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A guided tour of the currents

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How the MB Herald shaped our attitudes about evangelical Anabaptism

Many MBs understand “Anabaptist” and “evangelical” as overlapping categories, like two circles in a Venn diagram. Both bodies hold distinct perspectives, but share many tenets of faith.

So, what does it mean to be both Anabaptist and evangelical?

In 2000, the board of faith and life answered that evangelicalism gives us “a conviction about an encounter with Christ,…the vital reality of life in him,…concern to share that life with others,” and openness to people from other spiritual traditions.

Anabaptism’s contribution is “a sense of what it means to be a faithful, covenanted community; it taught us that accepting Christ…means having his life lived out in ours from day to day; it means seeing the kingdom of God as the rule of God in our lives.” The BFL concluded by urging MBs to “resolve to be both Anabaptist and evangelical in the best sense of those terms.”

From the beginning, MBs drank from the waters of both streams, but only more recently in our 150-year history did we consistently use both to describe ourselves. The MB Herald, a primary communication tool of the Canadian conference (at present, reaching some 15,000 homes), has played a role in introducing the term to constituents.

Introducing a label

It began with schools. “Evangelical Anabaptist” was first used in the Herald in 1965 by Eastern Mennonite University professor Myron Augsburger, who encouraged Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) to seek “to define and teach evangelical Anabaptist theology.” In 1971, editor Harold Jantz exhorted schools to “identify with the evangelical Anabaptist confession which we as a brotherhood confess.”

Less than two decades later, MB schools’ career ads reflected their full immersion: all staff and faculty were required to hold “evangelical Anabaptist theology”(Columbia Bible College, Bethany College). In a 1996 advertisement, Winkler Bible Institute stated its intention to “train in Christian discipleship from an evangelical anabaptist perspective.” Concord College, which arose from MBBC in 1992, “affirm[ed] our evangelical/anabaptist tradition” in its mission statement. (As early as 1984, MBBC marketed itself as “stand[ing] within the evangelical Anabaptist heritage of faith.”)

Jantz referred to MB Biblical Seminary, Fresno, Cal., as “home of evangelical Anabaptist scholars” in 1981; frequent use of the term, particularly in president Henry J. Schmidt’s 1990s In Touch articles made this orientation clear to readers.

Prior to the MB conference’s entry into the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in 1973 (the first Mennonites to affiliate as a denomination), Jantz, “Personal Opinion” columnist John H. Redekop, and feature writer J.A. Toews used the term in their articles. Redekop in particular urged readers not to identify their faith as “Mennonite” (for him, the culture of Dutch/German immigrants from Ukraine), but as drawn from these two streams of theology.

The first letter to the editor using the term also appeared in 1971 – with criticism. Victor G. Doerksen feared the “hard-won recovery of the Anabaptist vision” would be “bartered” for “a mess of ‘evangelical pottage.’” Not all constituents accepted “evangelical Anabaptist” as a unifying term.

The first time the Canadian conference identified itself as an evangelical Anabaptist entity in the Herald was in 1975: the MB church is “historically and theologically rooted in evangelical Anabaptism of the 16th-century Reformation.” This pre-convention report drew on the denomination’s beginnings in 1860 for evidence of evangelical heritage and looked to Harold Bender’s recent “The Anabaptist Vision” for congruence with Anabaptism.

A new name?

We didn’t see much of the term evangelical Anabaptist until the mid-1980s when it frequently came into use in Redekop’s columns, and in letters and convention reports. This set the stage for the proposal to change the name of the MB conference in Canada to “Evangelical Anabaptist.”  (Redekop was national moderator at the time.)

Letters in response to the name change proposal ranged from approval, to exasperation, to cautious skepticism. “To suggest that the name ‘Evangelical Anabaptist’ would…free us from confusion, theological diversity, and denominational disintegration goes beyond me,” J. H. Quiring wrote in 1987. “If we want to be determined by ‘perception in periodicals,’ the words ‘evangelical’ and ‘anabaptist’ may not fare much better.”

In the 2000s, “evangelical Anabaptism” was in mainstream MB usage: employed to characterize the denomination’s theology in news articles, transition announcements, and letters. By 2005, a Canadian conference survey included the statement “I am committed to our Evangelical/Anabaptist distinctives” – assuming all members understood the term. Result: 45% strongly agreed, 44% agreed, 8 were ambivalent or undecided, 3% disagreed.

The MB Herald’s 2011 survey found similarly: 71.9% agreed the “MB Herald is a good blend of evangelical Anabaptist,” with only 6% thinking it too Anabaptist, and 4% too evangelical.

In his closing interview in 2010, outgoing executive director David Wiebe highlighted “the evangelical-Anabaptist blend” as the most unique thing MBs have to offer “among the myriad evangelical and Anabaptist denominations worldwide.”

Toward the end of the millennium’s first decade, identity debate heated up again. Previous editors and feature writers attempted to demonstrate that Mennonite Brethren are in fact both evangelical and Anabaptist. However, today’s task looks different. Now, editorials, letters, and articles invoke “evangelical Anabaptist” to remind MB readers – many unaware of the history of their church – that what they are is evangelical Anabaptist.

Karla Braun

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