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Fall 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 2 · pp. 45–56 

A Ministering People

Gerald Ediger

Missionary zeal, evangelical warmth, dedicated Biblicism and a desire to live as disciples and servants in mutual brotherhood have characterized the century and a quarter of Mennonite Brethren witness. At the same time we have repeatedly faced issues that challenge our integrity as a Christian community and our ability to carry out our mission as a church. One of these issues, which has been with us from our very beginning, has been the issue of leadership.

. . . authority and servanthood . . . (and) the implications of a growing professional pastorate . . .

During the past decade matters of leading and following have been something of a preoccupation among us. In part this has been a reflection of recent trends. We are emerging from our ethno-cultural isolation into the religious and social mainstream of our society and have begun to outgrow the bondedness of sect and to seek the community of church. Our geographic expansion and cultural diversity have stretched the ties of common experience and identity until we find ourselves looking for a center about which to collect {46} ourselves again. At this center we also hope to find ourselves leadership that will be worthy of a following. At the same time we want to affirm the indispensable contribution and counsel of the follower.

During the past decade, Mennonite Brethren have begun again to sort out the issues of authority and servanthood and, in a new way, to examine the implications of a growing professional pastorate for the life and ministry of the church. Typically, we began seriously to re-read Scripture and to gather the church to study and discern together what leadership means. Still, after all this, there are dimensions of leadership which remain as points of uncertainty, debate and divergent practice.

This paper sets out to discuss current issues of leading and following within the context of a covenant brotherhood community. I will focus on the ministry of leadership as exercised within the larger community of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

I will attempt to bring out some of these issues and to place them into a historical context so that discussion can be fruitful. The responsibility for resolving these issues lies with the discerning community prompted by Spirit led leadership.


I cannot retrace the literature of the past ten years. A brief survey, however, will reveal that there has been a strong emphasis on certain central values: we want to agree that leaders are servants, that all members of the church are gifted for ministry, and that leadership is a role and function rather than an office. The following list of principles of leading and following which I have gleaned from this literature may serve as an agenda for discussing leading in a covenant brotherhood.

  1. Leaders are primarily qualified through spiritual maturity, giftedness and appointment through the church; they are not, in the first instance qualified through professional training or designation of office.
  2. New Testament leadership is the shared function of a group of persons; it is not exercised independently by one individual apart from accountability to leader-colleagues and the members of the church.
  3. Leaders are experienced by the church as sacrificial servants engaged in teaching, enabling and shepherding activities; there {47} is a legitimate functional primacy of these activities among the ministries of the church.
  4. The church freely entrusts leaders with the necessary authority and power to exercise their role (not office) of ministry.
  5. Full time, “professional” leadership is the legitimate freeing of a person from among the leaders of the church in order to more fully utilize that person’s gifts for the common good, both within the context of the local congregation and the broader church.
  6. The church is responsible to discern, call and appoint leaders under the lordship of Christ.
  7. The church, under God, is responsible for the character, service and discipline of its leaders.
  8. The church must follow the spiritually sound and biblically founded guidance of its leadership in a freely expressed attitude of submission, obedience and respect.
  9. The church is responsible for the adequate support and maintenance of its leaders.
  10. Leaders and followers are equally called to submit to the lordship of Christ as corporately discerned through the Holy Spirit and the examination of Scripture.
  11. The principle of covenant which must breathe through all these descriptions of leading must be the principle of the basin and the towel graphically demonstrated by our Lord as he introduced it in the New Testament. This new covenant was the covenant of the suffering servant sacrificing himself for the redemption and healing of his fellows. Leaders in a brotherhood of that covenant must minister in that same sacrificial spirit. Followers in such a brotherhood must remember that the servant is not greater than the master, nor the pupil greater than the teacher.


The occasion of this study conference is a collection of concerns summarized in a pastoral letter issued by our Board of Reference and Counsel (Mennonite Brethren Herald, 16 May 1986, 6-7). Threading through these concerns is the observation that “we are no longer clear what the church, and particularly the Mennonite Brethren Church, is all about.” I will highlight six tendencies which concern our leaders and which make it difficult for them to work toward the kind of coherence and identity {48} we require if we are to become God’s covenant people.

A. We face a growing tendency towards congregational autonomy and independence. This has encouraged a parallel decrease in a wholistic understanding of the broader unity and integrity of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

This growing tendency toward local autonomy may have brought Mennonite Brethren to the point where it is difficult to speak meaningfully of a Mennonite Brethren Church beyond the borders of the local congregation and be understood. Many of the following issues can be traced to this basic trend toward local autonomy. (The “MB Church Membership Profile, 1972-1982” documents this trend. See Direction, Fall 1985.)

B. A lack of mutually submissive solidarity can be seen among the pastors and leaders of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

We seem to have difficulty in reading the Bible together and coming to agreed convictions on its basis. The difficulties we have experienced on issues of divorce and remarriage, peace and nonresistance, and admission to the communion table, to name only three practical questions, indicates that we seem to be demanding latitude of conviction and practice for ourselves at the local congregational level.

Comments have even been made that if Mennonite Brethren congregations do not achieve greater congruence in standards of membership and discipline, some congregations may no longer be willing to accept the transfer of membership at face value.

C. There is a growing inability to give authoritative leadership in matters of faith and practice.

This can be seen as an outgrowth of the previous observation. As leaders find themselves unable to speak unitedly, and as Mennonite Brethren generally sense this weakness, there seems to be a loss of confidence in the ability of leadership to take definitive positions and call the church to consensus. This is reinforced when leaders attempt to resolve difficult issues by polling local congregations for their positions.

D. An entrenched attitude of independence on the part of congregational leadership regarding the collective convictions of the Mennonite Brethren Church can be discerned in board and convention settings.

It can seem unrealistic for church leadership to take positions which will have little effect on local practice because congregational {49} leadership does not support the stand taken by the church as whole.

E. In some congregations there is a tendency to concentrate much of the decision making in the hands of a full-time church staff primarily accountable to some form of eldership.

In effect two trends intersect at this point. One is the trend towards larger multiple paid staffs. Another trend is the move towards some form of formally constituted eldership as the primary leadership body of the congregation. This eldership either is taking the place of the more traditional church council or is combining the functions of the council and the traditional board of elders/deacons/ministers. Neither of these trends in itself compromises congregational involvement. In fact, both can effectively enhance membership ministry in the congregation. However, when these trends displace congregational consultation and initiative, the vitality of the believers’ church as a ministering, discerning body is compromised and there is an erosion of “Brotherhood” which afflicts both the local and larger church.

F. There are conflicting convictions and practices regarding the meaning and application of ordination and the commissioning of congregational and church leadership.

Some leaders and ministers welcome ordination while others submit to it and still others decline it altogether. Such a situation carries with it the potential for further confusion in the minds of Mennonite Brethren regarding the meaning and status of ministry and leadership. We need to clarify the meaning of ordination.

Centralized control of the accreditation of ministers through ordination, as practiced in many denominations, would present serious difficulties for our understanding of the Church; but we need to maintain and support meaningful “conference/district” involvement in the calling and affirmation of front-line ministers for our congregations, especially when pastors are called from outside our own churches.

Another area of divergent understanding among Mennonite Brethren is the ministry of women. Some are convinced that God does not will leaders to be preselected according to their sex. Others hold the conviction that God has clearly ordained men to hold the primary roles of leadership in the church and elsewhere in society. Still others are more than sympathetic to the free affirmation of suitable women to any and all leadership roles but are kept from espousing such a conviction by a desire {50} to be faithful to New Testament texts which they suspect may preclude such a lack of restriction.

Running through these examples is the lack of clarity regarding the meaning of “church” among Mennonite Brethren. This lack of clarity is not new. It is rooted, in part, in shifts of attitude and practice in our past.


We have had many biblical studies on these issues. But a historical perspective is also essential to refurbish a sense of identity and cohesion in the MB Church.

A. “Brotherhood” was initially a quality of church life and fellowship rather than a democratic principle of church polity.

“Brotherhood” has become a vague description for “the way we do things” in the Mennonite Brethren Church. It encompasses a set of attitudes and norms that most would find very difficult to relate to its original historical and theological moorings or even to define with precision.

Brotherhood was not in the first instance a paradigm of democratic congregational polity consciously adopted by the Mennonite Brethren to shape their church governance and leadership. They did not have a precise and clear understanding of it any more then we do. Nor did the term at first address the relationship between leaders and followers. It was rather a quality of religious experience and association born of an evangelical stream of warmth and conviction long present in the broader Mennonite Church and remaining within that church after the secession of the Mennonite Brethren (Friesen, 97ff.,108).

It might be better to describe what the reformers experienced as “brotherliness” rather than “brotherhood” for they formally used the latter term in a different way. In the document of secession, the founders refer the “Mennonite brotherhood” and mean the larger Mennonite body as it was recognized by the Russian authorities. They admit that they were trying to separate from the “decadent churches” and in that sense could “no longer continue [with]in” the Mennonite brotherhood (Friesen, 230,240).

In a subsequent clarification however, it becomes apparent that this did not mean that they wished to lose their identity as Mennonites. Thus, brotherhood could also mean a broader religious association within which churches or congregations could exhibit a quality of brotherliness which stood in contrast to {51} examples of autocratic and status-minded leadership in their former church.

B. Multiple leadership, emerging out of the congregation and appointed by the membership of the church, has been the historic Mennonite Brethren pattern.

The document of secession did not deal to any extent with the polity of the fledgling church, nor was this its purpose. Article (h) however does address the question briefly. Leaders could be “chosen by God alone, without human assistance, [and] . . . self-appointed to the ministry of the saints. . . . Others are called through the instrumentality of true believers as recorded in Acts 1” (Friesen, 232). The founders seemed to conceive of a dual mode of emerging leadership. They did not wish to stifle the sovereign movement of God in designating leadership. At the same time, they saw the practical necessity of suggesting a way of appointing this leadership in concrete terms.

Their practice indicates that ministers were first appointed by a recorded congregational vote of the male members of the church. It is essential to note that from the beginning the leadership appointed was multiple.

By 1885 the six Mennonite Brethren churches in Russia were served by four elders and thirty-five ministers (Toews, 304). Thus, the establishment of the multiple ministry among Mennonite Brethren is well documented.

The place of the eldership within this multiple ministry is not clear. Perhaps it was felt that some specially designated leader was needed to represent the church and its authority as a whole. Perhaps a reaction to the Froeliche Richtung had something to do with this (Toews, 304).

C. The experience of the Froehliche Richtung left Mennonite Brethren with a deep fear of arbitrary, autocratic leadership.

The Froehliche Richtung was a wave of excessive religious emotionalism that took on characteristics of what we today might call a cultic movement. It did not originate in Mennonite Brethren circles but it constituted a major challenge to the infant church as it attracted a group of arbitrary leaders who directly challenged the integrity and authority of the Mennonite Brethren ministers. In the reforms of June 1865 it is clear that the issue of the power and authority of ministers, especially in exercising the ban, lay very close to the center of Mennonite Brethren rejection of this aberration. In article two of the reforms a statement of principle is made which is the root of the enduring {52} Mennonite Brethren attitude regarding leadership down to the present day (Friesen, 437).

Since the minister does not choose the church, but on the contrary, the church chooses the minister . . . it is the duty of the minister to serve the church and carry out whatever decisions the church may make. In return, the church is obligated to obey her minister as the shepherd of her soul as long as he remains true to the pure teaching of Christ.

This assertion of qualified congregational priority over the role and authority of leadership was also a reaction to Mennonite leadership in the Russian colonies. In fact, Toews sees in the Mennonite Brethren reaction against that leadership the seeds of a long standing weakness.

The negative reaction against the arbitrary and oppressive leadership of the established church influenced the Brethren (no doubt unknowingly) to develop a negative attitude toward a properly constituted, scriptural authority of the ministry. At times equality and fraternity were emphasized at the expense of proper authority (Toews, 54).

D. Mennonite Brethren have tended to reject formally constituted central leadership when this has been seen as a threat to local autonomy.

This tendency can be illustrated by the repudiation of the eldership early in the twentieth century. In Russia the eldership came to be seen as “unbiblical” and as a “sickness” afflicting Mennonite Brethren leadership. In light of this, the principle of congregational priority was again enunciated (Toews, 304-305). This emphasis was consistent with a footnote to the role of the elder and bishop in the 1902 confession which seemed to limit the functional role of the elder somewhat. While the eldership was weakened, collective ministry and leadership was reaffirmed. In the United States the eldership was perceived as promoting status and competition among ministers. No elder was appointed in American Mennonite Brethren Churches after 1919 and in Canada no elders were ever ordained (Toews, 303,309).

In 1951 the Board of Reference and Counsel (BORAC) presented the General Conference with a paper which, if it were read here, would give the participants in this study conference a strong feeling of deja vu. The paper contained (1) a frank analysis of our spiritual status, (2) an appeal for reaffirmation of the interrelationship of MB Churches, (3) proposals to meet the {53} expressed needs, and (4) a call for efforts to unify our doctrinal position (Yearbook, 124-144). The burden of the paper was to present a scriptural and practical rationale for the establishment of a Board of Elders for the General Conference.

The background to this concern lies in the abandonment of a collective, unsalaried leadership in favor of the trained, fulltime, paid pastorate. Toews, in a sharply worded analysis of this transition, suggests that it occurred for pragmatic reasons colored by a trend towards cultural accommodation. It does seem that the shift did occur piecemeal with little deliberate theological reflection or united discernment by the MB Church as a whole. Nor were attempts to build in safeguards to the process of appointing pastors wholly successful (Toews, 306-307, 310-312).

The analysis of the challenges facing the conference was accepted in principle. The recommendation to create a Board of Elders for the General Conference was referred back to the committee and to the churches and district conferences for study. Three years later the eldership was quietly shelved because of opposition from the district conferences. The MB Church had rejected a collective shepherding leadership for the church as a whole as a means of maintaining theological solidarity and a sense of wholistic identity.

E. Mennonite Brethren, in their increasing drift into individualism, have tended to sacrifice the brotherhood of the larger church to the independence of the local congregation and the regional district.

Mennonite Brethren are caught in a confusion of “congregation,” “church,” and “conference.” Historically, the focus of church and the covenant brotherhood had been supra-congregational. The larger sense of unity was maintained by the oversight and visitation ministry of the elders, periodic larger gatherings of the church as a whole, and the work of itinerant preachers. In spite of this, the pull towards local autonomy was already felt through heavy Baptist influence (Toews, 79).

Severe challenges to the maintenance of a larger church identity in North America were the increasing loss of social and cultural cohesion, the geographical isolation of Mennonite Brethren congregations and exposure to other evangelical groups.

In 1963, it was decided to change the official designation of the General Conference. It is ironic that the very name cited by the BORAC in 1951 as illustrating what the Mennonite Brethren {54} Church was not was now adopted. The Church of the Mennonite Brethren Conference of North America, had become the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Now, in 1986, we have been brought together to rethink these things.


Several issues emerge as basic to leadership questions facing Mennonite Brethren as a covenant community. The most basic is the question whether we still want to regard what we now call the “conference” as in some way embodying the believers’ church. Another way of asking this question is whether the root of Mennonite Brethren identity is the local congregation or the larger MB Church of which the congregation is a part.

The larger MB Church has only a very limited repertoire of common experience and structure to bind it together. This is in contrast to the local congregation with its regular gatherings and its possibilities for developing quality relationships on a broad scale. Two major elements which can bond the larger church are a focused authoritative leadership and a common confession or covenant of faith and practice. The present association of churches essentially truncates the MB Church at the local congregation. The structures of boards and conferences which now stand over the congregations have little to do with shepherding, care, teaching and discipline. The conference is an extra-biblical innovation. We have, however, in the district/conference minister the seed of validating our desire to be the church in a larger context. If such a trend towards conference/district ministers is supported with a New Testament understanding of church and of the authority of its leaders, then “bishops” or “elders” may soon follow, whatever they may be called formally.

I believe that it may be time for us seriously to reconsider two decisions we have taken in the past. Both the rejection of a council of elders in 1951-54 and the name change in 1963 now appear to be decisions showing an inability to discern and retain basic elements of a covenant brotherhood in the face of the pressures of accommodation, modernization (if not secularization) and growth.

The immediate cry will be that such an eldership will institute a hierarchy. Two things are needed to preserve Brotherhood. First is the will and conviction that the MB Church exists first as a larger covenant community and that local congregations, while embodying the fullness of the church locally, nevertheless {55} derive their identity and character from the larger church and not the other way around. Second, we need to distinguish “brotherhood” and polity. We need an explicit theology of brotherhood. It is my suspicion that such a study may reveal that “brotherhood” is much more a function of relationship and fellowship than a form of polity. Certainly “brotherhood” cannot be confused with democracy. If this is true, then brotherhood need not be compromised by authoritative servant-elders active in the front line of the “General Conference.”

A second essential issue for the covenant community is that its congregational and church leadership come to consensus regarding some basic principles of polity and practice. This does not at all mean that each congregation must be structured in the same way. To require greater congruence in key areas is not to impose the handcuffs of sterile conformity, but to strengthen the church’s consistent conviction and identity of witness.

A third important consideration is the need for the larger church to be more active in the process of appointing pastoral leadership to the local congregation. The larger church needs to move beyond the role of facilitator carrying out an incidental examination or affirmation after the essential decision is made within the local congregation. Local congregations should be more accountable to the larger church for the leaders they call and commission. Our confession of faith and a personal integrity as a disciple of Jesus are already assumed as requisites to the Mennonite Brethren pastorate. Perhaps elements of polity and practice should also be included.

Proposals such as these may be viewed as idealistic, reactionary, authoritarian or even dangerous. Nevertheless, a covenant community must have a covenanted leadership. Such a leadership covenant must have substance.

In conclusion, here are two practical recommendations we may want to consider. First, let us change our name to something like “The Church of the Mennonite Brethren of North America.” Second, let us appoint and fund a minister-elder for each district or provincial conference in the North American church and constitute this group as the council of elders for the Mennonite Brethren Church in North America. Such a modest initiative would begin to bridge regionalism and local preoccupation through the creation of a multiple leadership for the church as a whole. As such regional ministers work with leader-colleagues in their own settings and also consult on a regular basis {56} with their counterparts, the distance from Quebec to the Pacific District start will begin to be bridged. The gulf between North Carolina and British Columbia will at least be recognized. As such leaders gain the trust and confidence of their regional congregations and their pastors, and as they come to understand the diversity that will always characterize a church spread over two nations and a myriad of cultures, they may have the opportunity to begin to lead us to the consensus of covenant essential to the existence and integrity of our Mennonite Brethren Church.

Gerry Ediger is the moderator of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren Conference and is presently enrolled in a doctoral program in church history at the University of Toronto, Ontario.

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