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July 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 2 · pp. 194–200 

From Where to Where?

J. B. Toews

Nearly a quarter century ago at the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference in Ontario, the above caption served as the title for a major conference address delivered by the late B. B. Janz. “Mennonite Brethren Church: From Where to Where?” had for that moment a prophetic significance. A veteran of historic stature called upon the brotherhood to examine its spiritual heritage in the wake of strong cultural influences from without and spiritual conflicts from within which were endangering the inner life of the fellowship. 1

Today, 20 years later, the same question is posed by a searching generation demanding an answer to the question of its purpose and identity. Who are we? Why are we called Mennonite Brethren? What is our role in the contemporary religious scene, in American evangelicalism, and in the broader Mennonite community? The voice of Brother John A. Toews in the article “Mennonite Brethren—In Search of Identity” 2 and his later statement on “Christian Encounter with Culture” 3 speaks well to the subject of these tensions within the brotherhood. Tensions are wholesome for growth and development of life in general and for spiritual reorientation in particular. But to deal with this crisis we must first discover the proper frame of reference which answers the questions “Where do I come from” and “Where am I going.” We cannot separate ourselves from the question “Where do we come from” in our search for an answer to “Where are we going.”

THE RELATIONSHIP OF TIME

The day when we could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pietistic, is over. Our generation demands more than the old rhetoric to the question “Why are we a Mennonite Brethren Church.” The process of change during the past quarter century has exploded the cultural capsule of our historic past which heretofore protected our social, cultural, and religious values. In the context of such changes we are in danger of losing our consciousness of self.

Alvin C. Porteous, in his book The Search for Christian Credibility, speaks to the question of continuity and change in Christian belief and sets forth principles which are of universal significance: “In order to do justice to the elements of both continuity and change in the {195} formulating of Christian belief, our theological reflections must keep in fruitful tension all three modes of time—past, present, and future.” 4 Porteous speaks of the modes of time as norms which are necessary for a proper understanding of religious, moral, and political developments. He refers to them as the historical, the existential (experiential), and the futurological norms. 5 The historical norm demands that our contemporary theological concepts of faith and life be continuously examined in the light of the Scriptures and the understanding of such Scriptures in the past. The existential norm imposes the responsibility to interpret the original expressions of faith in the context of the present world so that the biblical reports can “make sense” of modern man’s individual and social existence. The futurological norm takes biblical faith to be a guide for the future. We must not formulate “judgments which nail reality down to what it is, (without) anticipations which show reality in its prospects and its future possibilities.” 6

A concentration on one of these norms to the exclusion of the others destroys the creative tension between the past, the present, and the future. It destroys a balanced relationship between continuity and change. “Past is prologue” 7 both as introduction to the present and as projection to the future. “To know nothing of the past is to understand little of the present and to have no conception of the future.” 8 A healthy interrelationship between past, present, and future prevents stagnation in that it redeems us from the tendency to seek refuge in the past and become captives of mere traditionalism. It produces realism for the present, it provides a frame of continuity protecting against disorientation, and it removes unqualified speculation in the outlook for the future. Knowledge of the past therefore is basic to the search for identity in the present and a viable purpose for the future. “A church without a past will soon be a church without a future.” 9

In our circles there is a woeful ignorance with respect to our past—as Mennonite Brethren and as a part of the larger Anabaptist movement. Our over-emphasis on programmed church activism is cutting us off from our historic roots. Neglect of the past leads to spiritual impoverishment and loss of identity. In this connection,

“It is significant to note how Israel’s religious identity was preserved by the constant effort of the prophets to remind them of their past. God’s people were told again and again that it was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who had brought them out of Egyptian bondage, who was manifesting himself in the contemporary history. It is often people with little knowledge or no knowledge of their own spiritual heritage that will suggest a change of name as a solution of our problem.” 10

MENNONITE BRETHREN IN THE PAST

Mennonite Brethren appear as a people who in the 1860s and immediately following were very earnest in the examination of their present in the light of the biblical roots of their past. 11 The tension with the mother church and the threat of losing their civil, economic, social {196} and cultural values forced a very careful examination of their past in the frame of biblical truth and the traditional understanding of such truth so that they could apply it to their contemporary, experiential, reality. 12 The battle was one of life or death. These tensions of their initial years of existence resulted in the dynamic life of a witnessing community where the historical criterion for truth, “What does the Bible say,” found application in the existential situation of a spiritual renewal. This renewal extended itself far beyond this small fellowship of believers to the broader Mennonite community.

The cry “Return to the Bible” and the search to understand its message in the context of the writings of Menno Simons was an existential issue. It delivered the early Mennonite Brethren fellowship from the captivity of traditionalism besetting the mother church of their time. The issues for which our forefathers endured the danger of losing their privileges as a Mennonite community and which threatened their civil, economic, social and cultural existence were questions of credibility. How does one reconcile the claim of being a New Testament believing community with the absence of ethical and moral integrity? Can the New Testament faith become a dogmatic creed without the experiential reality of a personal, volitional acceptance of Christ as Savior and Lord? Can a New Testament community of believers be part of an institution governed by an ecclesiastical hierarchy which is also part of a social, economic and civil power structure (as the “elders” then were)? Can a believing community accept the Christian faith as a mere provision for spiritual benefits without a very personal responsibility to a life of self-denial and witnessing discipleship? Can one claim exemption from military service as a peace witness and yet be uncommitted to a lifestyle of love and personal responsibility for the physical and spiritual needs of the wider human community? A search for answers to these issues forced the birth of the Mennonite Brethren community. What emerged was a Fellowship of Brethren, Die Brueder Gemeinde, in contrast to a religious institutional establishment, Die Kirchen Gemeinde, (a distinction which has ceased to apply to us in the present).

THE IDENTITY CRISIS OF TODAY

The setting for the tensions faced by Mennonite Brethren today is different from that of the 1860s. The issues, however, carry much similarity. In contrast to the creedal and cultural enslavement of the past century we find ourselves in the environment of American evangelicalism which offers a message of grace and the benefits of salvation with only marginal reference to the demand for discipleship as set forth in the message of Jesus. 13 The refuge of a formal, institutional church appears to be far more convenient for many pastors and members of the Mennonite Brethren constituency than the demands of a true New Testament fellowship. A salvation “in accepting Jesus” is for many an event in the past, frequently dating back to the time of childhood, which provides security beyond death without the demand for a lifestyle that challenges the value system of our cultural environment. The crucial issue of a “changed life” is replaced with the concern for a “safe life.” The personal witness {197} through Being and Message is easily exchanged for “missions in which we contribute to a large budget for the support of programs, some at home but more abroad.” It is easier to “export” the gospel as the “most important trust” than to live the gospel in a sharing fellowship contrary to the culture of independent individualism.

The difference between the Russian Mennonite culture of the 1860s and the affluent middle-class American value system appears to be great. The basic cry for a spiritual renewal, however, is the same in character. It is the tension of credibility between salvation to have and salvation to be; between an institutional church to belong to, or a fellowship of the redeemed community; between a life of security in the benefits of salvation or the self-denying cross of discipleship. The basic spiritual crisis THEN and NOW is the same even though the cultural context is different.

Each generation must reinterpret the unchangeable principles in its own existential context. The issues of the 1860s were the tensions of credibility between tradition, faith, life and the Scriptures. The identity crisis of today finds its roots in the same issues; however, we must speak to a setting much different from that of one hundred years ago. In the 1860s the struggle was within the cultural capsule of authoritarian traditionalism; today it lies in a setting of cultural syncretism and a relativism of values and faith. “What is good for me now is good; let me do my own thing and you do yours because there are no absolutes,” 14 is frequently the slogan for attitude and practice. What is our authority? Does it lie in Scripture or in traditions and institutions? Is it shaped by the prevailing cultural value systems or by a New Testament Community of the redeemed? This was the central issue of the 1860s and it is the central issue now. “Upon the pivot of authority turns the concept of the church mission” 15 and of its understanding of life and purpose. Authoritarianism without the process of reinterpreting the implications of the absolutes within the context of a changing culture results in formalism, legalism, or permissive liberalism.

RECORD OF NEGLECT

We know that the frame of reference that establishes a consciousness of identity must relate the past to the present and future. But we must also admit the absence of historical emphasis in our past program of research, writing, publication, and instruction. The limited access for the study of and instruction in our historical faith, character, and mission as a Mennonite Brethren Church is reflected in the absence of books and other materials available to our Colleges, Bible Institutes, Christian high schools, church schools, Sunday schools, and members in the Mennonite Brethren fellowship. Histories of the Mennonite Brethren Church (most of them written in German) are of a documentary character and never became a source of general information for people in our schools and churches. Interest in historical materials and historical archives was possessed by a few, isolated people. It is painful to acknowledge that after one hundred years from the time that our first Mennonite Brethren came to America, we have not yet produced a popular text which could be {198} used in our educational institutions and churches to learn about the spiritual struggles, character, and work of the Mennonite Brethren fellowship. The one history on Mennonite Brethren missions (now out in print), written as a doctoral dissertation by G. W. Peters, covers only the time up to 1945. As a missionary agency which has assumed responsibility for the spreading of the gospel unto the ends of the world, we have forgotten the exhortation recorded in Psalm 78:5-8 which is a basic instruction of God to his people in the Old Testament and reads as follows:

“For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should teach them to their children, that the generations to come might know even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments, and not be like their fathers a stubborn rebellious generation, a generation that did not prepare its heart and whose spirit was not faithful to God.”

A redeemed community committed to the salvation of the world which neglects its own historical rooting and which neglects the continuing orientation of its character and faith to the changing present must invariably end by losing its identity. The tensions of an identity-crisis within the brotherhood have emerged from this neglect. Lamentation concerning the neglect, however, brings no solution. Understanding the cause of our predicament is reason enough to act to recapture that which made the Mennonite Brethren Church an instrument of God, greatly used in the spiritual renewal of the larger Mennonite community and in evangelism unto the ends of the world.

THE ASSIGNMENT BEFORE US

The appointment of the Board of Christian Literature by the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches in 1963 was the first sign that we recognized the responsibility to produce literature related to the faith, life, and work of our fellowship. The first comprehensive history of the Mennonite Brethren Church in America in the English language, written by J. A. Toews, (not discounting the documentary volume of John H. Lohrenz) is on the press as a result of the effort of this Board. For the first time after one hundred years, our younger generation will have access to the story of God’s working in the life of the church of which they are a vital part.

The appointment of the Historical Commission at the Conference at Vancouver, B.C., in July 1969 was a further step to assign responsibility to make known the workings of God through the life and work of the Mennonite Brethren Church. The record of this witness, contained in the historical materials of the local church, the District and Provincial Conferences, and the General Conference, is being discovered in forgotten file drawers, in the attics of old buildings, in dusty basements of churches, and in closets of private homes. What God has done in the past is becoming a confirming evidence of His purpose in the life of the Mennonite Brethren Church {199} and must be told so that we today and the generations to come might know what God has done through the struggle, pain, suffering, labor, and faith of our fathers. Only in knowing the past can we evaluate the assignment of the present and see our divine assignment for the future. George Eliot coined the statement “I desire no future that will break the ties of the past.” 16 And Confucious spoke wisely when he said, “study the past if you would divine the future.” 17 To his statement we may add also the words of Theodore Parker, “all reverence for the past is just in proportion to our ignorance of it.” 18

The ignorance concerning the past in our brotherhood is to be replaced by a vital recognition of the victories and failures, the glory and the shame, the toil, the sacrifice, and the dedication—and also our neglects—that we may know our pathway for the now and the tomorrow.

A survey directed by the Historical Commission of the Conference is to establish the historical resources available in our brotherhood. The Historical Commission is preparing a proposal for presentation to the brotherhood that provides three central depositories where the historical materials of our fellowship can be preserved and become available for research and writing, thus disseminating the values of our past, showing us how the scriptures have been understood and how these understandings have received practical application in the light of each new present.

The Institute for Mennonite Brethren Studies, to be closely related to our Seminary and Colleges, is to serve as one of the important centers of research and study.

The Historical Commission has the assignment to coordinate programs of research and writing in order to provide to our younger generation a door to know the past and to understand the present, and to help us all to understand the responsibilities in the context of that which was and is and is to come.

Our question “Who are we?” must find its answer in a serious consideration of these basic tensions: the authority of Scripture in the light of the absolutism of the past and relativism of the present; the institutionalization of the church in contrast to the caring community of the redeemed fellowship; the concept of salvation as security in contrast to a commitment to faith which finds expression in a life of New Testament discipleship; the urgency of evangelism to call people to accept Christ as their only hope for salvation and the cry for social ministries to a suffering world; the individualism of a secular culture in contrast to the interresponsibility of fellow brethren; and the independence of the local congregation in contrast to the principle of interdependence within the larger brotherhood. The tensions of the “Now” were the tensions of the “Then.” Let us relate the two to find the answer for our assignment for the present and our calling for the future. {200}

FOOTNOTES

  1. 1954 Yearbook of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, pp. 10-15.
  2. Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 10, 1972.
  3. Ibid., February 22, 1974.
  4. Alvin C. Porteous, The Search for Christian Credibility, Abingdon Press, 1971, p. 21.
  5. Ibid., p. 22.
  6. Jurgen Moltman, Theology of Hope, Harper and Row, 1967, pp. 35-36. Cited in Porteous, Ibid., pp. 22-23.
  7. Inscription at the National Archive Building, Washington D.C.
  8. Inscription at the Concordia Historical Institute: 801 De Mun Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri.
  9. J. A. Toews, M.B. Herald, March 10, 1972.
  10. Ibid.
  11. P. M. Friesen, Alt-Evangelische Bruderschaft in Russland (1789-1910), pp. 189-192.
  12. Jacob P. Bekker, Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church, English Translation, Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Mid-West, Hillsboro, Kansas, pp. 48-66
  13. Bible, R.S.V., Luke 9:23-24.
  14. Maurice C. Boilatt, “A Canadian Hope in Christian Perspective,” Christian Heritage, April 1974, p. 14.
  15. Ibid., p. 13.
  16. Tyron Edwards, The New Dictionary of Thought, 1931, Britkin Publishing Co., p. 451.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
J. B. Toews, former President of the M.B. Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, is Executive Secretary of the M.B. Historical Commission.

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