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Fall 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 2 · pp. 78–80 

Book Review

Who Are the Mennonite Brethren?

Katie Funk Wiebe. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1984. 107 pages.

Reviewed by James C. Juhnke

In her foreword, Katie Wiebe writes that some people found her assigned task amusing—something like describing an elephant from a limited view. The task was “to identify and define the Mennonite Brethren, to people who are either members or interested seekers.” As a member of the General Conference Mennonites, I also find amusement in my task as reviewer. As I remember from my central Kansas childhood, members of my own GC group who married into the Mennonite Brethren (MB) and accepted rebaptism by immersion were discussed in hushed and somber tones such as one used in speaking about the recently deceased or the unspeakably reprobate. Forty years later I am still a GC—neither a member nor a seeker of MB Membership. Yet the barriers between the groups have broken down sufficiently that I can be asked to review this book about MB identity!

The occasion invites comparisons between MB’s and GC’s. For example, Wiebe’s opening chapters deal with doctrine, although she says it was a “toss-up” whether to begin with doc-trine or history. A GC identity book would most likely reverse the order, and the GC doctrinal definitions would be less crisp and categorical than Wiebe’s. GCs are not strong on doctrine. Wiebe quotes David Ewert to suggest the starch in MB doctrinal self-definition: “If there are articles in our Confession that a person cannot accept, then he or she should find a church with whose teachers he or she can fully agree” (18). My GC instincts recoil in the face of such conviction. How can we be sure that the confessional issues at stake are gospel truth rather than incidents of language? What will protect the church against misuse of overly narrow and restrictive definitions?

When General Conference Mennonites find themselves in disagreement on doctrine, they remind themselves that their conference has no official confession of faith and quickly move on to other matters on which they might agree such as the importance of overseas missions or, in a pinch, the weather in California. We GCs tend to get nervous when others define us in a doctrinal terms, as Howard Loewen does in his comparative study of Mennonite doctrine. Our identity crisis may be as acute as the MB’s but our lack of coherent and authoritative doctrine {79} gives it a somewhat different shape. In our age of relativism, more and more of us are seeking for a solid ground of teaching for our faith.

Wiebe’s history chapters are also more clearly focused than typical accounts of GC history. The Mennonite Brethren retained a substantial Dutch-Russian ethic homogeneity for many decades after their beginnings in Gnadenfeld in 1860. The strands of that history are an easier mixture than our beginnings in Iowa that same year. If MB’s wrestle with increasing cultural pluralism in the late twentieth century, it is something like the problems GC’s have faced all along. The breakdown of ethnic stability makes books like this one more important than ever.

Wiebe’s book confirms Paul Toews’ thesis that there have been three stages of Mennonite revitalization in recent history—institutional, ideological, and ecumenical. We have been renewed through the activities of denominational organization (missions, education, publication), through the recovery of our Anabaptist heritage (the Anabaptist “vision”), and through inter-Mennonite contacts (such as MCC, disaster service, relief sales and much more). This book helps to build upon the possibilities of this three-fold renewal.

Wiebe writes that some MB’s emphasize Anabaptist-Mennonitism while others prefer “mainstream evangelicalism.” But her book does not give equal time to both sides. She defines Anabaptism-Mennonitism with clarity and verve. But it is never quite clear what “mainstream evangelicalism” is or what Mennonite Brethren need to do to join the stream. The MB identity quest might be enhanced, I would assume, with some definition and sorting out of the options among varieties of North American culture. What is the meaning of an evangelicalism which is so insistently “mainstream”? How is this option to be located in terms of doctrine and history? “Mainstream evangelicalism” remains curiously lacking in historical and cultural identity—though its capacity culturally to bind and to make free are surely as potent as that of traditional Mennonitism. The task of defining “mainstream evangelicalism” in the context of a Mennonite identity quest was beyond Wiebe’s assignment. But it would seem to deserve attention.

Wiebe’s style in this book is popular rather than scholarly. She adopts the voice of a chatty “conversation” with her reader. For persons seeking to learn about Mennonite Brethren identity {80} and the meaning of church membership it will surely be a rich and helpful source, no matter what part of the elephant’s anatomy they currently encounter.

James C. Juhnke
Bethel College, N. Newton, Kansas

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