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Spring 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 1 · pp. 55–62 

A Teacher at Heart: A Tribute to Wally Unger

J. Bryan Born

On May 9, 2018, Dr. Walter Unger, President Emeritus of Columbia Bible College (CBC), graduated from this life and went to meet his Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. After teaching in public schools in Ontario in the 1960s, he arrived on the Columbia campus to begin teaching theology in 1969. He continued to serve the CBC community in a variety of capacities until his death. Already in 1970, he began serving as academic dean in addition to his teaching responsibilities. From 1978 to 1980, he was asked to fill the role of interim president, following which he resumed his ministry as academic dean. In 1985, Wally was asked assume the role of CBC president, a position in which he distinguished himself as a servant leader until his retirement in 2001.

He was fiery, passionate, and taught with an urgency— as though it was a matter of life and death.

Not long after I was appointed incoming president of Columbia Bible College in 2012, President Emeritus Walter Unger (Wally to almost everyone who knew him) invited me to join him for a meal at a local Chinese restaurant. In the years to follow, even as his health {56} slowly deteriorated, we continued our lunch ritual. Choosing a table where no one could hear us, I could freely share what was on my heart—he understood the issues I was facing. With Wally, I sought wisdom, vented frustrations, aired audacious dreams, and requested his prayers. My relationship with Wally unfolded after he had already retired as Columbia’s president. But as he did with so many others, he left a major impact on my life.

Wally taught me many things, and perhaps chief among those lessons was how older leaders can encourage those who are called to follow in their footsteps. Sometimes he challenged me to see an issue from a different perspective; once he chastised me (I needed and deserved it!). Mostly he just encouraged and cheered me on.

Some who read this tribute will have a specific picture in mind when remembering Dr. Walter Unger: scholar, athlete, theologian, college president, church and conference leader, preacher, professor, fundraiser, friend, cheerleader or visionary. Wally was all of those things and more. But what I think he loved best was teaching.

During our final hospital conversations, he kept returning with passion to the theme of passing on a Christ-centered, biblical faith to the next generation. Even near death, he beseeched me to lead students to Jesus and his word. I know he would have been pleased with the tribute of Greg Harris (one of his students and now a pastor in Abbotsford): “He was fiery, passionate, and taught with an urgency as though the material he was going through was a matter of life and death. He taught persuasively, pleading with his students to think well about theology so that we would properly love Jesus, trust him, and preach him crucified and risen—because Jesus is the Life who conquered death.”

At the conclusion of Wally’s long and productive career as professor, academic dean, and eventual president of Columbia Bible College, his good friend and Columbia colleague George Schmidt wrote a comprehensive overview of Wally’s life, ministry, and contributions. Not long before his passing, Wally compared his life to a tapestry in a wonderfully personal reflection on the way God had woven together a wide variety of influences to shape him into the person he had become (2018:84–94). For those looking for biographical details, I encourage you to access those two fine articles published by Direction. In what follows, I have chosen to focus primarily on his post-retirement activities at Columbia, his church and conference involvements, and a few of his writings.


While 2001 marked the conclusion of Wally’s formal service at Columbia, he never really retired. Removed from the rigors of administrative {57} leadership, he could focus on teaching his favorite courses. Senior students were especially blessed to have the opportunity to study the Christian classics with Wally, and for a number of years every graduating Columbia student was challenged to articulate their belief system in the Theological Confessions course. As program director, I sometimes heard students complain about Wally’s high expectations, but I always reminded them: “Wally is fair. If you disagree with his position then make a strong biblical case for your argument. And if your reasoning is sound, I’m sure he will give you a good grade.” Wally loved to share his knowledge, but he was even happier to see his students uncover God’s truth for themselves.

In one of Wally’s final articles in the Mennonite Brethren (MB) Herald, “Pilgrim in Process,” he shared what he described as his “essential beliefs”—the center of his faith. During some of our final conversations, he repeatedly returned to those core convictions for his life. He also pointed me in the direction of one of his earlier works, “Mennonite: A Way of Following Christ” (1988:292–98) in which he explained his reasons for describing himself as an evangelical Anabaptist. And in his final article for Direction, “My Tapestry of Faith” (2018:84–94), Wally looked back on his life and emphasized the lasting significance of Christlike character. These brief autobiographical reflections provide a clear window into Wally’s faith journey.

For Wally, the starting place for theological reflection was the affirmation that Scripture, understood through a Christocentric lens, provides a solid foundation (Matt 7:24-25). A second essential belief was the necessity of the substitutionary atoning work of Christ on the cross for salvation (more on this below). The third was the call to share the gospel, the good news, of what God has done for us in Christ. His final conviction dealt with kingdom ethics—living out Jesus’s call to active peacemaking through love and forgiveness (2012a:13). In his earlier reflection, he quoted Menno Simons in an effort to draw a straight line between his convictions and those of the early Anabaptists: “We wish that we might save all mankind from the jaws of hell, free them from the chains of their sins, and by the gracious help of God add them to Christ by the Gospel of his peace. For this is the true nature of the love which is of God” (1988:297).

While discussing Wally’s cancer prognosis near the end of his life, I gained a glimpse into the way these beliefs were expressed in his interactions with others. I had to smile when Wally and his wife, Laura, shared their frustration regarding the reluctance of Wally’s oncologist to provide them with a clear timeline for his impending death. They spoke highly of the doctor’s expertise but lamented his unwillingness {58} to talk freely with them about how long Wally had left. They wanted more information but the doctor did not want to deliver bad news. Wally explained to him, “Don’t worry about me. I’m in good hands—I’m in God’s hands. God’s love is overwhelming, and I trust Jesus to take care of me. Just give me the straight goods so that I can plan accordingly.” His confidence in God’s love and salvation as revealed in God’s Word was steadfast to the end.


Wally loved the church, and he remained deeply involved in both his local church (Bakerview MB) and the larger Mennonite Brethren conference right until his death. Our lunch discussions invariably involved one of three entities: the college, the church, or the conference. He wanted to know what was going on. For him, covenant community meant that you care deeply about the state of one’s fellow members and that you remain actively engaged in the mission of Christ’s church.

According to Wally, the Anabaptist view of the church was unique among other streams of Christianity. Following Christ in a life of discipleship within the covenant community stood at the heart of biblical ecclesiology. As he wrote, “I am captivated by that vision of a believers’ church of reborn people living reordered lives based on kingdom principles; a vision of corporate discipleship, peacemaking, and a sense of mission which is holistic—melding word and deed” (1988:297). The church should be visible, making manifest the body of Christ in local communities of faith. Based on the example of the early church, baptism and church membership were interwoven in Wally’s mind because baptism serves as “entry into the visible church where teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer could occur (Acts 2:41-42)” (2004:34).

His reflections on the Anabaptist understanding of baptism, membership, and church discipline reveal a person of conviction, well-grounded in Scripture, but also one who understood the need to contextualize for changing realities. He knew that the church must remain in process in much the same way as individuals are constantly being shaped and molded. “It will mean affirming once again the fundamental truths that are fixed in our view of baptism, church, and Christian discipleship and remaining flexible in ways of applying and expressing these biblical norms in our current cultural setting” (2004:45). But maintaining the tension between holding to core beliefs while adapting to new dynamics is often easier said than done.

After his retirement (2002–2008), Wally served on the Board of Faith of Life (BFL) of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren (MB) {59} Churches, chairing the Board during the rather challenging discussion regarding the role of women in ministry leadership. The 1999 Wichita resolution of the General Conference of MB Churches encouraged women “to minister in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate.” That decision then led in turn to the 2006 Board of Faith and Life recommendation that “the Conference bless each member church in its own discernment of Scripture, conviction and practice to call and affirm gifted men and women to serve in ministry and pastoral leadership” (2006). The recommendation was also accompanied by a well-reasoned rationale which laid out both the interpretive framework and key biblical texts.

As chair of the BFL, it is not surprising that Wally received the brunt of the criticism from those most opposed to this change in church practice. At points he was personally attacked. When discussing the matter years later, he never expressed bitterness towards those with whom he had disagreed, but it was clear that this period of church service forced him to draw nearer to Christ in prayer and to exercise all his relational gifts. That being said, the approval of the BFL resolution provided him with joy because he clearly believed it would further advance God’s kingdom. It is important to listen to what he wrote in his pastoral letter to the MB conference in 2006: “The purpose of the Calgary resolution is to empower congregations to exercise freedom of conscience before God in determining what leadership polity will be most effective in advancing the gospel in their ministry context” (2006b; italics added).


One of Wally’s final public contributions to our MB conference took place during a somewhat contentious debate about the nature of the atonement. His physical strength was already largely diminished by that time, but it was during this period that his Christ-centered, spiritual stature was perhaps most evident. At the 2010 MB Study Conference, he presented “Substitution: The Sure Foundation of Atonement,” a paper remarkable for its clear and convincing presentation of the nature and significance of Christ’s work on the cross (2012b:4–17). Taking on arguments from a wide range of perspectives he passionately maintained “that the death of Christ was violent, vicarious, and victorious.” As we had come to expect, Wally’s comprehensive look at the atonement led him to argue that no one theory or model can ever exhaust all the riches of this central doctrine. We need to continue returning to this core theme of the gospel for our salvation and to spur us on to sacrificial service as we follow the example of Jesus. {60}

A few years after the publication of Wally’s atonement article in Direction, one of our newest administrative staff members at Columbia came across it while working on his MB pastoral credentialing questionnaire. By this time, Wally’s health made it impossible for him to teach at Columbia, but he still came on campus regularly to meet with students. Although this person hardly knew Wally, his arguments had left a deep impression, so much so that he said something like the following: “Before, Wally was just an old man to me, but now I know why he is so respected. Even though I’m not very theological, that article encouraged my faith more than anything I have ever read except the Bible!” Wally never stopped teaching.


It is hard to measure how much Wally cared about Columbia Bible College. At times he may have cared too much. But his passion for the college, and especially for young adults, was born of a deep love for God’s mission of redemption, reconciliation, and re-creation. Wally knew the tremendous opportunities that a Bible college presents for learning, growth, and transformation in the lives of students, and he found incredible joy and purpose in playing a role in God’s work.

From start to finish, Wally shared Jesus with so many Columbia students. Reading through the long list of tributes on the Columbia Facebook page following his death, one could not help but marvel at his impact. Here is just one: “He was an excellent teacher, an inspiration, and a man of wisdom. More than all that, you knew he loved Jesus and that was the core of who he was and is.” Indeed, although Wally demonstrated a commitment to sound scholarship, he was convinced that the most significant impact takes place through the witness of our lives. “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” (2018:93). During his final years, Wally was still often seen limping onto campus in order to meet with a student. He wanted to hear their stories and their questions, and share the wisdom he had accumulated over years of service.

During our final conversations, he kept returning to the responsibility with which I have now been entrusted as president of Columbia. Shaping the lives of young women and men, the equipping of leaders of the church for today and tomorrow, is an amazing opportunity. But to be frank, at times I have wanted to escape this call of leadership. Rising up from his hospital bed, Wally passionately challenged me to embrace the mission I had been given and rely on God for vision, direction, and {61} provision. I now fondly refer to our final conversations as “Lectures from a Hospital Bed.”


Wally loved the work of C.S. Lewis and was deeply influenced by his writing. During a final visit, my wife Teresa and I sat with Wally and Laura while they told us about one of their favorite experiences. Decades earlier, while on a study leave at Oxford University, they heard an actor recite C.S. Lewis’s famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” based on the apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Listening to Lewis’s reflections on this powerful text had a profound impact on them, and this passage took on special meaning for Wally. Wally himself discussed this sermon in one of his Christian Mind columns in the MB Herald (1991:13). Teacher to the end, a quote from Wally will serve as the conclusion to this tribute.

Glory—which Lewis defines as good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement and welcome into the heart of all things—will be ours at last. Lewis underscores the strong assurance of glory the believer has—let no paralyzing doubt or gnawing fear rob him or her of it [italics added]. It is true that we shall stand before God and be inspected. Yet the promise of glory, Lewis assures us, the promise “almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ,” is that we shall not only survive that examination, but shall actually find approval and please God. The divine accolade shall be ours: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

And to that we say, Amen!


  • Schmidt, George. 2001. The measure of five decades: An insider’s tribute to Walter Unger. Direction 30 (spring): 5–12.
  • Unger, Walter. 1988. Mennonite: A way of following Jesus. In Why I am a Mennonite, edited by Harry Loewen, 292–98. Kitchener, ON; Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.
  • ———. 1991. The weight of glory. Mennonite Brethren Herald, 13 September, 13.
  • ———. 2004. The church “without spot or wrinkle”: Testing the tradition. Direction 33 (spring): 33–47. {62}
  • ———. 2006. BFL women in ministry leadership resolution 2006. Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
  • ———. 2006b. Women in ministry leadership—A word from the BFL. Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (February).
  • ———. 2012. Pilgrim in process. Mennonite Brethren Herald, January, 12–13.
  • ———. 2012b. Substitution: The sure foundation of atonement. Direction 41 (spring): 4–17.
  • ———. 2018. My tapestry of faith. Direction 47 (spring): 84–94.
Prior to taking on the role of Columbia Bible College President in 2012, Bryan Born served as Director of the Intercultural Studies (missions) program at CBC for eight years. Before coming to Columbia, he and his wife Teresa spent twelve years serving in Botswana, Africa, working in theological education, community development, and HIV/AIDS prevention and care. Bryan has also served as pastor to youth and young adults in California and northern British Columbia. He received masters degrees in divinity and theology, and also a doctorate in missiology from the University of South Africa.

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