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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 122–25 

Book Review

A Pilgrimage of Faith. The Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia and North America, 1860-1990

J. B. Toews. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1993. 374 pages.

Reviewed by Peter J. Klassen

Few leaders in the Mennonite Brethren Church (MBC) have had so profound an impact upon it as has the author of this impressive volume. During more than half a century of service to the church, he has often provided decisive insight in defining church theology, reshaping its missionary program, modifying church polity, and building church educational programs.

Toews prefers to view himself as a servant, rather than a leader of the church he helped to shape, and so often inspired. Now, from the heights to which his remarkable gifts propelled him, he surveys the Mennonite Brethren world and presents his findings and analyses.

In his comments about the origin of the MBC, Toews stresses the spiritual and ethical decay that had sapped the vitality of the Mennonites in Russia. The new movement stressed biblicism and spiritual vigor; some readers, however, may feel that economic, social, intellectual and familial issues should also be recognized as causative and formative elements. Also, to minimize the impact of Pietism, yet praise the frequent prayers, Bible studies and comments about joyous religious experience seems problematic. The discussion of the isolation of the Russian Mennonites might have been modified by references to dozens of visits and exchange of letters between them and Mennonites elsewhere. Interestingly, just a few years before the founding of the MBC, Carl Harder, pastor in Koenigsberg, later in Elbing, wrote about the dangers posed by Pietism and Rationalism. Perhaps the tension between Pietism and the dormant formalistic, ritualistic religiosity that Toews examines should be seen as a creative, formative factor. The result, as Toews shows, was an energized, biblically centered, experientially oriented movement of renewal that claimed the spiritual and theological legacy of Anabaptism.

In his survey of various historic events, Toews moves freely from Russia to North America. He examines the first Mennonite Brethren conference in North America, then comments on the development of the first official Confession of Faith in Russia, soon to be adopted in North America. I wish he had shared with us high insights into the process by which the Russian churches developed their statement: study groups, conferences, circulation of drafts to all congregations. When the process was concluded, the document was mostly composed of biblical quotations. Toews notes that a revised confession was adopted in North America in {123} 1975. The new statement was far more theological and interpretive than the 1902 version. Again, it would have been fascinating to read Toews’ analysis of this change in perspective. Was theological interpretation substituted for biblicism?


It is, of course, not surprising that this stimulating survey of the MBC provides many penetrating analyses of the interaction of theological belief and ethical expression. In the process, Toews sometimes cites instances that, at least to this reader, suggest that earlier forms of church leadership were not necessarily more successful in harmonizing faith and practice than are the leaders of today. Various restrictions on personal appearance, lifestyle, etc., were condemned on the basis of “worldliness,” yet later such restrictions were simply forgotten. Was the earlier church too rigid? Are we seeing this scenario being replayed in instances such as those of congregations recently formed in Germany by emigrants from Russia? Again, I believe that the stature and experience of the author could have provided incisive analysis. Elsewhere, Toews has noted significant shifts in cultural accommodation.

I would have liked Toews to explain more fully why he feels Pietism and the “Alliance Movement” stimulated nationalism and military accommodation. The Dutch and German Mennonites didn’t seem to need such a stimulus when they surrendered their peace position. Or was the Selbstschutz (self-defense) in significant measure an outgrowth of self-preservation interests on the part of estate owners? Is it coincidental that these estate owners were also often the sponsors of Bible conferences?

Toews deserves to be congratulated for having addressed the thorny question of rigid “legalism” that ostensibly drew its inspiration from spiritual concern (e.g., pp 75ff). In view of his own broad range of experience and observation, it would have been most instructive if he had provided not only a narrative account, but also incisive examination of the purposes of these restrictive policies, and the reasons for their subsequent relaxation, then eventual rejection. Curiously, subsequent accommodations were often justified by changing interpretations of biblical passages. Were our forebears wrong in demanding external conformity to standards later dismissed as irrelevant? To justify rigidity on the basis of resisting worldliness is not convincing, since presumably our surrounding culture is no less “worldly” today than it was half a century ago. Is it too much to ask that we should sometimes admit that positions we once championed, indeed, defended on “biblical” grounds, were wrong, that too often we have used Scripture to control the church, to protect culture, power and authority? {124}


One of the more important aspects of MBC life that Toews examines is that of leadership in the church. He notes that the advent of the “pastor as CEO” (p 227) has robbed the congregation of the use of many of its spiritual resources. His wide experience and perceptive observation allow him to express some very sobering concerns. I suspect many pastors would have welcomed a prescription for reform and renewal. No doubt, Toews is right when he speaks of the individualism that undermines the covenant community. Members assert their “right” to individual freedom from community direction; congregations express the same independence vis-à-vis the conference. Toews calls the reader to reflect on what may well be one of the church’s most pressing and divisive dilemmas. At the same time, Toews notes that sometimes, as in the discussion of the mode of baptism, extensive dialogue and significant congregational involvement can help to bring resolution.

Toews clearly outlines his conviction that, in earlier times, the MBC enjoyed the blessing of multiple leadership that arose from within the congregation, and held its position by virtue of trust and confidence. The introduction of paid pastors changed this traditional (and effective) model of leadership (pp 219ff). With his wealth of experience, and his own distinguished record as leader in several capacities, the author convincingly presents a sobering analysis. I suspect that some readers will suggest that perhaps one ought also to recognize that sometimes traditional leadership patterns tended to be authoritarian and coercive, as when a young writer (from one of the centers of church leadership that Toews mentions) challenged a community with his first probing novel. Certainly, we owe much to our spiritual ancestors, but perhaps we need to admit that the spiritual giants of the past also had feet of clay. How else can we explain a patriarchal system that effectively barred women from positions of leadership and often silenced them in church deliberations? How else do we interpret an authoritarianism that often led young academics and professionals to seek a church home elsewhere?

The author presents a number of sobering insights about challenges facing the MBC today. As a prince of the pulpit, as well as respected evangelist, he is in a good position to pinpoint factors that bring healthy growth or debilitating atrophy to a congregation. His warnings about being led by experiences and feelings of the moment, rather than biblical principles, should lead us to reflect on why our efforts to build the kingdom have so often fallen short. In particular, the comments about erosion of commitment to biblical patterns (chapters 20-22) are cause for grave concern. In his own inimitable way, Toews warns us, but also shows the {125} way to biblical renewal, spiritual vitality and community relevance. Like Bonhoeffer, Toews alerts us to the dangers of “cheap grace”; at the same time, he sounds the alarm against a religiosity which professes faith, yet evidences no dependent bond with the source of living faith, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church.

A few instances of editorial or proofreading oversights may be noted: “Foreward” (p vii) should be “Foreword”; Westin Gunnar (p 300) is actually Gunnar Westin; Mecklenburg (p 355) is misspelled; John Knox (p 245) would have been surprised to learn of his peregrinations, since he was actually barred from England; the use of a German Umlaut is inconsistent.

For those who wish to gain a better understanding of the MBC, this volume is essential reading. JB, as he is affectionately and respectfully known, has once again broadened our vision and deepened our insights as he has shared freely with us. His love for the church that he has helped to shape, and to which he has devoted his life, is an inspiration to all of us. Once again, he has placed us all in his debt.

Dr. Peter J. Klassen
Dean, Department of Social Sciences
California State University, Fresno, Calif.

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