Nonconformity- (part 2) When Does Transformation Happen?

“Why do you dress like that?” “Why are your clothes so different than those around you?” “Why do you all dress alike?”

Most of us who were raised in a conservative Anabaptist/Mennonite homes have probably been asked at least one, or maybe all, of these questions at some point in our lives. People don’t always give the same answers, but here are some of the answers that I have heard given through the years:

-This is how my church asks me to dress
-We don’t want to be worldly, so we don’t dress like the world
-We believe in nonconformity to the world
-We want to have unity in our church
-We believe in dressing modestly

These are all short easy answers that most of us have been taught. Yet, in some ways they are such insufficient, unsatisfactory answers. I wonder if we would have better answers if we were pressed? What if we were then asked questions such as:
Would you still dress that way if your church did not have that rule?
Do you believe that anyone who does not dress like you is of the world—even those of other churches?
Does dressing differently keep you from being conformed to the world?
Since you all dress alike, do you now all have unity of the Spirit?
Do you consider all those that are dressed differently than you to be immodest?

Romans 12:2 and nonconformity

When a sermon is preached with Romans 12:2 as the main script in a typical Anabaptist church, we already have a general idea of what we will hear. Nonconformity is very important to our people and has been focused on for many generations for well over a hundred years. We’ve been taught how important it is to look differently than the world.

We tend to look at other denominations with a bit of condescension. We feel we are at a little higher level on the holiness ladder. After all, they seem to just ignore this verse.

What if other denominations aren’t ignoring this verse, but are looking at it from a different angle than we do?

butterfly transform4What is the most important part of this verse? Is it to avoid being conformed to the world or is it to be transformed by the renewing of our minds? We know both are important and both must happen in the life of a born-again Christian.

Maybe another question to ask would be, do either of these directives depend on the other? In other words, must you be “nonconformed to the world” before you can be “transformed by the renewal of your mind”? Or do we need to be “transformed” before we can be “nonconformed to the world”? Which should happen first?

Though we might not hear it emphasized, transformation must happen first; or nonconformity is worthless.

Have you ever tried to make a caterpillar act like a butterfly? No matter what you do, it will by nature crawl on its belly and eat leaves. You can attempt to put it on a flower, but it will not drink nectar. Its nature has not changed. When a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly, who tells that butterfly to act like a butterfly rather than a caterpillar? Must they told constantly to stop crawling and to do what butterflies are supposed to do?

A caterpillar has within itself everything needed to become a butterfly. And yet, it will not do anything that a butterfly does until it transforms. During the cocoon stage, everything that is caterpillar literally dies and becomes a soupy ooze that is used as fuel for the rapid cell division that takes place to make a butterfly. After that its very nature changes.

There are some ways this analogy does not work, but it makes a point. It is not worth our time to try to force someone who has not been born again to act like a saved person. Their nature has not changed. We can not make them want to do what has not been instilled in them yet.

After salvation—or transformation—our minds are renewed, and we think differently.

Are we Anabaptists focusing too much on not conforming to the world? Instead of conforming to the world, we are to be transformed by the “renewing of our minds”. What if our focus would be on that first? Would we see the other happening more naturally?

In Ephesians 4:22-32, we see the concept of putting off and putting on. Put off lying, put on speaking truth; put off stealing, put on laboring and giving; put off corrupt communication, put on edifying communication.

Instead of trying not to lie, we need to just speak truth. Instead of reminding ourselves not to steal, we need to work to provide for our needs and others. Instead of trying our hardest not to let bitterness, wrath and anger spew out of us onto others, we need to be kind and tenderhearted to others.

Instead of trying not to conform to the world, we need to be transformed by having our minds renewed.

If there is no difference between us and the world, perhaps it’s because no transformation has taken place. We should be different. Our minds, our very motivations for every choice we make should be different than an unsaved person. What we feed our minds on should look different than it used to. There should be a hunger and thirst for righteousness that was not there before.

We should not have to make rules to try to keep our people from being “conformed to the world”. Should born again Christians look differently from the world? Possibly. But if the only reason they do is because the church rules are there, that is not transformation. It is more like strapping wings on a caterpillar and calling it a butterfly.

Did the disciples look differently than those around them? There is nothing in Scripture to prove that they did. But I doubt that the world around them looked like the world does today. Paul warns believers in both 1Tim. 2 and 1 Peter 3 to dress modestly and to focus on adorning the inward man more than the outward. We should want to put on ornaments of a meek and quiet spirit more than outward ornaments. We should want to dress simply and modestly.

But we should want to do this because of a transformation that happened within and we want to do what God wants, not because my church has a list of dress rules I must follow to look differently than the world.

Just looking differently than the world, does not mean that I am not conformed to the world any more than strapping wings on the back of caterpillar means it is no longer a caterpillar. It’s not about looking differently from the world, it’s about not being conformed to—or patterned after—the world. And the way to keep from being conformed is by a transformation—a metamorphosis—in our minds.

If our hearts/minds have not gone through any transformation, looking differently will do us no good.

Jeremiah 17:9 speaks of the heart (mind, will, feelings) being “deceitful” and “desperately wicked”. It’s been said that this is why we need rules. We are fearful that our hearts will betray us if we don’t set extra guidelines. However, is this verse speaking of a heart that has been transformed, or is it speaking of an unregenerate heart?

Can God transform our hearts and give us clean hearts that aren’t “desperately wicked”? If He cannot transform our heart/minds, then what is the point of Rom. 12:2?

When David sinned with Bathsheba, we see him crying out to God in Psalm 51, confessing his sin, and asking God to blot out his iniquities. Then in verse 10, David says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

When God created the world and everything in it, He made something out of nothing and said it was good. When God creates a clean heart, He makes it good. When our heart is transformed, our desires and our thoughts patterns are no longer wicked and deceitful. That doesn’t mean we are perfect, but what we hunger after is changed.

If there is something in me wanting to conform–or pattern after—everything the world does, if my desires are not different than the world, perhaps I need to do like David and ask God to create in me a clean heart. Perhaps my mind/heart has not gone through the transformation of metamorphosis into renewal.


Nonconformity- When Did it Start? (part 1)

If you identify as a conservative Mennonite, what is it exactly that makes you a conservative Mennonite? Maybe you don’t like the term Mennonite and prefer to call yourself Anabaptist, so what is it that makes you Anabaptist? Denominations are usually set apart from each other because of some belief that they hold to strongly or some belief that they refuse to have part of.

Mennonites have had so many different church splits and schisms through the centuries and the number of groups and subgroups that are out there are often hard to keep track of—even when you grow up in it. But what is it that makes them keep identifying as Anabaptists or Mennonite rather than some other denomination?

When someone says they aren’t going to be Mennonite anymore, what does that mean to us?

In asking some of these questions, I have found that most Mennonites generally will either answer something about the way one looks, or about nonresistance, or both.

In reading about our more recent history, nonconformity and nonresistance seem to be the key issues that Mennonites tend to focus on. To most of us, it is a normal part of being Mennonite. Members meetings, business meetings, and conferences often revolve around our dress and outward appearance. Nonresistance is important but isn’t focused on as much as it once was when America was directly involved in specific wars.

Nonresistance seems to have always been a part of the Anabaptist movement, but rules and regulations about dress and clothing were not always what our people focused on.

When did we become so focused on our outward appearance?

If most of our identity as a denomination is in how we look, doesn’t that sound like a rather shallow identity?

Of course, that isn’t our only deeply held belief, but since it is the one that is often focused on more than others, that is what my next series will be on.

A Brief History

Mennonites today get our term “nonconformity” from Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (NKJV)

Another verse that is often used in correlation with this is 2Cor. 6:17, “Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” (NKJV)

If you were raised in a conservative Mennonite home, these verses are most likely very familiar. Most of us, if questioned, would tell you that these verses are the reason we are to dress and live differently than the world.

The earliest Anabaptists also spoke about clothing, but their focus in their teaching was not the same as ours today. “Nonconformity”—in regard to dress—was not something spoken of much. Rather, admonition about clothing was focused more on simplicity, and guarding against pride.

When the Anabaptist movement began, the upper classes liked to display their wealth in the kind of clothing and ornamentation they wore. Menno Simons and some of the other earlier Anabaptist writers wrote against this practice, calling for modest, simple apparel that was not “prideful and pompous”.1

Through the centuries, Anabaptists were not the only Christians speaking out against this. Leaders such as Adoniram Judson, Charles Finney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others also spoke against costly display in dress and wrote in support of simplicity of dress rather than extravagance and display.2

For four centuries, Mennonites did not teach about nonconformity or separatism from the world in dress. The Amish were the only ones within the Anabaptist movement who had very specific clothing rules. Jacob Ammon made his rules about dress much like the world at that time did and he conformed to the world’s view of how the poor class should be clothed. His rules were not about being “nonconformed”, but rather focused on conforming to the lowest worldly class of people. You can read more about this here.

Clothing styles did not change as rapidly during those four centuries and Mennonites did not look much different than those around them–other than keeping their clothing simpler and not having as many frills, etc. However, they were often somewhat slower in acclimating to the styles of those around them.

In the 1800’s, mass production of clothing during the industrial revolution brought a more simple, cheap, and utilitarian style of clothing. As clothing became cheaper, and much of the extravagant and outlandish styles were dropped, society began to dress more alike with less distinction between the classes. With cheaper dress, however, the styles began to change more rapidly.

This brought concern to Mennonite leaders for several reasons. Since clothing was made more cheaply with less frills, Mennonites didn’t really look different than others around them. Transportation and communication had become easier and Mennonites came into more contact with urban society. Mennonite leaders became concerned that their people would lose their distinctiveness. They had already lost much of their distinctiveness in language and geographic isolation. With the rest of the world no longer dressing with as many frills and ornamentation on their clothing, they worried that would no longer be set apart from others.3

It was at this point in the late 1800’s that Mennonites began to speak of nonconformity, uniformity, and being separated from the world in dress. Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 6:17 became key verses for Mennonite living. Between the years 1865 to 1950, more resolutions were passed regarding nonconformity than any other subject. At least 230 resolutions were passed during that time.

Nonconformity or just wanting to hold on to cultural distinctiveness?

As I read the history of Mennonite nonconformity, I found myself questioning if it really was nonconformity to the world that they were desiring, or if they were just attempting to “be different” in order to preserve their culture.

Each group of Mennonites that came to America brought with them their own language and culture. They tended to live together in their own communities and speak their own language. But as transportation became easier and they had more contact with the outside world, they lost that distinction.

Itmenno dress is not an unusual phenomenon to want your children to keep the culture that you grew up in. It happens in most cultures of people who come to America. Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, etc., want their children to remember who they were and where they come from. Sometimes there are particular traits and traditions that they are able to keep, or a language they still speak at home, but most of the time the children assimilate to the culture around them as they integrate into society.

While it’s not wrong to want to safeguard your culture, should a people group’s main objective be to keep their culture and do this by calling things pertaining to other cultures a sin? Is it right to call things sin that God does not?

Is Nonconformity important?

Does that mean that I think nonconformity does not matter? Should we just give up our culture and join the world around us?

Not at all! What I would like to do is take a deeper look at biblical nonconformity, worldliness, and being in separation from the world. I want to study what it is and what it is not. My next couple posts will be on that subject.



1. Gingerich, Melvin, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries, pg. 14
2. Ibid, pg.145
3. Ibid, pg.28 and 148