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July 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 3 · pp. 3–10 

Mennonite Brethren in Inter-Mennonite Endeavors

John A. Toews

Some of the most exciting and enriching experiences in my public ministry of more than 35 years have come to me in inter-Mennonite endeavors. As a result of frequent contacts and prolonged working-relationships with members of other Mennonite conferences I have gained a deeper appreciation not only for our common spiritual heritage, but also for our common missionary task in today’s world. My experiences last summer (1977) contributed to a growing appreciation as well as a growing vision for inter-Mennonite endeavors.

As Moderator of our General Conference, I had the privilege of attending first the biennial Conference of the Mennonite Church (O.M.) at Estes Park, Colorado, and later the triennial Conference of the General Conference Mennonites at Bluffton, Ohio, as a fraternal delegate. The experience of these conventions was not restricted to a formal contact on an “official” level; it proved to be a “fellowship in depth” with a large “company of the committed”. The concerns expressed in private discussions and in public meetings were almost identical to the concerns which have been predominant in our own brotherhood in recent years. I would have found it virtually impossible to identify issues along denominational lines. I discovered, however, that in dealing with similar issues, our brothers and sisters in these sister-denominations are exploring new and innovative approaches in finding effective solutions. Later that summer I had the opportunity to become better acquainted with another branch of the Mennonite family, the Evangelical Mennonite Conference (formerly the Kleine Gemeinde). I had been invited to speak at the retreat for ministers and their wives at Clear Lake, Manitoba. The fellowship, which culminated with an observance of Communion and Footwashing, reminded me very much of my experience in our own congregations in earlier years. {4}

My experience in inter-Mennonite endeavors, however, is not typical of the experience of Mennonite Brethren in general. Historically speaking, Mennonite Brethren have been known in the larger Mennonite brotherhood as those who have been reluctant to extend the hand of fellowship to members in other Mennonite conferences, whether it be for worship or for work. 1 (Perhaps it has been a little easier for us to engage in the latter than in the former. Why is this so?) In this article I would like to discuss briefly some persistent problems as well as some promising prospects which Mennonite Brethren face in inter-Mennonite cooperation. 2


In writing about the secession of the Mennonite Brethren from the Mennonite Church in Russia in 1860, H. S. Bender commented, “This schism caused much bitterness at the beginning, and resulted in long-continued tensions.” 3 It would almost seem that Mennonite Brethren have vested interests in the perpetuation of these tensions, even though the original causes of these tensions have long since become non-existent. What are some of the underlying factors in our reluctance to cooperate more fully in inter-Mennonite endeavors?

1. A lack of a proper historical perspective—the “grid” of 1860

It is a common human tendency to perpetuate stereotypes without subjecting these concepts to periodic review, re-examination, and revision. Our attitude towards the General Conference Mennonite Church in particular is still being influenced (perhaps subconsciously) by the painful experiences of 1860. We forget too readily that the renewal movement which began in the Mennonite Church and led to the secession of a minority group continued to influence and change the larger Mennonite body. Moreover, the present General Conference of Mennonites in North America does not have its historical roots in Russian Mennonitism of the 19th Century but is itself the result of a church movement on this continent. The “Oberholtzer Group” which seceded from the Old Franconia Conference in 1847 emphasized new life and new methods in evangelism and church growth. It was in 1860, the year that the Mennonite Brethren Church was established in Russia, that a new fellowship of believers was organized in West Point, Iowa, which today is known as the General Conference Mennonite Church. I believe it is an objective observation that most of the General Conference Mennonite churches of today are much closer in spirit and practice to the Mennonite Brethren of 1860 then to the Mennonite Church (in Russia) of 1860. A basic re-orientation on this point is long over-due and will certainly promote better relations in inter-Mennonite endeavors.

2. A lack of a first-hand knowledge of other Mennonite groups

Most of our members have a limited and a very superficial {5} knowledge of the faith and practice of other Mennonite conferences in North America. Ignorance often breeds prejudice. Acquaintance with one local congregation may not provide a proper basis for an assessment of an entire conference. Our emphasis on “separation” from the world has in many instances deteriorated into an isolation from other Christians, especially Mennonite Christians. In their historical profile of the Mennonite Brethren, Kauffman and Harder made the following observation: “The tendency to withdraw from other Mennonite groups is characteristic of M.B.’s throughout North America.” 4 The result of this policy of withdrawal is manifested in our restricted or distorted views with regard to beliefs and practices in other conferences. When some years ago the question of the admission of non-immersed members was under review in one of our congregations, it came as a complete surprise to many members when I pointed out that other Mennonite conferences also have Biblical and theological reasons for their mode of baptism, whether it be pouring or sprinkling. One brother told me later that he had always thought that other Mennonites were conditioned in their practice only by tradition and not by Biblical teaching.

Closely related to the above is a feeling of insecurity. There is a hidden fear that a closer contact with other Mennonite groups will weaken our Church. Kauffman and Harder quote a Winnipeg pastor as follows: “. . . a strange fear grips the M.B.’s when the question of alignment with other Mennonites comes up. We seem to be afraid of being swallowed up or dominated by other Mennonite groups, thereby losing our doctrinal identity. Once we walked out of the Mennonite Church; we do not want to return.” 5 In this area it is also true that a better knowledge, based on intimate fellowship, will lead to greater acceptance and appreciation.

3. A lack of true humility

One of the greatest temptations facing evangelical orthodoxy at any time is spiritual pride. This temptation is especially great for new life and church renewal movements. Some time ago a former student, a member of the Baptist Church, did research on the effects of a renewal movement in one of their local Baptist congregations. He made the rather startling discovery that many of the long-range effects of that “revival” were quite negative and unwholesome for the subsequent growth of that congregation. The chief problem appeared to be a spirit of spiritual complacency and pride. The renewal experience seemed to set the congregation apart and above other congregations, and this made both further outreach as well as cooperation with others more difficult.

P. M. Friesen encountered such a spirit of pride among the members of the early Mennonite Brethren church. When he was {6} commissioned to write the history of the Mennonite Brethren, a member (who, Friesen feels, represented the thinking of many) accosted him and said: “So, you will write our history now and prove conclusively that we have the absolutely right [faith] and that the cause of the church [Mennonite Church] amounts to nothing.” 6

Friesen categorically rejected such a partisan approach and constantly reminded his readers that there was much genuine Christianity to be found in the old Church and that the new movement also suffered from various imperfections.

We are grateful for the new spirit that has come to characterize Mennonite Brethren in inter-Mennonite relations in recent years. In response to a communication from both the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church with regard to closer cooperation and greater unity in the Mennonite brotherhood, the Board of Reference and Counsel of our Conference makes the following admission: “We are also aware that, more often than we realize, we as Mennonite Brethren have failed to express in Christlike attitudes and actions our professed desires for love and unity.” 7 This is a part of a longer statement which the Conference approved in its sessions at Corn, Oklahoma, in 1966.

After this rather brief and sketchy treatment of some of our problems in inter-Mennonite endeavors, I now would like to turn to several exciting and significant prospects for our Brotherhood in this area. (My assignment restricted this essay to inter-Mennonite endeavors. There are also many exciting developments in inter-Church relations in general).


It might be well to remind ourselves of the constantly increasing scope of Mennonite Brethren involvement in inter-Mennonite endeavors. The earliest, and perhaps the most significant on the North-American level, is the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) organized in 1920. P. C. Hiebert, Mennonite Brethren educator and leader, played a key role in the founding and expansion of this relief and service agency, serving as its chairman for thirty-three years. In addition to the major MCC programs (or “sections”) there are a number of subsidiary or related organizations operating under the MCC umbrella. Many people around the world, Mennonites and non-Mennonites, have been helped by the ministry of MCC in one form or another.

The second inter-Mennonite endeavor of world-wide significance, the Mennonite World Conference, was founded in 1925 when a relatively small group of European Mennonites (with only one representative from North America) met in Basel, Switzerland, to {7} observe the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Anabaptist movement. Since then this inter-Mennonite fellowship has grown to include Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Conferences from forty different countries around the world. For the Tenth Assembly in Wichita, Kansas (July 25-30, 1978), approximately 5,000 delegates and visitors are expected, with attendance increasing to 15,000 at weekend Mass-meetings. It promises to be a most meaningful experience in inter-Mennonite worship, fellowship, and interaction.

Aside from many working-relationships established on local and regional levels, there are several organizations on a continental level. There is, for instance, the Council of Moderators and Secretaries, representing Mennonite and Brethren in Christ conferences in North America. Another organization which has promoted cooperation and coordination of missionary endeavors among these conferences is the Council of Mission Board Secretaries (C.O.M.B.S.), which meets regularly for consultation. Of what significance are the above inter-Mennonite organizations and agencies for the faith and life of the Mennonite Brethren? Permit me to suggest three broad areas;

1. The Preservation of a Common Heritage

The Mennonite Brethren with the other denominations in the larger Mennonite brotherhood, are the spiritual heirs of the sixteenth century Anabaptists. The “Anabaptist Vision” understood the church to be a covenant community of believers, emphasized discipleship as constituting the essence of the Christian life, and focused the missionary task of the church to encompass both the message and the ministry of reconciliation. All this and much more belongs to our common spiritual heritage. This heritage is in grave danger of being lost among Mennonite Brethren. More than most other heirs of the early Anabaptists, Mennonite Brethren have been exposed in their theological pilgrimage to various “winds of doctrine.” Readiness to change and openness to new ideas can be a great asset in the development of a religious movement; but this same attitude can become a serious liability when, under societal pressures a group accepts conventional patterns of thought and life without testing them against biblical norms and the tried and proven values of its own spiritual heritage.

Inter-Mennonite relationships have been a great help to us in the rediscovering and strengthening of many aspects of our spiritual heritage. As a young man I discovered the Biblical principles of peace and non-resistance in the writings of men like John Horsch and H.S. Bender. This was of great significance for me and for hundreds of other young men during World War II, when our peace position came under close scrutiny and severe attack. As Mennonite Brethren we {8} owe a debt of gratitude to brethren in the other Mennonite bodies who, through their lectures and their literature, have assisted us to rediscover our historical theological roots and who have encouraged us to strengthen the “things which remain” and which might have died without this inspiration and guidance. Humbly and gratefully we also acknowledge that other Mennonite groups have been inspired to greater zeal in evangelism and missions by the Mennonite Brethren. 8 One of the great benefits derived from inter-Mennonite endeavors is the mutual stimulation in the preservation and “up-dating” of our spiritual heritage.

Given the tremendous pressures—social, economic, political, cultural, and religious—which in many instances tend to weaken or even destroy our Anabaptist distinctives (which to me represent clear Biblical teachings), this preservation of our spiritual heritage should be a matter of serious concern and united action. Here too it applies: United we stand, divided we fall. Cooperative endeavors on a seminary and college level can significantly contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of our heritage and assist Mennonite Brethren in their search for identity, an identity as an Evangelical-Anabaptist community of believers.

2. The Propagation of a Common Faith

The Kauffman-Harder study of the belief and doctrine of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches revealed that the members of the five groups scored high in general orthodoxy. Although there are some differences in belief and practice, these differences are found to be as great or even greater within each group as among the various participating churches. The main denominator in our common faith is the confession of Christ’s lordship. “Jesus Christ is Lord” was the confession of the early Church. This implies an acceptance of Christ’s deity, of Christ’s redemption, of Christ’s teaching, of Christ’s rule over all of life.

Mennonite Brethren, in my humble judgement, will in the future be able to make their greatest contribution to the cause of Christ in inter-Mennonite endeavors. Some of us have seen the impact of the ministry of MCC in many countries of the world. This witness “in the Name of Christ” in word and deed has touched virtually millions of lives. In many instances this “Christian resource to meet human need” has prepared the way for evangelism and church planting. The close cooperation of MCC with C.O.M.B.S. in recent years promotes such a united witness even more effectively. But more and bolder steps are perhaps called for in the propagation of our common faith in these “last days” of our age. Beginnings in this direction have been made in Paraguay, in Indonesia, in Africa, and in Bangladesh. Would it not be possible to launch a united “Anabaptist Mission” in new areas? Myron {9} Augsburger, convention speaker at the Canadian Conference in Waterloo, Ontario, last year shared his dream of abolishing all mission headquarters in North America and establishing a centre for world missions in a city like Nairobi, Kenya, in which all Mennonite conferences would participate!

Another advantage of an inter-Mennonite endeavor in missions would be the elimination of denominational barriers that continue to separate Anabaptist Mennonite churches in the Third World. Why should we perpetuate divisions which had their historical roots in Europe or America among the younger churches? Are we prepared to give up some “vested interests” for the greater good and unity of our churches in Africa, Asia, and South-America? It would certainly be in keeping with our Lord’s prayer in John 17.

3. The Promotion of a World-Wide Brotherhood

The Mennonite World Conference is an inter-Mennonite endeavor which opens up exciting prospects for all participating groups. It enables us to see the Gospel as the Good News which transcends all ethnic and cultural barriers. It provides opportunities for fellowship and dialogue with like-minded believers from many countries. Here Christians from the older and younger churches meet on a fraternal basis, a basis of equality.

Personally, I am not in favor of a Mennonite Brethren World Conference, since it could easily perpetuate the relationship of paternalism established during the “missions era.” A separate Mennonite Brethren World Conference would also affect, negatively, the inter-Mennonite conferences which have been established on a national or regional level in a number of areas in recent years. Let us join wholeheartedly in the promotion of the larger brotherhood in which we can make a vital contribution. After the Fifth Mennonite World Conference the late H.S. Bender expressed his appreciation for Mennonite Brethren participation in that assembly as follows: “Your contribution as Mennonite Brethren has been far greater than your representation would indicate.”

Through the years of my involvement in inter-Mennonite endeavors I have found that Mennonite Brethren are accepted and appreciated by the other groups. I have also observed that constructive criticism is graciously received and carefully considered. Let us enter more fully into the privileges and responsibilities which the Lord has provided for us in inter-Mennonite endeavors on a local, regional, national, and international level—for the glory of His Name and the extension of His Kingdom. {10}


  1. See H. S. Bender, “Inter-Mennonite Relations,” Mennonite Encyclopedia (Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955-59), vol. III, p. 44 ff.
  2. For a comprehensive account of the involvement of Mennonite Brethren in inter-Mennonite agencies and organizations, see J. A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Fresno, Calif.: Board of Christian Literature, 1975), p. 380-399.
  3. H. S. Bender, “Inter-Mennonite Relations,” ME, p. 45.
  4. J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1975), p. 183.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruederschaft in Russland (1789-1910) (Raduga: 1911), p. iii. See now P. M. Friesen: The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (Fresno, Calif.: Board of Christian Literature, 1978), p. xxvii.
  7. Yearbook (General Conference, 1966), p. 33.
  8. Cf. Gerhard Lohrenz in A Legacy of Faith (Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1962), p. 183.
John A. Toews is Professor of History and Bible at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg. He is currently Moderator of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. He is author of A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (1975).

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