The National Faith and Life Director and the National Faith and Life Team are tasked with questions of theology and spiritual health for our larger MB family of churches across Canada. It is a huge and overwhelming portfolio. According to our bylaws, we are firstly responsible to preserve and safeguard our Confession of Faith. I’m assuming that this does not mean fearfully protecting some old carcass but rather preserving and safeguarding something that is valuable and significant for the present and the future.
We are responsible to encourage engagement with the Confession of Faith—and to provide resources that help all of us navigate theological and ethical challenges that pop up around us. Over the past year or so, we have completed the following: “Vaccinations and Living Well for Jesus,” “Loving Well our LGB Neighbours, Friends, and Family,” “Welcome to LGBTQ+,” “Living Faithfully for Jesus in Light of Bill C-4”). We have also totally revised our Code of Personal and Ministry Ethics for all of our credentialed leaders, and we drafted a version for churches who would like to use this for their non-credentialed leaders—pastors who have not yet been credentialed and for leaders/elders who are not in the credentialing pipeline. While we do regret our delays in getting these out to our churches and leaders, we have received much appreciation about them from across the country. Finally, we are in process creating Explanatory Notes and FAQs for each of our Confession Articles to clarify what our Confession of Faith says and doesn’t say. We believe that this is valuable and urgent work that will help us as a family.
But we are facing the urgent question of what exactly does our Confession of Faith mean for us and how should it impact us? Brad Sumner and Rich Janzen did a study, funded by the MB Historical Commission, where 17 MB Pastors were interviewed about how our MB Confession of Faith is being used in their churches. I want to thank Brad, Rich, and their team for their work in engaging this question. The pastors that were asked were chosen to represent the diversity that exists in our MB family, and to no one’s surprise, the report notes significant diversity related to how the Confession is used.
In any group, we should expect some diversity or else it is unlikely that people are being honest. There is a level of diversity that is healthy and normal, and that still allows us to walk together toward a common centre. However, there is also a level of diversity that is unhealthy and explosive. In these situations, regardless of how much we want to use the language of “shared centre” or “centred-set,” that explosive diversity separates us toward multiple irreconcilable centres that are in competition with each other. We can pretend to share a theological centre but it will eventually become clear that we are actually walking in quite different directions. I have often heard about the MB tent that somehow can stretch enough to cover all of this diversity—but there is not enough spandex available to cover explosive diversity. In that situation, the tent will snap back and cover no one. We will need much Holy Spirit wisdom to discern whether our present confessional differences represent a healthy diversity or an explosive diversity. We covet your prayers for this discernment.
While our Confession of Faith is not somehow divinely inspired and written on stone tablets, it is designed to be our collective understanding of what the Bible says about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the gospel, the church, mission, discipleship, and the future. It is also an unusual Confession—because it is like a hybrid car—our Confession represents a mix of evangelical and Anabaptist parentage. We have what looks like an electric motor and a gasoline engine working together. While some might prefer only the electric motor all the time or the gasoline engine all of the time, we believe that we are stronger as a denomination because we have both of these elements working together. But we also need to do maintenance on and respect both the electric motor and the gasoline engine—or we will lose our unique identity.
We have up until recently given our Confession of Faith significant authority to guide us and unify us. We have to reflect together on what the consequences are of weakening that authority. We consider our ultimate authority to be Jesus speaking to us through Holy Spirit-breathed Scripture. Our Confession of Faith is written to summarize Scripture—and only carries authority as long as it is faithful to Scripture. But if our Confession is indeed faithful to Scripture, then the Confession should rightfully have significant authority among us since this is part of what it means to worship, serve, and follow Jesus.
There are a number of ways we could understand our MB Confession:
- We could see it as a valuable recipe or an accurate road map to produce a church family faithful to Jesus and Jesus’ mission in the world that therefore guides us in our thinking and action. If so, it rightfully should be something that we together commit ourselves to affirm, teach toward, and seek to reflect in our lives, individually and corporately. If so, it is also appropriate to expect MB leaders and churches to commit themselves to this recipe and road map since this is what seeking first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness would necessarily look like.
- We could see parts of our Confession as valuable and make that our shared centre (e.g., Articles 1-7; 17-18) and the other articles that talk about the details of practical discipleship as second tier (or disputable matters) where we can embrace much diversity among leaders/churches, stay together in the midst of that diversity, and call this the way of love and grace to each other. While some think this approach is attractive and faithful to our Anabaptist “third-way,” it is difficult not to see this tiering process as a fundamental renunciation of the Anabaptist part of our MB DNA. Hans Denck is famous for his statement: “No one truly knows Christ unless he follows him daily in life.” To suggest that some theological truth is the centre while concern for practical lived-out discipleship is mere boundary keeping goes against our Anabaptist heritage. Describing and embracing what following Jesus looks like practically in all areas of life is a key part of defining our centre. This is a significant reason why Anabaptism started nearly 500 years ago and why MBs began as a renewal movement in 1860.
- We could see our Confession of Faith as something that should be more like a thermometer or a snapshot of what our CCMBC family of churches can all affirm at any one moment. This means we would need some sort of democratic polling method to test support for each article at regular intervals. Do we still like Article 13? Or Article 11? Would we need to revise articles when 25% of our churches disagreed with them—or 50% or some other number? In this case, our Confession becomes less of a recipe and a road map and more of a descriptive document. This would make room for higher levels of explosive diversity among us, but it would also make our Confession of Faith increasingly wide and nondescript in those areas.
I think I can speak for the NFLT that at this point we lean toward understanding the Confession of Faith as an accurate recipe and a God-honouring road map for walking in discipleship to Jesus and toward God’s Kingdom. But we are also aware that we have not always been consistent in our expectations about Confessional integrity—caring a lot about some articles and much less about others. Speaking for myself, I hope we can move toward inviting all of our CCMBC family to engage and commit to the recipe and road map (and not just to the ingredients we particularly like in the moment). I have also encountered wildly divergent understandings of what our Confession actually declares especially about Articles 13 and 18. With our ongoing project to replace the present Commentary and Pastoral Application, I hope that some of this can be resolved and we can corporately get a new excitement for what we have actually agreed on together.
But we are also wanting to reflect a posture of listening and submission to our larger CCMBC family. We are not interested in some defensive posture of fear or an assertive power-hungry protection of an old relic. If the Confession of Faith is not a faithful recipe and road map summarizing God’s will as expressed in Scripture, the NFLT will respond to what is discerned together by our larger CCMBC family. But changes to our Confession are a BIG DEAL—and we don’t take them lightly.
Our CCMBC mission of vision says that we exist “to cultivate a community and culture of healthy disciple-making churches and ministries, faithfully joining Jesus in his mission.” Speaking now for myself, I believe that our Confession of Faith casts a supportive vision for how we together can be a faithful vibrant healthy disciple-making community faithfully joining Jesus in his mission. I will suggest four vision pieces that come out of our Confession. I am not interested in serving with CCMBC unless we are about vision—and I’m guessing you are not interested in leading and/or participating where you are unless we are pursuing a significant shared vision together. I have no interest in CCMBC if we are simply an old-folks home where we are watching day-time television waiting for the inevitable day when we are put in palliative care and the end comes.
I am here today in this role because I believe that the best MB life and spiritual vitality are in front of us—not behind us. I am not interested in measuring success as a church family simply because we have stayed together and survived another year. I am not interested in measuring success as a church family simply because we have balanced our budgets and are in the black rather than in the red. We must ask ourselves much bigger questions: have we been faithful to the present vision God has given us? Are we demonstrating God’s life and vitality in all we do? Are we moving closer to what God has called us to as the Canadian MB family? I’m going to suggest four vision pieces that come through in our MB Confession of Faith—and call us to something. Our Confession of Faith is not some dead document that we don’t need to care about, but an articulation of our biblical convictions that we believe God can use to speak to us.
The first vision piece is that our Confession calls us to Big Theology. Article One of our Confession of faith describes the Triune God in big terms: almighty in power, Creator of heaven and earth, and Sovereign (which means King)—and then Jesus who has been “exalted as Lord [or King] of creation and the church.” Our Confession of Faith proclaims a Big Theology—a big God. Only a big God is worthy of worship, obedience, surrender, and sacrifice. The American Insurance company Allstate has, since the 1950s, had the motto—”You’re in good hands with Allstate.” Our Confession of Faith says something similar—You’re in good hands with King Jesus; You’re in Big hands with King Jesus; You’re in Powerful hands with King Jesus. Having a Big Theology provides us the reassurance that as we live into the future, whether it brings joy or suffering—we are in good hands because we are in the hands of a Big God.
Our response to this vision is that any church family who claims to be following the MB recipe or road map must be a worshipping community, bowing down in submission, praise, and obedience. We must be a worshipping community—bowing before our Sovereign God and this exalted Lord Jesus. If we do not worship, we have walked away from our theological vision. Discipleship and mission begin with worship.
The second vision piece is that our Confession calls us to the good news of God’s Big Redemption Story. Article Two describes how God revealed himself in Creation, and then through Israel, and then “supremely in Jesus Christ.” Then Article 3 and Article 18 point us toward Jesus’ ultimate return and triumph. Our Confession of Faith highlights that God is writing a Big Story—a big redemption story that involves all creation—human and non-human. Our Confession paints this picture of Creation to new Creation, and Article 5 describes how salvation involves God taking the initiative “to accomplish deliverance and healing, redemption and restoration in a world dominated by sin.” Our proper response to this Big Story is faith, trust, and a desire to join the story. We are invited to become part of this big global and actually cosmic story—because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Our response to the Big Story is to bow, express faith in Jesus, be forgiven/redeemed, and join the story as disciples of Jesus who collectively live out this story in all of life. The Big Story is about the Church and how God is doing his Kingdom work in the world through the Holy Spirit-empowered Church until Jesus returns. Our MB Confession has a huge emphasis on the Church (Articles 6-9) because it believes that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, bigger than our personal happiness and freedom, bigger than our security and comfort, bigger than our diverse views and interpersonal challenges. God’s big redemption story is so important it is worth suffering for. We are called to participate in the Church family because it is central in God’s big cosmic redemption story.
The third vision piece is that our Confession of Faith calls us to a Big Mission. Article 7 describes how the Church has a big mission that involves making disciples, calling all people to repentance, loving God and neighbour, and witnessing to God’s reign (or Kingdom) in the world. Living in the way of Jesus—toward what I often call God’s Shalom Kingdom—is part of this mission. This Big Mission is, frankly, big—and amazing and compelling and captivating. Our response to this Big Mission must be to embrace it—and we only embrace it when we die to self and seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.
If we as the Canadian MB family do not embrace God’s big mission, we will fade off the map. You can see this over and over again as groups move away from the bigness of this mission and settle for some smaller part of that mission; a partial mission that sounds good but it is not the big mission. Only the big mission is worthy of our energy and money and time and passion. Only that big mission is empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. Will we as the CCMBC family embrace God’s big mission? Our Confession of Faith calls us to this big mission.
The fourth vision piece is that our Confession of Faith calls us to embrace a Trustworthy Bible. Article 2 highlights that the entire Bible is inspired by God, and this entire Bible is the “infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.” This means that the Bible is not simply a collection of ancient human thoughts about God and ethics written a long time ago in a place far away. This means that the Bible is not simply a vision calling us to pursue human peace/reconciliation, love, and justice (defined by many as helping people experience personal happiness, personal freedom, and the avoidance of suffering). Our Confession of Faith proclaims that the Bible is not simple or flat—but it is trustworthy to speak with clarity toward our big questions—our questions about the triune God, our questions about the gospel, salvation, peace, sexuality and gender, sanctity of life, and so on. Our Confession does not affirm a simplistic Bible, but it affirms a trustworthy Bible.
Our MB response, as people of the Book, is to go back to the book and engage the book and wrestle with the book in a world—even a Christian world—that wants to jump away from deeply engaging the book. Our Confession of Faith calls us to go back to the book!
To reiterate, our Confession of Faith has important vision pieces for us that support and will ultimately fulfill our CCMBC vision. Our Confession of Faith can help guide us as we face all the craziness of our present world—our post-pandemic world, our war-torn world in danger of World War three, our ethically uncertain world around abortion, sexuality, and gun-violence, and our mentally unhealthy world. During this time, we must worship our big Sovereign King Jesus—even as we lament together before this Sovereign King about our brokenness, and the brokenness of our communities, nation, and world. But we must also see this moment as part of God’s big cosmic redemption story that God is writing. We must embrace God’s big personal and global mission and finally we must return to living with a commitment to the trustworthiness of the Book—because it is God’s primary means of communicating theology and ethical truth to us today.
I hope you can see why I am excited about our MB Confession of Faith and what it can say to us in this moment. All of the resources we are working reflect our Confession of Faith’s vision of Big Theology, Big Story, Big Mission, and Trustworthy Bible. These are part of our Confession of Faith recipe or road map. Without these four, we will be hard-pressed to retain much of an MB DNA at all—much less have a reason to stay together in the so-called MB tent. Without these, I believe we will continue toward explosive rather than healthy diversity. But with these, and God’s Holy Spirit working afresh among us, I believe there is hope and a future for our MB family as we participate in God’s larger story and mission in the world.
Ken Esau, Interim National Faith & Life Director. (Adapted from the verbal report presented to the CCMBC National Assembly on June 11, 2022)