Mennonite Brethren leaders from across Canada met in Kitchener, Ont., Oct. 27–29, 2011, for a biennial study, rooted in the Anabaptist tradition of seeking Bible-based clarity and meaning for contemporary times. The topic this year was the importance of Jesus’ atonement and how MBs understand it and tell it to others.
“If we have a weak understanding of atonement, we cannot have a strong faith because we have little to be thankful for,” said Willy Reimer, executive director of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches (CCMBC). “We need to appreciate the fullness of what Jesus has done.”
One hundred fifty-nine delegates attended the conference, meeting in formal plenary sessions, workshops, and Bible study groups. Brian Cooper, chair of the board of faith and life (BFL), which convened the meeting, said, “We have found there are things we say differently from one another. The tone of the conversation has risen and fallen. We have sharpened one another.” He said the conference was not intended as a vehicle to produce a definitive statement on the atonement, but as a process within the national MB church family.
The basis for all three plenary studies was one verse: 1 Corinthians 15:3 – “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
- Pierre Gilbert of Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, spoke on the spiritual fall of humankind, centring on the account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. It was given to Adam and Eve alone, he said, to make the choice to obey God or seek their own will. The human race was then bound by their decision. We were “not meant to die,” but Adam and Eve’s choice “forever locked humanity into the sphere of ‘the curse.’”
- Paul Cumin, pastor at Pemberton (B.C.) Christian Fellowship, said God’s creation was a work of perfection, seriously disrupted by Adam and Eve’s choice. The root of sin is the desire to be more like God than he created us to be, he said. “Ultimately sin is whatever turns us inward and away from others, on whom our being depends,” he said. “When we sin, we don’t just become less good. We become less, period.”
- Erwin Penner, professor emeritus at Toronto’s Tyndale University College and Seminary, said the cross of Christ reveals the nature of God, demonstrates his grace, and accomplishes his reconciling work – and all three aspects are foundational. He said Jesus’ “horrid, cruel, and sadistic” execution on the cross shows God’s self-giving nature. “Did God abuse his son?” he asked. “No,…the violence of the cross is the violence of self-sacrifice.” He cited Jesus’ declaration that he and the Father are one (John 10:30). Through the resurrection of Jesus, death itself is defeated, reversing the curse we read about in Genesis, and raising us back to life.
Discussion concerning the atonement has been vigorous in MB circles for some time. Last year, the B.C. conference held a discussion day on the topic. BCMB leadership found agreement on the statement “Christ is our substitute,” but noted three different paradigms MBs typically use to more fully understand Jesus’ work on the cross: 1) penal substitutionary atonement as the controlling biblical image; 2) Christus Victor as the controlling biblical image; 3) multiple complementary images, like a diamond.
Vice-chair Terrance Froese said the study conference created a “growing spirit of unity” around the debate. Willy Reimer said a breadth of views was evident at the meeting, and added, “I don’t know if we’ll get closer in opinion.” He said the pastoral training system, in the long term, may give some issues sharper definition within the national conference.
In his opening remarks, Reimer called on MB leaders to guard against judgmentalism and regionalism. He called on Mennonite Brethren to take a Canadian view and be committed to east-west alignments as we participate together in mission.
The conference also took time to pay tribute to Éric Wingender, a Quebec MB leader and significant proponent of the continuing need for a Quebec evangelical seminary (ETEM). Wingender died suddenly at 54.
Three students from Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask., attended study conference on CCMBC’s dime. The leadership development arm of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches offered a $400 bursary for registration and travel for students selected by faculty at MB post-secondary schools to attend the biennial meeting. Bethany covered additional costs incurred. Instructor Gil Dueck guided his trio of keen theological thinkers – two of them lead actors in the evangelistic musical theatre Bethany produced the next weekend – through their engagement with the conference.