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Fall 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 2 · pp. 90–101 

Recipe or Food Guide? The Use of the Confession of Faith in Mennonite Brethren Churches

Brad Sumner

It was two decades ago but I still remember how striking the comment was to me. I was a new Mennonite Brethren (MB) pastor and attending the 1999 bi-national gathering of the US and Canadian Mennonite Brethren in Abbotsford, BC. The business at hand was updating the Confession of Faith now that we were dividing into independent national conferences. At one point Walter Unger stood up on the convention floor and said of our shared Confession of Faith: “This is the best insight we have now, but I am always open to more light.” Coming from a Baptist perspective where our statement of faith was more creedal and historic in its orientation, I was shocked by this flexibility and openness to any revision at all. How could this well-respected leader stand up in front of his peers and say that his view of the MB confession was open to more light?!

In an increasingly fragmented and fractured landscape, statements of identity and practice matter more than ever.

Since that time, I have observed several impulses within the Mennonite Brethren family globally and historically which I have come to appreciate and appropriate within my own community of faith. These impulses forge a shared approach to the confession that I deeply respect but which also can make our life together challenging. They include our {91} commitment to a community hermeneutic, our historically pietist and Anabaptist emphasis on lived discipleship, and the missional impulse we share with evangelicalism to bear witness to a watching world. 1 When viewed in the light of these unique family traits, the use of the Confession of Faith to invite people near and far to the table for vigorous theological conversation to see if there is more light to be shed starts to make sense.

To use a metaphor from the world of food science and nutrition, our Confession of Faith is akin to Canada’s Food Guide: it seeks to set the table for a robust and healthy conversation about what a healthy theological “diet” looks like. 2 The goal is not to pre-cook or “menu plan” for every local congregation. The Confession of Faith does, however, set before our MB leaders a set of “key ingredients” for their teaching and equipping ministry. When assembled with wisdom and care, these should lead to healthy discipleship and growth into maturity. 3

HISTORY OF CONFESSIONS IN THE LOCAL CHURCH

In 1527, a group of Anabaptists wrote what became known as the Schleitheim Articles. 4 As with many statements of convictions, this was both a didactic tool and a litmus test of belonging. But even at its origin, the purpose and use of the articles in the church was a contested matter. Was it a “confessional delineator . . . directed primarily against the Protestant reformers . . . ? Or was Schleitheim a further development of prior sectarian impulses, and directed primarily to the Anabaptist community?” 5 It remains an open question whether the purpose of this confessional forerunner was catechetical or, rather, a clear delineation of distinctions needed to clarify where one Protestant group differed from numerous others emerging at the time. Even in the sixteenth century the question of “centered set” versus “bounded set” was apparently an urgent one! 6

Subsequent confessional statements by Anabaptist Mennonites were similarly bifurcated, that is, written for both an internal audience and an external one. The 1860 Document of Secession, for example, which gave rise to the Mennonite Brethren church, expresses a desire to remain faithful to the teachings of Menno Simons and the Scriptures but also refers to abuses in baptismal fellowship, communion practices, pastoral ethics, and personal holiness. It is written as a letter but its use of confessional language 7 sounds a clarion call of fidelity to the Scriptures. The authors write against the abuses but clearly have lived-discipleship in mind when they cry out, “O Jesus, equip faithful living witnesses, who will direct Thy children and the work of Thy hands to Thee!” 8 Like other confessional forerunners, this was not a dry affirmation of abstract beliefs but a robust articulation of what was important to them in their lives, their homes, and their communities of faith. {92}

Tracing this historical arc, we can see that many of the historic Mennonite confessions arose from a desire to do theology contextually and communally, not to shield long-held convictions from change. The very assembly of a confession of faith across a network of churches dispersed geographically and also theologically forces us to emulate what the early church did in Acts 15: they met together, studied the Scriptures together, heard testimony of God’s work in the world, and then wrote down what they discerned as being “good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28a NIV). Historically, the consistent desire of local church leaders was that the creeds or confessions be lived, not simply memorized and recited to pass an entrance test. The gatekeeping function of confessions was secondary to their work as tools of discipleship.

This is also perhaps why confessional revision continues today. Take, for example, the current efforts by the Canadian MB Conference’s National Faith and Life Team (NFLT, formerly the Board of Faith and Life, or BFL) to engage churches in studying, reviewing, and teaching Article 8—Christian Baptism. Their hope is that provincial conventions will approve a draft revision in 2020. 9 As was true in the case of the “women in ministry leadership” (WIML) conversation that preceded it, 10 the desire is to engage and converse with the MB membership, rather than to force those doing baptism “wrong” to declare themselves and then disfellowship them. The goal of the confession and the cluster of topical materials published around it is designed to serve not supplant the local church’s ministry and mission.

Similarly, in July 2014 the US Mennonite Brethren Conference (USMB) ratified a revision to Article 13 of its confession, renaming it “Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation.” 11 They began to see divergence not in the end goal of peacemaking as such but rather in the methods and actions that were seen as biblically valid for Christians to employ in the pursuit of peace. Similar discussions and revisions are currently underway in the USMB around the place of women in ministry leadership, a matter that has been under discussion for several decades on both sides of the border. 12

The process of revision highlights the fact that the Confession of Faith is not a static document, unassailable, unchangeable, and handed down without interruption from generation to generation like the Nicene Creed. Dr. Randy Wolff of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary notes helpfully that “the Confession is not a sterile doctrinal statement, but reads as a dynamic and compelling expression of biblical faith.” 13 But in order to come alive in this way, the confession must be engaged with at both the local and the global level. {93}

THE GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

Our global church family also understands the need for confessional contextuality. The needs, stylistic structures, and language that drive our North American church audiences will not resonate with more narrative, less linear thinkers in the Global South. 14 When asked about the need for the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB) Confession of Faith, two of the original authors noted that “the purpose of the common confession is to guide national conferences in formulating confessions specific to their own cultures and to define Mennonite Brethren positions for national churches that have inquired about joining the denomination.” 15

In other words, the purpose of the ICOMB confession is to set the table for further hermeneutical work at the national and local church levels. Like a national food guide, the process is not complete with the publication or even the translation of any confession of faith. It must be digested, discussed, and debated, and the work of the Spirit must be allowed to continue to guide further conversations. 16 This is what Mennonite Brethren refer to as community hermeneutics: “As the church engages in a process of study and discernment, this creates space for the Spirit to guide the church toward a shared interpretation of the Word and agreement on how to live it out.” 17

THE LOCAL PERSPECTIVE

With these helpful historical frames of reference firmly in mind, we can turn our attention to some unique ways in which our shared Confession of Faith “serves the church.” 18 In 2018, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren NFLT published a new introduction to the Confession of Faith to help bring clarity to the role of this important document within the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC). The Confession of Faith Task Force 19 (derived from the NFLT) identified three core functions to help us understand how the Confession of Faith might be utilized in a local church setting.

1. It expresses our shared Mennonite Brethren convictions and identity.

One of the core gifts that the confession offers is a basis for unity within and amongst our churches. By choosing to be part of a denominational entity, 20 churches have chosen a relational posture of mutual submission where we allow the confession to be “used for conference-wide leadership, guidance, direction, instruction, church polity, and discipline . . . [It] comprises an integral component of who we are as well as what we believe.” 21 While there is latitude in many things, since we are a “big tent” kind of evangelical-Anabaptist movement, 22 there is also {94} a sense that we must have something more robust and historic that binds us together. Leaders at the national or local congregational level may change, theological fads may come and go, but by claiming the denominational and historical identity of Mennonite Brethren we have decided that our confession of faith will be the glue that binds our family together. 23

This is also why we do not presently give MB churches liberty to adopt their own statements of faith. While each local church is certainly unique in its calling and context, each church is also fundamentally a Mennonite Brethren church and needs to be identified as such theologically. The Confession of Faith is what we have chosen to “define our MB corporate theological identity.” 24 This is not to minimize or flatten the theological diversity in our denominational family, but it is to say that there are limits to what it means to call yourself a Mennonite Brethren congregation or leader.

During the six years I served on the provincial Pastoral Ministries Committee, 25 one of the issues we processed was churches that chose to make The Gospel Coalition (TGC) confession their own statement of faith. While adopting a TGC statement as an identity marker was important for some churches (to signal their Reformed theological leanings), for some it began to supplant or replace the CCMBC Confession of Faith. Our committee deemed this substitution unacceptable because it made a statement written by a non-denominational network of churches the central identity marker for a church affiliated with an historically Anabaptist denomination. Our concern was not brand identity but family unity.

This is why, when we credential leaders for work and ministry in the denomination, we have them interact extensively with the Confession of Faith. While we are interested deeply in their spiritual health, emotional maturity, and leadership capacity, we are also particularly and rightly interested in their ability to understand and teach our shared convictions. If they are not “apply[ing] the teaching of the Bible to the relevant issues facing the church,” 26 the body charged with assessing their suitability for ministry could not in good conscience license or credential them as Mennonite Brethren leaders. Even the documents that local church leaders are asked to sign signal their understanding of, and submission to, the Confession of Faith.

2. It expresses our vision for faithful discipleship and worship.

Part of the attraction and the beauty of a confession is that it gives us contemporary and shared language to express what we believe the Bible teaches on a given set of topics. The notion of a statement of {95} belief that is not a simple list of Scripture quotations but ventures into biblical interpretation comes from the early centuries of the Christian movement. The historic creeds of the patristic era from the apostolic age to the second Council of Nicaea “were assumed as foundational for Mennonite confessions from the beginning.” 27 They are implicit in the current MB confession as well. Synthesizing and articulating in contemporary language what the Scriptures teach and mean has always been part of the creedal tradition.

This impulse to say words about the words about the Word 28 comes in part from a desire to teach, preach, and to disciple believers with catechetical fidelity into an embodied expression of faith. The primary use of the Confession of Faith in the local church should always be to assist in teaching the people of God to obey everything Jesus commands (Matt 28:20) and to invite them to live their lives in the power of the Spirit. There is a beauty in the MB resolve not to see this as a mere exercise in transmitting intellectual knowledge but rather as a discipline that touches all parts of our lives together: “Our convictions reflect what we believe, how we live, and what we teach.” 29 The confession helps us to articulate a vision for a particular kind of discipleship that is both faithful and experiential, both intellectually rigorous and historically rooted, but also vitalized by the Holy Spirit.

Unsurprisingly, in a small informal survey of pastoral leaders for this article, all who responded indicated that the Confession of Faith played a prominent and primary role in their membership classes. In many ways, the membership class is one of the most obvious places where the historic and theological identity of a church would be formally taught and discussed. Printed materials are handed out and questions are asked regarding who we are, why we believe what we believe; robust didactic discussion is undertaken. 30 A membership class is the place where denominational linkages are strengthened and theological storytelling takes a familiar shape.

This is of course not the only place where the confession should play an active and public role in the life of a church. Several worship leaders in more liturgical churches reported using the readings that accompany the confession. 31 Some children’s pastors talked about referencing related materials when designing a scope and sequence or for assessing the theological fidelity of a curriculum they were considering. Notably absent from the conversation were youth pastors. Their silence, however, could well be explained by the structural and topical limitations of the confession rather than its assumed irrelevance to the task of discipling young adults. {96}

While the confession speaks to multiple issues from a biblical-theological framework, it is not an exhaustive catalog of “the MB position” on all the pressing issues of the day. Our current CCMBC Confession of Faith is perhaps just as telling in what it chooses not to speak to as in the issues it does address. It remains silent, for example, on specific eschatological teachings, 32 on models of atonement, 33 and on LGBTQ2S concerns. 34 Consistent with other documents like it, the confession often chooses to focus on a positive vision of what disciples embrace instead of on a list of negative behaviors or beliefs that disciples of Jesus must avoid. Further study and reflection might wisely be undertaken to understand the limitations and value of this approach among youth and emerging adults.

3. It expresses our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The third and final purpose of the Confession of Faith as identified by the NFLT moves beyond the simple internal cohesion of a national church family. Our confession is also a document that declares to the world what we stand for as an MB family. This is the reason why every MB church website I surveyed in Canada and the US had a “what we believe” statement. They understand that those searching for some kind of church engagement should know where our reading of the Bible leads us to stand on given issues. Several local pastors interviewed for this article related that this was the most visited page of their website and spoke of visitors identifying with them based on the Confession of Faith.

Note that this is quite different from decades ago when MBs moving to a new city would simply show up at the local MB church and promptly make it their home church. People in today’s religious marketplace are much more fluid and will readily shift denominational affiliations. While this poses significant challenges, it also means that the Confession of Faith could begin to occupy an even more prominent place in our churches than before. If our churches are seeing new Canadians, new Christians, and also Christians new to the Anabaptist tradition come and engage with us, these newcomers have a right to know who we are and what kind of witness we want to collectively bear to a watching world.

Our understanding of the Scriptures along with a shared history with evangelicalism have given MBs a missional impulse which they have embedded deeply in their Confession of Faith. Article 7, for example, gives two specific instructional modalities of bearing witness to the gospel: “Jesus teaches that disciples are to love God and neighbour by telling the good news and by doing acts of love and compassion.” 35 {97} What constitutes verbal witness and acts of loving compassion is not spelled out, but the two are not left unlinked from each other. The connection between them would be consistent with Menno Simons’s more detailed description of authentic Christian faith:

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lie dormant, but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto the flesh and blood; it destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; it seeks and serves and fears God; it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it returns good for evil; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes, and reproves with the Word of the Lord; it seeks that which is lost; it binds up that which is wounded; it heals that which is diseased and it saves that which is sound; it has become all things to all men. The persecution, suffering, and anguish which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord is to it a glorious joy and consolation. 36

By speaking of our public witness in terms of both words and deeds, the Confession of Faith provides a robust and attractive expression for emerging generations.

Because it outlines our collective understanding of the teachings of Scripture, the Confession of Faith helpfully offers emerging churches “a basis for engaging in partnership in mission or networking with other Christian groups.” 37 If we are clear and confident in who we are, we will know where we can find affinities and where partnerships are unlikely to be viable. Church planting partnerships with other denominations, for example, should be vetted and tested by their amenability to the Confession of Faith. If a church plant does not have the confessional DNA at the start, it is much harder to imbed that later, when personality or generic evangelical piety have become the norm.

The confession can serve as a healthy and helpful guide for dialogue with other denominations and religious groups. This is not just the work of conference leaders but also the work of local pastors. As pastoral leaders increasingly work in global mission settings, for example, the confession is something to be proud of, 38 not something to shrink back from. The Global South may well be leading the way in this respect, and we in the North American church—with its penchant for written, linear, sequenced documentation—may well find ourselves increasingly adapting to and adopting the ICOMB way of thinking and expressing theological teachings. 39 {98}

CONCLUSION

How to use the Confession of Faith in the local church is a complex question but it has a history, and many thoughtful answers have been offered. Since it is designed as a living document, the confession needs to take up residence not merely within the institutions and structural relationships of a denominational family but also within local expressions thereof. Pastors and leaders should look to the confession in the same way that Home Economics teachers look to Canada’s Food Guide: not as a dry legislative document but as a tool for decisionmaking in complex times. The confession can shape preaching calendars, inform the way experiences are framed for small groups, and remind the church of her mission and ministry beyond the walls of the building.

While we say that “the confession does not attempt to define a rigid set of beliefs or enforce a uniform practice within every church,” we also affirm that “it does function as a mutually agreed upon statement regarding what it means to be Mennonite Brethren.” 40 In an increasingly fragmented and fractured landscape, statements of identity and practice matter more than ever. The real issue, however, remains the willingness of local church leaders not only to read and sign the confession but, even more importantly, to live into their communal commitments in a collectively meaningful way. If we would keep learning to do that well, the “light” we have now would grow always brighter and illuminate the path to the future of the local and global Mennonite Brethren family.

NOTES

  1. A recent editorial in the MB Herald expressed it this way: “Jesus as the centre of our faith, community as the centre of our life, and reconciliation as the centre of our work” (Karla Braun, MB Herald, Fall 2019).
  2. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canada-food-guide/about/history-food-guide.html. Intriguingly, the Food Guide also undergoes periodic revision such as a recent, if controversial, update in 2019. The current authors note that “Food guides are basic education tools that are designed to help people follow a healthy diet. They embody sophisticated dietary analysis, and merge national nutrition goals, data from food consumption surveys, and issues of food supply and production. They translate the science of nutrient requirements into a practical pattern of food choices, incorporating variety and flexibility.” Similarly, the Confession of Faith acts as a guide because “it represents the shared convictions of a community expressed as a lived theology, which defines our common identity.” Nature and Function of the Confession of Faith (Winnipeg: Kindred, 2018), 2, https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/FL001_COF2018_nature_function.pdf.
  3. Note, for example, the diagram on page 6 of Nature and Function of the {99} Confession of Faith, where the eighteen statements are helpfully clustered into food-group-like categories.
  4. Even the name indicates a community hermeneutical perspective: Brüderliche Vereinigung etlicher Kinder Gottes sieben Artikel betreffend = Brotherly Union of a Number of Children of God Concerning Seven Articles.
  5. John C. Wenger and C. Arnold Snyder, “Schleitheim Confession,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1990, accessed 6 Dec 2019, https://www.gameo.org/index.php?title=Schleitheim_Confession.
  6. The work of MB missiologist and sociologist Paul Hiebert continues to be influential and perhaps, in this instance, prescient! He first applied the “centered set vs. bounded set” distinction to missions in “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories: How Much Must Papayya ‘know’ about the Gospel to Be Converted?” Gospel in Context 1, no. 4 (October 1978): 24–29.
  7. The phrase “we confess that . . .” appears multiple times.
  8. Mennonite Brethren Church, “Document of Secession (Mennonite Brethren Church, 1860),” 1860, accessed 16 Dec 2019, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Document_of_Secession_(Mennonite_Brethren_Church,_1860).
  9. Ingrid Reichard, National Faith and Life Team (NFLT) chair, Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 2019 AGM booklet, 4. Available at https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/EB004_19AGM_handbook_finalWEB.pdf, accessed Oct 15, 2019.
  10. Granted, the WIML discussion was deemed to be nonconfessional in nature, but the posture of studying Scripture together was undertaken and the voice of the local church was invited into the national dialogue leading up to the 2006 decision. For the text of that decision, see “BFL Women in Ministry Leadership Resolution 2006,” https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/mb-beliefs/bfl-women-in-ministry-leadership-resolution-2006/.
  11. For more, visit the micro-site https://usmb13.com/. (See also Gerritt Wiebe’s article on the USMB’s revision of Article 13 in this issue of Direction.—Ed.)
  12. For an excellent book-length treatment of this topic, see Doug Heidebrecht’s Women in Ministry Leadership: The Journey of the Mennonite Brethren, 1954 to 2010 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2019).
  13. Randy Wolff, “Carry Your Confession Everywhere,” MB Herald, 1 April 2013, 7, https://mbherald.com/carry-your-confession/.
  14. This is also a helpful parallel to Canada’s Food Guide, which has been re-contextualized for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in addition to being translated into Cree, Ojibwe, and Inuktitut. The desire to promote nutritional health by guiding food selection remains the same, but the way of thinking about food as well as food affordability and availability in northern communities has been thoughtfully incorporated in culturally sensitive ways.
  15. Arthur Dück and Lynn Jost, “Humbly Discerning Together,” MB Herald, 1 April 2008, 9-10, https://mbherald.com/humbly-discerning-together/.
  16. See, for example, the recommended reading for the EQUIP 2019 Study Conference on Hermeneutics, including Craig Keener’s excellent work on “Spirit Hermeneutics,” https://equip.mennonitebrethren.ca/recommended-reading/. {100}
  17. Nature and Function of the Confession, 3.
  18. Mennonite Church Canada articulates this of their own confession: “How do Mennonite confessions of faith serve the church? First, they provide guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, the confession itself is subject to the authority of the Bible. Second, confessions of faith provide guidance for belief and practice. In this connection, a written statement should support but not replace the lived witness of faith. Third, confessions build a foundation for unity within and among churches. Fourth, confessions offer an outline for instructing new church members and for sharing information with inquirers. Fifth, confessions give an updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times. And sixth, confessions help in discussing Mennonite belief and practice with other Christians and people of other faiths.” General Conference Mennonite Church, Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Waterloo, ON; Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), 8; also available at http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/cof/intro.
  19. Made up of Elton DaSilva, Andrew Dyck, Doug Heidebrecht, Ingrid Reichard, Rob Thiessen, and Tabitha VandenEnden.
  20. As opposed to a federation or even a grouping of independent congregations that have shared history or similar expressions but vast diversity in convictions.
  21. See the CCMBC’s website, “Faith and Life: The MB Confession of Faith,” https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/directory/faith-and-life/.
  22. See, for example, the series of articles in the Fall 2019 issue of the MB Herald on this topic, https://mbherald.com/fall-2019/.
  23. This is not to say that other “glues” are not part of this integral binding. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, shared practices rooted in German, Russian, or Dutch culture would have been appealed to as a binding agent. In recent history, some leaders have made much of the notion that mission is what binds us together. This has led to the prioritization of church planting against some other denominational activities. However, the Confession of Faith introduction helpfully reminds us that “Mennonite Brethren identity as a family of churches arises from three intertwined characteristics: shared convictions, shared relationships, and shared mission.”
  24. Nature and Function of the Confession, 1.
  25. This is the British Columbia Conference of MB Churches (BCMB) equivalent of the Canadian Conference’s National Faith and Life Team.
  26. Nature and Function of the Confession,1.
  27. Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 7.
  28. In actuality, we feel a need to say words (NFLT articles in the MB Herald) about the words (the Confession of Faith) about the words (of Scripture) about the Word (Jesus).
  29. Nature and Function of the Confession, 1.
  30. At least one would hope this to be the case in any membership class! It is certainly reflected in the denominational publications on Baptism and Church Membership put out by Kindred Press and the NFLT, available at https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/nflt-resources/baptism-and-church-membership/.
  31. See https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/mb-beliefs/liturgical-readings-based-on-the-mb-confession-of-faith/, accessed December 1, 2019. {101}
  32. Although these debates undoubtedly dominated and bled into theological discussions from time to time.
  33. Some argue for a return to the 1976 confession which has much more strident language relating to penal substitutionary atonement, for example.
  34. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, and two-spirit.
  35. The MB Confession of Faith Detailed Edition, Article 7, “Mission of the Church,” https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/mb-beliefs/the-mb-confession-of-faith-detailed-edition/#cof-mission-church.
  36. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons c. 1496-1561 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986), 307.
  37. Nature and Function of the Confession, 1.
  38. In a healthy, humble way, of course!
  39. See Doug Heidebrecht’s article on the ICOMB Confession of Faith in this issue of Direction.—Ed.
  40. Nature and Function of the Confession, 3.
Brad Sumner is founding and Lead Pastor at Jericho Ridge Community Church in Surrey, BC, where he has served for the past fifteen years. His wife Meg is a spiritual director. They live with their two teenagers and their rescue dog in Langley, BC.

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