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Fall 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 2 · pp. 28–38 

Issues in Church Polity for North American Mennonite Brethren

Isaac Block

The question of authority is one of the central issues in the Mennonite Brethren Church in North America. The church is calling for strong leadership from those in the ordered ministry. 1 At the same time, these persons are expected to lead with restraint. At times the autonomy of the local church is called into question by denominational decision-making bodies. At other times the authority of the denomination is called into question by local churches and leaders. Sometimes the authority of a district or provincial Conference to make decisions apart from the larger Conference is called into question. All of these are issues in church polity for North American Mennonite Brethren leaders, churches, and Conferences.

Polity issues mask a pragmatic and irregular practice with rhetoric of “brotherhood.”

My thesis is that while the rhetoric regarding polity in the Mennonite Brethren Church tends to be that of “brotherhood,” in practice it tends to be pragmatic and irregular.


The term polity refers to the administration and government of the church {29}, including the relation between individuals and groups within a denomination. Paul M. Harrison thinks of polity in fairly comprehensive terms.

Polity is the sociological manifestation of doctrinal belief, it is the political expression of the content of the gospel as interpreted by members of the religious group. 2

This definition leaves no doubt that a relationship exists between the belief system of the church and the structures by which it is governed. Moreover, the system by which the church is governed is an interpretation of the church’s understanding of the gospel.

If Harrison is right, then the first issue that must be raised is one of theology. There must be congruency between the church’s doctrine and its practice. The doctrine of the gospel is that the one who was rich became poor so that poor people could be made rich through him. 3 The immediate instruction for the church is to divest itself of power in order to empower the weak, rather than to defend and protect its centers of power. One example of this principle could be for the church to change the agenda in relation to the ministry of women. At least in practice, if not in theory, the ordination service is a service of empowering. Having been empowered though, it is not fitting that these persons set limitations on who may have access to this power. Instead of asking if women should be ordained for ministry in the church, the church--and particularly those who have already been empowered in it--should ask how those who are weaker can be empowered for ministry. A polity based on the doctrine of the historical Christ event has potential to revolutionize the Mennonite Brethren Conference.

J. L. Schaver, in his book, The Polity of the Churches, defines polity in somewhat different terms. His simplest definition makes no reference to belief systems. He writes, “By church polity is meant the extensive system by which a denomination governs itself or is governed.” 4 Thus Sehaver seems to be comfortable with a secular view that applies to the church as well as to any other organization.

Polity refers to the general way in which a denomination’s system of government can be described and differentiated from the systems of other denominations. The following questions are appropriate in polity discussion. Is the system of {30} government hierarchical? Is it egalitarian? Are the congregations within the denomination dependent, independent, or interdependent? How do individual churches connect with each other? What is the function of the ordered ministry?


The North American Mennonite Brethren Church has tended to identify its polity as a brotherhood polity. 5 Since this is a polity that is not normally discussed in the literature, attention to it will be given here.

Brotherhood, as North American Mennonite Brethren churches have understood it, has a set of its own characteristics. It is based on mutual trust, respect, and submission. In its ideal form it is hard to pinpoint the center of power from which authority is ultimately derived. Mutual trust, respect, and submission have greater value than does the possession of the power to control. In a brotherhood polity, trust, respect, and submission are focused on people rather than on offices or organizations. When this polity is operative, churches and new pastors devote considerable time and energy to facilitate the assimilation process. Unless new pastors have led the congregation in meaningful experiences of worship, responsibly opened the Word of God to the congregation, and provided a sensitive caring ministry, they will not be trusted as agents of change. Normally this process takes at least one year. A brotherhood polity takes this sociological phenomenon of assimilation seriously.

Four significant features have helped shape the current polity of the Mennonite Brethren Church. These, now to be highlighted, are: i) a commissioned paper by the Committee of Reference and Counsel (CRC); ii) a 1951 resolution of the CRC; iii) the development of a unified seminary; and iv) the professionalization of the ordered ministry.

A Commissioned Paper

In 1949 the CRC of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America identified the problem of polity and asked the executive to prepare a statement on biblical church polity. 6 B. J. Braun, a prominent Mennonite Brethren leader, wrote a paper under the title, “The Scriptural Teaching on Organization and Government of the Local Church.” 7 The intent of the assignment {31} was to work towards the writing of a definitive statement on Mennonite Brethren church polity.

Braun asserted that in their polity, “Mennonite Brethren have been very closely akin to the Baptists,” 8 who have a long tradition of being congregational in their polity. Braun clearly felt some uneasiness with congregationalism when it is free to flourish without restraint. In this regard he raised these questions.

In what sense and to what extent is the local church autonomous and independent? Are the terms autonomy and independence synonymous? Are they biblical? Are decisions of the Conference binding upon a local church? 9

Braun came to the following conclusions which he said are based on “our Scriptural faith and the constitutional provisions.” 10

    1. That each local church is independent in the administration of its internal affairs and functions as an independent unity.
    2. That we as a conference are a Brotherhood of Churches. We are, as our name implies, The Church of the Mennonite Brethren Conference of North America, not the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches of North America. As such we carry mutual responsibility for the spiritual conditions in the churches and for the preservation of the purity of faith and doctrine as expressed in our practice.
    3. That we as churches of the Conference recognize resolutions and decisions of the Conference as morally binding and obligate ourselves to observe and carry them out to the best of our ability as faithful and cooperating members of the Brotherhood. 11 [He added this note: “It was moved, seconded, and accepted with only two dissenting votes.” Yearbook of the 45th General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, 1951, pp. 129, 130.] With this momentous action the Mennonite Brethren as a brotherhood finally emerged with a crystallization that the principle of interdependence of believers in a denomination is equally as precious and scriptural as the principle of independence.

Having made this statement of principle, Braun went on to {32} describe the administrative personnel of the local church. For Braun, the administrative personnel consisted of four groups of church officers, namely, the ministers, deacons, church council, and trustees. Here reference will be made only to the ministers.

Braun maintained that the ministers of today are the Presbyter-Bishops of the New Testament. In deference to J. B. Toews he said,

Every name employed in the Scriptures to designate God’s minister implies the idea of superintendency, authority, and leadership. He is therefore to be recognized, respected, obeyed, and supported in his leadership. 12

Clearly this was a very high view of the ministers’ office in the church; one wonders whether it is really compatible with a community and/or congregational polity. Braun’s view fits more easily with episcopalian and presbyterian polities. Seen in the overall context of Braun’s paper, his view focused much more sharply on the ministers’ relationship with God in terms of the ministry than on the ministers’ relationship with the congregation. Church polity, however, does not normally address the matter of the relationship between God and the church or between God and the ministers. At the local level, it has to do with the relationship of the ordered ministry to the congregation, and in the Conference it has to do with the relationship of leaders to the Conference and of local churches and area conference to the General Conference.

Braun conceded that in at least three areas the Mennonite Brethren Church had adopted Presbyterian principles in working out its polity. He said,

(1) We believe in councils on the local level, and in assemblies on the Conference level; (2) we believe in the equality of the ministers; (3) we believe in the people’s right. 13

When he drew together all he had said about the polity of the Mennonite Brethren Church, Braun stated,

By careful selection in the light of God’s word, and by peaceful blending into one polity much that is good in both [congregational and presbyterian polity], we have come to a Brotherhood concept of church polity. 14

In the light of Braun’s comments, the current preoccupation {33} in Mennonite Brethren Churches for a bent towards a presbyterian polity is an old phenomenon. Braun’s paper highlights either the reluctance of the Mennonite Brethren Church to accept a brotherhood polity, or its confusion and uncertainty in matters of polity.

A Formal Proposal on Polity

In 1951 the CRC indicated to the delegates at the convention that the denomination had two options on polity. It could adopt the “association idea” or it could adopt the idea of an “interdependent brotherhood.” 15 The CRC noted that the association idea was a convenient idea to which independent churches resorted when they had insufficient resources for the projects they wished to undertake. In this way the association became a resource center to which member churches had access.

The notion of the interrelated brotherhood was based on the principle of an “organism where the independence of the individual remains subordinate to the larger body.” The idea of the interrelated brotherhood grew out of an understanding of interdependence.

As part of their report, the CRC recommended the establishment of a Board of Elders to meet more fully the expressed needs of the churches in the Conference. 16 This was a deliberate move in the direction of a presbyterian polity. The proposed Board of Elders was to have duties both in relation to the Conference and in relation to local church. In relation to the Conference the report stated:

It shall be the responsibility of the board of Elders after the example of Acts 15 to advise and guide our brotherhood in all matters pertaining to doctrines and church polity. 17

In relation to the local churches, this Board was to have the responsibility of watching over the spiritual life of the churches and districts. Cases of ministers taking doctrinally unsound and unscriptural positions were to be referred to this Board. All rulings of the Board would be considered final till the matters could be presented to the General Conference. The fact that after three years of review in the churches this recommendation was not supported is an indication that the membership of the Conference had authority over the elected officers. A congregational polity rather than a presbyterian {34} polity won the day.

Polity, Development of Institutions and Dissent

In the late 1940s the Mennonite Brethren Conference was deeply concerned about Conference unity. A number of initiatives were taken to address this matter. One of these was the election of “a commission to consider and study the practical aspect of a Mennonite Brethren seminary.” 18 The discussion of the seminary raised two important issues. The one had to do with the possible professionalization of the ordered ministry—to be dealt with later. The other had to do with the right to dissent within the polity of the day—to which we now turn.

In 1954 a resolution to establish a unified seminary was brought forward. Before the delegates voted on this resolution, the Moderator of the Canadian Conference interrupted the proceedings and announced on behalf of the Canadian delegates that they would abstain from the discussions and that the matter should be regulated as an area issue. 19 In terms of polity, this action raised the question of jurisdiction. Does an area Conference have the right of dissent? J. H. Quiring, at a meeting of the CRC in 1958, asked: “Should district or area Conferences be permitted to come to the General Conference with a ready-made decision and vote as a block?” 20 It is of interest that the minutes record that “These questions arose in the minds of ‘Brethren’ who have been strongly influenced by congregationalism and democracy.”

The records do not show that the question of dissent within the Conference’s polity was settled. In 1975 a resolution was adopted whereby the ownership of the seminary was transferred from the U.S. Area Conference to the General Conference. As to polity and procedure, it is clear from the records that the Conference leaders were not able to institute the joint seminary program until the Area Conferences and the churches within those Conferences had given their consent to this action. Once again the Conference rejected a presbyterian or episcopalian polity.

Had Mennonite Brethren polity been properly congregational, a dissenting voting block would have been disallowed even though parliamentary procedure might have accommodated a minority report. Ideally, in the congregational system the will of the majority would have been determined, and appropriate action taken. Was this action in 1975 an example {35} of a community polity in which there was mutual trust, respect, and submission? Hardly, since the dissent seems to have come to the delegates as a surprise. It may be that the most accurate way to describe Mennonite Brethren polity in this instance is to say that it was pragmatic. A particular approach was chosen that would bring about a particular result. The virtues of the traditional “brotherhood” concept seem not to have been taken into account.

Currently, the B.C. Conference is testing the principles of dissent within the operative polity of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. It has served notice that it intends to discontinue its financial support of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College. Commenting on this action, J. H. Quiring wrote, “I find the unilateral action of the B.C. Conference to withdraw support for MBBC unacceptable. It is not a good omen for the future.” 21 His position is based on polity of interrelatedness in which one of the parts does not have the permission to dissent. The test will come when the delegates in convention are faced with a resolution to regionalize higher education in the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

Polity and Professionalization

Earlier I indicated that the discussions about a proposed seminary raised the issue of professionalization in the pastorate. Did this have any bearing on the question of church polity? According to Alastair V. Campbell, there are four criteria for professionalism. i) There must be a particular body of knowledge associated with specific skills that require a lengthy period of education and training. ii) There must be test of knowledge and competence before qualification and practice. iii) There must be colleague supervision and discipline. And, iv) there must be adherence to an ethical code that stresses service to others above personal interests. 22

With the emergence of the seminary, the first criterion of professionalism seems to have been met. The exception, however, is that the Mennonite Brethren Conference has no predetermined requirements, except that candidates for ordination must complete a doctrinal questionnaire and adhere to the Confession of Faith. This provision, however, does not by itself qualify as a body of knowledge. The only tests of knowledge and competence that are administered formally are those {36} administered by the schools in which pastors train for ministry. The ordination questionnaire is a test of orthodoxy more than a test of knowledge. There is no clearly defined system for colleague supervision and discipline. Although several Conferences have Conference Ministers, their function is not supervision and discipline. If there is an ethical code, its emphasis is on Christian morality and Christian virtues as much as on service to others.

While there has been some movement among pastors in the direction of professionalization, pastors do not function as a professional group. So the question must be asked: If the pastors of the Mennonite Brethren Conference should professionalize, would this have an impact on the polity of the Church? I propose that it would. This may, however, turn out to be a positive move since pastors would become less vulnerable. There would be a greater emphasis on monitoring the competency of pastors, on dealing with their conduct, and on supervision and discipline. Churches would be more careful in dealing with questions of tenure and job security. Pastors would have a clearer sense of what it means to a be a pastor in the Mennonite Brethren Church.

The principles of mutual trust, respect, and submission that are descriptive of a “brotherhood” or community polity need not be compromised by professionalizing the pastorate. These could be the principles that would guide the negotiations between churches and their pastors. Professionalizing the pastorate would place limitations on the church to function with a congregational polity. Churches could then no longer simply use the ballot to make decisions about pastors’ continuing ministry. The process would have to be dialogical, and include the pastor in question, the congregation, the Conference, and the professional organization. In my view, this procedure holds considerable promise for a community polity.


One final issue that must be raised is the issue of the function and style of leadership. The orientation to a leadership style that is being promoted by the Church Growth Movement generally assumes that the pastors have the power to be in charge of the church. There is an expectation that in {37} order for the church to be successful, the pastors must develop a supportive and compliant followership. For the most part, this orientation in Mennonite Brethren churches is leader-driven. Many members of congregations are confused and bewildered about their own roles in the church. Church members frequently are not as ready for a style that is essentially episcopalian in its orientation. It raises questions about mutual trust, respect, and submission. In order for this issue to be clarified, leaders and non-leaders must be dialogical in their approach so that the issues can be illuminated from all points of view. This requires a process based on a polity of Christian community.


On the surface the Mennonite Brethren Church appears to be confused about its polity. In deference to the notion of “brotherhood,” it has tended to be pragmatic. Mutual trust, respect, and submission have been ideals, but they have not always been the guiding principles. It may be that a pragmatic approach to polity is satisfactory. My appeal is for our Conference to define the largest system by which it is governed more precisely so that there will be fewer disputes over jurisdiction at both the local church and at the Conference levels. Such clarification would make possible clearer delegation of authority. In turn, leaders would have the opportunity to lead with a higher level of confidence and certainty. Their lines of accountability would also be drawn more clearly.


  1. The ordered ministry in this paper has reference to those persons who are ordained or commissioned ministers whose primary vocation is the practice of ministry.
  2. Paul M. Harrison, Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959, 5.
  3. 2 Cor. 8:9.
  4. J. L. Schaver, The Polity of the Churches, Chicago: Church Polity Press, 1947, Vol. 1,65.
  5. The term brotherhood is sexist and exclusive. In this context though, it must be used, since that is the term that has been used for decades. There is a movement in the direction of replacing the term brotherhood with the term community. In my references to historical phenomena, I will use the term brotherhood. In my references to the present and the future, I will use the term community. {38}
  6. Committee of Reference and Counsel, (CRC) The Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, January 21, 1949.
  7. B.J. Braun, “The Scriptural Teaching on Organization and Government of the Local Church," Minutes of the Continuation Study Conference, sponsored by CRC, Denver, Colorado, July 14, 1958.
  8. Ibid., 7.
  9. Ibid., 8.
  10. Ibid., 9.
  11. Ibid., 9, 10.
  12. Ibid., 10.
  13. Ibid., 13.
  14. Ibid.
  15. General Conference Yearbook (GCY), 1951, 127.
  16. Ibid., 131.
  17. Ibid., 132.
  18. GCY, 1948, 76.
  19. GCY, 1954, 62.
  20. CRC, July 16, 1958.
  21. Letter to the editor, Mennonite Brethren Herald, April 6, 1990, 13.
  22. Alastair V. Campbell, Professionalism and Pastoral Care, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, 20.
Isaac I. Block is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Ministries at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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