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Living our identity

October 7, 2019 0 comment

Mennonite Brethren as evangelical and Anabaptist

Doug Heidebrecht

Have you ever found it difficult to describe yourself when someone asks, “Who are you?” Yet, if that person were to ask your family or friends, there would likely be a very quick response highlighting aspects of your character, the things you value, and what you love to do. Our identity is most clearly revealed in how we live in relationship with those around us.

Over the last 50 years, Mennonite Brethren (MB) in North America have been increasingly identifying ourselves as both evangelical and Anabaptist. ¹ In 1990, the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, which included both Canada and the United States, introduced their Vision Statement by recognizing that “the unity of confession and mission we seek can only be realized as Mennonite Brethren leaders agree with one another on the essentials of a faith and practice that is both Evangelical and Anabaptist.” ²

A decade later, the Canadian Conference Board of Faith and Life affirmed, “both Anabaptism and evangelicalism have had strong roles in shaping who we are. Together they provide a rich mine to nurture our life and witness in Christ…We want to resolve to be both Anabaptist and evangelical in the best sense of those terms.” ³

There have been numerous attempts to describe in more detail what a dual evangelical-Anabaptist identity might look like. For example, the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary’s 2007 Theological Witness Statement highlighted how the positive emphases of both movements are centred around conversion, believers baptism, the Bible, church, discipleship, mission, and a peace witness.

These few examples illustrate how Mennonite Brethren have typically attempted to integrate Anabaptism and evangelicalism into a meaningful and unifying sense of community identity. Conference leaders have sought agreement around the central theological beliefs that reflect the best of both movements.

Nevertheless, while Mennonite Brethren leaders continue to encourage the adoption of a dual evangelical-Anabaptist identity, there has been little reflection regarding how these labels function in practically describing the lived identity of Mennonite Brethren congregations.

Challenges

Attempts to form a shared Mennonite Brethren identity face several significant challenges.

First, Mennonite Brethren congregations often live with a level of ambiguity, even apathy, about the perceived value and need for a shared identity as Mennonite Brethren.

The relative independence of churches tends to focus ministry and relationships around local needs and missional opportunities.

At a personal level, we are aware of how our own identity has been shaped by the larger families and communities of which we are a part. The formation of our identity reflects the dynamic intersection of where we have been (our journey and experiences), who we are (our character and convictions), what we do (our practices and work), and where we are going (our vision for how things should be).

In a similar way, the identity of local congregations is also both embedded in and formed by the larger family of churches of which we are a part. Even if a church ignores or disavows the larger faith family’s influence, its shaping power (or that of some other unacknowledged community), nevertheless, remains under the surface.

We want to resolve to be both Anabaptist and evangelical in the best sense of those terms.

A second challenge is the increasing theological and cultural diversity among Mennonite Brethren in Canada.

Local congregations live and witness within diverse contexts and thus their identities are often shaped in different, sometimes conflicting, ways. The appeal to agree around a core list of “essential” theological emphases does not address how we assess the powerful influence of the multiple larger communities that continue to shape Mennonite Brethren.

A simple affirmation of the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith has not necessarily enabled churches to come to consensus around very real convictional differences about a variety of issues. In the face of deep-felt disagreements, Mennonite Brethren congregations have often simply tolerated conflicting differences.

A third challenge is the weakening of the relational “glue” that enables individual churches to feel like we belong to a larger group.

We know from our own immediate family relationships that regular communication is important. Visiting together builds relational bonds that strengthen a sense of a shared identity.

When congregations are disconnected from other churches, we may not recognize the significance of sharing in common experiences that provide opportunities for mutual ministry and care, which in turn builds relational trust. Being in relationship with a larger family calls local churches to share a collective missional vision that is built around a commitment to walk together.

Being in relationship with a larger family calls local churches to share a collective missional vision that is built around a commitment to walk together.

Identity markers

These challenges suggest that the formation of a dual evangelical and Anabaptist identity must not only address the theological content of what these labels mean, but also how they function as identity markers within a diverse and dynamic Mennonite Brethren community. The challenge is not to reduce “Anabaptist” and “evangelical” to mere slogans we use to caricature the nature and complexity of these two movements.

The term “evangelical” is derived from the New Testament language for “gospel” or “good news.”

The label has had a long history of use by certain Protestant groups. More recently, it has been used to describe a contemporary movement of Christians defined by a constellation of theological convictions about the Bible, salvation in Jesus Christ alone, the necessity of a personal conversion experience, and living out this experience in daily life and witness.

The range of individuals, churches, denominations, institutions, and agencies that identify as evangelical makes it very difficult to use the term – defined by the lowest common denominators that hold them together – as a robust and holistic description of Mennonite Brethren identity. It is also important to recognize that some of the concerns of North American evangelicalism often carry little significance for many in the global Mennonite Brethren family who do not encounter the same theological issues or denominational divisions.

Despite the many differences among evangelical groups, our shared convictions regarding the Bible, salvation in Jesus Christ, and conversion provide Mennonite Brethren with a sense of assurance that these groups are seeking to be faithful disciples and true witnesses of Jesus as revealed in Scripture. This provides a foundation that enables Mennonite Brethren congregations to partner in mission with other evangelicals.

Although the term “Anabaptist” was initially used by opponents to portray the Radical wing of the 16th-century Reformation, it has also proven difficult to define the central convictions of this diverse movement with a succinct list of beliefs or practices. The early Anabaptists’ deep conviction that Jesus is central to all of faith and life, their openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, and their desire to model themselves after the New Testament church led many of them, although not all, to emphasize the separation of church and state, discipleship, believers baptism, congregational discernment, rejection of violence, and active evangelism.

Since this movement arose within the cultural, religious, and political context of Christendom Europe, the significance of Anabaptism for contemporary Mennonite Brethren has at times also been questioned.

In a similar way, the early Anabaptists offer today’s Mennonite Brethren an example of those who faithfully sought to follow Jesus in their time – a stepping stone, if you will – that intentionally points back to the New Testament church. Although it is impossible to replicate these early Anabaptists, their life and thought can function as an interpretive lens that focuses attention on how to faithfully follow the life and teachings of Jesus, how to read Scripture, and how best to reflect the nature of the early church.

When either Anabaptism or evangelicalism is appealed to as a label for Mennonite Brethren identity, we need to recognize that in doing so, we make choices regarding what is deemed to be “central” or “the best” theological emphases of either movement. The value of these choices must ultimately be judged by their faithfulness to the teaching of Scripture.

The challenge is not to reduce “Anabaptist” and “evangelical” to mere slogans we use to caricature the nature and complexity of these two movements.

Identifying with the people of God

While Mennonite Brethren proclaim that our fundamental identity is first as Christians – followers of Jesus, “in Christ” – our discipleship must always be lived out in the context of the local congregation, the concrete expression of the body of Christ.

Central to Mennonite Brethren identity, as our name implies, is the understanding that members are brothers and sisters who are part of a global family of churches. Being part of a specific family does not inherently create barriers or exclude other Christians; rather, it reflects a shared journey of those who live in community and participate in God’s mission together.

For the Mennonite Brethren family, the label “evangelical” is helpful for locating ourselves within the contemporary people of God who share a core set of convictions that enables us to partner together in mission. This experience of belonging to the larger body of Christ offers both encouragement and support to be faithful followers of Jesus.

The label “Anabaptist” is also helpful for connecting Mennonite Brethren within a particular people’s story that can be traced back to its roots in the Radical Reformation, through experiences of Mennonite renewal and migration, and continues to expand through global mission. God’s leading and provision in the midst of this family’s struggles and failures as well as through their faithfulness and growth contributes to shaping Mennonite Brethren identity today and provides a vision for what God can do in the future.

While Mennonite Brethren proclaim that our fundamental identity is first as Christians, our discipleship must always be lived out in the context of the local congregation, the concrete expression of the body of Christ.

Living our convictions

Mennonite Brethren’s identification with contemporary evangelicalism and historic Anabaptism calls for ongoing consideration of how the theological emphases of both movements are integrated into a shared set of convictions. However, because a community’s convictions (reflecting their core commitments) are expressed in how it lives, its identity is formed by much more than what it believes to be true.

The Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith is central to defining our collective identity because it expresses our shared convictions regarding what the Bible teaches.

The Confession did not emerge out of an intentional attempt to represent the theological emphases of either evangelicalism or Anabaptism. Rather the Confession reflects Mennonite Brethren’s direct engagement with Scripture through study and discernment as a community.

Although both evangelicalism and Anabaptism provide an interpretive lens for how Mennonite Brethren read the Scriptures, it is the inspired Word of God that is authoritative and normative. The theological emphases of evangelicalism or Anabaptism must also be submitted under the teaching of Scripture.

As a profession of Mennonite Brethren’s core convictions, the Confession of Faith is not just a statement of what we believe or hold to be true, but it is also a vision for faithful discipleship and worship, and a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Confession has the capacity to shape a collective Mennonite Brethren identity as we seek to live out our convictions. Nevertheless, the transforming power is the Spirit of God through the Scriptures, to which the Confession points.

The affirmation of the Confession of Faith by local congregations needs to be expressed within the context of our relationships within the Mennonite Brethren family. The theological and cultural diversity of the Mennonite Brethren in Canada is not just a challenge, but it is also a profound opportunity for this family to be enriched by the variety of gifts and perspectives God has brought together.

For the Mennonite Brethren family, the label “evangelical” is helpful for locating ourselves within the contemporary people of God who share a core set of convictions that enables us to partner together in mission.

This calls for Mennonite Brethren to walk toward each other, to intentionally build relationships, to engage in study and conversation around Scripture, and to pursue peace and reconciliation when needed. The Mennonite Brethren embrace of both evangelicalism and Anabaptism has already set us on a pathway that values the integration of various perspectives and relationships into a unified sense of identity.

Finally, Mennonite Brethren’s shared convictions and healthy relationships create the foundation for participating in God’s mission together, which requires the involvement of the whole body of Christ working together. The proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, through what we say and what we do, must also be expressed through who we are as God’s people. As Mennonite Brethren live as witnesses of God’s love, reconciliation through Christ, and new life by the Spirit, we also live out the vision of our evangelical-Anabaptist identity.

¹ Historian Bruce Guenther provides an excellent overview of both the foundation and influence Anabaptism and evangelicalism have had in shaping Mennonite Brethren identity. See “Reflections on Mennonite Brethren Evangelical Anabaptist Identity,” in Renewing Identity and Mission: Mennonite Brethren Reflections after 150 Years, edited by Abe J. Dueck, Bruce L. Guenther, and Doug Heidebrecht (Winnipeg: Kindred Productions, 2011), 47-82.
² “Vision Statement,” Yearbook: General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 58th Session, (Winnipeg: Christian Press, 1990), 21.
³ “An Exhortation of the Board of Faith and Life,” Yearbook: The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 85th Convention (Winnipeg: Christian Press, 2000), 103.
⁴ “Theological Witness Statement,” In Touch Magazine (Fall/Winter 2008), 4-5.
⁵ For example, see Doug Heidebrecht, “Toward a Mennonite Brethren Peace Theology: Reading the Bible through an Anabaptist Lens,” Direction 43, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 228-242.
⁶ “Nature and Function of the Confession,” Confession of Faith of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (Winnipeg: Kindred Productions, 2018).

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