Being the church
A Mennonite Brethren vision of the family of God
No two Mennonite Brethren congregations in Canada look the same. A new church plant in Montreal will look very different from a long-standing community church in Saskatchewan or a multi-ethnic congregation in Vancouver. Our understanding of what it means to be the church is shaped by the diverse ministry concerns, missional challenges, leadership styles and worship practices that emerge from within the unique contexts in which we gather. In the midst of such diversity, we may wonder whether there is a common core that underlies a Mennonite Brethren understanding of the church.
Though Mennonite Brethren appeal to the New Testament as the model and authoritative guide regarding how to be the church today, we also look to our Confessions of Faith as a summary of our shared understanding of what the Bible teaches. Four themes emerge in our Confessions description of what it means to be the family of God: new creation, community, ministers and witnesses.
All Christians, whether they worship in Telugu in Hyderabad, in French in Kinshasa, or in English in Winnipeg, follow Jesus as the head of the church. The outpouring of God’s Spirit at Pentecost established the church (Acts 1:4–5; 2:17–18) and his continuing presence now defines the church as the people of God (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3) in line with the continuing story of God’s relationship with Israel (1 Peter 2:9–10; Romans 9:25–26). At conversion, each believer is cleansed by the Spirit (Titus 3:5) and incorporated into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13).
The Spirit unites all believers into one body (Ephesians 4:4) without distinction between male and female, nation, race or caste (Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Colossians 3:11; Romans 10:12). The church embraces the diversity of humanity and it does not make distinctions based on these differences (Galatians 5:6; 6:15).
The dated language of “Brethren” in our name highlights the significance of seeing the church as a family, where believers relate to each other as brothers and sisters. All believers are called to keep the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3), despite their differences, which reflects their common fellowship and mission.
Since “the church is God’s new creation,” it is called to “model God’s design for humanity” (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 3:10–11). “The church belongs to the in-breaking kingdom of God” and as citizens of the kingdom, the church collectively witnesses to God’s reign in the world and models an alternative and separated community.
The primary allegiance of the church is to Christ as Lord and to his kingdom, over against all authorities embodied by the state or society (Acts 4:19–20). The church is called to resist the temptation to give the state the devotion owed to God, and to reject the pressure to live by values that threaten or compromise the integrity of God’s reign. Nevertheless, Christians must obey all laws that do not conflict with God’s Word, and respect and pray for those in authority (Romans 13:1; 1 Timothy 2:1–2).
The church gathers together regularly to worship and glorify the Triune God, in celebration and thankfulness for his faithfulness, grace and salvation. Worship, as a response to God’s love, offers a transforming encounter with God through the presence of his Spirit, hearing his Word, participating together in singing and acknowledging dependence upon God through prayer (Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 11, 14; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
The practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as acts of worship, proclaim the good news of salvation. Worship reorients, nurtures, renews and unites the church as the new people of God who follow Christ as head.
When people receive God’s gift of salvation, they are baptized upon their confession of Jesus as Lord and Saviour (Matthew 28:19). Baptism by water immersion is a public sign of both the experience of the Spirit’s cleansing from sin and being raised to newness of life as well as believers’ entrance into the one body of Christ as expressed in the local church (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27; 1 Corinthians 10:2; 12:13).
While the church as the body of Christ represents the worldwide community of faith, it lives as visible local congregations. Church membership is a concrete sign of believers’ shared commitment to follow the Lord Jesus, their identification with the body of Christ and their willingness to participate in the community of disciples (Acts 2:41–42; Mark 8:34; Ephesians 4:20–21; Hebrews 5:8–9).
The local church is a covenant community where members are committed to worship and fellowship together (Ephesians 5:19–21). It is where members grow in maturity, demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, use their spiritual gifts and encourage each other in faithful discipleship and witness (Galatians 5:22–23; 1 Corinthians 12:4–30). Jesus’ command to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them to obey him, is grounded within the context of the church (Matthew 28:19–20).
As believers pray for one other, share each other’s joys and burdens, and seek to build one another up, their love and care express mutual accountability (1 Corinthians 14:3; Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:12–17). Attempts to reconcile sinning members reflect believers’ mutual responsibility for each other and are motivated by love and compassion (Matthew 18:15–18). In its observance of the Lord’s Supper, the church “expresses reconciliation, fellowship, peace and unity of all believers with Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
Similarly, local congregations are interdependent, working together in a spirit of love and mutual submission by following the model of New Testament church, which gathered as a hermeneutical community to seek consensus regarding ethical discernment, questions of biblical interpretation, and shared witness and mission (Matthew 18:18–20; Acts 15; 1 Corinthians 14:29).
The Spirit of God gifts each member for the purpose of building up the body of Christ and serving or ministering in the world (1 Corinthians 12:7, 11). The work of the Spirit is expressed through the priesthood of all believers where everyone participates in ministry and relates together as a fellowship of equals (Act 2:17–18; Galatians 3:28; 1 Peter 2:5). This affirmation also underlies the Mennonite Brethren concept of “brotherhood,” with the implication that there is no inherent distinction between clergy and laity.
The church discerns the call of God and affirms those he gifts to equip the church for ministry (Ephesians 4:11–13). Mennonite Brethren affirm that a biblical understanding of leadership emerges from what it means to be the church, since the source of authority is the presence of Jesus within the church (Matthew 18:19–20).
Leadership is not defined as authority but as servanthood, because the ministry of leadership reflects one’s gifting or function in the church, not an office (Romans 12:4–8). A typical Mennonite Brethren model of church governance is structured around a group of gifted leaders who are responsible for oversight and yet also recognize the authority of the Spirit in the gathered community.
The Spirit of God empowers the church “to witness to God’s salvation” and participate in God’s mission – “reconciling humans with God, each other and the world” (Acts 1:8; 2 Corinthians 5:18). Proclamation of the gospel involves both telling the good news and doing acts of love and compassion (Luke 4:18–19). Christ has commissioned the church to make disciples of all nations by calling people to repent and baptizing and teaching them to obey Jesus (Matthew 28:18–20).
The church, as Christ’s ambassador and agent of reconciliation, actively seeks to “defend the weak, care for the poor, and promote justice, righteousness, and truth” within society (2 Corinthians 5:20). The church is called to be a peacemaker in all situations (Matthew 5:9; Ephesians 2:14–18), and by its life, the church bears witness to God’s reign by revealing “God’s saving purposes to the world.”
The identity of God’s wonderfully diverse family (John 17:20–21) centres around the Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke with great hope when he said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
So how is this vision of what it means to be the church lived out within your local congregation as you gather together as brothers and sisters, a community of disciples, as ministers and witnesses? What does it look like to be a new creation within the unique context in which you live?
—Doug Heidebrecht is currently working in an international setting. Previously, he served as director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg and as an instructor at Bethany College in Hepburn, Sask.
This article is a revised version of a piece that first appeared in the magazine published by the Indian MB conference, and rewritten at the request of our North American magazines. It attempts to summarize the description of the church found in the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith. Quotations come directly from Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application (2000) and Knowing and Living Your Faith: A Study of the Confession of Faith, International Community of Mennonite Brethren (2008).