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Fall 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 2 · pp. 27–32 

Recovering Accountability

Response to “The Nature of the Church” by John E. Toews 18/2 (1989): 3–26.

Jim Holm


Author John E. Toews states with certainty that the term “covenant” has lost its meaning, that individualism has taken over in the church. It asserts with emphasis that the church today is defined in social contract terms, and that members associate with churches and churches associate with denominations as long as the individual person or the individual church receives some benefit. In contrast to that stance, the author declares that to be called by God is always and without exception to be called into community, and that to be part of the people of God is to be part of the expression of his people on this earth, and that that expression is one of community.

. . . the implications . . . are astounding.

The first, and simplest, question to be asked is: Do we agree that Toews’ description of the church is substantially correct biblically? If it is not, we must advance an alternative vision, one that does not see the church as a community of accountable people. But what is the local church if it is not the community of God’s people, and what is the universal church if not the world-wide community of God’s people? {28} There is no biblically justifiable alternative vision. The church is the community of God’s people.

The answer to the question must be, “Yes Toews’ description of the church is correct.” In a general sense, this theology means that God’s peoplehood transcends individual Christianity; it transcends the local church, and it transcends the denomination.

The bulk of Toews’ paper deals with biblical images of the church. In fact, the church is defined by images. How do these images shape the life of the local church? Without exception, these images speak of community. There is not one New Testament image of the church that can be taken to apply to an individual Christian alone. There is not a biblical way in which individual Christian men or women, by themselves, can be the church. To say it again, when you think of the church, you must think of it in community terms.

This means that my thoughts and actions, as a churchman or churchwoman, relative to my Christian life must center on my relationship with other people. I can’t think Christianly without thinking in community terms. Therefore, I cannot act as a Christian totally on the basis of my own feelings or ideas. Always, I must consider the impact my actions will have on other people. The possibility of any action being totally independent in its conception or its implementation, is removed, by the way in which God has constituted the Christian life. To take this theology seriously is to make a radical transformation in our thinking. As Toews writes, “To declare ourselves the people of a transcendent God is one of the most radical assertions possible in our world.” There is no decision I as a believer make in which I am not accountable to the community in which God has placed me. Individual Christians cannot go on thinking independently. Individual churches and denominations can no longer behave as if they were not responsible to others for their words and actions.

The implications of this line of thinking are astounding. On the individual level, this suggests that a person should not get married or change jobs without the advice and counsel, in some form, of the community of believers. It means that to enter into business or to make a decision that involves dealing with members of one’s family needs the support and concurrence of the faith community. It means that individual churches cannot on their own make decisions that involve {29} matters of faith and practice without taking into consideration the larger community. Furthermore, how can the Christian colleges start a new building program without asking how that program impacts the rest of the church? How can the Board of Missions/Services choose a new mission field without considering the church needs at home? How can the Home Missions Board plant a church without looking at the implications for the rest of the denomination? To think this way is almost overwhelming.

There are other implications. Just as individual Christians and churches should consider the community when they make a decision, so the community has the “right” to call the individual Christian, the individual church, and the individual denomination, to accountability. This accountability is concerned not only with matters of doctrine, but also with lifestyle and conduct. Peter did not hesitate to intervene in the lives of Ananias and Sapphira in a matter of lifestyle (Acts 5). Paul did not hesitate to call the Corinthians to account for the aberrations in their church (1 Cor. 5). It is not possible to separate doctrine and lifestyle.

Are we as Christians ready to take that kind of theology seriously? Are we ready to submit to the biblical directive for the church and for the Christian life? These questions deserve serious and responsible answers. But, in order for those answers to be developed, there must be greater understanding of the theology and the nature of the church. If this theology of the church is correct, as I suggest it is, it should be taught to all pastors and church leaders in a series of special seminars. Those pastors and leaders, in turn, should be given tools with which to teach their congregations. To make 1990 the “Year of the Church,” and to exhort every one of our churches to work toward a proper understanding of “the Church” would not be too drastic a step to take. Curriculum and resources would need to be developed. But there is a challenge before us. We need to rise to that challenge.

The Meaning of This Theology for the Denomination

If this theology of the church is accepted as correct, there are specific implications for the Mennonite Brethren as a denomination. To begin with, individuals and local churches {30} are a part of that denomination by virtue of a voluntary association around a common statement of faith. Our statement of faith is not the only way in which Christianity can be expressed, but it is the way we have chosen to express our understanding of our faith. The statement of faith was not developed overnight or in a secret place, but was tested and adopted by representatives of the denomination in open sessions and over a period of several years. By common consent and by resolution, it was understood when adopted that individual members and churches would adhere to that confession of faith as long as they were part of the denomination. Provision was made to change the statement of faith, and indeed, it has undergone changes.

Because we are part of the denomination, we are accountable to each other. But that accountability has gone into remission. For that accountability to be revived, the implications of community must be taken seriously which means several things become our responsibility.

  1. First, our churches need to commit themselves to the denomination and to the statement of faith. That commitment needs to be a matter of public record. It is time for the churches to decide where they are and where they wish to be, to publicly reaffirm their commitment to the statement of faith. A process must be developed whereby each church is asked to examine its commitment to the confession of faith, to articulate its difficulties with that confession, and to reaffirm its commitment to the denomination that holds that confession as its centerpiece.
  2. If churches cannot or will not make such a commitment, the reason or reasons need to be determined and addressed by those in leadership in the churches and in the denomination. Unwillingness to commit to the confession of faith may mean several things. It may mean that the confession itself needs to be changed. Or, it may be that a local church needs to re-think its priorities. But whatever the reasons, there must be clear communication from the churches about why they can or cannot endorse the confession of faith.
  3. The confession of faith needs to be re-examined in light of the responses of the churches. Those issues that prove to be points on which enlightened Christians may differ need to be handled in a manner of careful study and prayer to determine if they are an essential part of what it means to be an {31} Anabaptist Christian. Men and women in the churches as well as professional theologians need to engage in this examination so that the results are owned by the people of the congregations.
  4. Commitment to the statement of faith cannot be coerced by the leaders of the denomination or even by the delegates at a convention. Submission cannot be coerced. To force submission violates the character of the person or institution. Therefore, the leaders of the denomination must ask the churches to consider the confession of faith and respond to it, and the denomination must then determine if such churches continue to be Mennonite Brethren churches. Either the statement of faith or the definition of the denomination may need to be changed, or both.
  5. It is necessary for unity in the Mennonite Brethren community to continue that the leaders of the churches be in fundamental agreement with the confession of faith. What is a community without settled basic areas of agreement? That agreement needs to be reached through a loving and carefilled process. To facilitate such agreement, the leaders of the churches, especially members of the pastoral staff, and probably also all members of the Council/Elders, should be instructed in the biblical (also Anabaptist) theology of the church. Therefore, all pastoral or leadership persons need to attend a course offered through the denomination, a course that would give instruction in the nature of the church. It is imperative that the points listed above (items #1-4) be implemented before any attempt is made to begin with Item #5. There will be no success without the careful preparation of the ground.
  6. Steps must be taken to deal with a problem which has not surfaced in Toews’ paper, but which impacts any discussion of the “nature” of the church. That is the problem of Mennonite ethnicity. The word “Mennonite” is identified in the minds of many people with a specific cultural group. Many newcomers into our churches do not identify themselves as Mennonites, though they like their association with the church. Because of the associations attached to the word “Mennonite,” these people tend to draw away from those parts of our theology which they dislike. They prefer to see those parts as “Mennonite” rather than biblical. By turning away from ethnicity (Mennonite), and focusing on biblical/Anabaptist theology, stronger adherence to the confession of faith should result. {32}
  7. Great care must be taken to insure that our emphasis on overseas missions and on education does not impair an equally important commitment to church planting and evangelism. When institutions and overseas missions become paramount in the denomination, the base at home is not being strengthened. When that base is not being strengthened, there is a greater possibility, with its weakening effect, for dissension and division to enter the church. One of the reasons for a loosening of the community bond has been our over-emphasis as a denomination on some things to the exclusion of others.
  8. Finally, but most important, the people of God need to be called together to pray. Rather than conventions for business, it is time for convocations of prayer. It is time to call on God for revival, to seek the power of the Holy Spirit, to humble ourselves before the Lord. It is time to be revived. The love that flows when revival fires are ignited will cover a multitude of sins and will do much to end our concerns about who we are and what we are here to do.

This paper on the nature of the church by John E. Toews tells us biblically how it is, or at least how it should be. It is time now to practice what has been preached.

Jim Holm is Senior Pastor of the Mennonite Brethren Church at Reedley, California, and Moderator of the United States Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

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