I think the problem is that familiarity really does breed contempt. What do I mean? When I joined the Mennonite Brethren, I was attracted by what I knew about the denomination, but I realized that there was much I did not yet know. Happy to learn that the MBs had a long tradition of theological reflection, and more, publication, I read papers and articles to learn more about my new church family. I realized that faithfulness in this new setting meant investigating what I needed to do to fit in, not voicing what I wanted in order to be comfortable. It’s not about me. That is a lesson many Christians fail to appreciate.
I discovered that unlike the denominations I had come from, the MBs devoted considerable time to articulating not only doctrinal commitments, but also ethical priorities in a wide variety of areas. And the process by which they did so — by group study and conversation — intrigued me. Most of the denominations to which I had formerly belonged got together mainly to vote and fight. The group study I experienced among MBs was a joy to me. The problem was that many of the MBs I now knew greeted group study with boredom or disdain rather than with joy. And many ignored the rich resources that were at their disposal, including the confession of faith.
Why do Mennonite Brethren have such a long confession of faith, anyway? I have reflected on this question for some time. It seems to me that MBs have long recognized that the outward expression of faith is as important as the inner affirmation of doctrines. From the perspective of those outside the community, and outside Christian faith, the outward expression is vital, because it may be the only element of discipleship that they see. The confession serves this purpose, talking not only about where discipleship comes from, but also important elements of what it looks like. Every one is essential to the group’s identity.
The origin of the Mennonite Brethren shows by historical example that theological confession is incomplete unless it meaningfully describes what being a follower of Jesus entails. The document that inaugurated the MB movement outlined 18 articles of differentiation that are focused on outward manifestations of faith. Doctrinally, the leaders of the new movement clarified that they were introducing nothing new. Rather, they gave assurance of their fidelity. “In all other articles of our confession, we are in full agreement with Menno Simons.”
In most Christian organizational settings, doctrinal statements embody theological commitments that are too abstract and theoretical to be of much use in contemporary situations. That is why we have a confession that extends to not only ethical description, but pastoral application and commentary. The goal is understanding that shapes individual and collective discipleship. I think it is almost laughable to read doctrinal statements that affirm that inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs, which we not only do not have but which also probably never existed in the implied form. But in contrast, many of these doctrinal statements neglect to help people apply truths gleaned from these same Scriptures to the most pressing concerns of the day. That is why we have — and need — a confession of faith.
The first confession of faith, written in 1902 and later translated into English (described as “the American language”), reveals the way a confession of faith describes the contours of discipleship, normatively. Paragraph 45 in the 1902 confession describes how decisions (including, but not limited to, the adoption of the confession of faith) “become operative” through acceptance in local congregations. The assumption is that they will be accepted. Minority views “willingly submit [themselves]” to the decisions made by the general conference, “for thus only can freedom and order be upheld.” This view of the confession of faith as a regulatory document hasn’t changed over time.
If all of this seems draconian, it is because of dynamics that are not directly related to the confession itself. It is true that MBs today are far less insular and cohesive than they once were. It is almost axiomatic to acknowledge that MBs are less legalistic and less authoritarian than they were in past years. People have come to expect far more freedom than was once the case. It is also true that articulations of faithful discipleship have changed over time, and this is not completely inappropriate. Changes in context and awareness allow — even necessitate — changes in practice. For example, the assumption that owning televisions is necessarily a corrupting influence long ago gave way to a willingness to permit their legitimate use. Times change. But the role of the confession is the same. Why should its role change?
This raises an important point about the nature and function of the confession of faith. I agree that a confession is a document that needs periodic review. The writers of the first MB confession seemed aware of this. The confession is a living document. But the fact that it is living does not mean that it is negotiable, or dispensable. In British Columbia, the Motor Vehicle Act governs travel on public roads. It, too, is a living document, and has been modified many times over the years. This dynamic does not, however, negate its normative regulatory and corrective function. If I decide to drive on the left side of the road instead of the right, I should expect conflict, and consequences. Otherwise, what purpose does the Motor Vehicle Act serve? The confession of faith works in a similar fashion.
The process for creating or reviewing a confession of faith requires a process that is both agreed-upon in the faith community and meaningfully representative of the entire community. In my theology classes, I teach my students something I call the principle of proportionality. It means that the greater the application of a discernment decision, the broader the consultation needs to be. It is not the same thing as a democratic process; there are many forms of consultation. But I think we can see evidence of this in the New Testament church and in the history of Christian theology. Are denominational leaders willing to engage this process appropriately and in a timely fashion? I hope so, but I will affirm that I have seen enough responsiveness that I am encouraged rather than discouraged on this point.
Faithfulness also demands that changes made be reflective of theological principles arising from reflecting on faithful questions. Theological decisions are sometimes made because of cultural or other forces that raise questions that may not be the best to ask. I recall a conversation in a Baptist church my father pastored. My father was proposing that the church change from using a common chalice filled with wine to the small glass cups filled with grape juice. Why? There was at least one recovering alcoholic in the church for whom my father did not want communion to be a temptation. One elder statesman objected on the grounds that “Jesus didn’t use those little cups.”
This was true, but it missed the point because the wrong question was being asked. “What kind of cups did Jesus use?” is not the question that will most effectively help us understand how to observe the Lord’s Supper. In truth, Christians never do theological reflection anew, and we certainly ought not assume that we do theology from a vantage point that is superior to that of those who went before us. It is neither better nor worse — just different. We have as much to learn as any prior generation.
Done well, theological work helps us understand what questions to ask as much as it helps us answer them. Discerning faithful questions helps us set faithful priorities, and identify when change is appropriate — and when it is not. Applying the principle of proportionality, it follows that discernment that is faithful depends on issues agreed upon not only by a few, but by the whole.
One may point out that in the MB family today, there are many areas of dissonance between what our confession states and what individuals and churches affirm. There are some who have been openly critical of the confession, in its content and its approach. I have heard suggestions that the latitude allowed in respect to some parts of the confession should be extended to others, allowing for increased diversity among MBs. I appreciate diversity, but I don’t think that is the real goal here. It seems to me that what is in view is not diversity but autonomy. In church communities, diversity is rewarding, even if challenging. Autonomy is not a theological virtue, and I don’t think we want to go where it will lead us. I hope we don’t have to experience that to understand it.