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Fall 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 2 · pp. 50–53 

Economics, Faith and Practice

Abe J. Dueck

The distinct contribution of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century on issues related to economics has been widely recognized by historians. Such issues as the tithe, support of pastors, simplicity of life style, and mutual aid were all issues which the Anabaptists regarded as bearing on the central question of the nature of the faithful church. While the renewal which resulted in the birth of the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1860 did not focus to the same extent on issues pertaining to economics, there was certainly no deliberate departure from the principles of Anabaptism in this area.

The 1972 and 1982 surveys did not attempt to measure Mennonite Brethren values related to economics in any comprehensive way. There were only two main sources of information in the survey, the one relating to income levels of Mennonite Brethren respondents and the other relating to stewardship attitudes.


Although no adequate measure of affluence of Mennonite Brethren is available, it is clear that Mennonite Brethren are wealthy in absolute as well as in relative terms. They are affluent relative to most of their forebears, certainly relative to most of the population in the world, and probably relative to most North Americans.

Because of inflationary factors and relative currency fluctuations of the American and Canadian dollars, it is impossible to determine exactly how much more affluent Mennonite Brethren were in 1982 than in 1972. Nevertheless, some statistics do point to increased affluence. For example, whereas 79 percent of Canadian and 70 percent of United States respondents earned {51} less than $12,000 in 1972, 64 percent of Canadian and 65 percent of United States respondents earned less than $25,000 in 1982. At the other end of the scale, whereas 3 percent of Canadian and 5 percent of United States respondents earned more than $25,000 in 1972, 8 percent of Canadian and 10 percent of United States respondents earned more than $50,000 in 1982. It is also clear that a high percentage of the wealthy have a college or graduate level education. Furthermore, 66 percent of those in the highest income bracket were either farmers or professionals. In Canada in particular there has been a shift toward more farmers in the upper income bracket.


The impact of affluence on the various facets of church life can be seen in a number of categories, although it must be recognized at the outset that by and large the findings reflect differences in degrees of affluence rather than differences between poverty and affluence. Also, the measure of wealth used in the 1982 tabulations is only that of income, and a more accurate assessment might be made if other measures of wealth such as home ownership were combined with income levels.

The main findings regarding church life indicate that high income people scored highest on the spiritualistic Christianity scale, whereas low income people scored highest in fundamentalism. The former was true in both Canada and the United States and was consistent with the 1972 findings. The lower scores of high income people in fundamentalism were more characteristic of United States than Canadian respondents. Also, predictably, low income people scored high on unionism.

In the area of personal life, the impact of wealth was seen most clearly in the higher scores on political participation in both countries in 1982 and lower scores in moral behavior (although this scale only dealt with drinking alcoholic beverages and social dancing).


Stewardship was the one scale which focused on economics, although there were various questions scattered through other scales which dealt with economic issues. The 1972 profile (Kauffman and Harder, 1975) determined that the average per member giving of Mennonite Brethren was $198.60, slightly above the average for the five denominations studied ($184.81). {52} Mennonite Brethren felt more positively toward the tithe than some other Mennonite groups and rated highest on the stewardship performance scale. In 1972, 47 percent of Mennonite Brethren gave 10 percent or more (Mennonite Church 40 percent; General Conference Church, 29 percent). It was also found that although stewardship attitudes in general were stronger among those of higher educational and occupational rank, the proportion of income given to the church and charities was higher among low income people. Finally, it determined that stewardship was positively correlated with other religious attainment scales and that it was therefore a well-integrated aspect of the life of a committed Christian.

Comparisons with 1982 cannot be made in every area but some significant developments are evident. It is especially clear that the attitude toward the tithe is more negative (e.g., 54 percent in 1972, to 46 percent 1982). Rather than reflecting less willingness to give, however, this may simply reflect a less legalistic attitude toward giving. Most of the questions not relating to the tithe actually registered a more positive response toward giving. Nevertheless, the overall results are very mixed. More respondents felt that giving is a member’s own business (85 percent to 89 percent), fewer believed that tithing is the Biblical standard (64 percent to 59 percent), fewer believed that sacrificial giving goes beyond the tithe (33 percent to 28 percent), but more believed that giving should be based on needs and resources (74 percent to 79 percent) and more claimed to give 10 percent (45 percent to 55 percent).


One of the disturbing findings of the 1972 profile was that whereas the Mennonite Brethren ranked highest of the various groups on devotionalism, they ranked lowest in the area of social concern. Only one or two questions in the scale related directly to economics and issues of poverty so that no firm conclusions can be drawn. One item asked respondents to indicate their level of agreement to the following: “For the most part, people are poor because they lack discipline and don’t put forth the effort needed to rise above poverty.” On this item, Mennonite Brethren registered the second lowest response in 1972 (39 percent); that is, a minority disagreed with the statement. In 1982, 47 percent disagreed with the statement. In other words, fewer people felt {53} that poverty was the result of laziness. By implication, there is perhaps less faith in our economic system.


On the whole, the relative differences in degrees of affluence of Canadian and United States Mennonite Brethren are not reflected in significant differences in the various measures of religious faith and practice. The main areas where the impact of wealth is evident is in spiritualistic Christianity, political participation, and moral behavior. Wealthy respondents tended to be more individualistic and subjective in their understanding of the Christian faith, more willing to participate in the political processes such as voting and running for political office, and more open to engaging in certain forms of moral activities. Thus, in these areas at least, the impact of wealth seems to run counter to the traditional emphases of our church and its understanding of the Scriptures.

In the area of stewardship, although income level does not appear to have a significant effect, there does seem to be a general erosion of communal discipline of stewardship. Individualism is on the increase.

Finally, although the measurements are by no means comprehensive, there is no compelling evidence that Anabaptist distinctives related to economics and mutual aid are being expressed significantly by Mennonite Brethren. Mennonite Brethren continue to rate low on issues relating to social and economic justice while being very orthodox in belief. The affluence of Mennonite Brethren generally is eroding our commitment to discipleship as expressed in economic areas of life.

Abe Dueck is Academic Dean at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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