Home Life & Faith Living on the Borderland? What Does Being a Community Require of Us?

Living on the Borderland? What Does Being a Community Require of Us?


How did we get here?

Mennonite Brethren are Jesus-followers. We have always been. Over the years, we have acquired the habit of making our commitment to Jesus our fallback position when theological disagreements emerged. Sometimes, closer examination of the implications of this commitment helped overcome the disagreements. At other times, however, we took shelter in our common commitment to be Jesus-followers even while we allowed ourselves the privilege of agreeing to disagree. After all, isn’t a common commitment to Jesus enough? Well, in a word, not always.

The inclination to avoid controversy by attempting to frame unity simply on the basis of belief in Jesus rather than on a common substantive understanding of what that entails will not resolve our problems. Here’s a metaphor that I think is à propos. 

We recognize and celebrate diversity in our denomination, aware that we are different and bring different gifts. It is like a choir. Some sing high, some low, and some in the middle. Choir members have differing abilities that affect the parts they sing. The harmonies that result are wonderful. But there is one non-negotiable. All the members of the choir need to be singing the same song, following the conductor. If they don’t the outcome is chaos, not harmony.  

MBs have allowed unhealthy theological diversity to persist in a variety of areas for too long. It is becoming clear that less and less unites us. We need to be singing the same theological song.

What is a borderland church?

The theological conversations about LGBTQ+ inclusion are difficult. They reveal that there is hurt beneath the surface in our community, and there are different ideas about how to address it. I fully acknowledge that there are people on both sides of the issue that are motivated by a genuine desire to do good, as well as preserve a semblance of unity in our denomination. 

While many leaders are calling for theological unity, I noted with interest a proposal that some churches might serve as what have been termed Borderland churches – congregational communities that have a different understanding on theological issues addressed in the Confession of Faith. Why? The goal is to find a comparative reference so that after a specified period of time (the proposal suggests 5-7 years), “there would be a complete evaluation of how the inclusion process is working in both Borderland and non-Borderland congregations as both seek to live out our mission for the world.”1

It seems that the proposal is suggesting not only that MBs accept disagreement on what constitutes faithful human sexual expression, but also that Borderland churches be allowed to persist to see if they can embody a form of Christlikeness that is at odds with Christ’s teachings.  Moreover, it is supposed that their example might prove the basis for rethinking what faithful sexuality looks like for the entire denomination. In the end, changes to the Confession of Faith could be suggested – or the Borderland churches could be asked to leave.

On the surface, this may sound like a plausible approach to take. A direct comparison between two different approaches will yield good comparative data, will it not? It’s actually not that simple, for a number of reasons. Data is useful only in reference to what is reliable, what is true. Let me tell why I don’t think the idea of a borderland church is compatible with faithfulness.

As described in the documents I have read, the idea of a borderland is adapted from the work of a Latina author who used the term in a cultural sense to describe an area – in her case, a region surrounding the US-Mexico border – where two cultures blur and influences merge. 

In the MB church document I read, a borderland is a metaphorical place where theological influences come together to create an environment that is a mix of religious cultures. It is intended to create a space for disagreement. This disagreement might, in turn, lead to changes in what is seen as a dominant religious culture that people seeking a borderland perspective want to change.

Borderland – cultural and theological

The main shortcoming with this metaphor is that a theological confession does not invite influence from outside sources in the way that human cultures do.

Having grown up eating relatively bland food, I found trying Mexican, Indian, or Thai foods, with their enticing arrays of spices, an exciting experience.

But theological convictions don’t work the same way. I have been exposed to a number of denominations. I attended an Anglican college for my graduate studies in theology. I came to appreciate the history and richness of the Anglican tradition, but I also was reminded of the reasons I am not Anglican. I have theological convictions that would prevent my joining an Anglican church, and I know that there are theological convictions that an Anglican would need to revisit before considering joining a Mennonite Brethren church. This is not a bad thing; we are different for good reasons. 

Some influences go well beyond the limits of Christian theological commitments, however. In my graduate studies, one of my professors advocated reading the Psalms in a way influenced by Buddhist meditative practices. I quickly discerned that while it was helpful for me to know that others might read Scripture this way, faithfulness dictated that I read it differently, informed by historic Christian interpretive practices.

Theological priorities and directions

There are a multitude of external influences and pressures on Christian theology that believers need to pay heed – not as influences to embrace, but as dangers to avoid, both in terms of position and direction. Faithful Christian theology arises first from surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ. This speaks to position. But it also calls believers to follow after Christ, to pursue intimacy with Jesus in teaching and example – direction — and to encourage one another to do the same. The idea that there is a borderland – a call to move from the theological centre to a “wilderness road” – is foreign to Scripture.

When I read the Bible, I see repeated admonitions to press on toward Christ, to draw near to God, to follow closely. The overarching idea is that closeness rather than distance is theologically preferable. The very idea that a person, church, or group could participate in a denomination in theory but not in practice does not, in my estimation, ring true.

This does not mean that I avoid people in my life who are theologically far from God, in doctrine or attitude. But it does imply that setting aside my confessional commitments for the sake of other’s interests does not embody faithfulness in my life. Put simply, I do not see a valid call to move to the borderland for missional or other reasons. Culturally, willingness to embrace difference is a sign of openness, which is good. Theologically, it is a sign of syncretism, which is not. The question we need to ask is this: On what does this proposal ultimately rely?

Do we need a borderland?

It is also important to consider the implications of a borderland itself. The document I read seems to imply that the borderland is on the outer edge of the theological landscape embodied by our Confession of Faith. But in light of the acknowledgment that this document is motivated by a difference of theological opinion, I think the metaphor falls short of reality. 

Theological diversity is fine in areas where the Confession of Faith is silent. MBs do not make an issue of whether or not we should own smartphones, or whether we should buy Apple or Android. But where we have spoken through the Confession, the call is to unity, not diversity.

Theologically, there is no such place as a borderland. As distasteful as this may be to some, it is impossible to occupy a Borderland place in relation to the Confession of Faith. The Confession (it is so named because it is intended to embody the faith that we confess, together) makes it clear that Mennonite Brethren have agreed together about the implications of discipleship in eighteen areas of life. Some of these eighteen articles are things we confess in common with other Christ-followers. Some are unique to Mennonite Brethren because of our context.

Theological discernment, permissiveness, and change

That we hold to these articles is not an act of judgment against others who name the name of Christ. It is differentiation. Believers who insist that they cannot affirm all the confessional articles with integrity need to follow in the strength of their convictions to a theological place where they can engage fully, and gladly. Proposing to inhabit a theological borderland lacks integrity, as does attempting to instigate change based on one’s own preferences, wisdom, or sense of identity.

I am very sympathetic to arguments that point to the fact that that for some time, some provincial MB leaders have been willing to grant latitude in certain areas of the Confession of Faith. Pastors entering the MB Conference with slightly different convictions regarding baptism and membership, atonement theology, or love and nonresistance (among other things) have been allowed to enter and participate fully, the only requirement often being that they not publically oppose confessional teaching. This latitude appears to set a precedent for how some might expect conference leaders would respond to borderland positions on human sexuality.

Moreover, Mennonite Brethren have shown willingness to change in a number of areas. Conference resolutions on women in ministry leadership, divorce and remarriage, and even television ownership have changed significantly. Is it possible that our theology of human sexuality is another area that needs review and revision? 

Theology – moving closer together instead of apart

In a nutshell, I am convinced that the answer to this question is no, and that attempting to move toward a theological borderland is the way that leads to disaster. The impulse to adapt or change our theological convictions for our context may be common, but it is not the way of faithfulness. Theological review is not a bad thing, if it is motivated by a desire to read Scripture more attentively, faithfully and missionally. The result is affirmation of theological convictions that address the breadth of Scripture well, not only certain carefully chosen texts. 

For example, many years of conversation about women in ministry showed that traditional views of male-only church leadership overlook clear evidence from Scripture that women served in leadership roles, and were commended for their efforts. In the case of biblical teaching on human sexuality, there is not a single text that makes allowance for any sexual relations other than that between a man and a woman in the context of their marriage relationship. I am not convinced that Scripture contains a call from God to a borderland on this point.

Rhetoric that speaks of the inevitability of change effectively makes change itself the god we must serve rather than the God of Scripture. Change is not automatic; God’s change happens as God’s truth impacts our lives. It is true that change— enabled by the Spirit, revealed via Scripture, and embodied in the Confession of Faith — is often mediated through relationships that are often informal and organic. These need to continue.

The road ahead

It has become clear to me in recent years that Mennonite Brethren have done a poor job of clarifying how we ought to do theological reflection and discernment together. We have assumed that if we gather and read Scripture together, we will somehow reach agreement. The evidence before us is that this expectation is unfounded. We have people reading Scripture in different ways with different motives, and a common theological method escapes us even now.

The truth is that by allowing the unhealthy diversity that now exists, we are already living on the borderland. Our call is to return home – to Jesus, the centre—and to what we have understood as faithful discipleship as defined in Scripture and articulated in our MB Confession of Faith. The journey will not be easy, and some may choose not to come, not because they have been excluded, but because they are pursuing other priorities. That will be painful, but it will still be preferable to remaining where we find ourselves at present.


1. Longhurst, John. “River East Church Proposes New Process for Mennonite Brethren Churches in Manitoba Living on the ‘Borderland’ of the Confession of Faith.” River East Church proposes new process for Mennonite Brethren churches in Manitoba living on the “borderland” of the Confession of Faith, February 28, 2023. http://timetotellcanada.blogspot.com/2023/02/river-east-church-proposes-new-process.html


Gary Simpson June 13, 2023 - 14:01

Thank-you Brian
Well done!

Kevin Koop June 16, 2023 - 23:52

Oh dear. I just… um. Could y’all not impale each other with your rhetoric. That… that would be good. Like, Jesus… these types of convos were just not His jam. At all. This is just not it. Please find ways to be kind, to make space for each other… I know the stakes feel so monumental. I know it is delicate and personal subject matter. The theology can be air tight but so much of all this is resounding gongs and clanging symbols. Please just… just don’t.

Brian Cooper June 20, 2023 - 13:47

Kevin, thank you for taking the time write. I am confused by your comment. I have tried hard to name issues without impaling anyone with rhetoric. But I suppose that readers will derive different things from what they read. I hope I have written with appropriate respect; I am not aware that I have done otherwise.

As to the sentiment that these type of conversations were not Jesus’ jam, what kind of conversation was Jesus having when he took his conversation partners to task in Matthew 23:15? Jesus lambasted them for traveling far and wide to make converts that they made “twice as much a child of hell as [they] are.” This is not the only sharp language Jesus used in this exchange, and this is not the only pointy exchange Jesus had with his interlocutors. In all matters, Christians are called to be both loving and kind, but there is no theological mandate to be nice. So some truths may land awkwardly, but only because they need to do so.

I am no fan of difficult conversations, to say nothing of ones that become heated. I have worked hard to remain respectful with those with whom I have disagreed, and others have generally accorded me the same respect. But it is nevertheless necessary to say difficult things to one another out of love. This is not a bad thing, just a hard thing. And it should not end the relationship, even if it ends the conversation — hopefully only for a time.

I agree that the stakes feel monumental. I believe that they are. And I agree that what is at stake here is delicate, personal, and deeply interpersonal. That is why I think the only thing worse than having this conversation is not having it.

Kevin Koop July 9, 2023 - 17:00

You are right that conversation is necessary where their is conflict… silence can be it’s own kind of violence in that case. But I suppose my main issue is that you seem to equate following Jesus with your particular theological leaning. “The truth is that by allowing the unhealthy diversity that now exists, we are already living on the borderland. Our call is to return home – to Jesus, the centre—and to what we have understood as faithful discipleship as defined in Scripture and articulated in our MB Confession of Faith.”

I confess, I’d be pretty hard to nail down on how I feel specifically about these issues. I am convinced, however, that their will be card carrying members of conservative denominations AND proud members of the LQBTQ2S+ community in heaven. If there’s a practical political consideration to say to those who hold to a traditional view of marriage, maybe we all need to be in one denomination, and to those who are more liberal, perhaps you ought to belong to another fellowship, than so be it. But to suggest faithfulness to Christ is contingent on one’s view on this issue, that’s where it seems your rhetoric verges on violent, however composed it may be (and quite frankly, where it verges on violence regardless of our particular views on the matter).

Re: Matthew 23 — Jesus basically only took full time religious professionals to task. So, I suppose we’re both warned. There’s just waaaaay too many stories in the gospels of powerful religious leaders who are advocating for purer theology being the ones Jesus gets upset with, and “sinners” — very theologically and morally questionable people, who seem more comfortable with him and who also seem more “at home” with him. Kindness, forgiveness, generosity, grace, humility, hospitality, these seem much more of Jesus’ concern. Matthew 25, especially to the end there, makes the case in pretty stark terms. It’s the shape of our hospitality not our theology that gets us in God’s good books. Worth thinking about.

And again, I don’t mind politically necessary demarcations. I’d just much rather we say, you know what, on this issues, we just can’t get along. Let’s have a potluck every couple of months and leave the weekly worship to our own traditions. I’ve gotten to know quite a few faithful people with tragically flawed views of baptism this way!


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