Learning to know ourselves
“So, why are you here this morning?” This was the first question I was asked as I sat down in one particular Mennonite Brethren church for the first time.
“Well,” I said, “we’re looking for a new church.”
“What’s your name?” he queried.
“And your last name,” he quickly responded.
“Bartel,” I said begrudgingly.
He replied, “Ah, Bartel, I knew there was a reason you were here!”
While this was not an ordinary encounter for me in Mennonite Brethren churches, it is a true story. These types of stories bring mind numerous questions to my mind. Where I grew up, there were lots of Mennonites around, of all different camps.
Each Mennonite group, I’ve noticed, has one thing in common: We are all defined by our communities, particularly in relation to our culture. One church is defined by the clothing of its members. Another by what they do, or don’t, drive. Mennonite Brethren tend to be defined by our last names, like Regier, Reimer, Klassen, Kliewer, Karber, and so on.
Lately, however, many of these cultural trappings have faded away, and in the Mennonite Brethren church that I’m attending, the names have changed—a lot. While to me this seems to be a good thing, some tend to disagree. But I’m finding that our church finds itself in the middle of an identity crisis. If we no longer identify ourselves by last names, then what identifies us?
Sometimes when I tell people I’m Mennonite Brethren, they ask, “What do Mennonite Brethren believe?” Typically I respond the way any good evangelical would: “Well, we believe in Jesus and the Bible and salvation.” I try not to respond like others I’ve heard: “We’re just like the Baptists.” Or worse yet, “We’re M-B, ‘more Baptist.’” Nothing against the Baptists—it’s just simply not true. This question actually haunts me. What do Mennonite Brethren really believe?
I’ve done a lot of reading to discover what Mennonite Brethren believe traditionally, our Anabaptist beliefs. As I read, I find many theological beliefs within our denomination that I hear little about within the church. Church discipline has all but disappeared in many churches, along with its emphasis on covenant community. Fearing that we might be “too liberal, we now shy away from social issues, once at the forefront of Mennonite Brethren thinking and practice. I have heard many Mennonite Brethren say they have never heard a sermon about pacifism. I can recall a few times that I have heard allusions about some of these things, but the words seem crypted, like the speaker really did not want to offend anyone with his or her beliefs.
Equally disturbing to me is that many written beliefs seem terribly impractical at face value. However, after careful observation I realize that they are impractical because we do not understand or know them. I can’t help but ask myself, “Why are these things written down as our beliefs if we rarely talk about them and act on them even less?”
Why does our written theology seem largely impractical? Many will quickly remind me that it’s theology, head knowledge, and theology is everything but practical. That might be true for us, at least with our written theology, but I think theology is everything but impractical. I recently heard a man say that all theology is practical and all practice is theological.
If this is true, then we need to do two things: search our hearts and actions to see what our theology really is, and look at the theology that our churches confess, hence the name “Confession of Faith,” to see if we are actually practicing it. So long as theology remains head knowledge and nothing more, it is worthless. Paul says it best: “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Knowledge without action is less than impractical: it is useless.
As I read the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, I am convinced that this can be practical. I am also certain that if I can learn what this means for me practically, my faith only then becomes faithfulness. I understand that some of our beliefs are different from the churches down the street and may even be different than many of our evangelical brothers and sisters. I believe that together we can find ways to fill our everyday lives with action and attitudes that are both evangelical and Anabaptist. Together, I believe that we can find ways to live practically every day what is recorded in those books written by our ancestors. Will you join me in the journey towards learning what it is to be practically Anabaptist?