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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 125–28 

Book Review

A Pilgrimage of Faith. The Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia and North America, 1860-1990

J. B. Toews. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1993. 374 pages.

Reviewed by Wesley J. Prieb

Toews, a respected church leader, provides a biblical and theological framework for Mennonite Brethren identity. The book is required reading for all students of Mennonite Brethren faith and life.

By request I am reflecting on the theme of missions (not alone from chapter 19), rather then “reviewing” the book. Toews treats the subject of mission in two ways: missions as an arm of the church, and the church in mission. The first implies that missions is a spoke in the wheel. The second implies missions is the hub of the wheel; all the spokes relate to the Great Commission. I prefer the second approach because of recent changes in global demographics and mission strategies. Today all churches are mission churches. Toews, in laying out principles, tends to separate between church and mission. While I agree with the principles, I emphasize {126} that every Mennonite Brethren church everywhere be governed by the following five vision statements.


Before the church can do its mission in the world, it must know the story of God redeeming the fallen race. It must accept the Bible as the word of God for faith, life, and mission. “What does the Bible say?” was the major concern of the early Mennonite Brethren.

Their understanding of salvation was rooted in a “Christocentric theology.” Briefly stated, this meant a fervent belief in Jesus Christ as God incarnate, his vicarious death and victorious resurrection as the all-sufficient provision for the redemption of sinful humanity, and his coming again to receive his own and to judge the world . . . The model for the redeemed community, the church, was that of the apostolic fellowship, the church as found in the book of Acts.

Biblical truth for Mennonite Brethren was existential and governed all aspects of faith and life. Their rejection of institutional forms of religion left them no other point of reference but the Bible itself (p. 19).

When there was a conflict between the Old and New Testament, they opted for the focused rather than the flat canon. The New Testament stood above the Old Testament in the progress of revelation. And the exegetical community helped interpret the difficult passages. Armed with the Word of God and the sword of the Spirit, the early missionaries were ready to do battle with the forces of darkness.


Being “born again” meant turning around and walking the narrow road as a new creature. God allowed humanity to exercise free will “that all that obey His gospel and believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.” The linkage of “obey” and “believe” was important to the early Mennonite Brethren. Menno Simons said,

My dearly beloved reader take heed to the Word of the Lord and learn to know the true God. I warned you faithfully to take it, if you please. He will not save you nor forgive you your sins nor show you His mercy and grace except according to His word: namely if you repent and if you believe, if you are born of Him, if you do what He has commanded and walk as He walks (p. 32).

For Menno Simons, conversion led to a complete inward transformation expressed in discipleship. A call for radical conversion is a missionary calling. {127}


Through baptism new converts enter into the full fellowship and work of the church. They become members of the visible body of Christ. They become a part of a covenant community of faith with complete accountability. The Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith confirms the importance of water baptism:

We believe and confess that Christian baptism is a holy, visible, evangelical, sacred act and ordinancy (institution) of Christ, commanded by the Lord himself for a sacred sign of Regeneration and embodiment in Him and His Church (p. 35).

To qualify for baptism, one must have repented of sin and trusted Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord. As part of the Body of Christ, each believer surrenders the individual rights for the corporate rights of the total body. Believer's baptism is a voluntary choice to identify with the church in mission, to become a missionary.


For many to accept Jesus as Savior is easy. To follow him along the narrow road is another matter. The call to discipleship is a hard decision: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). To believe in Jesus as Savior meant “to follow Jesus in life,” said Hans Denk. Here is the great divide. It is the difference between cheap grace and costly grace.

Discipleship means that one has become a citizen of the kingdom of heaven and a sojourner in the kingdom of this world. It means living a holy lifestyle of self-denial and sacrificial service. It means living by the teachings of Jesus according to the Sermon on the Mount in the present tense in this world--not for some future dispensation. In their choice to follow Jesus via Menno Simons, the Mennonite Brethren Church calls its members to walk together along the narrow road.


The Anabaptists were among the first Christian groups following the apostolic era to see the Great Commission as binding upon all church members. Their missionary energy was legendary. But by the nineteenth century this vitality had largely vanished. With regard to evangelism, the Mennonites of Russia seemed to share the view held by many other Protestants—that the Great Commission had been a specific assignment to the apostles and had expired with them.

This casual view would have horrified sixteenth-century Anabaptists for whom personal salvation was crucial. For them “the world was {128} populated with two kinds of people—those who witness and those who are witnessed to. For them there was no third category.” Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder has noted that the Anabaptists “considered evangelism as belonging to the essential being of the church.’ Emil Brunner said, “the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.” The two cannot be separated.

The shift from the colonial model of missions, with its missionary-centered colony, to the indigenous church that assumes responsibility for evangelism and the building of Christ-like self-propagating churches seems like a good strategy for growing the Mennonite Brethren Church any place in the world.

Dr. Wesley Prieb
Former Director, Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies
Tabor College, Hillsboro, KS

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