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Believers churches explore the challenges of denominationalism

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Report on the 16th Believers Church Conference

Differences between denominations can be helpful, and when it comes to discussing these differences, the Believers Church tradition has a lot to offer the wider Christian community. This was the prevalent message at the 16th Believers Church Conference, held June 11–14 at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Sponsored by CMU’s Institute for Theology and the Church, the conference attracted participants from across North America and even Europe. Some 24 scholars presented papers and three keynote speakers shared their perspectives on the theme: “Congregationalism, Denominationalism, and the Body of Christ.”

Conference organizers were acutely aware that denominationalism had acquired a somewhat negative reputation over the past century, built by scholars such as H. Richard Niebuhr, who described the church’s split into denominations as “the moral failure of Christianity.”

But this wasn’t the view of presenter Sheila Klassen-Wiebe, assistant professor of New Testament at CMU, who opened the conference with a study of the Book of John. “John’s ‘the one and the many’ is a fitting symbol for our conference,” she said.

“The church encompasses unity and diversity. It’s united in a common work – bringing God’s abundant life to a hostile world. The unity isn’t just about potlucks and care groups. There is a missional purpose – ‘that the world might believe.’

“But unity doesn’t eliminate individuality. There are a variety of people who encounter Jesus and believe,” said Klassen-Wiebe.

For example, John 21 depicts Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple as having different callings and different roles in the story. “It doesn’t matter how the two compare, it just matters that they both are faithful to Jesus,” she explained.

“There should be no comparing or competing in the Body of Christ.”

Rebuilding a bad reputation

“I don’t believe denominationalism is the cause of the church’s disunity,” said workshop presenter Bruce Guenther, associate professor of church history and Mennonite studies at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Langley, B.C.

The idea of a denominational principle was first articulated in the middle of the seventeenth century by English Puritans. It began as a “tool to exercise influence over the nation,” explained Guenther.

Denominations have had problems, he said, but also have introduced many benefits. “They’ve been useful for mobilizing Christians to various kinds of action.”

Citing the work of Jeremiah Burroughs, a 17th century apologist, Guenther explained how differences among Christians can be used by God to bring forth more light on biblical truth.

For example, “as the demographic centre of gravity for Christianity has shifted southwards, North American Christians are gradually becoming more aware and appreciative for the contribution that global theologies have for expanding our understanding of the kingdom of God.”

“Denominationalism is not equal to schism,” he concluded. “Real schism has more to do with how people leave a congregation, and how they characterize other Christians.”

Ecumenical conversation

Conference keynote speaker, Fernando Enns, would agree. Enns, the founding director of the chair of Mennonite theology at Hamburg University, is a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. His passion is to help the Mennonite church share its insights and also learn from the ecumenical context.

“Our ecclesiological contributions become visible in this setting,” he said. “We can share our commitment to visible discipleship and our understanding of the priesthood of all believers,” as we converse with people from other traditions.

Interdenominational dialogue forces us “to articulate ourselves. We have to talk about what we stand for, not just what we disagree with,” he said.

“Our dialogue will not leave us unchanged. It will strengthen us from within, so that the world may believe. This is the goal of all ecumenical dialogue.”

A Trinitarian perspective

Enns argued that our conversations with other denominations should be rooted in a Trinitarian framework, which means giving equal emphasis to all persons of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“A Trinitarian approach would seem appropriate if we want to hold together the various metaphors of the church and take into account the richness of the biblical witness,” Enns said.

However, this approach doesn’t come naturally for many in the Believers Church stream, which has traditionally stressed Jesus narratives and Christology, and has seen the Trinity as a symbol of the bondage of mainline churches.

“We end up with a context-less Jesus if we just talk about Christ,” noted Enns. “I’m not saying give up our Jesus. But maybe we’ve been a bit limited. What about the people of Israel? What about the work of the Holy Spirit? We can become a better Believers Church if we enlarge the picture.”

Concluding observations

During a concluding panel discussion, J. Denny Weaver, former professor of religion at Bluffton University, observed that the conference’s essentially positive view of denominationalism was understandable given the event’s Canadian context, where multiculturalism and religious pluralism thrive.

However, the tone of the conference may have been somewhat different in the U.S., a country where religious conversations are largely dominated by evangelicals. “It’s a very different conversation” in America, he said, where people from the Believers Church don’t necessarily sit at the table as equals.

“By starting the conversation with agreements, the dominant view is favoured. Things like our peace language become peripheral and we have a truncated form of the Believers Church.”

This was the third Believers Church Conference held in Canada, with the other 13 occurring in the United States. Since the conference’s inception in 1967, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, Baptists, Pentecostals, and others favouring “adult” or “believers” baptism have gathered to consider the distinctiveness of the Believers Church perspective.


Laura Kalmar is editor of the MB Herald. This article was written for Meetinghouse, an association of Anabaptist editors.

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