Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 139–141 

From the Editors: Using the Confession of Faith

Rich Janzen and Brad Sumner

In 2005, the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (MBBS) published a book titled Out of the Strange Silence. The title was borrowed from the naturalist John Muir, who penned those words after witnessing the earthquake of 1872 in Yosemite Valley, California. Muir noticed the eerie quiet that preceded the dramatic collapse of the sheer cliff of Eagle Rock. “As soon as these rock avalanches fell,” wrote Muir, “every stream began to sing new songs; for in many places thousands of boulders were hurled into their channels, roughening and half damming them, compelling the waters to surge and roar in rapids where before they were gliding smoothly.” Out of the Strange Silence acknowledged and responded to the seismic shift of worldviews shaking the foundations of contemporary society. In their respective chapters, MBBS faculty offered theological reflections that framed our times not in terms of destruction and chaos but as a reordering that potentially brings renewal. Rather than enter the millennium with fear, the hope was that “we will hear the streams singing new songs.”

This special issue of Direction is also an encouragement to listen. However, rather than listening to the theological contemplations of Seminary faculty from above (however important that might be), it is an invitation to listen from below to the practice of theology being worked out in local congregations. Specifically, this issue provides an opportunity to hear how Canadian Mennonite Brethren (MB) congregations in the new millennium understand and live out our shared convictions as articulated in the MB Confession of Faith. This listening is important. As many of our traditional assumptions about ways of knowing and being find themselves tested (even disrupted), we do well to pay attention to how “the streams” of our shared convictions are finding their way in MB congregational life.

The first article offers insight into the lay of the confessional land. In it, we (Rich and Brad) describe and report on a community-based research project that surveyed how Canadian MB congregations use the Confession of Faith. As far as we can tell, it is the first independent research to do this type of qualitative exploration at our denomination’s ground level. It therefore represents a rare moment: a unique opportunity {140} to listen to in-depth interviews with pastors as they offer their perspectives about an integral aspect of the MB family. As you listen to these voices you will hear how sincere yet varied they are. Clearly, the application of the Confession of Faith is not being played out evenly across the Canadian MB landscape.

Equally important are the response articles that follow. If the opening article provides a glimpse into the current situation, the responses answer the key question, “What then shall we do?” More pointedly, they discuss the implications of the research findings for how to facilitate the engagement of Canadian MBs with the Confession of Faith and how to live with diversity and difference. Authors represent a range of perspectives regionally, by gender, and by role (some hold formal MB positions, others are MB educators, while still others are local pastors). It should be noted that others (some of them Conference leaders) were invited to contribute but for various reasons declined.

The articles are ordered into two groups. The first focuses on the nature of the Confession of Faith, suggesting that a response to study findings requires us to reflect on what the Confession of Faith actually is. To this end, Sherri Guenther Trautwein calls for clarity on the nature of the Confession of Faith, particularly in relation to biblical interpretation. She suggests that the divergence of perspectives witnessed in the study findings may in part be due to the competing messages congregations receive about how the Confession of Faith should be viewed. Should it be viewed as descriptive (the Confession as “process”) or as prescriptive (the Confession as “product”). It cannot be both, Guenther Trautwein insists, so let us clarify which it is.

Lynn Jost notes the historical and current MB tendencies to use confessions of faith to exclude the “other,” even when an intention to invite belonging is evident. Jost argues for a radical solution—retire the existing MB Confession of Faith in favor of a shorter version that simply centers Jesus, community, and reconciliation. A more concise confession centering on these key elements would, he believes, better promote belonging and restrain the othering tendency. Lee Kosa draws on images of empire and diaspora to reflect on MB identity through the lens of the recent requirement in British Columbia that pastors reaffirm the Confession of Faith. He suggests that this requirement reflects the anxiety that often comes when a denomination seeks to maintain a fixed identity, but which could be remedied by viewing our shared convictions as changeable as we discern the Holy Spirit’s enriching work among us.

Paul Doerksen redirects the very focus of the conversation by encouraging us to view the Confession primarily as an act and event (specifically, as a cry of acknowledgment of the mercy of God) rather than fixating on its functionality. Doing so would emphasize that in the {141} Confession we “speak with amazement of the goodness and truth of the gospel and the gospel’s God.” It would also temper our inclination to see the Confession simply as an instrument to be used or, worse, as a weapon to be wielded against others.

The second group of articles focuses on how the Confession of Faith functions, suggesting that a response to study findings requires us to reflect on issues related to the utility of the Confession of Faith. John Hau asks why Mennonite Brethren cannot move beyond “liking” the Confession of Faith to actually using it. He answers by offering three reasons—an ill-defined MB identity, disparate sources of theological formation, and fear of honest conversations—and suggests that these must be dealt with before congregations will find the Confession of Faith useful. Richard Lougheed and David Miller point out that MBs currently face significant challenges related to divergent opinions about LGTBQ+ inclusion. They call for explicit criteria to help congregations and leaders break down the silos of information and hermeneutics that are rapidly distancing us from each other and keeping us from productive conversations about the Confession of Faith.

Brian Cooper’s personal experience resonates with study findings. He too has observed the differing levels of engagement with the Confession among MBs, including the current trend to marginalize its usage (unless used in response to theological threat). He suggests that our current theological confusion can be attributed to an underappreciation of formative theological work in our denomination and that we are now reaping the theological whirlwind of that indifference.

Our intention in compiling these various responses was to help us interpret the voices of study participants. Combined, they also encourage us to check our personal assumptions about our shared convictions. In so doing, they remind us that we must all make more serious efforts to navigate the growing plurality of the Canadian MB Church. As with Out of the Strange Silence, we hope this special issue will in some small way help MBs in Canada continue the process of renewal, a process that will involve listening to the singing of our congregational streams. And having listened, we hope that our responses will be informed by their songs.

  1. John Muir, “The Earthquake,” excerpted from Muir’s Our National Parks (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1901), 266; also available on the Sierra Club website at https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/the_earthquake.aspx.
  2. Brad Thiessen, “Introduction: The Wild Beauty-Making Business,” in Brad Thiessen, ed., Out of the Strange Silence: The Challenge of Being Christian in the 21st Century (Fresno, CA: Kindred Productions, 2005), 16.
Guest Editors
Rich Janzen and Brad Sumner