A blended family


MB confessions of faith reflect three historical influences

By Jon Isaak

As I have opportunity to speak about God’s work among Mennonite Brethren—our history and theology—I continue to be amazed by this 155-year-old story, a story that remains surprisingly relevant. Let me explain.

The MB story—from birth to the present—is the story of a renewal movement within the larger Mennonite tradition. As such, Mennonite Brethren have self-identified as a Spirit-led church, reaching outward to the watching world with Jesus’ good news of God’s salvation, deliverance and healing.

Because of our history, Mennonite Brethren can be thought of as a “blended family,” one that merges the Mennonite vision together with two particular evangelical visions: those of the German Baptists and the more charismatic-oriented Lutheran Pietists.

The MB renewal movement adopted several charismatic features, as did other 19th-century protestant denominations that were shaped by Lutheran pietistic reforms. Emphases were personal conversion experience, personal devotional Bible study, personal assurance of salvation, personal walk with Jesus and personal discernment of the Spirit’s leading—key words being “personal” and “experiential.”

There was steady traffic from Russia to Germany to learn new evangelistic methods—tent meetings, altar call preaching, Bible school curriculum, prayer meetings, dispensational prophecy charts, gospel-revivalist songs and more. Leaders brought these “charismatic” practices back to the Russian villages and then to the Americas with enthusiasm.

Because the Mennonite Brethren Church blended three theologies—Mennonite, charismatic and Baptist—Mennonite Brethren resisted writing a definitive “theology.” The early MB leaders realized that since theirs was a merger of three distinct theologies, not one of the theologies could be pressed for ultimate clarity, alignment or precision. If any of the three did so, it was sure to offend at least one of the other two.

This is why Mennonite Brethren have chosen to write confessions of faith and uphold the Bible as the final arbiter or referee. Consider three examples:

  • Mennonite Brethren confessed that God is sovereign, but the confession did not delineate exactly God’s relationship to human freedom.
  • They confessed that Jesus’ work on the cross saves, but their confession did not spell out which theological atonement model was essential to MB theology.
  • They confessed the glorious hope of Jesus’ return to judge at the end of time, but their confession did not insist on a particular dispensational or millennial theology, a particular understanding of the State of Israel, a particular understanding of the postmortem reality and so on.

For Mennonite Brethren, these details were the domain of theology, not confession. When pressed for precision, they would say, “What does the Bible say?”

The moderating speech from leading MB voices was usually strong enough to calm tensions if disputes flared up, pointing out the merits of sticking with the Bible and not getting drawn into naming one or other theological interpretation of the Bible—whether Mennonite, charismatic or Baptist—as the one that speaks for the whole MB movement.

This blended family status also explains why many from different Christian traditions have found a church home among Mennonite Brethren. The fact that Mennonite Brethren have historically not pressed for complete theological alignment makes us a very hospitable option. This is not because Mennonite Brethren are so smart, but simply because it would be impossible to achieve complete theological alignment without doing damage to someone in the “family.”

No doubt the increasing theological differences in the family will further challenge Mennonite Brethren to exercise our blended family life skills. Much like the first churches (see Romans 14:1–12), Mennonite Brethren can find encouragement in Paul’s counsel to sit with differences of opinion—refusing to break fellowship over differences, listening together to the Spirit’s leading and leaving final judgments with God.

Jon Isaak is the executive secretary of the MB Historical Commission, the research and archiving service for U.S. and Canadian MB churches (www.mbhistory.org).


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