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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 117–20 

Response to J. B. Toews

Response to “The Church Growth Theory and Mennonite Brethren Polity” by J. B. Toews 20/2 (1991): 102–13.

Herbert D. Neufeld

Toews’ brief overview of the primary leadership structures within other denominations provides a helpful backdrop for our consideration of Mennonite Brethren polity. His review of the historical Anabaptist-Mennonite approach to leadership will be a refreshing reminder for some that the Bible provided the primary source in shaping the church. But for others the suggestion that historically our polity has been a “modified Presbyterian polity” will come somewhat as a surprise. While we may have retained some aspects of the modified Presbyterian model, today this may be more true in theory than in reality. The self-sufficiency of the local congregation, the church’s embrace of the North American democratic process, and the undermining of the significance of leadership have all contributed to the departure from our earlier position.


On the local church scene Mennonite Brethren governance has also experienced a considerable shift, as outlined by Toews. The shift that happened in the 1960s was influenced by the introduction of the “hired pastor” system and by the reaction to the “governance structure” that was “fairly hierarchical.” Some of the greatest resistance to any kind of “hierarchy” seems to come from those with a lingering memory of those earlier structures. My limited experience would suggest that younger members, and those coming from other backgrounds, do not share such resistance when considering new leadership structures. A large percentage of our people would {118} in fact encourage a leadership model made up of a team of godly, trusted leaders who with the pastor are seen as “guardians of Scripture in nurture, fellowship, and watchcare for the life and needs of the flock.” Obviously such leadership must enjoy the confidence of the membership and their involvement in “deliberations and decision-making” where appropriate. There also will need to be some “renewal” in our understanding of the concept of the “priesthood of believers,” understood as meaning that every member is involved in ministry rather than that every member votes on every issue.

The lack of clear guidance from the conference level regarding leadership models on the local level has resulted in the emergence of a variety of esestructures. This has made for confusion, conflict and hurts. Of equal concern is the growing sense of fragmentation regarding commitment to the work of the larger conference. The fear of any kind of “hierarchy” with any “authority” has negatively impacted the function of leadership in our conference. As stated by Anabaptist scholar, Rodney Sawatzky, “Unless we recapture a more balanced view of leadership which includes respect for the ‘office’ as well as that of ‘function’ we are in danger of total disintegration as a conference.” The New Testament supports such a view (1 Thess. 5:13; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17). Without a change of support and respect for those discerned for leadership roles, we essentially cast a vote for a “chaplaincy” approach to leadership which has little hope of calling individuals and local churches to be accountable.


J. B. Toews recognizes that the Church Growth Movement has contributed to the renewal emphasis on evangelism, but on the issue of leadership he sees this movement as having more negatives than strengths. Some of the weaknesses cited cannot easily be ignored, e.g., the over-emphasis on the pastoral role defined as the “CEO of a corporation or the commander of an army.” Such leadership models are “highly centralized and autocratic” and clearly do not fit our understanding of a New Testament leadership model.

On the other hand, the Church Growth Movement does address the functional responsibility of leadership which includes “motivating and training lay leadership to reach {119} people for Christ and the church.” Both of these functions could be much stronger in many of our churches. The examples of our early Anabaptist leaders and the record of the New Testament reflect the kind of leaders which were clearly visionary and committed to aggressive evangelism. They may well appear “autocratic” to our generation.

Toews’ three cases from three Mennonite Brethren churches appear one-sided. We obviously cannot deny that these churches grew rapidly under “strong centralized leadership” and then declined and/or experienced a crisis when that pastor left. There are, however, some additional factors which must be considered in such church experiences. 1) Since the assimilation of newcomers is a key factor in retaining such members, how did the more traditional members accept these newcomers, or was the pastor the primary association for the newcomers? 2) Active participation and the sense that “I am needed” is another important factor for staying in fellowship. Some churches carefully protect leadership positions for the inner circle. 3) What kind of responsibility does a congregation have in choosing a suitable successor to lead the church when a gifted pastor leaves? This choice of a successor may in fact be as significant in the decline of the church as the former pastor was a factor in its growth. The number of choices of churches where individuals can worship and serve will not diminish in this next decade. Many factors will determine whether or not people will attend our churches.

While there will always be some negative samples to cite, there also are many examples in which strong centralized leadership has produced very positive models. The challenge we face is how to take the best ingredients from a variety of models and incorporate these into our churches.


In our conference a “modified Presbyterian polity” may be more true in theory than in practice today.

The change in “church polity” is happening faster in our churches than in our conference. The mobility of the membership, healthy church growth, outside influences and the size of some churches make this necessary.

Conference loyalty can no longer be assumed. The diversity of leadership in our churches, a growing number of new {120} Christians, and members coming in from other traditions are all making their impact.

The respect for the “office” of leadership as well as the “function” of leadership must be re-established.

Leadership without the authority to hold individuals and churches accountable will not be very helpful. We need a renewed commitment both to submit and to support.

Some biblical and practical guidelines prepared by conference leadership could greatly assist churches in developing local leadership structures. To neglect this is to assure greater diversity. The strengths and weaknesses of the Church Growth Movement should be considered in these proposals.

Herb Neufeld
Provincial Conference Minister
British Columbia

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