The latest in a succession of provincial Mennonite Brethren discussions concerning the atonement took place at Gracepoint Community Church, Surrey, B.C., Nov. 3. Organized by the B.C. MB Conference’s Pastoral Ministries Committee, more than 200 B.C. pastors, leaders, and interested parties gathered in person and online for the daylong conversation.
In recent years, B.C. MB leaders have recognized that there are increasingly divergent perspectives with respect to Christ’s saving work on the cross. The purpose of the event was to clarify and reaffirm what it is MBs believe about the atonement, and to deepen relationships so that Mennonite Brethren can be unified, bless each other’s work, and speak well of one another.
The day consisted of an eclectic mix of presentations. Wally Unger, former president of Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C., offered a theological rationale for locating penal substitution at the center of an orthodox understanding of atonement. (Penal substitution focuses on the fact that Jesus pays the price for human sin and satisfies God’s demand for justice.)
John Neufeld, pastor at Willingdon Church, Burnaby, B.C., preached on Romans 3:21–26. Neufeld interpreted the text to say that Christ’s death and resurrection meet the demands of God’s righteousness and save us from God’s wrath. Penal substitution, Neufeld declared, was the heart of the Gospel, and he called listeners to boldly preach the doctrines of wrath, judgment, and hell so that Christians and non-Christians alike might fathom more deeply God’s mercy and love.
Confession of Faith
In the afternoon, Doug Heidebrecht, former director of the Centre for MB Studies, provided a historical survey of the MB Confessions of Faith. Heidebrecht made three key observations. First, MBs have been reluctant to write doctrinal statements, and have consistently chosen instead to use biblical language to tell the story of God’s saving work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Second, MBs have used “a breadth of atonement images” when describing the work on the cross (see www.mbconf.ca/christ_crucified). Third, in the most recent MB Confession, the language of Jesus “dying for our sins” is noticeably absent.
Heidebrecht suggested that MBs should not simply reject the Confession if it does not express a person’s particular theology to an exact degree. Rather, churches and individuals should submit to and trust in the hermeneutical community and work toward an appropriate revision.
The afternoon concluded with Mark Burch, associate director of Church Planting BC, moderating a dialogue between the audience and a panel of 4 B.C. pastors – Jeff Bucknam, Northview, Abbotsford; Norm Funk, Westside, Vancouver; Brad Sumner, Jericho Ridge, Langley; and Brian Cooper, Northside, Mission. Attempts to name the “elephants in the room” seemed to unearth deeper confusion than previously recognized.
First, it wasn’t entirely clear if the disagreement with respect to the atonement was among B.C. MBs, or with Christians outside the MB world. The listening committee noted that participants were not clear as to who was denying what, or what specifically was being denied.
Second, many questioned whether there actually was a disagreement. Some insisted that MBs hold tightly to an atonement theology with penal substitution at the centre. Others insisted that penal substitution has always been one of many aspects to MB understandings of the atonement. Here, the listening committee’s questions were “Is the disagreement around atonement a sign of ‘theological drift’? Or is the disagreement simply due to a difference in emphasis?”
Some suggested that the event demonstrated more commonality among MBs than some had thought. Others weren’t so sure.
Despite these (and other) unsettling and unresolved questions, there seems to have been a step toward a deeper appreciation of both the atonement and the MB community. Regardless of favoured models, participants and presenters repeatedly affirmed the substitutionary nature of Jesus’s death on the cross to forgive humanity of sin, save from death, and free from evil. The common passion and vigour with which MBs have embraced the mission to proclaim the whole counsel of God was on full display.