Navigating the waters


A conversation about the [sometimes choppy] waters of evangelical Anabaptism

Since the 1970s, Mennonite Brethren have claimed the unusual title of evangelical Anabaptists. Through the decades, we’ve found ways to blend two broad theological streams into one current of church ministry and life. Herald editor Laura Kalmar had an email conversation with Brad Sumner, pastor of Jericho Ridge Community Church in Langley, B.C., and Gil Dueck, instructor in theology at Bethany College in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, to discuss the joys and challenges of our Mennonite Brethren “dual identity.”

For some readers, the terms “evangelical” and “Anabaptist” may be unfamiliar. How would you define them?

Brad: Part of the challenge we face as evangelical Anabaptists is the fluidity of both terms. Each one brings with it a weight of history stretching back more than a century, as well as a vibrant global conversation that has implications far beyond the borders of our nation. Having said that, I see “evangelical” drawing meaning from the four priorities suggested by British Baptist historian David Bebbington: “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress upon the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.”

Anabaptism tends toward a specific subset of core convictions. As historian Harold Bender explains, it includes things like “discipleship, the church as a voluntary and separated brotherhood, and love and nonresistance in all relationships.”

Gil: I see the term “evangelical” as consensus (mostly among conservative Protestants) around a high view of the Bible, an emphasis on conversion and individual piety, and a concern for mission and evangelism. Of course, none of these emphases are unique to evangelicalism – it’s the combination that is distinctive. Yet, there’s such an incredible range of perspectives that claim to be evangelical, I sometimes wonder if the term is useful.

I see “Anabaptist” as an approach to the Christian faith that has historically emphasized following Jesus, love of enemies, voluntary and disciplined church membership, and a tendency toward separation from the wider culture. More recently, the word has taken on a few other connotations, due in part to contemporary writers like Stuart Murray (The Naked Anabaptist). This newer strain of Anabaptism tends to be associated with commitments to peace, social justice, and environmental concerns as contemporary expressions of discipleship.

Do you think people in our church pews find these terms helpful? Do labels even matter anymore?

Gil: Among my students, there’s little recognition of either word. Many of them have little interest in, or patience for denominational labels – they prefer a “big-tent” approach to Christian identity. The challenge is to introduce terms like “evangelical” and “Anabaptist” in ways that enable students to think well about the real and significant differences that do exist between Christians, while avoiding the conflict that created “denomination fatigue” in the first place.

On a personal level, I am sometimes a bit hesitant when I’m asked to identify with these labels because I never quite know what people think they refer to. Many associate “evangelical” with certain stock images of American fundamentalism that I don’t want to endorse. Conversely, I think some associate “Anabaptist” with a brand of social activism that’s indistinguishable from progressive liberal democratic sensibilities. Both terms are vulnerable to serious and persistent distortions.

Yet, I believe that Anabaptism is a term worth spending the energy in clarifying. At times, I fear that just when many outside the church are becoming open to the Anabaptist perspective, we as MBs are walking away from it. In a secular, post-Christian context like ours, I think Anabaptism offers a way forward that evangelicism – with all its historical and political baggage – does not.

Brad: The reality is both terms are muddled or diluted in the minds of many people. There’s no “pure” strain of Canadian evangelicalism that hasn’t been influenced – both for good and ill – by our friends to the south, or by our heritage from across the Atlantic. Alternatively, the term “Anabaptist” has been highlighted recently by popular authors like Brian McLaren and Jim Belcher.

But both writers seem to be dealing with a superficial caricature of Anabaptism. In that sense, they’re reflective of many people I encounter who claim aspects of evangelicalism or Anabaptism convenient to their own personal experiences and agendas, without acknowledging the messier parts of our cultural history and theological development.

Canadian MBs are like a couple who gets married and learns they’ll have to pull out different strands from each of their families of origin to produce a new set of traditions and practices to define who they are. As a denomination, I think we’re still in the process of doing that. It’s a profoundly healthy and vibrant conversation!

We hear talk about how evangelicals are only interested in getting people to pray the “sinner’s prayer,” and Anabaptists are only interested in social justice. Are the two terms really such polar opposites? Or are there areas of overlap – a beautiful synergy between the two?

Brad: Fundamentally, I don’t believe our dual identity is a deficit, or a case of conflicted or warring dispositions.  Rather, I think it’s a fusion of the whole church taking the whole gospel for the whole person to the whole world. It positions us uniquely in our largely post-Christian world to engage in mission like never before.

Gil: One of the major problems with our terminology is the way it sets up false tensions – the whole evangelism vs. social justice debate, for example. The idea that these are mutually exclusive practices is simply foreign to the Bible.

This is where I’m increasingly encouraged in my work with young adults. There’s little awareness of this debate among the younger generation, and very little interest in it when it is described. For them, Jesus was committed to both – calling people to personal faith in him, as well as responding with compassion to the needs he encountered. Perhaps those who find the separation of these things bizarre are demonstrating an evangelical Anabaptist approach without even knowing it.

So what does it look like – practically – to be evangelical Anabaptists? How does our identity contribute to our mission in the world?

Gil: This is a tough question, mainly because it seems to be a rare thing to find a person or community that offers a uniquely evangelical Anabaptist approach to mission. The two “sides” often get played off against each other. Either you’re passionate about winning souls for Christ or you’re interested in meeting physical needs and alleviating suffering.  We’re so prone to filter things through the “left-right” spectrum, we can hardly conceive of the possibilitythere might be other ways of seeing things. To me, mission is one of the crucial areas in which evangelical and Anabaptist perspectives need each other.

Brad: In terms of practical outworking, I think of my friends who are dual citizens. The positive element of any shared identity is always the ease of movement it creates, and the capacity to identify with a multiplicity of cultural environments. For Mennonite Brethren, this means we can be comfortable in both Canadian evangelical as well as global Anabaptist families.

But neither explains the totality of who we are. A dual citizen has something unique to share with each of their “home” cultures: the gift of perspective. As Mennonite Brethren, this sense of duality, if leveraged properly, could allow us to make a stronger critique of some of our own cultural and historical blind spots. It might also allow us to see more clearly the possibilities for future ministry effectiveness that carry less of the hurts, habits, and hang-ups of both our “home” cultures.

So, the first call is for a deeper level of self-awareness. If we don’t know who we are, we’ll have difficulty inviting people to join us on a journey of discipleship.

Our churches look so different from each other! Why is that? Is there anything we hold in common? For example, if I visited both Willingdon Church in Vancouver and Lendrum MB Church in Edmonton, I may think they belonged to two separate denominations.

Brad: Because of our unique histories and geographies and leadership influences, each local church will manifest a different element of our evangelical Anabaptist DNA. But this lack of homogeneity isn’t a bad thing. After all, my children certainly don’t look, sound, think, or act alike, even though they’re part of the same family. We’re bound together by a commitment to our values and sense of mission. Part of this commitment involves making time for face-to-face relationships, as well as believing the best about each other.

Gil: I, too, have noted the incredible diversity that exists among our churches. This diversity begs the question: What actually is it that holds these congregations together? Shared history? The relationships that exist within the denomination? The ministries or programs we collectively support?

It would be hard to make the case that all MBs rally around the evangelical Anabaptist flag at a theological level. I’m sure there are a number of MBs who value the “creative tension” represented by these two terms – who believe these two ideals need each other in order to correct potential imbalances inherent within the other.

But in my experience, there are also many MBs who prioritize one of the two terms, while patiently (or impatiently!) tolerating the other. As Brad said, our diversity isn’t a bad thing. But we can’t impose unity where it doesn’t exist. If the goal is unity within diversity, we have to figure out where that unity lies.

Not many other denominations have a dual identity. With that in mind, where have we succeeded and what mistakes have we made?

Brad: We’ve made the common Canadian mistake of defining ourselves but what we are not as opposed to who we are. We’ve drunk deeply from other streams of tradition and practice without critical reflection on the unintended consequences of unfiltered adoption.

We’ve also seen profound benefits! God has allowed us significant witness and mission in many parts of our country, and a voice that can speak with respect on many issues. Here in Langley, for example, MB churches work comfortably with the Salvation Army on issues of homelessness, and with mainline churches on hospital chaplaincy.

My perception is that many of our MB churches across the country share a sense of partnership with other Christians to reach their city and our nation for Christ.  In Vancouver, our church planting network functions as a key resource and collegial hub for other denominations. In Ontario, some of our new church plants are intentionally interdenominational.

Perhaps this is our unique strength: our history and experience as “dual citizens” have given us the opportunity to lead with humility, to partner with a gracious spirit, and to resource and support where the Spirit is at work in other parts of the Anabaptist and
evangelical worlds.

Gil: The danger of a dual or “blended” identity is that we may lose a sense of connection to what actually produced that identity. And because one half of our identity is the massive entity called (mainly American) evangelicalism, we’re at risk of borrowing so heavily from these influences that the Anabaptist half of our identity gets diluted. Perhaps the old moniker “MB=Mostly Baptist” is closer to the truth than we care to admit.

As our executive director, Willy Reimer, observed at the recent study conference, we’re sometimes too influenced by north-south relationships and not enough by east-west relationships.

Despite these challenges, we’ve seen many successes. Our dual identity has definitely pushed us into wider circles of influence than would have been possible otherwise. We’re a community that demonstrates a remarkable ability to form partnerships across the denominational spectrum. This is, no doubt, part of our evangelical heritage since evangelicalism isn’t a denomination, but a coalition focused on cooperative efforts in mission. This has been one of the main benefits of our blended identity – we’ve been forced out of our historical isolationism and into a posture of cooperation with other Christian communities

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