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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 142–159 

How Do Canadian Mennonite Brethren Congregations Use the Confession of Faith? Findings from a Community-Based Research Study

Rich Janzen and Brad Sumner


The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC) Confession of Faith lists the shared convictions of Mennonite Brethren (MBs) in Canada. It defines our theological identity and acts as a guide for biblical interpretation and living out the Christian faith (CCMBC 2022). It includes eighteen articles with accompanying introduction, commentary and pastoral applications, as well as liturgical readings. It stands alongside other global and historical Anabaptist confessional documents, including the International Mennonite Brethren Confession {143} of Faith (ICOMB) and the Shared Convictions of the Mennonite World Conference (Heidebrecht 2019).

The range of pastoral perspectives demonstrates that congregations have no uniform way of thinking about the Confession of Faith.

Historically, Mennonite Brethren used the 1853 Mennonite confession known as the Rudnerweide Confession in the years following their formation in 1860. In 1902, MB leaders wrote their own confession of faith by blending various Mennonite confessions with Baptist confessional language, particularly on articles related to baptism and salvation (CMBS 2022; Friesen 1998). Major revisions were made in 1975 and 1999. Today, responsibility for the Confession of Faith belongs to the National Faith and Life Team (NFLT) of the CCMBC. The NFLT led the most recent revision in 2021, targeting Article 8, Christian Baptism (Reichard 2021). In recent years, the Confession has been translated into French, Spanish, and Chinese.

Most of what has been written about the MB Confession focuses on the content of the document itself. For example, discussion of the Confession often occurs in response to contentious issues, such as women in ministry (Heidebrecht 2003), baptism (Reichard 2021), peacemaking and nonresistance (Cooper 2018; Miller 2018), and LGBTQ+ inclusion (Kosa 2021). The Confession stirs up recurring tensions for those seeking to apply it to such issues, tensions rooted in the challenge of how to understand the nature and function of the Confession of Faith. Is the Confession descriptive or prescriptive (Cooper 2018; Chow 2008)? Is it a static or living document (Sumner 2019)? Are some of its articles more important than others (Cooper 2018; Kosa 2021)? Is confession really the genre best suited for expressing Christian belief (Jost 2018)? And, when revising the Confession, is it the process of revision or its outcome that is most important (Wiens 1998)?

Despite these tensions, the Confession of Faith is generally understood to be integral to the Canadian MB family. For example, it is seen to connect the MB family by bringing doctrinal cohesion and unity (Cooper 2019; Reichard 2020), it trains us in humility (Reichard 2020), and it encourages us to practice a community hermeneutic (Cooper 2018; Heidebrecht 2020). As a point of interest, just over half of the 211 Canadian MB congregations with websites explicitly acknowledge the Confession of Faith, typically by linking to the CCMBC website (Heidebrecht 2018).

Despite the frequent discourse about the Confession of Faith as a document, we know very little about its implementation. Not much is written, for example, about MB congregations and their interaction with the Confession of Faith; how it shapes the thinking and acting of ordinary congregational life. In fact, our literature review found only one document that specifically researched MB congregations (Kosa {144} 2021). This unpublished document briefly scanned ten MB Canadian congregations and found that congregations apply the Confession of Faith in different ways and often create their own internal ranking system that emphasizes some parts while it de-emphasizes others. Some congregations even publicly identify with confessional statements such as The Gospel Coalition’s. So, while we know that the Confession of Faith seems important to the Canadian MB family, we do not really have an in-depth picture of how it is actually being lived out on the ground. The purpose of this article is to report on a research study that intended to fill this gap.


In fall 2021, a community-based research project was launched with the aim of hearing from MB pastors themselves about how they see their congregations using the Confession of Faith. The study originated when a small group of curious MB pastors in Canada decided that an in-depth qualitative study would be a good idea. They applied for a grant from the MB Historical Commission in partnership with the Centre for Community Based Research (CCBR). They invited others to join them on the research team and advisory committee. Together they agreed that the purpose of the study would be to explore the diverse ways that Canadian MB congregations have used and are using the MB Confession of Faith in congregational life. This exploration was seen to be potentially helpful in supporting congregational, provincial, and national leaders’ efforts to facilitate broader engagement with the Confession and to teach MBs how to live with diversity and difference.

The study adopted a community-based research approach, meaning that it strove to be community-driven, participatory, and action-oriented (Janzen et al., 2016; Janzen 2019). Concrete mechanisms used to implement this approach included a national advisory committee of MB pastors, leaders, and educators to guide the research process, and a diverse research team that included article authors as well as peer researchers (mostly MB pastors trained by CCBR), a student from Canadian Mennonite University, and CCBR staff who provided technical and training support.

Two data gathering methods were used. First was a review of sixty-five academic and grey literature articles. Second, seventeen in-depth, individual telephone interviews were conducted with MB pastors purposively sampled to ensure a range of perspectives. (The criteria included geographic location, size of congregation, urban/rural, membership composition, theological leaning, and gender/age of pastor). Interviews were conducted by peer researchers using a {145} semi-structured interview which lasted from forty-five to ninety minutes. The study received ethics approval from the Community Research Ethics Office. More details of the study design (including advisory committee members, research team members, and participating congregations) can be found in the final report slide deck on the website of the Centre for Community Based Research (Janzen and Sumner 2022).

As with all research, this study has limitations. Chief among these is that the findings are not representative of, and cannot be generalized to, all Canadian MB congregations. In addition, the interviews provide only the perspective of individual pastors, which represents only one view within their congregation. Still, as an exploratory, qualitative study, it is well-suited to provide rich, in-depth insight into a little-known topic. The purposive sampling techniques used ensured that a range of congregations across the Canadian MB family was considered. The use of peer researchers (i.e., pastor-to-pastor interviews, for the most part) allowed for free-flowing, open conversation. Indeed, many of the interview participants expressed appreciation for the opportunity to speak about their congregational experiences in a national forum on this important topic.


The focus of our exploration was on how congregations use the Confession of Faith. We probed the three categories identified by the CCMBC’s introductory “Nature and Function of the Confession” document (CCMBC 2022b): (1) identity (how does the Confession reflect and shape shared convictions?) (2) biblical interpretation (how does the Confession guide the understanding and discernment of Scripture?), and (3) living out our faith (how does the Confession guide discipleship practices?). Below we summarize our findings using direct quotes from study participants to elucidate main themes. (Participants gave us their permission to be quoted.) However, before reporting on the three categories, we first offer two general observations about the place of the Confession within local congregations.

First, congregants are generally limited in their familiarity with the Confession of Faith, particularly those not raised in an MB church. Familiarity tends to rise with level of responsibility within the congregation (from attender, member, educator, deacon, elder, to pastor). Some pastors were not concerned with this lack of familiarity, especially when they themselves were not that familiar with it. Others saw this as concerning. A few made intentional efforts to engage congregants with the Confession through a preaching series or blog {146} posts. In fact, congregational familiarity is often linked to pastoral interest in the Confession of Faith.

I don’t think anyone in our church knows the Confession of Faith. They have no idea what MBs believe. (MB Pastor)

I would say there’s probably pretty low familiarity with [the Confession] for the rank-and-file in the church. (MB Pastor)

I’m not even totally sure that a lot of our people would recognize or know that there’s a Confession of Faith with eighteen articles, you know, that’s supposed to shape what we teach from and what we do. I don’t know if there’d be that level of awareness. (MB Pastor)

Probably about 50 percent of the congregation have a realization or an awareness that [the Confession] exists. And then I would say at least half . . . if I would say, “Our Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith,” they might go, “Oh, what is that?” (MB Pastor)

And so, you’re having a lot of different people come from different places [in our congregation]. And I myself, I’d never felt like, okay, I should get people to first engage with this [Confession of Faith]. (MB Pastor)

Some of [our congregants] don’t engage with [the Confession of Faith] too much. Some of them engage with it really deeply and will come back with questions. (MB Pastor)

We’re probably at a place now where if you regularly attend [our congregation], you have awareness that there is a Confession and you’ve started to hear a bit about it. And we’ve got a growing number of people that would have heard our messages or two specifically about one of the articles [of the Confession] or that have attended a lunch seminar [about specific articles of the Confession]. (MB Pastor)

A second general observation is that the Confession of Faith typically operates in the background of congregational life, only occasionally appearing in the foreground. While there were different levels of engagement across congregations and over time, it most often becomes explicit during rites of passage (e.g., baptism, membership, {147} credentialing) or if conflict emerges on a specific topic. In some congregations it is overtly acknowledged in preaching and teaching or reviewed by leaders to ensure that preaching and teaching aligns with it.

I would say [the Confession] is almost like the operating system that runs in the background that informs our teaching team and our teaching diet and . . . as soon as you go into a process of baptism . . . [then you] would [certainly] have exposure [to the Confession]. Just, it’s never going to be so obvious. You’re never going to be in church one day and the slide comes up, “Mennonite Confession of Faith.” It might happen one day. We might move into that. But certainly, that hasn’t been the past practice of it. Our practice is more trying to get people excited and invested in encountering God. (MB Pastor)

Some pastors serving in emerging congregations (i.e., church plants) or with younger people saw the Confession of Faith as less useful given its formal and inaccessible language, the fluid convictions of their congregants, or their church’s emphasis on relationships, belonging, and practical living (rather than on doctrine). The Confession of Faith was not necessarily seen as something negative. It just was not viewed as being particularly relevant to their congregation.

[The Confession of Faith] is like how my contract with Rogers [cell phone provider] holds me to Rogers. . . . You sign the contract with Rogers because you need to use the phone. . . . You don’t read everything. You just sign the contract and that’s kind of like how we use it. We put it in the cupboard, never to be seen again. . . . I’m animated by things other than this [Confession]. . . . We’ve used some of the [Confession of Faith] liturgy stuff. That’s been great. That’s helpful. And we’ve also used the Anabaptist prayer book and some other different things. But [the Confession itself] just doesn’t even cross my mind. So, what the question [should be] is maybe more along those lines of “what’s animating us?” (MB Pastor)

And it’s maybe a generational thing too. There’s a problem of [the Confession] being too robust. . . . Like, you can’t just police everything all the time. And that’s one of the reasons that . . . I don’t like statements of faith, because you have to leave things out. And often what gets left out is, in my opinion, some of the most important stuff, like character. Like, are we becoming people of joy? I haven’t seen that on any statement of faith. . . . So I’m speaking now for people that I know in the [provincial {148} conference] that do know of the Statement of Faith [and are asked to affirm it] . . . they’re kind of like you-plug-your-nose-and-take-your-medicine-and-then-you’re-done. It’s like doing the driver’s test. You gotta get the letter of the law to pass the test. And then once you do, you drive however you want. You just get a ticket. (MB Pastor)

Despite these perspectives that decentered the Confession of Faith, most pastors we interviewed did have an appreciation for, and saw at least some usefulness in, the Confession. Below we discuss major themes using the three categories of identity, interpretation, and living out the faith. We will see that there were diverse (even divergent) understandings of how the Confession should be and is being used. We will also see that these diverse uses were often expressed via metaphors.


The topic of identity produced the most varied responses in our interviews. In part, this variety was existential—pastors had different perceptions of what the Confession of Faith actually is and therefore how it relates to identity. So, for example, some pastors saw the Confession descriptively, reflecting who we are as MBs and our traditions. In contrast, others viewed it prescriptively, as communicating who we should be​ and helping to shape us. Others saw the Confession as a static identity marker as opposed to a historic trajectory shaped by those on the journey. Finally, some saw the Confession as something that we receive (“like language”) and that requires our submission, as opposed to something that we continually question, grapple with, and modify.

My main point is that the Confession does not shape Mennonite Brethren; the Mennonite Brethren tradition shapes Mennonite Brethren—whatever condition it’s in. And the Confession is an articulation of that tradition. So, the Confession of Faith is a token. It is an articulation. It is . . . like a “token.” . . . Like this coin that’s sort of stamped in time and it represents the consensus among us. . . . The Confession is only authoritative in so far as it does reflect the consensus of the community. (MB Pastor)

And so, there are elements of the Confession I wrestle with, that are hard for me, but at the same time it has unconsciously shaped me. And so, it’s like I walk on the river; I walk on the bottom of the riverbed that the MB Confession of Faith has carved. And I don’t even think about. (MB Pastor) {149}

Everything develops and shifts. [The Confession of Faith] is a living document in that sense. So, it will no doubt change. (MB Pastor)

That’s hard to say because our Mennonite identity certainly comes out in certain areas [of our congregational life]. But it’s hard to know whether it’s linked back to the Confession or just like a broader sense of being a part of the Mennonite family. (MB Pastor)

The value of the Confession is in setting a baseline . . . a starting point and also a kind of parameter. Like it sets out some limits as far as how we understand what it means to be faithful. . . . So I think that it’s substantive. That is, it’s not just a reference that you’re like, Oh yeah, we have this reference, but we can pretty much do what we want with it. I think, in terms of mutual submission, we are agreeing that this Confession is helpful to us as disciples.

Less philosophically, there were also different opinions about how the Confession of Faith operates in bringing about MB identity. Often these discussions acknowledged the growing diversity within congregations and across the denomination and its impact on MB identity. For some, the Confession was seen to bring unity and a connection to this broad-based MB community (“binds us together”) as it sets clear gatekeeping boundaries. For others, it does not (or cannot be expected to) bring unity, with some concerns that it is used as a “weapon” to exclude and shut down conversation. But most were somewhere in the middle, grappling with how it can connect us but still allow individual expression (like a Venn diagram).

This Confession of Faith, this uniting document that that brings us together and draws us together as a theological family. (MB Pastor)

Somebody recently expressed optimism to me that the Confession could be a unifying force among MBs. And I totally disagree . . . it’s my conviction that the Holy Spirit unites us, and then that’s worked out in tangible, practical ways, like loving one another, like listening to one another. (MB Pastor)

I would like to see the Confession of Faith not used as a weapon or as a way of trying to silence discussion, right? Like sometimes people are like, “Well, this is what the Confession says,” as a way of saying, “We don’t talk about this stuff because it’s already in the Confession.” And I don’t think that’s what a living document means. So, I think like just really making it clear that there is a time {150} and place to ask questions and to wrestle with the Confession. If it’s going to be a living document, then we can’t use it as a way to shut down questions. (MB Pastor)

I would describe a confession of faith [as] a useful map, but it’s not the territory . . . It’s like those police sketches where it’s like, I guess that kind of looks like that person. But . . . there’s always something different about reality. . . . It’s a mediated piece. (MB Pastor)

The challenge with the big tent is when people don’t want other people to be in the tent. And so, we’re fighting about who’s allowed to be in the tent and that’s complicated. I mean, I don’t know how to resolve that, but I think it’s kinda like we’re at the guardrails. What does it mean to be MB? And then there has to be room for difference in, you know, interpretation and implementation just because our contexts are so different. (MB Pastor)


Biblical interpretation was a second area of exploration. Some comments related to the framing of biblical interpretation within the Confession of Faith. At one level there was affirmation of the Confession’s emphasis on a “community hermeneutic” (as opposed to relying on expert-driven or individual interpretations). Yet beyond agreement on this basic description, opinions on the functional benefits and actual practice of a community hermeneutic were much more varied and uneven. For example, the Confession of Faith was seen as being interpretively vague in many respects, which was viewed as a weakness by some and positively by others. Similarly, the biblical-confessional approach adopted was appreciated by some while others questioned why we could not be creedal on core aspects (i.e., the first few articles) in recognition of the broader Christian tradition.

Like one thing we love is the community hermeneutic piece. And that’s probably the thing I’ve heard the most. Even when we didn’t talk about the Confession, you would hear this value of a community hermeneutic and looking at Scripture and hearing from the Spirit together. (MB Pastor)

I do like the broad biblical theology approach that the Confession has right now. I really love that biblical anchor and the fact that it’s big picture. I like that a lot. (MB Pastor) {151}

I just want to caution against that biblicist tone . . . There’s this assumption that everyone is going to read the text [of the Confession] the same way. . . . One of the things I liked about the early creeds is they actually didn’t make the Bible any clearer to read. I think they recognized that the Bible functions the way it does for us through the work of the Holy Spirit, because of its ambiguity on things. Early creeds bent over backwards to try to create safeguards that respected the complexity of Scripture and forced you to engage with it as mystery and be humble in front of it instead of going, ah, we’ve got this sucker locked. And I feel like our Confession, which is functioning more like a statement, actually reduces Scripture instead of respecting the depth and the wonder and the mystery of it. (MB Pastor)

Other comments related to when the Confession of Faith is used in biblical interpretation. Pastors ranged from frequently looking to the Confession of Faith or the commentary for guidance (especially for sermons) to never doing so. When used for biblical interpretation, it was typically in the background, without congregant knowledge, or reactively when congregants raise questions. Sometimes the Confession of Faith was viewed as helpful in highlighting MB particularities relative to other Christian interpretations.

If you look at the eighteen articles [of the Confession] there’s a whole lot of dotted lines to what is being taught [in our congregation], to what curriculum is being used. But not a lot of straight solid lines. Like it’s not as if I’m looking at the eighteen articles and saying, okay, how can I now teach on the sanctity of life. . . . But I’m not organizing my teaching schedule for the year around the eighteen articles and making sure that I hit on all of them. (MB Pastor)

I’ve kind of kept it in mind . . . especially [in my understanding of] baptism or perhaps the Lord’s Supper . . . it’s helped to shape the way I talk about those things. From a pastoral perspective I wanted to be consistent and to recognize some ways I have their points—their “accents”—in the Confession that I appreciate. But I don’t share them completely. (MB Pastor)

Finally, there were significant differences of opinion on how the Confession of Faith is used in biblical interpretation. For some it provided a resolved and unified clarity, while for others it helped to facilitate an ongoing “conversation” and “wrestling” with interpretation. Similarly, for some it was viewed as a general “guidebook” in supporting {152} biblical interpretation (a principle-based reading), while others saw it as articulating “shared beliefs” that should be formally agreed to (a rigid reading). A number of interviewees noted the distinction between a “centered-set” and a “bounded-set” positioning and how this distinction influences how interpretation is undertaken. There was also a recognition that not all members (including pastors) always agree with everything in it, but typically people do not publicly contradict it.

I think that we need to continue nationally to hold pretty tightly to some nonnegotiables [within the Confession]. And yeah, there might be a little bit of wiggle room that can happen. . . . And I wonder if that needs to continue to be part of our Confession; that we keep hold of some things that are nonnegotiables. And maybe the way that we live those out or interpret them in smaller contexts can have nuances. (MB Pastor)

The Confession is our . . . big tent or whatever. We’re not deliberately trying to speak anything that is in direct conflict with the Confession. So, it’s kind of used in that sense to be like, “These are the parameters under which there’s a lot of room for diversity or interpretation.” But . . . in any of my public communication, I try to make sure that anything that I communicate publicly is not contrary to the Confession. (MB Pastor)

So, the “Nature and Function” [introduction to the Confession] document, as I read it, really tries to make it sound nice and [says the Confession] is not a straitjacket. . . . But it ends up being one. . . . There’s space to have a conversation [in some areas]. But in other areas, the Confession absolutely seems to function like a straitjacket. (MB Pastor)

With some of the other obvious big questions around Scripture [interpretation], probably around marriage and LGBTQ inclusion, those are two important zones within the Confession that there’d be active wrestling through in terms of church vision. It’s not necessarily that the rank-and-file attending church wrestles through it. But there’d be a sort of wrestling through it at a leadership level around those issues. (MB Pastor)


A third area of exploration was how the Confession of Faith influences discipleship efforts within the congregation. The Confession was usually seen to be implicit in discipleship activities rather than explicitly {153} referenced or consulted. Congregational leaders were most likely to use it as a “guidepost,” “resource,” or a check for “alignment” when they were walking with someone into deeper places of Christian maturity or leadership. What is more, adherence to confessional lifestyle expectations was normally seen to be more stringent for leaders than for others in the congregation, and more stringent for members than for general attenders. Sometimes congregations expected member lifestyle alignment, while the congregation itself was not in complete alignment (e.g., de-linking baptism and membership).

The Confession of Faith is a good resource for helping us to be faithful. (MB Pastor)

I think it’s informed [our congregation’s discipleship practices, but] it’s not explicit unless it’s asked for, or unless I decide that it’s perhaps necessary for us to do something that would be a benefit to whoever’s walking through it with me. (MB Pastor)

I feel like we were trying to set the bar as low as possible [with regard to confessional expectations] just so people could sneak under it. Rather than maybe setting the bar a little bit higher because, you know, we’re calling you to something that is really significant. (MB Pastor)

We just use [a particular discipleship] curriculum and I think it would align within the guideposts of our Confession, though some of the articles would be ignored in that context. (MB Pastor)

I don’t see how we’re using [the Confession] in discipleship right now. I think I have some ideas around how it could be used, but I would say [in terms of] implementation, probably not. (MB Pastor)

I’m not sure how much our Confession of Faith really shapes people’s practices or behaviors. . . . I hope that my teaching helps to shape it and that my teaching is somewhat being formed by the Confession. (MB Pastor)

Most of the comments, however, related to specific practices in congregational life where the Confession of Faith is used in discipleship. These practices (in order of frequency) include:

  • Baptism/membership: The most common moment where it is used, typically in membership or baptismal classes where people directly receive it, even discuss it. {154}

  • Preaching/teaching: Consulted by some preachers in forming their sermon (or framing a sermon series), or by educators in developing discipleship curriculum.

  • Worship liturgy: A few pastors made use of the confessional liturgical readings or the summary version during worship services, while others did not know that these liturgical resources existed.

  • Communion: Less common were pastors who consulted or referenced it in preparing or leading the Lord’s Supper.


An overarching theme across the interviews was the diversity of perspectives on the use of the Confession of Faith in MB congregations. We probed this diversity in our interviews both in terms of its content and the process of dealing with it.

Topics Generating Diverse Perspectives (Content)

Participants spoke about which parts of the Confession of Faith were most affirmed and which were most contested. The first seven articles of the Confession (Articles 1–7) and Article 10 (Discipleship) were generally seen to be uncontroversial. In contrast, issues that created the most inquiry, friction, and disagreement included:

  • LGBTQ+ issues (most often associated with Article 11 on Marriage, Singleness, and Family)

These were the most frequently mentioned issues in the interviews. A few simply identified these as a controversial issues, while most others noted how they were (1) grappling with the expressions and limits of LGBTQ+ inclusion, pastoral care, the facilitating of constructive discussion given diverse opinions; or (2) calling for a deeper denominational conversation that includes a diversity of perspectives or that at least openly acknowledges and normalizes that some (perhaps many) MB churches are wrestling with these issues.

  • Love and Nonresistance (Article 13)

This article was often seen to be the most recognizable and misunderstood Anabaptist distinctive. Seen positively by some but causing discomfort and disagreement for others (particularly those in the military/policing or from some cultural backgrounds who do not share ethnic MB history), it caused still others to ponder how to adapt it to our current reality (e.g., Indigenous reconciliation). {155}

  • Christian Baptism (Article 8)

This article emerged in two ways: (1) the challenges of incorporating people who were baptized as infants, and (2) the relationship between baptism and membership, with some appreciating the recent revision process while others still feeling too much constraint.

  • Other articles

Less commonly raised were oath taking (in Article 12), The Sanctity of Human Life (14), The Lord’s Day, Work, and Rest (16) and Christ’s Final Triumph (18).

Another area where participants differed in their opinion was about how the parts of Confession of Faith relate to each other. Were all articles of equal importance (a “flat document”) or were they differentiated in some way? Some found the diagram in the “Nature and Functions” document helpful (where articles are placed in inner and outer circles), while others did not. What is more, the distinction between a “statement” and “confession” of faith was acknowledged by some, even though others used the terms interchangeably or thought that the distinction was blurred in how the Confession reads.

The “Nature and Function of the Confession of Faith” . . . had the tiered kind of approach. I think that’s helpful. It’s a helpful attempt to try to show how it all fits together. But it would be probably equally as helpful if the Confession was broken into two tiers. . . . Like the creedal tier, the nonnegotiable tier . . . like the essentials of our faith, which frankly don’t make us unique . . . it makes us part of the orthodox church. But then the second discipleship tier, which is really the outer issue—how we express these beliefs, how we disciple our people around [Article] 11 nonresistance, and marriage and singleness and family, and even baptism and things like that. (MB Pastor)

I love the idea of the Confession of Faith as a confession of faith. But when I read the “Nature and Function of the Confession” it’s like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. When they say, hey, this is a confession of faith and it’s not like a statement of faith. But it sure does behave like a statement of faith when you read it. . . . I feel like the Confession of Faith should be a description of what the majority of MBs believe. So, you have an idea of what the temperature in the room is. For me, a statement of faith is a set of prerequisites that you need to meet before you’re even allowed through the door. (MB Pastor) {156}

How to deal with diversity (processes)

A great deal was said about how congregations managed situations of difference in confessional thinking and acting. To begin, participants noted that a diversity of perspectives rose as the composition of congregations become more diverse. This demanded intentional efforts to foster a culture where unity and the fruits of the Spirit were evident. Stated sources of tension included people holding different assumptions about how to think about the Confession of Faith (e.g., bounded- versus centered-set thinking; principled versus rigid understanding; cultural bias), our dual Anabaptist-evangelical identity as Mennonite Brethren, various outside influences on our denomination, and generational differences.

Churches varied in their responses to someone who disagrees with or lives counter to the Confession. In some cases congregational leadership did not make disagreement or nonalignment an issue. But depending on the topic, a range of strategies could be used to address the situation, including starting a dialogue with congregants, limiting leadership or membership opportunities, asking people to consider not being a member, and in rarer cases, starting a “slow process” of discipline. Interview participants also offered guiding principles that helped them deal with diverse perspectives that might exist among congregants. These included maintaining the centrality of Jesus, emphasizing submission to shared convictions, being open to learning and wrestling through issues, staying engaged with each other despite disagreement, emphasizing belonging over believing, avoiding shame and condemnation, learning to trust and live with diverse opinions, foregrounding assumptions, being aware of those harmed by disagreement and caring for them, and recognizing that unity comes through shared worship, not a confessional statement.

I think the challenge is that we have different beliefs about where the guardrails should be. But I think that the biggest challenge right now for the church . . . [is] what do we do with people who think differently than us? . . . And so we’re always picking fights with each other. If we can foster a culture of . . . mutual trust. Like we’re able to live with some differences and trust one another and have unity in the midst of those differences—it can be really beautiful to have different kinds of expressions. (MB Pastor)

I think it matters that there are some differences [in confessional thinking]. I think that’s important. I think that the times where I’ve been most concerned about the health of our [MB] family has been when I’ve seen it getting really narrow. And so, I think having {157} some diversity is healthy and helpful. And to remember that, like, we are in my view ultimately like a Christo-centric denomination and not like a dogma-centric denomination. (MB Pastor)

And I think what we have to do is acknowledge that the tension that we walk in [when we have different perspectives on confessional issues] creates casualties. And it’s our responsibility to be mindful to care for the casualties. . . . There’s a number of areas in the Confession of Faith where people could say they were a casualty of it. And I think we are called to love one another well, and not let theology or articles get in the way of how we compassionately show Christ to one another. (MB Pastor)

CONCLUSION [revised August 2, 2023]

This article provides a unique window into confessional usage within Canadian MB churches. The study demonstrates that participating congregations have no uniform way of thinking about or acting out the Confession of Faith. While this finding cannot be generalized to all MB congregations, the range of pastoral perspectives sampled may suggest transferability across the denomination. Further conversation would therefore be helpful in better understanding how the insights from the seventeen congregations are reflective of the denomination as a whole. What is more, study findings raise important considerations for congregational and denominational leaders intent on seeing shared convictions meaningfully embraced within local congregations. For example, leaders might grapple with how to establish principles to guide flexibility or strictness in adherence, how to avoid the “tiering” of articles into essential and nonessential categories, and how to facilitate constructive discussion on controversial topics (e.g., love and nonresistance, human sexuality) and emerging new questions (e.g., gender identity, Indigenous reconciliation). These considerations and others may not be possible without a deeper commitment to stronger relationships in an increasingly diverse Canadian MB church. To this end, the final report poses a series of questions that could guide leaders in facilitating broader engagement with the Confession and in exploring how MBs can learn to live with diversity and difference (Janzen and Sumner 2022).


Rich Janzen is Executive Director of the Centre for Community Based Research and Adjunct Associate Professor at Renison University College, an affiliated university college of the University of Waterloo. He is a member of Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church. Brad Sumner founded Jericho Ridge Community Church in Surrey, BC, in 2005 and serves as the church’s lead pastor.

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