Previous | Next

Spring 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 1 · pp. 56–70 

What Are the Ties that Bind? A Reflection on Theology and Harmony

Brian Cooper

Mennonite Brethren (MBs) have a long history of struggling for theological unity. My own articles assessing the MB theological landscape over the past decade have highlighted this struggle. In 2013 I suggested that the contested New Calvinism could enrich Canadian MBs if carefully appraised. 1 In 2018 I wrote “The Theological Poverty of the Mennonite Brethren Vision,” 2 and in 2019, “What’s in a Narrative? Canadian Mennonite Brethren and the Struggle for Identity.” 3

It is unclear whether or not there remains the will among MBs to work together for the Kingdom as they once did.

However, not even calls for biblical fidelity have proven powerful enough to unite MBs. A key problem is that what a person gleans from the Bible depends on how he or she reads it. Mennonite Brethren—who read the Bible fairly well at a detailed level, albeit imperfectly—nonetheless read the Bible in different ways. These are not all mutually incompatible; but some are. Furthermore, the rivalry that accompanies the variety makes harmony difficult to achieve. Yet, while there are dissenters and contrarians among us, I believe we MBs retain the will to work together as a harmonious whole. 4 {57}


My memories of growing up in church include memories of singing the hymn “Blessed Be the Ties that Bind.” It was a reminder of the fact that despite disagreements and conflicts, there remained a connection that held our Christian communities together and linked them in a larger fellowship. These ties were relational and emotional, but they were also substantive and confessional. We committed to one another—in our participation, our giving, our prayer support—because of the elements of faith that we shared.

Mennonite Brethren have ties that bind and they have served us well when they were well articulated. The problem is that they have not always been well articulated. Consequently, it is no surprise that Canadian MBs are a theologically diverse crowd. More to the point, Canadian MBs are pulling in enough different directions that the big tent of the confessional agreement that is supposed to unite us is coming apart at the seams. In the past, calls to be attentive to what the Bible says, or to drink from the pure fount of MB theological springs, were common. MB theological training schools were established to prepare authentic MB leaders for faithful service. As time passed, however, such efforts proved to be fruitless. Unity was assumed more than instilled. Eventually, MB theological leaders and their work were criticized or ignored in favor of voices from elsewhere—voices that were seen as theologically superior.

In my experience, many MB pastors and church leaders approach the MB Confession of Faith—the document that is intended to embody the ties that bind—with the same “Do I have to?” attitude that one sees in the average eight-year-old pondering a plate of brussels sprouts. No amount of exhortation about how good it is for them is enough to generate significant enthusiasm, and their distaste is contagious. Why is this? In my experience talking with pastors, the problem is that many see a disconnect not only between the Confession and their lived spirituality, but also between it and the other theological formulas and propositions they have been led to believe are important.

Over the past fifty years, Direction has resourced theological development among MBs. In that time, it has addressed a series of theological trends that have influenced MB churches and leaders. Anabaptist theology, Evangelical theology, Dispensational theology, Charismatic theology, the Church Growth Movement, and Neo-Reformed (or New Calvinist) theology have all appeared on the scene, and most have faded. They have each made a contribution to MB theology; but they have also muddied the waters of what a faithful Mennonite Brethren should think, speak, and live. {58}

Sometimes, outside influences have made claims about embodying theological priorities that are authentic to the birth of the Mennonite Brethren movement. For example, John Neufeld insisted in 2013 that Reformed theology was not only present in the early years of the MB movement, but was also a necessary stabilizing agent for Anabaptist theology, which he saw as having no intrinsic vitality. 5

Frequently, Mennonite Brethren theologians have pressed back against outside theological commitments by attempting to describe a pure Anabaptist theology that is at the heart of MB convictions. Notably, Harold Bender’s version of the founding of the Anabaptist tradition took hold among some MB leaders in the 1970s, but proved to be a faulty view of the historical record and did not unite MBs. 6

What I propose is giving attention to a set of theological principles that are held in common by most Canadian MBs. These theological principles are principles of method, not substance. They relate not so much to what MBs believe, but to how we arrive at what we believe. I do not suggest that these are taken from a time when everyone agreed, or that these were once the bases for creating a new theological identity. Instead I have selected six commitments that appear in a broad range of theological writings by MBs.

Because of this focus on theological method, my proposal is related to what I will call theological hermeneutics. This term addresses the issue of how our theology is constructed, and relates to how one might answer formative questions such as, “What is the goal of theology?” In Mennonite Brethren reflection, theology has served discipleship. But not all believers think of discipleship when they think of theology. “How do the different elements and commitments in our theology fit together?” is another question. For example, how do God’s sovereignty and human freedom relate to one another? Yet another pressing question is “How do our theological convictions integrate with other forms of knowledge?” For instance, what are Christians to think about the relationship between theology and science? These are a few examples highlighting the need to think theologically from a systems perspective rather than on an ad hoc basis. Individual theological commitments need to be considered in light of their relationship to other commitments, as parts of a larger whole.

Sharing theological commitments allows MBs to form a common theological identity that emerges from an atmosphere of harmonious cooperation. I am convinced that a major reason we have problems constructing a common theological identity is that we have never taken the time to do theology in a way that attempts to build a big picture of Christian discipleship, individually and collectively. I have therefore {59} framed the following six theological principles in terms of their contribution to faithful discipleship.


Christians in pursuit of a unifying theology often begin by making claims about the nature and authority of Scripture. While claims about the inspiration and authority of Scripture are helpful reminders that Christians read the Bible expecting to gain insight into what discipleship means and looks like, it is simply inadequate to talk about Scripture as inspired or authoritative and expect contentious issues to resolve themselves—or simply fade away. The Bible says a lot of things, often in ways that are difficult to understand and require interpretation. If we do not—or cannot—agree on what the Bible means, what does it matter if we agree that it is authoritative?

A more helpful approach is to consider the way we read the Bible, and what we are looking for when we do. Many Christians read the Bible as though it were a reference book of theological nuggets—the proper word is propositions—that comprise theological content. This is a longstanding conviction in Christian theology, but it is also problematic for several reasons. Most notable is that the Bible was not written to be consulted like a reference volume. At a high level, Scripture is a series of stories of God’s interactions with the humans God created in the world God made for us. These stories, woven together and considered as a whole, tell a larger story of God’s work to reconcile creation to himself. The story reveals God insofar as we read it by faith, expecting to hear from the God we cannot find on our own, the God who is known only in God’s self-revelation to us.

The average Christian has bits and pieces of theology that she has learned over time in the course of being part of a Christian community. This is normal. But a problem arises when Christians don’t think about where these theological bits originate, what they mean, or how they fit together. What does it mean that God is three and yet one? Why do I need to believe this? What does it mean to turn the other cheek? Does this mean I need to let the class bully beat me up?

Some think they understand why they prefer one way of systematizing their theological bits, but at the same time are confronted by the reality that fellow believers prefer other ways. This often causes consternation and sometimes leads believers to call others’ faith into question (and vice versa). Doubt emerges—often unnecessarily—and as doubt grows into distrust, fellowship fragments. What is worse, rather than being a resource for a common discipleship that unites, Scripture as a repository of timeless propositions becomes weaponized as a tool to validate our theological opinions and refute those of others. {60}

A significant part of the problem is that Christians misunderstand what purpose their theological bits serve and why they are supposed to read the Bible. The purpose of reading Scripture is to find oneself in the stories of God at work, to gain an understanding of the world God created, and to understand how we are called by God to respond. We also see the future God has in store, and what we have to look forward to in light of Christ. Along the way, we will learn things that we may express as propositions; but these are human and tentative statements about the God we see revealed to us, not definitive proclamations of truth that we can presume to wield over others. We confess them as true statements about God, even though as finite, mortal humans we can never presume to encompass God with our confessions. Yet our confessions do serve a vital role. They help us understand what faithfulness is and hold us accountable to each other to live as faithful disciples.

The goal of theology is to help Christians live faithfully as followers of Jesus the Christ. Scripture is where we can hear God speak through stories of God’s actions and human responses—both faithful and unfaithful. As we see the similarities between what happened and what is happening in our lives, we believe that the Holy Spirit enlightens us and empowers us to live lives transformed by God’s gift of grace. Theology enables discipleship. If it is not accomplishing that goal, we’re probably doing theology wrong.

Next up are six commitments that should serve as harmonizing elements of our theology. They are as important for how we reflect together on them as elements of a whole, as they are for what they signify as individual doctrinal elements.


It may seem elementary to talk about making Christ the center of theology. However, in light of the level of dis-integration that is common to much evangelical theology, it is not safe to assume that this emphasis is adequately understood. For example, in recent years Canadian MBs have had conversations about whether MB theology is Christ-centered or gospel-centered. While an article in the MB Herald stated that MB core convictions are centered on Jesus 7 and that Canadian MBs were intent on building “Christ-centred churches,” 8 some denominational communication described church planting efforts as gospel-centered rather than Christ-centered. 9 It is easy to assume that these two terms are synonymous—interchangeable. However, the diversity of theological views among Canadian MBs suggests that this assumption may not hold true. {61}

Although there should be considerable overlap and synergy between emphasizing Christ-centeredness and gospel-centeredness, the latter has historically placed greater weight on what Jesus’s ministry accomplished in the past for our salvation and less on what following his example implies for us now. 10 This emphasis has been intensified by fears that talking too much about what we are called to do might tend toward religious legalism and diminish a proper understanding of God’s grace—God’s undeserved favor shown to us.

As important as grace is, it is clear enough from biblical texts that Jesus the Christ is not only the one who has made our reconciliation with God possible but also the model for what our lives of faithful discipleship should look like. Put another way, it is essential for us to understand who Jesus is and to follow his example. This seems unproblematic when we only consider elements of personal piety, but Jesus’s ministry as a reconciler has implications for discipleship that are difficult to appreciate, and have proven to be a stumbling block for many. Most significantly, Jesus rejected violence and embraced suffering. He didn’t attack his enemies but forgave them and embraced the abuse he received from them. This is particularly difficult to appreciate, much less imitate.

In the Bible, Jesus’s redemptive self-sacrifice is used to explain and validate the repeated imperatives to imitate his example. Christians are called not merely to think about Jesus’s atonement and be pious; they are called to lay down their lives as he did (e.g., 1 John 3:16). The rejection of violence and embrace of suffering is a ministry that is not only his—it is ours as well, and is inseparable from the ongoing ministry of reconciliation. Put simply, to be Christ-centered is as much a matter of living as Jesus lived as a matter of giving assent to the right things about Jesus. Faithfulness means bringing both sides together without sacrificing either one.

It may appear that a call to live a life of self-sacrificing works in imitation of Christ is a lapse into legalism; but a call to holy living is not legalism. A call to a particular set of customs as the sole requirement for holiness is legalism. Mandated circumcision, for example, is legalism. Mandated head coverings are legalism. Put another way, the call to make Jesus the center does not mandate that one do a particular thing, but it does mandate that one do something. And what that something looks like is constrained by the example of Jesus, who is the model for our redeemed lives. The question that every believer needs to ask herself or himself is, Are people drawn toward Jesus when they look at me?

Jesus is God made human, meaning that he brought the being of God into the plane of human existence. That is what the theological term incarnation means. Incarnation is also an important consideration {62} for how to make Christ the center of our lives. We need to think incarnationally, meaning that we cannot be satisfied thinking about discipleship as internal doctrinal commitments or disembodied spiritual ideals. Faithful discipleship does not conclude its theological work until Christians grapple with the question of what living convictions will look like in the situations in which believers find themselves. Furthermore, faithful discipleship may cause believers not only to do things very differently but may also cause them to pursue very different situations—employment, lifestyle choices, political aspirations, and so on. Incarnational thinking must extend into every area of life or else Christians cannot truly claim to have Christ as the center of their theology.


It is not controversial to suggest that Mennonite Brethren derive their theological commitments from a faithful and careful interpretation of the Bible. MBs strive to be biblical in order to follow the example set out by Jesus and other godly leaders in the Early Church. The impetus for the theological revolution initiated by early Anabaptists was to recapture a reliance on Scripture as foundational for Christian discipleship.

In practice, however, asking what the Scriptures say has not always proven as successful as MBs have hoped. MBs have not always recognized the influences that motivated them to interpret Scripture as they have, and thus have often confused what they understood Scripture to mean with what they believed Scripture to say literally.

How ought MBs to read and make sense of the Bible for the sake of harmonious collective discipleship? The MB emphasis on biblical theology reflects an awareness of the benefits of inductive Bible study, in which theological insights arise inferentially from insights discerned by interpreting the text. For example, if believers are attempting to construct a general theology of who God is and what God is like, they can look at biblical texts that talk about God in relation to God’s actions toward people, and especially in connection to God’s covenant with Israel and in relation to the church. Descriptions of God as gracious, almighty, slow to anger, and other descriptors cumulatively paint a picture of God that guides our conceptions. It is important to allow “biblical language and metaphors [to] shape the conceptual framework of theological work, as well as guide the construction of the main theological questions that need to be answered by the believing community.” 11

Here is a very simple and modest proposal for a theological hermeneutic that facilitates good inductive Bible study. I have organized the steps into a simple acrostic—CCCP. (I am old enough to remember {63} the Soviet Union—CCCP on their hockey jerseys—and use that as a mnemonic device). This is a very basic and preliminary set of principles. It is not intended to provide detailed instruction about how to do the hermeneutical work. Rather, it highlights the kinds of considerations involved in biblical interpretation and theological construction.

The first consideration is context. Contextual interpretation is especially important for biblical interpretation and has multiple dimensions: linguistic context, literary context, historical context, and others. Good interpretation, and good theology, start with attention to the biblical text and therefore attend to the task of good biblical interpretation. Because of what we believe about how Scripture operates for Christians, we always refer to Scripture as a consistent source of inspired content for theological reflection. The fact that Scripture has a context—i.e., it is not timeless—also reminds us of the important task of recontextualizing concepts from the Bible into our contexts (which are very different from Bible times).

The second consideration is canon. Canonical interpretation has at least two major dimensions. First, it sees biblical texts collectively representing a unified whole, even in their diversity, and so seeks to understand them in relation to one another. One important principle in relation to canonical interpretation is that clearer passages should be used to shed light on those that are less clear—not the other way around. The Westminster Confession talks about using clearer portions of Scripture to shed light on those that are less clear, because the “infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.” 12 There is actually a tension here between this idea and the reality that different passages in the Bible are legitimately diverse, saying different things in different contexts for important reasons. Nonetheless, there is an overarching unity in the big story of Scripture that helps us.

Second, attention to canonicity will need to consider how Christians have interpreted and decided on a given theological point throughout Christian history. This does not mean that nothing can ever change or that we are bound by the past, but Christians ignore the witness of Christian history at their peril. I believe that in theology there is a continuity of ideas and concepts; theological ideas that arise as pure innovations ought to be regarded with suspicion. Those, however, that are rooted in the Christian tradition have a greater chance of being faithful renderings of biblical teaching. (Of course, this is not guaranteed).

The third consideration is community. Community interpretation (or the community hermeneutic) is basically the principle that the more widespread the contextual application of a theological principle is seen to be, the more widespread the consensus of agreement needs to be. This helps to keep individuals from going off on theological tangents, {64} because others will likely see things they miss. It also is a reminder that dissenters need to submit to the wisdom of the whole in areas of disagreement.

The community element in the process of theological hermeneutics does not require that every decision be equally supported by every member, or equally appreciated. It does, however, mean that theological decisions need to be discerned in light of the community—its needs, context, and expectations. Decisions are not to be made for leaders, outsiders, or purely in light of the past. The goal is to help the community live out what Scripture teaches in order to be individually and collectively faithful to the example of Jesus Christ, the author and pioneer of Christian faith. Sometimes (perhaps frequently), members of the community will have to suppress their own opinions and desires in order to support this consensus of faithfulness; but this selflessness is necessary because of what we see Christ modeling and what we see in our Trinitarian understanding of who God is—a loving, mutually supportive community.

The fourth consideration, personal interpretation and application, is actually the last step, not the first. It is only when people have done all the preparatory work that they are ready to make the move to interpret and apply the text personally. This ought to be done in community as well, to ensure faithfulness and accountability.

Once all these steps are complete, the work of inductive Bible study can be synthesized into a system of confessional convictions that represent a theological system. It is important to note that having a theological system is not unhelpful. On the contrary, it is very helpful. What is problematic is having a theological system apart from what we learn from Scripture, then using it to interpret Scripture, in which we deduce the principles we are are seeking. Such systems inevitably cause Christians to distort the meaning of Scripture to make it fit their system. That is what Christians need to avoid. It is impossible to approach Scripture without preconceptions; but these preconceptions or prior principles need to be written in pencil, as it were, and subject to revision as we gain additional insight from Scripture. That is how faithful inductive Bible study works.


Christians believe that Scripture is the means by which the Holy Spirit brings to life God’s will and wisdom in us. This happens as we read and internalize the significance of the stories contained in the text. As we read the stories, we begin to see the big story of which the stories are {65} a part. The big story is the narrative of God’s work in the world. When we see what God intends for the world, we see our place in God’s story.

For these reasons—that it is God’s story, not ours, and that there is a story on the grand scale—the insights we glean from the texts that we read are formative for us in ways that affect all areas of our lives, as well as our most basic priorities. Although this is too complicated a point to explain here, the story we discern from the patchwork of stories that comprise it reveals to us not only what is important and what our purpose is but also reveals to us what is ultimately real and what is illusory.

We can see what this means by looking at the book of Ecclesiastes. The book’s author reflects on different ways of pursuing meaning. The writer has tried education, hedonism, and work to find satisfaction, and has found them all to be inadequate. More than that, they are meaningless—“a chasing after the wind” (Eccl 2:26 NIV). They are insubstantial, unfulfilling—unreal. What then is real? At the end of the book, the writer confesses, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone” (Eccl 12:13). This confession echoes the words of Deuteronomy 28:14 (cf. Josh 1:7) that God’s people were not to “turn aside from any of the words that I am commanding you today, either to the right or to the left.” Both statements foreshadow the repeated calls in the New Testament to perseverance as the measure of obedience, and to obedience as the measure of perseverance. We soon see, therefore, that this is a consistent refrain in Scripture rather than an isolated idea.

It has not always been the habit of Christians to build their theological commitments on the consistent witness of Scripture, but convictions that carry weight need to rely on broad biblical witness rather than selective proof-texting. It is for this reason, for example, that theological commitments about the atoning work of Christ must articulate a far broader understanding than we find in some narrow atonement theologies. Notwithstanding the recognition that the progressive revelation evident in biblical texts culminates in the revelation of Jesus Christ, Mennonite Brethren theology is not served well by arbitrary attempts to prioritize certain texts over others in an effort to create a hierarchy of convictions. For example, insisting that certain metaphors related to Christ’s atonement are primary while others are secondary is an arbitrary choice that Scripture itself does not support. By contrast, the breadth of the MB Confession of Faith is an attempt to reflect the richness and diversity of the fullness of the biblical witness about discipleship, seen in light of the sweep of God’s work from creation to consummation. This means doing the hard work of trying to understand what passages that seem to conflict mean, not only on their own but also in relation to one another. {66}


I once had a disagreement with a denomination leader about priorities. I was told that while commitments and policies were helpful for guiding leadership practice under normal circumstances, leaders could set them aside and improvise based on what they thought best during exceptional circumstances or in times of crisis. I think this philosophy is very dangerous as a leadership practice, even more so because it reflects a theological orientation that has taken hold among evangelical Christians, including many MBs.

The call to follow after Jesus the Christ is a call to persevere in the face of difficulty and to endure suffering. Anabaptists of past centuries understood the implications of this personally, not merely theoretically. Over time, MBs have moved from being a poor and marginalized group in a hostile environment to being a prosperous and upwardly mobile group in a welcoming place. Over time, there has been a gradual change in our approach to discipleship on the individual and communal levels.

For Christians who profess to follow the example of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount offers some of the clearest insights into what it means to live the ethics of Christ and his Kingdom. The MB Confession of Faith makes bold statements about what living as a reconciler, ambassador, and witness for the Kingdom means. However, what is increasingly evident among MB believers is that while the ethics of the Kingdom and the hard sayings of the Confession are acceptable under normal circumstances, they are too idealistic to guide Christian conduct in times of crisis. They are seen as too difficult to be palatable to believers who recognize their implications. Notably, turning the other cheek may be attainable when the offence is a rude gesture from another driver on one’s daily commute; it is far less so when the cost is one’s possessions, one’s loved ones, or one’s own life.

In theology, however, it is often helpful to ask new questions to reframe the issues being examined. In that vein, I wonder what evidence or principle inclines believers to consider that they are more valuable than others for whom Christ also died, especially considering that Christians acknowledge that we have done nothing to earn God’s favor. Why would we presume to consider our welfare ahead of others’ in light of Paul’s imperative in Philippians 2 to imitate Jesus by looking to the interests of others ahead of our own? In what crisis does this no longer hold true?

The call to self-sacrifice is part of the call to engage in the mission of God to reconcile creation to himself. Self-sacrifice in imitation of Jesus encompasses what we say, what we do, and how we do it. The call to seek first the Kingdom and the righteousness of God is supposed to be {67} our paramount priority, no matter the cost. Is it? If not, one might ask under what circumstances it is appropriate to set aside the example of Jesus in favor of a different ethic. To live our confession—to make Christ truly the center—is difficult, to be sure; but it must be the enduring call for believers.

Problematically, Christians frequently use extreme examples as test cases for their theological convictions. Think of the common scenario used to test a person’s commitment to Christ-like nonviolence: a person is confronted by a murderer who will kill that person’s family. Because extreme cases evoke a strong emotional response—one that is usually not tempered by theological self-control—the commitment breaks down and is said to be untenable from a “practical” perspective.

However, theological and discipleship matters do not work that way, nor do other types of growth. Growth and development happen incrementally; cases designed to bring growth are increased incrementally, not suddenly. People start with small issues and work their way toward more serious ones, not the other way round. Patterns of maturing and discipline need time to solidify or else damage can occur. Christ-likeness is every bit as important in a crisis as in the everyday. That principle needs to be imprinted into our theological thinking.


The rise of the church growth movement 13 and seeker-sensitive models of church among Canadian MBs may have been motivated by a desire to overcome ethnic barriers to church mission. But it also represented a willingness to set aside a thoughtful theological approach to doing church in favor of pragmatic considerations oriented to simply attracting people and moving them towards a commitment, even if only a superficial one. The current generation of MB church members bears the imprint of this superficial form of discipleship.

There is a tension to be managed between making the truth of the Kingdom of God understandable in a cultural context and distorting the reality of the Kingdom in order to make church palatable to members of a particular culture. The theological term for making the connection between theology and context is correlation. Correlation is an essential theological task, but it is critical that the agenda for correlation be set not by cultural factors but by the Kingdom convictions that Christians confess. This inevitably means that Christians will bring a message and live an example that is unpopular at times. Christians will sometimes make people uncomfortable, even angry. Jesus did. That is to be expected. {68}

The interesting thing is that the alternative—making Christian teaching simple, and making discipleship easy and palatable—does not work well in the long term. Bill Hybels, long-time pastor of Willow Creek Community Church and pioneer of seeker-friendly models of church, confessed in 2007 that the model he helped champion was not bearing the fruit that was expected. “Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into, thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.” 14

Churches engaging mission based on performance-based community gatherings, program-based ministry, and entertainment-based theological education appear to be following a ministry agenda that values the size of crowds attracted more than changed lives. Interestingly, many large churches in Canada are being faced with the tremendous challenge of rethinking how to be the church in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, where restrictions imposed by government health authorities make much of their ministry impossible. It is a health emergency that has caused considerable pain. But the pandemic may also ultimately prove to be a blessing if it compels churches to return to their theological commitments and think of new ways to incarnate them in their communities. The priority needs to remain Kingdom values, not contextual developments.


There are two major types of integrative thinking that Christians need to understand. The first relates to the internal consistency of Christian theology. I am convinced that one reason that Christians have difficulty sharing their faith is that they have never thought about it other than as a disjointed set of principles that these believers do not know how to relate to one another.

For example, Christians believe that God is love and that God’s love toward the humans created in God’s image is an important guide to understanding and appreciating who God is. However, for many Christians (especially those influenced by neo-Reformed theology) their perspective of God and his love is distorted by the belief that the atonement—culminating in Jesus’s self-sacrifice in the cross—was ultimately motivated not by divine love but by divine wrath. Jesus’s vicarious death is thought in this framework to have propitiated God—that is, to have diverted God’s wrath against sinful humans to the sinless Jesus. But this explanation of wrath and love puts them at odds with one {69} another, and fails to express how they can be seen to coexist in God’s dealings with humanity.

A fuller theological explanation is too long for this article, but such an explanation would need to address both the love of God and the wrath of God. Simply put, God, in love, chose to take upon himself in Christ the consequences of human sin in order to save humans from the wrath (i.e., the negative consequence, death) that would inevitably befall us because of our sin. However, this is not because God was angry—far from it. Good theology portrays all of the nuance of biblical texts in a depiction that is realistic rather than cartoonish.

Second, integration also needs to extend toward what is external to theology. When I was growing up, I was taught that Christian faith and scientific inquiry were fundamentally at odds with one another. I still have one of the books my pastor father had in his personal library: The Long War Against God. 15 It never occurred to me to question its thesis until I entered university in the faculty of science. Then I realized that there were dimensions of this theory of looking at the world that were very troubling.

For many Christians, there is an enduring disconnect between how we live in a world that has been shaped by scientific advances and what we say we believe about the world God created. For a variety of reasons, including a confusion of the world as it is (i.e., the realm of facts) and the world as God intends it to be (i.e., the realm of truth), Christians hamper their own witness by appealing to a fragmented and disjointed view of the world. Faithful theology seeks to integrate knowledge into a coherent whole rather than seeing different realms of knowledge as inherently contradictory.


The six principles I have suggested are my modest proposal as starting points for a conversation that will need to happen among MBs in the coming months and years. The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches is at a critical point in its history. It is unclear whether or not there remains the will among MBs to work together for the Kingdom as they once did. Certainly, with the changes that have occurred naturally over time, the forces that allowed it to thrive as long as it did are inadequate to maintain stability, to say nothing of harmony. My hope is that a conversation focused on points of substantial agreement may pave the way toward faithful Kingdom mission in the future. {70}


  1. Brian Cooper, “Reformed Theology among Canadian Mennonite Brethren,” Direction 42 (Fall 2013): 132–47,
  2. Brian Cooper, “The Theological Poverty of the Mennonite Brethren Vision,” Direction 47 (Fall 2018): 169-83,
  3. Brian Cooper, “What’s in a Narrative? Canadian Mennonite Brethren and the Struggle for Identity,” The Conrad Grebel Review 37 (Fall 2019): 267-85.
  4. I use the term harmony rather than unity because harmony is derived from unity, but without the same oppressive expectation of sameness that comes with the term unity. Christians are culturally, linguistically, and socially diverse, which brings a theological diversity to the Christian community that not only does not limit cooperation but, indeed, enhances it.
  5. John Neufeld, “Ploughing with a Donkey and an Ox: On Being Anabaptist and Reformed,” Direction 42 (Fall 2013): 124-31,
  6. Cooper, “What’s in a Narrative,” 280.
  7. Doug Heidebrecht “Centred on Jesus,” MB Herald, 6 January 2020,
  8. CCMBC Communications, “About CCMBC,” The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 2018,
  9. CCMBC Communications, “C2C Network,” The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 2018,
  10. Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 214.
  11. Elmer A. Martens, “Realizing the Vision through Biblical Theology,” in The Seminary Story: Twenty Years of Education in Ministry, ed. A. J. Klassen (Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1975), 36.
  12. “Of the Holy Scripture,” in Westminster Confession of Faith, Christian Classics Ethereal Library,, accessed August 31, 2020.
  13. Documented, for example, in “North American Mennonite Brethren Consultation on Church Growth,” Direction 20, no. 2 (Fall 1991): 2,
  14. “Willow Creek Repents?” CT Pastors, Leadership Journal, October 18, 2007,
  15. Henry Morris, The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989).
Brian Cooper is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of Student Development at MB Seminary in Langley, BC.

Previous | Next