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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 160–164 

The MB Confession of Faith as Product or Process: Which Is It?

Sherri Guenther Trautwein

In their article, “How Do Canadian Mennonite Brethren Congregations Use the Confession of Faith,” authors Rich Janzen and Brad Sumner present three significant themes that emerged from interviews conducted with pastors from across the country. These themes related to the function of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) Confession of Faith in the Canadian context and are discussed under the headings: (1) Identity function, (2) Biblical interpretation function, and (3) Living out our faith function. All three themes invite further exploration, but discussion in this response will be limited to the second theme—biblical interpretation.

With respect to the Confession of Faith’s biblical interpretation function, Janzen and Sumner grouped the responses of those interviewed around perceptions of framing, when, and how. 1 Framing relates to interviewees’ assessments of biblical interpretation within the Confession. When relates to the circumstances in which, and the frequency with which, pastors consult the Confession in matters of biblical interpretation. How relates to the way the Confession speaks into pastoral and congregational processes of biblical interpretation in the day-to-day life of the church. I approach the findings of this study as a trained biblical scholar and a working pastor, so the question of how the Confession functions when it comes to biblical interpretation in the life of the congregation is of particular interest and importance to me. {161}

The responses related to how the Confession functions with respect to biblical interpretation ranged from the view that the Confession provides a “resolved and unified clarity” on matters of biblical interpretation to the perception that the Confession invites an “ongoing ‘conversation’ and ‘wrestling’ with interpretation.” 2 How can the Confession be perceived in such divergent ways? And what are the implications of this divergence for pastors, congregation, and the broader MB family in Canada?

“DESCRIBING” AND “PROVIDING”

One pastor interviewed during the study illustrates the tension this way:

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.

Categories of “conversation” and “straitjacket” provide a stark contrast and gesture towards a tension that is often discussed using the terms descriptive and prescriptive. If the Confession is descriptive, then it describes a moment in time with an openness to continuing the conversation—a conversation that could result in an addition, a subtraction, or a revision of current interpretations. If the Confession is prescriptive, then it contains clear and binding conclusions that dictate the parameters of faith and practice as stated. The interpretative process has been performed and has reached a conclusion. No further discussion is needed. Both are possible options when it comes to how the Confession functions in the life of the church, and specifically biblical interpretation. The question is: Which is it? Because surely it cannot be both.

I was intrigued by this pastor’s comment and the tension they perceived to be present in “Nature and Function of the Confession.” “Nature and Function” is a document published by the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC) in 2018. It is readily available online and is featured on the CCMBC website. 3 It serves as an introduction of sorts to the MB Confession of Faith and responds to the question, How does the MB Confession of Faith function within the life of the church? A preface, followed by frequently asked questions, covers a lot of ground, and provides a lot of detail when it comes to use of the Confession. {162}

In its preface, “Nature and Function” opens with a series of statements, followed by points that complete the sentence. Two points from the first statement caught my eye:

It [the Confession of Faith] expresses our shared Mennonite Brethren convictions and identity that . . .

. . . describe what Canadian Mennonite Brethren believe the Bible teaches.

. . . provide an interpretive guide for understanding and applying Scripture.

On the face of it, these two statements appear to present a united front. Both relate to the study of Scripture and the role the Confession plays in supporting the MB church in this task. The first point indicates that the content of the Confession describes what MBs believe. The second point clarifies that the Confession provides an interpretive guide for the study of Scripture.

But which is it? Is it a description of beliefs—a document that contains a snapshot of what MBs believed at the moment in time it was created, a document that could take a very different form if a similar snapshot of what MBs believe in this moment was taken? Or is it a guide that provides the boundaries, the upper and outer limits, of biblical interpretation? To put it another way, is it a product of study (a description of beliefs) or a process that guides (a prescription that indicates how far an interpretation can go)?

Because surely it cannot be both.

WHICH IS IT?

One of the striking features of Janzen and Sumner’s findings is the diversity of opinion and conviction expressed by the represented cross-section of MB pastors interviewed for their study. In their conclusion they write, “The range of pastoral perspectives demonstrates that congregations have no uniform way of thinking about or acting out the Confession of Faith.” 4

This diversity invites the question: How can this be? How is it possible that the Confession is perceived so differently by so many? How is it possible that pastors (and their congregations) can be found to be so different in their engagement of this commonly held confession?

Possible responses to this question could include inconsistency among pastors and leaders in how they teach congregations the way they should go, misunderstandings among pastors about the Confession and how it should be handled, or lack of commitment in congregations to embrace an MB identity. {163}

Any or all of these are possible, but I do not think any one of them account for the breadth of thought and action present among MBs in Canada when it comes to the Confession of Faith. I think the inconsistency baked into “Nature and Function” provides a far more compelling reason. There is a lack of clarity about how the Confession functions when it comes to matters of biblical interpretation. And this lack of clarity leads to attempts to leverage the Confession as both descriptive and prescriptive. It is confusing, and it results in congregations finding their own way, particularly when it comes to complex matters of biblical interpretation and faithful practice.

The Confession of Faith should not be forced to bear the burden of being both product and process. If it is a product—a description of beliefs about the Bible at a given moment in time—then it is informative, even instructive, but it is also open to further conversation. It is open to change. If it is a process—a prescription of where interpretations must land or a guide that keeps explorers on the straight and narrow—then it is a collection of questions answered and tensions resolved. It is closed and must remain that way. Pastors and congregations that lean into the descriptive function of the Confession will find them themselves travelling in one direction, while those leaning into the prescriptive function will find themselves travelling in quite another.

CONCLUSION

The consequence of this inconsistency has already had grievous effects for MBs in Canada. There is mistrust about who reads the Bible faithfully, who takes it seriously, and who properly submits to the authority of Scripture. There is confusion and increasing anxiety about how to protect the prescriptions provided by the Confession of Faith and calls to create space for the descriptive impulses that allowed for the MB Confession to come into being in the first place.

A clear accounting of the intended function of the Confession of Faith would go a long way to addressing the tensions that presently exist. Is it descriptive? Is it a resource as it is, but is it also open to conversation and change? Or is it prescriptive? Is it a settled matter that cannot be reconsidered? Neither approach will satisfy everyone, but this is not really the point. The point is that lack of clarity creates confusion and suspicion. It compromises the integrity of the MB family and limits our ability to learn and grow in faith together.

The Confession of Faith has a lot to offer MB pastors and congregations seeking to follow Jesus with integrity and intention. An open and honest conversation about its function—both historically and in the current context—would go a long way to addressing the complex {164} and increasingly hostile environment surrounding the Confession and its role in MB polity and praxis. Descriptive? Prescriptive? Product? Process? Which is it?

NOTES

  1. Janzen and Sumner, “How Do Canadian Mennonite Brethren Congregations Use the Confession of Faith? Findings from a Community-Based Research Study,” Direction 51 (Fall 2022): 150-52.
  2. Janzen and Sumner, 151.
  3. Confession of Faith Task Force (National Faith and Life Team of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches), “Nature and Function of the Confession,” https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/nature-and-function-of-the-confession/. (Also available on the Direction website: https://directionjournal.org/48/2/nature-and-function-of-confession.html.—Ed.)
  4. Janzen and Sumner, 157.
  5. Sherri Guenther Trautwein is the lead pastor at Lendrum Mennonite Church in Edmonton, Alberta.

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