Canadian MBs talk about Jesus’ atonement


Study conference emphasizes process rather than producing definitive statement 

Canadian Conference of MB Churches Communications

Mennonite Brethren leaders from across Canada met in Kitchener, Ont., Oct. 27–29, for a biennial study concerning the importance of Jesus' atonement and how Mennonite Brethren understand it and tell it to others. The study conference is rooted in the Anabaptist tradition of seeking Bible-based clarity and meaning for contemporary times. 

“If we have a weak understanding of atonement, we cannot have a strong faith because we have little to be thankful for,” says Willy Reimer, executive director of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches (CCMBC). “We need to appreciate the fullness of what Jesus has done.”

One hundred fifty-nine delegates attended the conference, meeting in formal plenary sessions, workshops and Bible study groups. “We have found there are things we say differently from one another," says Brian Cooper, chair of the Board of Faith and Life (BFL), which convened the meeting. "The tone of the conversation has risen and fallen. We have sharpened one another.” 

Cooper says the conference was not intended as a vehicle to produce a definitive statement on the atonement, but as a process within the national MB church family.

The basis for all three plenary studies was one verse: 1 Corinthians 15:3 – “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”

Pierre Gilbert of Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, spoke on the spiritual fall of humankind, centering on the account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. It was given to Adam and Eve alone, he said, to make the choice to obey God or seek their own will. The human race was then bound by their decision. We were “not meant to die,” but Adam and Eve’s choice “forever locked humanity into the sphere of ‘the curse.’”

Paul Cumin, pastor at Pemberton (B.C.) Christian Fellowship, said God’s creation was a work of perfection, seriously disrupted by Adam and Eve’s choice. The root of sin is the desire to be more like God than he created us to be, he said. “Ultimately sin is whatever turns us inward and away from others, on whom our being depends,” he said. “When we sin, we don’t just become less good. We become less, period.”

Erwin Penner, professor emeritus at Toronto’s Tyndale University College and Seminary, said the cross of Christ reveals the nature of God, demonstrates his grace, and accomplishes his reconciling work – and all three aspects are foundational. He said Jesus’ “horrid, cruel, and sadistic” execution on the cross shows God’s self-giving nature. 

“Did God abuse his son?” Penner asked. “No,…the violence of the cross is the violence of self-sacrifice” He cited Jesus’ declaration that he and the Father are one (John 10:30). Through the resurrection of Jesus, death itself is defeated, reversing the curse we read about in Genesis, and raising us back to life.

Discussion concerning the atonement has been vigorous in MB circles for some time. Last year, the B.C. Conference held a discussion day on the topic. BCMB leadership found agreement on the statement “Christ is our substitute,” but noted three different paradigms MBs typically use to more fully understand Jesus’ work on the cross: 1) penal substitutionary atonement as the controlling biblical image; 2) Christus Victoras the controlling biblical image; 3) multiple complementary images, like a diamond.

Vice-chair Terrance Froese says the study conference created a “growing spirit of unity” around the debate.

Willy Reimer says a breadth of views was evident at the meeting, and adds, “I don’t know if we’ll get closer in opinion.” He says the pastoral training system, in the long term, may give some issues sharper definition within the national conference.

In his opening remarks, Reimer called on MB leaders to guard against judgmentalism and regionalism. He called on Mennonite Brethren to take a Canadian view and be committed to east-west alignments as Canadian Mennonite Brethren participate together in mission.

The conference also took time to pay tribute to Éric Wingender, a Quebec MB leader and significant proponent of the continuing need for a Quebec evangelical seminary (ETEM), who died suddenly at 54.


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