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October 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 4 · pp. 12–21 

Future Options for Mennonite Brethren Higher Education

Calvin Redekop

Private higher education in North America is facing serious problems. The same can be said for church-related higher education. In the light of increasing costs and declining student population church-related higher education is facing its greatest challenge; many colleges may die in spite of heroic efforts. In this paper, I will present some data that is significant for the determination of options. Then I propose to present several options and conclude with some personal evaluations.


The Mennonite Brethren Conference is young, but its involvements in higher education began early. As early as 1884 efforts were made to establish a place for Mennonite Brethren youth to study. 1 So after only twenty five years of existence, members of the conference were planning church related higher education. There was considerable variation in opinion regarding the shape and control of higher education. 2

Not only was the conference young, but it was also small and scattered. It appears there were about 3,000 Mennonite Brethren at the time Tabor College was established, concentrated mostly in the Southern District. 3 The population was augmented by later migrations to Canada. Even though the Mennonite Brethren conference has been relatively small, it intended to have its own higher education program.

Thus the conference has promoted higher education with a minimum of supporting constituency in terms of people, financial resources and students.

Higher education in the Mennonite Brethren conference has further been directed independently of sister institutions or conferences. {13} This has meant the development of a strong self-conscious determination to forge a unique path. Loyalties and identifications have developed, often with intense emotional underpinnings, which sometimes may have outdistanced objective reality.

Demographically the U.S. Mennonite Brethren Church consists of 15,977 members (1977 census) with 386 Mennonite Brethren students attending Tabor and Fresno Pacific Colleges. 4 Projections indicate that in 1988 only 240 Mennonite Brethren youth will be graduating from high school and will be available to attend Mennonite Brethren colleges, although no guarantee exists that they will attend either of the colleges. By 1989 a 37% drop from the number of students at the colleges today is indicated. Even using a 300 student number, it is clear that if each college is to receive half of the potential students, it would mean an enrolment of 150 Mennonite Brethren freshmen students per college in the year 1985.

The financial base of the schools is another consideration which influences future planning. The total giving for higher education among U.S. Mennonite Brethren has grown from $177,324 in 1966 to $340,557 in 1976, while the gifts per member have increased from $12.89 to $21.31. 5 This represents official conference giving, which at present is less than ten percent of the total college budgets. Dalton Reimer suggests that using present proportions of non-tuition income required to operate the schools, which amounts to just around $1,000 per student, and assuming 900 students, a total subsidy of $900,000 to $1,000,000 per year will be required in the immediate future. Excluding Mennonite Brethren alumni giving, government grants and endowment income, the money will need to come from the Mennonite Brethren membership. 6

According to Kauffman and Harder, the income levels of the Mennonite Brethren are similar to other Mennonite groups, and not much different from the United States profile. Stated differently, Mennonite Brethren are not unusually wealthy, so the cost of education will be felt as or more heavily by Mennonite Brethren, than by people of other denominations. While Mennonite Brethren are second highest among Mennonites in their support of church-related education 7 seventy percent of Mennonite Brethren surveyed indicated that in spite of increased costs, church-related colleges should be maintained. Only 4% felt that the colleges should be closed. Whether the results of this study reflect a reservoir of good will which can be depended upon for increased massive support, or a near-maximum level of support remains to be seen.

One more significant factor bearing directly on the operation of the schools is the divergent theological orientation of the conference. In a chapter entitled “Mennonite Brethren Identity and Theological {14} Diversity” J. B. Toews states, “the influences that have affected Mennonite Brethren thought are numerous.” Toews maintains that the cohesive factor amidst “these divergent currents has been scriptural anabaptism.” 8 The theological stance of the conference at large is crucial in the purposes and operation of the schools and if there is a lack of clarity in the conference, it will be reflected in the colleges.


Although models may obscure much variation and detail and many subtleties they are rather useful. Each model proposed has considerable logic to recommend it, and since all three models are represented in present institutions, the solution may need to be something of a compromise.

A. The Bible College model. Mennonite Brethren have historically seen themselves as biblical. J. A. Toews lists “Practical Biblicism” as the first of a number of “Distinctives of Mennonite Brethren Theology.” 9 J. B. Toews states that “this scriptocentric position of the Mennonite Brethren has been a directive for their pilgrimage of faith and life in Russia and North America.” 10 The Bible School movement among Mennonite Brethren, especially in Canada, serves a strong need in the brotherhood. Mennonite Brethren Bible College is a variant of this tradition. Using the institutional analysis, the following case can be made for Bible Colleges:

1. Objectives. Since the Mennonite Brethren are biblically oriented the Bible college serves the purpose of training members of the church in the fundamental biblical convictions which allow the church to stand true to scriptural authority and to order its life and witness on solid faith. 11 The problem with this proposition is that the Mennonite Brethren Church is no longer monolithic, and a “naive biblicism” is no longer adequate for the tremendously diverse membership. Only a strata of the Mennonite Brethren feel that the Bible college is adequate.

2. Personnel. The people who attend the Bible colleges want a course in biblical training so they can better live as Christians in their chosen occupation, want to “update” their understanding of the Christian faith, or want to prepare for a “full time” Christian ministry in some form.

3. Resources. As is indicated in the description by J. A. Toews, Bible Institutes/Colleges tend to be ecumenical and derive support from many sources. The denominational emphasis is played down and “mainstream” theological hermeneutics are utilized. Financial support for the Bible Institute/College model is not necessarily {15} denominationally or conference based, but rather based on a generalized piety and religious fervor.

4. Faculty. Competency in this model is based upon the amount of biblical training and its soundness. The former means adequate understanding of the biblical languages, the various fields of biblical content and scholarship. The “soundness” is determined in general by choosing one of the competing “schools” of interpretation. Which “school” is considered sound becomes largely a matter of personal preference of the seminaries at which the majority of faculty have attended. A conference like the Mennonite Brethren would be hard put to decide which emphasis should be promoted unless there were to be a clear directive from the membership, but pluralism within the membership makes that difficult.

B. The Christian Liberal Arts Model. In a speech which has come to characterize the reasons for the founding of Tabor College, H. W. Lohrenz stated that “Tabor College was founded to make the benefits of a liberal education available to the youth of our people.” 12 Lohrenz continues,

. . . it was not the aim of the founders of this institution just to provide an opportunity for acquiring an education. Such opportunities can be found everywhere. It was very definitely the purpose of the founders to provide an educational environment in which the youth of our people would be safe from the dangers that threaten their faith and their virtue at many places. 13

Although I will argue that Lohrenz was really proposing a new model, his statements have been interpreted to mean that Tabor was to be a Christian liberal arts college—a college in which the liberal arts learning would be promoted, but with a Christian flavor and in a Christian context. This model proposes a “Wheaton of the Midwest”, or as has been envisioned for Tabor, the “best evangelical college in the midwest.”

1. Purposes of “Midwest Wheaton.” Mennonite Brethren, like many other Christian groups, have attempted to integrate secular learning and the biblical faith. The secularization of many Christian liberal arts colleges notwithstanding, some Mennonite Brethren have assumed it is possible to “Christianize the culture” or integrate secular/humanistic and biblical/Christian knowledge. The purpose of the “Midwest Wheaton” is to train young people for the professions and vocations, so that they may be the best possible Christians in the various vocations, and witness to the Christian faith in all walks of life.

The extent of the contradiction in the “Christian liberal arts model” depends on the degree to which “liberal arts” is interpreted in the traditional way. If liberal arts is interpreted as it normally is—the {16} humane learning, the humanistic learning, the “open search for truth”, then this is clearly a contradiction to the “dogma” that most Christian groups hold. C. Norman Kraus sums up the discussion as follows:

Any attempt at the present to refurbish the idea of a Christianized liberal arts as the fundamental plank in the platform of church colleges seems doomed to failure. With the steady erosion of secularism in the national culture and the development of a genuinely pluralistic society it has become clear that a “Christian civilization”—the ground of the ‘Christian liberal arts’—is a myth which no longer has justification, if, indeed, it ever had it. It now appears that Christian liberal arts is a hybrid which is unable to reproduce itself in a free society. 14

A “Christian liberal arts” school is probably a chimera, and if it is attempted, results either in sloughing off the reality of the “liberal arts” orientation and commitment or the authority of the “faith once delivered”. The two Weltanschauungen are incompatible. But the dream is still there, and the successes of the Wheatons, Biolas, etc., are there to encourage us to adopt this model. But the hidden questions must still be answered. Is the “Christian Liberal Arts” not really a thickly veiled rhetoric for a basic acceptance and blessing of secular society—a value system which supports the “kingdom of this world”? That this may well be the case is the more recent general recognition that true liberal arts cannot be value free. If this is true, then the question becomes—to which value system have the various “Christian liberal arts colleges” been committed? Christian traditions which hold to a dualism, as evangelical traditions do, cannot avoid the conflict of the secular and the sacred, and will need to reject secular learning as normative.

2. Personnel. As in the Bible College model, students bound for Christian liberal arts colleges would come from a wide spectrum of homes. Mennonite Brethren families would supply young people, especially those families who are in the process of estrangement from the conference. Non-denominational congregations, and a host of “evangelical” groups could be counted on to supply students. The nature of the “constituency” with reference to students and support would depend largely upon “marketing.”

3. Resources. For the purpose of evaluation, let us assume that “Christian liberal arts” college is a viable model. What resources are available? Many, and offered with enthusiasm! The cause of an “evangelical Christian college” warms the hearts of most believing Christians, and Oral Roberts University, Biola, and Wheaton College are good examples. With mass media appeals, money flows in. The reason for support is not denominational allegiance, but rather is due to a generalized piety. For the members of the Mennonite Brethren {17} conference, who are being alienated from the conference and its “tradition”, an evangelical label evokes stronger support than a Mennonite one. Furthermore, there are always members of other denominations who experience the same process of alienation from their denominations and who are ready to support sound, Bible-believing, Christian, liberal arts colleges wherever they may be found. The crucial variable becomes marketing—presenting a package which attracts money in the competitive market place.

4. Faculty. Faculty members would need to be competently trained persons in the various disciplines, with doctoral degrees from leading universities. They would need to have a clearly Christian commitment. They would be expected to hold the assumption that there is no inherent conflict between the Christian faith and the secular and humane learning (no conflict between a transcendent and an empiricist paradigm of knowing), and that one can witness to the Christian faith by pursuing the vocational and occupational structures of the society, while stressing the higher significance of “full time Christian service”.

The Christian liberal arts ideal is a very attractive dream, and it cannot be ignored. Simply because it has not succeeded in the long run is no sign that it does not have validity. But whether it is a reasonable option for Mennonite Brethren depends upon the significance members place on the role of the church and the concept of “peoplehood”.

C. A Christian Peoplehood College. As quoted earlier, Lohrenz stated that Tabor College was founded not to provide a liberal arts education “in general”, but a liberal education (not liberal arts!) for the “youth of our people” in which they would not lose their faith—the faith that the “people” had experienced. Among some Mennonite Brethren, there is the increasing recognition that the Christian faith is not of one piece, that there are various biblical faiths or streams, (as the controversy over eschatology is now indicating). There is no “biblicism” in general, no “evangelical faith”, unless one accepts a watered down Gospel which can sum up the Gospel in a few laws or principles.

Mennonite Brethren are accepting the fact that there are traditions, and if one leaves “Mennonite Brethrenism” behind and joins the Baptist, he is exchanging one “tradition” for another. Using the Bible as a touchstone to judge which tradition is best involves a circular reasoning process which finally ends in hopeless subjectivism. Increasingly, Mennonite Brethren and others are coming to the conclusion that God has spoken objectively through the development of “Peoples” which represent a response to biblical revelation through historical experiences with God’s forgiveness and guidance. There is {18} hence a wisdom in the traditional Roman Catholic belief that the Church is one of the channels of God’s revelation, even through we may disagree on the specific content of that tradition. (The Roman Church itself admits that institutionalism has obscured God’s revelation at times.) 15

1. Purposes. The purpose of the Christian Peoplehood College would not be to provide secular humanistic knowledge. As Lohrenz intimated, “. . . it was not the aim of the founders of this institution just to provide an opportunity for acquiring an education. Such opportunities can be found everywhere. It was very definitely the purpose of the founders to provide an educational environment in which the youth of our people would be safe from the dangers that threaten their faith and their virtue at many places.” 16 He is talking about peoplehood education, and he is disavowing the college as a “mission” field. The purpose of this model is to: a) transmit the “eternal verities of God’s Word”; b) study and transmit the teaching and experience of discipleship of the people of God (“The institution must watch over the social and ethical life of its constituency in order to preserve the high ideals of purity and simplicity . . .”); 17 c) provide trained institutional, congregational, outreach, and mission leadership for the churches; and d) provide an opportunity for the prophetic voice to be heard among God’s people. The argument for the prophetic role of the Peoplehood college rests on the fact that reflection on God’s word and will in a more objective setting allows the prophet to understand and speak without being unduly influenced by the status quo or traditional beliefs.

2. Personnel. “Students” for this type of higher education would not necessarily be aspirants for a degree. They would be people interested in learning the unique understanding of the Christian faith as revealed through a peoplehood tradition, and would include persons at mid-career, persons who might change occupations or go into more directly church-related ministries, retirees who are interested in upgrading for voluntary service, etc. Clearly, the material would be more “general education” designed to help the individuals achieve their commitment to the church.

3. Resources. The Peoplehood Christian College would mean less financial cost to the conference, because enrollments would be lower, since those persons interested in a secular liberal arts course could get one cheaper at most state universities. Those who would like a “Christian liberal arts” program of studies could have their choice of many fine institutions—being aware of course that this option means a substitution of the “peoplehood” dimension of faith by a generalized civil piety. With the smaller student body and more restricted curriculum, there would be fewer faculty. The college should be {19} located close to a secular university, eliminating the need for a full complement of liberal arts departments. One of the continuing difficulties of small “Christian liberal arts” colleges is the inability to provide the full gamut of liberal arts courses, and hence the competition with the larger university. Funding for the Peoplehood College would be on a conference-level basis, as part of the church’s commitment to its united witness.

4. Faculty. A peoplehood college faculty would not be trained at secular universities, which training brings with it an ultimate commitment to the value orientation of the discipline. 18 The faculty would consist of persons of various ages, training and experience in the work of the church, such as ministers, missionaries, professors and teachers, farmers and lay people with varied experiences. An exchange system might be worked out with various institutions such as mission boards and congregations, minimizing cash outlays. For example, a congregation could loan its minister for a semester in exchange for an “intern” who is testing his interests in the ministry.


In a May 4 speech at Tabor College, Chad Litz stated that “the halcyon days of higher education in America are over.” 19 He continued by saying that the church-related college is facing possibly even more distressful times, and suggests that such colleges “have no firm base of commitment on which to make policy decisions. Considering the current educational ambience, the prospects for institutions without a clearly stated reason for being are dim. If there is nothing to hold an institution together, then it will in all probability collapse.” 20 Litz suggests that the church related college has two options; 1) “become a non-faith affirming college” (and die) or 2) adopt a thorough-going Christian philosophy of higher education (and thrive). “It must either be committed to Christianity or it must be secular.” 21

If Litz is correct, and I think he is, then Mennonite Brethren concerned about higher education have a serious question on their hands:—what is a higher education “committed to Christianity”? The brief description provided in the first section characterizes the Mennonite Brethren as a small, isolated, pluralistic group assimilated to general American values, and economically average. It is clear that such a conference cannot sponsor a standard “liberal arts” college. With modest resources, and few students in the “liberal arts” sector, it seems reasonable for our conference to opt for a college based on the peoplehood model. “Vocationalism and narrow specialization cannot fulfill the important cultural mission of Christian higher education, and this should be minimized” is the way Litz views the purpose of Church related higher education. 22 {20}

Although the models presented above could probably not be fully realized even under the most favorable conditions, some element of choice is open to Mennonite Brethren. It is my judgement that the Christian liberal arts college model is least consistent with biblical Anabaptism. It is also my judgement that the Bible College model is more consistent with the basic Mennonite Brethren emphases on biblicism and Anabaptist identity. The “satellite college idea”, such as is emerging at Winnipeg between Mennonite Brethren Bible College and the University of Winnipeg, is in many respects very close to option three, the model which I personally favor.

A Peoplehood College would need to be structured and operated differently than Mennonite Brethren institutions of higher education are at present. Currently the colleges are run by institutional boards, each of which is basically concerned about promoting the life and growth of the particular college. These boards, selected by the college administrations, approved by the respective boards, and then appointed by the Board of Education, have functioned basically as self-perpetuating boards, with relatively little accountability to the congregations. A truly “conference” school would be more directly responsible to the congregations, both for direction and for support. The Peoplehood College would be more free to be in open and creative dialogue with the congregations regarding the prophetic aspects of the Christian faith.

Christian higher education reflects a church’s attempt to be faithful to its mandate from Jesus Christ. A creative interaction is needed between that church’s beliefs and its educational ventures. Without a carefully reasoned and well articulated statement of purpose on the part of the conference/denomination, Christian higher education is meaningless.


  1. See A. E. Janzen, A History of Tabor College (Hillsboro, Ks.: MB Publishing House, 1958), p. 24.
  2. See J. A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Fresno: Board of Christian Literature, 1975), pp. 268-269; and Janzen, History of Tabor, pp. 24-38.
  3. Toews, History, p. 203.
  4. Joel Wiebe, ed., “Study Commission, Board of Education, Interim Report,” (February, 1978), p. 12.
  5. Ibid., p. 36. {21}
  6. See Dalton Reimer, “Financing Mennonite Brethren Higher Education—A Study Paper,” prepared for the US MB Board of Higher Education, February, 1976.
  7. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1975), p. 229.
  8. J. B. Toews, “Mennonite Brethren Identity and Theological Diversity,” Pilgrims and Strangers, Paul Toews, ed. (Fresno: Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1977), p. 134.
  9. Toews, History, p. 367.
  10. Toews, “Mennonite Brethren Identity,” p. 133.
  11. See Abe Dueck, “Working Paper on a Philosophy of Education at MBBC,” (Unpublished paper, September, 1976). Ed. note: a revised and shortened version of this paper appears in this issue of Direction.
  12. H. W. Lohrenz, “The Early Aims of Tabor College,” published in Your School (April 19, 1945), p. 6.
  13. Ibid., p. 7.
  14. “An Historical Critique of Church Colleges in the United States,” (Unpublished paper, n.d.), pp. 9-10.
  15. See William Durland, No King But Caesar? (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1975).
  16. Lohrenz, “Early Aims of Tabor”, p. 7. Underlining is mine.
  17. Ibid., p. 8.
  18. It is my considered judgment that most of our Christian college teachers are basically committed to the paradigms of their particular disciplines, and entertain at the same time a traditional Christian faith. But if and when the two conflict, they opt for the former.
  19. Chad Litz, “The Future of the Church-related College,” Unpublished paper, (1978), p. 1.
  20. Ibid., p. 2.
  21. Ibid., p. 2.
  22. Ibid., p. 7.
Calvin Redekop is a long-time Mennonite educator and former Vice President of Tabor College. He currently serves as co-executive secretary of MIBA.

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