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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 31–41 

Why I Still Believe

Lynn Jost

One of my friends likes to refer to the funny things that happen in our lives as God’s mischief. Now if he’s right that God is mischievous, it would explain a lot about the odd “coincidences” that seem to mark the human experience. As I think about it, mischief is mostly harmless, somewhat ironic, and often a lot of fun. There is something about God’s mischief in our lives that reminds us that we ought not to take ourselves too seriously. That notion helps me a lot as I consider how to respond to the question about why I still believe.

I see God as the Hospitable One. . . . the host who graciously invites those who seek God to experience God in the life of a community.

At the top of the list of God’s mischievous interventions in my life is how rewarding the vocation of ministry and scholarship has been, despite (or is it because of?) the fact that, had it been up to me, I often would have chosen different places for ministry. My own sense of identity in vocation has been a matter of quest, consternation, and surprise. While I’ve been honored to serve in every place I’ve been called, God’s mischief has helped keep me humble whenever I’ve thought I had a better idea of how I might be most useful to the reign of God in the world.

I’ve been blessed that I never needed to look for a job, at least not in ministry. Every time I’ve made a move in ministry it has been because {32} someone called me to a new place. And when I’ve sent out feelers to a place of ministry where I am unknown except for what appears on my resume, I’ve had nary a nibble in response. So, I guess it’s a good thing I’ve never had to look!

My childhood home was centered in my father’s vocation as a pastor—pastoring the same congregation for a decade during my elementary and secondary school years. That experience, my parents, my gift for memorization, and my interest in reading, all worked together to make me a bit of a nerd. I liked sports more than learning, but my academic abilities made it clear to me that I’d be pursuing education beyond a college degree. We were immersed in a conservative place politically and theologically. Fundamentalist Christian radio and Sunday school curriculum were daily and weekly sources of conservative evangelical ideas. But our church’s support for the more ecumenical National Association of Evangelicals helped me avoid a fundamentalist mindset. My dad nudged me toward open-mindedness by encouraging me to read Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Dad had a copy in his library), which offered alternatives to young-earth creationism. 1 Mom had a keen theological mind that prepared me to intuit that excluding women from church leadership was a mistake. Even though my parents were Goldwater Republicans, they helped me find the way of personal nonresistance (as we called pacifism in those days). I was proud to be a Mennonite Brethren (MB), and my denominational loyalty and identity were shaped to a great extent by the constant parade of conference ministers, missionaries, and leaders who made a stop at our house when they visited churches in our state. My dad’s role as a champion of the denomination and of Tabor College shaped me in ways I couldn’t anticipate but have always appreciated.


When my dad died of complications after gallbladder surgery, I was sixteen and a junior in high school. Such a loss called into question any notion that God was capable of mischief. That loss was evil, not mischief. And if God couldn’t be relied on to answer prayers that he protect us from evil, I needed to reorient myself to that cold fact. I didn’t knowingly ask the question why such a thing happened, but I know my sense of being a person of faith was staggered by that blow. The graciousness of my mother, family, friends, and younger siblings when I lashed out at them as I fought to hang onto my faith provokes wonder and gratitude in me to this day.

I struggled to sort out my academic abilities, which opened the door to medical school but merged with the sense that I was somehow called to kingdom service through theological education and church ministry. Here again I see the mischief of God. I was ill-prepared at age twenty-one to sort through the issues clamoring for my attention as I wavered between medical school and seminary. I am grateful for wise counselors and for a rarely disturbed sense of peace with my decision to forego medicine. That decision has so positively shaped my life and person that I’ve spent little time agonizing over how life might have been better had I made the other choice. I think God’s mischief has been at work.

My theological identity began to take conscious shape during my years at Tabor College (Hillsboro, Kansas). I am not aware of much that happened in my Bible classes. Those classes were disappointing. The fact that my classmates could major in Bible or ministry without having to meet basic academic standards turned me off. But the senior-level class in theology and ethics taught by John Toews was a marvelous exception. That class allowed me freedom to wrestle with theological issues honestly. The experience of intellectual freedom and John’s interest in my thinking moved me toward a more thoughtful faith. It also ignited a desire to express my opinions clearly and ground them carefully in biblical and theological truths.

Several other influences at Tabor shaped me as a thinker and churchman. My chemistry professor William Johnson saw something in me that led him to invite me to participate in church leadership as a college student. He took pride in my achievements outside of chemistry and medicine as much as if I had been a top physician. My honors English professor Malinda Nikkel had a similar commitment to me. She gave me freedom to try new ideas and approaches to analyzing literature. She communicated confidence in my skills and potential. She treated me as if I were a measure of her own success as a teacher. Richard Kyle and Clarence Hiebert contributed to my development in diverse ways. Dick’s electric presence and fascinating classroom presentations showed me that the classroom could be an engaging place. Clarence’s theology, his commitment to a believers’ church, and his leadership in the public gatherings of convocation and worship showed me that there were openings outside the narrow confines of parochial theological inlets. Tabor shaped me in significant ways for which I have always been grateful.


Seminary did even more to strengthen my understanding of my theological and denominational identity. Every professor at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (Fresno, California) was significant in helping me develop personally, theologically, and academically. None was more important than Elmer Martens, who modeled academic excellence and pedagogical creativity. He, along with the rest of the faculty, was a {34} biblicist, without the bibliolatry fundamentalists stumble into. The big theological fight between the MB church and the MB seminary in those days was over the inerrancy of the Bible. Some fundamentalists in the denomination used the term as a shibboleth in a war on formal theological education. As J. B. Toews told us in Introduction to Theology, “A lion needs no defenders.” Scripture could speak for itself; it could do quite well without help from philosophical apologetics. We who were trained at the Seminary in those years prided ourselves in having a biblical theology. Elmer Martens in particular equipped us with exegetical biblical study skills that gave us confidence as scholars.

Taking three years off during seminary to do what was then called short-term mission work in Spain was another of God’s mischievous moments. As newlyweds, my wife Donna and I were hoping to go to Germany to work as dorm parents, so we inquired of MB Mission and were assigned to church planting in Madrid. Seeing American political ideologies from outside the country transformed our sense of citizenship. In Spain I realized more concretely what it meant to find citizenship not on earth but in heaven. The reign of God was a concept that was beginning to shape my self-understanding. That experience challenged the narrow theology of my youth. Meeting various streams of Christians in the Catholic Church extended the crack in my fundamentalist notion that being born again could be equated with praying a “Four Spiritual Laws” prayer. What a mischievous God!


God’s mischief placed me and Donna in two pastoral settings that fit us to a T and prepared us for life with unearned and undeserved confidence. After returning from Spain, we were reconciling ourselves to a part-time student ministry position in a mainline Fresno church in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The idea was that our ability to speak Spanish would also prepare us to reach Latin American immigrants—something we soon learned was a totally different ministry than church planting in Spain. In retrospect, this position was not only out of our comfort zone (that would have been good for us) but also far from our area of gifting. In fact, after the Spain experience where our church planting did many good things for us but didn’t result in a church, this might have been enough to cause us to reconsider any ministry at all. But just at that moment, Kingsburg MB Church called, offering half-time ministry on a staff led by pastoral veteran Al Kroeker. We accepted. The Kingsburg congregation was loving, affirming, growing, and engaging. We served alongside a Mexican immigrant in Spanish-language Bible study outreach. As seminary graduation neared, we committed ourselves to at {35} least two more years of full-time ministry on staff—a chance to grow and prove ourselves, and to look for a lead pastor position.

Again, the mischief of God was at work. A prayer-guided conversation with Hesston (Kansas) MB church eventually led us to cut short our commitment to Kingsburg and move back to the Plains states. This brought us close to our parents and into a part of the world we were at home in. Later, we learned that what seemed like a slam-dunk pastoral candidating process was much more precarious than anybody had let on. The sample preaching tapes I proudly sent to the congregation revealed inexperience and hesitation that would have been enough to keep most self-respecting churches from continuing the process. My age (I turned twenty-seven while on that candidating visit) added to doubts that I was prepared for a church that had parted ways with my predecessor on terms that were disconcerting for all concerned. The congregation was equal parts courageous and gracious. God was good. Hesston MB was a place to grow, serve, and be blessed with the birth of both of our children. (These events were celebrated with the congregation as miracles of answered prayer.) No small part of my ongoing faith is the joy Donna and I still feel when we recall growing together with friends, colleagues, and parishioners in Kingsburg, California, and Hesston, Kansas.


Ten years into pastoral ministry our plans were again interrupted by the mischief of God. Eagerly learning and growing in pastoral ministry, we were surprised that I was at the top of Tabor College’s list to replace longtime Bible professor Clarence Hiebert when he retired. I suffered a bit of an identity crisis in the move. I was a pastor, but now I was employed by the college. The vocational shift involved more than adjusting from a weekly pattern dominated by Sunday morning engagement to the three weekly lectures in four different courses. For several years I resolved my confused identity with the notion that I was now a pastor with a congregation of college students.

As soon as I got to Tabor (Hillsboro, Kansas), I started making plans to enroll in a PhD program. I had my sights set on a school that had a relatively moderate theological position, just outside the evangelical circles in which I’d grown up. I thought I could handle that challenge and thrive as a student. However, the only program that accepted me at that school was Liturgics and Preaching, and they were losing their lone faculty member. It left me high and dry. Vanderbilt University was my backup. Sure enough, God’s mischief soon had me studying in a liberal bastion that raised questions about most things I believed. Gay and lesbian colleagues were coming out of the closet. Fellow students labeled {36} me “misogynistic” (I had to go to the dictionary to find out what that meant), and my very first class raised questions about God and gender. Since my program was homiletics and Hebrew Bible, I had the advantage of having people deeply committed to the church as my closest colleagues (the other programs were less decidedly Christian and churchly, but preaching is mostly a Christian activity).

I am very thankful for the strong theological base I had in my home, Tabor College, and MB Biblical Seminary, but the Vanderbilt years were a great time to explore my faith—and to have it probed and prodded by ideas outside any I had previously considered. All this happened in the cultural context of the Confederate South, with exposure to racial issues I’d only heard about through the media. Donna taught public school to support us. Our children managed in a big public-school system. A small Baptist church adopted us as their own. I was able to continue my new role on the General Conference (Canadian/US) Board of Faith and Life. Another Tabor College alum studying at Vanderbilt, Valerie Rempel, was a family friend and a guide to me in some of my theological meandering.

Though I went to Vanderbilt determined to get the requisite academic credentials in the shortest way possible, I began to explore what seemed to be radical ideas about living the Bible that would not have been possible without immersion in a graduate school. Being able to study even as I continued to serve in the church helped keep me focused. At Vanderbilt, for example, I could engage in a Hebrew Bible course about the discovery of a cultic site where Israel worshiped the female consort of Yahweh and then come home to plan a trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where as a member of the Board of Faith and Life my job was to help a church with a female pastor deal with denominational static.

When I returned to Tabor College after three years in Nashville, I picked up where I left off. With my new credentials, I was accepted as a faculty leader. Tensions between faculty and administration led to a new president at Tabor, which resulted in my being joyfully reunited with Larry Nikkel, the moderator of the Hesston MB Church while I pastored there. As president of the college, Larry gave faculty freedom to lead the college academically while he focused on strengthening the institution.

Most of my intellectual energy went into a church-centered project leading the American and Canadian MB churches in a revision of the denominational Confession of Faith. 2 Testing ideas, crafting language that articulated faith, looking for consensus, and learning to listen to people’s most deeply-held values made this period of my life enriching, challenging, and faith building. I had my hand on the pulse of the faith-life of the conference that had nurtured my own faith. The strong affirmation {37} I received at the end of the project left me euphoric. Topping off the process was an additional term as a member of the international confessional team as we adapted and rewrote the North American confession for the International Community of Mennonite Brethren. Working next to MB leaders from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe bolstered my faith beyond description.

Tabor was very generous to me. They guaranteed me a place on the faculty after my graduate studies. Tabor trusted me with lower-level administrative roles. A semester-long sabbatical from Tabor allowed me to accept a two-month teaching assignment among the India MB churches, where I was challenged personally and theologically. During that sabbatical I teamed up with my cousin, Connie Faber, editor of Christian Leader magazine, to write Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. 3 This publication has been used to orient new pastors and new members to the denomination.


Having laid out many of the moves of my professional life, I want to turn to issues that have challenged, bruised, and reshaped my faith. One last comment before I do that review. Just a few days ago my wife Donna and I were talking about how blessed or lucky or happy we’ve been. Though we’ve faced significant issues, problems, and crises in our lives, we have really had it good. God has blessed us in rich ways.

Early in my life I met leaders who combined pastoral ministry and teaching as professors in colleges or seminaries. It occurred to me that because I’ve struggled to come to terms with vocational identity in which I see myself as teacher-pastor, combining both at one time would be a good idea for me, too. At least a couple of times I’ve been in situations where one or two of my friends agreed with me and forwarded the idea that I could pastor and teach. Both experiences have been a little bruising—though almost all the bruises have been for my own good in deflating my swollen ego.

While I was teaching Bible at Tabor College in the mid-90s, our local congregation was looking for a pastor. A good friend nominated me as a candidate, but in public way that put the church leadership in a bind. I’ve never really heard the inside story, but my guess is there were significant voices that just couldn’t see it: How could an active church member (like me) whose politics are off-center and whose foibles are familiar and public work here? The leadership tried to communicate their misgivings to me charitably and so they told me that what I was doing at Tabor at the time was too significant to step into this pastoral position.

What made the situation tricky was the combination of my own ego—enjoying the attention that this “nomination” gave me—and my {38} sense of how the call of God works. My years in the ministry had persuaded me that in calls to pastoral leadership, what really matters is the consensus of the congregation. So, when asked if I sensed a call to the congregation, I responded, “Well, that depends on you.” In retrospect, I should have said, “No, I do not have a call from God” and trusted God’s Spirit and God’s people enough to let them pursue me (or not) if they sensed in me (or not) a call to pastor them. In the end, it was for the good of everyone concerned that the notion died a natural death, and well off-stage.

Something similar happened later. My congregation was again conducting a pastoral search. I was committed to a teaching assignment. A friend suggested that I consider providing pastoral leadership while I continued to teach. Because the rest of the church leadership was already proceeding with another plan and because I was able to list the complications that would ensue if my name were to be placed in nomination, that suggestion (which would have stroked my ego further) was quietly thwarted. Later, I was convinced that a dual role (pastor the church and teach at the seminary) would be perfect for me and for the church. But again, God’s mischief prevailed. My little ego-party balloon burst before anything too embarrassing for me went public. I’m still learning that waiting for God’s call works better than priming the pump myself. (An unsolicited call to a one-year interim pastoral position that occurred between my tenure in seminary administration and my return to teaching confirms the good mischief of God.)

These stories are important for me because they are self-revealing and humbling. My ego told me I would make an excellent pastor-teacher—hold down a teaching position and lead a congregation at the same time. More than once, my community wisely avoided that path. In God’s mercy I had the opportunity to step down a few notches before somebody else had to step in with direct reproof. At least, if they did reprove me, I was too self-absorbed to notice.


Another really mischievous moment came when I was thrust into seminary leadership. I’d been nudged by Elmer Martens, Henry Schmidt, and John Toews several times over the years to consider seminary teaching. In fact, as I finished my PhD in order to teach at Tabor College, the call to teach at the MB seminary was direct enough that I spent several days on my mother’s South Dakota farm pondering the possibilities. Years later, when my wife Donna was finally persuaded that I needed a change of venue, the move to seminary happened rather quickly. But not without another little curve. I started the seminary candidacy process {39} in hopes of landing a faculty position. However, somewhere along the way the seminary president informed me that the teaching position was no longer open, but an administrative position was available if I wanted to move to Fresno. If I had been given the choice between the two positions, I would have chosen the teaching role. I finally did accept the administrative post, but only on the condition that I wouldn’t be asked to serve as president.

Again, unforeseen circumstances—orchestrated, I am convinced, by a mischievous God—forced me into the presidency. I had no chance to weigh my options. Several critical moments came together in a single point in time. There was a job to do, and I was the only person on hand to do it. That I am still a Christian believer after that experience goes beyond God’s mischief to God’s grace.

As I moved into the top administrative post at the seminary, several critical issues demanded my immediate attention. To complicate matters, at least two personal crises were tugging at my soul. The first was a serious case of anxiety arising from my role as seminary president. I developed a pattern of thinking through issues late into the evening hours when I was free of other responsibilities. Exhausted, I never had trouble dropping off to sleep. But I would awaken in the wee hours of the morning with my mind racing. I didn’t solve any problems at those hours, and I didn’t rest either. Without the prayers of God’s people, as well as a couple of antidepressants from my family doctor, I’m not confident how the story would have resolved itself.

The second personal issue has huge implications for the question of why I still believe. With the help of some good college friends, our son was able to articulate that he is gay. I remember being overwhelmed with grief—a grief fraught with the need for me to rethink the way I was living vicariously through him. I am grateful that neither Donna nor I hesitated for a moment to embrace our son and to commit ourselves to learn and grow and to put at risk everything we had been led to believe in order to keep that relationship. While I would neither wish our experience on anyone else nor hold us up as a model to be emulated, I am glad that things have played out as they have and wouldn’t change anything about our process. Connections with other parents in evangelical churches, particularly in MB ones, have enriched us in ways we could not have anticipated. God’s mischief!


That’s my story. My story is my attempt to explain why I still believe. I’ll conclude with a few reflections on what I still believe. Perhaps the biggest shock to me is that I am no longer comfortable saying I believe the MB Confession of Faith. I gave almost a decade of my life to leading {40} the process of writing, first, the North American and, later, the International Community MB confession. Yet I am no longer comfortable saying, This is what I believe. Having said that, let me hasten to add that my problem is not with the details of the Confession: I find all of it helpful and most of it close to the way I would articulate those affirmations. The process of writing the Confession was a helpful way to get the church to think about its identity in the world. What I am least comfortable about is the notion that a catalog of eighteen articles is the best genre for expressing belief.

As a biblical theologian, I recognize that the Bible uses a wide range of genres, but its only confession of faith is Jesus is Lord. Of course, there are other pithy biblical statements that are at the core of what we believe, none more important than the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, which, in fact, shape the article on the Mission of the Church in the MB Confession. (Parenthetically, often with wry humor, the editorial committee of the Confession of Faith sidestepped land mines in the wording of the Confession simply by inserting a few words directly quoted from the Bible. We surmised that even people who disagreed with us would have trouble arguing with the Bible.)

Not only does the Bible lack a central confession of faith, the Bible offers a diversity of faith expressions. It is no accident that people frequently use the Bible to defend diametrically opposed positions. Such argumentation does not even depend on manipulating the original meaning or taking the text out of context. The Bible presents a story of how the people of faith have given testimony to their experience with God in a variety of circumstances and situations. The struggle to articulate how this story has authority for the community of faith is not something I have mastered—nor am I fully convinced by what I’ve seen others advance to try to address that challenge. I’m closer to the position I gave up in seminary than I’ve ever been. There I learned how to bracket out theological presuppositions and systems to get the plain sense of the text itself. I’m realizing that my reading of the biblical text is shaped by my own theology, which is itself shaped by my experiences, my personality, my community—in short by lots of things that are external to the Bible.

So, to say what I believe is to engage Scripture, but it is not simply to quote the Bible. Maybe I can explain the what of my faith by describing what is central to me, some of which has shifted over time. I see God as the Hospitable One. God is the host who graciously invites those who seek God to experience God in the life of a community. My sense is that God welcomes everyone to the table of our Lord, something I fought vehemently when the MB church changed the Confession of Faith to eliminate baptism as a prerequisite for taking communion. God is Host/ess (God is greater than gender limitations, too). God invites people on {41} the margins because God’s justice gives priority to the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. 4 I still believe that Elmer Martens’s God’s Design sums up biblical theology very well. 5 The God who delivers is the one who saves as a means of accomplishing justice for the marginalized. The Covenant God practices and invites covenant loyalty. The God who is known and wants to make Godself known is holy and true. God practices shalom by gifting the good life, what the Old Testament calls life in the land.

I am grateful for the gift of faith. I am grateful for the ongoing vitality of the MB church and for a new generation of leaders. As one who has anchored himself in the MB church, I hope for a place to serve as long as my energy and my thinking capacity allow. I hope for a generosity, a sense of hospitality among MBs that allows for a number of faithful approaches to the way of discipleship.


  1. Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954).
  2. Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application (Winnipeg, MB, and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 2000).
  3. Lynn Jost and Connie Faber, Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2002).
  4. Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of History (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 122.
  5. Elmer A. Martens, God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology, 4th ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).
Lynn Jost earned his Master of Divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary (Fresno, California) and his PhD in Homiletics and Hebrew Bible from Vanderbilt University (Nashville). He taught at Tabor College (Hillsboro, Kansas) from 1990 to 2006, and currently serves as Professor of Old Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He is writing the 1 & 2 Kings volume in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series.

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