Previous | Next

October 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 4 · pp. 3–11 

Mennonite Brethren Higher Education: Reflections and Observations

J. B. Toews


Mennonite Brethren higher education is deeply imbedded in the tenets of the Church’s life and faith. It was founded on the world view of two kingdoms with an emphasis on separation from the world. The character of Mennonite Brethren education in the past was strongly influenced by this principle of faith, as the early statements of objectives indicate. P. C. Hiebert said it well to the Conference in 1909, “let us build a school in which our youth may study and where it will not be alienated from our churches.” His concern was further underlined by A. Schellenberg’s assertion in 1912, “if we wish our young people to be brought up in the tradition of a church, we must have a school here in America, for the influence of the public schools is simply to produce good citizens and the deeper spiritual development is unimportant to them.” 1 H. D. Wiebe spoke in similar terms in 1933 when he defined the purpose of Tabor College as shaping “the unity of spiritual growth of our Conference and accomplishing the objectives of our heritage.” 2 Similarly, H. W. Lohrenz, pioneer leader in Mennonite Brethren education, identified the central mission of higher education in terms of service to the Mennonite Brethren brotherhood. In a pamphlet entitled “The Early Aims of Tabor College” he states that

Tabor College was founded to provide trained leadership for the churches that support the school. . . . Those who are entrusted with the administration of the school never thought of it merely as an institution for secular training. The preparation of young men and women for spiritual leadership was always uppermost in their {4} minds. . . . It is not enough to simply have trained leaders. The question is, what direction do they lead the people? Wither are we as a church or denomination going? Is there unity of aim? . . . The greater the variety of schools to which our young people go, the greater will be the difficulty of maintaining unity of aim and spirit in our churches. If we do not achieve unity of spirit in our leadership, how can we have unity in our churches? 3

The vision of the early leaders of Mennonite Brethren higher education focused on the need of the believing community. The preparation of leadership for the church and the unity of the church was their first goal. The introduction of higher education for the youth of the church was never an end in itself. The central objective was leadership to unify the brotherhood and to educate in the Mennonite Brethren understanding of the Scriptures, life and faith.

The concern for a distinctly church college was stated again clearly during the Conference of 1933. That was a critical conference for Mennonite Brethren higher education. It resulted in the closing of Tabor College for one year and its transfer to the General Conference. The mission for the future was defined clearly: “an institution for the training of Christian teachers is something good, a Bible school for the training of the future workers of the church is an urgent necessity.” 4


Official statements of aim and purpose since 1933 have not varied significantly from the above. The more crucial issue has been the model for fulfilling the objectives and the location of conference schools.

The transfer of Tabor College from an institution run by a private association to a General Conference school was accomplished between 1934-36. The report to the Conference of 1936 expressed deep concern about the lack of unity regarding this decision. “Not all the churches participated in voting on the referendum,” it states, “and in some of the churches which participated only part of the congregation voted. The rest abstained.” 5 The fact is that less than 25% of the church members in North America at that time participated in the vote for or against the referendum. 6 Two district conferences voted against the proposal; one district approved it narrowly with the required two-thirds vote; and only the Southern District voted strongly in favor. 7 The implications of such a decision-making process may account for the periodic crises in confidence and support that have characterized the General Conference and later the U.S. Conference liberal arts program of higher education.

The strong emphasis on Bible school education in the constituency {5} raised question in many minds about the need for a liberal arts college. During my travels in the constituency at that time I found many people asking, “is not the Bible school the more important mission of the church?” Others asked if Tabor College could provide a strong program in both liberal arts and Bible instruction which would focus on the training of future workers for the church.

The needs of the brotherhood were not met by Tabor College in Hillsboro resulting in the founding in 1944 of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg and Pacific Bible Institute in Fresno. These developments led further to the establishment of the College of the Bible at Tabor with the attempt to combine a theological seminary and a liberal arts program in one institution.

All attempts at unification thereafter failed. The Canadian brotherhood felt it needed a different program and cultural environment for the training of its leadership than could be provided in Hillsboro. Representatives from Canada and the U.S. met in Minneapolis in February, 1946, to review the possibility of unifying the educational program of the brotherhood. The question of location was a central point of that discussion. An agreement to coordinate curriculum and standards of conduct was the most that could be agreed upon. 8 The Canadian Conference finally withdrew from the General Conference educational program in 1954 and vigorously funneled its support to the Bible College in Winnipeg.

Following 1954 the search for a unified educational program continued in the U.S. Conference. The need for a unified program which would serve the entire U.S. Conference was stated clearly in a joint meeting of the Boards and administrators of Tabor College, Pacific Bible Institute and the General Conference executive on August 24, 25, 1954. The joint statement of this meeting reads as follows:

it was generally conceded by the joint committees that: (1) each area (the west and the mid-west) needed at least a junior college. (2) We were all agreed (“willenlos”) to make any change that would help the whole Conference educational situation. (3) That we work towards the unification of the two schools under one Board. (4) The upper level work perhaps has better possibilities for survival and student enrollment on the West Coast. . . . 9

The joint statement went on to note the unity of purpose which prevailed at the meetings and the unselfishness of the respective institutional representatives. “We felt that this was definitely the moving of the Holy Spirit,” it concluded, “working for the unification of the effort of our Conference.” 10

The spirit of unity and cooperation that characterized the joint meeting of August 24 and 25 was destroyed during the sessions of the {6} General Conference. The critical issue was the location question. The Board of Education recommended that “the Conference in this session give definitive direction regarding the location of a four-year liberal arts college.” 11 The options presented were “whether the four-year liberal arts college remain in Hillsboro or be moved to the West Coast.” Following long and difficult deliberations the recommendation was defeated. It was evident that the recommendation was rejected by certain groups in the brotherhood that were unwilling to yield on the question of location.”

The newly elected Board of 1954 was charged with the responsibility of providing a unified educational program for the U.S. Conference. It sought to structure such a program by continuing Tabor College in Hillsboro as a four-year college, by continuing the Bible Institute in Fresno with the provisional addition of a junior college, and the provisional establishment of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, also in Fresno. The record of the past 25 years indicates that this solution, which had to be adopted because of a disparate regional approach to the question of a central program and location, has not brought about a permanent solution. Economic resources have proven insufficient for such an ambitious program. Qualified Mennonite Brethren faculty and students also have proven too limited.

The minutes of the Board of Education from 1954 to 1978 reflect a predominant preoccupation with questions of operation. The Board has struggled with the means to support the 1954 program. Only occasionally have the deliberations focused on purpose and mission.

The Church’s historic commitment to biblical instruction for the preparation of church leadership emerged again at the U.S. Area Conference in Dallas, Oregon, in 1965. That conference ruled that the Seminary, which had operated on a provisional basis from 1955-65, be established as a permanent institution for the training of leadership. Therefore, the separate incorporation of the Seminary was ordered. 12 A further endorsement of the priority of training church leadership came in the Board of Education’s decision to give the Seminary priority over the colleges in subsidy distribution.

It is important to observe that in the concern to establish a General Conference seminary the question of location was again raised. Both the U.S. and Canadian leadership responded to this issue by asserting that it was not a principle question in the decision-making process for or against a joint seminary. A joint seminary for the Mennonite Brethren Church may not have been established except for the wisdom of the leadership to focus on the question of mission rather than location. The establishment of a General Conference seminary is testimony of the church’s ability to rise above the question of regional preferences. When a vision for the mission of the church {7} supersedes provincial interests the Mennonite Brethren Church can act with unity and purpose.


The U.S. brotherhood again finds itself at an important crossroad on the question of Christian higher education. Several issues are at stake.

One of the most important issues is the question of mission. When responsibility for leadership training was assigned to the seminary, some modification occurred in the mission of the colleges. But a fellowship that affirms the priesthood of all believers and the principle of multiple leadership in the church must not categorize too strictly the two dimensions of college and seminary education. The question of college training is not secondary to the assignment of leadership training on the seminary level. The colleges lay important foundations that affect the faith and mission of the church. Therefore, the church must continually promote a multi-level program of education; the seminary must not be separated from the other levels of educational experience. The issue of college training thus remains much at the heart of the brotherhood’s life. What is in question, however, are the model, character and scope of the educational mission of the colleges.

A second issue is the viability of two colleges within the U.S. Mennonite Brethren constituency. Can two liberal arts colleges be maintained? How can the Mennonite Brethren Church support two schools which serve only 35% of the college age youth of the brotherhood? Are the two colleges sufficiently distinct in character, purpose and academic quality? Are the financial costs of our colleges beyond the reach of many Mennonite Brethren youth?

The M. B. Neale study of 1955, which was prepared by a consultant to the Board of Education, concluded that the U.S. Mennonite Brethren Conference was too small to provide resources and student potential for two colleges. 13 A similar study by the Christian Service Fellowship in 1968 also asserted that “the brotherhood by itself cannot afford a liberal arts program. Two liberal arts colleges are impossible—therefore these institutions will of necessity become regional trans- and/or interdenominational schools with M.B. identification prevailing for some time into the future.” 14

A decade has passed since this last report. We have survived. It was not easy, but we did continue to operate the two liberal arts colleges with a degree of success. However, the 1977 U.S. Area Conference convening in Rosedale flashed some important warning signals. The ongoing fiscal crisis of the colleges seems to be worsening. {8} The development programs, which were initiated to give the schools financial security, have produced some resources, but they also have left deep hurts and a loss of support and confidence. To broaden the economic and student potential of the colleges, one of the schools has adopted a policy of adding non-Mennonite Brethren to the Board of Directors. Both schools must appeal to non-Mennonite Brethren students to maintain viable enrolments; thus one school has only 27% Mennonite Brethren students and the other 46%. Mennonite Brethren faculty resources also have proven too limited. Today one of the colleges has a faculty in which approximately 50% come from non-Mennonite Brethren backgrounds while the other has 6% non-Mennonite Brethren on its faculty. Can the Mennonite Brethren Church pursue the original objectives for the colleges without providing the majority of the faculty and students from within the brotherhood?

A third issue at stake is the question of Mennonite Brethren identity in the colleges. Have our colleges been able to give priority to the nurture and strengthening of Mennonite Brethren faith and to the unity of the Brotherhood? Have the colleges been so preoccupied with the struggle to survive that they have failed in the primary assignment of preparing leadership for the church and fostering the unity of the church? Have the colleges in their struggle to maintain the institutions moved from the specific mandate to be Mennonite Brethren schools to adopt the model of mainstream Christian colleges in American culture?

These questions are being asked in the constituency. But they also are being asked by students and graduates of the colleges. A group of student leaders at one of the colleges in 1976 addressed a paper to the administration and faculty which began with these words, “In this paper we will reflect on the problems arising from . . . (our school’s) lack of identity.” The problem, they continue, is that the important issue at the college is “how we exist,” not “why we exist.” 15 A group of 1967 alumni from the same college also express concern for the lack of clear identity at their alma mater. They insist that the school’s “only hope for a viable future lies in embracing a distinct outlook,” and that the “distinctive must be based in the Anabaptist-Mennonite experience.” 16 A bright and promising 1978 graduate of one of our colleges addressed a clarion call to his alma mater and the brotherhood to clarify its theological and cultural commitment so that it may be a “peculiar people” in contrast to the popular trend in American protestantism. 17

These statements, which represent the concerns of many in the younger generation, must be seen as prophetic calls for greater clarity and integrity in Mennonite Brethren higher education. The Tabor {9} alumni group said frankly that we “lack the resources to be a ‘mainstream’ school. If our definition of ‘quality Christian education’ is substantially the same as that of other evangelical colleges, we should have a hard time recommending it to students over any other of a number of other colleges which can offer better facilities, more specialized faculty, and more diversified course offerings, all equally free of any taint of heresy and secular humanism.” 18

The critical issue facing the brotherhood today is, why are we as a small church fellowship concerned to provide quality Christian training for our own youth? This inquiry penetrates to the heart of motive. If we have a specific mission to fulfill in higher education it must be in clear relationship to the assignment of the Mennonite Brethren church. Then, secondly, such an education must be accessible to all our young people. The program must be financially underwritten so that our people can receive their basic Christian instruction in the context of their own church college, and not be forced to go to a state school. Practical considerations will preclude the possibility of providing the entire gamut of educational needs in such institutions. Increasingly we will be faced with decisions concerning the selection and retention of those programs which most clearly express the church’s mission.

History teaches that the spiritual welfare and influence of the church is closely related to its program of Christian education, both on the local and institutional level. Where the focus of the church’s educational program is weakened to accommodate and attract more students and finances for the purpose of survival, the church degenerates into formalism and eventually into skepticism.


Christian higher education is a vital mission of the church. It has significant impact on the life of the church, especially a church that believes in the priesthood of all believers. The important educational issue facing the Mennonite Brethren Church today is whether our colleges, born in the bosom of our brotherhood and maintained at great cost to our people, shall become mainstream Christian colleges in American evangelicalism to survive or whether they shall remain distinctively Mennonite Brethren. Without minimizing the mission of Christian colleges, we need to recognize that such an educational vision and program is not the mission of the Mennonite Brethren Conference, nor do we as a small fellowship have the resources to assume the responsibility for such an assignment.

The slogan, “educate or die,” applies forcefully to the future of the Mennonite Brethren Church. The present hour calls us to focus on the central issue of the mission even if that necessitates major changes {10} in the structure of our educational program. This is imperative so that future leaders can focus on the purpose and quality of this educational task and not on institutional survival.

The Mennonite Brethren Church can have a viable program of higher education if two things are recognized. First, a college education is vital for the life of the church. Second, the models of such education must be adapted to the demands of an urban, industrialized culture. A college is not a mission in itself, but is an arm that serves the life of the church in its pursuit of faithfulness to the New Testament. {11}


  1. General Conference Yearbook (1912), p. 16.
  2. General Conference Yearbook (1933), p. 41.
  3. Tabor Bulletin (April 15, 1945). For an assessment of the educational goals of the Bible school movement in Canada and the U.S., see J. B. Toews, “Influences that have Affected Educational Processes in Mennonite Brethren Schools,” Unpublished paper presented at the meeting of the Canadian Inter-School Relations Committee, Winnipeg, Manitoba, October 21, 1976.
  4. General Conference Yearbook (1933), p. 87.
  5. General Conference Yearbook (1936), p. 49.
  6. General Conference Yearbook (1933), p. 52.
  7. Record of the 1933 Response from the Churches to the Question of Accepting Tabor College as a General Conference School, Minutes of Tabor Board, Conference Archives, Hillsboro, Kansas and Fresno, California.
  8. Record of Minutes of the Meeting, February 21-22, 1946, Conference Archives, Fresno, California. It is important to note that the question of location for the school of the brotherhood also was a subject of consideration when Tabor became a Conference school in 1933. The possibility of relocation close to the University of Wichita was discussed, but an offer from the University did not find favor with the College leadership. Statement by A. E. Janzen in an oral review of the process of the transfer of Tabor College to the General Conference.
  9. General Conference Yearbook (1954), pp. 36-37.
  10. Ibid., p. 59.
  11. Ibid., pp. 63, 137.
  12. U.S. Conference Yearbook (1965), p. 51.
  13. Report to the Board of Education (Feb. 8, 1955), pp. 22-27.
  14. Christian Service Fellowship Report to the M.B. Board of Education (July 1, 1968), p. 244.
  15. Paper presented to the Tabor College Forum by 5 students, October, 1976.
  16. Letter of 6 Tabor alumni (Spring, 1978).
  17. Letter of Tabor alumus (March, 1978).
  18. Letter of 6 Tabor alumni.
J. B. Toews is President Emeritus and Professor of Theology and Mennonite Brethren History at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

Previous | Next