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October 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 4 · pp. 21–27 

Vision and Reality

Al Dueck

The Mennonite Brethren Church has again articulated those convictions central to its existence. But a confession of faith is simply that, a confession. It is not yet complete. What we say and do individually must be consistent with the corporate statement of our vision. When reality does not square with vision, we open ourselves to the criticism of hypocrisy and ultimately to the loss of the vision itself.

My focus here will be on two specific questions. First, to what extent have we been able to maintain consensus in belief and in morality? Second to what extent have we been able to respond to the total needs of persons?

In order to begin answering these questions I will use our recent (1975) Confession of Faith to clarify what we have said collectively about who we are and what we want to be in faith and practice. The survey conducted by Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder, and reported in their book Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1975), will serve as a guide in assessing the reality of our vision. I will report only the Mennonite Brethren responses to the questions used in the study. Admittedly, the questionnaire approach to measure our attitudes and describe our actions is limited. Also, the data was collected in 1972, which raises the question of how much we have changed since then. In the first case, the survey data is what I have been asked to reflect on; and, in the second case, I found considerable consistency between the 1972 data and the responses of delegates to the Rosedale conference of the United States Mennonite Brethren (1978) on some of the same questions.


The survey indicated that on those questions which concerned matters of doctrine, there was a considerable degree of consensus. We {22} believe that God exists (92%), that Jesus is both human and divine (95%), that Jesus was born of a virgin (97%), that his resurrection is a historical fact (96%), and that he will return to earth some day (97%). We continue to believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired and infallible Word of God, the only trustworthy guide for faith and life (93%). We are convinced there is life after death (97%) and that unbelievers will be punished (92%). We view the church as having an agenda different from that of the world and that the mission of the church is not to improve the moral achievements of secular society (71%).

In matters of belief we evidence a high degree of consensus and are consistent with our confession of faith. Here vision and reality come closest to each other. What we agreed upon as a body is also what we say individually.

When we turn to agreement on moral practices, however, the picture changes dramatically. In our confession of faith we state that the Christian puts off the former way of life, does not defile the body since it is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and is transformed into the image of Christ (pp. 13-14). Regarding divorce we said that it is a basic violation of God’s intention for marriage (p. 19). On the issue of war we state:

The church, as the body of Christ, is a fellowship of redeemed, separate people, controlled by redemptive love. Its evangelistic responsibility is to present Christ, the Prince of Peace, as the answer to human need, enmity and violence. The evil, brutal and inhuman nature of war stands in contradiction to the new nature of the Christian (p. 21).

The survey results indicate that we are agreed on some of these issues but completely divided on others.

First, when we are concerned with substances that seriously affect our bodies we are generally agreed. We do not condone the use of marijuana (91 %), hard drugs such as LSD (99 %), smoking (76 %), and drunkenness (98%). However, we are not agreed on the moderate use of alcoholic beverages. Some (51 %) think it is always wrong and others think it is sometimes wrong (38%) to drink alcoholic beverages.

On questions related to marriage and the family there is a similar pattern. We do not approve of premarital (92%) or extra-marital (86%) sexual relationships. But on the question of divorce we show less unity. Divorce for cause of adultery was considered always wrong by 31 % and never wrong by 19%. When divorce occurred for reasons other than adultery, approximately one-half were certain it was wrong and the other half was not.

It is on matters related to the Christian’s involvement in the military that we display the greatest and most consistent fragmentation. In the {23} survey, one-half of the respondents agreed that Christians should take no part in war or war-related activities. That seems rather low given the high percentages (in the 80’s and 90’s) on the matters of doctrine described earlier. Moreover, since we are not fully agreed on the basic issue of the Christian’s participation in the military, we are also unclear on what war-related activities might be acceptable for Christians. For example, would payment of taxes that support the military be unacceptable? Three-quarters of the persons completing the questionnaire stated that such taxes should be paid. Or one could ask whether a peace stance would imply not holding stocks in companies producing war goods. In this case sixty percent felt some hesitation about such investment. It appears then that on the issue of involvement in the military we are not entirely consistent with our confession of faith and definitely not in agreement with one another.

There are a number of additional ethical issues that we responded to on the survey but which were not addressed in the Confession of Faith. On these issues there is little agreement. Some consider abortion when it is performed for the sake of the mother’s health, as always wrong (11 %) and many are uncertain (25 %). When abortion is a result of the mother’s wish, two-thirds were convinced it was wrong. We were split for and against on the issues of the Christian’s use of the court system to settle disputes with other Christians, involvement in labor unions, the role of capital punishment as a necessary deterrent to crime, and the use of medical devices and drugs to prolong the life of a dying person.

When we compare the unity of belief and doctrine with the diversity in ethics and practice, we wonder why this is the case. I would begin by saying that where there is agreement among us and there is consistency with our corporate confession, we have reason to praise God. Where there is diversity we must examine whether our witness as a community of faith is eroding or whether the diversity is healthy. First, I would like to suggest that in part the plurality of views is a product of changes in our Mennonite communities and of changes in the world around us. At least to some extent consensus on doctrinal and ethical matters was easier to maintain when our communities were more homogeneous, more agrarian, and more isolated. Nor were we as aware of and as affected by the development of a technological society. Gradually, as we became accustomed to city life, we were faced with questions and problems we had not faced before (e.g., labor unions, capital punishment, legal disputes, and euthanasia). Those questions remain unresolved and we cannot romanticize about the simplicity of life in a previous generation. It is the responsibility of the present generation to wrestle seriously with these issues.

A second reason, in my estimation, for fragmentation on some of {24} the ethical issues is the extent to which we have accepted the prevailing ideology of individualism. In ethics, individualism assumes that the individual is the final arbiter of all issues. When that is translated into Christian community we say it is a matter between God and oneself or personal conscience. In a recent Mennonite Central Committee study conducted in Canadian churches, over one-half (56%) of the respondents thought that the individual should set drinking standards. Few thought it should be the conference (15%) or the local congregation (7%). In the Kauffman-Harder study most Mennonite Brethren felt that the mother should be the final person to decide whether an abortion should be performed. This is not to say that the individual is not a part of the resolution of an ethical dilemma. It is rather that we have too often avoided the difficult task of discernment as a body.

Third, on some issues we are less influenced by our faith commitments and more by our political commitments. I would suggest this is particularly the case with regards to our peace position. Our diversity on pacifism is understandable when we consider the fact that only 22% did not think the Vietnam conflict was a necessary means of stopping communism. The rest either thought it was necessary (31 %) or were uncertain (48%). And fully one-half (53%) agreed that the national government should stamp out communism by whatever means necessary—military or otherwise! It is one thing to be grateful for the liberties granted by a particular nation; it is another to assume that it is our task to defend those liberties by violent means.

In summary, the complexity of urban life, individualism, and nationalism are playing havoc with the process of coming to some clarity and consensus on critical ethical questions. If we cannot come to agreement we lose a sense of responsibility to the corporate church and its vision and we will also lose our corporate witness to the world. Moreover, we reduce the possibility of accountability within the church when we cannot agree on a position to which we should be accountable. Church discipline becomes impossible. What increases is the acceptance of diversity. On the survey about one-half (49%) felt conflicts in the church should be handled with tolerance and sensitivity and in a nondirective counseling way rather than (32%) corporate discernment of right and wrong in the fellowship of believers and making binding decisions about disciplinary actions. Seventy-five percent felt that the church should engage in discipline where a brother or sister erred. At the same time we are completely divided on whether the church should engage in excommunication.

What are our alternatives? On the one hand we could continue to allow each individual to do the best he or she can. Or we can take seriously the mandate to be the church in the midst of the world, to be a community that engages in serious reflection on how to deal with the {25} conflicts it faces and then commits itself to accountability one with the other.


In our confession we stated that

the command to make disciples of all nations is the primary task of the church. Every member has the responsibility to be a witness to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and to call men to be reconciled to God. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation and is able to meet the total needs of man (p. 16).

Sharing the whole Gospel with the whole person would leave no room for emphasizing personal evangelism to the exclusion of social concerns. Disobedience, poverty, personal unbelief, social injustice, selfishness, and discrimination are problems to which we must respond with the Good News. The data indicate that we are clearly committed to personally sharing the Gospel with other individuals but that our sensitivity to the social dimensions of sin is rather weak.

As Mennonite Brethren we have often stated that our emphasis on public witness to our faith is a distinctive. When we were asked on the survey whether we have personally tried to lead someone to faith in Jesus Christ, many (87%) stated that they had done so one or more times. On no other aspect of the work of the church were we as agreed that there should be increased giving as for outreach and missions. What we say collectively in the confession on evangelism we are also saying individually on the questionnaire.

While we may stress sharing our faith with others, it is not clear that we understand what it means to relate that message to the questions raised by people living in a largely urban, technological society. We are less sure about how one responds to such social conditions as poverty and racial and sexual discrimination. In our confession we state that the Christian should “exercise social responsibility, witness against corruption, discrimination and injustice” (p. 21). As one reads the Scriptures it is evident that God has a special concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the widow, and the stranger (Exod. 22:22; Lev. 19:33; Amos 8:4-8). However, a significant percentage of Mennonite Brethren (38%) think people are poor largely because they lack discipline and do not put forward the effort needed to rise above poverty. But is poverty always or primarily an individual matter or is it possible that social conditions trap some individuals and groups in ways which make escape almost impossible?

The Apostle Paul expends a life-time preaching salvation in Jesus {26} Christ, pleading for reconciliation between Jew and Gentile. We are following Paul’s example when we (90%) agree that our congregations should receive into fellowship all followers of Christ regardless of race. But at the same time some (38%) still think there is a biblical basis for the separation of the races. And although we believe there is no essential difference between blacks and whites, nearly half (45%) are not sure they should mingle socially. In both Canadian and U.S. societies women have been systematically excluded from positions that could have been filled by either males or females. Where men and women worked at identical tasks, the level of remuneration for women has often been lower. In spite of these glaring inequities, 72% of those surveyed do not think that women have been discriminated against.

On the other side, three quarters favored Mennonite Central Committee involvement in prison reform. Almost two-thirds would like to see more minority students on our college campuses and the same proportion of people are confident that the various races share equally in intelligence and physical and emotional make-up. Also, about 70% of the Rosedale delegates felt there should be social contact between the racial groups. Lastly, in 1972 more members (68%) felt that the faithful witness of the church meant conversion of the individual and fewer (29%) thought this witness meant preaching the whole Gospel to the whole person. By 1978 at the Rosedale conference more delegates (55%) gave priority to meeting the total needs of people and fewer (43%) emphasized a focus on strictly individual conversion.

Though some changes are evident, we must still ask the difficult question “Why?” Why would people that have experienced as much persecution as the Mennonites appear to show so little awareness of the rejection of other minorities in our society? Have we become so successful that we can no longer understand the despair of the poor? Do we really think that we have discharged our duty as Christians in the world when we engage in personal witness for the sake of saving souls?

Our emphasis on personal evangelism is an extension of what we see as the pinnacle of religious experience—individual conversion. Kauffman and Harder found that conversions could be categorized in two types: personal and social. Personal conversions focus on a struggle away from sin and guilt, yearning for personal redemption and a new empowerment to attain a sense of personal righteousness. A social conversion came primarily as a result of despair about human injustice, included a desire for greater love among people, and produced greater trust in people. When Mennonite Brethren describe their conversion experience, we use the language of personal conversion. Since we transmit our expectations about what constitutes a conversion in the language of individualistic theology, our tunnel vision on social issues should come as no surprise. Crime and delinquency are then {27} understood as personal problems and personal evangelism is seen as the only appropriate solution. My point is not that we no longer need personal conversion or personal evangelism. Rather, becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ demands individual commitment to be a follower in the midst of the world that God dearly loves, fully aware of how sin has distorted human society.

Another reason why we respond to social issues in the way we do may be a consequence of our identification with the language and assumptions of a particular religious perspective, namely Fundamentalism. Kauffman and Harder defined Fundamentalism in terms of a particular view of the scripture, creation, the flood, the birth of Christ and eternal life. They found that persons scoring high on agreement with the tenets of Fundamentalism scored lower on their scales of social sensitivity. Mennonite Brethren fit this pattern in the way they responded to the questions on the survey. This does not mean that holding Fundamentalist beliefs necessarily makes one racist. It does suggest that together with its theology we have uncritically adopted the Fundamentalist perspective of society. It suggests further that we need repeatedly to reflect on our experience in America to see whether in our sojourn here we have borrowed that which has created some unintended, negative side-effects.

While there were many questions the survey did not ask, I have attempted to organize what we did say. My conclusions need to be tested not only against what we say on surveys but against what we have actually done—but I will leave that to others. What the survey does help us with is determining the extent to which we are consistent in what we say in public, in private and communally. After having reviewed the data, I find within me feelings of confusion, praise, sorrow and hope: confusion, because we have responded in contradictory ways; praise, because I sense the vision is still there, though only dimly in some areas; sorrow, because we no longer seem to understand the outcasts in our society; and hope, because Jesus has promised that nothing can bar the coming in fulness of his Kingdom.

Al Dueck is a member of the psychology faculty at Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California. This article is based on a report to the United States Mennonite Brethren Board of Reference and Counsel and the United States Area Conference at Bakersfield, California, October, 1978.

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