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B.C. addresses tension around theological diversity

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Pastors meet for discussion, reconciliation

B.C.’s annual convention started with a pre-meeting of pastors and leaders, a special session called by conference minister Steve Berg for “a conversation, hoping to be restorative, clarifying.” (See story in March’s Herald, p. 27.)

The sanctuary of Richmond Chinese MB Church was filled with leaders who answered that call. Former Willingdon MB pastor Carlin Weinhauer, who is now semi-retired and works as a mobilizer for MBMSI, opened the afternoon with a devotional message, reminding kingdom labourers that “it’s a spiritual work we are called to.” It was a message that moved many, and led into a time of prayer at each table.

“Our conversation is about our confession of faith, about our mission – that’s at the core – and about our community, in mutuality and harmony,” said Berg. And so began an open-mike session that ran a wide gamut. Andrew Dyck, spokesperson for the session’s listening committee, highlighted five themes:

  • There are issues around what it means to be a community together, and sadness that we may have lost some communication. The committee heard that pride may be a factor in B.C.’s pastoral community, pride that needs forgiveness and reconciliation.
  • Questions of process exist when members or leaders want to address issues – either theological or operational. Some speakers felt there were now fewer connections among us and opportunities to discuss concerns, so something like the current debate on atonement is probably symptomatic.
  • There was talk about diversity. “There seems to be a value in our diversity, but it’s not a value for its own sake. So where are the boundaries? How are they established? How do we talk about accountability?” asked Dyck. Speakers mentioned that problems are cropping up due to the rapid growth and variety now evident in the B.C. conference.
  • There is some tension surrounding our understanding of what it means to be Mennonite Brethren – whether we’re more closely linked by our ethnicity or theology – and how that impacts change happening in the B.C. conference.
  • Dyck acknowledged many other unvoiced issues, which were mentioned at tables but not addressed during open-mike time. “There is a reason why we haven’t written 75 articles in our confession of faith,” he quipped. Among those issues, said Dyck, are women in ministry leadership, how we handle homosexuality, and similar concerns “just beneath the surface.”

Controversy regarding seminary prof

Several attendees expressed concern for MBBS professor Mark Baker and how he has been treated. Baker’s answer to a questioner at last October’s BFL study conference in Saskatoon, regarding the scriptural basis for penal substitutionary atonement, brought forth significant criticism. The B.C. conference executive wrote a letter to challenge what he said, and Baker apologized. (See story in April’s Herald, p. 18.)

Delegates wanted to know how B.C. had responded to the apology and whether it had brought closure. New conference moderator Rob Thiessen said the atonement issue is important so “we must find a way to talk about it. It’s important and deeply concerning. We hold the atonement issue with a closed hand.”

Lynn Jost, president of MB Biblical Seminary agreed that issues about salvation are “central to us. We must be in agreement on the fact Jesus lived, died, and rose again for our sins. It must be in our teaching.”

Jost said that Baker is “motivated as a missionary. He wants to make sure people understand the position of Jesus is essential. [Mark] teaches on the basis of our confession of faith.”

Brian Cooper, chair of B.C.’s pastoral ministries committee, said the church must understand one significant thing. “Penal satisfaction and penal substitution are not the same thing. We need to know exactly what [Baker] was saying, to whom, and in what context.”

“The most important thing,” added Cooper, “is to understand even our theological opponents at their best.”

Rebecca Stanley, church planter and new MB chaplain at the University of B.C., pleaded for opponents to show respect and have a posture of learning. “My concern is how [Baker] has been treated,” she said.

Berg said it’s a worthy conclusion for the conference to follow up on what’s been said. “We need to be together in a specific way to study the Scriptures, to have that as a focus for our conversation, and to commit to what it is that we believe and teach.

“It would be regrettable,” said Berg, “if the writing of one person would confine the issue.” He indicated there are “some things in progress,” and trusts delegates will hear in due course.

During the following day’s formal convention, Canadian conference executive director David Wiebe said the national board of faith and life (BFL) is also working on the issue. “When we talk about atonement, we are standing on holy ground and must be careful about how we act on that,” he said. “It does catch me in my spirit and my emotions. I thought, yesterday, we treated it with the reverence it deserves.”

Wiebe commented that while most of the discussions on the issue are in B.C., “it’s a Canadian conference matter.” He said the Canadian conference executive board will process a statement of faith and affirmation regarding the atonement during their June meeting.

After the pre-convention meeting concluded, many hallway conversations included the phrase “it was a beginning.” Many people also observed that there was no one who wanted to remove the atonement from its central place in the gospel.

—Barrie McMaster

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