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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 200–205 

‘It’s Not About You’: A Response to the Confession of Faith Usage Study

Brian Cooper

I read Brad Sumner and Rich Janzen’s article with great interest. I knew from personal experience that there have long been differing levels of engagement with the Confession of Faith, just as there are differing sentiments about what it means to be Mennonite Brethren. This topic is of particular interest to me because I was not raised in the MB Conference. I entered the Canadian MB Conference in 2006 as an institutional and theological newcomer. Although I was excited to be a part of the family based on what I knew about MBs, I recognized that I had a lot to learn.

I came into the MB family in part out of a sense of theological calling arising from the slow theological epiphany I experienced during my doctoral studies. My research was in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, which I found profoundly compelling. My entry into the MB world came after I had reflected to myself that Mennonite Brethren might embody the best of the Baptist tradition in which I was raised and the Anabaptist tradition I had come to love.

My posture toward denominational theology was deeply shaped by the example of my father, who served in pastoral ministry for most of my upbringing. He was a man of deep theological conviction, but also theological humility and integrity. I recall that at one point my father had been invited to consider a pastoral role at a church in Winnipeg that was part of the Anabaptist Peace church tradition. Despite his willingness to serve and the favorable reception he received there, he ultimately declined {201} the opportunity because he could not wholeheartedly accept the church’s position on peace and nonviolence. Not wanting to create disharmony, he withdrew. More than thirty years later, I am still impressed by the integrity he demonstrated.

New to the MB world, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to serve in leadership positions very quickly. One year in, I started teaching at Columbia Bible College as a sessional faculty member. The next year, I was affirmed to the Pastoral Ministries Committee of the BC Conference. In 2010 I began an eight-year stint on what was then called the Board of Faith and Life (now the NFLT) and served as chair for four and a half years. Since 2011, I have served as a faculty member at MB Seminary. I mention these bona fides to provide background to my next comments.

I soon learned that not all new leaders in the Conference were as eager about developing their capacity for theological work or a sense of MB identity as I was. And as I read the Sumner-Janzen article, I saw much that resonated with my experience. Of the different metaphors that were offered to describe how the Confession works, the metaphor of the Confession of Faith like a cell phone contract resonated with me deeply. I was familiar with the sentiment that documents like the Confession were to be consulted in prescribed scenarios, but often only as much as was deemed absolutely necessary.

The reasons for these observations seem to me to be attributable to a few major reasons. The first is that pastors and leaders have a wide diversity of affinities for theological work. While some read, think, and act based on thoughtful self-reflection, and try to instill this in others, many operate pragmatically and/or intuitively, and do not gravitate to what they see as doctrinal minutiae, and they do not appreciate its bearing on their ministry practice. Confessional statements seem to them to represent theological bureaucracy.

Other pastors come to new denominational settings attracted by specific roles, and with lesser appreciation of the denominational setting. What is more, they see their prior theological commitments as superior to those of the new denomination, and resist calls to familiarize themselves with their new homes, to say nothing of embracing confessional commitments that many view with a disdain. This disdain is evident not only in their disinclination to use the MB Confession of Faith as a theological resource, but also in their substitution of a different theological statement that is a poor fit with historic MB confessional commitments, both in substance and process.

Exacerbating this problem is the trend among denominational discernment bodies to approve the credentialing of new pastors and other leaders even in the face of significant theological disagreement. I will {202} confess to having harbored significant discomfort at times in credentialing interviews with individuals whose willingness to work cooperatively with other MBs I found suspect. Often, credentials were offered in the interest of avoiding conflict, with exhortations to digest and take seriously the confessional articles that were the points of dissent for the candidates.

But however optimistic we were about the implications of a candidate’s being “in process” about a confessional article such as Article 13 on Love and Nonresistance, experience has revealed to me that such expressions seem to have been little more than phrases intended to divert scrutiny long enough to gain the desired credentials. Further theological processing by the candidate seldom seems to have occurred. Further, the likelihood that a candidate demurred in a credentialing interview seems to have been an indicator of dissent or even defiance in later theological conversations about the Confession of Faith, if the individual is willing to entertain a conversation at all. As a result, the theological landscape of the Mennonite Brethren is becoming increasingly diverse, but not in a good way.

I have already documented the lack of a unifying theological method among MBs. 1 But there are other signals of theological disunity in the study results that ought not to be overlooked. They are evident in the comments about two tiers of articles in the Confession, differentiating what are seen to be essential articles from nonessential ones (155). 2 This idea begs the question of why articles that are not essential elements of denominational conviction might be enshrined in a confessional document. A related sentiment concerns the idea that some “nonnegotiables” in the Confession should be held more tightly, while “wiggle room” might be permissible in relation to other elements (152). These sentiments bespeak a set of theological priorities that is clearly different from that in the Confession, and its continued presence poses a challenge to denominational cooperation.

Thoughts of why the Confession exists or the reasons it came to be in its present form seemed to be far from the minds of the pastors consulted in the study. Notwithstanding the fact that some pastors interviewed appreciated the Confession (148), there was not a clear consensus about what has united MBs in the past or how the Confession of Faith might serve to help forge a theological identity among Canadian MBs in the present.

Despite the fact that there is readily available documentary evidence that explains the methodology and role of the Confession in the life of the denomination, it is interesting that respondents seemed to perpetuate misunderstandings and perceived ambiguities about it in their comments. The references to the Confession as a “big tent” (150, 152) seem to bespeak a desire for it to be narrower and more prescriptive on some {203} points than it is. Lack of precision is seen as inadequate for clarifying what (or who) is faithful in certain areas.

At the same time, the authors of the article identified a range of responses about the role of the Confession suggesting that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive (148). Here the opposite dynamic presents itself. In them, confessional breadth is seen as a positive because it allows for diversity. This also shows a lack of historical perspective. Interestingly, documentation of Conference discernment clarifies this question: the Confession of Faith is descriptive rather than prescriptive, but its articles are also normative rather than optional. 3 As well, the allusions to the Confession as a “living document” (149) seem to indicate that its substance ought to be interpreted more fluidly, perhaps tentatively, perhaps because it is perceived to be changeable and therefore less important.

The sum total of the observations I have gleaned from the Sumner-Janzen article lead me to the following conclusions. Increasing numbers of pastoral leaders seem to chafe at the idea of following the theological direction of the Confession of Faith. They would much rather give theological direction than receive it. Theological rigor in defense of the Confession is attributed to denominationalism rather than a desire for theological fidelity. I recall a leader using language that MBs needed to lower the MB flag and instead raise the flag of Jesus, an expression that makes for interesting rhetoric but poor theology.

The one exception to the trend to marginalize the Confession has been in response to perceptions of theological threat. Most notable in this regard is the flurry of conversation about LGBTQ+ matters. In light of such matters, the Confession has regained significance as a theological resource. Ironically, MBs risk weaponizing it as a trump card to end theological conversations rather than using it as a foundational document from which to begin—or continue—theological conversations. 4 Moreover, it is in the context of this kind of conversation that pastors who formerly ignored the Confession are sometimes now loudly calling for confessional fidelity. I recall hearing a pastor at a BCMB Conference AGM call out another church for confessional infidelity despite the fact that the church he serves openly uses the Gospel Coalition statement of faith rather than the MB Confession. The irony would have been amusing had it not been so sad.

The frank admissions that MB church congregants know little about the Confession (145-46) comes as no surprise. While it is doubtless true that there are many churches who have embraced the Confession with great intentionality, I am aware that there are also many churches whose connection to the MB family is ethereal at best. My pastoral experience at the start of my time in the MB Conference taught me that of the reasons {204} people gravitated to our church, MB identity and the theological teaching of the Confession of Faith were nowhere near the top of the list.

The fact that there is such a diverse range of responses to the Confession of Faith seems to me to be related to the fact that formative theological work is underappreciated as a discipline, and consequently underutilized. Theological method has been reduced to individual dogmatism. As a result, both the nature of the Confession as the product of communal theological reflection and its value as a resource for ongoing theological work are stunted in our denomination. We are reaping the theological whirlwind.

Having noted this, it is also important to note that the vacuum caused by the absence of clarity about denominational theological method need not have created the theological confusion that it has. The compounding problem is that this vacuum has been filled by leaders operating on the basis of self-promoting dogmatism and positional authority rather than on the basis of submission to the community hermeneutic that has guided MBs well until recently. It is this trend that has contributed to the pulling of MBs in multiple directions. This unity that many MBs desire will not be possible until there is a rediscovery that submission to the theological discernment of the group is a prerequisite to fellowship and to a legitimate place in the conversation about issues requiring theological discernment. It is axiomatic in Christian theology that fruitful contributors to this conversation are those who come with humble faith seeking understanding rather than those who come as cultured despisers of the tradition.

Sumner and Janzen’s article points to many challenges ahead for MB attempts to create theological cohesiveness. It may be that things need to get worse before they get better. There is much work that needs to be done, together, to build a theological foundation from which MBs will willingly cooperate. But not all will. And that is okay, so long as MBs are willing to accept the implications. Pastors and churches who desire to contend for the Kingdom in ways that do not accord with MB theological commitments may have to be blessed to change their affiliation so that they—and we—can continue to work with integrity. But I remain hopeful that we can find ways to work together, in harmony with one another and in fidelity to the commitments outlined in the Confession. I believe that those who, like me, work through the details will find them compelling, even transformative.


  1. Brian Cooper, “The Theological Poverty of the Mennonite Brethren Vision,” Direction 47 (Fall 2018): 169–83,
  2. Rich Janzen and Brad Sumner, “How Do Canadian Mennonite Brethren Congregations Use the Confession of Faith? Findings from a Community-Based Research Study,” Direction 51 (Fall 2022): 142-159. All page numbers in parentheses refer to this Janzen and Sumner article.
  3. Abe J. Dueck and David Giesbrecht, eds., We Recommend (Part III, 1978-2002) Recommendations, Study Papers and other Leadership Resources (Winnipeg, MB: General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 2004), 47–48.
  4. A very helpful article on the topic of the Confession as a formative tool for theological reflection is by Brad Sumner, “Recipe or Food Guide? The Use of the Confession of Faith in Mennonite Brethren Churches,” Direction 48 (Fall 2019): 90–101,
Brian Cooper is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of Student Development at MB Seminary in Langley, BC. He and his wife Connie are members of South Abbotsford Church.

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