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Fall 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 2 · pp. 21–31 

A Confessing People

Howard J. Loewen


We as a Mennonite Brethren people of God are in a transitional period which calls for a rediscovery, reaffirmation and creative reassertion of our confessional tradition.

The “pastoral letter” sent to each congregation last May from the General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel (BORAC) grew out of a profound concern that our traditional values and practices have been so eroded by the powerful forces of modern culture that our historical identity and mission are in question. The loss of basic spiritual convictions around which we organized our collective and individual lives is reflected in a loss of spirituality, faithful ministry, theological unity, and ethical integrity—as well as in conference loyalty and authority. The letter calls for us “to be a covenant people who reflect doctrinal and ethical unity . . . and carry out their commitments. . .”

Confession is much more than doctrine.

In short, we have been brought into a “confessional situation”: We need to confess anew our understanding of biblical faith and engage in a collective response to what the Word of God demands of us {22} at this particular time and this particular place, and do so in the language of our day. We must then examine ourselves and find new resolve to remain faithful and united in our identity as the people of God. We have been called again to be a “confessing church.”


Within the New Testament the church’s confession of faith is understood as an act of worship, as a statement of doctrine, and as an ongoing process of translating faith into life. Confession is worship, word and witness.

According to the NT, the church’s confession of faith is expressed through worship, doctrine, and application in life. This can be seen in a series of NT confessions which are used in connection with the worship settings of the early church involving baptism and the Lord’s supper (Mark 10:15-22, 12:29; John 1:1-14; Rom. 1:3-4, 6:17, 10:9f; 1 Cor. 8:6, 11:23-26, 12:3, 15:3-5, 15:22; Phil. 2:5-11; Eph. 2:14-16; 4:6; 5:19; Col. 1:15-20, 2:6, 3:16; 1 Thess. 1:9f, 2:6; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Tim. 3:16, 2:5, 4:6, 6:12-16; 2 Tim. 1:13-14; Heb. 1:3, 3:1, 4:14, 6:1f, 10:23; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; 1 John 1:9, 2:23, 4:2, 15.)

Confession as Worship

It is significant to note that in the NT the verb “to confess” appears more frequently than the noun. Therefore, in its original form confession is an event, an act which is a response to what God has done in and through Jesus Christ toward creating a confessing people. Consequently in the NT all confession involves the joyous expression of gratitude to God for his presence in our lives. That is why the early church as a community does not have a confession; it exists in its confessing, in its response of faith-obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, confession in the early church finds its basic expression and response in the celebrative statement: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Confession as Word

The oldest summaries of the early church’s preaching revolve around the cross and resurrection. Out of these there developed a body of distinctive doctrine held as a sacred trust from God. For us this means that a confessing church is biblically {23} grounded in true doctrine.

Confession as Witness

The early church’s witness to the world always involved a central apologetic confession that this person Jesus and no other is Christ the Lord. It is our task to translate “Jesus is Lord” for our day. A confessing church is unabashedly evangelistic.

As a people of biblicist tradition, we Mennonite Brethren (MB) must affirm the importance of a biblical view of theological confession. When we worship together, think together, and live out our faith together, then we are a confessing people. Confession is first and foremost a corporate and communal act. The very existence of the church depends on it. Because confession of faith in the biblical sense is a profoundly communal act, statement, and process we must hear the confession of the rest of the church before we as individuals, as congregations, or as a denomination make our own confession. A confessing church takes seriously the authority of the church, and accountability to it, in the life of the believer.


The Mennonite Brethren Church is an integral member of a broader Mennonite-Believers’ Church tradition which has made many confessional statements and represents a distinct doctrinal heritage.

Historical Identity and Necessity

Invariably and necessarily the confessional authority of the church also finds expression in specific historical statements, such as confessions of faith. As in the early church, genuine confessions of faith arise out of moral or cultural problems or crises that are clearly impacting the church. Confessions function best as crisis documents. We Mennonite Brethren are currently in such a situation and therefore it is most necessary to give our own confessional tradition serious consideration.

The biblical understanding of confession as worship, word and witness helps us to locate the place and importance of confession for our own denominational tradition. Contrary to our common assumptions, Mennonite Brethren are part of a larger believer’s church tradition from which many confessions have emerged. The authority of these confessions has not been insignificant and they do reflect a distinct doctrinal heritage.

The real question is not whether confessions are necessary but whether they are good or bad translations of biblical faith for {24} a church which must respond to different historical moments and cultural contexts. Instead of asking whether this or that confession is the immutable form of theological truth for all time one must ask: How does it serve as an adequate guard concerning what should now be said? How does it function as a faithful witness to life and doctrine? How is it serving as a necessary corrective in internal discipline? How is it serving as a means of defense against false accusations and heretical movements? How can it serve as an instrument of education, clarifying and strengthening the convictions of believers? How can it be used as a conversation piece in association with other believers? How can it serve as a means of reorientation and church renewal?

Doctrinal Continuity and Authority

It is important that we see the Mennonite Brethren theological heritage, including our 1902 and 1975 confessions, within the context of the larger development of the Mennonite confessional tradition. A doctrinal and confessional way of thinking is a long-standing and integral part of our heritage.

Confession as doctrine is an indispensable ingredient in the glue that holds a confessing church together; but it is not the glue by itself. The true bond of a confessing church is the spiritual and historical reality of worshiping, thinking and processing together what it means to confess Jesus as Lord in this culture at this time. Within this context a confession of faith is both a description of what a church believes and a promise to live by those beliefs.


The distinctive emphases of the broader Mennonite Brethren confessional heritage include the nature and mission of the church, conversion, free will, footwashing, church discipline, Christian life and nonconformity, the Christian and the state. Accordingly, the distinguishing doctrines of the Mennonite Brethren Conference find their center in a believers’ church view of the church.

Our task now is to delineate the general context, structure and content of our confessional heritage to assist us in addressing our current confessional situation.


The Mennonite Brethren confessional tradition is part of a much larger historical family of Mennonite confessions. This “family” has an almost exclusively Dutch origin and is organically {25} related through a complex borrowing and building involving a series of major confessions such as the 1632 Dordrecht Confession, the 1660 Frisian-Flemish Confession, the 1766 Ris Confession, the 1792 Prussian Confession, the 1836 Prussian Confession (Elbing edition), the 1853 Rudnerweide Confession, and the 1902 Russian Mennonite Brethren Confession. The revision of the 1902 confession constitutes our current Mennonite Brethren Confession of faith and was officially adopted by the conference in 1975. It is important to explore the substance of these two important confessions.

The Mennonite Brethren Confession of 1902 draws heavily from previous Mennonite confessions, seeking to clarify agreements and differences with them. Its emphasis on separation is unique in North American Mennonite confessions. Clearly, the historical break of 1860 with the Mennonite church as a whole contributed to such an emphasis. Primarily, its function has been to encourage faithfulness in doctrine and life. The extensive and narrative use of Scripture is distinctive; but even more so is its theological content. Although the 19th century Russian MB church experienced notable Baptist and Pietist influences, the heart of its theological confession reflects a clear evangelical-Anabaptistic orientation.

The Mennonite Brethren Confession of 1975 clearly intends to be in continuity not only with the 1902 Mennonite Brethren confession, but also with the larger evangelical Mennonite-Anabaptist heritage, as the preface clearly states. It intentionally reflects a broader identity than the 1902 confession. It more fully articulates that purpose, speaking to church discipline and instruction, unity of believers, defense of faith, authority of Scripture, and evangelism.


Although the 1975 confession shifted from the narrative style of 1902 to a more prosaic one, the central theological emphases remain virtually identical. The book of Matthew continues to represent the biblical center of each confession. The predominance of Matthew followed by John, Romans, and Acts, is virtually uniform throughout all Mennonite confessions of faith. Within the references from Matthew, chapter 5 (Sermon on the Mount) is by far the most extensively cited. Chapter 25 (on eschatology), chapter 28 (the great commission) and chapter 18 (church discipline) follow in that order of frequency. Within {26} Matthew 5 the section on love for one’s enemies (vv. 38-48) receives the strongest emphasis, followed by the section on integrity and the oath (vv. 33-37). The scriptural evidence strongly points to a common biblical and theological center in the MB confessional tradition.


A content analysis of the MB confessions reveals a uniform progression of articles clearly consistent with the broader Mennonite confessions: God, Word of God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, Human Nature, Free Will, Conversion, Church and its Mission, Church Offices, Baptism, Communion, Footwashing, Marriage, Church Discipline, Christian Life and Nonconformity, Divine Law, Integrity and Oaths, Nonresistance and Revenge, the Christian and the State, the Lord’s Day and Work, Last Things.

Significantly, such a progression follows a classical model of theology. However, it includes a number of distinctive emphases not found in classical evangelical theology: free will, conversion, footwashing, church discipline, Christian life and nonconformity, integrity and oaths, nonresistance and revenge, the Christian and the state. These are, however, distinctive elements of the broader confessional tradition in which the MB confessions of faith are located and which they clearly reflect and which the MB church has historically affirmed.

The Mennonite Brethren confessions, clearly reflecting the broader Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, revolve around theology, christology, ecclesiology and eschatology, and they focus on the church’s mission and the life of Christian discipleship. What are the theological implications that emerge from a recognition of this confessional reality?


As a confessional church, the Mennonite Brethren must he willing to reassert the importance of a teaching authority in the church to deal with the growing lack of integrity between doctrine and practice, to reclaim the core of our historically validated identity, to affirm a sound evangelical ecumenicity, and to grow toward greater confessional unity.

Theological Integrity

Historically, the Christian church has understood its authority to be grounded in the Scriptures, the confessional tradition, and the teaching office. Presently, the western church is experiencing {27} a crisis in teaching authority at the very time that it needs to forge a consensus about the meaning of faith. That we do not have a strong tradition of systematic instruction is indicative of the lack of confessional teaching in our history and the need to reassert the teaching authority in the conference.

A confessing church takes seriously not only instruction but also discipline. It will seek to provide a rule of faith that can be used to encourage both the sheep and the shepherd of the flock; it will try to ensure that its shepherds are not leading the sheep astray and that its sheep are willing to remain obediently with the flock. Moreover, in a confessing church discipline falls upon the leadership of the church, especially its teaching authorities. The difference in a believers’ church tradition is how we teach doctrine and discipline. There is a keen sense of corporateness and greater emphasis on mutual accountability of Christians to each other.

Theological Integrity

The recent Mennonite Brethren Profile has revealed a significant and growing gap between what we believe and what we practice, between our theology and ethics. The issue is not doctrinal orthodoxy but our increasing unwillingness to be committed to our already-established confessional tradition. This raises a serious question concerning our corporate ethical and theological integrity. Will we now be tempted to ignore our confession or to redefine it at the expense of ethical commitment?

In a confessing church doctrine and ethics are inseparable. It aims not only at right thinking (orthodoxy) but also right living (orthopraxy). This fusion of doctrine and ethics is not a peripheral matter; for it is grounded in our doctrine of the church. That is why 11 out of the 16 articles (Articles V-XV) in the current MB confession relate to the church and how we live.

Yet it must be noted that this strong orientation to mission and discipleship is preceded and followed by—and therefore grounded in—the spiritual reality of the triune God who is the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter, and who redemptively rules over the church, culture and the cosmos from creation to the consummation of all things in him. A confessing church is one that lives faithfully by the power of the one whose name is above every name. Herein lies its ethical and theological integrity. {28}

Historical Identity

A confessing church listens to the past and derives direction from it for the future. Our confessional tradition links us to a distinct line of the Believers’ Church tradition—an evangelical Mennonite heritage. It is noteworthy that the theological features that are most frequently questioned today are in fact part of the distinctive theological and ethical core—nonresistance, oath, baptism and the Lord’s Supper—in short, themes emerging from that section of Scripture which is central to our confessional tradition, Matthew. The centrality of these themes to our theological heritage is a matter of clear historical record. A confessing church does not take lightly a historically-validated identity.

Evangelical Ecumenicity

A broader understanding of our MB confessional tradition prevents us from reasserting our denominational boundaries and our theological identity too narrowly. As a small movement of the people of God in history, we need a broader confessional-doctrinal place on which to stand and carry out our mission. Our confessional tradition, properly understood, counters a narrow religious mentality, a rigid denominationalism and an exclusive ethnic outlook. It takes seriously the developments of our tradition beyond the 16th and 19th centuries and views its doctrines as the basis for inter-confessional dialogue with other evangelical traditions. However, we must not only be influenced by other traditions; we need to see ourselves influencing them. A strong confessional identity will enable us to relate to different Mennonites, Evangelicals, Charismatics, Catholics, and Third World Christians where there is a common bond. This is the true nature of an Anabaptist-oriented evangelical faith. It has a pro-global perspective.

A confessing church with such a perspective contributes to the unity of the true church from the vantage point of its particular identity and mission. We MBs must take this to heart and address the embarrassment with our tradition that sometimes surfaces. In part, our confessional crisis relates to such embarrassment with our confessional distinctives, for in a period of uncertainty the church is tempted to look for the most acceptable (and often lowest) common religious denominator. Such a posture does not lead toward a confident and expansive view of our identity and mission. It leads, rather, to a diluted evangelical {29} faith. And then we fail to address the larger church with the good news vouchsafed to us.

Doctrinal Unity

How can a confessional tradition speak with force in light of the growing diversity among us? Modernity, as a way of thinking and acting, inherently breeds many points of view. Thus, we come at the question of biblical truth speaking different languages: the languages of the newly urban vs. the traditional rural theology, of modern individualism vs. cultural ethnicity, of the political radical vs. the political conservative, of political liberationism vs. religious fundamentalism, of social involvement vs. personal piety. The legion of issues that contemporary pluralism generates among us leaves us wondering at times whether there is any hope of sustaining any sense of unity.

In the context of a confessional situation a confessing church must function again as it was originally intended to function—as a creative way of handling new issues facing the church. It is important to confront the centrality of doctrine head on. By this we are not implying a rigid and inflexible use of doctrine. Rather, doctrine here is viewed as a mediating principle. It provides an overarching unity in addressing the diversity within the contemporary church, between the contemporary church and the early church, and within the biblical text itself. For doctrine can provide the overarching perspective which we need when we deal with the specific issues which now trouble us and for which there is no easy chapter-and-verse reference in the Bible.

For example, the question of leadership and authority in the life of the church cannot be determined by an appeal to specific texts. It must be addressed by again working through our doc-trine of church from a perspective that would see a complete movement of the biblical text from creation through redemption toward consummation.


The Mennonite Brethren Church is at a significant juncture in its history. As a confessing church its challenge is to renew its spiritual vision through gratitude and a repentant attitude of dependence on God’s grace, to renew its commitment to leadership that will nurture church members in the distinctives of our spiritual heritage, and to renew its theological conviction that our life is a translation of doctrine and that that translation is a process in which leadership and laity {30} must be creatively engaged.

I wish to conclude by refocusing the specific challenge of understanding confession as worship, word and witness.

Confession as a Spiritual Vision

The hope and vision which characterizes a confessing church produces gratitude. In this regard the tone of the pastoral letter is significant—it affirms that renewal is taking place among us. We also have many reasons to be grateful for God’s faithfulness. But confession as worship moves beyond gratitude to a desire for growth and transformation. The challenge of a confessing church is to confess the faith once delivered to the saints in the language of our day—not in conformity to the spirit of the times, but to the Spirit of the one Lord.

A confessing church exists when the dangers to the faith are clearly discerned and when it then repents for its accommodation to the spirit of the times and realizes its dependence on the grace of God for its growth in a God-denying culture. Such a confessing church will recover the profound intention of its theology and grow with Spirit-empowered vision.

Confession Through a Teaching Leadership

Confession as doctrine is faithfully embodied in and extended through the teaching leadership of the church. Those who have been called out as preacher/teachers within the church must find positive and constructive ways of encouraging commitment to our confessional tradition. When we openly affirm the continuing importance and validity of our confession of faith, it will continue to be a catalyst for commitment and conversation in the Conference. To ensure this, there must be ongoing instruction for leadership and laity alike.

Confession Through a Churchly Process

We do not need a new confession—although the possibility and necessity of one should never be ruled out in principle—but we need to appropriate the meaning of our present confession. This does not mean that formal confessions alone teach doctrine. Our theology is also expressed in devotional literature, poetry, music, etc. But these confessions represent important historical benchmarks that must not be taken lightly. They are not a final product but they must always be a starting point for the ongoing process of shaping doctrine in our tradition. {31}

We must never forget that confession is a process of translating faith into life. It is the hallmark of a believers’ church theology to insist that a godly walk, as much as godly talk, helps shape Christian doctrine. Spirituality informs Christian doctrine when Christians help each other understand the meaning of their walk and witness in the world. We must be led to find creative ways of working together as a conference so that the spiritual vision will grow and the doctrinal center will hold. We must preach sermons, write songs, plan symposia, organize sessions, publish series, instruct our students, and above all cultivate a Spirit-empowered spirituality that fosters our identity, mission, and unity in Jesus Christ.

The call of the pastoral letter is “a call to be the church and to live together as a covenant people. . . .” The covenant community is a confessing community. The purpose of this paper has been to encourage the growth of a spiritual vision for the Mennonite Brethren to be a confessing people of God who are ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code which kills, but in the life-giving Spirit of Christ whom we confess as Lord—in worship, word and witness.

Howard Loewen is Associate Professor of Theology at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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