Without a doubt, COVID-19 has been the greatest disruptor of plans-well-laid in our lifetime. The National Faith & Life Team, along with everyone else, cancelled many plans and shifted gears to place greater focus on encouraging prayer in our family and providing support to our churches and leaders.
However, I’m happy to report that the National Faith & Life Team functioned well throughout 2020, and that the various national Faith and Life projects continued. To compensate for the loss of extended, in-person meetings, the NFLT met more often virtually and completed the work on our agenda for 2020.
Among this work, the review of our Confession takes center stage. The revision of Article 8 – Christian Baptism started in the fall of 2018, gathering feedback from church leaders via a survey, at in-person regional meetings, and spring 2019 conventions.
The NFLT held a Faith & Life Summit in May of 2019 and presented the first draft of the proposed revision in the fall 2019 regional meetings. We then collected further feedback and presented the updated article for approval at the spring 2020 provincial conventions.
However, COVID-19 and the fact that our bylaws were in mid-revision made approval in 2020 impossible. The Article was therefore slated for a recommendation for approval at the June 2021 AGM.
In the meantime, the NFLT continued to work on the various supporting materials for the Article. We have completed the following pieces:
The commentary. The commentary text has been updated and reformatted into endnotes that pop-up in online versions of the article. This way, the statements describing our convictions are directly linked to the Scripture text and the theological rationale behind them.
The Pastoral Application has been renamed to Implementation Guidelines and has been reformatted in terms of Frequently Asked Questions. This format also caters to on-line reading, bearing the user in mind, as the relevant information is much easier to locate.
See the updated Article, the pop-up commentary and the Implementation Guidelines FAQs here.
The Liturgical Version is also in the process of revision to reflect the updated wording of the Article.
Supporting Resources. We hope to offer pastors and congregants resources around the more challenging aspects of this article, which is baptism of those who claim infant baptism. Some of these resources have already been produced and can be found in the relevant sections of the Implementation Guidelines.
The NFLT is also collecting ideas on how to make the baptism and membership events meaningful worship components in the life of your church – please share your practices with us at FAQ@mbchurches.ca for inclusion in the resources related to our baptism and membership practices.
The discussions with our pastors pointed to two key challenging areas in implementing what we believe about Christian Baptism:
Connection between baptism and belonging. Our churches place readiness for baptism along a continuum between initial evidence of saving faith on one end and adequate maturity which evidences spiritual growth and readiness to serve meaningfully in the local church on the other end.
While our Confession allows for a range of practice, the revised Article nudges baptism closer to the beginning of the journey of following Jesus while encouraging adequate understanding of the meaning of the ordinance by the baptized.
At the same time, the article continues the Mennonite Brethren practice of linking baptism closely to belonging to a local church – for the purpose of discipleship, exercising gifts in the service of the body, fellowship and mutual encouragement.
Believer’s baptism for those claiming infant baptism is the more challenging pastoral issue, as we have all known wonderful, mature followers of Christ who desire to become members in an MB church and who come from a tradition that baptizes infants.
The requirement for believer’s baptism stays unchanged in the updated Article, primarily on the basis of the teaching of Scripture as we collectively read it to our best understanding. To support pastors in the, at times challenging conversations with such Christ-followers the NFLT has gathered and continues to gather, resources to help.
Why the Revision?
The revision of Article 8 was, in part, a test case to see if we can meaningfully review and update our Confession one Article at a time and do so with as much community involvement as possible. As such, it has yielded the following outcomes:
1. The Process. The process of study by the national and provincial Faith and Life teams, various scholars, experts and practitioners was a win. The process of gathering information on how our churches go about baptizing Christ-followers and welcoming them into the life of the local church was informative and inspiring. The process of the many and repeated conversations at various gatherings of pastors in their provincial context was a win. We heard many affirmations and many valuable suggestions, which led to several improvements in wording.
Engagement with the Article encouraged us to again carefully read the Bible and our MB history as these pertain to the practice of Christian baptism and to affirm and strengthen our theological position. The fellowship and new friendships that developed in the process were an unexpected bonus.
2. Enthusiasm for Baptism and Membership. The study and the engagement already mentioned above continue to increase our appreciation for the local church, our passion for her thriving, and our gratitude for the ordinance of baptism. The revised Article language lifts baptism from the realm of duty to the realm of blessing and joy. It is an act of obedience in which the three agents: God, the local church, and the baptized, come together in witness to the saving and transforming work of God in a unique way.
I was personally blessed by many testimonies of church leaders whose passion for baptism was reignited and for those who came from traditions where baptism and membership were “not a big deal”, but who, through the revision process, came to hold these as precious gifts to the church from our good God.
3. Improved Supporting Material. The Commentary, the Implementation Guidelines, the Summary and Liturgical version of the Article, and the supporting video resources on baptism and membership are all timely improvements, building on the Confession writing team’s good work from 1999.
The hyperlinked Commentary and FAQ format for Implementation Guidelines have been affirmed as much welcomed and helpful to the point the that NFLT has undertaken to reformat the Commentary and Implementation Guidelines for all Articles of the Confession, even for those Articles that are not likely in need of a revision.
Personally, the process has deepened my appreciation for my Mennonite Brethren family in Canada. I believe that we are a beautiful and much-needed expression of Christ’s body on earth. I wish to express a special thanks to Andrew Dyck, Doug Heidebrecht and Ken Esau who have done the lion’s share of research and writing work on the Article. It has been my personal pleasure and honour to work alongside them on this endeavour.
In Christ and on behalf of the National Faith and Life Team,