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Fall 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 2 · pp. 102–119 

Article 13 of the USMB Confession of Faith: A Study of Confessional Revision

Gerrit Wiebe

Over its nearly 160-year history, the Mennonite Brethren (MB) denomination has had four different confessions of faith. When established in 1860, the denomination simply adopted the 1853 version of the West Prussian Mennonite Church confession, which remained the MB confession for forty years. In 1902, a completely new confession was written, and it served the North American General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (GCMBC) for seventy-three years. In 1975, another new confession was ratified, this one using contemporary language to make it more accessible and understandable to youth. Following a nearly twelve-year-long process, yet another new version was adopted in 1999, the last confession to be created by the GCMBC.

The revised Article 13 underscores the claim that Jesus’s example and teaching have a greater claim on the lives of disciples than any nation or human authority.

The GCMBC disbanded in 2002, 1 opening the door for the former partners (the US and the Canadian MB conferences) to revise the 1999 {103} confession. The US Mennonite Brethren Conference (USMB) was quicker than the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC) to revisit the jointly drafted faith statement. Some within the USMB (many of whom had come from other denominational backgrounds) believed that key articles in the confession were problematic. Indeed, there was outright disagreement with some beliefs and practices listed there. Articles 12 (“Society and State”) and 13 (“Love and Nonresistance”) were the primary targets of criticism, but the latter, which denounced any use of violence as contrary to the gospel of love and peace, was the greater concern.

A review of Article 13 was a prospect welcomed by many in the USMB who thought it was long overdue, but dreaded by others who feared that beliefs deeply rooted in the conference’s Anabaptist heritage were threatened. USMB leaders, however, foresaw that a review was inescapable. The newly formed USMB Board of Faith and Life (BFL), 2 which would be tasked with directing the revision, anticipated that successfully amending Article 13 would require extensive consultation to get support from members on both sides of the issue. It was obvious to them that only respectful, face-to-face conversations and careful listening by both sides could produce confessional change that would strengthen rather than jeopardize the unity of the conference and its identity as an evangelical-Anabaptist denomination.

This article will detail key events of the USMB’s lengthy, painstaking, and ultimately successful revisioning process. But an understanding of why it took the course it did demands some understanding of why opinions of Article 13 were divided in the first place. And this, in turn, requires some familiarity with recent MB history and the challenges it faced in a country in which the dominant religious force was a vibrant and aggressive evangelicalism with very different attitudes toward patriotism, political involvement, the armed forces, and American gun culture.

EXTERNAL CHALLENGES

The earliest MBs to arrive in the US came from southern Russia in the late 1870s and were joined by many others over the next few decades. 3 For sixty years, most US MBs lived in isolated farming communities. After World War 2, when a robust economy offered seemingly endless opportunities, ever more MBs moved from their farms into cities where they would rub elbows with Christians from diverse denominations, many of them evangelical to one degree or another. The assimilation of outside evangelical theological ideas became nearly inevitable because they now lived in close proximity to other American evangelical {104} traditions. This adaptation and integration was made easier by what many MBs shared with evangelicals: a commitment to the ultimate authority of the Bible in all matters of life and faith, the belief that salvation requires a born-again experience which results in a personal faith in God, a commitment to evangelism, and a dispensational theology that anticipates the rapture of the faithful before Christ’s thousand-year reign. 4 The historical Anabaptist Christ-centered hermeneutic and understanding of the Kingdom of God breaking into this world were almost forgotten in the process.

But MB affection for US evangelicals exposed them to their vices as well as their virtues. Chief among those was an increasing and resolute spiritual individualism, an unfaltering certainty of the propositional correctness of their theology and understanding of the Bible, and an often mean-spirited treatment of Christians whose opinions on matters of faith and practice differed from their own. These flaws endangered the MBs’ Anabaptist values of discipleship in community, humility, accountability to one another, and patient forbearance. 5

This vulnerability to US evangelical influence was due in large part to the shift from living and practicing faith in isolation from “the world” towards living more connected with culture in more urban settings. The vitality of evangelicalism working across denominational boundaries should not be underestimated. Its teachers were dynamic, its preachers were energetic, and its evangelists (e.g., Billy Graham) were bold and alive with the Spirit of God. They identified for their listeners how to live as Christians and also how to resist pressures to conform to the values of an increasingly secular society. The astonishing number of Americans drawn to an evangelical faith contributed much to MBs’ vulnerability as well. In 2015, US evangelicals numbered over 62 million. 6 With approximately 42,000 adherents, 7 USMBs make up only 0.07 percent of all American evangelicals. 8 MBs certainly did not constitute a larger percentage in the post-war years. They had always been a drop in the ocean of American evangelicals and were now more exposed to the overpowering influence of the majority.

Just as important an influence on MBs was the fundamentalism that continues to mark much of American evangelicalism. Insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible—understood as the complete literal truth of any biblical assertion relating to history, geography, biology, or cosmology—was provoked by the perceived threat of “modernism.” Modern scholars applied textual, literary, and scientific criticism to the Scriptures and routinely dismissed significant portions of the Bible as humanly fabricated myths. Evangelical fundamentalists reacted to this perceived assault on the Word of God by savagely accusing Christian {105} leaders holding modernist sympathies of being liberals, heretics, and worse. The polarization of Christian academics as either true Christians (i.e., evangelical fundamentalists) or faith-destroying instruments of the devil would soon enough impact the US MB academic community, as the fundamentalist mindset found its way into MB churches.

But possibly most challenging to US MBs was the unwavering patriotism of the majority of American evangelicals. Their deep love of country, along with the common belief that America is (or ought to be) a Christian nation, meant most evangelicals were ready to defend America with their lives and to enlist in the armed forces whenever asked to. Rooted in a civil religion that celebrated “American exceptionalism,” which many US Christians still have difficulty separating from their Christian beliefs, 9 evangelical patriots honored the sacrifices of US service men and women with as much reverence as devout Christians observe Good Friday. Moreover, as Anne Loveland has shown, 10 after World War 2 evangelicalism became an increasingly influential presence in the US military, generating unprecedented evangelical support for the armed forces and their various engagements, including such controversial military campaigns as the Vietnam War. Evangelicals grew in the belief that “soldiering” was as honorable a calling as any a Christian might choose. Such devotion to the “land of the free and home of the brave” presented obvious challenges to a small denomination whose 1975 confession of faith declared that “Christians should live by the law of love and practice the forgiveness of enemies. . . . We believe that it is not God’s will that Christians take up arms in military service.” 11

The powerful national presence of American evangelicals, the aggressiveness of their defense of the inerrancy of Scripture, and their high regard for military service largely defined the world in which the US MBs lived out their faith. USMB adherents would grow to feel this evangelical world looking over their shoulders, sometimes shaking its head at what it saw—or didn’t see—in their confession of faith.

INTERNAL CHALLENGES

Questions around biblical inerrancy became an internal challenge to the MB Conference in the toxic controversy over the Bible of the 1970s and early 1980s. The faculty of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, were accused by fundamentalist MB pastors and laymen of heresy because their statement on the inspiration and authority of the Bible, which in fact closely followed the 1975 MB Confession of Faith, failed to include the word inerrant. Spurred on by Harold Lindsell’s widely influential books, The Battle for the Bible 12 and The Bible in {106} the Balance, 13 these MB critics made that word a test of orthodoxy and threatened to withdraw financial support from the seminary if it refused to add the word to its statement. 14 The seminary’s repeated affirmation of the Chicago Declaration on Inerrancy (in 1978 and 1982), the Seminary president’s signature on the National Association of Evangelicals and Evangelical Theological Society statements on inerrancy, and even the MB Confession of Faith’s Article 2 which affirmed the infallibility and plenary inspiration of Scripture, counted for nothing in the minds of these self-styled defenders of the faith. They would accept nothing less than the inclusion of that one word, despite its complete absence from the Bible itself.

The debate dragged on for five years before it petered out. During that time, such widely respected professors as Elmer Martens, J.B. Toews, David Ewert were publicly accused of heresy. Trust between the Seminary and the US Conference’s Central District 15 (from where the most vocal of the accusers hailed) was nearly destroyed, as were longstanding friendships. The later concern of the USMB leadership that a review of Article 13 of the Confession of Faith might inflict serious, perhaps permanent, damage on the conference was based in part on this sad episode in MB history.

An internal challenge of a different kind was reflected in the dissolution of the GCMBC in 2002. The MB membership, in both Canada and the United States, had grown indifferent to the conference structure of the denomination. As Paul Toews observed in 2002, “Some have found the attachment [to the conference] very important, others less so. Some congregations seek to uphold conference positions [e.g., the Confession of Faith], others feel no such obligations.” 16 Many could not appreciate the benefits of the conference and resented its obligations. This attitude extended to the confession as well, which seemed to be as much an instrument of exclusion as inclusion, of division as much as unity. This was thought by some to apply especially well to Article 13. This article was not essential to salvation, so why should it be treated as equal to those that did declare essential doctrines? 17

An additional issue faced the Board of Faith and Life, perhaps the key body within the USMB. Its function as an authority on doctrine and as a guide to the implementation of teachings at the local church level had been battered by individualism, localism, and the strain of mediating between multiple theological perspectives vying for dominance within the conference. In 1993, for example, the GCMBC BFL attempted, and failed, to obtain support for a resolution that would permit women to serve as senior pastors. The exercise displeased literalists, who believed that female pastoral leadership was contrary to {107} the plain teachings of the New Testament (so the BFL should not have proposed it in the first place) while the result disappointed progressives who believed the resolution was consistent with a church that modeled the redeemed human community God was calling into being (so the BFL should have made more compelling arguments in its favor). 18 A 1999 resolution affirming women’s gifts and designed to temper a 1981 resolution which encouraged women to serve in all ministries except senior pastoral ministry did pass, but it left progressives discouraged and unsatisfied. The reputation of the BFL for prudence and spiritual wisdom had been tarnished, which cast doubt on its ability to help the conference successfully resolve highly divisive issues—like how to revise Article 13 of the Confession of Faith.

The US BFL, formed in 2008 following the dissolution of the bi-national BFL which served as the last remnant of the former GCMBC, had learned from that experience: addressing a difficult topic with significant implications required a community-based and community-supported mandate. Without a clear mandate from the membership to change the confession and without extensive engagement with the constituency, arriving at an outcome that the MB membership could respect and own was highly improbable.

DEVELOPING A PROCESS

The problematic “Love and Nonresistance” article of the 1999 Confession of Faith reads as follows (statements that were perceived as troublesome are italicized):

Article 13—Love and Nonresistance

God’s Community of Peace

Believers believe that God in Christ reconciles people to himself and to one another, making peace through the cross. The church is a fellowship of redeemed people living by love. Our bond with other believers of Jesus transcends all racial, social, and national barriers.

Christian Peacemaking

We seek to be agents of reconciliation in all relationships, to practice love of enemies as taught by Christ, and to be peacemakers in all situations. We view violence in its many different forms as contradictory to the new nature of the Christian. We believe that the evil and inhumane nature of violence is contrary to the gospel {108} of love and peace. In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible. Alleviating suffering, reducing strife, and promoting justice are ways of demonstrating Christ’s love.

Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 5:17-28, 38-48; Romans 12:9-21; 13:8-10; 1 Peter 2:19-23

Discussions of Article 13 were already underway well before 2010 when the BFL formally initiated the review process. The minutes of a BFL meeting two years earlier record a lengthy conversation about the concerns regarding Article 13. It started with the simple question: “What is the problem?” Four preliminary answers were suggested:

  1. The problem is the content of Article 13 itself.

  2. The problem is that the meaning of Article 13 has never been clearly communicated to the membership in the local churches.

  3. The problem is that members are not committed to Article 13 (and, by implication, possibly not to the confession).

  4. The problem is that members disagree with how Article 13 expresses the MB position on nonresistance. 19

Some of these answers reflected the character and attitudes of US MBs as they had developed since 1945. The third answer, the membership’s lack commitment to the confession, mirrored the aforementioned indifference of the membership to the USMB’s conference structure, but also manifested a spiritual individualism and localism. These factors largely account for Laura Neufeld’s observation that “Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. found it easier . . . to let go of certain aspects of their identity and to borrow freely from American religious ideology.” 20 But the individualism and localism themselves were symptoms of the US evangelical melting pot in which MBs found themselves, not an innate flaw in their character. Tim Geddert’s suggestion that indifference toward their distinct Anabaptist-Mennonite identity explains why many US MB churches were happy to hire pastors from outside their own conference and theological tradition likewise begs the question of why MBs grew indifferent to their historical identity as Anabaptists in the first place. 21 A good case could be made that MB Anabaptism had faded in the face of the growing evangelical identity of the denomination, which removed barriers to hiring evangelical pastors from outside the MB tradition. These pastors, in turn, further eroded MB Anabaptism because, ignorant of what Anabaptism entailed, they could not properly {109} clarify to their congregations the Anabaptist beliefs articulated in Article 13.

Failure to clearly communicate Article 13 to the membership via preaching or teaching was of particular concern to the BFL because it undercut the integrity of the conference. Not practicing their stated beliefs seemed hypocritical to many MBs, and the BFL saw this as an urgent issue. They wrestled with the challenge of holding on to a long-established theological conviction when many members were unconvinced that it was still important—the so-called “disparity between policy and practice.” 22 Behind that challenge lay a question that would complicate the review of Article 13: Does practice shape faith, or does faith shape practice? 23 Revision of the peace position itself would make sense if the first principle applied; but regular teaching of the stated beliefs and encouragement to live them out would be more appropriate if the second applied. The BFL ultimately opened the door to a revision while maintaining that faith ought to shape Christian practice.

The BFL soon contemplated the possibility of a study conference to bring discussion of Article 13 back to the MB constituency. BFL members understood their role in the process of revisiting this article, but they were also aware that engaging with the church on this issue was crucial. So, at their April 2009 meeting, the BFL committed to a public discussion and engagement with the churches at various levels. It was understood that this review process would be time-consuming—no quick fix was available. 24

Three key themes emerged in the early stages of discussions within the conference, and they would come up repeatedly throughout the process. The first was unity. 25 The BFL was painfully aware that the unity of the conference was fragile. Polarizing positions on Article 13 had already emerged, which raised the stakes for those leading the review process. Previous experiences of navigating contentious issues nearly fractured the conference. Failure to achieve a broadly supported revision could only weaken the unity of the USMB and thus threaten its future.

The second theme was a shared vision for the pastors and the membership of the USMB. 26 Stronger acceptance of the beliefs described in the Confession of Faith would help cast a vision that church leadership and membership could more easily embrace. While shared vision conjures up ideas of future ministry or missional goals, it can also suggest a common purpose, rooted in shared beliefs, to which variously gifted followers of Jesus could direct their energies and passions. Understood in the latter sense, a shared vision was more likely to lead to a stronger sense of conference unity. {110}

The third theme was authenticity. 27 Early discussions had linked the disconnect between confessional “policy” (i.e., beliefs) and ethical practice to a lack of integrity. The subsequent use of authenticity signaled a shift from an outsider’s to an insider’s perspective. How MBs might be perceived by outsiders became less important than whether they were true to what they claimed to believe. This focus on authenticity drew attention away from the scandal of hypocrisy toward the nature of personal convictions—how they are formed and how they might be expressed in a formal statement like a confession of faith.

In the more than two years of behind-the-scenes discussions of confessional revision, the BFL was only too aware of the potential negative outcomes of an Article 13 review. The BFL therefore took the Connection 2010 conference as an opportunity to determine the depth of the constituency’s discomfort with the confession. 28 Every article of the Confession of Faith was read publicly, and two questions were asked after each was read: “Do we walk the talk of this article?” and “Should we review and possibly revise this article?” 29 Conference attendees were able to respond in real time by answering either yes or no. Article 13 was the only article to receive a resounding no to the first question and a yes to the second, indicating both a discrepancy between statement and heart-felt conviction as well as a willingness to review if not revise it. The BFL took this result as their mandate to move the discussion around Article 13 into an official forum and to develop a formal review process. 30

The strategy guiding the development of that process was to engage the MB constituency broadly. 31 The BFL members made themselves available to facilitate workshops at District Conferences and local churches. Their goal was to create safe places to share the BFL position on Article 13 as well as field questions and obtain feedback. Aware that many constituents were not born-and-bred Anabaptists, the BFL saw the need to be engaging in sharing their position without aggressively confronting those who did not share the Anabaptist values of peacemaking and reconciliation. 32

STUDY CONFERENCE 2013

The BFL decided that a study conference would be the best way to kick off the process. 33 No one presumed that it would lead directly to the revision of Article 13; only that it was the appropriate setting in which the constituency could gain a better understanding of opposing views. It was also a good way to gauge how much latitude might be allowed on the issue. Most importantly, it was an opportunity to get some sense of what the community, the representing “we” of the MB membership, actually believed. 34 {111}

The Board drew up a detailed list of desirable outcomes. One was a more Anabaptist understanding of ecclesiology and hermeneutics, which emphasized working through issues together, challenging each other in a safe environment, and leading to an appreciation of the complexity of the issue—and possibly to a change of mind. Other positive outcomes included relationship-building between church members and the conference and a rediscovery of how beneficial that relationship could be. But perhaps the most deeply hoped-for outcome was a clear indication of whether revision of Article 13 was necessary, and what common beliefs about peacemaking still existed. 35

Leading up to the January 2013 study conference, the BFL reached out to the MB churches across the nation, inviting delegates to register, and setting the stage for achieving the goals they had identified. In the months after the Connection 2010 conference until late in 2012, the Christian Leader (the bimonthly USMB magazine) featured multiple stories relating to the process. These articles articulated not only the issues raised by Article 13 but also the desired outcomes and the environment in which the BFL would attempt to achieve those goals. 36 The Christian Leader became the BFL’s primary medium for reaching the constituency. In addition, the assignment of the District ministers to the BFL turned out to be highly advantageous. 37 These men proved to be most helpful in getting the Districts and local churches to share their honest opinions about Article 13.

Three papers became the centerpieces of the study conference. The first, read by Roger Poppen, lead pastor of Laurelglen Bible Church in California, was, “A Case for Legitimate Protective Violence.” 38 Poppen shared his personal struggles with the present wording of Article 13 and laid out his understanding of why loving people sometimes requires protecting them with the use of violence. He defined violence as “forceful physical action towards others to accomplish a purpose.” 39 MB Biblical Seminary professor Elmer Martens’s response expressed appreciation for the irenic tone of Poppen’s paper, but also identified significant weaknesses in his arguments and his interpretation of Scripture. 40

The second paper, presented by Tabor College assistant professor of Biblical and Religious Studies Del Gray, was titled “A Case for Nonviolence.” It described Gray’s theological journey from believing that wars could be just to believing that pacifism is more Christlike than fighting. 41 He identified the influence of American culture as an obstacle to taking seriously Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about peacemaking and loving enemies. Paul Robie, pastor of South Mountain Community Church in Utah, responded by admitting that he was “one that doesn’t think that we should include Articles 12 and 13 as part of {112} a statement of faith.” 42 Pointing to the Bible’s positive presentation of violence when commanded by God, he cited Old Testament references and Romans 13 to justify the use of violence by governments, much as Poppen had done earlier.

In the final presentation, the strongest and most influential of the three, Tim Geddert from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary significantly broadened the horizon of the topic. His paper “Radical Peacemaking” made two points: (1) whatever believers do they should do because the lordship of Jesus justifies it; this truth cannot be overruled by any other authority. And (2) the two positions most commonly held by sincere Christians—pacifism and limited-use-of-violence peacekeeping (the doctrine of just war)—are much closer to each other than to other options on the nonviolence-violence spectrum of positions. 43 He criticized the easy identification of Christian values with American values and urged listeners to consider what kind of lives Christ calls them to. And he provocatively argued that both pacifism and “limited peacekeeping violence” are complex positions that allow for mutual respect between those who hold them. Within the USMB, pacifists and nonpacifists are not so far apart that unity and fellowship cannot continue. The crucial question, said Geddert, is “How can we be deeply and passionately involved as peacemakers in our homes and churches and neighborhoods and cities, as followers of the Prince of Peace?” 44

Each of the three presentations was followed by a time for conversation, Bible study, and intentional listening. The study conference’s listening committee reported what they had heard during the proceedings and summarized the main issues and the feedback from those many conversations. A time of further conversation and listening followed.

The study conference was widely hailed as a success. Attendance far exceeded expectations. The BFL had hoped for at least 100 registered participants; they got 175. Delegates from all District Conferences and from various USMB and inter-Mennonite agencies attended. The Board saw the success as validation of their approach to fostering broad conference engagement. 45

REVISION AND APPROVAL

To help process the study conference outcomes, the BFL conducted a survey and gave the USMB membership opportunities to provide feedback, which included an online forum. 46 After reviewing the collected data, the Board met to decide how to proceed. Convinced that they had the support of the MB constituency to begin a formal revision of Article 13, 47 they informed the churches via open letter in March 2013 of their impressions of the study conference, the follow-up they had {113} received, and their intention to move forward. 48 The BFL also continued to invite the members of the USMB church family to engage in further conversation.

Three months later, the BFL released a second open letter, this time with the primary purpose of receiving feedback on a draft revision of Article 13 crafted in response to the study conference and subsequent feedback. 49 They clearly stated the goals they had attempted to meet in the draft revision and solicited feedback. They also declared that it was now their goal to present a revised Article 13 at the biennial national conference, Connection 2014. At that forum they hoped delegates would ratify the revision. The Christian Leader published an article announcing the process and inviting the USMB family to keep the lines of communication open with the BFL as they made their revisions. 50

The family accepted the invitation. 51 The BFL quickly processed the feedback they received on the first draft. 52 Feedback had even come from beyond their own constituency: Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB), and the Canadian Board of Faith and Life all affirmed the process and direction the review had taken, while MCC pushed for the “strongest possible peace statement.” 53 Encouraged by the responses, the Board included a reference, somewhat softer than the one in the 1999 confession, to alternative service. It stated, “many of us choose alternative service rather than military participation” (emphases added). 54 They also released a third open letter to the constituency, which included the second draft of the article, and invited additional feedback.

In spring 2014, as they prepared for Connection 2014, the BFL made minor adjustments to the wording of their proposed Article 13 (now titled “Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation”), 55 being careful “not to introduce new thoughts that would not have been reviewed by the constituency.” 56 With their final version ready, they also prepared a presentation for the convention. It was especially important to the BFL to highlight that the process originated within the constituency, and that it was a central goal to strengthen the MB “witness as people that actively pursue peace and justice.” 57 They understood that simply changing the wording of Article 13 would not resolve some of the issues arising from the diverse positions held on the subject. To help churches in the application of Article 13, they started to think ahead to ways to increase awareness of the central beliefs of US MBs about peacemaking.

Engaging with the constituency, the BFL chose to continue to respond to the feedback without further revisions to the document before the convention. In the meantime, the USMB Conference leadership board reviewed the work of the BFL and affirmed the revised Article 13. The Christian Leader also published articles keeping readers informed {114} about where the review of the confession stood. 58 The BFL continued to report the details of the revision, pointing out their implications for discipleship and church life.

At Connection 2014, Larry Nikkel, chair of the BFL, recounted the public process that had begun four years earlier 59 and moved that the Board’s revised Article 13 be adopted. Following a minor wording change in the draft enclosed with the BFL’s third open letter, the revised Article 13 was affirmed by an overwhelming majority. It became the first article to differ from the 1999 bi-national confession of faith. It is reproduced here:

Article 13: Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation 60

God’s Community of Peace

We believe that God in Christ reconciles people to Himself and to one another, making peace through the cross. The church is the fellowship of redeemed people living by love. The bond between followers of Jesus transcends all racial, social and national barriers.

Christian Peacemaking

We actively pursue peace and reconciliation in all relationships by following Christ’s example and His command to love God, neighbors and even enemies. We strive to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation in families, churches, communities, in our nation, and throughout the world.

As peacemakers we alleviate suffering, reduce strife, promote justice, and work to end violence and war, that others may see a demonstration of Christ’s love. As in other Peace Churches, many of us choose not to participate in the military, but rather in alternative forms of service.

Because Jesus is Lord, His example and teaching take priority over nationalism and the demands of human authorities.

Exodus 20:1-17; Jeremiah 29:7; Matthew 5:9, 17-26, 38-48; Romans 12:9-21, 13:8-10; II Corinthians 5:15-20; Ephesians 2:14-18; I Peter 2:19-23

A process that had officially begun in 2010 had ended four years later, with the participation and support of the USMB constituency, under the careful and wise leadership of the BFL. {115}

ANALYSIS

Considering the pressure of American evangelical sentiments within the USMB, it is remarkable that the revised Article 13 substantially reaffirms an Anabaptist Christ-centeredness and the centrality of ethics and discipleship to its vision of Christian living. In restating those principles, it makes a relatively small concession to those who dissented from the pacifism of the 1999 confession and whose sense of disconnectedness from the Article 13 originally triggered its review. In some ways the new version of Article 13 is more Anabaptist than the 1999 version and more biblical as well. It refrains from a general condemnation of violence based on its effects (for which proof-texts are difficult to find) and instead underscores, as early Anabaptists did, the centrality of Jesus’s ethical teachings to living as faithful disciples of Christ.

Moreover, the new article’s explicit identification of the USMB with “other Peace Churches” places the conference squarely in the pacifist camp of Christianity, which includes the Church of the Brethren, the Society of Friends (Quakers), the many varieties of Mennonites, as well as the Amish. It also underscores the claim that Jesus’s example and teaching have a greater claim on the lives of disciples than any nation or human authority. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists would have approved.

Anabaptism was also evident in the process that brought forth the revision. For Anabaptist denominations, following Jesus is a communal exercise and experience. The USMB Board of Faith and Life followed their lead in mapping out the review process. Rather than leaving the revision to an elite group of church and academic leaders, the BFL engaged with as many participants as possible, and over a considerable length of time. The conference communications and the District structures and leadership were essential in facilitating this far-reaching endeavor. For the USMB BFL, this approach was not merely pragmatic but illustrative. It showed the MB membership and the world that this is how Anabaptists do things.

Even the tone of process struck an Anabaptist note. “The study conference demonstrated peacemaking,” said the Christian Leader’s Conny Faber. 61 Faber was referring to the graciousness with which people treated each other, despite serious differences of opinion. The BFL’s gift for creating environments that made participants feel respected even by those who disagreed with them enabled the process to move toward a widely accepted resolution. Developing a process and set of practices consistent with the beliefs under review not only validated the outcome but also served the BFL’s goal to raise the USMB’s awareness that Jesus calls his disciples to be peacemakers. {116}

The broad support for the revised Article 13 is testimony to the wisdom of prayerful planning and to the BFL’s commitment to Christlike peacemaking all along the way. The price may turn out to be high, but despite the tremendous pressures to conform to American evangelical sensibilities, the USMB accepted a confessional article more strongly Anabaptist and more clearly grounded in the teaching of Jesus than the one it replaced.

NOTES

  1. For a detailed account of the separation, see Laura Neufeld, “A Divided People: The Dissolution of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (1990-2002),” Mennonite Quarterly Review 81, no. 4 (2007): 485–514.
  2. The USMB BFL started its work on January 1, 2008. Throughout the process, the following individuals served on the BFL: Larry Nikkel (BFL chair, 2008-2004), Roger Engbrecht (District Minister [DM], 2008-2014), Tim Sullivan (DM, 2008-20014), Gary Wall (DM, 2008-2014), Ed Boschman (National Director, 2008-2014), Rod Anderson (2008-2014), Michael Eldridge (2008-2014), Tim Geddert (2008-2014), James Wilfong (2008-2010), and Terry Hunt (2010-2014).
  3. A brief history of the migration of Russian Mennonite Brethren to North America may be found in Kevin Enns-Rempel’s, “Coming to North America: The Immigrants of the 1870s,” in Paul Toews and Kevin Enns-Rempel, eds., For Everything a Season: Mennonite Brethren in North America, 1874–2002: An Informal History (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2002), 15–27.
  4. Dispensationalism was already widely accepted among Mennonites in Russia in the late nineteenth century. See Abe Dueck, “Coming to North America: The Immigrants of the 1920s–1940s,” in Paul Toews and Kevin Enns-Rempel, eds., For Everything a Season: Mennonite Brethren in North America, 1874–2002: An Informal History (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2002), 29. On dispensationalism and its influence on North American MBs, see David Ewert, “Dispensationalism,” in Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO, 1989), https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dispensationalism.
  5. For a more extended discussion of the sometimes fraught relationship between MBs and US evangelicals, see Richard Kyle, “The Mennonite Brethren and American Evangelicalism: An Ambivalent Relationship,” Direction 20 (Spring 1991): 26–37.
  6. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/#fnref-23198-10.
  7. This statistic comes from Donna Sullivan, administrative assistant at the USMB head office in Wichta, KS. The estimate of 40,000 USMB members or adherents in 2014 is derived from Carl Garber, “2018 Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Anabaptist Survey,” Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society website, https://www.lmhs.org/about/anabaptist-statistics/. {117}
  8. Garber, “2018 Anabaptist Survey.”
  9. One recent attempt to “save” the notion of American exceptionalism for American evangelicals is John D. Wilsey’s, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).
  10. Anne C. Loveland, American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993 (Baton Rouge; London: Louisiana State University Press, 1996).
  11. See the 1975 Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, “Love and Nonresistance,” https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Mennonite_Brethren_Church_Confession_of_Faith_(1975)#Love_and_Nonresistance.
  12. Harold. Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
  13. Harold Lindsell, The Bible in the Balance (Grand Rapids, MI : Zondervan, 1979).
  14. This story is well-documented in John E. Toews, “Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and the Battle for the Bible 1977–1982,” Direction 42 (Fall 2013): 229–50.
  15. For a visual representation of how the districts relate to the USMB Conference, see the USMB organizational chart at https://usmb.org/organization/. An interactive map showing the locations of the five districts and their churches is available at https://usmb.org/district-overview/.
  16. Paul Toews, “Searching for the Right Structures,” in Paul Toews and Kevin Enns-Rempel, eds., For Everything a Season: Mennonite Brethren in North America, 1874–2002: An Informal History (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2002), 65.
  17. Paul Robie makes this point in his response to “A Case for Nonviolence,” paper presented at the USMB Study Conference, Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict” (Phoenix, Ariz. Jan. 24–26, 2013), 2, https://usmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Paul-Robie.pdf.
  18. John H. Lohrenz and Abe J. Dueck, “General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, December 2009, accessed June 20, 2019, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=General_Conference_of_Mennonite_Brethren_Churches #Women_in_Leadership.
  19. U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life, October 8-9, 2008, Denver, Colorado (Denver, CO: United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, 2008).
  20. Neufeld, “Divided People,” 489.
  21. Tim Geddert, interviewed by Gerrit Wiebe, 2018.
  22. U.S. Conference BFL, Oct. 8-9, 2008.
  23. Tim Geddert made this a key point during our interview. If MBs read the Bible through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus, that reading should shape what MBs believe. Sometimes, however, actions fall short of what one believes. Geddert interview.
  24. U.S. Conference BFL, Apr. 29-30, 2009.
  25. U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life, September 16, 2010, Charlotte, NC (Charlotte, NC: United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, 2010).
  26. U.S. Conference BFL, Sept. 16, 2010. {118}
  27. U.S. Conference BFL, Sept. 16, 2010.
  28. U.S. Conference BFL, Sept. 16, 2010.
  29. Ed Boschman, “Living What We Say We Believe,” Christian Leader, 2010, https://christianleadermag.com/living-what-we-say-we-believe/.
  30. Nikkel interview.
  31. Although the minutes vaguely refer to a “strategy,” they fail to provide details. However, Larry Nikkel provided the context for what was taking place. U.S. Conference BFL, Sept. 16, 2010.
  32. Nikkel interview.
  33. BFL, U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life, September 21-22, 2011, Denver.
  34. U.S. Conference BFL, Sept. 21-22, 2011.
  35. BFL, U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life, March 21-22, 2012, Bakersfield.
  36. Boschman, “Living What We Say We Believe.” Connie Faber, “Study Conference Provides Time for Family to Talk,” Christian Leader, 2012, https://christianleadermag.com/study-conference-provides-time-for-family-talk/; Larry Nikkel and Ed Boschman, “The Gap between Walk and Talk,” Christian Leader, 2011, https://christianleadermag.com/the-gap-between-walk-and-talk/.
  37. Nikkel interview.
  38. Roger Poppen, “A Legitimate Case for Protective Violence,” paper presented at the USMB Study Conference: Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict (Phoenix, Ariz., Jan. 24–26, 2013), https://usmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/A-Case-for-Legitimate-Protective-Violence.pdf.
  39. Poppen, “Legitimate Case,” 2.
  40. Elmer Martens, Response to “A Legitimate Case for Protective Violence,” USMB Study Conference: Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict (Phoenix, Ariz. Jan. 24–26, 2013), https://usmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Elmer-Martens.pdf.
  41. Del Gray, “A Case for Nonviolence,” paper presented at the USMB Study Conference, Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict (Phoenix, Ariz., Jan. 24–26, 2013), https://usmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/A-Case-for-Nonviolence.pdf.
  42. Robie, Response to “A Case for Nonviolence,” presented at the USMB Study Conference, Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict (Phoenix, Ariz., Jan. 24–26, 2013), 2, https://usmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Paul-Robie.pdf.
  43. Tim Geddert, “Radical Peacemaking: Living with Our Diversity,” paper presented at the USMB Study Conference, Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict (Phoenix, Ariz., Jan. 24–26, 2013), 7–8, https://usmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Radical-Peacemaking-Living-with-our-Diversity.pdf.
  44. Geddert, “Radical Peacemaking,” 11.
  45. A broad ethnic diversity exists in the USMB, but only six Hispanic or African American representatives were sent. Also absent were Slavic members. Connie Faber, “Study Conference Demonstrates Peacemaking,” Christian Leader, 13 February 2013, https://christianleadermag.com/study-conference-demonstrates-peacemaking/. {119}
  46. Connie Faber, “Online Forum Continues Study Conference Discussion,” Christian Leader, 1 February 2013, https://christianleadermag.com/online-forum-continues-study-conference-discussion/.
  47. Board of Faith and Life, U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life, March 13-14, 2013, San Diego (United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, 2013).
  48. USMB Board of Faith and Life, “Journeying Together as Followers of the Prince of Peace” (2013), https://usmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/BFL-Open-Letter-March-2013.pdf.
  49. USMB Board of Faith and Life, “Proposed Revision of Confession of Faith Article 13” (United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, 2013), https://usmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/BFL-Open-Letter-June-2013.pdf.
  50. Connie Faber, “BFL Invites Comments on Draft of Article 13,” Christian Leader, 22 July 2013, https://christianleadermag.com/bfl-invites-comments-on-draft-of-article-13/.
  51. In one case, the BFL was given an opportunity to clarify that the Confession of Faith is the product of a consensus of all churches in the conference. When asked how they would feel about “a local congregation creating a supplement to the confession that would apply in their church,” the BFL responded that it would be inappropriate for a local church to amend the Confession of Faith. But they graciously added that churches were welcome to provide their own interpretation or explanation of articles in the Confession. U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life, September 24-25, 2013, Wichita KS (United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, 2013).
  52. BFL, “Proposed Revision.”
  53. U.S. Conference BFL, Sept. 24-25, 2013.
  54. USMB Board of Faith and Life, “Open Letter from US Mennonite Brethren National Board of Faith and Life (BFL), October 2013” (United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, 2013).
  55. BFL, “Open Letter,” 2013.
  56. U.S. Conference BFL, Mar. 12-13, 2014.
  57. U.S. Conference BFL, Mar. 12-13, 2014.
  58. Connie Faber, “BFL Circulates Preliminary Recommendation,” Christian Leader, 2013, https://christianleadermag.com/bfl-circulates-preliminary-recommendation/; Myra Holms, “Leadership Board Affirms Revised Article 13,” Christian Leader, 2014, https://christianleadermag.com/leadership-board-affirms-revised-article-13/.
  59. United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, Connection 2014, July 25-26, 2014—Minutes (United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, 2014).
  60. “Confession of Faith,” United States Mennonite Brethren Conference, 2014, https://usmb.org/confession-of-faith-4/.
  61. Faber, “Study Conference Demonstrates Peacemaking.”
Gerrit Wiebe completed an MA in Christian Studies at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Langley, BC, in 2018. He has held a variety of leadership positions at Bakerview MB Church in Abbotsford, BC, before relocating to Lebanon, OR, with his family. He is currently on the faculty of the University of Oregon College of Education as a Technical Assistance Provider in the Oregon Youth Transition Program.

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