Q&R corner provides responses to questions that readers may have about CCMBC and its work collaborating with provincial MB conferences in areas of spiritual health and theology, leadership development, mission, and organizational health in order to achieve the overall mission: “To cultivate a community and culture of healthy disciple-making churches and ministries, faithfully joining Jesus in his mission.” If you would like to contribute a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. I am aware of a family with a trans child who has been in an MB church for a very long time but were struggling with whether they should stay in that church. The last straw for them was Iain Provan being invited to speak at Equip. How do you feel knowing this family has now left the MB conference because of how Provan considers them to be dangerous to the church?
2. Someone asked me a question the other day: do those who want certain MB churches out of the conference consider them to be Christians? That is, do they think people in these churches will be in heaven when we all get there? And if we can eat together at the great supper of the Lamb in heaven, why can’t we eat together here on earth as members of the same denomination?
Thanks, J., for these two questions. I will try to explore them one at a time.
Question #1. Since your question refers to a family who has been part of our MB community for a long time and now has left, I want to express sadness for this loss to them as a family and their church as they both process saying goodbye. I hope that this family finds a positive spiritual home where they can serve and be ministered to.
But your question is specifically about how I and others responsible for Equip 2023 feel “knowing this family has left the MB conference because of how Provan considers them to be dangerous to the church?” There are several parts to my response:
Over any weekend across our Canadian family of local MB churches, there are individuals from other denominational churches who are coming to one of our MB churches for the first time. Some are leaving their former churches for all sorts of reasons to explore whether an MB church might become their new spiritual home. And of course, individuals are going in the other direction—and some, worst of all, are leaving churches with no intention of landing in any church community at all. The reasons for moving churches and denominations could be for significant theological or ethical reasons, for less weighty reasons (e.g., an absence of program options, a dislike of the shared service or preaching), or because of personal disappointment or relational pain.
Every decision that a local church makes concerning mission, vision, personnel, and program carries the risk of being the “last straw” that leads an individual or a family to leave. While all church leaders want to avoid this and are saddened when people leave, I don’t think that we can be driven by this fear—and even if we try to avoid every risk—it will still happen.
When it came to our planning for Equip 2023, inviting a speaker to address why healthy local churches need a biblical theology of sexual intimacy, birth sex, and gender expression certainly involved risk. Any speaker who addressed this question would undoubtedly produce fans and critics—and could easily be the last straw that would lead someone to leave our MB family. But refusing to address big questions being asked by our churches in order to avoid the possibility that some will find this a reason to leave, does not seem a great strategy either.
You have expressed that this family left specifically because of how Provan considers them to be dangerous to the church. If this is their reason, I respect that—but it is unfortunate that (what I would consider) false narratives have been passed around about what Provan is saying in his book Cuckoos in our Nest: Truth and Lies About Being Human (2023). Since Dr. Provan’s expertise as a biblical scholar is in the Old Testament, it is not surprising that the main part of his book describes a biblical theology of humanness largely based on the book of Genesis. He then explores what are some of the implications for ethics that this biblical theology has for Christians today (e.g., creation care, wealth, inclusion “in Christ,” education, etc.) before he finally addresses the metaphor that gives his book the title. Some varieties of the cuckoo species lay an egg in a nest made by another smaller bird who unknowingly nurtures it until it hatches. The baby cuckoo chick is fed by the surrogate parent, grows larger than the other hatchlings, and in some cases pushes them out of the nest altogether.
Provan uses this metaphor to suggest that the church is unwittingly welcoming, embracing, and feeding a number of “cuckoos” (not people but foreign ideas and philosophies) that are pushing out of the nest biblical theological ideas that should rightfully be there and need to be there for the faithful church to thrive. These foreign ideas are profoundly in conflict with a biblical theology of humanness yet we are letting them push out everything we believe (or have until now believed) that the Bible teaches us about being human.
Provan identifies some of these as the Follow the Science Cuckoo where science is given pride of place to tell us ultimate truths about who we are, why we are here, and what a meaningful life looks like, the Look Inside Yourself Cuckoo where we highlight truth as being found within ourselves based on what seems “natural” to us, and the Platonic Cuckoo where physical matter and physical bodies don’t really matter. I believe that Provan’s recommendation would be for church families to become much more aware of these benign-looking cultural ideas and recognize the serious threat that they are to displace our biblical theology and practice.
Now, while I do have some reservations about the metaphor of the “cuckoo” that Provan has chosen, I don’t believe that he intends us to start looking for individuals (or families) who need to be “kicked out of the nest.” (However, I do understand that some people could easily feel that this is what he is saying.)
Provan is doing what we would ask of any person trained in biblical studies—study Scripture carefully; help us understand what the Bible is saying about contentious topics today; and provide us with some sense of the relevance of this teaching for our churches today. Our task is to be a listening community that can test all of this together. (Table discussion groups were scheduled specifically to reflect and respond to Provan’s presentation at Equip.) While we might agree or disagree about the accuracy of Provan’s biblical theology of humanity, or his suggested applications for the church today, or about whether these cultural ideas (cuckoos) are as bad or foreign as he claims, nonetheless, he is doing in his book and his Equip presentation precisely what I would hope Christian scholars devote their time to in service to the church. He has provoked discussions about these questions across our national family. It is an important discussion to reflect on whether Christians who are changing their convictions about sexual intimacy, birth sex, and gender expression are changing because of finding new light in Scripture or whether they are changing because of having capitulated to foreign ideas that are so pervasive in our culture that they now seem to be natural and unquestionably right.
Question #2 is firstly about whether those who want certain MB churches out of the Conference consider the individuals in those churches to be Christians—and to “be in heaven when we all get there?” I cannot fully answer this question since I have not interviewed all the individuals in our various provincial conferences where this is happening—but I will do my best to answer it from my perspective.
I do not think there is any real benefit for us to judge groupings of individuals in a church around the question of whether they are or are not “Christians.” I am happy to leave that to the ultimate Judge who is both Love embodied, and King enthroned. However, within the category of “Christian” and those who self-identify as such, there are people at very different points on the spectrum of faithfulness to Jesus—and there are denominational groupings with very different understandings of what faithful Christian living looks like. So my first conclusion is that I would not recommend that we label as non-Christians those within (or formerly within) our MB church family with whom we disagree even if our disagreements are so significant that our shared denominational affiliation is at stake.
The real question is whether there ever comes a time when it is appropriate to “break fellowship” with other Christians—even when we are fully aware that there will be no breaking of fellowship among Christians in the new creation. All denominations exist today because of either their breaking of fellowship with the existing church or the existing church forcing them out. Anabaptism itself started way back in 1525 through breaking fellowship with other Christians, and our MB parents did the same in 1860. It seems that both groups did not deny the reality of the larger church’s Christian identity. If we assume that it is always inappropriate to break fellowship with other Christians, this should make all Christian denominational groupings question their very existence.
The New Testament does not directly address denominational separations, but it does seem to recommend the breaking of fellowship with individual Christians who have fallen into sin and even after careful process remain unwilling to pursue restoration (cf. Matt 18). New Testament church discipline is not firstly about declaring unrepentant members of the church to be non-Christians and then excluding them because of that but about the exclusion of unrepentant Christians with the hope that they will repent and return to full fellowship. While it is a difficult text, it might be that Paul is referring to this in 1 Corinthians 3:15 where a person’s “work” is burned up, but the person is saved “even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
So we have two situations where the breaking of fellowship with other Christians is not the ideal situation but a necessary reality. A denominational family today could advocate for the exclusion of a local church unwilling to live into what is understood as their shared convictions without claiming that the individuals in that local church are no longer Christians.
In conclusion, I don’t believe it is useful to question the Christian identity of those with whom we disagree. Instead, we should make every effort to maintain unity and live at peace with other Christians. However, this does not rule out as a last resort (and after much prayer and careful processing) the breaking of fellowship with a local congregation for moving away from covenantal obligations to the larger family.
Thanks again, J., for your challenging but important questions. I hope that this response will be helpful in some way.
Blessings and Shalom!
Ken Esau (National Faith & Life Director)