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October 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 4 · pp. 36–43 

Toward a Philosophy of Education at Mennonite Brethren Bible College

Abe J. Dueck


Questions of educational philosophy and institutional objectives have arisen frequently over the years at MBBC. At times, particularly within the past ten years, these questions have been raised with considerable urgency and concern. It was during this past decade that the attempt to launch a Bachelor of Divinity program failed and a joint seminary program with the United States Conference was begun; it was during this period that there was a serious decline in student enrolment; and it was during this period that there was a virtually complete change in faculty. Such issues inevitably called for a basic re-evaluation of MBBC’s raison d’etre. The expanded possibilities which resulted from a new association with the University of Winnipeg in 1970, the greater awareness of alternative educational philosophies and objectives, and numerous other factors may also have helped to precipitate a feeling that MBBC must deliberately and carefully study the alternatives and commit itself in a direction which would allow for clear, consistent, and deliberate planning and a more recognizable identity in the constituency.

A review of past statements of educational objectives and philosophy suggest several things:

1. The original purpose of the College was primarily to train “professional” church workers; i.e., ministers, missionaries, etc. {37}

2. The curriculum and educational methodology was primarily structured to impart theological information (“factual” information on Scriptures, etc.) and to train in skills of verbally communicating such information to others. Courses in psychology and German were legitimized on this basis.

3. As the College grew, more and more students came to MBBC who were not committed to a “professional” church ministry. Also, new faculty members had a broader vision for the College and sought to develop the curriculum in a way which would create a broader appeal. Nevertheless, the introduction of non-religious liberal arts courses was usually legitimized on the basis of their contributing function to the main professional-theological purpose of the College. The liberal arts courses were often referred to as “support” courses and had no independent right to be a part of the curriculum.

4. The recent growth of religious studies departments at the universities, including the University of Winnipeg, has made possible the accreditation of most of the Biblical and theological courses at MBBC and has resulted in a shift in the nature of the debate of liberal arts versus Bible college. The constituency is confused by this shift and while some are still concerned primarily about the teaching of “secular” courses at MBBC, others are concerned about the implications of a university-recognized theological program at MBBC.

There is a continuing ambiguity about the institutional objectives at MBBC and some of that ambiguity will not and possibly should not be completely resolved. The tensions between a professional education versus a lay-centered education, “secular” versus “sacred” components of the curriculum, academic freedom and prophetic responsibility versus denominational commitment and loyalty, will always be a part of the life of a College such as MBBC.


An attempt to define the current objectives of MBBC must begin with the assumption that a College such as MBBC has no right to exist unless it can honestly claim to provide something in an educational experience which is distinctive and important enough to warrant the high cost of such an educational program. It is not enough to say that MBBC is a “Christian” college, as opposed to the secular state universities. We must also distinguish our objectives clearly from those of other Christian colleges. If we find that there are no clearly distinguishable objectives we would be forced to conclude that the operation of the College is poor financial stewardship and we would be well advised to join with other Christian communities to operate a more viable educational program.

Our first task must be to clearly identify the theological heritage {38} and commitment which gives shape to unique objectives. In terms of a fairly broad category, but one which must prove to be very determinative for a philosophy of education, MBBC stands in the Believers’ Church tradition. More narrowly, we also identify ourselves as Anabaptist, although the meaning and usefulness of that label is not always agreed upon. Finally, we are a Mennonite Brethren college; a college of a denomination which believes that it has a distinctive heritage and mission which makes its continued separate identity desirable.


In recent years significant studies on a philosophy of education within the Believers’ Church and Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions have appeared. Especially worth noting are the following: Mennonite Education: Why and How? by Daniel Hertzler; 2 The People of God: A Mennonite Interpretation of the Free Church Tradition by Ross T. Bender; 3 and The Believers’ Church and the Church College by Harold Bauman. 4 The following comments are based especially on the work of Bauman.

In his discussion of educational objectives, Bauman lists some of the major educational philosophies prevalent in the United States and shows how these are transformed and supplemented by Believers’ Church understandings. Five major objectives are listed by Bauman:

  1. The attempt to “instill into each college generation a humane approach to life as the best possible preparation for serving civilization.” 5

This approach was represented by most of the early church colleges and grew out of the notion that “in the providence of God a community of seekers and custodians of the truth was to be recruited in each generation.” 6 The task of the college was to transmit both the liberal arts heritage of the centuries and also correct doctrine to the students. The Puritan goal of Christianizing society was an essential task of education.

According to Bauman, the above aims are drastically reshaped by the understanding of the Believers’ Church. “The confession that Jesus Christ is Lord of all of life and the identification with the people of God gives purpose to the study of the heritage of the past and direction to the development of a humane approach to life.” 7 What becomes important, then, is to understand all of human history and culture in relation to the people of God. The people of God and God’s action on their behalf are seen in the context of various societies of the world without becoming identified with any. Christianity stands in judgement upon all human history and culture, “recognizing man’s achievements as well as his failures and distortions.” 8 {39}

Christ’s Lordship also gives direction to the goal of developing a humane approach to life. Man’s gifts are viewed in terms of their usefulness in creating and recreating the people of God. Christ becomes “the model of human development, the one who affirms and judges the liberal arts.” There is therefore a major departure from the goal of Christianizing all of society and a deliberate attempt to focus on the people of God as the bearers of God’s purpose in history without denying the significance of the larger context of human history and culture.

Bauman’s analysis of the first aim of education provides an inadequate base for Christian social action or for a relatively disinterested and independent pursuit of liberal arts studies (i.e., other than as support studies for theology). Mennonites (and Mennonite Brethren) have constantly vacillated between accepting the Puritan ideal of Christianizing society on the one hand and of completely rejecting the secular order on the other. J. H. Yoder provides a much more consistent and biblically sound model which is applicable to the study of the liberal arts. The basic postulate again is that Christ is Lord, not only over the Church but over those who do not recognize his Lordship.

In spite of the present visible dominion of the ‘powers’ of ‘this present evil age,’ the triumph of Christ has already guaranteed that the ultimate meaning of history will not be found in the course of earthly empires or the development of proud cultures, but in the calling together of the “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation,’ which is the church of Christ. The church is not fundamentally a source of moral stimulus to encourage the development of a better society—though a faithful church should also have this effect—it is for the sake of the church’s own work that society continues to function. The meaning of history—and therefore the significance of the state [and the liberal arts!]—lies in the creation and work of the church. 9

The essential task of Christian education, therefore, is to become aware of and guard against all idolatry in human civilization, whereby a state, a culture, or any work of man presumes to bear its own independent value.

How do we arrive at a truly integrated view of the world which recognizes the Lordship of Christ but does not succumb either to irrelevance (traditional Mennonite) or to idolatry (Puritanism)? The answer lies in what Yoder refers to as a “duality with dualism.” The violence of the state and the love of the Christian are both forms of God’s action in the world. The difference between them is not due to different norms which can be traced back to God himself but is rather due to different responses by man. The truth is that there is a mixture {40} of spirituality and rebelliousness in each event or act and that God is able to use both the good and the evil in each to serve his own purposes although he is not dependent on a particular form of human response. We must recognize that true Christian values exist even where Christ’s Lordship is not recognized. Yoder’s model of middle axioms which claim no metaphysical status is helpful in avoiding a complete dualism of sacred and secular on the one hand and of claiming values which are independent of revelation on the other.

The Christian approach to the study of human civilization and culture and to developing a human approach to life is one which is governed by a commitment to certain values derived from the Lordship of Christ. At the same time it is one which must be tentative in many of its conclusions recognizing the complexity of human motivation, the mixture of good and evil that derives from all action, and our own fallenness which hinders us in properly discerning good and evil in its various forms.

  1. A second goal of higher education which Bauman lists is the preparation of persons for some vocation. 10

Bauman notes that this was not emphasized by the early Colleges but that in the last century there has been an increased emphasis on specialization and training for vocation. By definition, of course, a liberal arts education is one which is broad and integrating rather than narrowly vocational. Nevertheless, liberal arts colleges in the U.S.A. and Canada have not been free from the temptation to make education more practical.

In the face of the current emphasis to make education immediately useful it is necessary for Christian colleges to reaffirm an education which translates into a view of reality, a system of values, and an approach to life which transcends vocational boundaries and is useful in the broadest sense. J. Lawrence Burkholder makes the following comment about the current dilemma: “Current educational journals struggle for solutions that would avoid on the one hand liberal arts ‘purism’ unrelated to life and on the other hand ‘rampant vocationalism’ so closely identified with the social order that it loses the critical function.” 11 A Christian college education should be helpful to students entering a broad variety of vocations and encourage them to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life as it relates to their choice of vocation.

The theology of the Believers’ Church stresses that the basic calling of the Christian is to be a disciple in the context of whatever vocation he may choose. Although the choice of vocation should be influenced by one’s understanding of discipleship, the vocational choice is not the primary issue. “The primary vocation is to serve as a {41} reconciler in the presence of conflict, seeking by deed and then word to communicate the good news of the kingdom of God.” 12 Christ, the suffering servant, is to be the model of a Christian’s presence in the world.

  1. The Discovery and Verification of Truth 13

It is obvious from the above that the content of the curriculum is not “basically an inherited body of knowledge that comes from the Greeks, or experimental findings from purely professional and disciplinary sources.” 14 Although higher education generally lauds the objective of discovering truth, there is great diversity of opinion as to the nature of truth and how one best goes about the task of discovering it.

While it may be presumptuous to attempt to define the nature of truth, a few guiding understandings that are consistent with a Believers’ Church perspective may be suggested. First, truth is essentially “people-truth,” i.e., the object, method and result of inquiry is somehow related to people, their relationships, and their purpose of existence. Second, there is no fundamental dichotomy between a Christian faith commitment and honest intellectual inquiry. Such inquiry, however, in a Believers’ Church context emphasizes the following: 1) the role of a community of scholars in the pursuit of truth; 2) the importance of bringing the Christian world view to bear upon the ultimate questions which arise out of the various academic disciplines; 3) the affirmation of biblical faith in relation to the various academic disciplines; and 4) the interrelatedness of the various disciplines. 15

  1. A fourth objective for a Believers’ Church college is the development of Christian community. 16

The Anabaptists emphasized the nature of the Church as a brotherhood. The Church was a covenant community where there was mutual respect, encouragement, admonition, and service. The relationships within the community were not governed by the constraint of an elite few but rather by a voluntary submission to the role of faith as understood by the community.

MBBC is not a church, although its full-time students are expected to have made a voluntary commitment to Christ. The Anabaptist-Biblical understanding of the nature of the church as covenant community should be expected to find ways of expressing itself on the college campus despite its more distinctive role. It should not be limited to or even primarily focused on chapel attendance or other religious functions (e.g., prayer before class). Community is expressed through the nature of academic pursuit in the classroom, the openness to dialogue on all matters outside the classroom, the {42} dynamics of residential life, the willingness to help share in the joys and sorrows of members of the college community. It is important in this connection to determine how large a school can grow without sacrificing the experience of Christian community. Some studies have suggested that the maximum group to which an individual can relate meaningfully is about 300 and that if colleges grow larger they should organize into modules.

  1. A final purpose of the College developed by Bauman relates to its servant stance. 17

Bauman lists three specific implications of the servant stance:

1) The involvement of students and faculty in service settings off-campus in relation to educational goals, whether in the community surrounding the college, in the inner city, or in an underdeveloped country. MBBC has always been involved in such service opportunities but the nature and objectives in relation to general educational objectives need to be clarified and perhaps this will lead to new forms of service assignments and a closer integration of these with academic disciplines.

2) Serving the sponsoring church through the involvement of faculty in the life and mission of the church.

3) Seeking to find ways to serve disadvantaged youth of its own country and international students by admitting as many as it can serve effectively. This is one of the most difficult issues facing Canadian universities and colleges today. We have witnessed the struggle (and failure) of American institutions with regard to the education of the disadvantaged. Canadian schools have been less conscious of the problem of serving native minority groups in Canada. For MBBC the problem has not existed, primarily because the admission policy restricts enrolment to professed (evangelical) Christians. International students have usually formed part of the study body at MBBC, but the complex problems involved in admitting such students have not been adequately resolved.


The goals outlined are easier to articulate than to implement. But they do represent a vision that gives MBBC a place to stand within the Mennonite Brethren Church and in the relationship with the University of Winnipeg. {43}


  1. This paper is a revised and abbreviated version of a paper which was presented at the MBBC faculty retreat in the fall of 1976. It does not necessarily reflect the position of the faculty or the Board of Higher Education.
  2. (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971).
  3. (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971).
  4. (Doctor of Education dissertation presented to Columbia University, 1972).
  5. Bauman, p. 87.
  6. Ibid., p. 88.
  7. Ibid., p. 91.
  8. Ibid., p. 92.
  9. The Christian Witness to the State (Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1964), p. 13.
  10. Bauman, p. 93.
  11. “An Indispensable Tradition,” Goshen College Bulletin, LXIX:4 (July, 1976), 2.
  12. Bauman, p. 95.
  13. Ibid., p. 97.
  14. “Education that comes from a People’s Vision,” Goshen College Bulletin, LXV III:4 (July, 1974), 3.
  15. See Bauman, pp. 99f.
  16. Ibid., pp. 105ff.
  17. Ibid., pp. 107ff.
Abe Dueck is the former Academic Dean of MBBC. He continues to serve the college as Assistant Professor of Historical Theology.

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