New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology
ed. Abe Dueck, Helmut Harder, and Karl Koop. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2010. 328 pages.
This volume is comprised of seventeen of the presentations given at the sixteenth Believers Church conference held in Winnipeg in June 2008 of which the theme was “Congregationalism, Denominationalism, and the Body of Christ.” While the “Believers Church” family extends beyond the Anabaptist-Mennonite world, the large majority of the chapters stem from writers of various Anabaptist denominations. As could be expected, the various authors represent different disciplines, contexts and enter into conversation with a wide range of positions.
Given the title of this collective endeavor, one could ask what is “new” about these perspectives other than the fact that they are recent. One way to answer this query is to notice the identity of the conversation partners and the kinds of questions being asked. The historical and sociological contexts of North American Anabaptist Believers Churches have obviously shifted since the movement consciously began in 1967. At that point, under the inspiration of theologians such as Donald Durnbaugh and John Howard Yoder, Believers Churches were attempting to discover and consolidate an ecclesial identity within the larger Christian family, a process that often involves describing differences rather than commonalities. In the meantime, there have been more conscious attempts at ecumenicity and shifts in identity in other parts of the larger Christian family, be they ecumenical, Catholic or evangelical. One of the main themes that comes through clearly in the various chapters is the idea that there is a Believers Church ecclesiology that can both contribute to and receive from other ecclesial traditions.
Several case studies examine weaknesses and strengths of local or denominational contexts. Fernando Enns places his contributions in the context of attempts within the World Council of Churches to further ecclesiological agreement among member churches. Karl Koop insists on the necessity of a “catholic” lens when talking about ecclesiology. Several chapters remind us of what is happening in the Evangelical world and how Anabaptists have contributed to and can learn from various movements including the “Emergent Church.” A final chapter recognizes the fundamental shift of Christianity from North to South, insisting that Believers Churches must be a part of future conversations on the nature of the church outside of North America and Europe.
Would it be claiming too much to say that Believers Churches are learning to be more self-assured about their own identities, which also allows them to be more self-critical and to learn more easily from others? For example, Koop wonders if the notion of the “restitution of the apostolic church” is “still theologically sustainable or tenable.” A new context generates a new question: “restitution” was a polemical notion against “constantinianism” and a useful tool in forming a Believers Church ecclesiology from the sixteenth century onward. Now that most Western churches are no longer “official” churches, now that Believers Churches are more aware of their own problems across generations, the idea of “restitution” no longer has the same meaning. We have become more open to the experiences of other churches across the generations and centuries, while they have begun to notice our capacity to live as a minority without political or institutional underpinning. The shift in context changes the conversation and allows new questions to be asked.
Several chapters raise major theological issues, such as the importance of a Trinitarian foundation for understanding the church, or the importance of rethinking Believers Church perspectives on the Supper and Baptism. Does our own particularity mean that we need to reject the theological categories of others? Most authors seem to think not. Brian Hamilton’s rereading of Michael Sattler demonstrates that taking fundamental theological questions seriously (in this case the relationship between the “person of Christ” and the “being” of the church) does not weaken Believers Church concerns about ethics and discipleship, but rather reinforces them and helps to steer clear of some of the built-in weaknesses of our traditions.
Because of the differences between disciplines and their ever-expanding bibliographies that no one can master, one advantage of bringing together such essays can be to help authors and readers to discover how similar questions are dealt with by others. For example, Gordon Zerbe suggests that the “ekklesia that now exists” is a “mere proleptic or vanguard expression of what must obtain ultimately through God’s ongoing love story with all creation” (p. 32). Other theologians such as Miroslav Volf who are interested in ecclesiology and ecumenism have dealt with this same theme elsewhere. Several authors in this volume refer to Volf’s important work, and even if exegetes and theologians don’t always read each other, at least their work is sometimes brought side by side through efforts such as this book.
Perhaps the weakness of this book (so many different contexts, disciplines, conversation partners and approaches) is also its strength. A more systematic approach would in any case need to take into account the wide range of issues dealt with in the various chapters. The inclusion of different disciplinary approaches within the context of European and North American Believers Church questions along with the final reminder of the global church reminds us of how complex the ecclesiological question has become and that we ignore it at our own peril.