There’s a growing surge of interest in defining who we are as a denomination – in what we believe and what the implications of those core beliefs are. This is a healthy exercise, even though it makes us uncomfortable at times. We often prefer ignorance to clarity, as ignorance can create an aura of unity, while clarity may open the door for disagreement.
Over the past few decades, Canadian Mennonite Brethren leaders have described our theological focus as “evangelical Anabaptist.” Our website states that our congregations are “united by Jesus Christ through our evangelical Anabaptist beliefs and values and by our mission to grow healthy churches, helping them reach their worlds.”
But having a label and explaining it are two different things. When I ask people what an evangelical Anabaptist is, I receive a great variety of responses – especially from preachers and theologians. For many folks sitting in the pews, this evangelical Anabaptist discussion is confusing and irrelevant. Yet, those who attend our churches are recipients of our theological perspectives through every message they hear.
Establishing our theological focus is extremely important because it determines what our schools teach, what kind of churches we plant, and what type of ministry we engage in.
Since it’s difficult to create an accurate composite of Canadian Mennonite Brethren, I’ll offer a few observations:
1. Many MBs don’t know our history or theological foundations. This is particularly true for those who have grown up within the MB tribe. Those who have migrated into our churches are often more informed as to what MBs believe, and they’ve embraced MB convictions with passion. For those raised within the MB family, we need to do our homework.
2. As with much of the North American church, we’ve been influenced by the popular voices of North American Christian culture, which tend to preach individualistic Christianity deeply rooted in, influenced by, and subject to U.S. worldviews. I value and respect these teachers, thinkers, and writers, but the sheer volume of U.S.-driven resources has also created some problems. We need Canadian solutions for Canadian problems.
3. We’re better at saying what we are not than articulating what we are. We live in the shadow of larger Christian influences, which causes two equally disturbing reactions. For some, this creates an inferiority complex, thinking that nothing good can come from within our ranks and causing us to embrace all that comes from more well-known sources. For others, we take on a “beleaguered minority” mindset, in which we fight to protect who we are and push away anything that comes from outside our ranks. Neither position is helpful. We need to celebrate our history, learn what we can from it, and move forward in the power and leading of the Holy Spirit to the mission for which God has called us.
Not a tug-of-war
Are the tensions created by being a hyphenated denomination bad or good? Should we try to get everyone to our side of the theological spectrum?
I’ve had people try to convince me to “pull” us to one end or the other of the spectrum. I’ve heard people vilify those who aren’t in a particualr theological camp. Perhaps we should get “e” or “A” armbands for our next Gathering? (Ok, that’s a really bad idea!) What is there to be gained by positioning ourselves over and against others who love Jesus? We need to celebrate what both streams bring us, rather than seeing it as one versus the other.
I’m convinced that God has prepared us as a denomination to make a significant contribution to his cause in Canada at this time in history. We’re a people who have learned to walk among various theological streams throughout our history. When our church formed in 1860, the first members expressed their explicit agreement with Menno Simons. They were also influenced by the Lutheran Pietist movement, with its emphasis on group Bible study, warm Spirit-filled faith growing out of personal conversion, thoughtful belief nurtured by disciplined study, and evangelical witness. MBs were also open to the influences of the larger evangelical church, especially Baptists who encouraged world missions.
I hope this issue of the Herald will spark an ongoing conversation around our evangelical Anabaptist identity, and will help us appreciate, understand, and articulate our core convictions and the contribution we make to God’s mission in the world.