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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 165–170 

Using the MB Confession of Faith for Identity, Biblical Interpretation, and Discipleship

Lynn Jost

The Congregational Use of the Confession study surfaces a primary question: How does this confession influence local congregational life? The introductory summary notes that impact is limited by the confession’s unfamiliarity, implicit (but not explicit) reference, and perceived irrelevance. Specific comments on the categories of identity, biblical interpretation, and discipleship practices explain the limited influence of the Confession and expose the primary conflict unsettling the church: the issue of belonging/othering developed below.

The Confession addresses belief (based on biblical interpretation) and behavior (discipleship practices), but most significantly intends to foster belonging. Mennonite Brethren (MB) historical roots complicate the issue of membership. The Radical Reformers, rejected by the mother church, self-identified as “other” than (separate from) the world. Not only were the 1860 “Brethren” excluded by the mother church, but the Reformers themselves stressed their otherness from the community. MBs claimed to be the church “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph 5:27), evidenced by behaviors that separated them as “other.” Today, authoritative structures, leadership boards, the National Faith & Life Team/Board of Faith & Life (NFLT/BFL) build on tradition by employing the 1999 Confession as a standard for belonging, choosing behavioral practices as a litmus test for belonging while “othering” those who question tradition. {166}

The divide between “belonging” and “othering” threatens Canadian MB vitality. Authority figures try to practice boundary-keeping, determining who belongs. In practice, marginalized people will determine whether they identify with the church (“belong”) or have been ostracized (“othered”). In what follows I seek to offer a simple alternative to the belonging/othering tension. The alternative prioritizes belonging. Belonging (community) leads to transforming (discipleship practices of following Jesus). Transformed people inquire of the biblical text, centering in the church rather than erecting boundaries between church and world. 1

In “The Problem of Othering” published in the journal Othering and Belonging, authors john powell and Stephen Menendian declare that “The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of ‘othering,’ ” 2 which they define as “a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.” They contend further that othering “encompasses the many expressions of prejudice on the basis of group identities [and] . . . provides a clarifying frame that reveals a set of common processes and conditions that propagate group-based inequality and marginality.” 3 Othering marginalizes and discriminates against those outside the privileged power structures.

Interpreters have read the biblical book of Deuteronomy, perhaps the theological center of the Old Testament, both from an “othering” and from a “belonging” perspective. Among the texts employed to support “othering,” Deuteronomy 23:1-6 prohibits sexual and ethnic minorities from having access to the house of belonging. On the other hand, Deuteronomy 10 declares that the only thing the Lord requires is to walk in his ways (10:12-13), following the God of gods and Lord of lords who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the undocumented alien (which you were formerly; 10:17-19). Pastor and scholar, Mark R. Glanville, notes that economic practices, festival participation, and the covenant renewal ceremony itself are to include “aliens residing in your towns” (31:12) with the objective of adding them to the kindred house, the basic social structure in Israel. 4

Readers have also approached Anabaptist confessions of faith from “othering” and “belonging” perspectives. The first Anabaptist confession, composed by Michael Sattler and friends in 1525 at Schleitheim, proclaims “belonging” through believer’s baptism, leadership practices that recognize the priesthood of all believers, and rejection of violence to coerce agreement. The same confession “others” via the ban on those who violate discipline and by naming other Christians the instrument of the devil. Though Sattler composed the Schleitheim Confession to {167} proclaim faithful identity in his local context, later readers adopted the words to mark boundaries between the other and those who belong.

Readers of the 1999 MB Confession encounter the same dilemma. That confession articulates the gospel in contemporary terms, bridging from the Scriptures of the early church to its cultural context. The “belonging” reading is descriptive. Biblical terms are chosen to invite followers of Jesus to a common center that begins with a statement about the God revealed in three persons in the Bible, following the biblical narrative in which God overcomes evil through the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and lived in the church by disciples who welcome people of all nations and other faiths to communion. The “othering” reading of the 1999 Confession is prescriptive. Dissatisfied with simple biblical expression, the “othering” perspective demands clarification of such academic issues as atonement theory. The “othering” reading functions as an authoritative standard that often excludes those seeking to create “belonging” in the current cultural, ethical, and pluralistic context.

Article 1 in the 1999 Confession is entitled “God” and employs the headings “God the Father,” “God the Son,” and God the Holy Spirit.” The first article is foundational. The editors devoted roughly half their energy to the first article and the other half to the remaining seventeen articles of the Confession. As is the case with interpretation of the book of Deuteronomy, the identity of God’s people is tied to the people’s notion of God. Does God invite belonging or does the God we profess conjure up otherness?

By using patriarchal language in the headings (“Father,” “Son”) and an ungendered term in the title (“God”), the first article attempts to split the difference between othering and belonging based on gender. (The issue is addressed further in the original introduction declaring that God is neither male nor female and excusing the use of male metaphors for God when the editors were unable to avoid divine pronouns).

The use of language is illustrative of the ongoing MB struggle to find identity in relationship to the God who invites belonging, the God who comforts, seeks, and hears the prayers of all, or to identify a divinity who “others” those who use different terms and forms for the divine encounter. The God of belonging is confessed as the Father who seeks those who will worship and hears the prayers of all, the Son who invites all to be reconciled to God, and the Spirit, the Comforter, who assures God’s children of eternal life. Article 17, “Other Faiths,” created more consternation than any other article at the 1999 convention in Wichita, which accepted the Confession by acclamation. Though the “belonging” language is restrained, the article recognizes that elements of truth may {168} be found in other religions and that the fate of the unevangelized is in God’s hands. Article 18 offers “belonging” to all who confess the return of Christ but warns those who reject Christ of eternal punishment in hell forever separated from God, an “othering” image of the judgment of God.

Using the Confession to create an MB identity reveals readers’ God-concept. Those who imagine the creating and saving God as the God of hospitality and belonging will find in the Confession a congregational identity that welcomes the other. Those who invoke a God who demands othering diverse humans will use the Confession to foster an identity that ultimately rejects others.

Similarly, readers of the Confession will be led to see biblical interpretation either as a process that invites belonging by making room for diverse interpretations or as a set of unchanging truth statements that exclude the other who disagrees. As noted above, the use of biblical images and language was a deliberate move on the part of the Confession’s editors to foster belonging. Rather than narrow biblical reading tied to a single doctrinal position, the editors used biblical language to welcome diversity. Interpreters who demand endorsement of specific doctrines such as biblical inerrancy, Young Earth Creationism, penal satisfaction atonement theories, Just War theories, or dispensational theological perspectives foster “otherness” hermeneutics.

When we expand the community of hermeneutics, we broaden the diversity of voices, a positive result. However, if the national MB Church privileges traditional ethical perspectives by making them the norm, particularly on issues of human sexuality, “community hermeneutics” restricts the freedom of local hermeneutical communities, subverting the richness of diversity. Belonging is enhanced by the expansion of diversity. Othering uses privilege to exclude diversity.

Using the Confession for guidance for discipleship practices, the third lens of the study, quite patently suggests a difference between reading for belonging and reading with an otherness perspective. Centering on following Jesus and his way of peacemaking offers grace that welcomes others. Communities that pursue ethical demands that create boundaries tend to focus on specific personalized prohibitions that foster otherness.

The essay invites the readers to consider whether the church serves a God who welcomes all, a God of hospitality, a God who offers belonging to all who call on the name of the Lord, or whether the church uses the Confession as a prescriptive statement that draws boundaries between insiders and others. As noted in the summary of the study, the effectiveness of the 1999 Confession to create a welcoming identity is limited by several factors. (1) This confession was written in the 1990s, accepted in {169} 1999, and continues with relatively minor changes. The 1999 Confession was accepted less than a quarter century after the previous confessional statement (the 1975 Confession). The diverse, rapidly changing context increases the datedness of the 1999 confessional edition today. (2) This confession addresses eighteen articles, many of them unchanged from the 1902 Confession. Not only are some of the issues no longer pressing in the same manner (e.g., membership in secret societies) but new theological issues and perspectives deserve renewed study (e.g., human sexuality, climate issues). Further, the use of eighteen articles creates a complex structure that does not communicate as easily in today’s faster-paced, digital environment with people who thrive on multitasking and evidence short attention spans. Simpler forms of a confessional statement can better foster identity. (3) The diverse context in which the church ministers mitigates against the detail included previously. A simpler statement serves better by focusing primary points of agreement. (4) The current Confession is easily turned into a prescriptive boundary statement. A briefer, clear, concise statement can better invite all to the center, following Jesus.

I propose retiring the 1999 Confession and replacing it with a simple statement of faith that more closely resembles the church’s first confession, “Jesus is Lord.” Palmer Becker’s What is an Anabaptist Christian, a reworking of Harold Bender’s The Anabaptist Vision, is one example of what such a confession might entail. 5 Becker says that the church confesses simply (and memorably):

Jesus is the center of our faith.

Community is the center of our life.

Reconciliation is the center of our work.

Becker’s pamphlet offers helpful commentary that functions as a sort of catechism, developing the implications of each statement. Some small edits to the original three-fold statement could make it even more apt as an MB confession. Revising the first statement to “Following Jesus is the center of our faith” would better focus the Anabaptist emphasis on discipleship. “Spirit-inspired community is the center of our life” would better incorporate the emphasis on experiential new life. “Peacemaking is the center of our mission” might better represent the missionary quality of the MB church. The three-fold statement offers a center rather than boundaries. As such the statement emphasizes belonging rather than othering. The broader statement invites local hermeneutical communities to explore how to live into the center described here.

In this engagement with the study, I write as an outsider—as an American engaging with a Canadian MB study. As an American MB, I have been enriched by joint ministry with Canadians. As an “insider” {170} in the larger North American MB Conference that was disbanded in 2000, I was privileged to serve first as a member and later as chair of the Canadian/US Board of Faith and Life (BFL) and the Confession of Faith Task Force from 1990 to 2000. After divestiture in 2000, I served as the North American representative on the International Committee of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB) Confession of Faith Task Force. As US BFL chair, I worked in consultation with the Canadian board. Later I served as president of the MB Biblical Seminary and, for one year, as president of MBBS Canada. I have been enriched by these relationships and will always value the friends who have welcomed me.

In the US I was an insider, a graduate of Tabor College and MBBS Fresno, a short-term MB missionary in Spain from 1977 to 1980, and an MB pastor from 1980 to 1990. I was ordained in the US Southern District in 1984. Now, I write as an outsider (as one of the “casualties” named in the final page of quotations in the report). In consultation with the US MB BFL, the Pacific District Conference BFL called on me to surrender my ministry credentials in July 2021, and I did so in submission to their credentialing authority. I write with love but from an outsider’s perspective. I write prayerfully, hoping for God’s Spirit to open all of us to the hospitality of belonging. Because Jesus welcomes all to the table, so must we.


  1. I am indebted to Pastor Audrey Hindes of Willow Avenue Mennonite Church for the terms that correspond to Palmer Becker’s three centering elements of Anabaptist faith: Pastor Audrey links belong with community; inquiry with following Jesus of the Bible; transforming with reconciliation and peacemaking.
  2. john powell and Stephen Menendian, “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging,” Othering and Belonging: Expanding the Circle of Human Concern 2 (Summer 2016): 14,
  3. powell and Menendian, 17.
  4. Mark R. Glanville, Adopting the Stranger as Kindred in Deuteronomy (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2018).
  5. Palmer Becker, What is an Anabaptist Christian? (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Mission Network, 2008); Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1960 [1944]).
Lynn Jost is professor of Old Testament and director of the Center for Anabaptist Studies at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He is also moderator of the Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Fresno, California.

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