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Fall 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 2 · pp. 75–86 

The Biblical Call to Unity: Implications for Mennonite Brethren

Ken Esau

If present trends continue, the 1990s will bring an increased "assimilation" of the Mennonite Brethren Church into the larger evangelical community and possibly into the larger "catholic" or universal church as a whole. According to Calvin Redekop, Mennonites have a “defection rate” to other Christian groups (or out of the church altogether) of approximately fifty percent. 1 In addition, Redekop notes that Mennonite Brethren in particular are drifting away from "denominational loyalty":

Many Mennonite Brethren work for numerous inter- and nondenominational missionary and evangelical organizations; this is especially the consequence of a gradual drifting toward the mainline fundamentalist-evangelical stream in North America. Though some of the leaders and most scholars in Mennonite Brethren circles strongly affirm their Mennonite heritage, the rank and file seem to be increasingly uninterested in the religious heritage. {76} 2

Should denominational loyalty be welcomed or discouraged?

This situation has brought to the fore quite opposite reactions among Mennonite Brethren. On the one hand there has been a concern to "buck the trend" by promoting denominational distinctives, encouraging increased "unity" in the denomination itself, and maintaining and expanding denominational structures and educational facilities. On the other hand, some have responded by welcoming the erosion of the walls which separate Mennonite Brethren from the larger Christian church. These individuals tend to be less supportive of Anabaptist distinctives, less concerned to promote denominational loyalty, structures, and schools, and more likely to omit "Mennonite Brethren" from the name of the local church.

The question that emerges is whether the general weakening of denominational loyalty among Mennonite Brethren should be welcomed or discouraged? A number of related questions emerge from this central quandary. What do the biblical imperatives toward unity of the "church" mean for denominations? Unity in the local church? Unity in the denomination? Unity among Anabaptists? Or unity among all Christian churches? To what extent should one consider oneself specifically a Mennonite Brethren and seek unity and loyalty exclusively within that particular Conference? Is theological, ethnic, or historical affinity a valid enough reason to limit one’s activities to a Mennonite Brethren circle?


The imperative for unity in the church as a whole is most clearly articulated in the words of Jesus:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:20-23 NIV).

A particular emphasis of John’s Gospel is that because of what Christ has done, there exists only one new people of God which transcends racial, ethnic, and sectarian boundaries (cf. John 11:52, 17:11). This "unity" serves as a witness to the world {77} in order for the world to come to an adequate understanding of who Jesus was and is. This extremely high calling for the church has always been and will continue to be a challenge and critique of the schismatic nature of the church through the centuries.

Throughout the New Testament there is an emphasis that those who have been made new have a common life (1 Cor. 12:26; Gal. 6:2; Acts 4:32; Phil. 2:2; Rom. 15:5-6), while those who are in rebellion against God have a common purpose, but of another order (Rev. 17:13). Since Christians share a common life, there are numerous appeals for unity scattered through the Epistles (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:17; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 1:10; 2:14; 3:6; Col. 3:11). 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and Ephesians 4:3-6 describe the implications for unity which arise from the fact that the church is a "body." The seminal statement in the 1 Corinthians passage is: “As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” In Ephesians, the oneness of God himself, a central tenet in the whole biblical tradition is the foundation upon which the appeal for unity is predicated: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism: one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (4:4-6 NIV).

From these texts it is clear that individual Christians, like the various members of a physical body, are to demonstrate a unity in the midst of diversity. The image seems to be primarily an affirmation of variety in spiritual giftedness and not of a wide diversity in doctrine or creed. There are some clear statements that in some situations, unity may mean working toward a uniformity of understanding. Paul makes an appeal for the Corinthian believers to be “perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor. 1:10b), a concern reiterated elsewhere: “. . . until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature" (Eph. 4:13). While diversity in spiritual gifts actually enhances the unified functioning of the body, diversity in “mind and thought” can be an impediment.

Can we take this body image as not only a picture of local congregations but also as an appropriate model for the universal church? Can different denominations be seen as the hands and feet of a universal church body? Can different denominations be seen as the hands and feet of a universal church body? Oscar Cullman, in Unity Through Diversity, argues for a {78} "federalistic" ecumenical vision of the church from this sort of reading of 1 Corinthians 12. He suggests that while this application of the body metaphor may not have been the original intention, it is “certainly in accord with the apostle’s meaning.” 3 While it would certainly be incorrect to argue that Paul intends all the "eyes" to have their own congregation and all the "kneecaps" to have theirs, to suggest that denominations themselves form a part of a larger universal church "body" seems appropriate. The image, however, is not an escape hatch to justify the status quo. Instead, it challenges the present, because it calls for the kind of interaction and unity in the universal church which can be found among physical body parts.


It is clear that Christians cannot ignore the biblical call for unity. J. H. Yoder states “. . . Christian unity is just as clearly a Biblical imperative as are evangelization, nonresistance, and nonconformity . . .” 4 As a group committed to the Bible, Mennonite Brethren are forced to take these imperatives seriously. If we agree that the call for unity of the universal church is a serious one, there are a number of possible ways we could respond.

The first option would be to identify one’s own group with the "true" church and all others with various heretical tendencies, thus disqualifying them from the category of "Christian." At that point "unity" becomes theoretically more manageable since one has only to be concerned about the immediate group. There is clearly some biblical warrant for this approach. Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 refer to those who claim to be part of the true church but in the end are actually identified as part of the “synagogue of Satan.” 5 Simply embracing all groups who claim the "Christian" label would be inappropriate as a means to achieve unity. On the other hand, however, simply excluding all others is equally problematic. Early Anabaptists who were threatened with martyrdom for their radical "restitutionist" stance tended to associate their movement with the "true church" (rechte Kirche). An extreme statement of their evaluation of the Roman Catholic Church at that time is recorded in a statement presented at the Bern Colloquy (1538): {79}

. . . under the papacy there were no Christians. Everybody walked in darkness. Therefore the true church came to an end at some time, and we have made a new beginning upon the rule from which others had departed. 6

This basic position is held today by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and to varying degrees by Roman Catholics. 7 Few present-day Mennonite Brethren would want to argue that no other Christian group is worthy of inclusion in the body of Christ. Some would at least include other Mennonites, others would include some evangelicals, and still others would include various other denominations. Since it is inadequate to limit the true church to our own denomination, we must find a different way to be faithful to the biblical call for unity besides merely remaking it into a call for denominational unity.

A second possibility would be to suggest that all Christians already share a mystical sort of unity which is more significant than the external denominational divisions which seemingly separate Christians. One may suggest that this unity is evidenced by the sense of oneness Christians of many different denominations experience when they plan together and attend an evangelist’s crusade, or when they meet and talk after they notice the IXOYE decals on each other’s vehicles. The inadequacy of this conception of "unity" is evident once we again examine the "body" metaphor. If the members of the body worked together only once or twice a year or when they by chance happened to be moving in the same direction, the body as a whole would be severely crippled. While this sort of unity is clearly better than no unity at all, it is certainly not adequate in light of the New Testament imperatives.

A third possibility is to condone the present divisive situation. One may argue that the modern scenario differs so much from the first century that the biblical call for unity is an unattainable ideal which belonged to a different world, a world which contained a super-spiritual church where miraculous gifts and communal sharing were common. While this may appear to be a viable option, the picture of the early church which emerges in Acts and in the Epistles simply does not reflect a church that had no struggles with unity. The book of Acts records the "denominational" activities of the Judaizers (15:5) and a group of Hellenistic Jews (8:4, 27, 11:20ff, 26, 13:1ff). The most well-known recorded incident of disunity {80} is that found in the Corinthian community:

My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says “I follow Paul” ’ another, “I follow Apollos” ’ another “I follow Cephas” ’ still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:12-13 NIV).

The early church struggled with and was to some degree successful in overcoming impediments to unity. There is no New Testament support for limiting the call for church unity to the first century.

A fourth option is to enter into deliberate interaction and dialogue with Christian groups beyond one’s own denominational boundaries with a desire to seek a unity in the "knowledge of Christ" while recognizing a legitimate diversity of "gifts." This move could take many forms, from active interdenominational participation at the local level to full-blown ecumenicalism at the international level. The pros and cons of this option as well as the level of involvement which seems most appropriate still need to be explored.


The first and most powerful argument in favor of increased ecumenical involvement is that the appeal for unity in the body of Christ is a clear biblical mandate. Russel Mast, in a presentation to the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1960, articulated this conclusion most emphatically:

It is an appalling fact, to say the least, that the average Protestant, nay the average Mennonite can read the New Testament and yet have such an incredibly weak conscience on the disunity of the church both local and ecumenical. 8

The second argument which is often used is that ecumenical unity is an absolute necessity for the effective proclamation of the Gospel. A world that sees a church divided into denominations which are unwilling to work together will have a difficult time being convinced that the church is where the {81} God of love and reconciliation is present. Once again, to note John 17:2-23, unless the Church is one, the world will be unable to recognize Jesus’ relationship to the Father and subsequently his role and mission. This is certainly a vital reason for working toward increased unity. As Mast states: “. . . the divided nature of the church constitutes an intolerable handicap to its work and witness to the world.” 9

Another reason for increased ecumenical involvement derives from the theological understanding of God’s "oneness" which needs to be mirrored in the "oneness" of his church. The Old Testament formulary, “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Dt. 6:4), represents a central biblical affirmation concerning the nature of God. The existence of a deeply divided church is an affront to God’s nature.

In addition, some have suggested that increased ecumenical involvement creates a fine opportunity to share with other groups particular denominational distinctives based upon biblical truth. The ecumenical context allows for dialogue which is often not there when each denominational group is focused inward upon its own concerns. J. H. Yoder advocates this motivation for involvement: “. . . the conviction that we have a truth which others need should be a major reason for increased ecumenical involvement” 10 This “giving” must also be balanced by an awareness that the ecumenical dialogue can be a context for learning.

A final reason for increased involvement relates to very practical questions. The existence of a myriad of denominations often leads to the multiplication of denominational structures, schools, mission boards, etc., which in many cases represent needless duplication. Often, particularly in missions contexts, financial, physical, and human resources are wasted because of the inability of denominational groups to cooperate. On the local level, a number of small churches may limp along for years and never consider amalgamation with another Christian group. From a practical angle, there are some strong arguments for increased ecumenical involvement.

Although there are compelling theological and practical arguments for increased ecumenical involvement, opponents strongly caution about moves in this direction. Theirs are often critiques of the full-blown form of ecumenicalism and must be considered for validity in that light. {82}

The first of these is a doctrinal caution. Full-blown ecumenicalism may lead to an acceptance of only that which can be affirmed by all parties. This "lowest common denominator" is simply not acceptable to many people. Moreover, even what can be affirmed is interpreted differently by the parties involved. The World Council of Churches, the foremost ecumenical body in the world, defines itself as “a fellowship of Churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior.” 11 While this statement would appear acceptable to almost every Christian, debate over appropriate definition of terms has been vigorous. Edward John Carnell is an example of those who are unwilling to compromise here: “When a decision must be made between unity and truth, unity must yield to truth, for it is better to be divided by truth than to be united by error.” 12 The opposite "motto" of ecumenicalism is: “. . . where truth and love are in apparent conflict, love should prevail over truth as it is imperfectly apprehended . . .” 13 This question of giving up "truth" is one of the major concerns for denominational groups which emphasize the importance of particular doctrines, ethical stances, and hermeneutical methods.

A second concern is that bigness or a reunification of denominations may actually be a detriment in certain respects. While it is agreed that divisions can be a handicap to witness, there is no guarantee that "unity" and "bigness" will ensure a witness that is more effective. A church that is divided by denominational lines but has something to say may be more helpful than a massive ecumenical church that has lost its message or that operates at a constant stalemate. The issue of size itself may actually be in favor of maintaining smaller denominations. As Yoder notes:

There may well come a point where truly functioning unity is better served by numerous agencies in liaison with one another than by one large organization which is both mechanically unwieldy and a heightened temptation to politicizing, confusing various issues, and centralizing decisions. 14

"Structural ecumenicalism" may bring with it more encumbrances which will diminish rather than enhance the witness of the church in the world. {83}


There are certainly compelling reasons why denominations, and Mennonite Brethren in particular, should seek to be more "ecumenical" in their relationships with other churches. But, on the other hand, there are compelling reasons why some denominations, and Mennonite Brethren again in particular, would want to avoid certain pitfalls along that road. The question that emerges is what form of ecumenicalism or unity should Mennonite Brethren seek which will be faithful to the New Testament imperatives?

First, we should foster an understanding that different denominations can be bearers of various gifts and, therefore, are needed for the universal church as a whole to function. Cullmann’s extension of the "body" image to denominations can be helpful here. These gifts, however, must be understood not as doctrinal statements but rather as stylistic, historical, or relational strengths. Some churches have a rich liturgical history which they present as a "gift" for the edification of the whole universal body. Others have a style of lively praise, a style with a great concern for social justice in the community, or a history of successful missionary work in a certain country. Now clearly all of these denominations need each other to balance these various strengths, but it is not essential that they all become the same. Mennonite Brethren need to become involved with other denominations so they can benefit and learn from these different ‘gifts’ and so that others can benefit from them.

Secondly, we should foster an ecumenical dialogue to learn and to share theological understandings and ways of reading the Bible. Unlike gifts, which are not by their very nature given to everyone, theological truths are given to all of God’s people. In this sort of dialogue, the goal must be consensus and unity in the "knowledge of Christ." True dialogue acknowledges differences and does not simply turn a blind eye to major disagreements over soteriology, Christology, or ecclesiology. Some suggest that merely by "stripping down" our creed and not emphasizing the “peripheral trivia,” 15 we can find unity. True unity does not come by eliminating personalities and convictions but through honest and open dialogue which acknowledges very different readings of Scripture. If involvement in organizations such as the National Association {84} of Evangelicals (NAE) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) allows us this sort of helpful "unity-building," we should participate. If it does not, then we must pursue other avenues in order to build up the larger body of Christ in the world.

Thirdly, Mennonite Brethren churches should work together with other churches, at the local level particularly. We must be more willing to participate in inter-church activities sponsored by others and begin intentionally to plan events which we cannot accomplish without the help of other Christians from the local community. It is at the local level that the disunity of the church causes the most ill effects in terms of Christian witness.

Fourthly, we must teach and preach our confession of faith specifically in relation to other churches in our community. By emphasizing the many similarities while not ignoring the distinctives, we will be in a better position to appreciate the larger picture of God’s work in the world. The distinctives have provided a particular identity, certain gifts and insights which the larger body needs. We must also open ourselves to the distinctives of other denominations, which like other "Gospel" accounts, can enhance the picture. The question that may have to be asked in the future as these distinctives become less and less a characteristic of the average local Mennonite Brethren assembly or else as they become more and more the "common possession" of the larger church, is whether our denominational raison d’etre may eventually evaporate. If that is a result of true ecumenical dialogue and biblical discernment, then theoretically we should welcome that move. If it is a result of the failure of Mennonite Brethren faithfully to teach distinctives or of the overwhelming appeal through the visual and print media of other perspectives to the exclusion of our own, then we should mourn the loss.

Fifthly, Mennonite Brethren will have to continue to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they struggle with the hard questions. One of the greatest difficulties will be deciding which other churches to begin to work with. In some local situations working together with the Mennonite Church could be a major obstacle, while in other areas the question of working with the Catholic or Anglican churches may elicit a lengthy debate. Seeking an appropriate unity while being aware that not all "Christian" churches are faithful to their calling will require a great deal of prayer and compassion. This {85} is particularly acute for denominations, such as Mennonite Brethren who still parade their identity in part as an “over-againstness” in terms of other Mennonites, or earlier as “against” the Reformers, who in turn were “against” the Roman Catholic Church.

The suggestions given above for how Mennonite Brethren can move toward fulfilling God’s desire for a unified church do not solve many of the current practical difficulties. We must still decide whether we should put more money into denominational schools and mission programs if "evangelical" options are available which many would argue are able to meet the need. We must decide whether we will hold fast to our confession of faith as it stands with its distinctives or whether we will implement a two-tiered system where the distinctives will be optional. 16 We must decide whether we will plant churches in communities which are in need of a Christian presence or in communities which have many churches but no Mennonite Brethren presence.

We must face squarely why we are a denominational body. If it is to use a distinctive gift within the universal church or to share with others a specific understanding of biblical faithfulness, then let us maintain our identity and warmly enter into the ecumenical arena. If it is only to maintain an in-group and out-group, then the biblical mandate may mean something even more drastic for us. In either case, we must seek to function more faithfully as the body of Christ in the world, a call which will challenge all attempts to separate ourselves from other Christians—locally, denominationally, or globally. This "seeking" for unity, however, must be intentional and reflective or else the trends of defection and assimilation may create a bland unity which impoverishes rather than enriches the whole. This intentional and reflective action may actually maintain denominational structures in an attempt to create a unity which will more adequately reflect the true nature of the people of God. Unity is not simply created by changing a few labels or restructuring denominations. Unity comes as God’s Spirit works among his people to gift them for ministry and lead them into all truth. Only that sort of unity will enhance the church’s witness to the world. {86}


  1. Calvin Redekop, Mennonite Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, 29.
  2. Redekop, 43.
  3. Oscar Cullman, Unity Through Diversity. trans. M. E. Boring. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988, 17.
  4. J. H. Yoder, The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1958, 35.
  5. As D. Watson notes: “Not every claim to be a church is necessarily valid.” I Believe in the Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1978, 332.
  6. M. Haas, Quellen zur Geschichte der Taufer in der Schwiez: IV. Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1974, 293, cited in W. Klaassen, ed. Anabaptism in Outline. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981, 111 (emphasis mine).
  7. This is becoming less so particularly since Vatican 11.
  8. R. L. Mast, “The Contemporary Ecumenical Movement.” Unpublished manuscript presented at Centennial Study Conference, General Conference Mennonite Church, June 20-23, 1960, F6.
  9. Mast, F5.
  10. J. H. Yoder, “Mennonites and Contemporary Ecumenical Movements.” Unpublished manuscript presented at Centennial Study Conference, General Conference Mennonite Church, June 20-23, 1960, G-5.
  11. Quoted in G. Wainwright, The Ecumenical Moment. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983, 8.
  12. E. J. Carnell, “An Orthodox Protestant View,” Religion in Life (Spring, 1957):195, cited in Mast, F13.
  13. Wainwright, 63.
  14. Yoder, “Mennonites and Contemporary Ecumenical Movements;” G-3.
  15. D. Gerbrandt, “Church Unity—A Biblical Mandate.” A Senior Seminar Paper, MBBS, Spring 1983, 24.
  16. See J. E. Toews, “Correct Belief or Costly Discipleship?” Christian Leader 41 (October 25, 1988): 4-7.
Ken Esau, originally from Alberta, is a graduate of Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a senior in the Master of Divinity program at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, where he is also part-time instructor.

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