Exploring the challenges of denominationalism


16th Believers Church Conference positive on denominations

Differences between denominations can be helpful, and the Believers Church tradition has a lot to offer the wider Christian community when it comes to discussing these differences. This was the prevalent message at the 16th Believers Church Conference held June 11–14 at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man.

Sponsored by CMU’s Institute for Theology and the Church, the conference attracted participants from across North America and even Europe. Some 24 scholars presented papers and three keynote speakers shared their perspectives on the theme: “Congregationalism, Denominationalism and the Body of Christ.”

Conference organizers were acutely aware that denominationalism had acquired a somewhat negative reputation over the past century, thanks to scholars such as H. Richard Niebuhr who describes the church’s split into denominations as “the moral failure of Christianity.”

But this isn’t the view of Sheila Klassen-Wiebe, CMU assistant professor of New Testament, who opened the conference with a study of the book of John. “John’s ‘the one and the many’ is a fitting symbol for our conference,” she said.

“The church encompasses unity and diversity,” she said. “It’s united in a common work—bringing God’s abundant life to a hostile world. The unity isn’t just about potlucks and care groups. There is a missional purpose—‘that the world might believe.’

“But unity doesn’t eliminate individuality. There are a variety of people who encounter Jesus and believe,” said Klassen-Wiebe.

“I don’t believe denominationalism is the cause of the church’s disunity,” said workshop presenter Bruce Guenther, associate professor at MB Biblical Seminary in Langley, BC.

English Puritans first articulated the idea of a denominational principle in the middle of the 17th century. It began as a “tool to exercise influence over the nation,” said Guenther. Denominations have had problems, he said, but also have introduced many benefits. “They’ve been useful for mobilizing Christians to various kinds of action.”

Citing the work of Jeremiah Burroughs, a 17th century apologist, Guenther explained how God uses differences among Christians to bring light to biblical truth. For example, “as the demographic center of gravity for Christianity has shifted southward, North American Christians are gradually becoming more aware and appreciative for the contribution that global theologies have for expanding our understanding of the kingdom of God.”

Guenther concluded, “Denominationalism is not equal to schism. Real schism has more to do with how people leave a congregation and how they characterize other Christians.”

Conference keynote speaker Fernando Enns would agree. Enns, the founding director of the chair of Mennonite theology at Hamburg University and a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, has a passion to help the Mennonite church share its insights and also learn from the ecumenical context.

“Our ecclesiological contributions become visible in this setting,” he said. “We can share our commitment to visible discipleship and our understanding of the priesthood of all believers,” as we converse with people from other traditions.

Interdenominational dialogue forces Mennonites “to articulate ourselves. We have to talk about what we stand for, not just what we disagree with,” he said.

“Our dialogue will not leave us unchanged. It will strengthen us from within, so that the world may believe. This is the goal of all ecumenical dialogue.”

Enns argued that conversations with other denominations should be rooted in a Trinitarian framework, which means giving equal emphasis to all persons of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

However, this approach doesn’t come naturally for many in the Believers Church stream, which has traditionally stressed Jesus narratives and Christology and has seen the Trinity as a symbol of the bondage of mainline churches.

“We end up with a contextless Jesus if we just talk about Christ,” said Enns. “I’m not saying give up our Jesus. But maybe we’ve been a bit limited. What about the people of Israel? What about the work of the Holy Spirit? We can become a better Believers Church if we enlarge the picture.”

During a concluding panel discussion, J. Denny Weaver, former professor at Bluffton University, observed that the conference’s essentially positive view of denominationalism was understandable given the event’s Canadian context, where multiculturalism and religious pluralism thrive.

However, the tone of the conference would likely have been different in the U.S., a country where evangelicals dominate religious conversations and where people from the Believers Church don’t necessarily sit at the table as equals.

“By starting the conversation with agreements, the dominant view is favored. Things like our peace language become peripheral and we have a truncated form of the Believers Church,” he said. 

This was the third Believers Church conference held in Canada, with the other 13 occurring in the U.S. Since the conference’s inception in 1967, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, Baptists, Pentecostals, and others favoring “adult” or “believers” baptism have gathered to consider the distinctiveness of the Believers Church perspective.


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