Social Organization. Two social institutions, church and education, have played dominant roles in Mennonite life. This is as true for the present as for the past. But between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, these institutions were far more influential and had not, as is more recently evident, incorporated mainstream values and ideas. In fact, not until the twentieth century were women, in some denominations and congregations, permitted or encouraged to assume the roles of church elder ( Aeltester ) or bishop, minister, or teacher. This effectively removed women from major decision-making bodies and relegated them to ancillary roles within the Community. The church or congregation was the most powerful institution—it sanctioned marriage, negotiated with secular authorities, and established codes of conduct ( Ordnung ) governing all aspects of life. Church elders were the ultimate authority, and no secular agency could rule on matters pertaining to community life. This, however, was impossible to maintain, as economic and political changes associated with the transition from feudal to capitalist-dominated governments often undermined church authority and led members to capitulate to local and state authorities. In the present, some conservative Mennonites continue to resist participation in government.
Similarly, Mennonites have always recognized the need to provide their own schooling. In Prussia, Russia, and the United States, they held tenaciously to the right to educate their own; yet state bureaucracies pressured them to concede partial control. As was true for most Anabaptist groups, Mennonites did not believe that children should receive education beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. Life in agrarian communities was, according to their teaching, potentially jeopardized by knowledge of "worldly" affairs. Although many of the more conservative Mennonite groups retain control of their educational institutions, the majority use the public schools. In fact, at the level of postsecondary education, some have distinguished themselves—there are several major Mennonite colleges and Bible institutes throughout the world, and their historical archives are among the finest.
Political Organization. Their ideological insistence on the strict separation of church and state meant that members did not participate in political organizations outside of the community. Within the Gemeinde a hierarchical distribution of power was highly suspect, but nevertheless a three-tiered ministry emerged. The highest and most revered was that of elder (Aeltester) who was elected by Gemeinde members and who, among other things, had exclusive authority to ordain new elders. Among the Swiss and German Mennonites the elder position was occupied by a bishop who held the same authority. In addition to elders, there were preachers and ministers ( Dienaren ) who were also chosen by the congregation. The former were allowed only to preach, whereas the minister could not only preach but also baptize new members. Deacons were likewise appointed by the congregation to serve the poor and care for widows, elderly, and orphans. Most important, Mennonites strongly believed that Gemeinde authorities should serve; therefore, they were not to be differentiated from other members. For this reason, they were not compensated for their service, and a professional clergy is, for the most part, a recent phenomenon, although some continue to insist upon a lay clergy.
Among Mennonites in Prussia and Russia, the Bruderschaft (brotherhood meetings) were occasionally convened by the elders. In these meetings, the men from the congregation discussed and resolved matters related to congregational life. It was often the case that the Bruderschaft assisted in the resolution of private household matters and conflicts Between households. In particular, the Bruderschaft decided if a member was to be disciplined by temporary banishment or expulsion. Imposed on the Mennonites in Russia, and to a lesser extent in Prussia, was a particular form of village Political organization.
Among the early Pennsylvania Mennonites a conference was started (1711) to provide leadership and continuity Between various Gemeinde. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, other Mennonite communities and congregations began to form umbrella organizations or conferences. The General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches and the General Conference Mennonite Church are among the largest today. In 1920, an inter-Mennonite organization, the Mennonite Central Committee, was formed to serve as a Cooperative agency for a larger Mennonite constituency. This organization is best known for its disaster relief programs.
Social Control. In the past, social control was accomplished through application of the ban and avoidance. If members were not sufficiently repentant, they were banned (excommunicated) or shunned and denied access to the Gemeinde. Still today, some of the more conservative groups strictly apply these mechanisms of social control.
Conflict. Throughout their history there have been Numerous churchwide schisms. The most notable of the Historical schisms have been the sixteenth-century Netherlands Frisian-Flemish; the Amish division from the Swiss Brethren; the Mennonite Brethren schism in Russia; and the Holdeman Mennonite division.