilities experience the injustice of ableism. It takes the form of what Iris Marion Young calls the “Five Faces of Oppression”: cultural imperialism, marginalization, powerlessness, exploitation, and violence.[15] Young states that those with disabilities are typically oppressed by marginalization and cultural imperialism, including the kind of imperialism that generates cultural obliviousness toward disability as a social construct.[16] This may be why some people may read healthcare policy rationing during a pandemic and agree without giving it a critical thought: “We are loathe to admit that oppression might be something in which we ourselves unknowingly participate, a structural system of constraints on certain groups of people.”[17] Just as racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of sociopolitical and systemic domination name cultural attitudes perhaps more than the conscious beliefs of individuals, so also ableism is a set of negative stereotypes, discriminatory attitudes, and economic and sociopolitical structures and institutions that, when operating in tandem, create exclusionary mechanisms that bar persons with disabilities from active participation in society—or from receiving equal access to medical care. [18] Ableism, like other forms of structural domination, need not be overt or even the result of negative intentions.

Regardless of the extent to which ableist prejudices are conscious, their effects can define a person in terms of appearance or limitation and can be used as a prejudicial measure of the person’s worth, resulting in the person being judged by what they are not and reduced to a stereotype that carries the burden of stigma.[19] Medical decisions based on the idea of “impairment” are highly influenced not by medical professionals alone but other forces, especially insurance. Relying on the work of social theorist Michael Ralph to look at the origins of “impairment” from abolitionist times, and what forces have driven policies such as those named in this essay, Alex Sider explains that the concept of impairment is a construction depending on social arrangements and expectations, and not a neutral description. Rather it is “forged in the fires of policy debate and the drive to monetize the value of human life. The struggle to define impairment has positive consequences for some people and negative, dehumanizing ones for others.”[20]

The debate over human life in many Western systems and beyond, under our systemic frameworks, is indeed monetized. This example of cultural ableism points to a certain kind of “cult of normalcy” that “takes the exchange values associated with bodily appearance and function . . . how useful, productive, or valuable certain bodies are in particular social exchanges—and it routinizes them through systems of power,”[21] says Tom Reynolds. A cult of normalcy takes socially constructed attributions of value from particulars and holds them up as standards for all people’s bodies. Such perceptions are surely at play when rationing policies, however well- intentioned, are created in a crisis, but the point is that these perceptions are at play generally, at all times and in all places. They are not the product of a crisis.

Indeed, the cult of normalcy is even at play in the way that persons with disabilities are constrained to self-identify. Deborah Creamer observes that disability identity depends largely on the interpretation of others:

One is disabled insofar as he or she appears disabled . . . to be disabled is to be labeled so, typically by a medical practitioner or . . . agency. . . . To be a person with a disability has much to do with the extent and degree to which one is understood or treated as having a disability. Disability identity also depends on societal understandings of normal.[22]

As Bill Gaventa, the Founder and Director Emeritus of the Institute for Theology and Disability has written, some of the “not-so-good” highlights of the US responses to COVID-19 are convincing evidence of “the shadowy side of a capitalist economy that a little too cavalierly forms assumptions that people’s worth depends on their ‘usefulness’ or ‘productivity.’”[23] The witness of theologies using different lenses speaks into these times and serves as a call to solidarity and action.

Concepts of Normal and Human Worth

Mennonite theology by nature pushes against cultural notions of “normal.” Historians classify early Anabaptists as “radical reformers,” alongside many others who emerged out of the reformation of the 16th century. They were a collection of pacifists, tightly knit communities, and biblical literalists, some encouraging withdrawal from society.[24] A history of being radical reformers and of worshiping in hidden churches, of ongoing resistance in a culture of violence, power, and wealth that pervades Western society, and of holding the value of living simply so that others may simply live, have long left Mennonites questioning the meaning of “normal” in mainstream culture. This understanding of human value lies in Scriptural accounts of creation and in how humankind being made in “the image of God” resonates in Jesus’ way of living and loving, bringing the most vulnerable or socially marginalized into the center of community. In the contemporary ConfessionofFaithina Mennonite Perspective, the first article, “We believe that the universe has been called into being as an expression of God’s love and sovereign freedom alone,” is followed by a statement aligning with disability theology based on the belief that all humans are created in the image of God and therefore have a sacred dignity that speaks beyond limiting—or life-threatening—societal norms: [25]

We believe that God has created human beings in the divine image. God formed them from the dust of the earth and gave them a special dignity among all the works of creation. Human beings have been made for relationship with God to live in peace with each other, and to take care of the rest of creation. We believe that human beings were created good, in the image of God.[26]

These beliefs stress the ways human beings are called “into being as an expression of God’s love” and are created “good.”

Moreover, Menno Simons himself pointed especially to the Sermon on the Mount as setting forth what is normative for the Christian life. Leaders in the Anabaptist tradition treat commitments to justice, nonviolence, and peace, and to following the life and acts of Jesus as central to the faith, all instructive to followers who push against cultural norms. While Anabaptists see the Scriptures as the ultimate source of information, they regard Jesus as the final authority for faith and life and his ways as guiding their ways of being and ordering the world. These beliefs are lived out in calls and practices that affirm the value and interconnectedness of human life and non-human life as part of the sacredness of God’s creation. However, as Belser points out, for any religious tradition “[p]roclaiming the infinite value of each and every individual as an image of God is a powerful theological principle. But it’s cheap talk, unless it’s coupled with a deeper commitment to reckon with the concrete ways disabled people’s lives are harmed by ableism, racism, poverty, and structural violence.”[27] A deeper commitment rooted in theological principles is woven throughout many Mennonite practices and ideals of community, but it must be continually revisited at congregational and denominational levels.[28]

Interdependence and Community in Both Theologies

Disability theology doesn’t necessarily teach that because a person has a disability they are in greater need of other people; instead, it argues that “because I am a person, I need other persons, and so do you.” Our interdependence and the need for community while living through a pandemic are very clear, flipping the sense of “normal” upside down and questioning stereotypes. We rely on others to meet our basic needs, and others rely on our relying.

Disability theologian Kathy Black offers a theology of interdependence that speaks to this. She states that we are “all interconnected and interdependent upon one another so that what we do affects the lives of others and the earth itself.”[29] Commenting on the norms of Western, specifically US, culture she says, “The American motto of independence says that persons should be able to take care of themselves and not have to depend on society for basic survival and quality of life.”[30] Not only is this not realistic, it is also not how the apostle Paul saw the body of Christ. The church as Christ’s body is a place where members offer gifts to each other (1 Cor. 12:12-27). Not surprisingly, one of the favorite images of the Mennonite church is as “the body of Christ” with its works of love and service as extensions of Christ’s ministry in the world, and everyone sharing their gifts.[31] Images of the church as one body are foundational to the faith, as distorted as it may be today. As Black asserts, Christian tradition is based on community and on our interdependence with God and one another:[32]

The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and God has so arranged the body, the community of believers, that the members may have the same care for one another. It is this interdependency in the midst of a culture that highly values independence that sets us apart.[33]

Within disability theology, Black and  other  writers  acknowledge that theologies of interdependence honor the value of all individuals by reference to who they are and not by what they do. At an annual meeting of the European Society for the Study of Theology and Disability, Alex Sider highlightedthenecessityofnoncompetitionforfullhumanflourishingwithin interdependence, stating that human beings “depend on the cultivation of noncompetitive relationships that require interdependence in vulnerability, acceptance of others, and a vision of fully human life compatible with and modeled in the experience of disability.”[34] At the very basic bodily level, everyone is vulnerable. Vulnerability as a “normal” experience is not a cultural norm; in fact, as Belser points out, a slow response to the pandemic was the result of this near denial, with “young and healthy” people carrying on without concern in the early days, behavior that has ramifications especially for the most vulnerable within systems that wish to wipe out notions of vulnerability for a more acceptable norm.[35] Access to medical care for those deemed most vulnerable in any crisis, including the current pandemic, therefore should not be in question theologically.

Similarly, Mennonites aspire to value service to those in need over pursuit of wealth, fame, or power, as a current basic information website explains.[36] One resolution adopted at a national MCUSA convention in 2013, for example, makes the case: “According to our Anabaptist understanding of Biblical faith, and our denominational vision statement, we strive to follow Jesus in word and deed. . . . We also know that Jesus declared stern consequences for harming those who are vulnerable.”[37] That harm begins when systems root themselves in power, wealth, or fame. A quick panorama of the church living into its theologies as a whole spans local congregational practices and global projects. The witness in Mennonite thought and practice to “who is my neighbor” (anybody), or “who does God bless” (the whole world) resists “normal” definitions as laid out by society, government, or state, and questions the meaning of borders and neighbors in a pandemic. Note, for example, the number of US Mennonite congregations resisting federal definitions around immigration and providing sanctuary, or the other practices that are case studies for faith in action.[38] In living theology by being a neighbor, Mennonites affirm the worth of persons: we care for and with the whole world, no exceptions; all of creation is good.[39] These principles clearly align with disability theology’s ways of understanding the worth of persons, at a minimum, to seek to assure equal access to healthcare and other rights, and resist the temptation of making easy determinations when healthcare systems face a national and global crisis.


The examples above illustrate the values of justice arising from a desire to follow the ways of Jesus in bringing God’s love into the world, and guide a Mennonite response during the COVID-19 crisis by providing monetary resources, donating blood, sewing masks, growing food, volunteering on the front lines, and ensuring care alongside many others with different religious motivations. Mennonite organizations dedicated to health have responded, such as the Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship, which promotes healthcare access for all, and insist that the most vulnerable have access not only to care but to the bestcare, not just in times of crisis but especially in such times.[40]

Disability theologies call church members to stay awake, to pay attention, and to resist the systems of oppression facing the most vulnerable. As Nancy Eiesland, one of the earliest voices in the field, put it: “We are called to be people who work for justice and access for all and who incorporate the body practices of justice and access as part of ordinary lives.”[41] Echoing her words is the Vision of Healing and Hope of Mennonite Church USA, which many congregations use as a guide for action and theological meaning: “God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.”[42]

These theologies provide the groundwork for justice that allows for God’s hope and healing to move through the world. As calls for a “return to normal” echo across society, they call for a recognition of human value that goes beyond cheap talk and works to move systems toward a “normal” that is more just for all, in a time of a pandemic and in all times.

KathyDicksonhasserved with the Anabaptist Disabilities Network, Methodist Theological School in Ohio, and Bluffton University, and now serves on the Core Council for the Institute for Theology and Disability: https://faithanddisability. org/institute/-.

[1] Because my education and location in the Anabaptist tradition are rooted specifically within Mennonite Church USA and the Central District Conference, for the purposes of this essay I will refer to “Mennonite” theology exclusively.

[2] Minyvonne Burke, “Ventilators Limited for the Disabled? Rationing plans are slammed amid coronavirus crisis,” NBCNews, March 27, 2020:

[3] David Kirkpatrick and Benjamin Mueller, “U.K. Backs Off Medical Rationing Plan as Coronavirus Rages,” New York Times, April 3, 2020:

[4] Julia Watts Belser, “Disability and the Politics of Vulnerability,” Berkley Forum, Berkley Center, Georgetown University, April 15, 2020:

[5] Coronavirus Listening Sessions Polls—Questions and Results, March 25, 2020,

[6] Pam Katz, “Disability Discrimination Complaint Filed Over COVID-19 Treatment Rationing Plan in Washington State,” March 23, 2020: complaint-filed-over-covid-19-treatment-rationing-plan-in-washington-state/.

[7] The injustices brought into view are pervasive and persistent against not just those with disabilities but many groups. This essay focuses on the experience of disability, but injustices toward especially black and brown bodies, the poor, those living in crowded conditions, queer persons, those with chronic illness and many more intersections, continue to be brought to light as the pandemic has moved on.

[8] John Swinton, “Many Bodies, Many Worlds,” Baylor University Christian Reflection Project, 2012, 18;

[9] Hans Reinders, ReceivingtheGiftofFriendship: ProfoundDisability,TheologicalAnthropology,and Ethics(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 3. This idea is echoed by echoed by Nancy Eiesland in TheDisabledGod:Towarda Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 91.

[10] Thomas Reynolds, “The Cult of Normalcy,” Baylor University Christian Reflection Project, 2012, 202;

[11] Eiesland, TheDisabledGod, 100.

[12] Kerry H. Wynn, “The Normate Hermeneutic and Interpretations of Disability within the Yahwistic Narratives,” in This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, ed. Hector Avalos, Sarah Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 92.

[13] Amos Yong, TheBible,Disability,andtheChurch(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 10-11. This is often true of many Christian and Mennonite churches, even as they are sympathetic to the needs of all their members.

[14] Carolyn Thompson, “Ableism: The Face of Oppression as Experienced by People with Disabilities,” in Injustice and the Care of Souls: Taking Oppression Seriously in Pastoral Care, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 212.

[15] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression,” Philosophical Forum 19, no. 4 (1988): 270-90.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Thompson, “Ableism,” 213.

[18] Yong, TheBible,Disability,andtheChurch, 11.

[19] Ibid., 211.

[20] Alexander Sider, “Among the Pains: Christianity, Disability and Healing,” Mennonite Health Journal 19, no. 14 (2018);

[21] Reynolds, “The Cult of Normalcy,” 28.

[22] Deborah Creamer, DisabilityandChristianTheology:EmbodiedLimitsandConstructivePossibilities(Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), 6.

[23] Bill Gaventa, “Jotting down thoughts, glimpses, while sheltering in place,” Waco[Texas]Herald-Tribune, April 4, 2020.

[24] William Placher and Derek Nelson, A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2013), 162.

[25] ConfessionofFaithina Mennonite Perspective, 1995, Article 5.

[26] Ibid., Article 6.

[27] Belser, “Disability and the Politics of Vulnerability.”

[28] The space alloted to this essay does not permit identifying the kinds of challenges persons with disabilities face at congregational and denominational levels: accessibility, use of language, articles around baptism, opportunities for full participation and  gift sharing, etc. The Anabaptist Disabilities Network works at these things:

[29] Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 45.

[30] Ibid., 50.

[31] ConfessionofFaithina Mennonite Perspective, 41.

[32] Black, A Healing Homiletic, 50.

[33] Ibid, 54.

[34] Alexander Sider, “On Becoming Human: Jean Vanier, Carl Rogers and James Alison on Disabilities, Acceptance and a Noncompetitive Theological Anthropology,” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health 16, no. 1 (2012): 16-32.

[35] For more on this point and vulnerability in this time, see Belser, “The Politics of Vulnerability.”

[37] Protecting and Nurturing our Children and Youth. Mennonite Resolution, 2013.

[38] See Kayla Berkey and Mennonite Church USA, “Offering Sanctuary, Churches Put Words into Practice,” Mennonite World Review, July 29, 2019: news/offering-sanctuary-churches-put-words-into-practice/. Further, amid heightened racial and ethnic tensions in the US, “Welcome Your Neighbors” signs became a national visible witness to neighborliness, started by a Mennonite pastor. See https://franconiaconference. org/tag/conference-news/page/15/.

[39] Consider Mennonite Central Committee (, Ten Thousand Villages (, Mennonite Disaster Service (, and Mennonite Mission Network ( as examples.

[40] “Tips for Pandemic Living,” Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship, March 30, 2020.  https://

[41] Eiesland, TheDisabledGod, 108.

[42] VisionofHealingandHope, Mennonite Church USA, adopted 2016: http://mennoniteusa. org/resource/vision-for-healing-and-hope/.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Re-Imagining Narratives: Anabaptist Baptismal Theology and Profound Cognitive Impairment

Jason Reimer Greig
ABSTRACT: People with profound cognitive disabilities pose a serious challenge for churches in the Anabaptist tradition in regard to baptism. This essay investigates the baptismal theology of the 16th-century radical reformers and finds that this theology demands a high degree of purposive agency and inward subjectivity in order to receive baptism. These capacities exclude many (if not most) people with profound cognitive impairments. If Anabaptist communities are to become more hospitable, their theology and narratives require re- imagining. Suggestions are made on how to re-envision a baptismal theology that more fully honors those with profound impairments. This re-envisioning also offers a potentially more freeing and truthful discipleship for all believers.

Churches that practice the baptism of believers upon confession of faith have offered an alternative to the more creedal traditions for the last 500 years. Based upon a belief in the normativity of the baptism of adult converts in the New Testament and early church, this theology increasingly fits a post- Christendom world. With there no longer being a need to baptize out of citizenship requirements or fear of eternal damnation, a baptismal theology emanating from the 16th-century radical reformers appears to most adequately protect the integrity of an ordinance that requires a personal response to the inward grace of God.

Enter Dorothea, a young woman with a profound developmental disability whom I met some years ago at a residential care facility in the western United States.[1] Dorothea’s ability to communicate was minimal: she was unable to speak and had little capacity for controlling the movements of her body. She remained perpetually in a prone position and was constantly dependent upon others for mobility. She required assistance with such basic necessities as eating, bathing, and general personal care. While I never inquired of her diagnosis, it appeared that her intellectual and physical impairment was a profound one, which meant an extremely limited capacity for personal response and purposive agency.

The presence of someone like Dorothea prompts a question: If she belonged to an Anabaptist-Mennonite church today, would she be eligible for baptism? She can make no personal and public confession of faith due to her limitations in communication, and her severe cognitive impairment means that she may have severely limited ability to process inward mental states. Does this mean that her “mental age” makes her “innocent” and thus not in need of baptismal grace? Can this assessment adequately account for her full humanity and place in the Body of Christ?

This essay explores how the presence of people like Dorothea offers a bold challenge to an Anabaptist theology and practice of baptism. By looking at baptism through the lens of profound intellectual disability, it becomes clear that an Anabaptist theology of baptism demands capacities of rationality and personal agency. This investment in subjectivity raises questions as to how one can consistently hold to a theology of personally confessing baptism and still offer the ordinance to people considered profoundly intellectually disabled. A practice that absolutely demands a freely chosen and personal confession of faith makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to consistently admit persons like Dorothea to the baptismal font or pool.

I will start by taking a brief look at the theology and practice of the first Anabaptists. This discussion will illustrate that people like Dorothea could never meet the strict requirements for baptism demanded by these radical leaders. To hold to these demands would mean that such persons should either not be baptized or only receive the ordinance as “special cases.” I will then offer suggestions for re-envisioning an Anabaptist baptismal theology that can account more adequately for the full humanity of people with cognitive impairments. I will attempt to do this by keeping people like Dorothea in mind as fellow members of the body of Christ. My hope is that she can be a gentle interrogator of baptismal theology and practice, and reveal some of the presuppositions that prevent her full humanity from being recognized.

16th-Century Anabaptism on Baptism

In “Early Anabaptist Ideas about the Nature of Children,” Hillel Schwartz outlines three criteria that manifest the shift from child to youth, thus signaling the readiness of the person for baptism and entry into the church: 1) the development of self-will; 2) “adult” reasoning; 3) a penitential conscience.[2] Here I will look closely at how the radical reformers saw these criteria, thereby discerning how they point strongly to the sense of personhood as resting on a free, rational, and inward self. The life of Dorothea will then be brought to bear on these reflections, in order to see what her presence has to say to the baptismal theology of the first Anabaptists.


Schwartz highlights how one of the first criteria that made someone eligible to become an adult and thus be ready for baptism was the development of “self-will.” “Without self-will in sin none can be damned; and in children there is no self-will,” writes Ulrich Stadler (d. 1540).[3] Pilgram Marpeck (c. 1496-1556) also sees the burgeoning of the intentional act of sinning as manifesting the shift into adolescence. The child enters a new stage of development when she begins a “process of individuation” that leads to a “personal volitional choice” to disobey God.[4] Yet when they reach this “age of discretion” the youth can not only choose to sin but also freely choose God by joining the church. To be a youth and thus ready for baptism meant to be able to choose between alternatives: good or evil, church or world. At this stage of development Stadler states that the child can “set his heart on a goal” and appropriate the faith for himself.[5] “[Y]our faith has made you whole” adds Hans Schlaffer (1490-1528). “It is your own and not someone else’s faith. Whoever believes and is baptized, [the Bible] says. That is, whoever believes for himself, he shall be baptized.”[6] There was to be no more believing for another, according to Marpeck: “neither wife for husband, nor husband for wife, children for parents, parents for children.”[7]

The radical reformers’ emphasis on free will was crucial in their insistence on returning to the voluntary nature of the early church. According to John Howard Yoder, the first Anabaptists “were so concerned with restoring the (adult) voluntariness, which baptism had had in the beginning, that they were willing to be persecuted to the death for being baptized upon confession of their faith.”[8] In order to ensure the integrity of the church, called to live the Gospel with its emphases on patience, nonviolence, and readiness to face persecution, being a Christian meant to freely and willingly commit oneself to Christ. According to Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528), this free choice included the candidate’s voluntary submission to the church’s powers of binding and loosing:

[W]hen he receives the baptism of water the one who is baptized testifies publically that he has pledged himself henceforth to lie according to the Rule of Christ. By virtue of this pledge he has submitted himself to sisters, brothers, and to the church so that when he transgresses they now have the authority to admonish, punish, ban, and reaccept him.[9]


The radical reformers considered the ability to reason and cognitively understand as crucial in considering people for baptism. Youth could choose to do good instead of evil by being taught, and being teachable implied the capacity for rational thought. Thus Menno Simons (1496-1561) could write of little children:

It is plain that they cannot be taught, admonished or instructed. And many have less sense at birth than do irrational creatures— so without rationality that they cannot be taught  anything about carnal things until their hearing, comprehension, and understanding have begun to develop.[10]

As the first Anabaptists saw conversion as beginning with teaching, which led to faith and then baptism, the importance they placed on cognitive understanding becomes clear. The order of teaching, faith, and baptism was grounded in the apostolic witness itself.[11] Melchior Hoffman (1495-1543) thus speaks of baptism as that high covenant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the sign of the covenant of God, instituted solely for the old, the mature, and the rational, who can receive, assimilate, and understand the teaching and the preaching of the Lord, and not for the immature, uncomprehending, and  unreasonable, who cannot receive, learn, or understand the teaching of the apostolic emissaries: such are immature children.[12]

Clearly, when the radical reformers spoke about reason they did not mean a scholastic or highly speculative theology but a biblical sense of wisdom or understanding. Rationality was merely a tool that could facilitate surrender to Christ and lead to discipleship. Nonetheless, reason was important; the early Anabaptists never completely renounced the gift of thinking.[13]


A prominent feature of the baptismal theology under discussion was its emphasis upon an inner transformation, often referred to as “Spirit” or “spiritual” baptism. Mennonite historian Arnold Snyder contends that many early Anabaptists considered this the real baptism, and without it water baptism “could mean nothing.”[14] The rite was an outward expression of an inner renewal that had already occurred. Drawing on 1 Peter 3:21, Simons remarks on the importance of this inward transformation:

Here Peter teaches us how the inward baptism saves us, by which the inner man is washed, and not the outward baptism, as already stated, is of value in the sight of God, while outward baptism follows as an evidence of obedience which is of faith. . . . Oh no, outward baptism avails nothing so long as we are not inwardly renewed, regenerated, and baptized with the heavenly fi e of the Holy Ghost of God. But when we are the recipients of this baptism from above, then we are constrained through the Spirit and Word of God by a good conscience which we obtain thereby, because we believe sincerely in the merits and death of the Lord and in the power and fruits of his resurrection, and because we are inwardly cleansed by faith.[15]

This “change of heart” of the “inward man”[16] did not lead merely to individual salvation; it required a fundamental change in living one’s life. As Conrad Grebel (c. 1498-1526) put it,

The Scripture describes baptism for us thus, that it signifies that, by faith and the blood of Christ, sins have been washed away for him who is baptized, changes his mind, and believes before and after; that it signifies that a man is dead and ought to be dead unto sin and walks in newness of life and spirit, and that he shall certainly be saved if, according to this meaning, by inner baptism he lives his faith.[17]

In this way, baptism witnessed to an inward intention and was only for those who were committed to a life devoted to Christ in the community of faith. The cleansing of the conscience brought about by contrition must lead to discipleship in the church and world.

Radical Reformers, Baptism, and People with Profound Impairments

What then would the early Anabaptists have to say to Dorothea and others with profound cognitive impairments? As they saw adult human persons as possessing the faculties of will, reason, and conscience, we could assume that these 16th-century Christians would place persons like Dorothea in the category of “perpetual child.” They would thus be deemed “innocent” and therefore have no need for baptism. As Marpeck claims,

Paul says: “Without faith no man can please God.” Children and the retarded are not required to believe or disbelieve these words, but those who are born from the knowledge of good and evil into the innocence and simplicity of faith are required to believe. . . . [R]eason is . . . included in faith in the true sonship of Christ. Christ has accepted the children without sacrifice, without circumcision, without faith, without knowledge, without baptism; he has accepted them solely in virtue of the Word: “To such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” That is the difference between the children and understanding. And even if the children were referred to here, it would not follow that they should be baptized . . . but that they should be left in the order into which Christ placed them.[18]

According to Marpeck, it would be extremely difficult to perceive someone like Dorothea as having faith due to her impaired ability to reason. The crucifixion of all fleshly understanding and desire also point to the development of an inward conscience, another capacity that many people labeled as profoundly intellectually disabled might not possess.

In this conception of baptism, Dorothea and others with similar embodiments would neither be admitted to the ordinance nor even have need of it. For a contemporary faith community wishing to be inclusive, this denial of baptism can appear highly exclusive and contradictory to the commitment to being a welcoming church. Yet to hold consistently to a theology and practice based on the radical reformers requires baptizing people with profound cognitive impairments as “special cases” or “exceptions.” While this approach could be commended for making baptism accessible, the problem is that people like Dorothea risk becoming simply exceptions that prove the rule—namely the rule that being a rational subject, endowed with the capacity to make a free decision of faith, is necessary to receive baptism.  Baptizing persons  considered profoundly  intellectually disabled in this spirit illustrates a particularly thin mode of inclusion. That is, marginalized people can be included in the domain of the dominant group, but without any change of thought or structure that created the marginalized group in the first place. So, while someone like Dorothea may be baptized, she remains in a special category, perhaps even a “perpetual child” due to her lack of capacity to meet the norm.

Re-Envisioning a Theology and Practice of Believers Baptism

The first Anabaptists’ practice of baptism potentially marginalizes people like Dorothea in the community of faith and risks relegating her to receive baptism only as an exception. But must this be the last word? Can the tradition make room in its theology and practice so that people with profound cognitive impairments can enter the baptismal font as constitutive members of the body of Christ? What might act as reorienting steps for Anabaptist faith communities today in moving beyond inclusion to embracing the challenge which people like Dorothea make to the ordinance of baptism? In the following I will offer some preliminary suggestions on how an Anabaptist theology of baptism can be re-imagined in order to make it more hospitable and honoring not only for those with profound cognitive impairments but for others as well.


Some concern already exists in Anabaptist circles in regard to the turn towards a highly subjective, individualistic emphasis in recent practices of baptism.[19] The tendency in American revivalism to place a heavy weight upon individual conversion, along with the latent tendency towards anti- sacramentalism present from the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, have sometimes combined to reduce baptism to a merely personal, human act.[20] The heavy investment in the individual and their confession of faith also throws a dark shadow over people whose capacity for purposive agency is highly limited.

One way to counteract this tendency would be to re-assert God’s initiative in the process of initiation. By stressing God as the primary agent in baptism, the emphasis moves from Christians earninggrace to receivinggrace. With God as actor, the human role in the ordinance concerns itself less with what it needs to do than what it needs to be or become. This reorientation might help curb an Anabaptist tendency towards self-directed activism, at the same time cohering with the robust pneumatology of the first radical reformers. As Marpeck writes, “Without the artistry and teaching of the Holy Spirit, who pours out the love, which is God, into the hearts of the faith, and which surpasses all reason and understanding, everything is in vain.”[21] Seeing baptism first and foremost in the light of the Holy Spirit means that not only can someone like Dorothea receive baptism, but through her gifts of contemplative presence she might even teach the community about the disposition needed for being transformed into Christ by the Spirit. In this vision, it is ultimately the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than one’s own intentions or abilities, that gratuitously (re)creates Christians into the people of God.

Re-emphasizetheChurchas Active Subject

Another way to counter the temptation to make the individual’s subjective experience the essence of baptism would be to focus on the church as an active subject of the ordinance. Anthony Siegrist suggests that Anabaptist communities must return to a theology and practice of baptism that stresses the church as a prime place of “mediation” for God’s action.[22] To be baptized is not simply to experience God’s forgiveness individually or confess one’s own individual faith but to become part of the community of faith. John Howard Yoder emphasizes this incorporation into the church: “Baptism introduces or initiates persons into a new people.”[23] The church does not consist of atomized individuals whose initiative makes them worthy; it is a new being that changes and becomes more the body of Christ every time someone enters the font. This becomes “a new inter-ethnic social reality into which the individual is inducted rather than the social reality being the sum of the individuals. This new belonging provokes subjective faith, but it is not the product of the individual’s inward believing.”[24] A shifting of emphasis toward the faith of the church and not the inner self-consciousness of the individual potentially makes a way for people like Dorothea. Additionally, it would resound with the original impulse of the 16th-century movement, which had a solid and robust ecclesiology.

By re-orienting the faith needed in baptism from the individual to the church, we affirm that faith cannot exist in isolation but must be in relation with others. Just as our faith never wholly originates with us but comes as a gift from God, so it must never be only for us but for the church, God’s people. This helps to accentuate that Christians fundamentally needothers: “we cannot baptize ourselves. Baptism stands out as an act of the Christian community we are called to; God works through the lives of the members participating in the sacrament of baptism.”[25]  When the church becomes a subject of baptism rather than merely the individual, people with profound cognitive impairments can as much as anyone receive the grace of salvation and incorporation that baptism provides.

When a community of faith baptizes people like Dorothea it also affirms these persons’ particular gift of ministry that the Spirit has given them as a service to God and the church. Brethren theologian Dale Brown contends that baptism consists not merely in “getting saved” but acts as “an ordination to public ministry.”[26] Thus, when the church baptizes someone with a profound cognitive impairment, it not only affirms their full membership within the community but also recognizes that God has given them a mission to share with the congregation and the world.


As discussed above, the traditionally strong requirement for conscious rationality can unconsciously marginalize and disqualify people with cognitive impairments. A way to relativize this overtly intellectual knowing would be to turn towards the knowing of the body. The roots of a strong spirit-matter dualism run deep within the streams of the Western theological tradition, including Anabaptism. This dualism sees human beings as “‘thinking things’, autonomous rational agents, transcendental rational egos, disembodied centers of cognitive perception.”[27] By moving towards a more embodied rationality, the church can affirm people labeled as profoundly intellectually disabled as knowers while reminding the rest of the Body not to forget the absolute centrality of the body in its contemporary theology and practice.

As arguably the primary mode of perception, the body might act for ecclesial communities as something of an “epistemic principle.” In her reflections on the love feast in the Brethren tradition, theologian Anna Lisa Gross stresses that congregations need to understand bodies as central for ecclesial life and practice. Ordinances like footwashing and communion illustrate bodiesas communicating and perceiving presence before, and without, words. Through these rituals “bodies speak to and touch one another with messages of redemption, love and transcendence.”[28] If the body is essential for understanding, people with profound cognitive impairments are not immature children but fellow persons of faith. A faith based upon this knowing liberates them from being continually defined by their mental age and recognizes in them a potential wisdom that has come from their whole person having to negotiate an ableist world dominated by the mind.

Another path towards re-envisioning baptism is to be open to thinking by means of symbols and ritual. The faith and worship of believers’ churches have historically reflected an almost exclusive bias towards a highly intellectual and conceptual rationality. Yet symbols have their own reason embedded in them and communicate less cognitively and more through action and liturgy. By cultivating a more symbolic approach that makes room for the body and other forms of knowing, the church can realize that people like Dorothea are potentially as prepared as anyone else for receiving the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For the divine communication that occurs through worship comes by way of mystery, and consists of a knowledge that often bypasses or transcends strictly conceptual rationality.

Worship is a fundamentally communal activity that requires bodies that give praise and thanksgiving to God. By incorporating more liturgical gestures in worship, Anabaptist Christians can not only let their bodies communicate their thanks to God and receive God’s love in return, but also affirm that they can never truly know God on their own. A Christian epistemology is inherently a shared one: knowledge does not come in isolation from one another but as a community, both past and present. Being in relationship with people like Dorothea can show the community that no one is ultimately the originator of their own thoughts, but all are members of Christ’s body and receive truth from a communal discernment in the power of the Holy Spirit. The presence of people with profound cognitive impairments can continually remind members that worship involves a gathering together of a Body with their bodies, not a meeting of individually disembodied spirits.


Arguably one of the strongest markers of the Anabaptist tradition its emphasis upon discipleship as a sign and response of faith. While some of the early reformers saw following Christ as originating in an experience of Gelassenheit or inner “surrender,” focusing so tightly on discipleship can easily make the Christian life primarily activist in its orientation. In this conception of following Christ, the stress is on the initiative of the agent to do demonstrable acts of service (usually to those designated as “poor”). While commendable in many ways, this strong activist orientation as a requisite for baptism or as a sign of faith can marginalize those like Dorothea with a limited ability for purposive agency. What would happen if Anabaptist churches could include within their ethical commitments the practices of hospitality and mutual relationships? With such a turn they might be able to recognize, with theologian Amos Yong, that people with disabilities are not only the guests who are recipients of the hospitality of others. Rather they are constitutive members of the body of Christ who are also charismatically empowered through the fellowship of the Spirit to be hosts who extend hospitality to others and mediate the hospitality of God. . . . [T]he inclusive hospitality of the Spirit liberally dispenses the charisms of ministry to all people—the “weak” and the “strong” alike—so that the “disabled” and nondisabled are equally instruments of God’s reconciling and transforming power.[29]

How, then, does someone like Dorothea embody this neglected dimension of discipleship? Theologian Hans Reinders sees discipleship in the gifts of trust and presence that people with severe disabilities show us: “Given the condition that characterizes their lives, they have learned, in one way or another, to trust in order to survive.”[30] Non-disabled Christians constantly face the temptation of going through life hiding their brokenness through acts of (spiritual) strength. But entering into a genuine relationship of  friendship  and  mutuality  with  someone  like  Dorothea  shatters  this presumption. The friendship of such people is a gift for the Body, because they help everyone recognize the fundamental dimension of trust in others that makes up our humanity and our relationship with God. We can begin to see the gift of a contemplative, welcoming presence given by the Holy Spirit to some people with profound cognitive impairments as a legitimate charism of following Christ. This gift makes them not only candidates for baptism but also witnesses to everyone that discipleship must include hospitality, trust, and friendship with the other, in addition to works of mercy and justice.

Conclusion: Paying Attention to Narrative

Perhaps the most crucial need in re-imaging an Anabaptist theology of baptism that fully accounts for someone like Dorothea is to pay attention to the stories the church tells about this ordinance. An approach that relies on the 16th-century radical reformers makes it very difficult to include people like her within its narrative of baptism. The first Anabaptists’ stress on the development of will, reason, and conscience as requirements meant that these people could be seen only as innocent children and thus ineligible for full membership in the Body. The strongly capacity-oriented self assumed there—a voluntary, rational, and inward decider—can include such folk only as exceptions or special cases. Thus a contemporary Anabaptist baptismal narrative grounded in the 16th century might go something like this: “ThroughyourpersonalrelationshipwithChristyouhavechosentogiveyour life to him, and intentionally follow him on the way to the Cross.” But the full presence in the church of those with profound cognitive impairments challenges believers to re-imagine Christian identity and to create alternative stories of becoming members of the Body. The themes of the Holy Spirit’s prevenient calling and the church as an active subject, faithfully speak to God’s initiative in a person’s coming to faith.

A new story of baptism that emphasizes the sovereignty of God and the action of the church must not be told merely as an accommodation to those like Dorothea. Rather, this renewed narrative speaks to all believers as creatures radically dependent on God and one another. Baptism “embodies a narrative of reception, witness, and sharing with a full acknowledgement of our utter dependence on the other for our present communion as well as our eschatological vision of hope for the future.”[31] So, a new narrative might go like this: “BythepoweroftheHolySpirit,webaptizeyouintotheBodyofChrist, affirmingyour beingas a child of God and calling you to become a minister of God’s reconciling work in the world.”

Much work needs to be done in Anabaptist theology to make it more hospitable to people like Dorothea. The vast lacunae in Anabaptist- Mennonite thinking about people considered profoundly intellectually disabled must be seriously and immediately addressed. Otherwise it will be difficult to believe that the church takes Paul seriously when he asserts that “the members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect” (1 Cor. 12:23). This essay is only a very preliminary and incomplete beginning in that work. I have attempted to let Dorothea and others like her challenge basic assumptions of Anabaptist theology on baptism, and I urge re-imagined thought and practice on this ordinance so that it can adequately account for the humanity of people with profound cognitive impairments.

JasonReimerGreigis a Research Fellow with the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre, and a Lecturer in Disability Studies at King’s University College in London, Ontario.

[1] “Dorothea” is a pseudonym used to protect the anonymity of this young woman.

[2] Hillel Schwartz, “Early Anabaptist Ideas about the Nature of Children,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 47, no. 2 (April 1973): 105-106.

[3] Quoted in ibid., 105.

[4] Stephen Boyd, PilgramMarpeck:HisLifeandSocialTheology(Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1992), 149.

[5] Schwartz, “Early Anabaptist Ideas,” 105.

[6] Hans Schlaffer, “A Short and Simple Admonition,” 1527, quoted from Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, ed. Walter Klaassen (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 171.

[7] Quoted in Schwartz, “Early Anabaptist Ideas,” 105.

[8] John Howard Yoder, BodyPolitics:FivePracticesoftheChristianCommunitybeforetheWatchingWorld(Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 84, n40. [Perhapsthebest-knownMennonitetheologianofthe20thcentury,Yoderis also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women. Documentation and discussion of these abuses is found at Quarterly Review 89, no. 1 (January 2015).—CGR Editors]

[9] Balthasar Hubmaier, BalthasarHubmaier:TheologianofAnabaptism, trans. and ed. by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1989), 127.

[10] Menno Simons, TheCompleteWritings ofMennoSimons,trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J.C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 240.

[11] See Thomas N. Finger, AContemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 160-61.

[12] Quoted in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, eds. George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), 192.

[13] Ernst Crous, “Reason and Obedience,” The Mennonite  Encyclopedia (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1959), 4:259.

[14] C. Arnold Snyder, FollowingintheFootstepsofChrist:TheAnabaptistTradition(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 71.

[15] Simons, TheCompleteWritings,125.

[16] Ibid., 134.

[17] Quoted in SpiritualandAnabaptistWriters, 80.

[18] Pilgram Marpeck, “Confession,” quoted from Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, ed. Klaassen, 176-77. Compare this with the same text in Pilgram Marpeck, TheWritingsofPilgramMarpeck, eds. William Klassen and Klaassen, 129, where “retarded” is translated as “the ignorant.”

[19] Marlin E. Miller, “The Mennonites,” in Baptism & Church: A Believers’ Church Vision, ed. Merle D. Strege (Grand Rapids, MI: Sagamore Books, 1986), 23-24; “Baptism in the Mennonite Tradition,” 53-54; John D. Roth, Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009), 199-200; John Rempel, RecapturinganEnchantedWorld:RitualandSacramentintheFreeChurchTradition(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 92.

[20] Anthony G. Siegrist, ParticipatingWitness:AnAnabaptistTheologyofBaptismandtheSacramentalCharacteroftheChurch(Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 13.

[21] Quoted in Roth, Practices:MennoniteWorshipandWitness, 204.

[22] Siegrist, ParticipatingWitness.

[23] Yoder, BodyPolitics, 28.

[24] Ibid., 30. At other times Yoder reiterates the need for a personal and authentic adult confession of faith. See John Howard Yoder, AdjustingtotheChangingShapeoftheDebateonInfantBaptism(Amsterdam: Algemene Doopsgezinde Societeit, 1989), 213-14.

[25] Stanley Hauerwas and Brett Webb-Mitchell, “The Radical Edge of Baptism,” in Brett Webb- Mitchell, DancingwithDisabilities:OpeningtheChurchtoAllGodsChildren(Cleveland, OH: United Church Press, 1996), 16.

[26] Dale W. Brown, “The Brethren,” in Baptism & Church, 34-35.

[27] James K.A. Smith, ThinkinginTongues: Pentecostal ContributionstoChristianPhilosophy(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 54. See also his DesiringtheKingdom:Worship,Worldview,andCulturalFormation(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 39-73.

[28] Anna Lisa Gross, “Body Theology in the Love Feast,” Brethren Life and Thought 55, no. 3 (2010): 66.

[29] Amos Yong, TheologyandDown Syndrome: Re-imagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press, 2007), 224, 225.

[30] Hans Reinders, ReceivingtheGiftofFriendship:ProfoundDisability,TheologicalAnthropology,andEthics(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 376.

[31] Keith G. Meador and Joel James Shuman, “Who/se We Are: Baptism as Personhood,” ChristianBioethics6, no. 1 (April 2000): 79.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Believers Baptism as Supported Decision

Melissa Florer-Bixler
ABSTRACT: Contemporary believers baptism often focuses on What do you understand?” By adopting the framework of supported decision- making and the work of disability activist Jenny Hatch, this essay displaces cognition as the primary locus for moral formation. Through a reading of Menno Simons that centers on non-coercion and moral life, a theological vision of baptism is offered in which people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are supported to make self-determined choices about their lives of faith. Also provided are examples of how Mennonite congregations are shifting their baptismal practices to accommodate a range of ways of knowing, diversity of gifts, and forms of communication across the spectrum of cognitive dis/ability.

In this essay I will argue for a turn away from cognitive assent as the basis for evaluating one’s fitness for believers baptism an instead place non- coercion and moral formation at the center. Utilizing the advocacy work of Jenny Hatch, and evaluating the role of mental capacity in Menno Simons’s ConcerningBaptism(1539), I offer a theology of baptism in which an individual exercises agency to freely choose faith, a faith that requires “supported decision-making” in order to live out. Finally, I will suggest pastoral resources for churches whose moral formation extends to those who are medically and legally defined as intellectually and developmentally disabled (I/DD) and may need more creative and expansive forms to express faith.

Understanding Believers Baptism

One way to understand believers baptism is as an individual’s affirmation of a set of theological concepts and ethical decisions. This knowledge can be evaluated through cognitive assessment; it can be taught in a class, and its answers reproduced in a way that is intelligible through a public, verbal confession of faith. In this understanding, at a certain point in their intellectual development, a person gains enough knowledge to request baptism. For most Mennonite churches, baptism follows a period of instruction and is affirmed through a verbal, public confession of faith before the local congregation. In this theology people with I/DD are excluded because they do not possess the intellectual capacity to meet the knowledge threshold set by a local church. To be baptized they would become “the exception to the rule” and given a special dispensation at theological odds with Anabaptism. Otherwise they would not be baptized at all.

I suggest an alternative, namely that baptism is for all people, regardless of their intellectual capacity, a supported decision. They are assisted into moral formation by witnessing and mimicking the faith of those who make up the church. The Mennonite ritual of baptism relies on a personal and authentic faith. But for most people in our churches, faith is formation over time leading to a point when they express publicly what has developed through worship, service, relationship, and learning. Baptism is a personaldecision but not a privatedecision. The Schleitheim Confession announces that “baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life.”[1] If there are learners, there are teachers. If there is amendment of life, there are those who display life amended.

However, I am wary of emphasizing the communal at the cost of the individual. Movements towards dependency and vulnerability in the church run the risk of denying the autonomy of people with I/DD. Believers baptism is not an erasure of the self, nor is it the community acting on behalf of the individual. The grace of chosen baptism is that others support individuals in becoming fully themselves so that they can make an autonomous, informed decision about the community they choose and the life they will live. This requires others. It also requires supported decision-making, a shift away from the learned knowledge as intellectual pursuit and towards a form of life that integrates the whole person into the community.

The language of supported decision-making comes from the landmark legal case of Jenny Hatch, a woman with Down Syndrome who, following a guardianship ruling handed down by a judge, was forced to live in a group home against her will, to cease attending her church, and to give up contact with her friends. Up to that point she had lived in her own apartment and engaged in activities of her choosing. She held a job at a thrift shop and travelled independently but within a supportive network. After being struck by a car while riding her bicycle, she was served a petition turning her guardianship over to a case worker, effectively removing her ability to make her own life decisions. She wrote about what happened after the judge’s ruling was passed down: “I was placed in a group home. I did not want to be there. I told everyone that I was not happy and did not like it.”[2] She became an activist, using both her abilities and support from her network of family and friends to advocate for her right to participate in her own decision-making. Over the past decades the advocacy and self-assertion of people with

I/DD has led to a shift among academic, legal, and social service providers. It includes movement away from “overboard and undue guardianship” and towards supported decision-making. This is a framework that can reshape the way Anabaptism evaluates baptism as a ritual of agency within moral formation.

Limits of Cognition for Faith Formation

The emergence of Anabaptism in the 16th century included renunciation of infant baptism. The first Anabaptist leaders to break from Zwinglian reforms cited the voluntary nature of the church—rooted in Jesus’ non- coercive life, death, and resurrection—as the theological form baptism ought to take. Christians are to be patterned after Jesus, who initiated a new polisthrough a death he took on freely, eschewing control of history and thereby securing the liberation of people from sin and death. As in the New Testament era, people are to enter the visible church by consent to baptism, a ritual marking a changed life. Consent follows activation of faith, and this leads to the transformation of how they live. The central claim in Menno Simons’s ConcerningBaptismemphasizes that understanding precedes baptism. Because it is one of the most comprehensive and influential early Anabaptism treatises on baptism, I turn to it to understand how one strand of Anabaptist baptismal theology is the cipher for an exploration of a fully- embodied commitment to life in the church.

For Menno, the Matthean commandment “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19) is the basis for his argument against infant baptism. “This is the word and will of the Lord, that all who hear and believe the word of God, shall be baptized,” writes Menno.[3] At the same time, the fruit of faith is not borne out of intellectual achievement but in a life that willingly and wittingly accepts the consequences of faith. Menno’s primary concern is that one enters into a kind of faith that forges discipleship with the least rational end—the willingness to die. Witnessed regeneration in the lives of the baptized only occurs after the ritual, when trial comes into their lives.

Menno’s treatise, rather than elevating cognitive ability, reduces its importance within the life of the believer. Instead of lifting up cognitive ability as leading to faith, Menno notes the failure of the astute and learned: “What are the learned and highly learned masters of this world doing, who are so earnestly engaged in derogating from God’s word and wisdom, and ingeniously urging their own vain reason and wisdom?”[4] He goes on to say that “only human reason and the invention of men” led Luther and his cohort to opinions that contradict the positive commands of Scripture.[5] Luther and the clerics, despite their erudition, are unable to grasp Scripture’s simple truths. Their knowledge springs from human reason, but neither age nor learning are guarantees that a person will enter into biblical faith. Instead, baptism follows a faith that people sincerely confess, “no matter how young or how old.”[6] For Menno, intellectual prowess is not only unnecessary for true faith but can be dangerous if it leads to distorting the Scriptures.

When we consider that Anabaptism was a peasants’ movement, spreading primarily among the poor and uneducated, we can better see the importance of teachings that center faith, not intellect, as the source of true belief. Returning moral agency to everyday workers and peasants meant faith would be lived, not just studied. If faith was not learned, it was lived by observation, imitation, and participation in the Gospels. Nevertheless, Menno does not dismiss the necessity of transformation of the mind, which he locates in the process of maturation. He contends that at a certain point in human development, people move from the grace of God that extends to everyone, including infants, to willful participants in sin through their own choice. In his reading of Scripture, deduced from the absence of infant baptism in the Gospels, “it is impossible for little children to die to sin, as long as they have not been made alive to it.”[7] Menno’s argument with the Roman Catholic Church concerns a doctrine of original sin that extends to infants in a way that threatens their salvation without the mediation of regenerative baptism. Instead, it is through “Christ and his merits,” not baptism, that people are saved.[8]

But Menno also argues that infants are not baptized because “they have no ears to hear the word of the Lord, and no understanding to comprehend it; for through the word and the hearing of the word all this is accomplished.”[9] In essence, they are neurologically unable to make moral decisions, unable to distinguish between good and evil. Their actions are age-appropriately self-centered, and this exempts them from the work of differentiating a life lived by faith. Because they are unable to participate in sin, there is no sin from which they must be cleansed. They are already covered by God’s mercy in Christ.

While Menno does not expect erudition and learnedness to lead to faith, he does have an expectation that, at a certain point marked by maturity developed over years, a person will be able to distinguish between good and evil. When this occurs, the person will make a witting choice to reject evil and embrace a life of faith. This is the evidence of faith, God’s work of grace in human life. The form of reason that leads to faith is that which is defined by those who make up the visible church, of those who freely choose life in faith. Menno critiques the assumptive morality of those in both the Roman Catholic Church and that of the magisterial reformers.

Contemporary integrative approaches to moral development challenge Menno’s view of moral decision-making as linked to a universal development process based primarily on biological maturation. Rather than reflecting an objective universal moral development, people mature into their own particular form of moral life. This understanding, which takes into account more than cognitive and social maturation, actually fleshes out what is at the center of Menno’s critique of infant baptism, namely that those who follow the natural development of morality via human reason are at odds with a life of biblical faith. Something from the “outside” must engage people and lead them to entrust their formation to what is un-natural. Returning to the Matthean command, this is the act of “making disciples,” which is not ultimately a cognitive process but a form of life separate from and leaving behind pre-baptismal identities.

Virtue and I/DD

In order to extend Menno’s theology of moral development into faith communities that include people across a spectrum of cognitive abilities, we will need to shift from intellectual capacity to moral development. Other people are required for moral development that leads to regenerative life and the decision to step into a communal form of that life. For Jenny Hatch, the court that enacted her guardianship was concerned that she could not make decisions in her best interest. The state argued that she was unable to grasp the consequences of her actions. This paternalism is widespread in the lives of people with I/DD. The assumption is that the ability to make wise, safe, and ethical decisions is unavailable to them. Hatch turned this assumption around. How are caregivers, friends, and family helping people with I/DD to understand the decisions they face about their own lives?

Rather than placing cognitive rationality at the center of moral formation, theologian Amos Yong describes morality as “tri-dimensionally shaped by our bodies (and brains), our psyches (emotions and affections), and our environments (social relations).”[10]  As such, “moral agency both exceeds and is irreducible to moral knowledge.”[11] Utilizing the work of Francisco Varela, Yong explains that moral action is often habitual and reflexive, “ethical know-how.”[12] He uncouples intellectual ability and moral virtue. Instead, he emphasizes the role of affections and emotion in learning to live a virtuous life.

In a similar vein, virtue ethicist Linda T. Zagzebski contends that “the virtues are the behaviors or characteristics that humans admire, empathize with, and are drawn to emulate.”[13] Hers is an “exemplarist” theory of virtue morality:[14] we mimic what we are drawn to and we emulate what we see as good. To this end, our emotions and affections are as important as rationality for living virtuous lives. We learn by the example of others and by imitating it. Through our emotions, we cultivate morality over time and in response to others. This engenders greater social capacity that helps us to act within larger groups through solidarity, empathy, understanding, and compassion. Virtues are not ideas that are taught but habits that develop through observation and mimicry. All people are formed for virtue not simply through cognition but through interaction with individuals and communities. Kevin Reimer fleshes out this theory in his research on L’Arche communities. In these intentional communities “as caregivers and core members interact, attend to each other’s psychosomatic cues, and respond affectively and physically to those cues, such behaviors are gradually manifest by all community members, including those with intellectual disabilities.”[15] L’Arche is not only a communal space for caregiving and receiving, but the caregiving and receiving is itself moral formation. My own experience as a L’Arche assistant bears this out.

L’Arche core members, people with I/DD, frequently came from group homes and institutions where the their lives were overdetermined by medical diagnosis. The purpose of these homes and institutions is to run efficiently and safely; residents are clients or patients whose days are charted and mapped in order to meet state and federal funding guidelines. The moral development of those with I/DD is not considered an essential part of their care. Instead, they learn by experience that survival often requires suppressing their agency through obedience, passivity, and acceptance. Challenges to the system, assertions of their will, could risk loss of access to privileges or services. Additionally, because of the high rate of turnover and low wages earned by the caregivers, the patient, long-term process of individual communication is difficult to cultivate. By contrast, communities like L’Arche create different rhythms for life that begin with agency, community, and mutuality. Because the assistants are typically not hourly workers, they are free to learn how each person communicates, what they desire, and how they express emotion. It is in experiencing core member and assistant interaction that, over time and with great patience and love, both people with disabilities and assistants learn and grow in their capacity to empathize, participate in the care of others, and express their own agency. These relationships are the foundation for supported decision-making in the community.

The case of Jenny Hatch offers an incisive critique of systems that assume cognition is the primary determinant of good decision-making, and that people with disabilities are disqualified from participating in their own decisions. “I don’t need a [guardian],” Hatch told the court at her hearing. “I need help.”[16] She wanted access to time, to more complete explanations of the consequences of her decisions, and to forms of knowledge that recognized who she was and how she best understood. Throughout the book she co- authored, she consistently emphasizes her need only for assistance—with daily tasks, managing a bank account, and making decisions about her health care.[17] Research consistently shows that those who are given more space for self-determination are happier and more independent, and that self-determination allows people with I/DD to better recognize and avoid abuse.[18] Looking back on the time when her self-determination was curtailed through guardianship, Hatch writes, “I felt like a prisoner but I didn’t do anything wrong. I was told I had rights at the group home. But that wasn’t true. [The guardians] took them away. ItwaslikeI didn’t matter. Like I didn’t exist.”[19]

Supported Decision-Making and Baptism

Supported decision-making offers a model for people with I/DD to exercise agency within communities and alongside caregivers who give and receive moral formation. It allows them to exercise their agency as moral beings through participation in the church. In accessing trusted loved ones, peers, and caregivers, they grow in their moral autonomy as they deepen their lives into communities of moral formation. As Jenny Hatch demonstrates, giving people with I/DD determination over their lives—including their spiritual lives—is a way to correct the paternalism that assumes they live an endless childhood. It also complicates I/DD as a diagnostic category, recognizing that it is a spectrum diagnosis made up of individuals with unique abilities, communication styles, and environmental factors that inhibit or support their ability to thrive. Communicating a desire to participate in religious life and mapping the development of a faith life requires individualized attention and communal moral formation. In clinical and legal spheres, supported decision-making has marked an end to the assertion that people with I/DD were incapable of autonomy and required others to act in their best interest. Jenny Hatch’s advocates identified the gap between the environment and her capacity. The problem was not simply that she lacked cognitive function. Rather, the normative environment of communication and decision-making prohibited her from expressing her will over her life.

In supported-decision making the friends, professionals, and family of a person with I/DD can “help them understand the situations and choices they face so they may make their own informed decisions.”[20] Rather than focusing on the deficits of people who are socially, medically, and legally defined on the basis of difference, the shift towards self-determination requires a new social-ecological model that “acknowledges that each person has a unique profile of capabilities and limitations.”[21] Disability occurs in both the limitations of an individual and“the demands of the environments in which he or she lives, learns, works, plays, and so forth.” My contention is that approaching believers baptism as a form of supported decision-making corrects the  theological  malpractice  of  assuming  faithful  participation in the life of the visible church must be based on one’s cognitive ability, unencumbered by others.

Moral development occurs not only by intellectual growth and acquisition of knowledge but is formed over time within exemplary communities. This happens through caregiving and community that models empathy, mutuality, and respect. Attending to the social determinates that undergird moral development  offers Anabaptism  what is  missing from Menno’s account of believers baptism, namely a robust role for the church. Baptismal identity is formed through assisted self-determination, an identity that communicates inclusion, worth, and respect.

Modeling Supported Decision-Making in Baptism

Churches that nurture people with I/DD nurture their agency through diverse models of communication, education, and moral formation. Mennonite churches that undertake a theology of baptism as supported decision- making require creativity in communicating and listening for an individual’s willing participation in baptism, and a shift in the role the churches play in the life of such persons. Neil Cudney and Keith Dow suggest that this means that changing the pre-condition of believers baptism from “Does she understand?” to a new set of questions that include:

  1. Hassheexperiencedthetactile,embodiedGospelinthelifeofthechurch—inwordandaction?This question will expand faith from a set of ideas or principles like confession, sin, and redemption into a form of living that is embodied in congregational life.
  2. HasshefoundbelongingintheBodyofChrist?Has room been made to discover and welcome the gifts of this individual, rather than rendering her one who receives services, hospitality, or gifts from the congregation?
  3. DoessheseektobefaithfultoChrist,toloveothers,andtoexpresshergiftsincommunity?To answer this question, congregations will need to expand their definition of giftedness beyond committee work or worship to include such gifts as silence and presence, or inquisitiveness and laughter.[22]

In addition to congregational shifts, individuals will need support to understand and to be understood in their faith decisions. A Mennonite pastor in Indiana has described how this occurred with a member of her congregation. The pastor made an announcement during worship about preparation for baptism classes that included information about a special meal that would accompany the first meeting. A young woman with Down Syndrome announced in worship that she wanted to eat the meal. At first glance, the pastor wondered if she was interested only in the meal, not in baptism. But through individual conversation, observation of the young woman’s life, and shifting language to accommodate her abilities, the pastor was able to hear a deeper longing for community that was interconnected with her love for Jesus as she experienced him in the life of the church. The young woman announced her hope to join her life to the community through her own agency and using the language of her desires.


Individual congregations within and resources available to the Mennonite Church offer guidance for a turn towards supportive decision-making as the way individuals become part of the body of Christ in baptism. One resource is in the Ministers Manual,which includes questions “for situations in which very simple wording is required.”[23] The first of these questions is “Do you believe that Jesus loves you?” The alternative set of questions is offered in recognition of the range of cognitive abilities of those requesting baptism. For a person unable to make a publicly discernable confession of faith, baptismal covenanting may include testimonies about her life, her growth and commitment to community over time, and the impact of her gifts on the life of the church. Churches may adapt liturgies to proclaim to the gathered body how the person has expressed their agency in the ways they are able, and to describe the process of learning “the language” of that individual.

The co-writers who supported Jenny Hatch in sharing her story argue that “everyoneasks for and receives help when they need it, so they can understand their options and make choices.”[24] In my congregation people new to the church and new to Christianity often struggle with the concept of belief as a cognitive set of principles to which they should ascribe. Following the lead of disability activists can allow all Mennonite congregations to reshape their view of faith decisions leading to baptism as something more robust than a set of principles that line up with moral actions. Leaders like Jenny Hatch stress the importance of autonomous decisions, learned through imitation, that provide each person with the support they need to become fully themselves in their faith journey. Faith is not a purely intellectual pursuit. It is our whole lives.

MelissaFlorer-Bixleris the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church and the chair of the board of L’Arche North Carolina.       

[1] Schleitheim Confession (1527) in ReadingsintheHistoryofChristianTheology, Vol. 2, ed. William Placher (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986), 31.

[2] Jenny Hatch’s letter, “Justice for Jenny Project,, accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

[3] Menno Simons, “Concerning Baptism” in TheCompleteWritingsofMennoSimons, trans. Leonard Verduin (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1986), ft009-baptism.html, accessed Dec. 15, 2019-March 30, 2020.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Amos Yong, “The Virtues and Intellectual Disability: Explorations in the (Cognitive) Sciences of Moral Formation,” in James Van Slyke, et al., eds., Theology and the Science of Moral Action: Virtue Ethics, Exemplarity, and Cognitive Neuroscience (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 195.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 197.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 201.

[16] Karrie Shogren, Michael Wehmeyer, Jonathan Martinis, and Peter Blanck, “Social-Ecological Models of Disability,” in Supported Decision-Making: Theory, Research, and Practice to EnhanceSelf-DeterminationandQualityofLife(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019), 15.

[17] Jonathan Martinis and Peter Blanck, Supported Decision-Making:From JusticeforJennytoJusticeforAll!(Something Else Solutions, LLC: 2019), 263-64.

[18] Ibid., 315.

[19] Ibid. Italics added.

[20] Michael Wehmeyer, Susan Palmer, Martin Agran, Dennis Mithaug, and Jonathan Martin, “Promoting causal agency: the self-determined learning model of instruction,” in ExceptionalChildren66 (June 1, 2000), 440.

[21] Shogren et al., “Social-Ecological Models of Disability,” 32.

[22] Neil Cudney and Keith Dow, “Should we baptize people with intellectual disabilities?” in TheDisabilityandFaithForum, intellectual-disabilities/, accessed April 12, 2020.

[23] MinistersManual,ed. John Rempel (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press: 1998), 403.

[24] Martinis and Blanck, SupportedDecisionMaking. 583.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Simplicity, Purity of Heart, and the Gift of Limits

Keith Dow
ABSTRACT: This essay employs Kierkegaards articulation of  simplicity  as the purity of heart to will one thing” to argue that the virtue of simplicity arises within human limitation. People of diverse abilities, including those with disabilities, together can learn to simply act on their shared values, and to practice a purity of life where conviction and action are aligned. The author considers the danger of a too- easy association of simplicity and intellectual disability, explores the Anabaptist emphasis on simplicity in theological inquiry, discusses “cleverness” and the good, and stresses personal and corporate integrity, accessibility, and single-minded devotion to Christ.

The Virtue of Simplicity

In the fall of 2019, I was invited to present a workshop at a conference reimagining the relationship between Canadian churches and their neighborhoods. The topic was “fostering belonging in community.” I had invited Betty, a middle-aged woman with an intellectual disability, to help me facilitate and to share her experience.[1] As the hour-long workshop began, I loaded my over-ambitious 26 slides. I shared statistics on the social isolation experienced by people with intellectual disabilities and the general population. I noted that the Angus Reid Institute reports that over 60 percent of Canadians would like to spend more time with friends and family, and under 15 percent describe the current state of their social lives as “very good.”[2] “Technology and transience contribute to loneliness and social isolation,” I went on, adding that “there are many reasons why we feel lonely. It’s hard to build community these days.”

At that point, Betty jumped in: “It’s not that hard,” she said, “It’s actually pretty easy.” Taken aback, and less than halfway through my carefully prepared slide deck, I nevertheless asked what she meant. “When I want to meet someone, I just go up and say ‘Hi.’ Like at the bus stop, or whatever. If they don’t want to talk to me, I go on and talk someone else instead.” In several sentences, she had put into words the kinds of actions needed to build community: she simply lived out her desire to meet people and make friends. Betty felt no embarrassment or awkwardness about approaching strangers. Strangers may carry on with their reading, scrolling their social newsfeed, or listening to music instead of responding to her. Others take the time to connect with her in a meaningful way.

Getting to know Betty, I realize that she lives out her beliefs and values simply, in a way that is difficult for me. She is well known and loved in her community. She volunteers regularly at her local thrift store, is active in her church choir, and is celebrated as an example of community involvement and participation. While I was busy talking and thinking about community development, she was simply living it out. Several questions come to mind: What helped Betty to engage so well with those around her? Why is it simple for her to build community, whereas it seems so complicated to me? What might I learn from her example?

Simplicity is a long-established pillar of Anabaptist life. The ways our sisters and brothers with intellectual disabilities simply work toward that which is good can inform the practice of simplicity in Christian community in diverse ways. In this essay, I draw on philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s articulation of simplicity as “the purity of heart to will one thing” to argue that the virtue of simplicity arises within human limitation. As people of diverse abilities, we must learn to simply act on the shared values we know to be true. We must practice, together, a purity of life where conviction and action are aligned, undeterred by clever evasions or intellectual excuses.

Below I will first consider the danger of a too-easy association of simplicity and intellectual disability. Then, after exploring the Anabaptist emphasis on simplicity in theological inquiry, I will look to “purity of heart to will one thing” to deconstruct the privilege of “cleverness.” Christian communities are called to reclaim simplicity of life and practice. Finally, through the lens of confession I will look at what this means for personal and corporate integrity, accessibility, and single-minded devotion to Christ.

Intellectual Disability and Simplicity

There is a danger in too quickly associating simplicity with intellectual disability. “Simple-minded” has been used as a derogatory term for people thought to lack intelligence.[3] It is but one of many insults used against those who have, or are perceived to have, limited cognitive ability.

Using words like “simple” in a derogatory manner reveals a societal bias toward intellectual ability, complexity, and complication. People thought to be clever or intelligent—according to certain standards of cognitive ability—are held in high esteem, while simplicity of thought is seldom considered as a gift. Since the 1200s, “simple” has carried a double meaning: to be “free from duplicity” and to be foolish.[4] Rather than merely condemn negative connotations of simplicity, I suggest that we must reclaim the vital virtue of sincerity while challenging too-easy associations of simplicity with foolishness.

Let me return to Betty here. She lives a more complex and varied life than I do. Having more financial resources at my disposal, my family and I live outside the city and drive a car rather than take public transportation. Much of my work is done on a computer rather than face-to-face with others, and I am not regularly a part of a day program or other structured activities. One reason that Betty engages with diverse people is due to her limited income. She cannot afford a car, so she sees people often as she navigates public transportation. Limited by not having full-time paid employment, she volunteers and gets “out and about” regularly. She is seldom alone and visits often with friends.

In other ways, Betty’s limitations simplify her life. Where her daily commute and activities are complicated by her limited income, these limits mean that she encounters many people through the course of a day. It is simple for her to build the community that she seeks. Admittedly, others might have difficulty making friends in similar circumstances. Many of the people Betty meets are strangers. Social inhibitions generally prevent us from introducing ourselves to people we do not know. Betty’s social inhibitions are also limited but in a different way. Many people with intellectual disabilities or autism do not share my fears of honest expression or awkward encounters. This may be due to a difficulty or limited ability in interpreting social cues. Betty’s limited social inhibition means that she just introduces herself to people she wants to get to know. She lacks or ignores any evasions or excuses that would keep her from making friends. In the workshop on fostering belonging in community, I was quick to identify the challenges and difficulties that one might face in community development work, but Betty simply makes community happen.

Simplicity and Anabaptist Theology

Early Anabaptist writing consisted largely of testimonies beginning with “This I do confess” or “This we do believe.”[5] These confessions were not first and foremost intended as theological discourses but as expressions of the heart. Robert Friedmann writes that they were “usually very simple, abounding in Bible quotations and short declarations. Theology was not intended and will hardly be found in them.”[6] What Friedmann means is not that these testimonies lacked theological coherence, but that their power did not arise from their intellectual mastery of a doctrinal belief. It was the way the confessions were lived out that demonstrated their authenticity and truth— often to the point of persecution and martyrdom. In light of the Anabaptist dedication to costly discipleship, Friedmann interprets Anabaptism as “an outstanding example of existential Christianity, where “existential” means above all an extreme concreteness of the Christian experience. Such an experience is neither of an intellectual nature (doctrinal understanding) nor is it emotional. For lack of a better description we will call it ‘total’ . . . an unreserved surrender and dedication to the divine will.[7]

In their commitment to unreserved surrender to God’s will, Anabaptists seek to avoid hypocrisy or divided loyalty. This hypocrisy is what Christ protests when he calls the Pharisees “white-washed tombs,” with a façade of purity but often pronouncing religious judgment on others rather than aligning their own faith and action (Matt. 23:27-28).The apostle Paul feared that Christians would be led astray from authentic faith: “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3 NASB). He objects to cunning or cleverness that might lead to hypocrisy, a divided devotion that distracts from simple obedience. The disciple of Christ is to love and serve God with an unadulterated commitment.

Dedicated to living out their confessions of faith authentically, Anabaptists and Mennonites have long emphasized the virtue of simplicity. This virtue closely relates to “sincerity, humility, and forthrightness,” and its impact is seen in various aspects of community, “including address and communication, forms of worship and type of meetinghouse, character of homes and furniture, costume etc.”[8] In this way, simplicity in community life might mean adopting limits on the styles of clothing, on types of worship, or even on the kinds of structures that are built and how elaborate they are. Similarly, new technologies and sources of information and influence from outside the community might be limited if they are understood as detracting from shared values. Questions are raised, such as “Is this device appropriate for our values?” or “What might be the consequences of [this device or technology]?”[9] In contrast to merely accepting new technology or unlimited access to the latest news and information as a community good, it is understood that a kind of “double-mindedness” can arise when community members are caught up in the latest novelty.[10]

While simplicity in the Anabaptist community is typically a result of limits chosen by the members, Betty faces limits on her income and intellectual ability that are not of her own choosing. Regardless of how they arose, her limits have similarly positioned her to live out the virtue of simplicity in her commitment to building community by making friends.

Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing

Raised in the state Lutheran church in Denmark in the 19th century, Søren Kierkegaard may seem an unlikely ally in a conversation on simplicity, intellectual disability, and Anabaptist thought. He wrote a number of pseudonymous books—forms of “indirect communication”—that appear anything but simple. Even when writing under an assumed name, though, Kierkegaard sought to compel his reader to practice her Christian faith with earnestness and sincerity. He is known for his sharp critique of Christendom and its inauthentic instantiation in the state-run church. This critique resonates with the Anabaptist tradition. As Harold Schaff writes, Anabaptists were “emphatically opposed to any interference in matters of belief by the government, and were therefore early and outspoken protagonists of the principle of separation of Church and State.”[11] They called out the disparity they observed between “the institutions of Christian lands and what they regarded as the plain teachings of Scripture . . . the uncorrupted simplicity of the Gospel.”[12]

Kierkegaard’s call to authentic  Christian  practice  is  evident  in his non-pseudonymous PurityofHeartis to Will One Thing. There he considers James’s instruction “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double- minded” (James 4:8, ESV). How does one “draw near to God?” The believer must will one thing: the good. It must be willed in truth; that is, it must be lived out in one’s life and action.[13] Seeking the good in truth, which for Kierkegaard is synonymous with seeking God and all that comes from God, is both the highest possible pursuit and accessible to all. It is also the basis for finding peace and harmony with others: “To will one thing, to will the good in truth, to will as a single individual to be allied with God—something unconditionally everyone can do—that is harmony.”[14] Seeking God is the great equalizer. It is a “blessed equality, that in the strictest sense the sufferer can unconditionally do the highest fully as well as the most gifted person in the most fortunate sense.”[15] Those who are looked down upon can “throw off the character of wretchedness” because both the “great” and the “small” can equally achieve the highest pursuit of the good; the simplicity of a pure devotion to God.[16]

Cleverness and the Good

Kierkegaard is adamant that cleverness is not always an advantage in pursuing the good:[17] “The [clever one] needs to take a lot of time and trouble to understand what the simple person at the joyous prompting of a pious heart feels no need to understand in lengthy detail, because he at once simply understands only the good.”[18] Interpreting this passage only in relation to intellectual disability might reinforce an ableist attitude that excuses people with intellectual disabilities from meaningful moral action. They are sometimes regarded as innocent angels, unable to do wrong. Rather, we are all human beings capable of expressing the whole range of virtue and depravity. Thankfully, Kierkegaard has something different in mind here. It is not that simplicity as such is virtuous, but that intellectual ability and reflection can distract from simple truth and obedience. He bookends his discourse with a prayer: “Father in Heaven! What is a human being without you! What is everything he knows, even though it were enormously vast and varied, but a disjointed snippet if he does not know you. . . .”[19] It is the intimate relational knowledge of God’s goodness in the living of one’s life that prevents intellectual knowledge from being “a disjointed snippet.”[20]

Kierkegaard encourages his readers to use their intellect against any distraction or evasion from willing the good.[21] These evasions are often manufactured by “cleverness” in the first place. Our minds calculate excuses that prevent us from committing to the good. “Cleverness strives continually against the commitment.”[22] One must use intelligence “against himself as a spy and informant who promptly reports every evasion.”[23] Rather than simply acting upon the good that is known, the clever person might appeal to practical concerns as an evasion from committing to the good: perhaps the timing for pursuing the good isn’t ideal; maybe there are other ways to accomplish the same thing. Perhaps the appearanceof goodness is actually more desirable than doing the good itself. “The good is not distinguished,” and “The [clever one] knows just how the good must be changed a little in order to win favor in the eyes of the world; he knows how much should be added and how much should be subtracted.”[24] When the good does not align with personal success, the clever person might choose to pursue a version of goodness that doesappear as accomplishment in the eyes of others.[25] However, this is not purity of heart. To seek the good only when it comes with recognition in the eyes of the world is to be double-minded. Evasions and modifications are what Anabaptists protested as “evangelical half-measures and hesitancy,” and “they were willing to testify to their beliefs with their lives if need be.”[26] Suffering and martyrdom was inevitable for many who belonged to these counter-cultural communities of simplicity, those who sought “obedience to divine will without any reservation.”[27]

Kierkegaard observes that the crucifixion of Christ was the ultimate revelation of the discrepancy between worldly reward and the pure, simple pursuit of the good. Immediate reward does not confirm that one has pursued the good in truth, just as pursuing the good in truth does not necessarily bring with it temporal success.[28] Christ “accomplished but little” if one looks at the temporal rewards of his life, including his suffering death on the cross. He was “rejected by temporality,” and “no one has ever, in the sense of the moment, accomplished as little by a life solely committed to sacrifice as did Jesus Christ.”[29] No wonder that onlookers said of him, “the fool, he wanted to help others and he cannot help himself.”[30] Kierkegaard muses that they likely thought, “If he had only half my cleverness, he would be king.”[31]

Another 19th-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche,  made similar observations about Christ’s life, reaching very different conclusions. Emphasizing “the will to power,” Nietzsche disdains any admiration for Jesus that might consider him a “genius.” Rather, “Spoken with the precision of a physiologist, even an entirely different word would be yet more fitting here—the word idiot.”[32] In the pursuit of temporal power and immediate success, Christ’s life choices appear anything but intelligent. The apostle Paul confirms that Christ had a different agenda in mind, and this is how God works in the world through both Jesus and his followers: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27, ESV).

In the Antichrist,Nietzsche attacks what he sees as the Achilles heel of Christianity: its unquestioning embrace of suffering and loss in its pursuit of what Christians understand to be “the good.” Nowhere is this “slave morality” more fully reflected than in the Sermon on the Mount, the ultimate root of ressentiment: “‘Resist not evil’—the most profound word of the Gospels, their key in a certain sense.”[33] Perhaps the only others to take Christ’s radical counter-cultural instruction so seriously are the early Christians and the Anabaptists, the latter for whom “one of the strongest tenets of their belief is ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”[34] The pacifist position, which seeks to work for peace without resorting to violence and is a hallmark of Anabaptist thought and practice, Nietzsche would regard as “idiotic.” Where he read foolishness and spiritual death, the Anabaptists discovered life and freedom in service to God. Sebastian Franck, a 16th-century spiritual reformer, wrote that Anabaptists “taught nothing but love, faith, and the cross.”[35] Although for them “mere knowledge and learning . . . are not enough,” it was their example that bore out the value of their adherence to their beliefs, no matter how foolish or radical their way of life appeared to those around them. In a complicated world where violence was a tool of power, these simple commitments were costly. Franck witnesses that “they died as martyrs, patiently and humbling enduring all persecution.”[36]

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the Anabaptist  tradition  confront Christ’s radical call to submit personal concerns and questions of immediate practicality to a higher good. Where Nietzsche rejects such “idiocy,” Anabaptists embrace what Kierkegaard calls “the noble simplicity that is in inner harmony with every human being.”[37] Anabaptists work for peace while submitting to nonviolent means of attaining it. In this “willful forgetting” of the possibility of using violence for power, a world of creative potential is opened toward peacemaking.

This argument may seem to have strayed far from Betty and her direct, unashamed way of making friends. Regardless of her beliefs about war and violence, in her life and actions she works tirelessly to cultivate harmony and a spirit of friendship in her relationships. Because of her limited income, she comes face-to-face with countless people in the course of her day. She has a single-minded commitment to making the most of those encounters. Notsaying “Hi” to people she wants to get to know does not seem to be an option. She is undeterred by potentially negative or hostile reactions to her way of initiating friendship. She does not give much thought to all the ways these encounters can go wrong. Her friendliness is composed of countless small, direct acts of peacemaking with an unfazed commitment to her values.

Would that all believers could “forget” or “unknow” the inhibitions and evasions that keep us from willing the good, simply, in the actions and interactions of everyday life. Even practical concerns can be a type of knowledge of which “one should rather wish to learn the art of forgetting.”[38] Consider how many times we refuse to enact the good that we know we should do because it might make us late for another engagement or cost us more than we anticipate in terms of money, time, or energy. The art of forgetting on a larger scale might mean refusing to believe that humans can be taken advantage of for profit, or that violence can be used as a means to a “good” end. I submit that these are types of knowledge that “we should rather wish and pray that there was an art that could teach one to want to be ignorant of . . . .”[39]

An Occasion for Personal Confession

Kierkegaard’s PurityofHeartIstoWillOneThingis onand forthe occasion of confession, for each reader. Readers must ask: “What is my relation to the good? Do I practice simple-minded pursuit of God, or does my cleverness distract me from pursuing the good in truth?” Meeting Betty and hearing her story made me aware of my own double-mindedness and how I evade building community. My excess slides and well-formed arguments on the difficulty of nurturing friendship betray me. I think of my intellect as an advantage in pursuing the good, an advantage that Betty perhaps does not possess to the same extent.[40] Instead, my cleverness too often manufactures excuses that prevent me from doing the good I know I ought to do. Betty has much to teach me about devotion to my friends, my community, and my faith. To confess, to draw near to God, is the highest step that one might take, and it is one that anyone can take.[41] As the words of James challenge me to draw near to God, to purify my own heart, I must ask, “What kind of life is yours; do you will one thing in truth?”[42] To will the good in truth means that it must not only be believed as truth but lived in actuality before God.

The presence of God changes everything, Kierkegaard writes, and “As soon as God is present, everyone has the task before God of paying attention to [oneself].”[43] Awareness of God’s presence is occasion for private confession. Although Kierkegaard does not mention it, God’s presence also prompts us to also pay attention to one another. Early Anabaptists paid close attention to God’s revelation as a spiritual experience and not only as written words. They were committed to the “living word . . . that pierces the soul.”[44] However, the Kingdom life “cannot exist for the ‘single one’ in his isolation but only for those who have united in the Koinonia.”[45]Attention must not only be given to one’s own spiritual life but to mutual growth in committed community. This is a truth that Kierkegaard demonstrated in his upbuilding discourses yet never fully developed in a way that might be adopted by an Anabaptist community. Quiet attentiveness to the lives, experiences, and simple witness of others leads to diverse insights and revelations. There are many things we can apprehend only if we pay attention to the ways God works in the lives of people different from us. This is why community is so crucial to the Christian life. It is underplayed by Kierkegaard but essential to Anabaptist life and practice. It is through learning from one another that we discover many areas in which we act hypocritically, where we embody double-mindedness.

A Call for Corporate Confession

Just as we have occasion to confess individually, so we have occasion for corporate confession. Christ commands the honesty of plain language when he instructs that in oaths “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:37, ESV). Countless church signs and websites promise that “All are welcome.” What if we devoted ourselves to willing this aspect of the good? What if churches made every effort to simply live out the promises we make to our communities, even those we post on our websites or signage? What if we had Betty’s single-minded focus on living out what we profess to believe? Too often, not everyone is welcome in our gatherings. While we might say that “drawing near to God” in corporate worship is accessible to all, too often people are prevented from full participation by the steps out front, the over-intellectual sermon, lack of translation, or being asked to leave because they are being “disruptive.” Even when participation in services is open to all, stages may have a single step that prevent people who use wheelchairs from ministering from the pulpit. This step represents the complexity and double-mindedness of many congregational practices. Would we truly welcome someone like Betty to share how God has been working in her life, and to learn from her simple dedication to the truth? I am thankful that Betty sings as part of her church choir. She has been welcomed into a place of not only receivingin the context of her faith, but also welcomed into a role where she is ministeringtoothers.

There many other ways we can learn from those around us in all of our varied limitations. We can learn from the honesty of brothers and sisters who lack social inhibition. This may mean an exuberant, ill-timed “Amen.” It may mean profanity when the service runs too long. Simple communication sometimes means greeting someone at an inopportune time, just because we care. Limiting our speech to honest conversation might call us to be frank with families who experience disabilities about their needs and how congregations can be a part of their lives. Like plain Anabaptist professions of faith that were backed by the full conviction and practice of a life well- lived, we must be willing to simply follow through on the promises our church makes to its disabled community members.

As we confess corporate sins of duplicity—times where we fled God’s goodness rather than drawing close in simple faith—we must not lose heart. Indeed, much work remains personally, in academic spheres, in corporate worship, and in neighborhood and community life. Simplicity takes many forms. Yet, frantic busyness only distracts us further from the simple and sincere good to which we are called. Before constructing elaborate plans on what “success” will look like, we should welcome to the table Betty and families who experience disability. We need to practice quiet attentiveness as we hear from those too often been left out of the conversation, and let them take the lead. Kierkegaard describes purity as “constancy in one thing.”[46] Before trying to do everything, let us seek the heart of God for the path ahead, for the “blessed equality” of a community where limits are appreciated as gifts that help us welcome God’s goodness. It seems like a simple place to start, because it is.

Thereis a beginning everywhere, andthegoodbeginningis everywhere where you begin with God.[47]

— Søren Kierkegaard

Keith Dow, Manager of Organizational and Spiritual Life, Christian Horizons, Ottawa, Ontario

[1] Betty’s name has been changed in the interest of confidentiality.

[2] “A Portrait of Social Isolation and Loneliness in Canada Today,” Angus Reid Institute, June 17, 2019,

[3] “simple-minded”: CambridgeDictionaryOnline.2020., accessed May 2, 2020.

[4] “simple”: Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary,, accessed September 6, 2017.

[5] Robert Friedmann, “Recent Interpretations of Anabaptism,” Church History 24, no. 2 (1955):135,, accessed May 11, 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 144.

[8] Harold S. Bender, Nanne van der Zijpp, and Cornelius Krahn, “Simplicity” (1958), GlobalAnabaptistMennoniteEncyclopediaOnline, (1958)&oldid=104551, accessed July 10, 2020.

[9] Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar, “‘Mobile Internet Is Worse than the Internet; It Can Destroy Our Community’: Old Order Amish and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Women’s Responses to Cellphone and Smartphone Use,” TheInformationSociety36, no. 1 (2019): 1-18, https://doi.or g/10.1080/01972243.2019.1685037, 5.

[10] Ibid., 10.

[11] Harold H. Schaff, “The Anabaptists, the Reformers, and the Civil Government,” Church History 1, no. 1 (1932): 30, accessed May 11, 2020.

[12] Ibid., 29.

[13] Søren Kierkegaard, UpbuildingDiscoursesinVariousSpirits, ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), 24. Hereafter UpbuildingDiscourses.

[14] Ibid.,144.

[15] Ibid.,111.

[16] Ibid.

[17]Howard and Edna Hong use “sagacity” in their translation, which seems pretentious and unclear. Through this paper I have drawn on the more recent Hong translation but retain Douglas Steere’s translation of “cleverness” for the sake of plain speech. Søren Kierkegaard, PurityofHeartIs toWill OneThing;Spiritual Preparation fortheOfficeofConfession, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1976). Hereafter PurityofHeart.

[18] Kierkegaard, UpbuildingDiscourses,25.

[19] Ibid.,7, 153.

[20] Ibid.,149.

[21] Ibid.,94.

[22] Kierkegaard, PurityofHeart,127.

[23] Ibid.,93.

[24] Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart, 129 (or “aristocratic,” Upbuilding Discourses, 84); UpbuildingDiscourses,87; PurityofHeart,132.

[25] Kierkegaard, UpbuildingDiscourses,89.

[26] Schaff, “The Anabaptists, the Reformers, and the Civil Government,” 30.

[27] Friedmann, “Recent Interpretations of Anabaptism,” 137.

[28] Kierkegaard, UpbuildingDiscourses,89.

[29] Ibid., 91.

[30] Ibid., Kierkegaard reflecting on Matt. 27:42.

[31] Kierkegaard, PurityofHeart,138.

[32] Friedrich W. Nietzsche, “The Antichrist,” in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Penguin, 1976), 565-656, 601.

[33] Nietzsche, “The Antichrist,” 600

[34] Schaff, “The Anabaptists, the Reformers, and the Civil Government,” 46.

[35] Friedmann, “Recent Interpretations of Anabaptism,” 146.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Kierkegaard, UpbuildingDiscourses,70.

[38] Ibid., 38.

[39] Ibid., 39.

[40] Ibid., 145.

[41] Ibid., 104.

[42] Ibid., 126.

[43] Kierkegaard, UpbuildingDiscourses,125

[44] Friedmann, “Recent Interpretations of Anabaptism,” 138.

[45] Ibid., 145.

[46] 46  Kierkegaard, UpbuildingDiscourses,121.

[47] Ibid., 139.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Gelassenheit and Intellectual Disability

Daniel Rempel
ABSTRACT: Many early Anabaptists held the concept of Gelassenheit near to the heart of their understanding of theology and ethics. However, Gelassenheit has become a term that may be used colloquially but has largely fallen out of scholarly discourse. This essay attempts to reclaim an understanding of it for contemporary Anabaptism while at the same time showing the liberatory power that it can have for understanding the places and roles of people with intellectual disabilities inourcommunitiestoday. Theauthorbrings Gelassenheit into a particular realm of the ethical and suggests where it may find a place in the world of disability theology.

There has never been a consensus on what exactly is meant by the term Gelassenheit. While scholars agree that it was used widely among early Anabaptists—particularly those from a “mystical” stream—how various individuals employed it was slightly nuanced.[1] Additionally, the difficulty in coming to a precise understanding of Gelassenheittoday is compounded by the fact that it does not easily translate into English. Indeed, in an essay attempting to recover an understanding of Gelassenheitfor 20th-century Anabaptists, Robert Friedmann noted up to fifteen different possible English renderings of the word.[2] Friedmann, like many who came after him, settled on “yieldedness,” particularly in relation to an inner surrender and conquest of one’s self, as perhaps the best understanding of what early Anabaptists generally meant by the term.[3]

What are Anabaptists today to do with this lack of consensus and coherence around what has been regarded as a central spiritual doctrine of the radical reformers? Two immediate options present themselves: 1) conduct a historical survey of early Anabaptist understandings of Gelassenheit, or 2) using the knowledge we have of early Anabaptist conceptions, construct a usable albeit provisional understanding of the term, subject to change upon the findings of further research. I have chosen the second option. First, in drawing upon the constructive work of Walter Klaassen and C. Arnold Snyder, I excavate what a contemporary definition of Gelassenheitmight look like for Anabaptist theology and ethics. Second, I explore how it is helpful for accurately picturing the place and role of people with intellectual disabilities in our churches and communities today.[4]

Gelassenheit: Klaassen and Snyder

In “‘Gelassenheit’ and Creation,” Walter Klaassen examines the term Gelassenheitto glean from it a modern relevance for Anabaptist theology.[5] Locating early Anabaptist understandings of the term in the tradition of German mysticism,[6] he notes two things that can be drawn from these early mystics. First, Gelassenheitentails detachment from the self and all created things in order to be attached closely to God.[7] Second, “creatures” were understood not to be particulars of the physical creation but included human creations such as wealth, property, sexual expression, or anything else that one could come to depend upon. These mystics “were saying that creatures are precisely that—created—and that they cannot be depended on for salvation.”[8] This view of Gelassenheit set the stage for the emergence of Anabaptist accounts a few centuries later.[9]

Much Anabaptist discourse on Gelassenheitremained similar to that of their medieval mystical predecessors. However, the biggest change in the concept’s transference from German mysticism to that discourse was that while Anabaptists took over the robust theological vision of this mysticism, they placed more emphasis on practice. For Klaassen, this is explained by the mystics being cloistered monastics while the Anabaptists “were uncloistered and exposed to the world.”[10] Thus, the emergence of Anabaptism brought the practice of Gelassenheitinto the world for the first time, subject to new and different challenges than those present in segregated monastic communities. Klaassen concludes the essay by seeking to evoke an understanding of the concept for Anabaptists today. To accomplish this, he highlights the role of creation in Anabaptist theology and ethics. This is an easy, straightforward connection to make, for as noted above, early conceptions of Gelassenheitalways invoked a particular ordered understanding of the place of created things in this world. Thus, Klaassen views it as “a symbol both for our state of being and for the character of our action in the world” insofar as a proper Anabaptist spirituality ought to wrestle with how we order our being and our lives in relation to God and the rest of the created world.[11]

He suggests  four  practical  measures  that  Anabaptists  can  take to practice Gelassenheittoday. First, it means living without weapons.[12] As yieldedness to the will and work of God in the world, it means “the renunciation of all attempts to impose our own solutions on the issues of the present by our restless, distracted activity.” This involves the renunciation of control and abandonment of manipulation in submission to God. Living with weapons negates this surrender of control. Second, it means patience, that is, “waiting on the Lord for the outcome of what we are and do.” Patience becomes a part of the noncoercive nature of Gelassenheitas believers resist attempts to control or manipulate outcomes towards their wills and desires. Third, it requires renunciation of wrath, the “underlying continual resentment against the world” that can manifest itself against others who do not share our stance on justice, peace, or a host of other issues.[13] Fourth, it means detachment from created things, the very things that we put in the place of God. Klaassen reiterates that “created things” are not simply the physical acts of creation but “everything that constitutes human life in this world. It means ourselves, time, science, religion, theologies, structures of thought, institutions, church, programs, five-year plans of all sorts, calls- to-kingdom-commitment, MCC; all these are the creatures, in addition, of course, to our houses, cars, computers, libraries, and so on, from all of which we need to become detached.” Thus, living Gelassenheit is to live truly in this world, knowing the joy and peaceful contentment that comes through God, all the while participating in a struggle for shalom through trust in Jesus Christ.

In “Gelassenheit and Power: Some Historical Reflections,” C. Arnold Snyder also seeks to bring Gelassenheitinto contemporary Anabaptist practice.[14] Unlike Klaassen, who focuses primarily on creation as the realm of Gelassenheit, Snyder situates his reflection on its role in the relation between inner and outer transformation, by which he hopes to guide Anabaptist perspectives on power. He states that the early Anabaptists were primarily concerned not with issues of power and authority but with issues pertaining to one’s salvation.[15] According to Snyder, central to their view of salvation was an insistence upon coming into a right relationship with God. Thus, questions about this relationship naturally flow into questions about how believers can come into a right relationship with each other. Ultimately, at the heart of both questions lies the defining attitude of Gelassenheit, which he  identifies  as  “yieldedness,  abandonment,  resignation,  and  complete acceptance of what God wills.”[16]

Similar to Klaassen, Snyder draws attention to Gelassenheitas it is lived in the world, the realm of human sinfulness and alienation from God. He argues that the first step to practicing it is to recognize our fallen, helpless state, and to call on God to deliver us out of our own helplessness. This can be done only in a spirit of genuine need and humility.[17] Such humility is bound up in recognition of our helplessness when we realize that we cannot rely on any worldly domain to achieve salvation and are entirely at the mercy of God. As a result, Snyder argues that Gelassenheitinvolves a certain amount of standing idle, learning “to entrust and yield our lives to the living power of God in Christ. . . . Gelassenheitis the doing that, paradoxically, is a surrender of doing, a surrender of control.”[18] It becomes a spiritual discipline by actively surrendering human will to the power of God so that God is free to act in the world through us. In “standing idle,” Christians are not to do nothing but to recognize the role and place of the One who can do all things in us. Gelassenheitthus becomes a paradigm for discipleship, which is not to be regarded as doing the best by one’s human power but as attentively yielding to the will of the Spirit working in us.[19] By yielding to this power, Christians are led to the obedience of God, which has always been at the core of Anabaptist teachings on spirituality and discipleship.

A Guide to Reflection

Klaassen and Snyder offer two windows through which to view the relationship between Gelassenheitand discipleship today. Both  authors posit readings of the concept that easily translate into concrete practices. In examining their essays side by side, we are given some of the tools for crafting our own preliminary understanding of the concept. Before examining concrete practices in the same vein as these authors, I offer four points to guide the reflection on Gelassenheitand disability in the rest of this essay.

  1. Gelassenheit beginsas yieldedness to God’s working in the world. A proper understanding of Gelassenheitrequires grasping that this practice always begins with God’s action in the world. It never begins with human action. However, this does not negate the fact that Gelassenheitoccurs in the world, precisely in the midst of human fallenness and helplessness. It also recognizes that fallen, sinful creatures are not abandoned by a distant God but rather are creatures helped on by an active and living God. Recognizing this point is foundational.
  2. Gelassenheit involvesanactivesurrender, nota passive idling. Just as God is living and active in the world, so too disciples must be living and active in the world. However, human action and God’s action will look different, as we must patiently wait and act for God’s command to declare the way that we should move. To yield to God’s action in the world means recognizing that we cannot rush to quick conclusions. But this does not mean doing nothing. Rather, active surrender involves readying ourselves, attuning ourselves to God so that when the time comes, we are ready to act following God’s command.
  3. Gelassenheit invokesnoncoercion. Because of Gelassenheit’sinsistence on our reliance upon God’s work to move before us, disciples who practice it remove themselves from reliance on coercive practices, recognizing the freedom at play between humanity and God. Here, Klaassen is emphatic, stressing both living without weapons and renoncing wrath as contemporary methods of living Gelassenheittoday. At its heart is a surrender of control of our lives over to God. Any attempt at coercion would cease to live into this active surrender.
  4. Gelassenheit providesa paradigm for discipleship. The early Anabaptists were right to bring Gelassenheitinto the realm of the ethical, and Anabaptists have maintained this ethical impulse throughout history. However, this impulse must follow discipleship, which ought to be guided by the movement of the Spirit among us. Gelassenheitensures that we rightly order our discipleship, in that it always begins with, and leads from, the action of God in the world before us. While, as Snyder argues, discipleship requires an outer transformation that makes visible an inner transformation, this transformation always begins with God’s prior act that goes before our own.

Gelassenheit and the Care of People with Disabilities

The early Anabaptists have been credited with bringing the practices of Gelassenheitinto the realm of the ethical. Similarly, the exposition of Klaassen and Snyder drew on examples of what such practices may look like for contemporary Anabaptists in the realm of creation theology and the world of power. Here I want to bring Gelassenheitinto a particular realm of the ethical by examining a few preliminary places it may occupy in the world of disability theology. The first and perhaps most obvious connection between Gelassenheitand intellectual disability relates to how the so-called “able- bodied” are to treat and respond to those in their communities understood to be “intellectually disabled.” Assuming that able-bodied persons come into contact with people with intellectual disabilities in churches, jobs, families, or other social spaces, what role can a practice of Gelassenheithave on how able-bodied persons relate to those with intellectual disabilities? It is helpful to draw direct connections to the summarized implications listed above:

  1. YieldednesstoGodsworkingintheworld. In WondrouslyWounded:Theology,Disability,andtheBodyofChrist, Brian Brock appeals to patristic theology to recover the church fathers’ view of anomalous births and the “strange vocations” of these children.[20] Drawing particularly on Augustine, Brock notes that he viewed these births as having been “created by God for a reason,” identifying them as “a special communicative act of God.”[21] For Augustine “some impairments had to be understood positively as divine speech in the world.”[22] This is not to conclude that people with intellectual disabilities are “holy innocents” or as incapable of sin, but rather to recognize the unique role and gift they can offer to churches and societies.

Augustine’s understanding of anomalous births aligns well with the first tenet of Gelassenheitoutlined above. To yield to God’s working in the world gives us the capacity to recognize that perhaps God has created people with intellectual disabilities exactly as they are for a particular purpose and place in this world. Recognizing this possibility can lead us to consider the ramifications of a God who refuses to abandon us and is active in the day- to-day lives of all people. While it would be wrong to universalize a role inhabited by people with intellectual disabilities, Gelassenheitallows us to assume that they have particular giftings precisely because they are just as much a part of God’s working in the world as anyone else.

  1. Activesurrender,notpassiveidling. Another work that aids consideration of Gelassenheit’splace in disability theology is William Gaventa’s “Learning from People with Disabilities: How to Ask the Right Questions.” Gaventa reflects on his role as a chaplain in two large residential facilities earlier in his career, in which it became clear that two theological linchpins held together everything that he did: celebration and belonging.[23] What is notable is not his conclusions—although I have no qualms with where he ends up—but his methodology. He focuses on how proper care of people with disabilities involves placing them at the center of reflection. At the heart of Gaventa’s self-examination is this idea:

[P]eople with disabilities raise our awareness of the many ways of our connectedness to others because of the profound ways in which the quality of their lives depends on the care and support of others. We build systems of support and service to help so- called dependent people develop more independence; but in the process of getting to know them as individuals, we become more profoundly aware of how all of our lives are interdependent.[24]

It was not generic practices that allowed Gaventa to care for and minister to people with disabilities. It was rather his active engagement in the life of the particular person, exemplifying the active surrender of Gelassenheit, that enabled him to minister to those under his care. Just as the disciple who practices Gelassenheityields to the work of the Spirit, so the caregiver yields to the needs of the person with a disability. Gaventa recognizes the role that systems of support and service have in caring for and ministering to people with disabilities, but at the same time urges his readers to go beyond those systems towards the heart of the individual, actively surrendering to their needs and will.

  1. Noncoercion. In “Having and Learning to Care for Retarded Children,” Stanley Hauerwas voices a concern for the place of children with disabilities in our society, particularly how we can welcome them into our lives.[25] He does this not out of a desire to argue for what these children can provide for us but to urge us to reflect on “what kind of families and communities should we be so we could welcome retarded children into our midst regardless of the happy or unhappy consequences they may bring.”[26] For Hauerwas, families and communities must be places where children with disabilities are cared for, but this care involves less of a “doing for” than a “being with.” The charge to be with another necessitates acting in a way that our actions are directed not towards preserving ourselves but towards serving the other. Being with another means acting on their behalf, modifying both our behavior and our desires in a way that benefits the other’s life.

Focusing on “being with” rather than “doing for” represents a way of enacting the noncoercive nature of Gelassenheit. Operating under the presupposition that care primarily involves a “doing for,” Christians can fall into the error of assuming that they know best and must coerce those in their care to conform to their own vested interests. Noncoercive care and ministry, on the other hand, allows space for human flourishing that may look different from how we think it ought to look. By yielding to God’s work in the world, the disciple trusts God to move and work in those being cared for and ministered to, so that they too can flourish through that work.

  1. Paradigmfordiscipleship. Just as practicing Gelassenheitmay challenge assumptions about discipleship that see it as something humans initiate or control, incorporating people with disabilities into our churches may change the lens through which we conceive discipleship. In following the work of the Spirit, churches may be led to new places where they did not expect to go. Similarly, by following and taking seriously the needs of these people in our communities, churches may be led into new understandings of discipleship and spiritual practices. An example of this change is found in John Swinton’s BecomingFriendsofTime:Disability,Timefullness,andGentleDiscipleship.[27] Swinton crafts a vision of discipleship based on “living in God’s time.” This vision entails an understanding of time occurring in God, which involves a particular attentiveness and slowness that allows people with disabilities the space to flourish. This leads Swinton to claim that “viewed from within God’s time, disability is not perceived in terms of abnormality or tragedy. Rather, if we time it properly, disability plays powerfully into our understanding of the beauty of human diversity and opens up fresh conduits for receiving God’s revelation.”[28] Like this re-framing of time in light of God, Gelassenheitas a practice of discipleship may cause us to reconceive the spiritual role and place of people with disabilities in our churches.

People with Disabilities as Exemplars of Gelassenheit

The reader may have noticed the difficulty with which I tried above to speak of caring for and ministering to people with disabilities, something the “able-bodied” perform, in effect a one-way street. Care and ministry are never a one-way street, as if carers and ministers could perform their tasks without being simultaneously confronted by those they are caring for and ministering to. Thus, let me suggest that people with disabilities—not the caregivers—may actually be the exemplars of the practice of Gelassenheittoday. By drawing on a real-life example, I will provide a snapshot of how Gelassenheit looks when we incorporate people with intellectual disabilities into our communities.

The example is a story Brian Brock tells about his son Adam in WondrouslyWounded. Adam, now sixteen, lives with Down Syndrome and autism. However, what ties the book together is not how Brock has come to be a better parent to a child with a disability, but how he has been repeatedly confronted by his son’s prophetic witness. While he does not identify Adam’s actions in exactly this way, we can read many vignettes in Wondrously Woundedas Adam practicing Gelassenheit. One instance Brock identifies as an “assault of grace”:

The setting is a public space, this time a crowded sidewalk on the main street in the middle of Aberdeen. An obviously inebriated man is confronting people on the busy sidewalk, shouting in each recoiling face in turn, ‘Come on, want to fight?’ Adam is not spared the challenge, offered with the same aggression that is setting the teeth on edge of everyone within earshot. Without hesitation, Adam reaches up, placing his hand flat across the mouth of the angry man towering over him (Hello!). This hurting man’s aggressive mask immediately crumbled at a personal touch suffused with kindness. [29]

Here we see Adam responding to the needs of “an obviously inebriated man” through the kindness of physical touch. There is nothing coercive about Adam’s actions, yet they suffuse grace into a situation of pain and anger. Such a response could likely not have occurred if an older, able-bodied individual had attempted the same thing. Yet Adam, who lives with the obvious visible characteristics of Down Syndrome, was able to follow the Spirit’s guidance and diffuse an obnoxious, uncomfortable situation with the gift of touch.

Like Adam’s touch, which surprised the inebriated man on the crowded sidewalk, Gelassenheitmay surprise us. Because it occurs as a result of following God in the world, we cannot expect that it will look the same in every context. It may appear in the oddest, most unexpected places. Indeed, the apostle Paul captures its potential location by stating that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27- 28 NRSV). Adam, who may be looked down upon by society because of his Down Syndrome and autism, may be precisely the one who God chooses to act through, and thus the one who models Gelassenheitas an exemplar of God’s work in the world.

Perhaps it is Adamwho is the provocateur revealing the resistance of the church and world to lives like his, and is drawing us in. Or perhaps each of us has been given our own strange vocations in service of the merciful assault of Jesus Christ on the sin of the world. In a church born from this mercy, we might well discover that Jesus Christ is making humans of us all.[30]

This brief account offers a glimpse into the way in which people with disabilities may be exemplars of Gelassenheitin our communities. Adam, as a unique member of the Body of Christ, will have his own particular witness, and not every person with disability will model Gelassenheitin the same way. However, by conceiving it through the particular witness of Adam, we are afforded a view into the profound way they can confront the world with their own “assaults of grace.”


In this essay I have explored the theme of Gelassenheitby attempting to construct a working definition by which Christians may come to a lived experience of the work of the Spirit in their lives. By employing intellectual disability as a lens, I sought to show how Gelassenheitprovides a paradigm for the care of people with disabilities, as well as how these people may confront us with a witness of Gelassenheit. This essay is only a preliminary reflection on how Anabaptists can conceive of Gelassenheittoday and on how they can choose to think of and incorporate people with disabilities into their lives. More certainly can and should be said on both Gelassenheitand disability. But for now, I suggest that yielding to the work of the Spirit in the world is something that should affect all areas of our lives, including the lives of those with intellectual disabilities.

DanielRempelis a Ph.D. Candidate in Theological Ethics at The University of Aberdeen.

[1] See Walter Klaassen, “‘Gelassenheit’ and Creation,” The Conrad Grebel Review 9, no. 1 (1991): 23-35. Klaassen begins the arduous task of assessing and explicating the various nuanced views of early Anabaptist understandings of Gelassenheit, but more work must be done to fully recognize the breadth of usage across the early radical reformers.

[2] Friedmann lists the following terms as possible renderings: resignation, calmness of mind, composure, staidness, conquest of selfishness, long-sufferingness, collectedness, silence of the soul, tranquility, inner surrender, acquiescence, submission to God, yieldedness, ataraxia, unresponsiveness, equanimity, imperturbability, unconcern, detachment. See Robert Friedmann, “Anabaptism and Protestantism,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 24, no. 1 (January 1950): 22, n17.

[3] Ibid., 22. However, even in settling on this definition Friedmann is quick to qualify his thoughts, in hopes that the term may be understood correctly. He observes that Gelassenheitdoes not denote a passive principle but an active spiritual practice that should move believers towards brotherly love, which he believes “yieldedness” as a translation captures.

[4] My hope is to stimulate constructive thinking about Gelassenheit, and should someone provide a more robust definition of the term that renders this definition obsolete, I would welcome it as a valuable contribution to the discourse.

[5] Klaassen, “‘Gelassenheit’ and Creation,” 23.

[6] Klaassen identifies Meister Eckhart, Johann Tauler, TheCloudofUnknowing, Julian of Norwich, and GermanTheologyas major influences on early Anabaptist understandings of Gelassenheit.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] Here, Andreas Carlstadt, Hans Denck, Thomas Müntzer, Hans Hut, Michael Sattler, Ulrich Stadler, and Pilgram Marpeck all figure prominently, which illustrates the breadth of usage of the term among early Anabaptists.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] Ibid., 32.

[12] Ibid., 33.

[13] Ibid., 34.

[14] C. Arnold Snyder, “Gelassenheit and Power: Some Historical Reflections,” Vision 5, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 6-13.

[15] Ibid., 6.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 7.

[18] Ibid., 8.

[19] Ibid., 10.

[20] An anomalous birth was taken by Augustine as “a clear departure from the orderly progress of nature.” Brian Brock, Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press, 2019), 15.

[21] Ibid., 17. Italics original.

[22] Ibid., 27.

[23] William C. Gaventa, “Learning from People with Disabilities: How to Ask the Right Questions,” in TheParadoxofDiability:ResponsestoJeanVanierandLArcheCommunitiesfromTheologyandtheSciences, ed. Hans Reinders (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 103.

[24] Ibid., 108.

[25] Stanley Hauerwas, “Having and Learning to Care for Retarded Children,” in TruthfulnessandTragedy:FurtherInvestigationsinChristianEthics(Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1977). Hauerwas’s use of “retarded” comes out of a period where it was the socially accepted word for persons with intellectual disability. While I will quote him as he wrote in order to be faithful to his text, I do not endorse his use of the word in our present context.

[26] Ibid., 147.

[27] John Swinton, BecomingFriends ofTime:Disability,Timefullness,andGentle Discipleship (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press, 2016). For a more in-depth engagement with BecomingFriendsofTime, see Daniel Rempel, “Disability, Productivity, and Living in God’s Time,” Macrina Magazine, February 1, 2020, disability-productivity-and-living-in-gods-time/.

[28] Swinton, BecomingFriendsofTime, 87.

[29] Brock, WondrouslyWounded, 239.

[30] Ibid., 240.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Book Reviews

Trevor Bechtel, Matthew Eaton, and Timothy Harvie, eds. EncounteringEarth:ThinkingTheologicallywitha More-Than-Human World. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.

William T. Cavanaugh, ed. FragileWorld: Ecology and the Church. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.

Ryan D. Harker and Heather L. Bunce, eds. TheEarthis the Lord’s: Essays on Creation and the Bible in Honor of Ben. C. Ollenberger. University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2019.


These three collections on theology and the earth contain not only a great diversity of theological opinion, but each also represents a distinct purpose. While all 49 essays exhibit at least implicit concern for the planet’s ecological well-being, only FragileWorldtakes our response to the ecological crisis as its explicit agenda. EncounteringEarthattempts to think the earth and its creatures as “themselves . . . the locus of revelation and theological ethics” by inviting theologians to reflect on how particular encounters with the more- than-human have shaped their theology (4). Meanwhile, TheEarthis the Lord’s pursues the theme of creation in Bible texts from both Testaments. Despite this, after a brief assessment of each book, I will venture a critical comment on environmental ethics with respect to one way that eschatology figures in all three texts.

Originating in a World Catholicism  Week  conference  on  church and ecology in 2015, FragileWorld(hereafter FW) provides “a global angle on a global crisis” (1). The volume presents an ecological ethics rooted in a relational understanding of humanity that refuses to sequester human beings from their environments; in one author’s words, “we are ecology” (267). The negative argument is that the ecological crisis is a manifestation of a human crisis: our individualistic desire for domination. The positive corollary consists of admirable efforts to articulate “an art of living together,” with the understanding that human flourishing is bound together with the earth (41). Many essays thus showcase the link between the destruction of the environment (often, and not coincidentally, resulting from economic development) and the suffering of the most vulnerable. The instinct to connect ecology to all aspects of human life often serves the FW authors well: it enables them to recognize “that environmental destruction . . . is the base of [our] economic construct,” which manifests in incisive critiques of growth economics, human progress, and corporate consumerism (104).

The drive to connect all human life to the ecological crisis is perhaps less perceptive in the volume’s repeated claim that the “first” or “most decisive” thing we need is personal moral transformation, sometimes explicitly stated as such or directly implied (39, 45, 80, 83-84, 98, 186, 212, 214-15, 222-23, 257), and otherwise suggested by the dominant theme that “we” most require cultural change. It is one thing to claim a link between our exploitive economy and a human (or Enlightenment Western) lust for dominion; it is another to claim that personal or cultural transformation is theroot of any solution. Indeed, it is akin to whiplash to read reports of the violence predatory corporations inflict upon the globe’s most marginalized and their environments (FW offers many) and to then read, sometimes in the same essays, that “we” bear responsibility and the answer begins with personal change (80, 98). Even if these authors do not mean to include the oppressed people they describe within this “we” (though an adequate account would), surely the primary responsibility lies with the predatory corporations and the economic and political systems that encourage such practices. It may then be the case that “we” require empowerment—any way to stop such violence—more than moral transformation. I say more below about FW’spolitical vision.

The essays in TheEarthis the Lord’s (hereafter EL) emphasize the biblical message of God’s power to create and save. Walter Brueggemann, Patricia Tull, and Thomas Neufeld develop this theme especially well, with Brueggemann highlighting God’s terrible grandeur in Isaiah 1-39 and Tull presenting Isaiah 40-55’s claim that God’s created order includes human politics and culture. Particularly edifying is Tull’s analysis of Second Isaiah’s anti-idolmaker polemics, where she develops the text’s contrast between the anxious busywork of idolmaking and God’s majestic actions. Meanwhile, Neufeld reads Ephesians as a manifesto of peace made intelligible by God’s ongoing creating activity, which de-creates hostility and builds up a new corporate reality.

This book’s contributors frequently initiate theological discussions. This often works well. In addition to the  essays  noted  above,  Andrea Saner examines Barth’s understanding of covenant and creation in light of Exodus 19:5, and Darrin Belousek uses figurative theological hermeneutics in exegeting Mark’s Gospel. Other cases provide mixed results. Theodore Hiebert’s exegesis is brilliant (so far as this biblical studies novice can tell), but sometimes his theological arguments are inexact: dismissing “mythopoesis,” for example, without demonstrating a clear sense of the term (8) or providing underdeveloped statements like “the world is the ground of religious thought” (12), which could support various conflicting positions. Likewise, David Rensberger claims that according to the Johannine epistles our bad desires are “not of divine origin,” but does not indicate that this statement is at odds with the orthodox Christian tradition and has substantial theological implications, including for how we say God creates (187).

Finally, the editors opt for a three-paragraph prefatory letter instead of an introduction. This hurts the book’s theological aspirations, giving the reader no theological orientation or help on how to navigate how the book presents the Bible’s conflicting understandings of creation. Should we, with Isaiah, condemn the idea of human co-creation, or should we follow Ephesians and celebrate it? Even a bland statement acknowledging this diversity and arguing that it can help expand our thinking would provide much-needed theological orientation.

The essays in EncounteringEarth(hereafter EE) vary widely, not only theologically but in quality. In a nuanced, theoretically rigorous essay, Celia Deane-Drummond breaks down the wild-tame dichotomy in favor of an account of free friendship amid difference via an examination of the horse-human relationship. Timothy Harvie promotes vulnerable, embodied relationships, his description of his relationship with his dog effectively displaying his  argument.  Trevor  Bechtel  offers  a  beautiful  exploration of the role his cat played in his marriage in an essay that seeks out moral complexity. Observing, for example, that because cats are obligate carnivores there is always meat in his home, he describes participating in a slaughter of roosters—“this is murder . . . but it’s worth it”—which leads into some of his most profound reflections on suffering and sacrifice (28).

Recognition of moral and theoretical complexity is sorely lacking in other places. Grace Kao’s argument that human-cat relationships can fit the criteria of feminist friendship is fine for its part; however, it is surprising, given the theme, that she celebrates that her cat brought her gifts of dead birds without mentioning the impact of housecats upon bird populations (80-81). Matthew Eaton argues for an ethics based on sensual affects that are “beyond . . . a conceptualist horizon restricted by concepts [sic]” (53). Among other difficulties, he does not consider the possibility that an affective response to an encounter may be in a repugnant ethical direction, such as the effect that a gun or a black man “in the wrong place” may inspire. Kimberly Carfore asserts that “with Derrida” she can definitively say that “a snake has a face,” but does not tell how Derrida arrived at this (supposed) conclusion or provide her own arguments (148).

Such appeals to authority appear as something of a pattern, for Abigail Lofte, Cristina Vanin, and Matthew Eaton do the same (the former two with Thomas Berry, and Eaton with Levinas and Derrida). In another frustrating trend, some contributors critique the traditional idea of “a God separate from creation” without engaging or acknowledging classical Christian understandings (wherein God’s otherness makes possible God’s intimate relationship of ever-sustaining presence with creation), even to argue against them (160; cf. 181). Indeed, presenting it as a critique of Catholic theology, Carfore  mis-defines  “transcendental  monotheism” as “an anthropomorphized being in the sky” (148). EEspremise works when authors present perceptive descriptions of other creatures to unveil theologically illuminating personalities and relationships. Unfortunately, others use an appeal to experience to cut short argument and proffer crass simplifications.


I contend that across these three volumes there is, albeit with imperfect consistency, a troubling disconnect between hope, variously expressed, and the current state of the earth. I do not mean that these books should be less hopeful, but that it is often hard to see what we should hope for and how God’s redeeming power should bear upon our approach to and understanding of ecological catastrophe.

In the only statement that provides any indication of the argumentative orientation of EL, the editors claim that Christians cannot rightly care for creation “if we fail to remember that it is just that – creation” (ix). However, while the book consistently argues that the Bible does not sanction human destruction of the earth, no essay touches upon how God’s creating power may be important in regard to Christian “creation care” or a Christian theological understanding of environmental degradation. This is where the volume suffers most from the absence of an introduction that could delimit the scope and indicate the shared purpose of the essays. While reading Gordon Zerbe’s essay on Paul’s use of world-reconciliation and world- subjection imagery to describe God’s eschatological victory, I waited in vain for a word, anywhere in the book, about what it might mean existentially, ecclesially, or politically, to receive Paul’s eschatology, given the increasing likelihood of imminent human extinction from ecological collapse. Many characterize our ecological setting as apocalyptic: could Loren Johns not have done more than rehearse the argument that Revelation’s apocalypticism declares Christ’s lordship and is creation-affirming? It is no critique of the contributions by Brueggemann, Tull, and Neufeld to yearn for someone to take up what it means to proclaim God’s great majesty and ongoing creation of a peaceable kingdom in a world rapidly becoming uninhabitable for humans.

Without such an account, the continued emphasis that God will do right by creation risks sounding like the claim that things cannot really get thatbad. The many invocations to hope in FW and EE present a related approach, well-represented when Celia Deane-Drummond asks whether Christian hope can still make sense amid “ecological devastation” and then simply insists that it can, without saying how or what difference it makes (FW 61). Hope further resembles a drug when some writers proclaim religion’s value because it offers hope (FW 223-24; EE 180). Essays by Daniel Castillo and Daniel Pilario on apocalyptic lament and eco-apocalyptic spirituality provide some antidote, but even they imply that we should hope because we need hope, ironically undercutting hope’s grounding. Meanwhile, Reynaldo Raluto’s hope—merging eschatology and evolution so that humanity evolves into perfection—appears ignorant of evolutionary theory and the seriousness of ecological degradation. The tension climaxes when Peter Hughes counsels against despair and then offers “signs of hope” that are improbable items on a list of things that must change (FW 98, 106-109).

There may be an explanation for this in the political and ecclesial vision that emerges in FW: a call “to create . . . alternate communities of hope” that act as focal points for organizing grassroots eco-justice movements, raise ecological consciousness, and foster environmental stewardship (150). Many authors ground this communalist vision in actually existing communities, and there is much to celebrate in their accounts (see the essay by Emmanuel Katongole), especially insofar as such communities witness to and enable people to live into alternative economies.

However, it is not clear that this vision adequately accounts for the structural causes of environmental degradation. FW effectively outlines these structural forces, but there tends to be a tensional and under- acknowledged mismatch between diagnosis and solution. This appears already in Christopher Hamlin’s opening essay, which provides a history of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference to show the feasibility of a community-based, environmentally sustainable economy. Yet Hamlin notes that the Conference failed because of economic and social factors, inadvertently suggesting this model’s implausibility, especially given that the global economy has grown only more totalizing while practices and institutions of social cohesion have diminished. We know, furthermore, that it is not individuals and communities but the practices of large corporations, militaries, and modern slavery that drive environmental destruction. Laws, loopholes, and the world’s economic organization encourage this, but FW’s contributors do not convincingly show how communalism can change these structures. Michael Northcott and Celia Deane-Drummond note the need for legislative and systemic change, but overall there is too little serious consideration or recognition of the argument that we most need political and economic empowerment.

Abigail Lofte presents a similar political-cultural program, and is representative when she states that such communities are “grounded in hope” without elaborating on this hope’s nature or significance (131). I suspect that the near-hopelessness of our situation and the solution’s implausibility causes this vague appeal to hope. But such thinly grounded optimism is a poor substitute for empowerment or eschatological faith and, I fear, makes people feel more helpless as environmental degradation increases. It is conspicuous that in these volumes no proponent of communalist politics makes use of the eschatological virtue of patience. Further, not one of the 49 essays mentions revolution; there is nothing resembling a call to masscivildisobedience. Hopelessness could also explain FW’s emphasis on individual and cultural transformation, a theme replete in Lofte’s essay, and the onlyproposal in EE’s other essays that explicitly address environmental destruction (125-33, 184- 88, 223, 244-45). Transformation gives us something “hopeful” to do—or, better yet, to experience, which Mark Wallace voices openly when he claims that “the great hope” of Christianity is how “the world will be experienced” (223).

We reach another layer of anti-apocalyptic optimism when some EE essays utilize and present “experience” as an authentic site unsullied by human constructions (see esp. 52-59). In the essays emphasizing the experience of personal transformation there is little mention of disciplined practice, which might rightly form desire and experience; nor is there reflection  on  existential  struggle  and  the  perils  of  self-deception.  This reflects the optimism our society cultivates in the free individual: there is no fear of the impact the practices of corporate capitalism may have upon our experience. Carfore wonders whether she intensely reacted to killing a snake because this called her “identity . . . as a ‘giver’” into question but does not follow up this thought (142). Instead, she asserts that her experience makes (certain?) Catholic understandings of God untenable (for her). At its worst, the implicit suggestion might be that my hope is for an authoritative experience that can ground me in myself (and provide hope for our planet).

In a different opening to hope, Trevor Bechtel “connects suffering and love [to] an . . . apocalyptic assessment of how humans are saved” (EE 29). The inchoate suggestion (shared with Daniel Pilario and Nathan Kowalsky) appears to be that I am constituted by the givenness I receive via the suffering (mine and others) around me, and by what I, in dependency, give in return. Echoing this, Daniel Castillo develops apocalyptic lament as a manifestation of collective solidarity in suffering, which also enables our openness to “the weight of salvation” (FW 162). Deane-Drummond, also invoking weight, describes “the dense interactions” (EE 101) that constitute mutually transformative friendships, as cultivated by disciplines of relational and affective knowledge (something Bechtel’s account also implies). Timothy Harvie provides perhaps the thickest example of such rituals of relational transformation. After describing the trying first six months with his dog Bones (the scars of past abuse), Harvie tells how Bones initiated a daily and profoundly healing ritual by leaping up and lying upon him (a literal weight) for an hour as they felt one another’s breathing and heartbeat. Thomas Neufeld argues that God’s “inexhaustible love” uses the “debris of human rebellion” for redemption (EL 170). Could this debris be these dense relational knots, emerging out of suffering through suffering, and able to bear the weight of love?

In a world passing away, might these relationships manifest eternity en route to dying well? Or could they be ingredients of political mobilizations? Perhaps (recouping FW’s politics) we can hold these two together as we sojourn—with grief but without fear—in a breaking and beautiful world.

GeraldEns,Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Religious Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Safwat Marzouk. InterculturalChurch:A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019.

In InterculturalChurch:A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration, Safwat Marzouk, Old Testament professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and an ordained member of the Synod of the Nile, claims that an alternative way for Christians to live in a polarized and divided society is to become an intercultural church. He builds his case primarily on biblical sources, although he incorporates insights from other fields of study as well. In the introduction, he asserts that the Bible offers a vision of an intercultural church, which he defines as “a church that fosters a just diversity, integrates different cultural articulations of faith and worship, and embodies in the world an alternative to the politics of assimilation and segregation” (3).

In chapter one the author differentiates monocultural and multicultural church models: monocultural churches require newcomers to assimilate to their culture, while multicultural churches celebrate racial and cultural differences but lack deeper interaction among the different social groups. Unlike these models, intercultural churches enter into a covenantal relationship with all existing social groups, worship and fellowship together, serve one another, and witness to the world about God’s reconciling mission. These churches cultivate a decentralizing unity and foster a just diversity. They seek unity around the common beliefs and practices that are transcultural, and intentionally work to have equal representation of different cultural and theological heritages in planning and decision-making.

Marzouk then carefully examines (in chapters 3, 4, and 5) biblical stories such as those of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, the eschatological vision in Revelation 4-7, and the Tower of Babel and Pentecost. He examines these passages through a lens of a migrant/sojourner, and expounds on how they support and offer key insights on what intercultural church is, why it is important to become one, and how to strive toward it. He explains that Peter and Cornelius model how to embrace differences and why we need each other to learn more about God and to mature in Christ. From the stories of Pentecost and the eschatological vision of Revelation, the author shows how God desires different cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and racial groups to worship together and to serve one another with and through their differences.

Marzouk affirms that differences are gifts, not threats or reasons for division. This volume makes a unique contribution to the current discourse on intercultural theology and ecclesiology. Several books on these topics have appeared from such areas as theology, sociology, philosophy, communication theory, and critical theory, but I have not seen one from biblical studies until this one. Also, by interpreting biblical passages through the lens of a migrant, the author offers a refreshing perspective to settled communities in North America. Another strength of the book is that it helps readers to situate themselves. In the US and Canada, people of color and ethnic minorities are constantly reminded of their ethnic, racial, and cultural identities. Yet, more often than not, European descendants, ethnic majorities, and white people forget that they too belong to a particular culture, ethnicity, and racial group. In this context, Marzouk argues that the dominant groups’ perspectives are partial and thus need the perspectives of other groups. Not only does he situate the dominant groups, he empowers the marginalized groups by reminding them that they have gifts to offer and are not merely recipients of care.

This book, which emphasizes culture, would be stronger if it had described and defined what “culture” is. Culture is a contentious concept. Yet as Marzouk uses the term, culture seems easily identifiable, internally consistent, and based on consensus (within a particular cultural group). However, a postmodern anthropological perspective contends that there is much diversity within a cultural group and members have different views and understandings. Hence, any consensus is quite minimal, and both consistency and inconsistency are seen within a particular culture.

Moreover, the author could have explained that the growing number of migrants is not the only reason to be an intercultural church. His understanding of an intercultural church is mainly connected to the contemporary waves of migration, and this focus is indeed important. But by centering mostly on it, he fails to deal with other diverse social groups that already existed in Canada and the US, namely Indigenous and African descent people, and, in the case of the US, the presence of the Hispanic people. Certainly, contemporary migration is impacting both countries and making them much more diverse, but it would have been helpful if Marzouk had explained that migration is simply one of several factors that have shaped our pluralistic society.

This biblically-based and timely study is filled with practical ideas on how to be an intercultural church, and is highly recommended to pastors, theologians, and church leaders, especially those aware of the growing cultural and racial diversity in their communities. And as church leaders seek to apply key insights from this book to their communities, I hope they remember, as Marzouk stresses, that Christians should strive toward becoming an intercultural church not because it is trendy but because it is based on the Bible, it is God’s desire, and it is Jesus’ call to radical discipleship.

Hyung  Jin  Kim  Sun,  Ph.D.  Candidate,  Theology,  Emmanuel  College, University of Toronto.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews

Douglas J. Heidebrecht. WomeninMinistryLeadership:TheJourneyoftheMennoniteBrethren,1954-2010. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Productions, 2019.

This volume documents the story of one denominational family and the shifting landscape of discussion and debate that took place concerning women’s roles within that church. Author Douglas Heidebrecht draws on a wide range of written source material including minutes, publications, and personal correspondence as he surveys 50-plus years of Mennonite Brethren  study  conferences  and  conventions,  resource  material,  and resolutions. Along the way, he attends to a diversity of constituent voices, highlighting the breadth of the conversation and reconstructing the story of a faith community struggling to discern their belief and practice around this issue. The result is a well-researched history that provides not only the debates  and  decisions  surrounding  women  in  church  leadership  within the MB denomination, but also an analysis of deeper questions related to hermeneutics, cultural context, and the practice of community discernment. Heidebrecht  divides  his  account  into  seven  chapters.  Chapter  1, “Introducing the Conversation on Women in Ministry Leadership,” situates the question of women in ministry leadership within the broader history of the North American Mennonite Brethren. Chapter 2, “Emerging Mennonite Brethren Conversations (1878-1879; 1954-1973),” notes early discussions around the inclusion of women in the life of the church, highlights the emergence of women’s voices on the question of women’s roles through columns in denominational publications in the 1960s, and relates the addition of some men’s voices in the early 1970s. In chapter 3, “Challenging Mennonite Brethren Tradition (1971-1980),” the author reviews the contrasting responses by MB leadership in the United States and Canada to this issue: the former limiting the conversation in favor of maintaining the status quo, the latter unable to resist responding to a growing diversity of views and practices among its constituency.

Chapter 4, “Discerning Mennonite Brethren Belief and Practice (1978-1987),” surveys a critical juncture in debate and decision-making for both the Canadian and American contexts. It recounts the events of a 1980 study conference (Current Issues in Church Leadership), a benchmark resolution at the 1981 General Conference that affirmed women could exercise their gifts in the church but maintained that ordination to pastoral leadership was not permitted, and later attempts to clarify ambiguities of the 1981 resolution. Chapter 5, “Unraveling Consensus Challenges Mennonite Brethren (1988-1993),” describes the deepening divides that were forming in the wake of the 1981 resolution and the increasing inability of MBs to reach a consensus view.

In chapter 6, “Conflicting Convictions among Mennonite Brethren (1992-2002),” the author details a decade that saw conference leadership attempt, and fail, to move the conversation out of the realm of biblical faithfulness into the realm of polity—a shift that would allow congregations to discern practice at a local level and preserve the unity of the whole—and the decision to dissolve the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren. Chapter 7, “Seeking Consensus as Canadian Mennonite Brethren (2001- 2010),” turns attention to changes within the Canadian conference following the dissolution of the General Conference. A shift towards a missional understanding of women’s leadership roles, allowing churches to affirm women in whatever position was beneficial within their context, including lead pastor, culminated in the passing of a 2006 resolution that freed churches to exercise their own discernment around this issue.

As Heidebrecht brings the book to a conclusion, he identifies “three threads” that were central to the debate throughout: “1) the need to look at Scriptures in response to questions regarding women in church leadership, 2) the attempt to live faithfully in the midst of prevailing cultural forces, and 3) the practice of discerning together as a community what the Bible says” (298). These threads sum up the testimony and the tensions of the MB story.

This book illuminates the backdrop to the current MB landscape in both Canada and the United States. In Canada, some people rejoice in the changes that have come with years of study and discernment, some question the faithfulness of the church in opening leadership positions to women, and others continue to suffer from the wounds inflicted through this difficult, and at times dehumanizing, debate. In the United States, a recent revival of the conversation in 2019 has led to a reaffirmation in 2020 of the resolution that prohibits women from serving as lead pastors.

Through his history and analysis, Heidebrecht offers both a guidebook and a cautionary tale for communities who endeavor to study, learn, and apply Scripture together. The Christian church—MB churches and other denominations as well—continues to face apparent incongruities between the voice of Scripture and the values of culture. How will we read and learn togeether? How will we respect and honor those who find themselves at the center of our questions and our debate? This book calls communities of faith to consider what forms us and what informs our readings of the Bible, of culture, and of one another.

Sherri Guenther Trautwein, Pastor, Lendrum Mennonite Church, Edmonton, Alberta; Ph.D. Candidate, Theology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, Ontario.

Table of Contents | Foreword | ArticlesBook Reviews