Review of Mennocostals: Pentecostal and Mennonite Stories of Convergence, edited by Martin W. Mittelstadt and Brian K. Pipkin (Pickwick, 2020).
Martin Mittelstadt of Evangel University (Assemblies of God) and Brian Pipkin of Mennonite Disaster Service have assembled a collection of “testimonies” from ten authors exploring stories of connection between Mennonites and Pentecostals. This volume is the 12th and most recent installment of the Pentecostals, Peacemaking and Social Justice series through Wipf & Stock. The inaugural volume in the series was the 2009 20th-anniversary reprinting of sociologist Jay Beaman’s Pentecostal Pacifism, originally published by the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College, where Beaman (who also has an essay in the present volume) was serving on faculty at the time.
Beaman’s project, which documented the widespread pacifism among early Pentecostals and their conscientious objection to World War I, has become something of a touchstone for pentecostals interested in re-connecting with the tradition’s more radical social and ethical roots. Since then, the series has published several pieces and collections of primary sources on the pacifist origins of pentecostalism, as well as on contemporary issues in peacemaking, discipleship-spirituality, ecology, and social justice.
The present volume, with its focus on “Pentecostal and Mennonite Stories of Convergence,” is certainly a fitting addition to the series. Yet this collection is not just of interest to peace-and-justice-minded pentecostals. “‘Mennocostal’ – pentecostal Mennonites – may be the best characterization of the majority of Anabaptists in the Majority World today,” observes César García, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference (2). For this reason alone, Mennocostals should command the attention of Mennonite readers (whether “-costal” or not) as well.
García’s chapter provides a captivating and compelling opening to the collection. He begins with the story of his own experience of miraculous healing and goes on to describe what Mennocostalism looks like in his context, with a focus on Colombia. First, he says, Mennocostals are Christ-centered, in which the teaching and example of Jesus provides a normative framework for what might be called the experiential and affective emphasis in pentecostal epistemology, and “flows from a personal encounter with and experience of Christ.” This also provides a corrective to an often-triumphalist “theology of Glory.”
This experiential-affective epistemology, rooted in relationship with Christ, sees the Bible not so much as a deposit of propositional doctrine, but as a “Script that shows how to live out the teaching of Jesus” in contexts of suffering. This “places Scripture in the center of daily practice in a manner that accepts and promotes pluralism as part of the Gospel and that is congruent with the life and teaching of Christ” (4) and offers a living alternative to a deadly lack of tolerance.
Second, García says, Mennocostals practice reconciliation in a context of ongoing political violence. By embodying and extending an alternative to retribution, Mennocostals also provide an alternative to models of church that merely provide an escape or offer a shallow prosperity-gospel message. García describes Mennocostals’ Spirit-filled communal restorative justice and peacebuilding work, with most congregations located among the most vulnerable (7). Finally, García says Mennocostals practice cruciform leadership as an alternative to authoritarian styles of religious and political leadership.
Mittelstadt’s chapter describes his own hermeneutical journey as a student and scholar of Luke-Acts, from historical methods focused on questions of historicity and reconstruction that hold Jesus at a distance, to narrative and theological approaches that draw the church into embodying the prophetic life of Luke’s Jesus. Drawing on both pentecostal and Mennonite writers (as well as Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson), Mittelstadt describes how Luke revealed his “peace agenda” through “Spirit-filled agents” (21). He finds complementary themes in the two traditions, each of which has in its own way adopted the Lukan Jesus’s manifesto (Luke 4:18-19), whether for proclamation or social justice (25).
“Methomennocostal” Matthew Paugh believes that Wesleyan soteriology provides a link between pentecostal therapeutic views of salvation and Anabaptist participatory views. Paugh asserts that Pentecostals emphasize a “holistic view of salvation that emphasizes deliverance from all forms of evil,” while Anabaptists see the “Christological contours of salvation as living out Jesus’ teaching and following the pattern of Jesus’ earthly life” (44).
Pipkin, who was for a time credentialed for ministry in the Assemblies of God (AG), ended up serving with Mennonite Disaster Service and attending a Mennonite congregation, while serving as an editor for the Pentecostals, Peacemaking and Social Justice series. Pipkin writes of his Mennocostal experience especially as “liminal,” not fully belonging to either group. Cultural barriers (hymn traditions, names, food) prevent him from fully integrating into his Mennonite congregation, and while he appreciates the Mennonite collectivist vision for justice and peacemaking, he also longs for “worship that brings the gospel down to the personal reality – life, relationships, family, survival” (63).
Beaman recounts intersections between Pentecostals and Mennonites intersecting with his own life’s journey. The AG minister who baptized him (and did not counsel conscientious objection during the Vietnam War) was himself the son of a Mennonite conscientious objector to World War I. Beaman also uncovers numerous connections between members of former Mennonite Church (MC) congregations in Kansas and the Holiness movement (out of which the early Pentecostal movement, in large part, emerged).
Ethicist Ryan Gladwin believes that both Pentecostals and Anabaptists often serve as a foil or caricature in ethics textbooks. Gladwin notes, for instance, the research documenting the social changes resulting from Pentecostalism around the world, which challenges a caricatured version of Pentecostalism that “consoles pain without authentic social transformation” (123). And Anabaptists are not “apolitical sectarians,” but rather form contrast “cruciform-communities” that embody and bear witness to God’s reign (25). Gladwin describes both groups as having a “micro-social” or “grassroots” approach to transformation, rather than working through centers of power. He concludes that “Mennocostal transformation comes not through hopelessly seeking to abstain from the influence of the structures, but through confronting the social structures with alternative forms of community” (131).
Several contributors participated in the formal dialogues between Mennonite Church USA and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), which began in 2005 and continued until at least 2016. Church of God minister and professor Tony Richie describes the relationship between Mennonites and Pentecostals as akin to the partnership between Barnabas and Paul, and as a form of symbiosis in which both entities fully retain their own individuality. Mennonites bring peace, radical discipleship and community, while Pentecostals bring pneumatology, evangelism and eschatology (74-75).
Church of God missionary Rick Waldrop also participated in the dialogues. While serving in Latin America, Waldrop met Gilberto and Rosa Flores and others at the Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala City, SEMILLA, and was “radicalized” among Mennonites as he witnessed the horrors of U.S.-backed military dictatorships and coups. He went on to help launch Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice, a loose network connected to the book series.
Mission worker and teacher Gerald Shenk helped coordinate the dialogues. Shenk served among Pentecostals in Eastern Europe, where he witnessed their tireless care for the poor and suffering around them, as well as their testimony to God’s transformative power.
In the penultimate chapter, writer Natasha Wiebe, who grew up Pentecostal among Mennonites, plays with contrasting and intersecting pentecostal and Mennonite “storylines,” drawing from Mennonite authors Miriam Toews, Nomi Nickel and Rhoda Janzen. The storylines are “(1) pentecostal exuberance and Mennonite quiet; (2) pentecostal soldiers and Mennonite peacemakers; and (3) pentecostals and Mennonites as God’s chosen people” (156). Wiebe’s chapter points out places in which the storylines break down or reverse, as “one-size stories don’t fit all” (156).
The book closes with Menno Simons’ “How the Holy Apostles Practiced Baptism in the Water.” Menno argues that because speaking in tongues preceded baptism in Acts 10 and was given as justification for it, infants (who have not received the spirit in such a way) should not be baptized.
The authors of the volume define Mennocostal in various ways. For García in his context, it is simply nearly synonymous with “Mennonite.” For others, it describes a mutually enriching exchange among groups each committed to their tradition, with each gaining new insight: for instance, Pentecostals exploring the movement’s pacifist roots and Anabaptists getting re-acquainted with their charismatic origins. For others still, it is much more personal, denoting experiences of liminality, outsiderness, hybridity and transition.
The breadth represented in both Pentecostalism and Anabaptism provides additional complication for figuring out what “Mennocostal” is. The authors write from their own experiences of each tradition, without pretending to be definitive of either tradition. This serves as an invitation to others to tell their Mennocostal stories as well.
The Mennocostal project itself also has its difficulties. Mittelstadt notes some Pentecostals’ “elitist posture” when it comes to ecumenism in general, and Mennonites in particular, who are seen as insignificant (xiii). The same could be said of many Mennonites’ posture when it comes to Pentecostals! When I tell Mennonite acquaintances I’m doing my doctoral work at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, I’m most often met with confusion or surprise, sometimes with concern and criticism, and on occasion with delight and open curiosity. And, just as many Pentecostals don’t tell the pacifist part of their past, many Mennonites don’t tell the charismatic part of ours. Healings, visions, speaking in tongues, resuscitations, divine inspiration on trial, prophecy,and more are all attested among records of early Anabaptists. It is especially among the charismatic Anabaptists that we find women (like Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock) serving in leadership roles, as women have among Pentecostals for over a century.
I do have two critiques of the volume. First, as the editors note, the majority of the essays come from white men currently residing in the United States. In a volume in which themes around social justice, anti-racism and gender equity frequently surface, this deficiency becomes rather glaring. A more global, more diverse and inclusive set of Mennocostal perspectives is needed.
Second, several authors refer to or quote John Howard Yoder. Yoder’s writings, especially The Politics of Jesus, have been an avenue by which many evangelicals and Pentecostals have first encountered contemporary Anabaptists. Even so, however personally or professionally meaningful Yoder’s work may have been to them prior to learning about his sexual violence, essays in a peacemaking and social justice series, rather than citing Yoder as authoritative, need to interact critically with Yoder’s work, especially in light of his actual behavior, which his moral and ecclesial frameworks enabled.
The overall approach of this volume, a recognition of the deeply formative testimony tradition in Pentecostal worship (one might also note a different mode of “testimony” in Anabaptism), provides an engaging invitation to an encounter of traditions who have much to offer each other. After all, Mennocostalism is not merely a theoretical construct among academics and church leaders; it is already a lived reality for many followers of Jesus, and day by day becomes more and more synonymous with what it means to be simply “Mennonite” in the world today.