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Church’s challenges examined

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New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology
Abe Dueck, Helmut Harder, Karl Koop, editors

CMU Press, 2010
330 pages


Canadian Mennonites are a group in an identity crisis. New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology addresses the challenges facing the believers church family. The editors assure us the essays provide a rich diet of “food for thought” and that this is “good news for the church.”

Some 80 scholars and church leaders from the believers church family and beyond met at Canadian Mennonite University in June 2008 for a study conference on issues related to identity. New Perspectives contains a selection of 17 plenary addresses and papers presented at the Winnipeg event.

The first two chapters set the stage with some biblical perspectives, and then the essays move on to theological foundations, the dynamics of denominationalism, the perspectives of history and tradition, and finally to recent trends, e.g. the southern shift in world Christianity.

Several essays are particularly relevant to where we are as Canadian Mennonite Brethren.

Are denominations dead?

The cover story of the June 2010 issue of Christianity Today posed the question: “Are Denominations Dead?” – a question associate professor of church history and Mennonite studies at MB Biblical Seminary (Langley, B.C. campus) Bruce Guenther addresses in his essay “Life in a Muddy World: Historical and Theological Reflections on Denominationalism.” Guenther seeks to go beyond the pragmatic and functional reasons usually given for the existence of denominations and probes whether there is a theological rationale for denominations.

Guenther draws on the insights of 16th-century dissenting Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, who asserted that divisions among Christians can be used by God to “bring further light.” Thus, Guenther affirms that a healthy denominational identity includes an appreciation of the contribution its theological particularity makes to the larger body of Christ. He adds a much-needed cautionary note that an important part of this appreciation is “a candid assessment of the darker sides that a tradition has experienced in its history.” His examples hit home for MBs – spiritual elitism and the tendency toward legalism.

Doug Heidebrecht, former director of the Centre for MB Studies in Winnipeg, provides a provocative piece on “Women among Mennonite Brethren and the Struggle for Denominational Consensus.” The essay reveals a radical shift in relations between MB congregations and the denomination on matters of authority.

Heidebrecht points out that for many years the restrictive view regarding women in ministry that MBs held was based on shared, unarticulated assumptions with no room for the expression of differing convictions. Through a process of study conferences, MB leaders negotiated the presence of conflicting convictions within the denomination and found a mediating position.

CMU associate professor of practical theology Irma Fast Dueck addresses an issue facing many Mennonites in the local church setting, namely the perplexity of unbaptized confessing Christians and how the identification of baptism with membership creates “significant barriers.”

Emergent church debated

Two other provocative essays on a contemporary issue influencing believers church ecclesiology, namely the emerging/emergent church, come from Columbia Bible College professor of practical theology Gareth Brandt and Winnipeg theologian and ethicist Paul Doerksen. The two spar regarding the merits and deficits of this movement.

An effusive review of emergent leader Brian McLaren’s latest book in the June MB Herald indicates the influence emergent thinking has in at least some Mennonite circles.

New Perspectives raises significant issues facing the believers church family. The book is long and at times obtuse, large on description and brief on prescription. However, many of the essays will serve as catalysts for discussion and debate. The book makes a valuable contribution to the series coming out of the Believers Church conferences held in North America beginning in 1967.

Walter Unger is president emeritus of Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C.

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