I didn’t grow up among the Mennonite Brethren. I was a pastor’s son in a number of Baptist denominations. I went to a Baptist seminary, and did my graduate studies at an Anglican college, while a member of an Alliance church.
So how did I end up teaching theology among the MBs? Well, first, I had long felt a pull toward teaching, and people who knew me teach affirmed my sense of call. With much trepidation, I left my pastoral position and went back to school. My studies took me into the world of the early Anabaptists, and the more I studied them, the more I found them compelling. I thought at length about what it might look like for me to combine the best elements of the Anabaptist tradition I was studying with the best of the tradition in which I grew up.
In time, I was given the opportunity to serve on the staff of an MB church. From what I knew about Mennonite Brethren, there seemed to me to be great potential for me to find a theological home. Within a short span, I taught theology at Columbia Bible College, served on the Pastoral Ministries Committee of the BCMB Conference, and was affirmed to the Board of Faith and Life, the theological resourcing body for the denomination. The year after I joined it, became the board’s chair. Soon after, I was appointed to a faculty position in theology at the MB Seminary in Langley. All of this happened within five years of my initial entry into the MB world. I could scarcely believe it myself.
I found my eight years on the BFL to be profoundly rewarding, but also profoundly frustrating. It was rewarding to be able to provide resources for important theological conversations. I was particularly glad to be able to initiate the process of providing translations of the Confession of Faith into French and Chinese. I appreciated the Confession, and I wanted French and Chinese-speaking MB believers to be able to access this articulation of our common theological convictions more readily.
At the same time, I found it frustrating that while MBs had a long tradition of gathering to study Scripture and theological issues, by the time I was on the scene, the will to do so had waned significantly. One of the issues I observed was that autonomy — individual and local — was getting in the way of attempts to study together. I saw people opting out, seemingly because they thought they had theological issues well enough in hand that they would not benefit from dialogue with denominational sisters and brothers.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s the fact that I never had the luxury of being a lead pastor. Maybe it’s the fact that I spent a lot of time in school cultivating the discipline of not assuming I had all the answers myself. Once I developed the practice of hearing others’ stories, and studying with others, I realized that I really enjoyed it. I think that the discipline of listening to, and learning from, one another has become a lost art. It is part of our history to do so, but it seems we have walked away from it.
When I think of my interactions, I realize how much richer I am because of them. Here are just a few examples. I learned that patient forbearance is a wise approach to theological conversation and change management. I learned that biblical conceptual language needs to shape the conceptual categories of theological reflection. I learned that knowing about God and Scripture is not the same as knowing God through Scripture. I learned that it is not enough to speak to men and assume that women will hear as well. It is necessary to be explicitly opening and welcome. Because of this, I am more attentive to this (though far from perfect), and I changed to a bible translation that uses inclusive language in order to model this better.
When I entered the denomination, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what MBs believed. After all, I was a trained Baptist pastor who did a Ph.D. in theology studying 16th-century Anabaptists (under the direction of a Mennonite theologian, I hasten to add). How much better equipped could I be? What more was there to learn? A lot, actually. More than I realized. Now, almost sixteen years on, I am still learning. I have changed, and I am better for it.
What does this have to do with the Confession of Faith? I have observed many people who, like me, are recent additions to the MB family. But rather than leaning in to learn about how the family works, and why it is as it is, I have seen many exhibit a discouraging lack of concern for the rest of the family. Some new members seem openly contemptful of MB history and theology, and seem intent on importing traditions of their own into the community. Where is the openness to learn, mature, and grow? Where are the humility and wisdom?
Many within the denomination often have shown little awareness of the wealth of their theological inheritance. It appears that familiarity does indeed breed contempt. As a result, a theological confession that was intended to be robust and far-reaching is often viewed, curiously, as both too restrictive and too broad, sometimes simultaneously. But this should not come as a surprise. We are not willing to listen to voices in the present; why would we listen to voices from the past?
Let me give one reason why. The early Anabaptists did not spring fully formed into Christian history. Their early history was rocky. They were intent upon rejecting all tradition and being the church anew. They presumed to read Scripture with fresh vision, empowered by the Spirit, without the help of sinful influences, past or present. So they did. And in doing so, they replicated most of the major errors from the first centuries of Christian history before they reached a theological equilibrium. We have the opportunity to make the same kinds of mistakes if we are unwilling to engage one another in theological conversation. I would suggest that it is an opportunity we should relinquish. Rather, the first step is to lean in and recognize our interdependence, and our need of resources like the Confession of Faith to help us forge a common identity. In the Kingdom, autonomy is not a virtue.