Mennonite Brethren, like other Anabaptist groups, vigorously pursue the question of identity. Nowhere is this quest more evident than in the field of hermeneutics, which, for the purposes of this article, I will simply define as the science and art of interpreting the Bible.
When it comes to reading Scripture, the most critical issue MBs face may not involve the method we use as much as the underlying assumptions we bring to the text. MBs have long maintained that biblical interpretation must be carried out in accordance with the nature and purpose of Scripture. We approach the Bible with the conviction that it is inspired, authoritative for faith and practice, and that it ultimately points to Jesus Christ.
MBs have also advocated for an interpretive process that not only ascertains the meaning of the text, but also seeks to discern what God wills for us. Once we have assessed, to the best of our abilities, the original intent of the text, as followers of Christ, it becomes incumbent upon us to gauge its ethical implications.
Though at one time we could safely assume all Anabaptists would enthusiastically embrace such assumptions, I am afraid it’s not quite that simple.
We are witnessing in the Western world a culture war that increasingly polarizes people into what is commonly referred to as “right” and “left” on the ideological spectrum. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, the right leans toward a conservative ideology, while the left is inclined to promote a progressive agenda.¹
While the severity of this collision of worldviews may not be transparent to all, the reality is that some of the ideological options available in the marketplace can have a deleterious impact on biblical interpretation.
For instance, while theological conservatism is in many respects consistent with the traditional Anabaptist and MB approach to Scripture, one of the hallmarks of progressive ideology is the rejection of the notion of absolute truth, particularly as it pertains to matters of faith and sexual morality. Those who hold such a view will neither be well-inclined toward the biblical text nor receptive to its message.
Cautions for progressive Anabaptism
Here is where the rubber hits the proverbial road. There are Christians who feel a strong affinity toward some of the more questionable elements (at least from a Christian perspective) of the progressive agenda. This phenomenon, which has long been prevalent in the mainline churches,² has also made some inroads in the Anabaptist family. This is most apparent in the areas of pluralism, the peace position, and human sexuality.
First, the naïve yet persistent belief that all religious faiths are just so many ways to God or, to put it more plainly, that all worldviews are equally true, will necessarily result in the degradation of Christ the Saviour to merely a good moral teacher.
Second, the most extreme expression of the peace position, what I call radical pacifism, rejects all forms of violence including the state-sanctioned use of force to maintain law and order.³ While there is much merit to proclaiming the peace of Christ, radical pacifism is theologically problematic. This ideology has, for instance, played no minor role in how some scholars have reconfigured the doctrine of the atonement in an effort to strip it of its violent overtones.(4) Since radical pacifists say God would not use violence, and thus would not impose the death penalty for sin, there is no need for Jesus to die on the cross to pay that penalty for us. Radical pacifism has also been pivotal in redefining missions as an appeal to identify and encourage the peace elements in a given culture rather than an invitation to shift allegiance to Christ.(5)
Finally, progressive Anabaptism increasingly challenges the New Testament portrayal of sexuality as an expression of love between a man and a woman within the confines of marriage.(6) Progressive Anabaptism thus echoes popular culture’s crusade to define sexual morality within the framework of identity ethics, which determines the ethical character of sexual practices on the basis of one’s natural impulses rather than a moral code inspired by Scripture and a corresponding lifestyle empowered by the Spirit of God.
Those three characteristics of progressive Anabaptism may seem trivial to some. They are anything but. Because they represent theological positions that are irreconcilable with Christian orthodoxy, they will cause significant slippage both in terms of the method by which we study Scripture and our most basic convictions about inspiration and the authority of the Bible.
A way forward
We often speak of a unique Mennonite Brethren ecclesiastical and theological culture. MB distinctiveness does not, however, simply reside in the way we read Scripture. It hinges rather on a unique configuration of factors that include our commitment to the Bible as God’s inspired and authoritative Word, the centrality of Christ, a resolute emphasis on mission as an invitation to consider Jesus’ unique claims, the energetic pursuit of Christian discipleship, community hermeneutics, and a nearly-obsessive impulse (I mean that in a positive way) to go back to Scripture as the primary source of theological data.
In fact, the denomination’s time-honoured emphasis on the biblical text as the starting point to articulate biblical and systematic theology, an approach advocated by the late J.B. Toews while he was MBBS president from 1964–72, has no doubt nudged the Mennonite Brethren church away from a dispensationalism that pitted the Old against New Testament. It spared us from some of the more hazardous eschatological speculations that were so prevalent throughout the ’70s and ’80s. It propelled the MB denomination in a necessary and vigorous discussion of the role of women in ministry. It also played no small part in producing a rich crop of preachers committed to understanding the Bible on its own terms.
But like any other institution, the MB church is not a static entity. Churches and denominations always run the risk of losing their theological integrity. When, for instance, a Christian denomination experiences a radical erosion of its Christology, it also tragically loses its ability to share the only cure there is for a sick world. At that point, all is lost!
I believe there is a great future for Mennonite Brethren and much of the Anabaptist movement. But nothing can be taken for granted. At this point in our history, we face the threat of an ideology that actively challenges our perception of truth, Christ’s unique nature, and our understanding of the lordship of Christ.
The way forward does not lie in condemning and attacking each other; neither does it reside in pretending that everything is as fine as a foot in a slipper.
Anabaptists cannot afford to switch on the autopilot. Like Menno Simons himself did centuries ago, we need to discern where ultimate reality and truth are.
I am not unsympathetic to those Christians who feel a strong affinity with some aspects of the progressive agenda. But it is important we realize the more radical elements of this ideology represent a clear and present danger for the integrity of the Christian community and its ability to preach the gospel.
The imperative to redefine who we are in the face of an ever-changing environment may be legitimate and necessary, but I would suggest there is a life-giving approach to such a project, and one that is not so life-giving. The contrast, for instance, between a Tim Keller(7) and a Brian McLaren(8) is stark. The former offers a robust way to imagine afresh how orthodox Christianity can be relevant to a new generation. The latter takes the reader on a long personal quest that ultimately offers little more than a denunciation of Christian orthodoxy as an unfortunate Constantinian accident.(9)
It still remains to be seen whether Anabaptism’s search for an identity will not prove to be as much a symptom of postmodern uncertainty as anything else.
–Pierre Gilbert is associate professor of Bible and theology at Canadian Mennonite University and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. He is coordinator of the Winnipeg Centre for Ministry Studies and author of Demons, Lies & Shadows: A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason (Kindred Productions, 2008).
1. I have written about this divide, and how it affects the broader Mennonite church in “The Challenge of Dual-Citizenship in the 21st Century,” in Out of the Strange Silence (Kindred Productions, 2005).
2. For an excellent analysis, see Edmund W. Robb and Julia Robb, The Betrayal of the Church (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1986).
3. It should be noted that Article 12 of the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith squarely steers away from a radical pacifist position.
4. See for instance J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 225.
5. For a short discussion on the impact of a radicalized peace position on missions, see Pierre Gilbert, “Who Is This Christ We Claim to Follow?” Mennonite Brethren Herald (November 5, 2004):4-5 and also Stephen F. Dintaman, “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,” Conrad Grebel Review 11 (1992): 205-208.
6. David Eagle offers a revealing example of such a position in “Pneumatological Ecclesiology and Same-Sex Marriage: A Non-Essentialist Approach Using the Work of Eugene Rogers and John Zizioulas,” Conrad Grebel Review 28 (2010):43-68.
7. The Reason for God (New York, NY: Dutton, 2008).
8. See in particular his recent book, A New Kind of Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010).
9. For a brief but insightful comparison of the two, see Harold Jantz, “Can the Church be Reinvented?” Christian Week, September 15, 2010.