Previous | Next

Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 200–207 

Mennonite Brethren and Charismatic Renewal Movements

Jon Isaak

As I have opportunity to speak about God’s work among Mennonite Brethren—their history and theology—I continue to be amazed by this 155-year-old story, a story that remains surprisingly relevant. 1 In this essay on Mennonite Brethren (MBs) and their relationship to Spirit-led charismatic movements, I have four observations, three challenges, and three suggestions.

Movements that claim to be Spirit-led are, surprisingly, predisposed to increased rigidity.

The Mennonite Brethren story—from birth to the present—is the story of a renewal movement within the larger Mennonite tradition. As such, MBs have often self-identified as a Spirit-led church, reaching outward to the watching world with Jesus’s good news of God’s salvation, deliverance, and healing.

Because of their history, MBs can be thought of as a “blended family,” one that merges the Mennonite vision together with two particular evangelical visions, those of the German Baptists and the more charismatic-oriented Lutheran Pietists. 2

What is the evidence? How do I get to this description of MBs as a blended family, combining the Mennonite story with that of the German Baptists and charismatic Lutheran Pietists? {201}

FOUR OBSERVATIONS ON MENNONITE BRETHREN HISTORY

1. Mennonite with mostly Baptist structure. After 1860, during the first years, MBs were known as “jumpers” for their exuberant expressions of song, dance, and emotion during worship times. A few key leaders brought several experiential charismatic practices into the Russian Mennonite communities.

After five years, however, the German Baptist preacher, August Liebig, was invited to resource the MBs and introduce “organizational order” to the fledgling MB movement that still carried the traditional Mennonite Aeltester or bishop structure. 3

In addition to immersion baptism, several Baptist structures were added to the MB renewal movement:

  • annual conventions, with delegates representing congregations
  • conference structure, with committees, commissions, and parliamentary procedures for processing resolutions
  • focus on mission and evangelism, with ear marked funding and budgetary priority

These adopted institutions, structures, and priorities—still distinctive markers of the MB church—led some to say that “MB” meant “Mostly Baptist.”

2. Mennonite with emphasis on charismatic personal piety. The MB renewal movement adopted several charismatic features, as did other nineteenth-century Protestant denominations that were shaped by Lutheran pietistic reforms. The emphases were: personal conversion experience, personal devotional Bible study, personal assurance of salvation, personal walk with Jesus, personal discernment of the Spirit’s leading—the key words here are “personal” and “experiential.”

I’m using small “c” charismatic as a term for the personal and experiential spirituality of Lutheran pietism that shaped MBs from the start through to today. 4

There was steady traffic from Russia to Germany to learn new evangelistic methods—tent meetings, altar-call preaching, Bible school curriculum, prayer meetings, dispensational prophecy charts, gospel-revivalist songs, and more. Leaders brought these “charismatic” practices back to the Russian villages and then to the Americas with enthusiasm.

Because the MB Church blended three theologies—Mennonite, charismatic, and Baptist—MBs resisted writing a definitive “theology” for themselves. The early MB leaders realized that since theirs was a merger of three distinct theologies, not one of the theologies could be pressed for ultimate clarity, alignment, or precision. If any of the three did so, it was sure to offend at least one of the other two. {202}

Besides “blended family,” another image that some use to describe MBs theologically is a “three-legged stool.” 5 The image is useful because it communicates well. If one leg dominates (too long) or if one is dismissed (too short), the stool is lopsided and doesn’t sit quite right. As a blended family, each of the “parental” voices is present in some way—Mennonite, charismatic, and Baptist. To silence one or other, is to do damage to the “family system.”

This is why MBs have chosen to write confessions of faith and uphold the Bible as the final arbiter or referee. Consider these examples:

  • MBs confessed that God is sovereign, but their confession did not delineate exactly God’s sovereignty in relation to human freedom.
  • They confessed that Jesus’s work on the cross saves, but their confession did not spell out which theological atonement model is essential to MB theology.
  • They confessed the glorious hope of Jesus’s return to judge at the end of time, but their confession did not insist on a particular dispensational or millennial theology, a particular understanding of the state of Israel, a particular understanding of the post-mortem reality, and so on.

For MBs, these additional details were the domain of theology, not confession. When pressed for precision, the classic MB response would be, “What does the Bible say?”

The moderating speech from leading MB voices was usually strong enough to calm tensions if disputes flared up between advocates of particular theologies, pointing out the merits of sticking with the Bible and not getting drawn into naming one or another theological interpretation of the Bible—whether Mennonite, charismatic, or Baptist—as the one that speaks for the whole MB movement. It may be that the period has passed where the “moderating” voices of Conference leaders carried such adjudicating authority. We are now in a new era, one where the rules of engagement are different. I say more about this later.

In addition, the “blended family” status explains why many from different Christian traditions have found a church home among MBs. The fact that MBs have historically not pressed for complete theological alignment makes them a very hospitable option.

This is not because MBs are so smart, but simply because it would be impossible to achieve complete theological alignment without doing damage to someone in the “family.” Such theological hospitality also helps to explain why there are now some fifteen denominations accessing assessment and coaching from C2C, the MB church planting network. {203}

3. Mennonite with mission mindset. Russian MBs partnered with the Baptist missionary movement as they ventured into a new area for them, foreign missions. In both India and Congo, the first MB missionaries affiliated with Baptist groups until MB organizations could get their own mission stations started.

They shared an affinity with the German Baptists in language and discipleship theology, making collaboration relatively easy. Congregations supported the mission efforts with fund raising, quilting and sewing circles, special conferences, harvest festivals, and more. The mission emphasis of MBs continues today.

4. Mennonite with church-planting priority. In Canada, MBs faced the same challenges as all immigrant faith communities: namely, language preservation and ethnocentrism. The first immigrant groups struggled with how much to assimilate into Canadian society. Many felt that it was fine for the foreign missionaries to learn other languages, but the language of worship in Canada should be German. This was the general sentiment until the 1960s. 6

  • The role of radio and TV enabled MBs to reach out to an English-speaking Canadian context and to connect with their own children, now second-generation Canadians who spoke English and wanted to be like other Canadians. 7
  • The Bible school movement—initially designed to preserve language, faith, and community cohesiveness—also gradually morphed into other formation models for young people. 8

Today, MB churches are no longer limited by language or ethnicity; they are completely assimilated into the larger evangelical landscape of Canadian society, working with other denominations to plant churches that are gospel centered, Spirit-led, and mission focused—you may recognize this as the tagline of the C2C Network.

THREE CHALLENGES

1. Arbitrariness. Movements that self-describe as led by the Holy Spirit risk an arbitrary understanding of what it means to be Spirit-led. Whose definition of the Spirit’s leading is promoted? Whose definition is ruled out? When the power to speak for the Spirit is localized in one person or one group, there is a risk of abuse, oppression, or domination. 9 Is community discernment of the Spirit’s leading feared or welcomed? What strategies can be put in place to minimize the risk of arbitrariness?

2. Rigidity. Movements that claim to be Spirit-led are, surprisingly, predisposed to increased rigidity. An impression can emerge that there is {204} only one way to be Spirit-led. Only certain kinds of training or certain kinds of leadership styles appear to be blessed, endorsed, or supported. There is a hyper focus on alignment. What practices can be put in place to promote the varied ways that the Spirit leads and to minimize the danger of rigidly thinking that the Spirit must work in only in one way?

3. Anxiety. While there is much talk of being open to the new directions that the Spirit is leading, the actual rhetoric can sound shrill and anxious. Calls to “take back our country” or to rescue the church from having “lost its way” often sound like misguided attempts to protect or defend God. In reality, these campaigns may be more about protecting or defending institutional self-interest.

However, indications are that God is not worried. Religious institutions have come and gone through history, but the reign of God continues to thrive, always finding new ways to promote life, wholeness, justice, and peace. What can be done to minimize the danger of being caught up in fearful and anxious attempts to defend God?

THREE SUGGESTIONS FOR MOVING FORWARD

1. Continue to promote the good news of God’s reign. While institutions of all sorts—not only church institutions—are declining in the Western world with the ending of Christendom, the reign of God is not in decline.

Church historian Phyllis Tickle argues that this is just another transition, another in a series of eras. This one can be called “the era of the Holy Spirit.” 10 God is not anxious; and we need not be, either. Yes, there is change happening at an unprecedented rate. Yes, the role of Christendom as an empire is ending in the West. But Christianity still offers good news of freedom, healing, and power. The church will look different in the new Holy Spirit era—less denominationally driven, more loose associations or networks of churches, a mix of small faith communities and mega churches—but it remains in good hands. To quote Jesus, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

2. Learn to live with differences. Consider three social issues where MBs have evolved theologically over the last fifty years—cremation, divorce and remarriage, and women church leaders. In each of these, there was a noticeable three-stage movement that can be charted, one that eventually led to shifts and even reversals of opinion: first, outright denial of the new view as unbiblical—with biblical support; then affirmation of the tradition as preferred, with grudging toleration of the new view—also with biblical support, but with different biblical texts; (3) {205} and finally, acceptance of different views without judgment, allowing individuals or congregations to choose—again with biblical support, but with still other texts.

Contrary to some assessments, this evolution need not be seen as a sign of failure or giving in to culture. It may well be another indication of God’s Spirit on the move. In the next years, MBs will likely face more social and ethical challenges.

No doubt the increasing theological differences in the family will further challenge MBs to exercise their blended family life skills. But this part is not new. Much like the first churches, and you can see this in Romans 14:1–12, MBs can find encouragement in Paul’s counsel to sit with differences of opinion—refusing to break fellowship over differences, listening together to the Spirit’s leading, and leaving final judgments with God.

3. Bless the apostles-prophets to lead during this next stretch. For most of their existence, MBs have been led by pastors, teachers, and evangelists. But there are actually five leadership gifts that the Lord gives the church—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph 4:11).

The era of being led denominationally by those with the pastor-teacher gifting ended with David Wiebe of the Canadian Conference and Harold Ens of MB Mission. We are now led by those with the apostolic-prophetic gifting in Willy Reimer at the Canadian Conference, Elton DaSilva at the Manitoba Conference, Randy Friesen at MB Mission, and others.

And with these new “charismatic” administrations there is a marked difference in decision making, structural organization, communication patterns, educational formation, and missional priorities. MBs are now led by marketplace entrepreneurs, nimble and decisive—ready to try new things, if they are perceived to result in growth, and equally ready to stop them if they don’t.

It is not that MBs never had apostolic-prophetic individuals before, but they were not in the driver’s seat of the denomination. Of course, all the gifts are needed by the church, but at this time, it is the apostle-prophet’s turn at the steering wheel. And this is likely a good thing, as the church needs to find new ways of being in the world, since it no longer enjoys a place of privilege in Western society—legally, socially, or politically.

And so, the challenges and opportunities for the Mennonite Brethren church remain both sobering and inspiring, as they always have for Spirit-led movements. {206}

NOTES

  1. Elton DaSilva, executive director of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba, asked me to research the relationship between the Mennonite Brethren story and the charismatic renewal movement. It was easy to say yes to this assignment because it was an opportunity to review the MB birth narrative and connect it to contemporary developments within the MB family. And besides, this is the kind of research that the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies does, as the research and archiving service for MBs in Canada. The content of this essay was presented at the annual convention of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba on March 7, 2015, in Winkler, Manitoba.
  2. The nature of this blending is debated by Mennonite Brethren historians. See, for example, the interaction between G.W. Peters and J.A. Toews. For G.W. Peters, MBs are “Mennonite in doctrine, Pietistic in spirit, and Baptist in organization” (G.W. Peters, The Growth of Foreign Missions in the Mennonite Brethren Church [Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Board of Foreign Missions, 1952], 33). J.A. Toews, on the other hand, acknowledges “influences,” but describes the relationship as more about “borrowing.” According to Toews, “In our early history we received stimulation and guidance from German Baptists and Pietists. This association with other evangelicals throughout our history has challenged us to greater zeal and commitment in the area of evangelism and missions. We can also be a blessing to them by sharing with them our understanding of Christian discipleship and the nature of the church as a brotherhood. But we must learn to borrow from them with much greater discernment and discrimination. Whatever we borrow from other theological traditions must be consciously integrated into our understanding of the New Testament church and of Christian discipleship” (J.A. Toews, “In Search of Identity,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 10 March 1972, 25). For a good summary and thorough analysis of the debate over MB identity, see Patricia Janzen Loewen, “Embracing Evangelicalism and Anabaptism: The Mennonite Brethren in Canada in the Late Twentieth Century” (MA thesis: University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2000). Loewen concluded her study with the following assessment: “The members of the Mennonite Brethren Conference span the spectrum when it comes to integrating evangelicalism and Anabaptism but their words speak of the difficulty of integrating both evangelicalism and Anabaptism. Some wanted to give up their Mennonite Brethren self-understanding and a very small number wanted to end formal ties with other evangelicals, but the vast majority were determined to remain tied to both. It appears that the desire to hold on to both evangelicalism and Anabaptism is a difficult feat to maintain. Yet it is an effort which many Mennonite Brethren seem determined to make” (118–19).
  3. See Abe J. Dueck, “August Liebig and his North American Legacy,” Mennonite Historian 38, no. 3 (2012): 1, 6–7.
  4. According to Lynn Jost, “Mennonite Brethren pietistic roots have sought nurture in charismatic influences through the years, including a strong interest in the Vineyard Movement and the contemporary music currently {207} associated with British and Australian evangelical charismatics” (Lynn Jost, “Mennonite Brethren Theology: A Multiple Inheritance” in For Everything a Season: Mennonite Brethren in North America, 1874–2002: An Informal History, ed. Paul Toews and Kevin Enns-Rempel (Winnipeg: Kindred, 2002), 53.
  5. Jost, 44–53.
  6. See Gerry Ediger, Crossing the Divide: Language Transition among Canadian Mennonite Brethren, 1940–1970 (Winnipeg: Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 2001).
  7. See Burton Buller, “Mennonites and Media,” Mennonite Historian 40, no. 2 (2014): 8–9.
  8. See Bruce Guenther, “Training for Service: The Bible School Movement in Western Canada, 1909–1960” (PhD dissertation: McGill University, Montreal, 2001).
  9. See Rachel Waltner Goossen, “ ‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 89, no. 1 (2015): 7–80.
  10. See Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012).
Jon Isaak (PhD, McGill) is the Director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg. He has served with the Mennonite Brethren Church as missionary (1987–1998), Bible teacher (1998–2011), and most recently as historian at CMBS (2011– ).

Previous | Next