Previous | Next

Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 84–94 

My Tapestry of Faith

Walter Unger

I certainly did not become a Christian and then an educator and church leader in a straight line. To change the image, it might be better to say that the emergence of my vocation was like the weaving of a tapestry I once witnessed in a Middle Eastern country. Thread by thread the artisan wove, and I could not predict the pattern the yet-to-be-woven threads would produce. However, from observing the nearby completed tapestries, I knew the one being worked on would also be a thing of great beauty.

This is truly God’s intention for all of his children: lives that reflect his beauty.

Growing up on the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks” in the fairly large city of St. Catharines, Ontario, exposed me to companions of dubious character and very loose morals. Petty theft, not well executed, ended me up in a ride to my parents in the back of a police cruiser. The activities that I and my ill-chosen friends engaged in make me blush today.

In his mercy, God intervened to change the course of my life. I was at the cusp of my teenage years when invited to an evangelistic crusade. I heeded “the altar call,” went to a private room, and was counseled to say a prayer based on John 3:16. I went home rejoicing. To top this experience {85} off, my father gave me a verse that said that I could be confident that God who began the good work of salvation within me would carry it on to completion “until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6 NIV passim).

Apparently I was a pilgrim in process. There was a great deal more to this matter of “getting saved” than going to the altar. There was much spiritual work ahead, and I was to be engaged with God in working out my own salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12-13). Thus the first thread in the winding tapestry of my faith journey was put in place.


A large central thread in the tapestry of my life of faith and scholarship was my Bible college experience at Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I cherish my three-year journey there more than the many years of study at seminary and various universities.

At MBBC, two men became exemplars for me: J. A. Toews and David Ewert. I sought to emulate David’s approach to biblical exposition. From J. A. Toews I learned that discipleship means accepting the work of Christ and following in the way of Christ.

Some of the courses I took in seminary (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) wove additional threads of enrichment and beauty into my tapestry. In a course on Calvin, I read the reformer’s two-volume Institutes of the Christian Religion and was glad I did. A course on Augustine helped me see his enormous influence on Roman Catholic as well as Protestant thinking. Then a course on Christian classics helped me to further discover how deep the spiritual well is. I later introduced a course in religious classics at Columbia Bible College because I had benefitted so much from reading Augustine, à Kempis, Luther, Menno, Calvin, Bunyan, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and twentieth-century authors Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A. W. Tozer, C. S. Lewis, and the still prolific N. T. Wright, that I wanted to “pay it forward!” Reading broadly and particularly from books that have stood the test of time, I realized each faith tradition contributed special truths that were absent or underemphasized in my own evangelical Anabaptist tradition.

The topics I have pursued in my research and writing that have shaped and enriched me have been varied. My studies, writing, and lecturing at Oxford University in England have been a highlight. My interest in revivalism led me to J. Edwin Orr, a man with encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. In 1976 I received an invitation from Dr. Orr to attend a study conference at the Oxford Association for Research in Revival. I presented a paper on “Charles Finney’s Theology of Revivalism.”

For five months in 1985 I had the privilege of being scholar-in-residence at Regent’s Park College in Oxford. Besides attending many classes taught by world class scholars like E. P. Sanders, I did research on Anabaptism in England. {86}

A further British experience that broadened my understanding of and appreciation for a variety of Christian denominations and persuasions was my attendance at three of the Oxford C. S. Lewis Summer Institute sessions. I had the privilege of being a coleader of the two-week Great Books Seminar at the founding Institute in 1988. I attended the 1991 and 1998 Institutes as well, the latter celebrating the centenary of Lewis’s birth.

The City of Dreaming Spires holds many fond memories for me.


The most significant thread in my tapestry of faith consists of the best of Anabaptist/Mennonite thought and practice. I have written about how this thread became a dominant factor in my pilgrimage in three venues: “The Mennonite Room” (1987), Why I Am a Mennonite (1988), and “Pilgrim in Process” (2012). 1

My parents were not established in the Mennonite Brethren church until later in life. My mother had a Lutheran background and was baptized in the MB church in the 1940s. As a young person I had a great deal of liberty to explore different churches and denominations. I was taken to a Baptist Sunday school as a child. I attended the Salvation Army for a short period of time. My parents took me to a United Mennonite church in the late 1940s. Then we attended an Associated Gospel church where at a series of evangelistic meetings I was converted. Finally, by 1950, my parents cast their lot with the Mennonite Brethren church where I was baptized and accepted into membership.

A strong influence in my life as a young Christian was Youth for Christ and the whole train of evangelical superstars of the fifties, led by Billy Graham and Bob Pierce. Graham inspired me in the direction of forthright evangelism. Pierce taught me compassion, moving my heart to be touched by the things that touch the heart of God. A final significant influence in my late teen spiritual pilgrimage was Theodore Epp and the “Back to the Bible” radio broadcast. I listened regularly to Epp in the fifties and to other radio preachers like him.

Needless to say that over time there had to be a great deal of sifting and sorting before I would become a person with solid Anabaptist/Mennonite convictions. This sifting did occur as I studied more about my own faith tradition and saw how other traditions contributed to and did not diminish my own. My firsthand exposure to a variety of churches—Baptist, Associated Gospel, Evangelical Free, as well as the Salvation Army—taught me to appreciate the distinctive truths for which they stood. I also saw many similarities in faith and practice between these groups and my own Mennonite convictions.

My Youth for Christ, Billy Graham, and Bob Pierce experiences were helpful in kindling in me a zeal for evangelism and a concern for {87} homeless orphans and victims of war. Word and deed are at the very heart of what Jesus taught. Also the evangelical spirit I found in some of the conservative and parachurch organizations had a ring of authenticity that was rooted in the New Testament. This same spirit was very strong in the early days of both Swiss and Dutch Anabaptism, as well as in the beginnings of the Mennonite Brethren church.

My graduate studies taught me to view my Mennonite faith within the perspective of the broader stream of church history. Mennonites are only a tiny segment of the church universal. God has done his mighty deeds through others besides my forebears and to the immense benefit of the present Mennonite church. In many ways early Anabaptist/Mennonite leaders built on the foundation stones the Reformers uncovered from the rubble of medieval Catholicism, while uniquely uncovering some truths themselves.

I have learned that one cannot ignore God’s work in the history of the church and leap directly from the New Testament to the present and to what some believe to be an entirely new version of Christian truth. The substance of Christian teaching is found in the New Testament, but one dare not overlook the interpretation and application of that truth by a multitude of witnesses. These witnesses include the apostolic and early church fathers, Christ-like monks, medieval mystics and sixteenth-century Reformers, as well as Arminian, Pietist, revivalist, and present-day charismatic representatives of important facets of Christianity.


Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” Being the inventor of both the lever and the pulley, Archimedes seemed to accomplish wonders, but only on one condition: the fulcrum had to be firm.

I never felt my faith was in jeopardy throughout my graduate studies, particularly my four-year PhD journey at Simon Fraser University (British Columbia), majoring in American religious history. I wrote my dissertation on the early roots of fundamentalism in America, 1875–1900, completed in 1982. I was challenged by my senior supervisor, a Jewish professor and expert on American history, but this was always done respectfully. His main objection was the Christian claim that Jesus literally rose from the dead. Surely, he reasoned, Jesus was only alive after death in the hearts and minds of his followers. Thus his spirit lived on.

My faith issues came from other matters. Over the years I’ve grappled with and written about the big questions of human existence: suffering and evil, a beleaguered world where truth seems forever on the scaffold, and falsehood on the throne. How are God’s high and holy purposes ever going to be fulfilled, I queried? How can I believe in God’s sovereignty in both the good and the bad things that happen? {88}

These questions have taken on a very personal dimension to me as I have battled through some serious health issues. In June of 1999, I was diagnosed with possibly having ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Another diagnosis two months later was that I did not have ALS but a similar autoimmune disease: CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy). This incurable disease is slowly taking away my mobility, affecting mainly my legs and my arms. Then in 2006, I was on the edge of a heart attack and received quadruple bypass surgery. Now in 2017, I am facing perhaps my greatest health challenge, battling colorectal cancer. I am currently receiving radiation treatment to be followed by surgery.

Do I still have a place to stand? Will the fulcrum hold? Well, I’m learning not to take refuge in contrived answers as to how God is working out his beneficent plan, but in a scriptural understanding of who God is. I trust his character even when I don’t understand his ways. I trust the claims of Jesus, human and at the same time deity, to be the way, the truth, and the life, followed by his atoning death and victorious resurrection. I believe that “The Gospel is centered in God’s Son, a descendant of David by human genealogy and patently marked out as the Son of God by the power of that Spirit of holiness that raised him to life again from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4 Phillips).

Severe health issues as well as probing academic and theological/philosophical questions need not lead to “losing faith” as long as one’s foundation is secure. Intellectually the principle of sufficiency, to me, means that answers to all my questions will not be forthcoming this side of heaven, yet there is sufficient knowledge regarding the essentials to provide a solid foundation for faith.


In 2015, Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where my wife and I have been members since 1969, celebrated fifty years of ministry. The anniversary book is called Mosaic of Grace. A mosaic, like a tapestry, is a thing of beauty. And the image is actually quite biblical. God’s intent is that through the church his manifold wisdom be demonstrated (Eph 3:10). Peter wrote to the first-century churches scattered throughout Asia Minor that in their local assemblies the members were to serve one another with the particular gifts that God had given each of them “as faithful dispensers of the magnificently varied grace of God” (1 Pet 4:10 Phillips).

For many years my personal mission statement has been, and still is, “to edify the Christian community by my teaching, preaching, and writing.” More specifically, particularly when I was in leadership at Columbia, my explicit mission was “to provide theological leadership at the college, in {89} the church, and in the larger constituency.” Looking back I see how my life in the local church has challenged me to communicate in a lucid and engaging manner. I have served through regular preaching and teaching for some forty-eight years. My goal was always to do accurate biblical exegesis but at the same time to avoid theological jargon that leaves the average congregant more mystified than edified.

In my first few years of teaching at Columbia I’m sure many of my students left my classes more mystified than edified. Coming to the classroom in 1969 with my brand-new seminary degree, I sought to unload the wisdom I had garnered without due attention to my context: eighteen- and nineteen-year-old students, most of whom were fresh out of high school or a few years out of the work force. It took me several years to adjust my lectures to the capability of my students, adapting content without losing essence, stretching young minds without confusing them.

I also soon learned that the relational aspect of my ministry made a greater impact than the scholastic side. In the early 1970s I initiated a hockey program at the school. We entered a team into a men’s industrial league against some hard-nosed competitors and then after several years moved to a college league. I played and coached and had to set an example of competence (I had played hockey as a teenager) and of sportsmanlike conduct. Interacting with these young men provided me with good mentoring opportunities. I believe that what I taught them in the locker room and on the ice is what they remembered long after what I taught them in the classroom had faded away.

Serving in numerous boards of the MB constituency over the years has enabled me to appreciate the varied, significant ministries in which the denomination is involved. At the provincial level I served on the British Columbia MB Board of Pastoral Ministries. At the national level I served on the Board of Christian Education, and from 2002–2006 was Chair of the (MB) Board of Faith and Life. Earlier I was a member of the General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel.

A highlight for me was assisting the Canadian Conference Board of Faith and Life to navigate through two particularly challenging issues. Due to the growing diversity in practices on the matter of baptism and church membership in Canadian MB churches, the board convened a study conference on the theme at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 22–24, 2003. The goal of the event was to affirm the MB confession of faith articles on baptism and church membership, hear stories of alternative practices, enter into debate and reflection, and move forward with a unified belief and practice. Four papers were presented, with respondents for each. My paper was on Menno’s ecclesiology: “The Church ‘Without Spot or Wrinkle’: Testing the Tradition.” {90}

The affirmation that came out of the study conference and was accepted at Gathering 2004 was to reaffirm the connection between believer’s baptism and church membership. It read: “All Mennonite Brethren churches (were) to revisit, reconsider and recommit to the Confession of Faith’s teaching on believer’s baptism.” 2

The second significant issue the Board of Faith and Life addressed was the matter of women in ministry leadership. This issue had a long history. Under the heading “Sisters (in Church Activities)” in the 1879 General Conference Yearbook, the motion was passed “That sisters may take part in church activities as the Holy Spirit leads. However, they should not preach nor take part in discussions in business meetings in the church.” 3

In the first half of the twentieth century, North American Mennonite Brethren developed an extensive foreign missions program. Many women were sent out and ably performed in faraway lands what they were not permitted to do in their homeland: teach, preach, and baptize. They were ordained for their ministry abroad. But in 1957 the General Conference passed a resolution putting the following limitations on women’s ministry in place: “That in view of the fact that we as an MB Church, on the basis of clearly conceived scriptural convictions, do not admit sisters to public gospel preaching ministry on par with brethren, we as a Conference designate the fact of setting aside sisters to missionary work ‘a commissioning’ rather than ‘an ordination.’ ” 4

It was not until 1974 that the MB church began to further reexamine the biblical material regarding the level at which women should be permitted to exercise their gifts in the church. In 1981 the Board of Reference and Counsel brought an extensive statement to the Convention that among other observations encouraged churches “to continue to discover and to draw upon the spiritual resources found in our brothers and sisters for various ministries in the church and in the world.” However, the statement concluded, “We do not hold that passages in the New Testament (such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2), which put restrictions on the Christian women, have become irrelevant, even though therefore, do need to be re-applied.” 5 A 1999 resolution extended the opportunity for women to “exercise leadership in Conference boards, in pastoral staff positions and in our congregations, institutions and agencies. We ask women to minister as gifted, called and affirmed.” 6

In 2006 the Canadian Conference Board of Faith and Life presented a resolution bringing the women in ministry leadership issue to the point of allowing full inclusion of “gifted, called, and affirmed” women to serve as pastors. The two-year process of arriving at an acceptable resolution involved extensive study of the relevant exegetical issues, first of all by the Board, guided by biblical scholar Doug Heidebrecht. Then the Board sponsored study conferences in five provinces so leaders there could weigh {91} in. Then opportunity was given for individual churches to send letters of affirmation or concern to the Board. Finally, the following resolution was presented to Gathering 2006 and passed by a seventy-seven percent majority: “It is evident that individuals and congregations practice a diversity of convictions based on different interpretations of Scripture as it regards the church’s freedom to call women to serve in ministry and pastoral leadership. On this nonconfessional issue, the Board of Faith and Life recommends that the Conference bless each member church in its own discernment of Scripture, conviction and practice to call and affirm men and women to serve in ministry and pastoral leadership.” 7

Included in the presentation of the above resolution was an extensive biblical rationale. A final explanatory note stated that the resolution was not prescriptive but enabling, and that “No member or member church (was) compelled to act outside of their understanding of Scripture on the matter of women in ministry leadership.” 8 In my many years of involvement in denominational leadership, being part of this historic change in church policy to fully bless our sisters in Christ for full inclusion in ministry has been the most fulfilling.

Another fulfilling aspect of my broader denominational ministry is writing. What began as my first article for the Mennonite Brethren Herald in 1964 continued and grew until I became a regular columnist (“A Christian Mind”) from 1982–1997. In addition, I wrote for numerous other periodicals and journals, some twenty in all. These were as varied as the Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal, Oxford Christians for Peace, Faith Today, Christian Week, The Christian Leader, The Marketplace, The Mennonite, and fourteen articles and book reviews in Direction journal. I was also asked to submit chapters for seven books, the last of which was For Everything a Season: Mennonite Brethren in North American, 1874–2002. 9

Writing has woven a golden thread into the tapestry of my life, enormously shaping and enriching me. I have been stretched to broaden my horizons and to think Christianly about all aspects of life, not just the religious one. I covered historical, cultural, political, and economic topics as well as theological ones.

Recurring themes, particularly in my MB Herald columns, included C. S. Lewis, spiritual renewal, Anabaptism, evangelicalism, and theological explorations on Christology, eschatology, atonement, and the fate of the unevangelized. Among historical and cultural themes were the sixteenth-century reformers and martyrs, revivalist John Wesley, British abolitionist pioneer William Wilberforce, Indian nonviolent activist and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi, and storyteller and author Garrison Keillor. Movie reviews included Flatliners, concerning contemporary near-death {92} experiences, Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, a movie based on the true story of fifty-three Africans who were tried before the US Supreme Court for their 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad.

In my theological pieces, it seems that I have generally been quite orthodox, perhaps with one exception. In the Herald, under the theme “Theological Hot Potatoes,” I reviewed—too favorably I soon discovered—the case that John Sanders and Clark Pinnock make for inclusivism. 10 In separate books, both of these evangelical theologians affirm an optimism regarding the salvation of those who have never heard the gospel, a salvation grounded in the love of God and the wideness, not narrowness, of his mercy. Both authors approvingly cite John R. Stott, who writes: “I have never been able to conjure up (as some great Evangelical missionaries have) the appalling vision of the millions who are not only perishing but who will inevitably perish. On the other hand, as I have said, I cannot be a universalist. Between these extremes I cherish the hope that the majority of the human race will be saved.” 11

Judging from some very strong reactions to my column, my article was too long on description and deficient in critique. It was particularly problematic that a Bible college president might hold what seemed to be an unorthodox view. I appeared before the British Columbia MB leadership to explain myself. I agreed that there were some exegetical deficiencies in the inclusivist view. As a follow-up, the next month I wrote a column entitled “What We Can Affirm Concerning the Unevangelized.” 12 I ended the article with the statement, “Only those who personally respond to Jesus in repentance and faith may have the assurance of salvation.” It was remarkable that a mere six years later, at the 1999 Calgary consultation on revising the MB Confession of Faith, an almost identical statement appeared in Article 17: Christianity and other Faiths: “Although salvation is available to all, only those who put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ have the assurance of eternal life.” I was the one who suggested the insertion of the word “assurance” in the above sentence. Perhaps I was not a total heretic after all!

Writing has its risks as well as its rewards. Young scholars embarking on an academic career and who want to serve God in the academy and in the church in their writing must remember their target audience. When sharing their insights in the local church and, yes, in the denomination, scholars will have to perform a balancing act. In the ecclesial setting they must exercise greater sensitivity, especially when handling “theological hot potatoes,” unless they are ready to feel some burn. In my case, I straddled both worlds. How successfully, I will leave others to decide. {93}


The tapestry of my life is not complete. The final threads have yet to be woven. Will the final pattern that emerges be a thing of beauty: God’s handiwork (Eph 2:10)? The New Testament Greek here translated handiwork may well have the connotation of a “work of art.” This is truly God’s intention for all of his children: lives that reflect his beauty.

There are rewards in leadership as well as risks. As one who has devoted more than fifty years to teaching and guiding others, I have tried to keep before me the caution that goes with my calling: “Not many of you should become teachers . . . because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Leaders have great influence and with influence comes accountability. This calls for consistent Christian commitment in scholarship and especially in life. I know that the legacy I leave behind will be measured not only in my literary, classroom, and pulpit contributions, but in the character of my life. For this I will be evaluated by my Maker, for the Day will bring my character and work to light (1 Cor 3:13).

This is a challenge to all of the Christian scholars among us, for the impact of our character and conduct will leave a greater lasting imprint on our students and readers than the lectures, articles, and books we have written. This is not to devalue the latter. Rather it is to emphasize that the ultimate significance of a life is not just scholarship, but discipleship under the lordship of Christ.

The following prayer from the 1558 Sarum Primer is apt for me and for all Christ-followers, be they scholars or not:

God be in my head and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes and in my looking;
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart and in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.


  1. “The Mennonite Room,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 20 March 1987, 28–29; Why I Am a Mennonite: Essays on Mennonite Identity, ed. Harry Loewen (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1988); and “Pilgrim in Process,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 1 January 2012, 12–13.
  2. Gathering 2004, Toronto, July 7–10, 130. {94}
  3. We Recommend . . . Recommendations and Resolutions of the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, 219.
  4. General Conference Yearbook, 1957, 106.
  5. We Recommend . . . (Part III, 1978–2002) Recommendations, Study Papers, and Other Leadership Resources, 90–91.
  6. Ibid., 95.
  7. Gathering 2006, Calgary, July 6–8, 52.
  8. Ibid., 53.
  9. Paul Toews and Kevin Enns-Rempel, eds., For Everything a Season: Mennonite Brethren in North American, 1874–2002: An Informal History (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2002).
  10. Mennonite Brethren Herald, 22 January 1993, 15–16.
  11. John R. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 327.
  12. Mennonite Brethren Herald, 19 February 1993, 13.
Walter Unger has served at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia, since 1969. He was an Instructor, Academic Dean, President for over eighteen years, and President Emeritus since 2001. He is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, Illinois), with an MA in the History of Christian Thought, and of Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, British Columbia), with a PhD in American Religious History. He also served in pastoral ministry and in 1964 began what became a prolific writing career. He and his wife, Laura, have three children and eight grandchildren.

Previous | Next