Undoing a long-standing practice

The convictions of one person can change a church, even a church conference.

On July 5, 1986, at the annual meeting of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (CMC, now known as Mennonite Church Canada) Rev. Isaac Tiessen, retired pastor of the Mennonite Brethren Conference, along with other MB Conference representatives John Redekop and Henry Brucks, stood before the delegates and offered an apology for the long-standing practice of refusing membership to people who were from the sister Mennonite Conference.

While it was never a formal written policy, Tiessen asserted that it was general practice in Canadian Mennonite Brethren churches. People belonging to the General Conference of Mennonites (Conference of Mennonites in Canada) were often regarded as non-Christians. If a member of a Mennonite Brethren church married a non-Christian, the member would be excommunicated from the MB Church.

Isaac Tiessen (1904–1999) was born in Russia in Friedensruh, Molotschna Colony. The family fled their home during the Russian Revolution after marauding bandits killed three of his brothers. In 1925 he was ordained a minister of the local Allianz Mennonite Church. In the same year he immigrated to Canada and was active in the Molotschna Mennonite Brethren Church in Kitchener, Ont., the Canadian equivalent to the Allianz church in Russia. Tiessen maintained that in this church and its affiliates, people were not excommunicated for marrying a Mennonite from another tradition. It only started after 1939 when these churches joined the Mennonite Brethren Conference.

As a pastor in both Ontario and B.C., Tiessen had personal experiences of excommunicating people for marrying a Mennonite from a different church background. Some time in the early 1960s he became convinced that this practice was wrong and, as he put it, “vowed to the Lord in my own heart that I would never do that again.” He asked forgiveness from the couples he felt he had wronged. When similar cases came to his attention, “I put my pastorship on the block,” he said, “and told them that would not happen with me as pastor.”

Tiessen appeared before the Mennonite Brethren Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns and brought this issue to their attention. He believed that too long he and the conference had suffered from spiritual pride and as a result were too proud to admit that this practice was wrong. His personal convictions eventually brought the board to accept his recommendation that an apology be made.

A letter was drafted and presented at the Conference of Mennonites in Canada annual meeting. Spontaneously a delegate got up from his chair, walked to the platform and embraced the three-member delegation. Delegates responded with loud applause. Recalling it, Tiessen repeated over and over, with tears in his eyes, “It was so wonderful.”

Isaac Tiessen encourages us to stand up for what we believe to be right. He shows us that the convictions of one person can change a church, church conferences, and individual lives. He reminds us that we should be humble because none of us knows the full truth. His example says it is all right to change our minds, because as the saying goes, what good is a mind if you cannot change it.

—Conrad Stoesz is archivist at the Centre for MB Studies. He wrote this story of change and forgiveness based on the Isaac Tiessen fonds held at the Centre.

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