Canadian Mennonite Brethren churches have chosen the number one as a thematic symbol. We speak of one Lord, one people, one mission. It’s a catchy sound bite.
Mathematically, the number one is powerful. It’s a factor of every other number, and divides into every number. Even prime numbers, such as 3 or 7, have one as a factor. One brings unity to all things by providing a shared element.
As Christians, our “one” is Jesus and his mission. Our shared love for the Saviour – who makes it possible to love others and advance his mission in our world – brings unity to the church.
A system of separation
However, the number one can also be used as a ranking, determining who’s first and who’s second. It’s the schoolyard chant, “We’re number one!” But where does that leave the rest?
Our tribal instincts may tempt us to use oneness language to determine who is acceptable and who is not. Mennonites have a long history of this kind of “separating” unity. But there have always been voices calling for something more.
Peter M. Friesen (1849–1914) was a respected teacher, minister, and writer among Mennonites in Ukraine. In 1911, he published a history of Russian Mennonites to 1910, including the emergence of the Mennonite Brethren church.
Last year, the Centre for MB Studies published a translation of part two of Friesen’s book, the section dealing with Mennonites in North America.
Friesen’s dream was to unite Mennonites under one banner, regardless of mode of believers’ baptism (sprinkling, pouring, immersion), leadership pattern (eldership, congregational), language of conversion (individual, communal), or way of expressing a Christian peace witness in times of war (forestry service, Red Cross medic, non-participation). However, he found the rigidity of some of his fellow MBs in 1910 troubling and counterproductive for a vision of a shared fellowship and mission with other evangelical groups.
For example, many MBs at the time refused to share communion or have fellowship with those whose baptismal mode was different, who spoke about their Christian experience differently, who organized themselves differently, or who chose to express their Christian peace witness differently. According to Friesen, the MB movement had become so rigid, it hardly compared to the vitality and dynamism of the movement born 50 years earlier in 1860.
The Mennonite Brethren rigidity of 1910 is not unique. Any group that celebrates unity must carefully consider what it means for them. The temptation to understand unity as doing things in one – and only one way – isn’t new. But we must be cautious about understanding unity as uniformity. The path to maturity for individuals, families, and churches is to learn to stay vitally connected with those whose practice is different.
Today, MB churches are at the threshold of something exciting once again; it’s called the C2C Network, a church planting network that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic. C2C is an MB initiative, offering resources of assessment, internships, and coaching to church planters. The new piece is that these church planters may be affiliated with denominations other than Mennonite Brethren. At last count, there were 11 different denominations taking part in C2C’s coaching and resourcing.
How fascinating! MBs may finally be doing what P.M. Friesen called for 100 years ago.
When MBs work across denominational lines with Baptists, Evangelical Free, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Alliance, and others, we’re doing what Friesen himself did when he ministered in Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, German Baptist, and evangelical Russian churches.
Hopefully, we can learn from the more embarrassing parts of MB history and not repeat them. God’s mission is bigger than the MB church. That’s the reason we must collaborate with others, united in purpose and mission – God’s mission.
It means recognizing the rich variety of ways Christians have thought about every aspect of theology. Not necessarily agreeing with each other’s construction, but gracious enough not to separate or break fellowship over our differences.
The shape of C2C is still in formation – Christian communities working together in the mission of God, reaching out to our communities in the name of Christ. Such a network is truly novel in Canada, something radically different from the suspicion that typically keeps the walls of separation very high.
My prayer is that we will be able to work together in shaping the profile of the C2C Network, so the gospel of Jesus Christ will truly reach across this land. The mission of God is too important not to do so.
—Jon Isaak is the director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg.