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Fall 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 2 · pp. 39–42 

Issues in Church Polity in the Brazilian Mennonite Brethren Church

Harry Janzen

Initially it is necessary to be aware of certain features of the churches in Brazil. There are really three types of Mennonite Brethren churches, each with its own distinctives and peculiarities. In the first place there are churches that originated as a result of immigration by a German ethnic group from Russia. This group, composed of people who arrived in Brazil around 1930, formed seven churches. These churches can be identified by their ethnicity, continued use of the German language, and missionary zeal. The missionary thrust, however, takes place away from the mother church. Traditionally these churches were guided by leaders developed within the congregation, who were elected democratically at the time of the annual assembly. Only during the last two decades have they switched to salaried pastors, who devote themselves exclusively to providing spiritual leadership for the church.

We cannot simply preserve the traditions of the last century.

The second group is composed of churches that were established as a result of the missionary endeavor by either the ethnic churches or through the North American Mennonite Brethren Mission {40} agency. Thus satellite churches developed, which initially depended directly on the mother churches, and at a later stage indirectly—for church construction and pastoral salaries. Other churches, founded by missionaries from abroad, received subsidies and construction funds mainly from foreign sources. These two groups of churches eventually joined to form the Brazilian Convention of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Since the majority of the members were of the lower social and economic class, it took a long time to develop autonomous leaders. Consequently, for many years either expatriate missionaries or members from the mother churches provided the leadership.

A third group consists of churches that are the result of missionary activity by the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Brazil. Originally the Association was composed of the ethnic churches. After uniting in the early 1960s to form the Association, they immediately began to send missionaries to those regions of the state of Santa Catarina where they themselves had settled originally. At first the work was conducted in German, as there were many descendants of German colonists in that area. But with the trend toward urbanization, many families moved to larger cities. As a result, the churches also became more urban and thus began the process of language transition. The population reached by the Association’s endeavors belong to a somewhat higher social class than those of the Convention, which has affected the issue of leadership.

One more observation may be helpful. During the last decade a number of leaders and prospective leaders were exposed to a trend that has become popular among Brazilian evangelicals: the notion that the pastor is “the man of God.” As such he has broad authority to order and command on the basis of “biblical principles” That view has dented or warped the traditional concept among Mennonite Brethren, whereby the church (the body) participated actively in decision making. According to the trend mentioned above, decisions are made on top and handed down. Without a doubt, the pastor is a man of God, but certainly not the only one in the congregation; and especially as he is not the head of the body. My impression is that at least in part this trend is a consequence of attributing excessive merit to spiritual gifts. Thus, when the proponents of such thinking recognize that they have the gift {41} of leadership, they simply assume the right to order and demand. According to that interpretation there is no room for a servant leader, and soon the church no longer participates—or but little—in the decisions that are made.

What have we done? What have we planned to do? What might be done in order really to discern and practice what the Bible teaches regarding church government?

In the German ethnic churches the question of government arose with the advent of the salaried pastors. Until that time the government had been congregational and democratic. But currently, on the one hand, the churches have a president and council; and on the other hand, a pastor, who cannot be relegated to merely a decorative role. A similar situation prevails in the churches that were planted through the missionary outreach of the Association. These churches, once they are organized and established, possess both a natural leadership and an Association missionary, who now has become a pastor. Because the missionaries were transformed into pastors, those churches experienced a series of administrative difficulties. Many of the workers did not know how to adjust in order to work with a council, or with congregational leaders who formerly had depended so much on them. Within the Convention churches, perhaps because of necessity or because of external influences, the pastor has usually been the president as well.

As Mennonite Brethren of Brazil we have been aware for some time that we cannot simply preserve the traditions of the last century, even though they were appropriate then for a rural environment. On the other hand, we do not wish to adopt just any novelty that comes our way. We need to contextualize the Word of God to the circumstances in which we live. For that purpose we have sponsored study conferences to deal with current issues. On such an occasion we earnestly studied the issue of church government. One aspect, for example, was the role of the pastor in relation to the function of the president of the council. We were amazed when we learned that historically the teaching elder (pastor) was superior to the governing elder (council president), until finally he became the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church. That made us evaluate the issue with more sensitivity. It also inclined us to be more skeptical of the current trend toward the authoritarian “man of God.” {42}

In addition to the factors already mentioned, there is one related to the preparation of our workers and pastors. Not all our leaders were trained in our own institution. And perhaps even in our own school the issues of polity and church government have not received sufficient emphasis. Thus we are now attempting to give due attention to this subject, from a biblical, Anabaptist perspective. In addition, the missions secretary of the Association (who supervises all the outreach activities of that body) has sought to help both the workers and the churches to discern and follow the biblical path.

From this it is evident that we have not arrived at perfection; but we are greatly concerned to recognize the instruction of the Bible for our context and then promptly to practice whatever will advance the cause of Christ.

Harry Janzen, formerly secretary of the Brazilian Mennonite Brethren Association, is the Director of Instituto e Seminário Biblico Irmaos Menonitas in Curitiba, Brazil.

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