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Fall 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 2 · pp. 220–32 

A Direction Lens on the Mennonite Brethren

Eliza Mok

The articles in Direction journal over the past thirty years reveal an emphasis on the Bible and a continual effort to inform readers of Anabaptist-Mennonite Brethren theology and history. There are also frequent discussions in areas related to Anabaptist distinctives, such as ethics, mission, evangelism, conversion, and mutual service.

Delbert Wiens, in “The Questions We Face,” published in the first issue of the journal (January 1972), summarized crucial questions that needed to be addressed. Besides questions concerning the practice of faith, the summary includes items such as the interpretation of Scripture, theological trends among Mennonites, denominational distinctives, the justification of the Mennonite Brethren denominational identity, and the identity of Mennonite Brethren (MB).

Mennonite Brethren theology and historical practices have considerable strengths, but there are also weaknesses which cause me some uneasiness.

Scholars have written regularly concerning Anabaptism in the past thirty years and have suggested ways to “draw a boundary around the diverse pieces of the Anabaptist tradition” 1 and to unite churches. 2 Discussions and arguments on issues such as education, church growth, structure, and Confession of Faith are often made with reference to the appropriate expression of Anabaptist distinctives. Nevertheless, the reprinting of “The Questions We Face” in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of the journal (spring 1997) hints that many of the previous questions are yet unanswered. {221}

ISSUES NEEDING ATTENTION

The following four issues have been selected for discussion, not because they have attracted most attention, but because they significantly affect the unity and development of the church and so are worth our deliberation.

Mennonite Brethren Identity

The struggle of identity seems to have occurred since the coherence of the German-Russian ethnic-religious group was threatened by changes in North American society and the influx of various Protestant doctrines. Internal and external changes led to diversity in theology, ethnicity, and church practices. Despite voices calling for a return to Anabaptist roots, the church continues to diversify and more members are ignorant of the meaning of being a Mennonite Brethren. Lynn Jost said in 1998 that “a complete consensus about theological questions is no more among us,” and he thought that the outcome of the revised Confession of Faith would show that “MBs can agree theologically about a great deal.” 3 The 1999 revision of the Confession is now the only expressed commonality among all members. However, is a mere agreement to the Confession of Faith adequate to define the identity of the Mennonite Brethren?

The introduction of the Confession of Faith states that Mennonite Brethren are Anabaptists rooted in the sixteenth-century Reformation and hold Menno Simons’ perspective that Jesus Christ is the foundation of faith. The Confession contains all the essential elements of the Anabaptist faith, but previous emphases, such as repentance, authentic conversion and its resultant fruits, and obedience to Christ, which reflect basic Anabaptist theology, have been reduced or substituted with lighter words, 4 perhaps to suit the “diversifying church.” 5 Unless leaders of the local churches have thoroughly understood Anabaptist theology, appreciated its significance, and made an effort to encourage the expression of Anabaptist distinctives in their churches, members can hardly understand the meaning or appreciate the preciousness of being Mennonite Brethren. Such an appreciation, on the other hand, would be an asset for building unified and committed communities.

To help members on the identity issue, I suggest the following: first, offer history and theology courses both to pastors and to lay leaders, and implement as soon as possible the 1999 Conference recommendation to have new pastors complete specific Anabaptist courses; 6 second, encourage churches to teach simplified history and theology courses to their members; third, encourage introductions to and active discussions of Anabaptist history, theology, polity, and church practices in the {222} Mennonite Brethren Herald and the Christian Leader rather than solely in Direction journal; fourth, circulate and promote Anabaptist videos among the churches; and fifth, ensure that all members have a copy of the Confession of Faith.

Weakening Denominational Loyalty

Mennonite Brethren Mission and Service (MBMS) International carried out a survey on five thousand North American MB church members and pastors in spring 2000. The report of this survey points out that there is a “continued weakening of denominational identity as a perceived asset,” a “dilution of automatic loyalty to denominational agencies,” and a rise in expectations of service rather than support. 7 Already in 1982 Marvin Hein believed that “a growing spirit of independence threatened the cohesiveness of Mennonite Brethren churches.” 8 In 1991 he and Herb Neufeld were of the opinion that “persuading people that the conference is prior to the local church will be difficult.” 9

Scholars have noticed that churches are moving toward local autonomy as they follow the individualistic trend of the society around them. Some leaders have called for a return to a more biblical corporate faith; 10 others have worked to strengthen the relationship between denominational agencies and local churches. 11 I agree with the view that the mainstream independent style of life has moved churches away from the Conference, but I think the following also contributed to increased alienation. First, the allowance of complete autonomy eliminates any need of periodic communication between the conference and local churches. The humble position of the denomination merely to serve like a parachurch lacks the initiative and power to keep churches together. 12 Second, the weakening understanding and treasuring of Mennonite Brethren identity by the local churches dilute their interest and loyalty to the denomination. Third, there is inadequate staff to coordinate and share with pastors and church members. Especially is this true of those coming from non-MB background including various cultural groups and those in newly-planted churches.

To strengthen denominational loyalty and encourage a sense of belonging, there is a need, first of all, for leaders of the various conferences and churches to be aware of the urgency and seriousness of the issue and to develop a vision regarding it at all levels. 13 The report of the MBMS International survey is an alarm that should be brought to the attention of all leaders. A study conference focusing on the denomination may be a good way to begin. Second, previous plans to strengthen Mennonite Brethren identity need to be carried through. National {223} and local conferences need to take initiative to plan and work in this area. Third, scholars and leaders have to write more frequently in the Mennonite Brethren Herald or the Christian Leader regarding the importance and necessity of corporate faith. Fourth, different denominational agencies need to work together to ensure efficient use of resources and effective communication. It is encouraging to see a copy of Witness, the MBMS International magazine, enclosed in a recent edition of Mennonite Brethren Herald. 14 A similar joint effort with the district conferences is desirable, as it helps to strengthen the relationship between the denomination and local churches. Finally, the various conference or denominational agencies may invite volunteer workers from different churches to join them in various tasks of coordination or promotion of plans and projects. I agree that it is a difficult task to go against the mainstream culture of individualism; however, it is not impossible if Mennonite Brethren leadership is willing to put extra effort in this area.

Ethnicity in Relation to Evangelism

The continual effort of Mennonite Brethren to plant churches among different cultural groups requires attention to some problems in this area. Back in 1988, Paul G. Hiebert had recognized the “critical tension between evangelizing other ethnic communities around (the Mennonite Brethren) and maintaining their own corporate identity.” 15 He analyzed the tension between the mother and ethnic daughter churches and pointed out that it was important to prepare the conference and Mennonite Brethren congregations for future inter-ethnic fellowship. 16 He also emphasized the need for churches to be based on a theological rather than an ethnic identity, and for leaders to help Christians mature by making Christianity their most fundamental identity. 17

I appreciate Hiebert’s insight in this area, but I am afraid his voice has not been adequately heard. Mennonite Brethren have worked hard to evangelize different cultural groups and helped some to build their churches, but in their good will to respect autonomy and others’ cultures, they have not helped these new churches understand the danger of ethnocentrism and the importance of integrating into the larger “family” of Mennonite Brethren. 18 The previous experience of Mennonites in the struggle of transition, their familiarity with Canadian society, and their resources for ministry are especially precious to new churches consisting of first- and second-generation immigrants.

I would like to affirm Paul Hiebert’s counsel to keep Mennonite Brethren informed of church planting in ethnic groups, to build bridges of fellowship with them, and to restructure the conference to give these {224} leaders both voice and power. 19 I also make the following proposals. First, church planters and new pastors for ethnic churches should complete courses in Anabaptism and understand their responsibility to build Anabaptist churches. Second, the denomination needs to thoroughly understand the theology of the new church planters and pastors and their thoughts about Anabaptism. Third, the Confession of Faith should be translated into the languages of the new churches. Fourth, it is important to invite volunteers from new churches as early as possible to help translate conference news and to do coordination work. Fifth, a relationship can be built with the English-speaking second generation of these churches by providing them advice and resources. After all, continual communication and concern are needed to help the new ethnic churches grow and become true Anabaptists.

The Ordination of Women

It is surprising that discussions on the gender issue have not been active in Direction journal, especially in recent years. 20 Saundra Plett confirmed in 1980 that “Mennonite Brethren are among the most conservative of the five Mennonite groups included in [her] research.” 21 There have been changes in the twenty years since her report, and Mennonite Brethren churches today are urged by the General Conference to affirm women for ministries in all decision making and leading tasks except that they cannot be ordained and lead as senior pastors.

This article is not the place to express my personal position on the gender issue, but I am puzzled that Mennonite Brethren local churches are restricted in regard to the placement of women in positions of senior pastoral leadership even though a statement on the role of women is not part of the Confession of Faith. 22 Compared to the generosity allowing a large diversity of theological stances—including even the basic peace stance which was once worth dying for—and allowing pastors of other doctrinal backgrounds to lead in their own ways, it is not difficult to see an inconsistency in this matter.

Issues regarding women in leadership were discussed and voted on in the General MB Conference Conventions of 1981, 1987, 1993, and 1999; yet it is amazing that despite the presence of “a great deal of unclarity concerning the meaning and function of ordination” 23 and the inconsistency between the senior pastor model with the heritage of multiple leadership, Mennonite Brethren scholars and leaders have been reluctant to make more studies and discussions in this area in order to encourage a “reconsideration and revitalization of our whole understanding of ordination and of ministry.” 24 {225}

Such an attitude is not beneficial or healthy for the church. In fact, the current position, which encourages women in all leadership roles except one, is considered illogical and inconsistent by many. Two surveys carried out in 1995 revealed little increase in women’s leadership during the previous sixteen years. However, the surveys focused only on the number without understanding the cause of the phenomenon. 25 Both conference leaders and periodical editors should continue to invite study and discussion on the gender issue so that Mennonite Brethren can have “a much more reflective and consistent approach to the Bible,” “a renewed love for each other,” and an increasingly effective ministry in the church. 26

REFLECTIONS

Studying Anabaptist-Mennonite Brethren history is an ambivalent experience for me. On the one hand, it helps me to know the origin and story of the denomination to which I currently belong and which I appreciate. On the other, there are some notable doctrinal differences between the Mennonite tradition and those of my Chinese church heritage. The possible loss of one’s salvation, for example, contradicts the general belief in eternal security among the Chinese churches. I sometimes wonder how these churches, which support a Calvinistic theology of predestination and preservation and a Presbyterian style of organization, could have joined the Mennonite Brethren family.

While it seems that this type of diversification is considered acceptable in today’s Mennonite Brethren Church, it is striking to read David Ewert’s words written almost twenty years ago. He noted that unity was an important issue for all Christians, yet “since we belong to the North American Conference of Mennonite Brethren, the unity of these churches concerns us most at the moment.” He continued, “All of us . . . have to decide which church we want to identify with in doctrine, practice, and mission.” He considered loyalty to one’s denomination important, and pointed out some inappropriate examples of diversity that still exist in certain ways in our churches. 27

I agree that a denomination is more than just a loose connection of diversified local churches for the purpose of support. It is hard to understand how members of these congregations can develop a sense of loyalty toward the denomination and of unity with other Mennonite Brethren churches. Yet, rather than attributing the problem to personal integrity, I prefer to understand the situation as a “misunderstanding.”

I am still learning what it means to be Mennonite Brethren in a minority ethnic group in North America. Since most of today’s first {226} generation immigrants understand English, I wonder if cultural difference is a good enough reason to organize according to ethnic group, and whether such groups should be encouraged to associate only with churches that speak their native language. I also wonder how a minority ethnic church can be a true “local” church without being considered “international” (i.e., somewhat foreign), and how its English-speaking second generation can be helped to develop a strong sense of belonging.

Mennonite Brethren theology and historical practices have considerable strengths, but there are also weaknesses which cause me some uneasiness. I had a hard time struggling with them as I came to learn about them, and am still unsure whether I want to remain Mennonite Brethren despite my support of Anabaptism. Being a female within an ethnic minority group, there are already enough barriers to overcome to lead effectively in the church. Perhaps God will make clear to me that I should continue to bear the Mennonite Brethren name. But I may otherwise be reluctant to do so if remaining MB does not help to release but rather increases my difficulties.

SUBJECT ANALYSIS OF DIRECTION JOURNAL, JANUARY 1972 TO SPRING 2002

In conclusion, I offer some brief comments on topics addressed by Direction journal since its inception based on the Subject Index located on Direction’s web site (www.directionjournal.org). This evaluation may be compared to the more detailed analysis a decade ago by Richard Thiessen, “A Bibliometric Study of Direction,” Direction 21 (spring 1992): 83-93. Direction was first published as a quarterly journal in January 1972 and was released semiannually beginning in 1983. From October 1978, most articles in each issue focused on a theme assigned by Direction’s Editorial Council. The presence of a theme no doubt placed some constraints upon the contribution of each author.

From 1972 through spring 2002, Direction published 731 articles (in addition to book reviews). Most articles have been tagged by more than one subject category, with an overall average of about two per article. Since approximately one fourth of the articles have only one tag (e.g., editorials, faculty research), those tagged more than once have an average more like three subjects per article. Care is thus necessary when comparing the number of articles in one category with those in another. For example, it would be incorrect to conclude that Direction has published nine times as many articles on biblical studies (OT + NT = 105) than articles on Peace/Justice/Nonresistance (twelve) because some of the latter articles are also tagged for biblical studies. The {227} location for each article on Direction’s web site (currently issues from 1990 to the present) displays the subject tags at the top of that web page.

Here are some comments concerning the data displayed on the accompanying chart:

(1) Categories with more than fifty articles include Mennonite Brethren Church History, Biblical and Systematic Theology, Ethics, and two of the Bible subgroups. This demonstrates the emphasis of Mennonite Brethren on the Word, upon practical faith, and on the priority effort to remind readers of their historical roots. The high number of articles in these areas may also reflect the strong interest of MB scholars in these areas of research. The Church category probably gains a high position due to its broad coverage, and its generality makes it difficult to tell which issues are of most concern. Although some of the subject tags may apply to the same articles, the numbers indicate that approximately two-thirds of Direction articles are concerned with these issues.

(2) The next twelve categories with less than fifty articles are written from the earliest days of the journal in the 1970s yet also extend until the present day. These topics reflect the practical issues of concern to scholars/leaders and their effort in keeping the denomination in the right direction according to Anabaptist theology and hermeneutics. The frequent discussions of ethical issues indicate the need to continually help Mennonite Brethren live a holy life in the world in regard to lifestyle, peacemaking, and faith in the market place. Leadership is considered important, and discussions regarding education have been numerous, especially if all Christian and Religious Education categories are considered together. Mission, Contemporary Thought, Evangelism/Conversion, and Church Growth are areas that reflect the Mennonite Brethren emphasis on the expansion of the kingdom and its connection with contemporary issues. Ministry and the Minister along with Preaching (note Worship just below it) indicates the ongoing concern for church leadership.

(3) Discussions on Ethnicity, Environment, and Other Faiths/Cults began at a later time than most other categories, while topics that reflect concerns of the early Mennonite Brethren immigrants, like Economics and Politics/State, have not been discussed since the mid-80s and early 90s. Changes in society and the church have brought attention to new issues but less to the ones that were previously controversial. It is surprising that discussions regarding Marriage and the Family have not been kept up in the previous seven years.

(4) Issues attracting low attention may be due to the {228} of the particular category, but it is interesting that not much has been written on the End Times (only five articles), an area in which there were sometimes problematic doctrines in Mennonite history, and on Spirituality (ten), which is of importance to the Christian life. Ministry items on Youth (seventeen), Women in the Church (twenty), as well as issues on Peace/Justice/Nonresistance (twelve) also do not seem to be particularly popular. {229}

This essay is a slightly revised version of a paper originally submitted to Prof. Bruce L. Guenther for a course entitled “Anabaptist/Mennonite Brethren Studies.” The course is offered annually by Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, British Columbia campus, and explores a combination of historical, theological, and polity issues as they relate to the Mennonite Brethren experience. The assignment asks students to browse and selectively read through a complete set of Direction (starting in 1972). While browsing, they are to note the more prominent issues that have engaged the leaders of the Mennonite Brethren during the past approximately thirty years. From this perusal they must select what they consider to be four of the most pressing issues that the Mennonite Brethren church faces today, and write a short paper in which they outline suggestions for the way forward on each of these issues.

Articles and Subjects in Direction from 1972 to Spring 2002

{230}

NOTES

  1. For example, Frances F. Hiebert suggested a Christ-centered Anabaptist distinctive. See Frances F. Hiebert, “Apples, Oranges, Anabaptists, and Mennonite Brethren,” Direction 11 (July 1982): 3-11.
  2. David Ewert suggested unity in diversity; David Ewert, “Can We Have Diversity with Unity?” Direction 11 (July 1982): 20-28.
  3. Lynn Jost, “Reflections on Confession of Faith Revision,” Direction 27 (spring 1998): 57.
  4. The 1902 Confession of Faith contains these words on repentance and conversion: “he receives repentance unto life, to see his sin, repent of it, confess and forsake it” (p. 14); “The Church of Christ is composed of all that through true faith in Christ (p. 19) . . . the true Church are the fruits of conversion and of the right faith in Jesus Christ” (p. 20); found in J. B. Toews, A Pilgrimage of Faith (Winnipeg, MB, and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1993), 31, 40, quoting from Confession of Faith of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, American Edition (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1917), 14, 19, 20. In the 1999 Confession, people are saved when they “turn from sin, entrust their lives to God, confess Jesus Christ as Lord,” and the church is “the people called by God through Jesus Christ . . . who respond in faith. . . . Church members commit themselves to follow Christ in a life of discipleship” in Confession of Faith of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (Winnipeg, MB, and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1999; third printing, Nov. 1999), 12. Abraham Friesen considers the omission of references to Menno and of an emphasis on following Christ’s teachings as integral to the Great Commission (both of which may be found in the 1902 version) to reveal inadequacies in the 1975 Confession as well as that of 1999. See Abraham Friesen, “An Anabaptist/Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith,” Direction 27 (spring 1998): 26-27.
  5. Jost (p. 59) says that the Confession is a unifying confession for a diversifying church.
  6. A recommendation was accepted in the General MB Conference Convention of 1999 that full-time pastors who have not studied at an MB institution are to complete approved course work in MB history, theology, and polity within two years of their appointment. Implementation of the recommendation, which was the duty of the provincial and district licensing boards, is yet to be made. See {231} Carmen Andres, “Revised Confession Embraced by Delegates,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 6 August 1999, 9.
  7. According to Harold Ens, ed., “. . . What You Told Us,” Witness (January-April 2001): 7, MBMS International hired a private consulting firm, Ken MacLeod and Associates Inc., to survey three thousand Canadian and two thousand American MB church members and pastors to find out how Mennonite Brethren feel and think about faith, global mission, and the role of MBMS International.
  8. Marvin Hein, “Retrieving the Conference ‘Glue,’ ” Direction 11 (July 1982): 12.
  9. Marvin Hein and Herb Neufeld, “Two Responses to J. B. Toews,” Direction 20 (fall 1991): 114.
  10. Ibid., 17.
  11. Taking the survey report seriously, MBMS International has begun steps to “strengthen, reconceptualize, and fully resource the constituency relations portion of its work.” See Ens, 11.
  12. David Wiebe, Executive Director of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches, said in his presentation regarding denomination on May 3, 2001, in the Anabaptist History class of Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS), Langley, BC, that denominations serve like a parachurch and have to earn the right to serve. While commending the humble attitude of the Conference, I am astonished that encouragement of unity is not considered as its prime responsibility. Isaac Block stated in 1991 that the conference’s (which conference?) vision statement included a vision for structural coherence and placed such responsibility on the pastors. I believe some work on unity needs to be initiated by all the conferences. See Isaac Block, “Two Responses to James Nikkel, Church Growth Leadership Theory and Mennonite Brethren Theology,” Direction 20 (fall 1991): 99.
  13. As a member belonging to one of the ethnic Chinese churches, I understand that some of our leaders consider the denomination a “wealthy” organization that provides help and support to local churches. By submitting a membership fee, we think we have fulfilled our responsibility; yet we often submit less than what we should. Our main focus of work and missionary support is the Chinese community and missionaries. We are thankful for MB help in our initial church establishment, but we really do not know the Mennonite Brethren very well. As a result, we do not see much difference between MBs and the Alliance, Evangelical Free, or Baptist churches. {232}
  14. Mennonite Brethren Herald, 12 July 2002.
  15. Paul G. Hiebert, “Ethnicity and Evangelism in the Mennonite Brethren Church,” Direction 17 (spring 1988): 87.
  16. Ibid., 95.
  17. Ibid., 100.
  18. Donald R. Jacobs, “Ethnicity: Friend or Foe?” Direction 28 (spring 1999): 63.
  19. Paul G. Hiebert, 95-96.
  20. There were six articles during the 1970s. A special theme on women invited six more in 1980. There were only three in the next ten years from 1981 to 1990. Four came in 1995 and only one in 2000.
  21. Data was collected in a survey carried out in the early 1970s. See Saundra Plett, “Attitudes Toward Women as Reflected in Mennonite Brethren Periodicals,” Direction 9 (January 1980): 22.
  22. According to Carmen Andres (p. 9), “In 1993, the Board of Faith and Life (BFL) proposed a resolution ‘to allow for diversity of conviction and practice in appointment of women to pastoral leadership,’ but the delegates did not accept the resolution.” The General Conference of 1999 passed a resolution brought by BFL to “clarify” the position of the General Conference regarding women in leadership. The resolution “encouraged women ‘to minister in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate’ and to ‘exercise leadership on Conference boards, in pastoral staff positions and in our congregations, institutions, and agencies’ ” (Ibid.).
  23. Timothy J. Geddert, “The Ministry of Women: A Proposal for Mennonite Brethren,” Direction 18 (fall 1989): 71.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Connie Faber, “A New Look at Women in Ministry,” Mennonite Brethren Herald 26 September 1997, 16.
  26. Geddert, 71.
  27. Ewert, 22-23; quotations are from p. 22. For example, Ewert says, “when a church becomes ‘presbyterian’ (rule by elders) rather than ‘congregational,’ then we have a departure from our Mennonite Brethren understanding of the church, and that makes for disunity” (23). I question whether a church should be considered genuinely congregational if that congregation is neither encouraged nor led in a process of decision making.
Eliza Mok is a student in the M.Div. program of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary BC—which has been a member of the Associated Canadian Theological School (ACTS) in Langley, British Columbia since 1999. She is a member of the Richmond Chinese MB Church.

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