Mennonite Brethren core convictions
The Mennonite Brethren movement began 150 years ago in southern Russia with 18 families. Today, we are a diverse group of 18 conferences in 15 countries representing some 300,000 people, with church planting work being done by MBMS International workers in at least another dozen countries.
This begs the question, what does it mean to be Mennonite Brethren? What holds us together in the midst of our diversity? While this question could be answered in many ways, I wish to explore how our shared theological convictions contribute to forming our identity as Mennonite Brethren. Is there a centre, a set of core theological convictions that reflects who we are today and that can also provide us with a vision for how we are to live as God’s people?
Convictions are not whims or opinions that can easily change but rather reflect our deep-seated commitments. Convictions are expressed in what we actually say and do; that is, our words and actions reveal our true convictions. Community convictions are the shared persuasions and beliefs that guide our thought and shape our life together.
Our Confession of Faith describes, in 18 articles approved in 1999 after a lengthy discernment process, what we believe together. The Confession, however, may not quickly come to mind when we respond to someone in the church foyer or at work asking, who are the Mennonite Brethren? Is there a way of clearly stating the core convictions we share?
The very centre
Following the early Anabaptists, we state in the commentary to our Confession of Faith that “Christ stands at the very centre of the Christian faith.” To say that Jesus is central to Mennonite Brethren convictions is not to diminish the significance of the Trinity nor is it to ignore the work of the Spirit. Rather it is to say that at the heart of our relationship with God is our identity as Christ followers.
Mennonite Brethren emphasize five aspects of Jesus’ life and mission. (Figure A, above)
• Jesus is the unique Saviour of the world.
• God is revealed in the person of Christ.
• Jesus is head of the church.
• Jesus is our model for faithful discipleship.
• Jesus is Lord over all.
These facets of Jesus’ identity and work underlie our central beliefs and provide the motivation for shaping our lives and mission in the world.
Six core convictions emerge from our understanding of Jesus (quotes that follow are from Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application).
1. We believe that we can only find new life in Jesus Christ. “God prepared the way of salvation until finally God reconciled the world to himself by the atoning blood of Jesus. As people put their trust in Christ, they are saved by grace through faith….God forgives them, delivers them from sin’s bondage, makes them new creatures in Christ, empowers them by the Holy Spirit, and seals them for eternal life.”
2. We believe in the Bible. “We believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit.” Through the Scriptures, “God is revealed in the person of Christ; Jesus shows us what God is like through his life and ministry.
“We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice;” so we submit our understanding to the judgment of the biblical text.
3. We believe the church is the people called by God through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the head of the church, those who have responded in faith to God. The church is depicted as the body of Christ, which is “nourished and renewed as God’s people gather regularly to glorify God. “Through the Holy Spirit, God gives gifts to each member for the well-being of the whole body.” Baptism symbolizes both our conversion experience when we were cleansed by the Holy Spirit and also our incorporation into the body of Christ, the church.
4. We believe that Jesus calls us to follow him as disciples. “Discipleship begins with a personal commitment of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
“By calling his followers to take up the cross, Christ invites them to reject the godless values of the world and offer themselves to God in a life of service…. To be a disciple means to be true to Jesus in everyday life.”
5. We believe in the mission of the church, which emerges out of faithfulness as disciples. “Christ commands the church to make disciples of all nations by calling people to repent, and by baptizing and teaching them to obey Jesus…. The good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is for all people.” As his disciples, we are to love our neighbour both “by telling the good news and by doing acts of love and compassion.” We proclaim Christ’s lordship through both our words and our actions.
6. We believe in the ministry of reconciliation. “We believe that God in Christ reconciles people to himself and to one another, making peace through the cross.” Disciples of Jesus are “to be agents of reconciliation in all relationships, to practice love of enemies as taught by Christ, to be peacemakers in all situations.” The lordship of Jesus requires his disciples to “treat others with compassion and gentleness and reject violence as a response to injustice.”
A packaged set
Together, these beliefs form a conviction set. It comes as a package. We cannot let go of one conviction without significantly altering who we are. While we need to be cautious about putting too much weight on a simple diagram, (Figure B, right), this illustration does encourage us to view our convictions as an integrated picture. In fact, I suggest that as we begin to recognize the interconnectedness between these different convictions, they emerge as a practical guide for our ongoing life and mission.
For example, we cannot simply call people to new life in Christ without also emphasizing his call to follow him as disciples. New life in Christ is only the starting point of a journey. Discipleship must take place within the context of the local church; the New Testament portrays no disconnected, loner Christians. As we seek to follow Christ, the Bible is our authoritative guide for discerning what that looks like in our everyday experience.
Furthermore, our involvement in mission is not optional, but reflects a necessary expression of what it means to follow Jesus. The ministry of reconciliation, both in relation to God and with each other, is inherent in the gospel itself and must be seen as an integral part of our mission in the world.
The relationship between the church and Scripture is also highlighted by this simple portrayal of our core convictions. As Mennonite Brethren, we read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. As God’s fullest revelation, Jesus becomes the interpretive key to the rest of Scripture. We also read the Bible together as the church. We acknowledge not only that our individual perspectives are limited by our experiences, but that God’s Spirit works in a unique way among us when we meet around the Word.
What we say in answer to the question “who are the Mennonite Brethren?” points to a shared set of convictions centred around Jesus that underlies our rich diversity. Our identity emerges in the dynamic interaction of our core theological convictions. Yet what we assert we believe must be lived out in our words, actions, and attitudes, for it is only then that the vision that guides us can truly become descriptive of who we are.