What do Mennonite Brethren believe?
Mennonite Brethren belong to a tradition of biblical interpretation about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit which stresses balance and guards against extremism. At the same time, this tradition has always taught that what’s of primary importance is the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer and the church.
The Holy Spirit is not an abstract theological concept in Anabaptism but is God’s enabling and empowering presence lifting the believer above legalism to a life of joyful discipleship.
Not sola scriptura
Anabaptists critiqued Martin Luther’s “Scripture alone” principle. Their biblicism held that the Holy Spirit would bring illumination to a simple believer and provide the proper understanding of Scripture. Anabaptists accepted Luther’s sola scriptura as an important part of church reform, but they added that divine authority needed to be based on Scripture and Spirit together. One must read the letter of Scripture in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This Scripture/Spirit approach, available to all believers, had significant consequences. It was based on the conviction of the equality of all Christ followers, rather than on a sacramental or learned hierarchy. Henceforth, scriptural questions were not to be decided automatically by the religious elites. Even “evangelical learned scribes” who appealed to the letter of Scripture but lacked the Spirit were not to be trusted. The state church monopoly on scriptural interpretation was threatened.
It’s true there were some Anabaptists who believed in the direct inspiration of the Spirit apart from Scripture. But most Anabaptists maintained balance in the tension between Word and Spirit, holding firmly to both. The overriding view was that Spirit and Scripture could never be in opposition, and Scripture always remained the norm to prevent claims of extra-biblical revelation.
Also, the individual believer was always subordinate to the group. The work of the Spirit in one person was to be corroborated through the consensus of the believing community.
Mennonite Brethren today
MBs have been guarded in interpreting manifestations of the Holy Spirit. There have been excesses in this area, to be sure. In Russia in the 1860s, the fledgling church had to deal with the exuberance of the Froehliche Richtung, or “Happy Movement,” which was characterized by excessive emotionalism, fanaticism, and false freedom. A few years later Claas Epp, Jr. said he had a Holy Spirit-inspired prophetic revelation that Jesus would return on March 8, 1889. Epp was challenged on his interpretations but would not listen. He led 600 followers to Central Asia to a supposed place of refuge.
In the 1960s and 1970s the charismatic movement influenced many MB churches, raising concern among conference leadership. Thus two General Conference resolutions were passed sounding a cautionary note but also affirming “we must allow for diversity in the way people experience God in their Christian life” (1981 Resolution).
Statements on the Holy Spirit in the 2000 MB Confession of Faith – Commentary and Pastoral Application are concise, clear, and biblically well documented. The pastoral application section laments the fact that the work of the Spirit has become “the subject of division and distrust, and questions about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, being filled with the Spirit, and the function of charismatic gifts have created confusion for some believers.”
While underscoring MB teaching that the baptism of the Spirit happens at conversion and is symbolized by water baptism, this portion of the confession asserts that the Scriptures do not teach that a dramatic, emotional, post-conversion experience is needed to live a full Christian life.
Regarding spiritual gifts, we are warned that “difference in giftedness should never become a source of division or result in feelings of superiority or inferiority.” Phenomena such as spiritual laughter and being slain in the Spirit “do not have scriptural basis or authority.” The exercise of all gifts is for the building up of the body of Christ. Prophecy, in particular, needs to be carefully tested, and prophets need to submit to congregational leadership (1 John 4:1–6; 1 Corinthians 12:27–31).
The centrality of Jesus MB teaching holds to a hermeneutic that views all Scripture through the lens of Christ. The Holy Spirit points to that lens. Jesus said, “He (the Holy Spirit) will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14).
The Spirit makes everything of Jesus. The Spirit-filled believer does the same. It is in this light that spiritual gifts exercised in the congregation are to build up the body and glorify Christ. Individuals and congregations experiencing dramatic manifestations such as those that have occurred in some MB churches in recent years are cautioned not to make such manifestations the measuring stick of spirituality. The most reliable evidence of the Spirit’s working in a congregation is obedience to Christ resulting in holy lives and sacrificial service.
A neglected emphasis
Very few MB theologians have explored the cosmic functions of the Spirit (Romans 8:19–22). The Spirit not only creates the church as the community of the last days, but also draws all creation into the sphere of redemption.
John E. Toews, in his commentary on Romans partially address this cosmic dimension. He writes: “Spirit possession does not distance Christians from creation, but rather intensifies the solidarity with creation both in suffering and in hope for full salvation.” Understanding this calls for engagement with nature and the environment. We are to be stewards and caretakers, not exploiters. Our mandate is to join with God in his intention of reconciliation – people with God, with each other, and with nature.
May our holistic understanding of the work of the Spirit be all-encompassing. May our prayer be: “Send forth Thy Spirit, O Lord our God eternal; send forth Thy Spirit and let the face of the earth be renewed.”
—Walter Unger is president emeritus of Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C., and served as chair of the Canadian MB Board of Faith and Life from 2002–2006. He is a member of Bakerview MB Church.