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October 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 4 · pp. 32–35 

A Vision for Mennonite Brethren Higher Education

Vernon R. Wiebe

My vision for Mennonite Brethren higher education in the U.S. is a return to earlier fundamentals—with a few modifications.

A denomination has several options it may follow in post secondary education. It can establish a liberal arts college or a Bible school. It may opt for a combination of these—but combinations are difficult to maintain and historically most schools attempting to carry out more than one role have eventually had to settle on one or the other.

Seventy years ago the Mennonite Brethren churches, assessing the world situation and their need to meet it, opted for a liberal arts college with a strong Bible school emphasis. Because the two options were nearly mutually exclusive, tensions between the emphases began early and remain today so that Tabor and Fresno Pacific are Christian liberal arts colleges but hardly Bible schools.

The choices of a liberal arts college and a Bible school were and are the right choices for Mennonite Brethren but because they mitigate against each other they will require two separate campuses.

Thus my vision for U.S. Mennonite Brethren higher education is:

PROPOSAL 1—Tabor and Fresno Pacific should remain Mennonite Brethren liberal arts colleges.

My vision is that both colleges can survive as small, lean schools. Intimacy and simplicity best serves our brotherhood and its ministry in this world.

The substitution of Mennonite Brethren for Christian may sound presumptuous. I would hope that Mennonite Brethren would always {33} be Christian. But in a world of pluralistic Christianity, even the term Christian needs to be defined. It is my conviction that at their best, Mennonite Brethren represent the best in Christendom with their emphases on adult conversion, believers’ baptism, committed discipleship, brotherhood polity and mission and service. To be sure, today’s Mennonite Brethren have not achieved this goal. But there are growing manifestations of these qualities to which the Mennonite Brethren aspire. The development of the Seminary is evidence of this.

The Mennonite Brethren Church has done well in choosing the liberal arts vehicle to educate its young people. Limited in what it could do, the church wisely chose the most universal educational model to train its laity and its leadership.

Assuming that Mennonite Brethren are on the way to a recovery of Mennonite Brethrenism at its best, and that the liberal arts model best serves their purposes, I would like to reflect on the elements which work toward the making of a Mennonite Brethren liberal arts college.

The first element is the appointment of a Mennonite Brethren board of directors. In recent years the U.S. Mennonite Brethren Board of Education has experimented with broadening the colleges’ board base. I understand this was done for purposes of influence, recruitment and educational expertise. Influence, recruitment and educational expertise are secondary functions and should be provided through consultants.

The second element is the recruitment of faculty and staff who are active members of a believers’ free church and who understand and affirm the Mennonite Brethren Church. This should include the lowest-paid part-time clerk to the highest-paid full-time administrator. The third element is to admit only students who are members in good standing of a believers’ free church and who want to study in an environment which such a church provides. Up to five percent of the student body who are not members of a believers’ free church could be admitted through the personal approval of the president, who would be responsible to determine the student’s desire to study in such an environment. This requirement need not be prudish if it is administered in the believers’ free church tradition which is open and accepting of those without it and careful and discerning of those who are within the covenant.

To obtain students who are committed members of believers’ free churches will call for new recruiting guidelines. Recruiting goals of music, athletics, academics or leadership skills must become secondary to recruiting members of believers’ free churches. The recruiting goal {34} of obtaining “a financially viable number of students” will also become secondary.

Some objection will be raised by Mennonite Brethren parents and pastors who will want to send their uncommitted students to Tabor or Pacific. A counseling program to encourage parents and pastors to allow their young adults freedom to choose other schools more compatible with their values will need to parallel the introduction of the new recruiting goals.

The fourth element involves the revision of the Biblical studies departments. Much has been said about the general Bible requirements, the number of Bible courses offered, and the variety of Biblical majors that are obtainable. There should be some general Bible requirements and a Biblical major should be possible, but our Biblical studies departments should be known for their warmth and their permeation of the liberal arts curriculum rather than their breadth or academic excellence. The Biblical studies departments in our liberal arts colleges should be so creative that their courses are sought-after electives.

My vision, then, is for two small, lean liberal arts colleges whose boards, faculties and student bodies are unapologetically evangelical Anabaptists and who have a high appreciation of the Mennonite Brethren understanding that a brotherhood is the best spiritual vehicle in this life.

PROPOSAL 2—Tabor and Fresno Pacific Colleges should join forces in forming a Mennonite Brethren Bible school.

It is essential that Tabor and Fresno Pacific cooperate in this venture. The schools need a common task and a safeguard must also be initiated to avoid the development of a third school in the United States Conference.

Post-secondary Bible schools have an amazing universal coinage. Not everyone can qualify to enter a liberal arts college, a technical school or a trade school, but almost everyone can qualify to enter a Bible school. Not everyone can profit from a liberal arts college, technical school or trade school, but almost everyone can profit from a Bible school. Not everyone can afford a liberal arts college, technical school or trade school, but a Bible school can be run so economically that the leverage gained in mass housing and feeding can be applied to faculty and overhead so that going to Bible school costs little more than living at home.

The proper study of the Bible, like the proper study of a language, requires immersion. To properly “learn the Bible,” it is necessary to eat, sleep, sing, hear, speak, think, meditate, express, {35} feel and do it. There is not room for this kind of concentration—formal or informal—in a liberal arts college.

The Rocky Mountains near Denver would be an optimum place for a joint Bible school between Tabor and Pacific colleges. Both college faculties could contribute to the Bible school faculty. Up to one-half of the two years of study completed at the Bible school could be transferable to any degree program at either college.

My vision for Mennonite Brethren higher education may appear grandiose in a time of shrinking student bodies and burgeoning costs. But there is a growing demand within our brotherhood and in the emerging evangelical church in North America for committed communities of higher education where faith and practice are abandonedly integrated and for retreats where the Bible can be studied intensively.

I believe it is possible and when it happens nearly every Mennonite Brethren family who does not send its converted children to Tabor, Fresno Pacific, or the joint Bible school will feel the need to explain its exceptions. And American evangelicals, who know about our schools, will be anxious to fill those desks which are left vacant by Mennonite Brethren.

Vernon Wiebe is General Secretary of Mennonite Brethren Missions/Services. He is also the chairman of the U.S. Mennonite Brethren Conference.

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