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Spring 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 1 · pp. 71–81 

Marking the Boundaries: Mennonite Brethren, Theology, and Deviance

Gay Lynn Voth

1 Historically, the Mennonite Brethren Church began as a “break-away” group of Mennonite believers. Influenced by a number of relationships beyond the traditional Mennonite environment, early Mennonite Brethren (MB) converts began to set criteria by which to measure Christian faithfulness. In so doing, MBs often claimed they were attempting to restore the purity of the early church according to a genuine Anabaptist/Mennonite understanding. Within a short period of time, formal membership was limited to those who showed signs of true conversion and chose baptism by immersion. To join an MB church, one needed a verifiable experience of being “born again.” In their efforts to restore a “pure church” tradition, they declared their fellow Russian Mennonites, as a totality, to be godless and deviant and began an active evangelistic campaign within local communities. The larger Mennonite church responded with excommunication and, for some time, refused to acknowledge the newly formed group as a fellow Mennonite church. While the historically tense relationship between the MB Church and the Mennonite Church continues to be addressed through a mutual process of reconciliation, the effort to understand the unique identity of MBs is ongoing.

The way we speak to each other and about one another will become our legacy. {72}


For 150 years, the question of MB identity has been a relevant topic of concern. Identity is what makes the MB Church recognizable as possessing certain qualities and characteristics that make her the same or different from other Christian churches. This paper touches briefly on three significant aspects of MB identity—relational, theological, and communal. Relationally, the MB churches function within a complex network of relationships. Theologically, MBs draw from a number of sources. This has raised questions of theological identity. An intentional effort to identify with Anabaptist/Mennonite theology offers MBs a centered approach to Christian faith. Communally, the MB church is marked by formal membership. While the criteria for inclusion and exclusion have changed throughout the years, membership serves to set MB boundaries and determine the rules and limits that create the possibility of deviance.

Relationally, MB identity is interactive, complex, and dynamic. Members of local church congregations live and work within multiple environments: historical, social, cultural, and theological. Individuals are involved with many other people and ideas beyond church relationships. These diverse interactions shape the church in unpredictable ways and so MB identity is in continual flux. As a result, MBs continue to reconfigure their Christian identity. Frequently, theological and communal standards have been used to stabilize a particular configuration.

Theological ideas and the criteria for membership work in a comparative and normative way. Comparative theology examines the various beliefs attributed to Christianity, studies the similarities and differences, and then offers a meaningful theological reply. The term “normative” is derived from the Latin norma—the square used by carpenters and masons to obtain a right angle. Its meaning was extended by analogy to a standard or pattern of practice or behavior, a rule. Sixteenth-century reformers declared the Bible to be norma normans sed non normata, the rule that judges all other rules but is itself judged by none. That is to say, Scripture is the primary rule of faith by which doctrine is judged to be true and right, while confessions of faith derived from Scripture are secondary norms. Christianity has long taught that valid interpretation of Scripture takes place within the church by means of the Holy Spirit. Even so, such interpretation is a secondary standard and can be changed. Private and personal interpretations of Scripture are not considered normative. The interpretations of the church community set the rules of faith for a particular denomination. These rules create both communal identity and the possibility of deviance.

Missiologist Paul Hiebert used mathematical set theory to suggest fruitful ways to think of a person’s relationship to Christian faith. 2 Specifically, {73} he employed the distinction between “centered” and “bounded” sets. According to Hiebert’s analysis, the category “Christian” is best understood as a centered set. A centered set is defined by a center, and one’s relationship to that center is determined by one’s movement toward or away from it. Anabaptist/Mennonite theology has often been described as having a central biblical focus—the person and work of Jesus Christ. Living, active discipleship in relationship to Christ is of key importance. Rather than simply debating which ideas or experiences delineate “in” or “out,” the worldwide Anabaptist/Mennonite churches have been well served by a focus on applying Christ’s teachings in vital, culturally relevant ways. This means that theology is not a static prescriptive task or an abstract academic endeavor, but rather involves expressing a dynamic, normative orientation toward a relational God who, in love, sent Jesus Christ as Savior.

Clear standards for membership and exclusion reflect a bounded set mentality. Bounded sets draw sharp lines that unequivocally distinguish those items which are in the set from those which are not. One “becomes” a member of an MB church and can be “disqualified” from membership. There are specific limits and rules that determine who is “inside” and who is “outside” the community of faith. At the birth of the MB denomination, rules were used to create a communal identity. The MB practice of baptism by immersion marked one visible difference between MBs and the larger Mennonite church. For years excommunication was the penalty for marrying outside of the MB fellowship. Intense discussions have led to some changes in membership criteria but the use of limits continues. Rules define deviance and thereby play a significant role in shaping and maintaining a shared MB identity.


Relationally, the MB community can be described as a “small-world network.” A small-world network connects people who know each other and links strangers by a mutual acquaintance. As individual members, we know many people and interact with numerous ideas outside our local congregations. This kind of networking increases the amount of information flowing to and from various churches, resulting in cumulative and continuous change.

The MB Church is not isolated. From the start, MBs were intentional about outreach and missions—going out to evangelize and bring newcomers in—and they have been actively involved with others ever since. Some of these historical relationships have generated a flow of information and influential interaction with those outside the church community. However, information exchange has the potential to both destabilize and stabilize components within a small-world network. Local exchanges combine, recombine, {74} and change as a result of these interactions, producing an open-ended flux between order and disorder. This fluidity is a healthy and necessary part of our communal identity, however. Without this openness to others, the MB Church could be classified strictly as a clique.

The MB small-world network has increased in complexity through the past 150 years. Complexity has to do with the interrelatedness and interdependence of components as well as their freedom to interact, align, and organize into related configurations. The more components and the more ways in which components can interact, align, and organize, the greater the complexity. The MB church has historically been exposed to numerous external influences. Revivalism and pietism significantly shaped MB identity in its earliest years but also since that time. Likewise did German Baptists, who contributed to MB church organization, their mode of baptism, and their confession of faith. After the 1940s, closer relationships with fellow North Americans led to the German-English language tension. This issue was not resolved for decades, and for good reason: MBs needed both languages to build and sustain their faith.

B. B. Janz affirmed the need for both continuity and change: “Work to preserve the old and use it for your benefit, but don’t resist the new.” 3 Knowledge of three languages (German, Low-German, and English) was considered preferable to knowing only one. While life in English-speaking North America opened up new opportunities for MBs, it also threatened an existing identity that linked faith to language. When I was a child, my grandmother was concerned that I not lose my ability to speak German. She expressed her fear that I would not be able to speak with God when I arrived in heaven. I remember asking her how she knew that God spoke German. She opened the pages of her German Bible and showed me that when God spoke, God indeed spoke in German. Like many other Mennonites of that time, my grandmother heard and spoke to God in German.

As more MBs became involved in higher education, new tensions mounted. Some thought higher learning threatened or compromised religious faith while others saw its merits. MB students were exposed to a diversity of theological ideas due to the various educational institutions they attended. Some of these ideas generated heated discussions. Dispensationalism, for example, caused a fierce debate about hermeneutics. By the 1970s, most instructors at MB colleges and at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary did not support a dispensational approach to the Bible while many MB church members did. In his memoirs, MB Bible scholar David Ewert recounts his resistance to this school of thought and the reaction provoked by his refusal to conform:

I, too, had long come to the conviction that the teachings of John Darby “divided the word of truth” in such a way that the unity of {75} the Bible was undermined. The matter became rather acute when some church leaders insisted that I must follow the hermeneutics made popular in America by the Scofield Bible. Although I tried to accommodate our church leaders in other areas, on this issue I was unyielding . . . However, for such views I was called interesting names. I still have a folder full of letters denouncing my “heretical” views on eschatology. 4

Similar tensions have recently erupted within some MB churches around the penal substitution view of atonement—sadly, with similar results.

It is helpful to recognize that there will always be those among us who have gained insight and knowledge from sources outside the MB Church. Since not all members work with the same body of information when they participate in church deliberations and discuss corporate decisions, due regard must be given to what others bring to the table. The willingness to listen to one another carefully, without prejudice, undue bias, or pride makes it possible to move in the direction of mutual respect even when we differ from one another and strongly disagree. Historical reflection can remind us how important it is to guard Christian values and virtues (often referred to as the “fruit of the Spirit”) when we vigorously defend ideas and experiences we hold to be true. Christian unity cannot be built by coercion but through a careful understanding of where and why we differ and what it is that holds us together in fellowship. Looking at the complexity of our external and fraternal relationships can help reveal the background for some of our disagreements and our alliances.


A theology guided by the principle of centered sets keeps the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in focus. This means that theological questions of significance and application are oriented toward and from the person and teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed in the biblical texts. Historically, this has been the approach of Anabaptist theology. Since our relationships with people within and beyond the church are complex and ever changing, we MBs will continue to face the challenge of articulating what we believe. From her earliest days, the MB church has stressed that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the one true foundation for Christian faith: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). As the church grew from its experience of Christ, it became readily apparent that the gospel always needs to be interpreted and applied anew with every change in environment. Ultimately, Christian expression is guided by the two great commandments authoritatively given by Christ: Love the Lord your God with your whole being, and your neighbor as yourself. {76}

In a centered set, belonging is determined by the direction in which one is moving. When the central focus of theology is Christological, faithfulness is not measured by the distance from the center but by orientation toward the work of God in Christ Jesus. When theology is oriented toward or by another center (e.g., philosophical logic or systematic consistency), the focus on God’s work can become secondary. Anabaptists have historically emphasized the centrality of Christ for discipleship. Christians are called to focus on, and be obedient to, Jesus Christ, the central figure of the Christian faith. To turn away from the center is to “deviate” from it. It is possible for Christians to direct their focus away (deviate) from Christ by making a sub-set of Christian ideals or ideas their center. Turning one’s attention to a charismatic individual preacher, a worthy organization, a denominational allegiance, or a dynamic gathering of believers are examples of such deviation. While each of these may be a necessary part of Christian faith development, from a historical Anabaptist perspective a turning toward Christ is imperative.

Anabaptist/Mennonite theology has identified a number of key elements from Christ as central for the Christian faith. I will briefly review six theological derivatives: (1) Scripture as authoritative for life and practice, (2) salvation by faith in Christ, (3) voluntary baptism based on a commitment to active discipleship, (4) the purity of the church, (5) the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and (6) nonviolence based on God’s command to love as Christ loved.

The church is to be led by the person and teachings of Christ as revealed in Scripture. The focus of Anabaptist theology is not on a “flat canon” or on the logical arrangement of propositional statements found in the Bible. Rather, there is confidence that God sent the Holy Spirit to guide biblical interpretation within the community of faith. Christianity is seen as a living, active, and inspired faith to be practiced by a continually renewed church. The conviction that Scripture is the supreme authority for the faithful church led early Anabaptist/Mennonites to embrace the concept of the “priesthood of all believers” and to insist on biblical literacy for all members of their community.

While salvation is offered freely through Christ, Christian faith requires a positive response to Christ. Being “born again” is an active process that includes a conscious choice to accept God’s gift of salvation. Baptism, from an Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective, is an outer sign of a conscious inner experience of believing in Christ. Faith opens believers to receive the Holy Spirit’s power to live transformed lives. True faith bears the fruit of the Spirit, does the works of love commanded by God. Baptism is based on a commitment to actively follow Christ in daily life. The church is the visible “body of Christ” requiring church discipline, communal discernment, repentance, changed behavior, restitution, forgiveness, and reconciliation. {77}

The Lord’s Supper, a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice, is to be celebrated by believers who are in right relationship to God and others. There is an obligation to self-examination and love. An emphasis on Christ’s teachings impacts Anabaptist/Mennonite ideas and practice regarding matters such as military involvement, political participation, capital punishment, retributive punishment, legal suits, and taking civil oaths.

The early MBs sought to restore the purity of the Mennonite Church. The introduction to the Confession of Faith of 1900 (1902) stated clearly:

Our new organization did not dissolve the confessional fellowship with the Mennonite Anabaptist churches in Russia in 1860; the organization of our Brethren Church was a protest against the ecclesiastical practice of the church referred to, especially regarding baptism and church discipline, and continues to this day, despite the heartfelt brotherly fellowship that we enjoy with many of them . . . The Mennonite Brethren Church does not want to sin against biblical truth . . . We pray for the gracious, infallible leading of the Holy Spirit, an unshakeable, faithful adherence to the old recognized truths, and growth in our still deficit knowledge (Phil. 3:12–16). 5

This MB confession affirms the identification of MBs with the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition and admits their spiritual fellowship with other Mennonite believers. Yet some compromises would not be made; sharp lines were needed. Participation in military service, in particular, prevented “the amalgamation of the Mennonite Brethren Church with other evangelical Anabaptist churches, in spite of their confessionally sound apostolic ecclesiastical practice and baptism.” 6


The introduction to the 1900 Confession is conciliatory in comparison with an appendix to the earlier 1876 MB Confession. 7 The appendix drew clear boundaries between the MB Church and the General Mennonite Church. It condemns the older Mennonite church as “spiritually dead [for it] tolerates the godless, drunkards, and scoffers in contradiction to the Holy Scripture (1 Cor. 5:11).” The justification for forming a new church was the corruption of the older Mennonite Church. “Convicted by the Word of God, we exposed their godless life. To some extent we were excommunicated by them and to some extent we departed from them. Therefore, we found it necessary to establish our own church.” 8 The spiritual deadness of the Mennonite Church was seen in its baptizing and accepting into membership anyone who had simply memorized a faith confession, rather than only those who had experienced a heartfelt conversion. In contrast, MBs required those desiring baptism to give a voluntary testimony of their {78} faith to the gathered church, provide evidence of the real change of heart Jesus referred to in John 3 (“Unless one is born anew . . .”), and to live a lifestyle consistent with such an experience. 9 Other Mennonites were seen to be morally lax when they tolerated “the godless, the scoffers and the greedy” among them. 10 For MBs, these and “all those who are living disreputable lives” were to be excommunicated till “improvement in behavior and genuine remorse about wrongdoing” was evidenced. 11 Nevertheless, an excommunicated person (one might say, “deviant”) was allowed to attend worship services to hear the Word of God and was admonished to repent and return to God and the church. 12

As noted earlier, a bounded set clearly delineates who or what is “in” and “out.” Social and religious environments can be described as “bounded” when the limits are set by rules. Deviance is an infraction of some agreed-upon rule that exists within a bounded social world. Deviant phenomena can take the form of people doing “extraordinary things in an ordinary and familiar world, or vice versa.” 13 Deviance is the “product of the ideas people have of one another.” 14 Those watchful for deviance ask, Who is breaking the rules?, and apply the label of “outsider” to transgressors. Deviant behavior is defined by conventional or conforming members of a social group. 15

The label of “heretic” is typically attached to a person who expresses an opinion or a belief that differs significantly from established religious teaching within the group to which they belong. Official theological ideas generally have a public meaning that require and assume communal consent. A purely private contemplation of a deviant theological idea can only become a matter of heresy when publicly expressed. This will normally provoke an accusation of “false teaching.” “Doctrinal deviants” will be required to explain themselves to the curious, offended, concerned, or to those who enforce orthodoxy. Strategies for managing the deviant include shaming, threatening, demanding an admission of guilt, and calling for penitence. 16

Often the “deviant” will retreat into the company of like-minded others. This withdrawal into an in-group is a significant factor in theological splits within the church and the formation of new faith communities. When theological deviance involves cooperation and joint activity, an alternative sub-world can emerge. These deviant sub-worlds provide a modest refuge from the perceived hostility, criticism, and discouragement of the outside world. New communities of this kind create an intimate environment in which unwelcome relationships are avoided and supportive interpretations of conflicts and hostilities can be developed. They are settings in which new meanings are generated to dispel feelings of blameworthiness. 17

Deviance is very often “normalized” or accommodated within the fabric {79} of accepted life. A crisis occurs only when others cannot or will not cope with the unusual. Prevailing ideas of what is harmful, disordering, or threatening generally shape the reply. The social organization of the group, as well as the appreciation for possible remedies, will influence how disputes are judged and settled. Deviance can provoke the stigmatizing of individuals and groups. 18 Since deviance is determined by community standards that can and do change, grave errors can be made in decisions regarding the exclusion and excommunication of the impenitent.


The historical relationship between the MB and the Mennonite Church demonstrates that when errors have been made, reconciliation is necessary. In this context, reconciliation means that “parties to a disagreement review their grievances, admit their responsibilities for harm done, determine to forgive and be forgiven, and commit to do no harm to one another in the future. In such a case, the parties have come to new realizations about their past, present, and future relationships. They are forever changed in how they view one another and in how they relate to each other.” 19

The most recent move toward reconciliation between MBs and Mennonites took place on May 24, 2010, when MB churches in Germany asked for forgiveness of the Mennonite churches. MBs asked for forgiveness for spiritual arrogance, pride, a lack of love, and the exclusion of brothers and sisters from their community. There was also confession of a longstanding contemptuous attitude toward other Mennonite churches. Such moves toward reconciliation express the common desire to be open to communication and cooperation. 20

A 150-year history shows us that heartfelt passion may move us in two directions: toward one another in love and compassion, or away from each other in contempt and hostility. Church membership is both normative and comparative. At times of deep disagreement, it matters how we speak of one another. Keeping our norms and comparisons directed by a Christ-centered theology can help in this regard. Labels equivalent to “deviant” (“godless,” “spiritually dead”) were successfully applied to the Mennonite Church by the MBs and vice versa (“jumpers,” “separatists”), such that reconciliation has been necessary. It is my hope that in looking carefully at our past, we will see the importance of developing clear and respectful responses to one another. The way we speak to each other and about one another will become our legacy. These responses need to be directed by the work of the Holy Spirit and Scripture in cooperation with a church centered on Jesus Christ.

As in the past, MBs today hold multiple and sometimes conflicting frames of reference. This makes it difficult to pin down an assessable {80} communal identity. Motivations and points of view that originate from interactions with people and ideas outside the MB community can work to destabilize or stabilize a corporate sense of “who we are” as a church body. From a complex systems perspective, the identity problem is best approached by considering how component parts relate to the overall system; understanding the nature of their relationships with each other and with other systems is essential. Focusing on specific parts, outcomes, or events can have the unintended consequence of isolating some members of the community. Historically, MBs have tried to understand the “parts in relation to the whole” by calling for study conferences where contentious ideas are discussed in community. In consultation with one another relevant changes are made. The best outcomes are achieved when these conversations are conducted with mutual respect and a firm commitment to seek reconciliation when misunderstandings and hostilities arise. A study of the past demonstrates that fellowship can be broken when members of the same church work from diverse points of view and label each other as deviant or some equivalent term. As MBs seek to express their unique communal identity, efforts to incorporate the virtue of respect and the redemptive process of reconciliation continue to be necessary.


  1. An earlier version of this paper was read at “Renewing Identity & Mission: A Mennonite Brethren Consultation,” which took place at Trinity Western University (Langley, B.C.) in July 2010.
  2. Hiebert showed how set theory cast light on these questions in numerous articles and essays, among them “The Category ‘Christian’ in the Mission Task,” International Review of Mission 72, no. 287 (1983): 421–27.
  3. John B. Toews, With Courage to Spare: The Life of B.B. Janz, 1877–1964 (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1978), 100.
  4. David Ewert, A Journey of Faith: An Autobiography (Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1993), 254–55.
  5. Abe J. Dueck, Moving Beyond Secession: Defining Russian Mennonite Brethren Mission and Identity: 1872–1922 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1997), 109.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The appendix is entitled, “Verschiedenheiten zwischen den vereinigten Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinden und den Baptistengemeinden sowie den alten Mennonitengemeinden.” Abe Dueck provides an English translation in Moving Beyond Secession, 105–7.
  8. Ibid., 106.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 107.
  12. Ibid. {81}
  13. David Downes and Paul Rock, Understanding Deviance, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 180.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 181.
  16. Ibid., 184.
  17. Ibid., 186–87.
  18. Robert J. Franzese, The Sociology of Deviance: Differences, Tradition, and Stigma (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2009), 6.
  19. Alicia Hughes-Jones, “Reconciling America’s Divided Society Through Religious Revitalization,” Direction 32 (Spring 2003): 11.
  20. Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches—News, June 11, 2010,
Gay Lynn Voth is a writer/artist who enjoys life with her husband on a hobby farm in the Columbia Valley, British Columbia. Currently she is working on a book that explores the meaning of God beyond religious conviction.

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