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Fall 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 2 · pp. 69–77 

Findings Report: Mennonite Brethren Study Conference, October 15-17, 1986

Helga Loewen, Loyal J. Martin, and Delbert L. Wiens


A. Theological Issues

  1. The relation of salvation (Spirit baptism) and water baptism. There seems to be lack of clarity about our definitions, perhaps even our theology. Or is it a true difference in positions? When are differences semantic or really differences?
  2. Definitions of child baptism. When is a child ready for professions of salvation, when ready for baptism, when ready for the celebration of the above in the Communion Service?
  3. Help with the way we deal with adults who have been baptized as infants and now want to be accepted as members without rebaptism. It seems we are facing the issues of the Reformation era all over again.
  4. Not addressed but of a related nature is the matter of affirming membership in the church family of persons who are developmentally disabled.
  5. Definitions of consistent teaching on the privileges and responsibilities of church/body of Christ membership are needed. Guides for and teaching helps could benefit us. {70}

B. Practical Issues

  1. Participation of non-members in church. Are they allowed to serve in service positions, in office, in key leadership roles?
  2. Inactive membership, absenteeism and status of such persons in the church. Is there a way to deal redemptively with them without losing them to the church and/or compromising the definitions of membership and covenant community we cherish?
  3. Related issues are the questions of financial commitments to conference stewardship norms, and reporting membership numbers with honesty. Consistent standards for all churches are needed.

C. An observation: The need for discipline, a call for commitment seems now to be coming more vocally from the young than from the old. Perhaps they have come through our modern world and seen the dangers of the looseness in it. One might wonder if we are now more frightened by the looseness of the world around us or the tightness of an older era. Some attention to who is speaking and whom we quote might be instructive about the relationships between us. Some attention to the worlds from which we speak or write can be helpful.


A. Theological Issues

  1. An issue seemed to be whether Mennonite Brethren really have a confessional tradition. Is the Confession of Faith prescriptive or descriptive? Howard Loewen said “yes” to both. It is prescriptive: we should take it seriously. It is descriptive: we do change and rewrite it. We have long said our confessions are descriptive but in practice they seem to be becoming creedal. Perhaps that is an attempt to make our pronouncements firm when our practice is not.
  2. A theological as well as sociological issue for us is that we come to issues from different directions. Because of differences in background some of us move from the rootedness of an earlier era while others of us move from a modern rootlessness toward a covenanting, disciplined community. It may be that we both want the same thing but come at it from very different backgrounds and so misunderstand each other. There was a call for authority, for teaching, for theology. But this call came with a tone and language that we have not heard in our recent past. {71} Unlike an earlier stress on “systematic theology,” it presented a theologizing that is more an activity of word, worship and witness than a checklist to determine orthodoxy. And it moves beyond the “biblical theology” which we embraced to flee the too constrictive “systematics.” Yet it calls us to basics and to historic identities. Perhaps we are beginning to hear a translation of the Gospel which is truly Good News for both our contemporaries and those of a different era. But we must help each other understand and translate our assumptions.

B. Practical Issues

  1. Discrepancies in belief and practices are being addressed on all levels: the paper, respondents, the M.B. profile, the pastoral letter from the Board of Reference and Counsel.
  2. There were admissions that we face a dilemma even in our baptism/membership classes. When we suggest that parts of the Confession are to be taken more seriously than others, e.g. the sections on doctrine of God and Christ in contrast to the sections on the oath, Sabbath keeping, etc. some people have asked whether we can be trusted to teach with firmness any part of the Confession.
  3. There was an admission that we should distinguish between levels of conformance to the confession depending on age or newness among us. But there was a call that teaching leaders, at least, should be required to commit themselves to all aspects of what is a written and adopted confession. Either change our practice or admit our confessions are not static.
  4. Pastors who have come to the Mennonite Brethren without benefit of history or training in the conference need the help of a consistent orientation process. Some have come to the conference knowingly disagreeing with the Confession of Faith, others discovered only after joining the conference that they had not been adequately informed of doctrine and/or practice and so were in disagreement with elements of what they found.

C. Suggestion:

Our churches need teaching tools for baptism/membership classes about the Confession of Faith. The Board of Mass Media could be commissioned to produce materials in several media for local church use. We are aware that Kindred Press has in process a teaching guide aimed at the high school level. The studies on the confession in the Leader and Herald were a help in {72} that direction.


A. Theological Issues

  1. The papers and discussion dealt with very basic ways of how we think about ourselves in community, how we are the church. We are moving from one way of thinking about consensus and church and discipleship to another. We might be tempted to think that the pendulum is shifting from individualism back to communalism. But the frequent reference to bounded and centered sets, as well as other aspects of the discussion, shows that we are not being asked to return to the way of being a community that once characterized us. Something else is happening. Perhaps we are spiraling to another level. As Waldo Hiebert noted, there has been an openness and a concern which has resulted in boldness without anger and in seriousness without self-righteousness. Perhaps what happened here and how it happened is a model for covenanting as much as is any content we may agree on.
  2. In times when the old “glue” is gone and a new cohesiveness has not been established we need leadership. Such leadership, whether “prophetic” or “administrative”, needs to help clarify the issues and to inspire us to learn how we can all contribute to our own maturity as disciples, as congregations, and to the celebration and building of the Kingdom of God. Of course, in such times “false” prophecy is constantly possible. The plea to clarify what is the transcendent vision which makes Jesus’ Gospel “good news” to our day is especially necessary. But do we follow the leadership being given? An era of change is full of ambivalence. We want leaders but want to go our own way.

B. Practical Issues

  1. Name changes. Shifts from “conference” to “conference of churches” on the conference level and from using Mennonite Brethren in the name of local churches are expressions of how we think about ourselves. Names stand for identity, and the call to change names is a call to reshape identity. Names not only follow change, they have the power to move. And we must be careful how we name.
  2. Relating to those of like faith but different name. Discussions of ourselves as Mennonite Brethren and Anabaptists in an evangelical world showed considerable misunderstanding of terms and positions. {73}

We need to learn how to work at covenant at the levels appropriate to small groups, to congregations, to our conference, and to Christians everywhere. As we become secure in our covenant relations at local levels we are freed to participate in appropriate covenanting at ever larger levels. To be what we distinctively are gives us a place for giving and receiving the special insights from other flocks in the Kingdom. Sometimes, apparently we must clarify who we are by seeing ourselves as “over-against” others. But we must constantly guard against caricatures of others. They too wrestle with their calling as we Mennonite Brethren do. We and they with different backgrounds can enrich each other.


A. Theological Issues

  1. The paper and discussion addressed the structure, not the function of leadership. The need for leadership has to be adapted to the size, locale and needs of a group. There is a call for leadership today but it seems to be different from both the style and needs for leadership exercised in the past. Today’s call is more for a corporate style yet is not merely modeled after the business world. Not all calls for leadership are to be confused with individualism. There was a concern that Kingdom principles not be neglected while we work out structures with which we govern ourselves.
  2. There was a call for disagreeing constructively, for a theology of conflict. Following “centered set” thinking (Edmund Janzen paper) how do we deal with brothers and sisters who disagree?
  3. Despite our claims to the contrary ordination is being regarded in sacerdotal terms by many.

B. Practical Issues

  1. Again there were several calls for clarification for pastors who have come to the conference with disagreements with the Confession of Faith. A very covenanting attitude was displayed by one such pastor who questioned his ability to stay in the conference. “Take us through whatever process is necessary to come to consensus without capitulation.”

C. Observation

It seems that while dealing with the pluralism that is introduced by leaders from other traditions and training, Mennonite {74} Brethren need to recognize the benefits that have come to us from many sources. The revivals of the mid 1800’s that led to a Mennonite Brethren church were sparked by a Lutheran and a Baptist. Evangelistic fervor and training among us have been facilitated by other denominations and parachurch agencies.


A. Theological Issues

  1. Floor discussion illustrated great diversity in understanding the roles of women in the church. Passages that prohibit women’s leadership were cited over against passages that stress equality and giftedness for all in the body.
  2. Kopp’s “consistency argument” was seen as cutting both ways. Some would use it to deny women what they are now allowed, i.e. if we are consistent with certain interpretations of Scripture they should not be as involved as some would have them be. Others would use it for more responsibility, i.e. Mennonite Brethren have ordained women to be missionaries and in certain fields they teach theological courses for male pastors. There was concern that we be Biblical before being consistent.
  3. The old discussions about obliterating lay-clergy distinctions did not arise. It seemed to be an assumption that leadership comes from many sources. Greater concern was expressed for decisive leadership—lay or pastoral. But cautions were raised against authoritarian styles in leaders or blocking tactics by small groups or “anti-leaders.”

B. Practical Issues

  1. The ordination examination could be used not only to examine for correct doctrine but also to teach doctrine. Several pastors told of expressing clear differences with the Confession at their examination but not receiving any follow up, correction or teaching.

One way to deal with “old/new” views and our faithfulness together would be to regularly reexamine the theological and practical convictions of all the “ordained.”


A separate findings committee compiled responses from two sources, prior reflections by leaders from across Canada and the United States and the responses of the delegation. For this {75} topic the delegation was divided into small groups and was asked to respond to two questions: 1) Given present trends, what do you foresee the shape of the Mennonite Brethren Church to be in the year 2000? and 2) In the providence of God, what shape would you covet for the Mennonite Brethren Church in 14 years?

If present trends continue, we perceive our denomination to be characterized by increasing diversity and fragmentation, by uncertainty about our identity, but continued growth in the mission enterprise, and by a coming to terms with a stronger, more authoritative form of leadership.

The diversity and resultant fragmentation will reflect the influences of our culture and the effect of the incorporation of non-ethnic Mennonite converts. There will be a growing socio-economic differentiation in the church with rich-poor tensions developing. Increased political involvement will probably distinguish those living on either side of the 49th parallel. Canadians will be more likely to espouse socialist and liberal causes; Americans, more conservative causes. Diversity will also result further from growing multi-ethnicity, and increased educational and professional differentiation.

The differences will tend to fragment us. Individualism, localism and nationalism will erode conference loyalty so that local congregations and church institutions will become more independent of the conference.

Theological pluralism will prevail along the Anabaptist-Mennonite Brethren/Evangelical or Anabaptist-Evangelical/evangelism-church growth or non-charismatic/charismatic lines (probably more than one of these dichotomies will coexist). Consequently questions of faith and theology will probably be determined by expediency or pragmatism.

The Mennonite Brethren Church will probably become a loose federation of churches whose character and “glue” will consist of evangelism and activism; the significance of the church as a covenanting community and the presence of church discipline will decline. Growing churches will press for acceptance of the more popular evangelical and culturally popular stances. Missional congregations will gradually become community churches.

With regard to leadership, “strong” leadership will probably mean more authoritarian leadership. More women will enter prominent leadership roles. {76}

When asked, “Where, under God, would we like to see the Mennonite Brethren Church in the year 2000?” the answers were equally clear. Many looked to God for a renewal movement within the church. Such a renewal would influence our mutual relationships, theology, leadership and mission.

A renewed church would reaffirm the interdependence of persons, congregations, and larger groupings in strongly bonded relationships. Reordered conference structures would coordinate the responsibilities, eliminate duplication, provide for autonomy with accountability as arrived at through a new consensus. The educational program would unify the conference in that it would be integrated, coordinated and realistic.

The confession of faith would be simplified and would assume a more prescriptive function. The emerging consensus would root in the believer’s church tradition.

A greater percentage of pastors would be alumni of Mennonite Brethren schools, resulting in more unity and in a consensus about the direction of the conference. The ministry of women would be accepted in much greater measure in leadership roles.

Finally, and most importantly, the year 2000 will see a vigorous reaching out to people of other ethnic, cultural and social groups. This will express itself in increased internationalization and the development of a global perspective. Numerous churches will be planted, primarily in the larger urban centers. The ministry in our churches will increasingly address the needs of the communities in which these churches are located, needs reflected in fractured families, poverty, conflict and alienation.


  1. Questions of Biblical authority and commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture surfaced periodically. The deeper issue seemed to be interpretation, our hermeneutics.
  2. Some felt that the papers were more theoretical than Biblical. It was felt that outlines of the Biblical bases for positions were omitted. Several presenters explained their omissions as a concession to space constraints placed on them. Several assumed a general knowledge of Biblical arguments given in previous study conference papers.
  3. It would be in place to remember that Mennonite Brethren have at least three historical streams of origin: Anabaptism, Pietism and Evangelicalism. We will not be entirely like any of these yet draw from all of them. {77}
  4. This study conference was only the first step in a six to seven year process. The Board of Reference and Counsel is to be commended for this outline of intentions. Hopefully, the process will result in more thorough interaction with and reaction to the papers and more thorough revision and eventual application. Many past study conferences resulted in publication of the papers and responses, perhaps some study guides and then a position paper by the Board of Reference and Counsel at a subsequent business convention.
  5. Diversity of several kinds was noted at the conference: a. ethnic (Chinese, French, Greek as well as German and Anglo were present), b. those with a long background and those with little background in the conference, c. theological differences, d. age differences (though there were few young delegates), e. educational and thought pattern differences, f. rural/urban, small town—metropolitan. In spite of these differences there were few women and no representatives from black or Hispanic churches. Papers were mostly written by Canadians.
  6. In the future our international Mennonite Brethren community should not be ignored. The presence of nationals from many countries would enrich all our understandings, help us do theology in more realistic ways and build unity in new ways. Submitted by the Findings Committee and further additions and revisions after discussion with several pastors, seminary faculty and members of the Board of Reference and Counsel.
Helga Loewen, Lendrum, Edmonton, Alberta
Loyal Martin, North Fresno, California, Chairman
Delbert Wiens, College Community, Clovis, California

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