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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 171–179 

Identity, Anxiety, and the Holy Spirit

Lee Kosa

The community-based research project “Exploring Congregational Use of the MB Confession of Faith” probed the role of the Confession of Faith in reflecting and shaping the identity of Mennonite Brethren (MB) congregations. 1 The topic of identity is also addressed in the “Nature and Function of the Confession,” a paper that responds to frequently asked questions about the Confession. 2 While “Nature and Function” states that “Christians’ primary identity is in Christ,” it also states that the identity of a family of churches arises from “three intertwined characteristics: shared convictions, shared relationships, and shared mission.” This short list of particularities does not address the role that external forces play in shaping MB identity. Additionally, of the topics probed in the research project, identity “produced the most varied responses” in the interviews, which gave evidence that “differing opinions” exist regarding the role of Confession in identity formation. The limited treatment in “Nature and Function” and the varied perspectives surfaced by the research project (e.g., descriptive, prescriptive, agent of unity, weapon of harm) indicate that the relationship between the MB Confession and MB identity has not been sufficiently explored or understood. Drawing from the work of theologian Willie James Jennings, this paper seeks to expand our awareness of the external and internal forces that influence God’s people as they negotiate their {172} identity over time. Lastly, implications regarding the ongoing identity formation of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren are suggested. 


In his brilliant commentary on the book of Acts, Willie James Jennings claims that “Faith is always caught between diaspora and empire.” 3 For the people of God, religious identity is always shaped by the emotional, cultural, and spiritual energies of these two realities. The political power of empire is animated by a desire to control—to use whatever means necessary (e.g., violence, myth, ritual, symbol, money) to shape the world (land, human relationships, social structures, etc.) into the empire’s image of maturity and order. In the Bible we see the power of empire at work in the rule of Egypt, much of Israel’s monarchical history, Babylon, and Rome. Diaspora existence involves displacement and is characterized by loss, threat, anxiety, survival (physical, cultural, and religious), and longing. Israel’s exilic existence is life lived in diaspora—a life that prompts the people of God to ask, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4 NRSV). 

Empire exerts pressure (often violently) upon people to shape their identity into a particular likeness that is often embodied by a leader who reflects the image, will, and ways of god. Since life under empire finds its pattern in a perception of the divine, any violation of the empire’s order is seen as ungodly, unnatural, immature, and a threat to civilization as defined and spread by the empire. Therefore, to live within empire is to be under the constant, powerful, sometimes obtrusive but often imperceptible, gravitational pull of assimilation—a power that seeks to mold people into the empire’s image. An example of empire deploying the use of ritual and symbol to shape cultural identity was Ford Motor Company’s employee training program where immigrants to America were taught the words and ways of American culture before participating in a final Americanization ritual. Graduates entered a large cauldron (melting pot) dressed in their traditional ethnic clothes. Once inside, they changed into American-style suits before emerging from the pot waving an American flag. Tragically, throughout its history, both diaspora anxiety and empire’s desire for control have driven the church to be an agent of erasure, demanding that people cut away parts of themselves (hair, language, cultural practices, sexual orientation, etc.) in order to be identified as part of the saved people of God. 4

Empire’s assimilating energy is often experienced as a threat to diaspora people. To give in to the power of assimilation is to trade one’s distinctives (e.g., story, cultural and religious identity, etc.) for empire’s promise of security. Given the constant drag of assimilation on diaspora {173} distinctives, identity markers (e.g., religious practices and convictions) are often protected with great vigor as a matter of cultural and religious survival. 

In response to pressure to assimilate, diaspora people often turn to a strategy of desperate segregation for cultural survival. 5 Minimizing contaminating contact with the empire helps preserve one’s practices and protect a people’s identity. Empires deploy the strategy of spatial segregation to deal with noncompliant diaspora people. If a people’s resistance to assimilation is deemed a threat to the empire’s civilizing project, diaspora peoples may be rounded up and segregated to limit their contact with the rest of society and also to deploy more intense and directed assimilation strategies (e.g., Indigenous reserves and residential schools). If diaspora resistance is perceived as a threat to empire’s control over the order of society, the empire may even opt for a strategy of annihilation (e.g., crucifixion and genocide). As history tragically attests, empire’s death-dealing boot drops swiftly and with lethal force. 


The energies of diaspora and empire are at play in the events narrated in the book of Acts which depict the Jewish people’s (including Jewish Jesus followers’) struggle to maintain their identity under the influence of empire. The Spirit’s disruptive welcome of Gentiles presents a threat to Jewish people seeking to be faithful to the ways of God amidst these energies. However, the witness of their own people could not be ignored—the Gentiles were being converted (Acts 15:3). What was considered “contrary to nature” was being interpreted as a movement of God—the Gentiles were being grafted in (Rom 11:24). Sylvia Keesmaat describes the challenge that Gentile conversions presented:

Permitting them to enter the believing community could cause huge problems for a community that was committed to a very different way of being in the world. . . . What guarantee did the leaders of the early church have that the Gentiles were going to leave their idolatrous way of life behind? They knew one way of making sure: by requiring circumcision . . .

There was nothing in scripture to suggest that Gentiles could become part of the community without keeping the law and without circumcision. . . . And so the debate at Jerusalem came down to this central issue: Whom do we welcome into the believing community, and by what criteria do we decide, especially when we don’t think the people who want in are morally up to standard? 6 {174}

Diaspora anxiety concerning loss of identity animated the Jesus-believing Pharisees who argued that the Gentiles should be welcomed after they are “circumcised” and that they should be required to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). For millennia, circumcision and Torah observance had been identity markers that set God’s covenant people apart. Insistence upon the continuation of these practices was rooted in a deep commitment to preserving cultural and religious identity in the midst of the assimilating forces of empire that had historically threatened to erase their way of life and at times their very existence. The sheer number of Gentiles compared to the fledgling community of Jewish Jesus followers generated fear that Jewish identity (as maintained by faithful practices, symbols, and beliefs) could be altered beyond recognition if the doors were open to Gentiles. This anxiety led some to advocate for the shoring up of a rigid bounded-set-style community that upheld circumcision as a clear, firm, and policeable boundary between Gentiles and the saved people of God (Acts 15:1). 

However, not all early Jesus followers shared the diaspora anxiety of the Pharisees. At the Jerusalem Council, we see that something had mitigated diaspora anxiety for Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. They had seen the welcoming “grace of our Lord,” signs, and wonders at work among the Gentiles (Acts 15:11–12). The discerning community shared stories from their lived experience of the Spirit (Acts 15:8–9, 12). They looked to their tradition (Acts 15:1) and consulted Scripture (Acts 15:16–18) and reason (Acts 15:10, 19). 7 Eventually, it was agreed that the community should not burden the Gentiles by asking of them more than they had been able to give (Acts 15:10). Nor should they stand in the way of the grace of God that was suddenly flowing in an unexpected way. At the Jerusalem Council, the people of God renegotiated the terms and markers of their identity. Their deliberation culminated in a letter to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia stating: 

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28-29) 

The requirements reached at this unique point in time were aimed at curtailing practices that might tempt Gentiles back into idolatry. However, as the Spirit’s work of welcoming the Gentiles continued in other particular places (e.g., the church in Colossae, Corinth, and Rome), Paul seems to again renegotiate what he deems to be the required identity markers of the faithful. (Col 2:16-19; 1 Cor 8:7-8; Rom 14). What is of {175} utmost importance for Paul is to not “destroy the work of God” for the sake of other things (e.g., food) and for the people of God to build up their neighbors (Rom 14:20, 15:2). 

The early community of Jesus followers responded to the Spirit-initiated Gentile challenge in a way that ultimately refused to be driven by diaspora anxiety or empire’s desire for control. The acts of the Holy Spirit reveal an alternative to assimilation, segregation, and annihilation. The witness of the early church demonstrates that the welcome of different people doesn’t have to come at the cost of identity loss. Paul points the people of God toward another way of being together. For Paul, the body of Christ is the site and source of a miraculous joining that enables different people to enter into intimate shared life where identity is not diminished but expanded. The Gentiles are welcomed into the Jewish story and Jewish people learn more about their mysterious and miraculous God. 

Acts suggests that the resolution of conflict related to cultural, theological, or ethnic difference is not found in uniformity of thought, conformity of appearance, or separation of deviation. Paul points us to the body of Christ as the site where peace is made and all things are reconciled (Col 1:20). The body of Christ, God’s love enfleshed, is the place where difference is embraced, divine joining occurs, fellowship is experienced, and yet people need not be diminished or dehumanized. Jesus’s body is broken open, his ligaments torn to receive the fragments of God’s image—diverse human beings—splendid in their difference. The Spirit does not eradicate variation through assimilation or deal with the difficulty of diversity through segregation. The Spirit draws people to the sacred site of Christ’s body where communion transpires, we abide in Christ, Christ abides in us, and our identity is expanded. Jennings describes the problem and God’s divine solution: 

We have been unable to imagine and enact a together life that flows inside the subtleties and intricacies of peoples’ differences, of such things as language, story, land, and animals. It has been easier to imagine either loss or resistance—loss of difference through assimilation or its control through conquest, or resistance to its loss through active segregation. How can people be joined together, truly joined together without loss, without the death of one (peoples’ ways) for the sake of the other? This question’s strength lay in our centuries-long inability to answer it. . . . All that is necessary is for all of us to yield to the eager Spirit who waits for us to see beyond the segregationist mind into the mind of Christ and hear a calling that cannot be contained but only obeyed. 8 {176}

For Gentiles welcomed into the body of God’s covenant people, uniformity is not the glue of our spiritual community, and false peace dare not be pursued at the risk of making those with the least power bear the biggest burden for the sake of the church’s unity. Paul does not say that uniformity of belief and the annihilation of diversity hold all things together. The Son, the image of the invisible God, firstborn over all creation, Jesus, who is before all things—in him all things hold together. Like Paul, we would do well to do everything possible to not destroy the welcoming work of God and to build up all of our siblings in Christ. The witness of the New Testament invites us to expand our imagination when it comes to envisioning how our identity as a family of churches might be enlarged and enriched, rather than always diminished and diluted; when it comes to embracing difference—whether in the form of ideas, practices, or people—in our shared life together.  


Perhaps due to influences such evangelical defensiveness rooted in the modernist/fundamentalist controversies of the 1900s, Mennonite memory of scarcity, vulnerability, and insecurity inherent during periods of persecution and displacement, and the temptation to yield to the empire’s desire for control, Mennonite Brethren have a hard time imagining life together (German and non-German speaking, male and female, straight and queer) where all are expanded through miraculous mutually enriching relationships in the body of Christ. Might this be indicative of Conference anxiety surrounding MB identity? 

Although the term diaspora does not accurately describe the Canadian Mennonite Brethren community, several excerpts from Conference communication are presented as potential evidence of Conference anxiety stemming from a perceived threat to MB identity. The following examples are from the British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (BCMB)—the provincial context I served in while I was the lead pastor of Cedar Park Church from 2013 to 2022. 

Following the release of Artisan Church’s Milestone statement 9 in January 2021, which expressed their intent to make room for both traditional and affirming views of marriage and which was followed by their departure from the BCMB, the BCMB Executive Board and Pastoral Ministries Committee sent a letter dated November 3, 2021, to all BCMB Church leaders. In response to additional challenges such as “society’s embrace of moral relativism” and “individual choice as the ultimate arbiter of sexual ethics, the practice of marriage and family, and even human identity itself,” the letter called for MB pastors, boards, and leadership teams to “reaffirm” the Confession of Faith to strengthen {177} Conference unity and mission. 10 Furthermore, the letter asked leadership teams to consider how the BCMB covenant renewal document, which all credentialed pastors are required to affirm, might be more widely applied within churches. 

An email from the BCMB Conference sent to pastors on November 24, 2021, stressing the importance of attending a Special General Meeting to vote on bylaw changes, claimed that unprecedented times “provide an important opportunity to re-commit ourselves to the BCMB family.” 11 The letter named several crises as reasons to reinforce BCMB group identity. It read, “The ongoing challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, forest fires this past summer, the recent floods in many parts of our province, along with lingering questions about our theological alignment, serve as an unmistakable reminder for the need of unity in, and commitment to our BCMB family.” 12 The grouping of theological questions with forces of death, such as the pandemic and natural disasters, suggests that theological difference is viewed as a severe threat to MB identity and perhaps even to life itself. 

The 2022 BCMB Convention theme was “Fortitude” and was promoted as a response to “threats and challenges to our faith and to the freedom of worship that we have enjoyed for so long.” 13 The BCMB February 2022 Newsletter stated, “In these troubled times, our foundation and unity as a BCMB family is being severely tested on multiple levels.” 14 It then went on to stress how being reminded of and reaffirming the Confession of Faith “will strengthen our bond of faith and help us remain faithful to Christ as we face the rising storms that are now upon us.” 15

The BCMB’s response to Artisan’s Milestone Statement, the existence of theological questions, and societal changes has been to demand reaffirmation of the Confession as a way to protect MB identity and fortify the family of faith from threat. This fear-based response signifies diaspora-type identity anxiety. 


“Nature and Function of the Confession of Faith” claims that “If Mennonite Brethren change our convictions, we become a different community than we were before.” 16 This is true. However, this inevitable change in identity can either be feared as a loss (of theological integrity, size of church family, traditional self-understanding, etc.), or anticipated as an expansion (of our theology, understanding of God, diversity of church family) to be anticipated with openness and curiosity.

New cultural trends, theological questions, and congregations that change their minds may indeed threaten our MB identity. However, if {178} we are to be faithful to the witness of Scripture, we dare not doubt the possibility that the Spirit may be shifting our identity in ways that lead to expansion, not diminishment; hermeneutical depth, not shallowness; and life rather than loss. Of course, the question of whether to welcome or reject difference (in the form of theology, people, or practice) requires robust communal discernment and frequent renegotiation in the context of the body of Christ.

Given the presence of identity anxiety in the MB Conference and how the research project revealed various sources of tension and variance, 17 it is imperative that the Conference both increase its self-awareness regarding how fear of identity loss may be animating use of the Confession and work to create clear structures and practices that facilitate ongoing, unanxious, and robust discernment processes that set the table for the frequent renegotiation of MB identity. Furthermore, given the biblical precedent for renegotiating longstanding identity markers and the miracle of mutually expansive identity that can take place through the joining of difference in the body of Christ, MBs can welcome this renegotiation as an opportunity to discern the Spirit’s wild and enriching work among us.


  1. Rich Janzen and Brad Sumner, “Exploring Congregational Use of the Confession of Faith: Past, Present, Future” (Centre for Community Based Research, Waterloo, ON).
  2. Confession of Faith Task Force (National Faith and Life Team of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches), “Nature and Function of the Confession,” (Also available on the Direction website:—Ed.)
  3. Willie James Jennings, Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 6.
  4. Jennings poses a pointed question that Christians still struggle to answer, “How do we present a faith that forms a people but does not destroy a people?” “Introducing Our Reading of Acts: The Revolution of the Intimate,” The Book of Acts: Reflections on Discipleship, Racial Identity, and Community (class lecture, Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver, BC, July 8, 2019).
  5. Jennings, Acts, 146.
  6. Sylvia Keesmaat, “Welcoming in the Gentiles: A Biblical Model for Decision Making,” in Living Together in the Church: Including Our Differences, ed. Greig Dunn and Chris Ambidge (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2004), 36.
  7. It is worth noting that all four sources of theological development according to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason) were drawn from the Jerusalem Council. {179}
  8. Jennings, Acts, 145–49.
  9. “Milestone Statement on LGBTQ+ Inclusion,” Artisan Church, January 2021, accessed August 26 2022,
  10. BCMB Executive Board and Pastoral Ministries Committee letter to BCMB Church leaders, November 3, 2021.
  11. Denis Federau, Director of Resource Ministries BCMB Conference, email message to BCMB pastors, November 24, 2021.
  12. Federau, email message email message to BCMB pastors, November 24, 2021.
  13. BC Conference of MB Churches, email message to author, February 15, 2022.
  14. Rob Thiessen, BCMB Conference Minister, February 2022 eNewsletter sent to author, February 10, 2022.
  15. Rob Thiessen, BCMB Conference Minister, February 2022 eNewsletter.
  16. Confession of Faith Task Force, “Nature and Function of the Confession.”
  17. The Summary Report found that churches are grappling with LGBTQ+ inclusion, faith communities are experiencing friction regarding numerous confessional articles, tension exists surrounding the dual anabaptist-evangelical MB identity, there are varied assumptions about the role of the Confession (guidebook vs. straight jacket, bounded vs. centered set), and different opinions exist about how the Confession operates (e.g., binding agent or weapon of exclusion). Rich Janzen & Brad Sumner, “Exploring Congregational Use of the Confession of Faith: Past, Present, Future—Summary Report” (Centre for Community Based Research, Waterloo, ON),
Lee Kosa served as the lead pastor of Cedar Park Church in Ladner, BC, from 2013 to 2022. This article is based in part on his unpublished paper, “Quilting Community: Inclusion, Cedar Park, and the Centered-Set Church” (2021), cited in Janzen and Sumner’s “Exploring Congregational Use of the MB Confession of Faith—Summary Report.”

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