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July 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 3 · pp. 12–19 

Retrieving the Conference “Glue”

Marvin Hein

Eleven brothers met in Henderson, Nebraska, in 1878. They made decisions for the emerging Mennonite Brethren Conference. Their peers, however, rejected the authority of the eleven because they were not representative of the churches and some of their resolutions were not considered consistent with Mennonite Brethren principles. That meeting nevertheless initiated a pattern that exists even today—in revised forms. Decisions were made at General Conference levels and handed down to the local churches, who then were expected to accept those decisions as their beliefs and practices.


With the passing of time a growing spirit of independence threatened the cohesiveness of Mennonite Brethren churches. The causes were many. In earlier years a few well-educated pastors and teachers dominated the decision-making process. Lay people accepted the spiritual insights of their leaders. Moreover, in those formative years spiritual tutors willingly met around open Bibles for a week at a time to gain consensus. Our quickened pace of life forces us to bring predigested recommendations to conventions and plane reservations dictate the time schedule for us.

The signs of conference “oneness” coming unglued became obvious when resolutions having to do with polity and theology were accepted as guidelines, not mandates accepted by local congregations. Moreover, our success in establishing new churches in urban areas added to the ungluing process. People without German or Russian Mennonite historical roots brought with them a more cosmopolitan approach to the church. This influence toward less cohesiveness was not an intentional strategy. They simply did not share the same ethnic roots and where ethnicity had been part of the glue that held us together, cohesiveness suffered.

Today, even in our older and more established churches, there is a {13} threat to cohesiveness. That fact indicates that the causes for the “ungluing process” reside in something other than the presence of non-German members in our churches. Evidence of this trend has been obvious at recent Conventions. At St. Catharines last summer, repeated statements were made about delegates returning home and doing what they wanted rather than listening to conference resolutions.

The foregoing analysis should not be interpreted as referring to a phenomenon unique to our time. Experiences of erosion of oneness among us have always been present. At any time there have been those who resisted the authority of the larger conference structure to impose theology and polity on local churches. Throughout our history we have seen the attrition of congregations who resented conference authority for one reason or another. There is, however, in my opinion, a more pervasive, thoroughgoing infiltration of this ungluing process at work in many churches today.

It is the writer’s contention that basic to the erosion of conference loyalty is a spirit of independence adopted from the American way of life. We have inhaled deeply the increasingly individualistic spirit of our culture. Our human proneness to self-will, together with the pressures of society, have “squeezed us into the world’s mold” with respect to mistrusting authority and/or subjecting ourselves to loyalties beyond our immediate surroundings.

Even the strategies of the contemporary American church have added to our “slide” into individualism. A basically biblical principle, such as the necessity for a personal commitment to Christ, may well lead to an individualistic approach to the gospel that is not healthy. A view of evangelism and repentance and salvation that arises out of a need for an individual, personal experience with Christ may fail to highlight as well the need for “community” in those decisions. American evangelicals have done much better at emphasizing the individual aspects of conversion than they have in promoting the community or corporate implications of discipleship.

Our “differentness” from the world has enhanced the trend to individualism. Our mistreatment both at the hands of the evil world and persecuting churches in our Anabaptist history had created ready acceptance of our uniqueness. We have often isolated ourselves (sometimes even physically) from the “world.” Such attitudes, whether for good or bad reasons, have not promoted conference cohesiveness.

Today we emphasize the word of Jesus that says we are “in the world.” We witness evangelistically not only to individuals but to groups and governments where there are social evils, injustice, etc. I am happy to be part of such a witnessing people. This is consistent with the beliefs and practices of our forebears throughout our history. {14}


With every noble thing come hazards. The greater the potential for good, the greater the risks. The risk in witnessing and working “in the world” is that we may also accept the world’s concepts and methods. While professing to be a brotherhood, our churches are becoming more and more groups of individuals who are persuaded no one can tell them anything. Having once covenanted to admonish and to be admonished, if and when unChristian behavior is known among us, we now bluntly maintain that our life is our business—ours and God’s—but not the brotherhood’s. We often add to that the sin of reinforcing our individualism with pious statements about the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

The Believer’s Attitude to God

One of the most sinister effects of raw individualism is what it makes of God. The Almighty tends to be seen, not as the awesome, unfathomable, to-be-worshipped deity, but rather as a utilitarian God who meets my needs. He is seen as a friend, healer, giver of wealth, and the key to success. Richard Quebedeaux has said it well:

Modern American religion, very simply, doesn’t care about doing anything for God. It wants only to use Him. Even the popular exclamation “Praise the Lord!” is little more than a thank-you note to God for having been useful in helping “me” acquire something “I” wanted. God is the giver, I am the receiver, but not vice versa. When God becomes a divine Santa Claus, our relationship with Him—even with God Himself—is superficial, in that it stresses taking but not giving.

A largely individualistic approach to the gospel worships God for what He can do for us—and that is not God-worship but self-worship—IDOLATRY. To see God as the edified, pragmatic, vending machine like supplier of my personal needs and success produces a self-centeredness that is devilish. Quebedeaux reminds us that evangelicals largely have embraced a view that says God’s “products” are almost entirely for me, my family, and my kind of people.

The Believer’s Relationship to Church and Conference

This spirit of individualism has numerous implications for the church member’s relationship to church and conference. We may well exercise our God-given gifts in organizations and causes not connected with the local church—and all in the name of individualistic, Holy Spirit-directed Christian living. {15}

With this individualistic attitude, such believers may also inform the church what their gifts are. Instead of asking members of the congregation to help them discern their gifts, he and she announce them and proceed in the Lord’s work without regard to the counsel of the corporate body.

In a similar fashion financial stewardship can be influenced by this independent spirit. The freedom to “do one’s own thing” allows the contributor to support causes other than or outside the organized church. Or in other instances among the more affluent, the individualistic spirit licenses a person to give a tithe to the local church and frees the second or third or fourth tithe for non-church endeavors. Parachurch organizations, of course, eagerly curry the favor of such rugged individualists. While no proof texts denounce such practices, a spirit of brotherhood would seem to indicate that increased wealth should also mean an increased percentage given to the church that nurtures the giver.

A pastor, people, or church driven by this individualistic motivation has little or infrequent need for sister churches—the conference. Consequently, conference norms or declarations or guidelines are weighed on the basis of their utilitarian value to that group. If it is good for “I, me, and mien”, we accept it. If it hinders the advancement of our own projects, we turn a deaf ear. So monies are not contributed toward a larger brotherhood’s enterprises. Pastors and churches cooperate less and less with others, unless there is a personal benefit to be derived. The responsibility to be a servant to others is largely forgotten.

A conference then becomes legitimate only when it helps my pet venture. That view minimizes the importance of a larger, flesh-and-blood body of believers who can meet periodically in convention and maximizes an “invisible” church where no formal membership is necessary and where no system of spiritual checks-and-balances operates.

The Apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear in his epistles that a strong tie existed among the new churches. Often he speaks of a close relationship. One church assisted the other in time of need. Paul uses the example of faithfulness by one group to cheer on another congregation (2 Cor. 9). While he is imprisoned in one city where there is a group of believers, he urges another church to be steadfast in upholding him in prayer (Philippians 1). He reminds his converts often that they are not individualistic converts nor even individualistic congregations. They are tied together in a common spiritual venture. Not only are they responsible to one another, but they also submit to others in their growth.

The individualistic approach to religion mitigates against that kind {16} of care and correction. That spirit of independence tends to make people speak of conference leaders as the “big guns” instead of brothers and sisters chosen to assist and encourage members of a brotherhood towards spiritual maturation.


What then can bring us together? There must be many answers. I propose three that parallel the implications I have suggested.

A Sense of the Holiness of God

First, we need a view of God that is true to the Scriptures. Too long God was seen as a remote, big-stick-carrying deity out to punish all who refused to knuckle under to His rule. We have challenged all that! Now we have a God who is our Brother, our Friend, and our almost indulgent Father who tends to overlook our sins. The pendulum of our beliefs about who God is has swung radically. The belief in an inscrutable God who is mysteriously different from us human beings, while nevertheless still understanding us, is almost foreign to the contemporary evangelical mind. A God whom we cannot really know and comprehend does not square with modernity’s effort to bring God close to humanity.

The badly needed emphasis of our individual worth in God’s sight (that we are not “worms”) has also led us to think of God as our “Buddy.” The sorely needed belief that God longs to redeem us and is not unapproachable has prompted many to see Him as the father-figure who really doesn’t get too upset with His children’s sins. Perhaps Jonathan Edwards erred on one side as he pictured God’s wrath; we err at the other extreme when we do not see sinners anymore in the hands of an angry God.

Rather than serving and worshiping a God who wants to make us healthy and wealthy, we need to recapture the biblical view of a God who can, indeed, be worshiped. Our adoration of such a God will in turn prevent self-worship. Even our “praise” singing today is saturated with subjectivity. We sing about how good we feel when we worship, when we ought to be singing about God’s worth and the fact that He is to be praised even if He should choose to withhold benefits from us. We need the spirit of the psalmist who said:

I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart;
I will tell of all Thy wonders.
I will be glad and exult in Thee;
I will sing praise to Thy name, 0 Most High. (Psalm 9:1-2) {17}

This is not to say that we should not thank God for “things” or benefits He gives us. But He is to be worshiped for who He is more than for what He does for us. We need the sense of God’s holiness—the kind of experience Isaiah had when he exclaimed:

Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among the people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts. (Isa. 6:5)

That we need this renewed sense of God’s holiness is indicated by the contradiction between American belief in God and the lack of godly behavior among us. The Gallup Poll revealed that 94% of all Americans in 1975 indicated a belief in God. Religion is popular in American life. But “pop” religion hasn’t prevented our having one of the worst records in the world in terms of criminal victimization. Superficiality characterizes our religion and I contend this results at least in part from a very weak and shallow view of God.

A Sense of Corporateness in the Church and Conference

We need a view of the Christian believer as related closely to a corporate body of Christians. The religious bookshelves are lined with literature urging upon us the concept of the church as a body. “Body life” is espoused as the remedy for the church’s ills. To follow God’s standards, we are told, we need to focus on corporate faith, corporate hope, and love for one another.

We are the greatest “sharers” of all time. In growth groups and sharing times in worship experiences we create warmth and a family feeling. We model our congregations after the church that grew from a membership of 23 in 1965 to more than 4,500 today by becoming the body of Christ in their own community.

Having received all that advice, we still have not dismissed from our actions the inclination to do our own thing. I can affirm all the above-named innovative practices when done decently and in order, but somehow we either feel that the “body” is simply our own little group, or we forget about our interdependence when we are separated from that group.

We need either a bigger dose of the body life concept or we need to have it permeate our beings to the extent that we can no longer take an individualistic stance that leads to an avoidance of responsibility for and to other people. We must ask the Spirit of God to enable us to understand and practice the implications of being members of the body. (1 Cor. 12:21) {18}

A Sense of Identity with Christ’s Larger Body

We need a view of the Church as encompassing all believers in every land. Once again it is strange that we remain so provincial when everything around us reminds us that we live in “one world.” Our world keeps shrinking. The news from Italy or Iran or Indonesia or the Falkland Islands reaches us within minutes. We can talk with a friend on the other side of the world for three minutes for less than ten dollars. At the same time we hardly see that part of the Lord’s Church which is right around us and surely extends around the world.

We have not in practice accepted Jesus’ words: “And I have other sheep, which are of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear my voice, and they shall become one flock with one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Unlike the Jews of Jesus’ day, we do not claim to be God’s chosen people nor that He has no use for others. We operate in local churches, however, as if we were God’s only select group. We don’t claim that God is the exclusive property of our particular brotherhood, as Israel occasionally did, but we do indeed often restrict His Kingdom to our little kingdoms.

We need an experiential revelation akin to that of the Saskatchewan Red Indian who said to Egerton Young: “Missionary, did you say that the great Spirit is your Father?” “Yes,” said Young. “And,” said the chief, “did you say that he (God) is the Indians’ Father?” “I did,” said the missionary. “Then,” said the old chief, like a man on whom a dawn of joy had burst, “you and I are brothers.”

We believe all of that but our provincialism betrays the fact that we want little to do with our brothers and sisters if they are beyond our immediate borders. We are too busy in our private kingdoms to give ourselves to or learn from those “other sheep,” the ones that God has also brought into His fold.

We have been quite eager to enlarge our spheres of influence as we evangelize and give witness to social inequities. We may not have been so eager to accept as genuine spiritual siblings all people in all lands who have been adopted into the Father’s family with us. If and when we keep our distance from conference ties, we only reveal our reticence in becoming involved with those for whom Christ died in every land and in all times.


In our freedom (which often turns into slavery) we can choose to be typical American individualists who at best ignore, the larger circle of believers, or at worst scorn them while we promote our kingdoms. We {19} can choose to give priority to our own ambitions, spiritual as they are, and at the same time be described in biblical terms: “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6) The only way really to be free is to serve, and that involves going beyond ourselves.

Marvin Hein is the pastor of the North Fresno Mennonite Brethren Church, Fresno, California, the author of two books of sermons, and is active in several Mennonite Brethren Conference boards.

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