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Fall 2012 · Vol. 41 No. 2 · pp. 226–238 

Church and School: Compañeros in Growing People of Faith in the Anabaptist–Mennonite Brethren Tradition

Alfred Neufeld

Looking back upon our short 150-year Mennonite Brethren (MB) history, it occurs to me that lately some strange paradigm shifts have been taking place. I might be exaggerating, but bear with me as I offer the following intriguing observations. We seem to have been a revival movement that has recently moved from one position to another:

Church and school are partners in betting on the foolishness of the cross.

  • From Christian ecumenism to apologetic anti-ecumenism.
  • From pioneering the Christian school and higher education idea to skepticism about the Christian mission of academics.
  • From conference-covenant community (Bundesgemeinde) to the autonomy and priority of the local church and congregation.
  • From team leadership with a rather anti-clerical attitude to senior pastor licensed professionalism.
  • From renewal of Anabaptist identity (a new Spirit for the house of Menno) to skepticism about Anabaptist radical perspectives.

MBs have been pioneers of contextual theology (Paul Hiebert, Hans Kasdorf), but they have often fallen into the two pitfalls of being either too reactionary (rebaptism by immersion; radical ban on alcohol) or too uncritical of their environment (abandoning Anabaptism in favor of modern, commonsense evangelicalism).

The topic given to me involves three key assumptions: (1) that church and school can be partners; (2) that the common goal of these two institutions is to “grow people of faith”; and (3) that there is something we rightly might call an Anabaptist Mennonite Brethren tradition.

Each also raises a wide range of questions: Church and school should be partners, but have they been so in the past? What kinds of workable models do we have that might make the two happy, successful, efficient, and fall deeply in love with each other?

“Growing people of faith” also involves at least three assumptions: (1) that the whole Christian experience of conversion and discipleship can be theologically summarized in the word “growing”; (2) that the goal is to form a people (although evangelism and education have as their main subject and object the individual, we want the outcome of both efforts to be sociological: the ability to live as people of God); and (3) that people of faith can just mean what the original Greek term pistis means: people of obedience, people who have confidently handed their lives over to the control of someone else, people who, like Moses, left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. It is said of him, “He persevered because he saw him who is invisible” (Heb.11:27).

A Brainstorming Session on Church and School

  1. Jenny—Librarian: The church and the school “both have to function organically as a body and reflect the body of Christ.”
  2. Chris—Coordinator English Department: As with the Ingalls family (Little House on the Prairie) and in the Old Mennonite villages, the same building and spiritual atmosphere make it a school during the week and a church on Sunday.
  3. Carlos—Student pastor: School and church operate with the same Christian principles. They aim to produce a change in lifestyle and in cultural paradigms proposing a “Christian counter-culture.”
  4. Mechi—Coordinator, Department of Education: School is a support and an extension of church. Together with the family, the three constitute the educational community.
  5. Leidy—Administrative secretary: The school should give continuity to the values held by the family.
  6. Maia—Academic secretary: Church and school both aim at the formation of character.
  7. Rodrigo—Vice Coordinator, English Department: Although Jesus was a teacher and rabbi, the different roles of church and school should not be mixed up too much.
  8. Roland—Administrative director: School and church grew out of the synagogue tradition. School and church should operate according to the same logic.
  9. Yamili—Psychologist/Human Resources: School and church have the same purpose—to restore the imago dei.
  10. María Angélica—Coordinator, Department of Social Work: School and church work towards transformation of social realities.

Basic Issues regarding Christian education

Some theological dialectics require that we be able to stretch and to hold in creative tension things that need to be held together. Regarding the topic of education there are at least six sets of dual dynamics:

  1. Conversion and discipleship;
  2. Creation care and creator worship;
  3. Church ethics and public ethics;
  4. First creation and new creation;
  5. Christ and culture revisited: kingdom dialysis;
  6. The cross: victor quia victima.

Redefining the Anabaptist and MB “Tradition”

There is still ongoing debate among scholars about the essence of the Anabaptist dissent of 1525 as well as about the essence of the MB dissent in 1860. But there is no question that both moments of breaking with tradition emerged from the strong desire to renew and reform all of the Christian church in the sixteenth century and all of South Russian Mennonitism in the 1860s. In the case of MBs, their vision of renewal was realized in two ways: through evangelism and through the Christian school movement. Evangelism would result in conversions and in congregations of true believers and followers of Jesus. The Christian school movement would take the place of the old Lehrdienst (teaching ministry) but open up minds and hearts to a change of lifestyle, to an openness toward Russian culture, and to a more democratic and congregational way of handling church matters.

In the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB) as well as in the Mennonite World Conference (MWC), vigorous academic work has lately been done on our theological identity. MWC’s Shared Convictions, the ICOMB Confession of Faith, and two draft papers by the Faith and Life Commission redefine the “Anabaptist tradition” and seek to extend the Anabaptist identity to the four elements that shall unite our global community: fellowship, worship, service, and witness.

A Mosaic of Memories

I am not very good at narrative theology, but all of my theological work is profoundly biographical and contextual. Whatever I have to say has grown out of interaction with friends, books, and specific situations and historical contexts.

  • Manfred Siebald was my favorite singer-songwriter in the early 1970s. Thanks to the newly-invented tape recorder, we in the remote Filadelfia Chaco bush were able to listen to “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins singers and to new songs from the legendary “Christival” Christian youth festivals held in Germany. Siebald wrote the lead song, “Gott lädt uns ein zu seinem Fest.” Its powerful theological statement, Können wir heute schon feiern und tanzen, hat sich schon was getan? Ja, denn Gott will die Erde erneuern und fängt bei uns schon an, is vivid in my memory and still echoes in my ears today. “Yes, we can already start celebrating and dancing today, because things are happening. For God wants to renew the earth and he’s already started with us.”
  • Wolfgang Vorländer and Federico Pagura. When we wrote the ICOMB Confession of Faith, Lynn Jost and I worked hard to introduce eschatological hope as kind of leitmotiv for the first part (“How God works in the world”) as well as for the second (where we covenant to be a “People of hope”). I even titled my introduction to theology, Vivir Desde el Futuro de Dios (Living in the Light of God’s Future). Wolfgang Vorländer’s book, Gelebte Hoffnung (Lived Hope), and Federico Pagura’s famous Tango of Hope keep impacting me. We should learn from Jewish readers and read our Bibles from the back to the front once in a while, or even better, from the future to the past, from Revelation 22 to Genesis 1.
  • Francis Schaeffer and Luis Lutzbetak. Hans Kasdorf introduced me to Lutzbetak’s revolutionary new concepts of culture as “design for living” and as “mental roadmap.” In Switzerland, Francis Schaeffer impacted us with his profound conviction: People act the way they think. I have believed that cultural programming is the primary determinant in humans’ everyday behavior and decision making ever since.
  • Johannes Reimer and Miroslav Volf. I will never forget the first time I heard Miroslav Volf in London in the 1990s and bought his book, Exclusion and Embrace. And recently, longstanding MB evangelist Johannes Reimer surprised us with his latest book, Embracing the World. Both make a very strong point: that we are called to embrace those people who do not yet love the God of the Bible and the Lord of the church.
  • John H. Yoder. John Yoder has intrigued me again and again with his wonderful and masterly integration of the Barth/Bonhoeffer Reformed theology and the Anabaptist “community of believers” approach. His conviction that church ethics is public ethics, and that what is good for the church is good for the world, keeps challenging our Mennonite inclination to avoid the public light, to be happy in our ethno/religious colonies, and (conveniently) to love being die Stillen im Lande.
  • Werner Franz. Ever since our time at the Filadelfia “Mennonitisches Lehrerseminar,” Werner Franz, Victor Wall, and I have been searching for a renewal of the Christian school idea from a Mennonite perspective. Werner’s recent University of Wales doctoral thesis applies Yoder’s understanding of church practices in Body Politics to business. This understanding can also be very fruitful as we search for ways to do school that take seriously the Anabaptist view of the priority of church paradigms as metrics for our presence in the world.
  • Dieter Giesbrecht. An MB theologian finally takes up the very daring but current topic of diaconal theology. In his recent Leewen doctoral thesis, my longstanding friend and colleague analyzes Mennonite diakonische Werke (diaconal works) in Paraguay. He links Christian schools to the diaconal mandate of the church.
  • August Hermann Francke Schule/Berthold Maier. Berthold Maier and I studied together in Basel in the late 1970s. At that time there was practically no Christian school movement in Germany at all. Berthold wrote his main paper on August Hermann Francke and was convinced that his lifelong call would be to begin a Christian school movement in Frankes, Germany. Today the more than 100 new schools that emerged in the last thirty years with his assistance, including some among the Mennonite Rückwanderer, have an unexpected missional and ethical impact in this very secular country. Surprisingly, the government sponsors most of the operating costs of these schools.
  • Fernheim Schulfilosofie/Concordia Asunción Schulfilosofie. In Fernheim, my home colony, the more or less Christian civil authorities were in charge of the school system (Schulrat, allgemeine Schulbehörde). In Asunción, our local MB and GC Concordia congregations founded the Concordia School. Both institutions are rewriting their philosophy of Christian education. Three foundational elements are central: God is creator of all and also the author of art and science; school is an extension of the family’s mandate to educate; and, the goal of a Christian school is a theocentric worldview and a life that pleases God.
  • MB Mission schools—Albert Schweitzer, Gutenberg. Our MB conference now operates three mission schools. The driving forces here are church planting, evangelism, and Christian social responsibility. The schools are successful, but the results on the three goals are rather weak, and we are in a process of refocusing.
  • Karl Barth versus G. F. LessingOffenbarung versus Erziehung. While studying in Basel, and later in Fresno under Barth scholar, Howard Loewen, the theology of grace and revelation, the principle of the unendlich qualitative Unterschied (infinite qualitative difference between God and man), the sharp critique of Lessing and Schleiermacher and their project of the Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (education of the human race) impacted me profoundly. Ever since, I have wondered what it means to understand that the church is a miracle of grace and not an educational project or institution.
  • The Fresno Pacific College Idea. Following the lead of the Christian college movement, the “Pacific College idea” insisted on the “unity of all knowledge under God, and the correlate that there can be ‘no ultimate contradiction between the truth of revelation and of scholarly investigation’ ” (Toews, Mennonite Idealisms, 56). Nevertheless, Delbert Wiens warns us that “the typical model of the ‘Christian college’ has been so deeply shaped by the Enlightenment version of the tree of good and evil that only a very profound rebaptism can reestablish its Christian relevance in a post-modern world” (Toews, Mennonite Idealisms, 57).
  • Juancito Sieber—Impressions from Patagonia. The Mennonite church in the southern part of Argentina is undergoing a remarkable renewal, similar to what MBs experienced in southern Russia in the 1860s. In February 2011, when I spent a week with them in Chuele Chuel and Neuquen, I was impressed to see that church planting, social assistance and development, and a strong school movement are three simultaneous fruits of the spiritual and charismatic Argentinean renewal of the Anabaptist vision. Juan Sieber, conference president, promoted a new mission effort in the southern city of Wiedma, saying: “We have to go there so people will see how one lives the culture of the kingdom of heaven.” Church and school united to make visible to society the values, paradigms, and codes of the kingdom of God.
  • Sarmiento—How to learn democracy. Paraguay celebrates 200 years of independence in 2011. There has been a great desire for democracy but a tragic absence of it. Nicanor Duarte Frutos in 2008 was the first democratic president willing to hand over power to the opposition party without blood shedding or revolution in these 200 years. The great Argentinean educator, Sarmiento, has been quoted again and again in this celebration: “If people are the sovereign power of the nation, then let us educate the sovereign” (eduquemos al soberano). From a Christian perspective, who educates for democracy?
  • Missions theology for media. For the last decade I have been theological advisor and president of our conference board for media ministries. Four radio stations, an open TV station, missions through cell phone and Facebook are part of the challenge. It is fair to say that media might be as powerful an educational force as church, family, and school. The challenge is to be present in media with a firm belief that the church is God’s communication medium to the world, and even more, to make clear that the church not only delivers a message but that “the medium is the message.”
  • Johannes Harder—Aufbruch ohne Ende. Some time ago, during a teaching week at Bienenberg in Basel, I read the memoires of the legendary Johannes Harder in almost a single night. An educator, poet, and novelist, the Mennonitisches Jahrbuch editor was perhaps the only German Mennonite truly committed to the Kirchenkampf (church struggle) and the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) during Germany’s Nazi era. He was also the personal spiritual father to the later German Bundespräsident, Johannes Rau, and a controversial peace activist at the Ostermarsch 1968 (“Im Land der Brüder Grimm regieren heute die Grimmigen”—Today the land of the brothers Grimm is ruled by the grim.). This non-conforming, unorthodox seeker of Anabaptist authenticity in culture, politics, and education continues to intrigue me.
  • Paul Mininger—Mennonite World Conference 1952—What is Christian education? It is impressive that as early as fifty years ago the MWC had already focused on the relation of Mennonite schools to the church. The goal of Christian education is to form freie Menschen in Christus, die in allen ihren Beziehungen in der menschlichen Gesellschaft den Willen Christi bezeugen — free men and women in Christ, who testify to the will of Christ in all their relationships in human society (Bender, 320). Then he develops six specific goals for a human being marked by Christian education:
    1. His original nature is being transformed (umgestaltet) through the grace of God by a relationship of faith with the living Christ.
    2. His life is marked by a complete surrender to the lordship of Christ, and his one declared goal is to do the will of God in the world.
    3. His life is energized and strengthened by agape which comes from God through Christ.
    4. He is willing to participate enthusiastically and effectively in the work and fellowship of the redeeming congregation (Erlösungsgemeinde).
    5. He persistently presents God’s message of agape to the world, testifying to the gospel and the life of the church.
    6. He is willing to contribute to the cultural life of human society according to his gifts, making clear in all his doings that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
  • Helmut Isaak—Menno Simons and the New Jerusalem. Helmut Isaak’s unfinished Amsterdam doctoral dissertation has finally been published. It makes clear what has long been suspected, namely, that contrary to Schleitheim, Menno envisioned a society and even a political order completely identified and suffused with the values of the kingdom of God and the presence of the New Jerusalem. “A ‘Mennonite nation’ was a practical impossibility for Menno and his followers in the Netherlands, even though it seemed to remain a hoped-for theoretical possibility for Menno to the end of his life” (Isaak, 107).
  • Hans-Jürgen Goertz—Heavenly flesh and the possibility of holiness. Our semi-heretical Mennonite legacy that we follow Jesus in holiness has been well elaborated by Hans-Jürgen Goertz. Nevertheless, he thinks that Menno correctly emphasized Rechtfertigmachung (sanctification) over against Luther’s Rechtfertigung des Sünders aus Gnaden allein (justification of the sinner by grace alone). Goertz summarizes Menno’s understanding of redemption: “Der Mensch werde geläutert, die Macht der Sünde wird in seinem Inneren gebrochen, so dass er ein Leben im Glauben gegenüber dem Willen Gottes führen könne. . . . Die Täufer bemühten sich zu werden, wie Jesus war” (A man is purified, the power of sin within him is broken, so that he might be able to live a life of faith in the will of God. . . . Anabaptists strove to become as Jesus was) (Brücke, 30).
  • John Roth—Teaching That Transforms: Why Anabaptist-Mennonite Education Matters. Newly appointed MWC Faith and Life Secretary and Goshen College professor and editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review brings us a book that, in good Mennonite fashion, takes the model of incarnation as leitmotiv of what church and school are called to do and to be in the world.

Theological fundamentals

Evaluating my own mosaic of memories, remembering our Anabaptist and MB heritage, and learning to hold dialectical issues together in creative tension, I would like to propose the following five theological principles for the church/school partnership:

1. The church has a mission

It is God’s mission; the mission originated in the heart of God the Father and God the Creator, extending to the whole world and to all of creation. It is a mission of love and a mission of discipleship, redeeming love and redeeming discipleship. It is a mission which models itself after Christ’s way of incarnation, and Christ’s way of obedient “kenosis,” abandoning heaven and identifying with the culture of Galilee, bringing Christian counter-culture to religious Jerusalem. Rabbi Jesus chose the pedagogics of discipleship by calling people out of their status quo and walking with them into the new culture of kingdom ethics.

God’s mission is his way to bring about his kingdom, like the miracle of the mustard seed. Kingdom codes and kingdom values are contextualized in the “dialysis model,” where the church acts like a purifier and invigorator of the blood of the cultural body of society.

2. Humanity is called to “a life that pleases God”

Our Anabaptist heritage calls for those saved by grace to assume their new identity: “. . . created in Christ Jesus for good works which God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). This is a crucial contribution of Anabaptism in the sense that “neither Catholics nor Protestants” were convinced that the redeemed are able to “do the will of God.” Not always, not without grace, not without forgiveness, repentance, and humbleness, but kingdom ethics is doable; it is meant to be teachable and doable. The new society of the redeemed is meant to be visible.

3. Family, social order, and economic wellbeing matter to God

Mennonites have never developed a strong doctrine of the “four mandates,” but from Calvin to Bonhoeffer, Protestant theology has been aware that God’s reign also includes family life, economics, and the social order. Indeed, while the central scope of salvation history is what Christ did on the cross for lost sinners, it might be fair to say that the vast majority of biblical narratives cover topics related to family, economy, and social order.

For an adequate view of the character and nature of God and his saving intervention in the history of humanity, it’s necessary to keep in mind what the Psalmist says in Psalm 138:8: “You will not abandon, oh Lord, the work of your hands” and in Psalm 145:9: “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion to all he has made.” Solid theology needs this comprehensive view: Christ is not only the priest, who reconciles us with God, he is also the prophet, who teaches us how to live, and the king, who rules over all and brings about a new creation. And while the kingdom of God extends to the church, it also involves mandates for family, social economy, and political order.

I propose that we see church and school united in teaching all that is implicit in the three offices of Christ and the four mandates which the kingdom of God extends towards human life.

4. People act the way they think

The incredible abundance of data that the new science of cultural anthropology uncovered in the twentieth century cannot be ignored when we redefine the joint mission of church and school. Our everyday life, our ethical values, our behavior, and our priorities—all that is dictated by the cultural programming our tradition and social environment has encoded into our minds and hearts. It is fair to say that culture is the primary determinant of human behavior. And consequently it is correct to say that the good news of Jesus Christ first and foremost impacts our cultural mindset, our “mental roadmap,” our “blueprint” for living. And both conversion and discipleship—the experience of being born again by the Spirit of God and the experience of learning to walk in all of his mandates—impact our individual and our social culture on an operative level.

Conversion and baptism are the initiation rites into God’s new society, of which the church is an imperfect anticipation. Officially, school has the mandate to initiate pupils and students into society. But a Christian school will join the church in its mission to introduce people to the concepts and paradigms of God’s new society.

5. Salvation history aims at the New Jerusalem

Menno was convinced that the New Jerusalem begins and ends on earth. Hans-Jürgen Goertz even goes so far as to say that Menno kept looking for his own kind of Kaiser Konstantin (Emperor Constantine) and an authentic christliche Obrigkeit (Christian authority) who would renounce sword and violence and search for Christian ways to bring about a New Jerusalem of justice and peace (Brücke, 30–31). For Menno, an Anabaptist renewal of society and his priority of Busse, Wiedergeburt und Gemeinde (repentance, rebirth, and church community) are conceived as complementary, not as contradictions.

To this extent, churches as well as schools have unsuspected political relevance. The New Jerusalem is nothing less than a definite and glorious answer to the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And this prayer has present and eschatological relevance. We must be careful to resist Aristotelian logic with its “excluded middle” and its very damaging simplistic either-or logic, i.e., the kingdom of God is either present or future. Perhaps among all Mennonite confessions, our ICOMB Confession of Faith has best captured the eschatological tension of the kingdom of God—present and future.

6. The way of the cross

The cross is a healing place.
The cross is a reconciling place.
The cross is a place of family restoration.
The cross is a place of liberation.
The cross means triumph over evil.

Church and school are partners in betting on the foolishness of the cross. In our long Anabaptist and short MB history we have seen abuses of power by leaders, naïve cultural conservatism, unbiblical retreat from the world, ridiculous public behavior due to lack of education, and lack of access to academic intellectual and artistic formation. But we have also seen that there is much truth in the popular saying: Je gelehrter, desto verkehrter (The more educated, the more dim-witted a person is). In the 1930s, for example, the best-educated Russian Mennonites and MBs like Prof. B. H. Unruh, Dr. Fritz Kliewer, and Dr. Walther Quiring were unable to diagnose the intellectual shallowness, the ethical poverty, and the diabolical ideology behind German National Socialism.

Today more than one academic friend is tempted to abandon MB identity or even the Mennonite church because he feels there is no room for educated and responsibly critical intellectuals. That wasn’t the case fifty years ago. That, too, is a topic that urgently needs to be addressed.


To church and school, masters of the culture of the kingdom of heaven:

  1. We need to enlarge our concept of conversion: sanctification and discipleship are part of the conversion process.
  2. We need to enlarge our concept of evangelism: the evangelization of culture is part of our evangelistic mandate.
  3. We need to enlarge our concept of the church: there is church outside of our congregational structures.
  4. We need to enlarge our concept of the kingdom of God: God is to be glorified throughout creation.
  5. We need to enlarge our concept of salvation: a saved heart and a saved mind are evidenced by everyday life and by Christian perspectives on everyday matters.
  6. Church and school are partners in betting on the foolishness of the cross. The message is the same. The difference is the amount of time each has to work out the implications of that mystery.
  7. Cultural dialysis for the kingdom of God requires time.


  • Bender, H. S., ed. Die Gemeinde Christi und ihr Auftrag. Vorträge und Verhandlungen der Fünften Mennonitischen Weltkonferenz 1952. Karlsruhe: Buchdruckerei Heinrich Schneider, 1953.
  • Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis, 1991.
  • Die Brücke. Täuferisch-Mennonitische Gemeindezeitschrift. Nr. 3/2011. AMG (ed.), Stutensee.
  • Isaak, Helmut. Menno Simons and the New Jerusalem. Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2006.
  • Pöhlmann, Horst Georg. Abriss der Dogmatik. Ein Kompendium. 5th ed. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1990.
  • Rindzinski, Milka and Juan Francisco Martínez, eds. Comunidad y misión desde la periferia. Ensayos en celebración de la vida y ministerio de Juan Driver. Buenos Aires: Kairos, 2006.
  • Toews, J. B. Pilgrimage of Faith: The Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia and North America 1860–1990. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1993.
  • Toews, Paul, ed. Mennonite Idealisms and Higher Education. The Story of the Fresno Pacific College Idea. Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1995.
Alfred Neufeld is Rector and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education Sciences at the Evangelical University of Paraguay in Asunción, Paraguay. A popular speaker and author, he has a doctorate in Contextual Theology from the University of Basel, Switzerland, and served on the task force of the ICOMB Confession of Faith project completed in 2004.

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