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by Mark R. Wenger
“If Mennonites walk away from their Anabaptist roots, we will give up peace first; then belief in the importance of baptism and church membership will be next.”
This is the sobering assessment of Dr. Brinton Rutherford, director of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Rutherford is currently teaching a course entitled “Conversations with Anabaptist Theology Today” for EMS at Lancaster.
Dr. Rutherford brings the fervor of a convert to the topic of Anabaptist theology. His teaching shows it.
“I enjoy the classroom environment and engaging people’s minds. I try to create a frame to look at theological issues in fresh ways.”
For example, one class session included a short documentary video clip of the Tutsi-Hutu genocide in Rwanda. Rwanda had been one of the missionary “success” stories of the 20 th century. A high percentage of the population identified themselves as Christian— Hutu and Tutsi—higher than any country in Africa. Yet the terrible slaughter of fellow Christians unfolded across the country, even in church buildings where people took refuge.
Rutherford says that his “conversion to Anabaptism” did not happen in one event. He and his wife moved to Lancaster County, Pa., after he completed a Ph.D. in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.
They began “church shopping,” half expecting to plug in with the Assemblies of God as they had for decades. They happened to visit a time or two at Mellinger Mennonite Church. An evangelism team from the congregation came to call at their home.
“That encounter had a positive impact,” he recalls. Today he and his wife are members at Mellinger.
In addition, Rutherford had been introduced to several Anabaptist theologians in seminary which sparked his interest.
But it was teaching an “Anabaptist Theology” course at Messiah College that really turned the lights on.
“Anabaptism,” he declares, “has a unique way of accessing Scripture. We begin with Jesus Christ. Something decisive changed with Jesus and that colors how we read the whole Bible.”
Rutherford has come to realize that Mennonites today could “walk away” from this perspective.
“Many don’t realize what they have,” he cautions. “We need to learn to ‘talk the walk,’ to be able to explain and articulate why we believe and live the way we do. It hinges on the Bible and how we read it.”
Thirty students, credit and non-credit, are enrolled in the “Conversations with Anabaptist Theology Today” course that Rutherford is currently teaching for EMS at Lancaster.
“The participants are diverse,” he observes with a grin. “They are not all of like mind. But my sense is that there is an interest and hunger that we are tapping.” Not everyone is convinced, he observed, “but my role is to plant seeds.”