What’s in a Narrative? Canadian Mennonite Brethren and the Struggle for Identity

Brian Cooper

The Conrad Grebel Review 37, no. 3 (Fall 2019)

Abstract: Canadian Mennonite Brethren are experiencing a crisis of denominational identity rooted in longstanding neglect of a contextual theology that could forge a common self-understanding. The basis of theological agreement has long been assumed, centered more on simple biblicism than on explicit theological consensus. Connections based on ethnicity, socio-cultural relations, and institutional affiliation are proving insufficient to be the ground of agreement, and movements such as New Calvinism are challenging traditional articulations of theological identity. As a result, intentional contextual theological work is necessary to create denominational cohesion.


The question of what it means to be Mennonite Brethren continues to stimulate conversation, but agreement is elusive. Doug Heidebrecht notes the persistence of challenges that not only work against theological attempts to articulate common identity but weaken the relational glue that enables individual churches to feel like [they] belong to a larger group.[2] While MBs have stressed the need for biblical theology, and have prized the work of leaders and scholars who exercised great skill in reading biblical texts in their linguistic, literary, and cultural contexts, MB theology has usually overlooked the crucial step of contextualizing the scripture into the readers’ own setting.

I will argue that Canadian Mennonite Brethren (hereafter “MBs”) have traded upon socio-cultural and institutional relations rather than develop a clear and commonly practiced theological method, and that this trend has contributed to a growing theological fragmentation with at least two observable results. First, it has produced a loss of denominational cohesion, seen in declining participation in discernment, support for denominational initiatives, and levels of financial subscription. Lacking a common self- identity, MBs have fragmented, theologically and regionally, making cooperation difficult. Second, the lack of a common theological platform has allowed groups with different agendas to advance new theological narratives as foundational to MB identity.

At the outset, let me briefly clarify the terminology I will be using. By theological method I mean a process informing theological reflection that employs a commonly accepted set of hermeneutical principles by which to contextualize a reading of biblical texts into a particular community of faith. Thus I use “contextual theology” as a synonym for this term. By theological platform I mean a product, a set of theological commitments that arises from the process.

The question of a denominations theological identity is generally a murky one, and the diversity of theological views among Canadian Mennonites illustrates the complexity of evaluating the interplay of sociological and ideological dynamics. Identity” is itself a problematic term, pointing to a presumably objective standard imposed on members of a group who are generally more diverse than is acknowledged by an outside observer. In contrast, I will focus on identity understood as an internally generated indicator of unity around a broadly accepted set of theological priorities.[3] These priorities arise from a narrative that provides both historical definition and theological cohesion. In looking at MBs as a sample group within the larger Canadian Mennonite community, I will mainly examine attempts to derive a common identity.

Lack of a common identity has contributed to the rise of new theological impulses among Canadian MBs. For example, neo-Reformed theology (also known as New Calvinism)[4] has risen to prominence in the past 10-15 years as representing, in the eyes of its champions, the hallmark of theological orthodoxy and especially the authority of Scripture. Its proponents have also sometimes claimed that it represents a purer form of faithful MB theology than that of most MBs.[5] In the absence of a commonly accepted theological method that could be used to reply, MBs have had difficulty answering this charge. In fact, MB theology has long associated identity with simple imitation of New Testament practice (discipleship, peace and nonresistance, and mutual relief, among others).[6] The doctrines necessary to resource this imitation receive less attention and can appear to be of secondary importance. MB self-expression has not used a clear contextual method to inform ethical commitments. As more than one historian has noted, MBs “have never had a solid theological rudder to steer their theological ship.[7] This has allowed multiple narratives to vie for defining MB identity.

Mennonite Brethren Origins and the Problem of Identity

MB origins were primarily oriented around a desire for a reinvigorated spirituality, and only secondarily—and latterly—by a desire to create a methodological and doctrinal foundation to support a newfound focus on spiritual rebirth.[8] The group that separated itself from the larger Mennonite community in Russia did so in the interest of spiritual vitality, but its mission was to win over Mennonite compatriots who were quite literally family,at least in the biological sense. This phenomenon may partially explain the difficulties inherent in identifying the germ of MB theological identity at its inception, associated variously with a recovery of original Anabaptism, the influence of Pietism, or a shift to evangelicalism.[9] Leaders insisted at the time that they shared the foundational doctrinal convictions of the Mennonite community from which they had separated—but nevertheless insisted on being distinct from them.

In view of this experiential approach to theology, the question of how to create and maintain consensus is apt. Two notable features arise from examing MB conference records. First, for the first century of its existence, the socio-ethnic cohesiveness and insularity[10] of the MB community helped maintain theological unity. Outside theological influences were regarded with caution. Leadership in churches and in  the  denomination  came from within, and Bible schools were established for that purpose. Second, theological direction was centralized in a close-knit, highly respected group, men who served as the denominations theological leaders—arguably, the arbiters of orthodoxy—although their recommendations were ratified by members gathered in general conference sessions. Later formalized as the Committee for Reference and Counsel, this group responded to theological inquiries, provided documents for strategic and theological implementation, protected against outside influences,[11]  and largely provided the answer to the recurring question intended to resolve all theological issues, Was sagt das Wort? (“What does Scripture say”?)[12] Theological identity, though not described as such, was taken implicitly to entail application of biblical texts by recognized leaders for practical instruction in faithful Christian living.

When MB leaders began to search for resources to give clarity to the movement, they found common cause more along linguistic and relational lines than along theological ones, cooperating with German-speaking Pietist, Allianz,[13] and German Baptist leaders who shared their literalistic biblicist orientation and revivalist sympathies. Their priorities were to find allies who could help by providing resources for training leaders and basic theological definition for the movement. The validity of the content they imbibed was simply assumed, based on a superficially shared commitment to biblical authority and evangelism.

Caught Between Two Narratives: Sectarianism and Evangelism

Because of their discriminating relations with other Christian bodies, whether Mennonite or other groups, MBs have been identified as sectarian. They insisted upon maintaining a visible qualitative distinction—based on a voluntary commitment to Christian discipleship—between members of the community and those in the larger social sphere outside it.[14] However, while a sociological study of moving from a purely sectarian posture toward a denominational outlook[15] may describe the phenomenology of the denominations development, it does not tell the whole story about how MBs viewed themselves. It also fails to address the theological nuances allowing them to be sectarian while engaging aggressively in evangelistic mission.

That MBs were both sectarian and evangelistic can been seen from the historical evidence, and this apparent paradox is partly related to a lack of clarity about theological method. They did not differentiate between formal norms for discipleship and culturally located material norms developed within their largely segregated and ethnically mono-cultural community during their first century. Richard Kyle notes that “an isolationist mindset and a tendency toward ethical legalism largely held sway in Mennonite Brethren circles until the mid-twentieth century in the United States and perhaps a decade longer in Canada.[16]

Despite this, evangelistic fervor compelled MBs to retain some degree of relationship to other groups and especially to other Mennonites. MBs did not secede from the Mennonite community out of a desire to completely dissociate themselves from either other Mennonites[17] or other denominational groups. They maintained friendly relations  with  those with whom they had contact while keeping the qualitative  distinction intact. Their commitment to spreading an evangelical message of spiritual rebirth compelled them to bring the same theological framework they had internalized to replicate the joy of spiritual rebirth in others. But what it did not do was motivate development of a fully-orbed theological system. The emphasis was on evangelism; discipleship would simply follow naturally as people read their Bibles and did what Scripture commanded. Time and migration to settlements in the New World did not dampen instincts to remain largely self-sufficient communities seeking to perpetuate their spiritual vitality into the next generation and to bring the good news to other German-speaking (generally DGR Mennonite[18]) communities.

Canadian MB mission work extended through most of Western Canada by the 1950s. Interestingly, the denominations multi-tiered approach to mission and church planting was tied not to theological priorities but to geographical locations. Wherever there were Mennonites who needed to be evangelized, mission efforts could lead directly to the planting of MB churches. But where evangelism took place among other groups, whether Canadians of other nationalities or Indigenous peoples, mission work took a different course, because these groups, even if they could be taught to be Christians in the MB way, would retain sufficient residual cultural trappings to make direct denominational relationships impossible.

Converts won in mission work outside Mennonite  communities were sisters and brothers in Christ but were nonetheless not immediately suitable to form MB churches. In a 1944 document, a West Coast mission leader stated that non-DGR converts “should be directed to nearby believers’ churches. Failing that, as long as the principle of self-determination was not violated, converts should be baptized and formed into Gemeinschaften [associations—mission churches, presumably].[19] Progressing from mission church to full conference church involved a longer process of denominational indoctrination. The implicit expectation was that full church status was reserved for those with appropriate cultural and linguistic (i.e., German- speaking Mennonite) heritage. MB theological identity ignored the formative elements of theology and mission and retreated to the safety of cultural uniformity, because the foundational narrative of what it meant to be MB was still inextricably bound up in the cultural experience of the group.

Internally, MB identity had never been clearly articulated; it was simply assumed, based on common tradition, common language, common practices, and common educational formation. However, by the middle of the 20th century the unifying force of these elements was in significant decline. By the 1960s, German had given way to English as the lingua franca of theological education and church worship. As well, geographic dispersal across the large expanse of Canada, and the diversity of cultural contexts across the country, exacerbated the challenge of competing interests.[20]

Family or Faith? Theology and Ethnicity as Competing Identities

Because MBs, like other Mennonite groups, have existed not only as a religious community but as a socio-cultural people group for much of their history, they manifest a tension in self-understanding between theological and  ethnic factors.[21]  This  has  become  an  ongoing  issue,  complicating efforts to discern just what it means to be MB. Theological issues may have precipitated the birth of the denomination, but cultural markers persist, further complicating these efforts.[22]

In the 1970s, J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder noted the persistence of ethnicity in their analysis of four North American Anabaptist denominations, as well as evidence of theological change and cultural assimilation. They concluded that the message from the ‘left wing of the Reformation [a term used to describe the early Anabaptists] does speak to the contemporary world, but it must be freed from the encrusted cultural forms within which it so easily becomes encased by the passages of time and the generations.[23] They identified elements they associated with historic Anabaptism, but found the level of commitment to such principles inconsistent among the groups they surveyed.[24]

In the 1980s, the question of what it meant to be MB continued. John E. Toewss work painted a grim picture: the forecast for Canadian MBs was only slightly less bleak than for Americans:

The Profile suggests the Mennonite Brethren Church is at a critical moment in history. The trends identified in the Profile point toward the loss of a particular theological identity in popular American cultural religion. The alternative is renewal as an Anabaptist-Mennonite Brethren people. The continued loss of identity will lead to the complete disintegration of the Mennonite Brethren in the United States, and, perhaps, in Canada, although the scores suggest greater coherence of identity and mission in Canada.[25]

Richard Kyle observed that trends among Canadian and American MBs were similar. Differences in the timing of migrations to North America affected the chronology but not the nature of trends affecting identity; the main difference was that trends in Canada developed slightly later than those in the United States.[26]

In a 1987 sociologicalexamination, Peter HammopinedthatCanadian Mennonite Brethren are presently undergoing a crisis of identity” in the face of secularizing factors.[27] However, his analysis relies largely on sociological rather than theological markers. In 2011, Alfred Neufeld noted that the theology of the original MB leaders was neither original nor distinctive to MBs. Their theological pillars of Christian identity are not unique: this is exactly what many Mennonite and non-Mennonite Christians also want.[28] The problem of identification remained.

Where and How of Formation: Mennonite Brethren and Theological Education

Although many MBs once preferred to maintain their ethnic cohesiveness, they were now rubbing shoulders with Canadians from various backgrounds. They were also encountering new theological ideas assimilated by leaders who had pursued education outside the MB world. Increasingly, ethnicity and language were acknowledged to be insufficient centripetal forces to sustain denominational identity, and familiar theological commitments were generally not seen as requiring critical reappraisal so much as frequent reaffirmation.

The overarching method to preserve and transmit a faithful identity was connected to a simple educational process. Churches would raise up young members to attend MB Bible Schools where they would be taught by MB teachers and train for service in MB churches. Repeating this process indefinitely would assure that the community would survive, even prosper, by maintaining a cycle of spiritual formation for new generations. Cohesiveness was derived largely from the dynamic teaching of conference leaders whose personal theological commitments were often equated with normative theology.[29] Theological fidelity was implicitly expected to be more a product of where people learned to read Scripture than of how they learned to read it.

Nevertheless, by the 1960s, the changing demographics of Bible School attendance set the stage for greater uncertainty about denominational identity. First, although statistics on those in leadership roles who were Bible school graduates showed that the established formula was holding true, the percentage of church trustees and ordained pastors was significantly lower: those who managed the finances and property of the Conference and those who filled the pulpits ranked lowest in the scale of those who had attended Bible school.[30] Second, the educational formation of teachers at Bible training institutions was varied. This variation contributed to indiscriminate assimilation of the outside theological ideas previously mentioned. In a 1978 article, Calvin Redekop candidly noted that the theological “soundness” of MB institutions was directly influenced by factors of which members were generally unaware. The predominant theological approach was “largely a matter of personal preference of the seminaries at which the majority of faculty have attended.[31]  Increasing theological diversity was creeping into MB institutions without being recognized.

Nothing really set MB schools apart from other schools apart from the name. Leaders taught at schools in Canada, but they had received training  in  various  institutions,  bringing  back  theological  models  and methods into their home community. William Bestvater, a graduate of the dispensational-fundamentalist Light and Hope Bible Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, exercised a profound influence on the Canadian schools. He directed the Winnipeg City Mission for eight years and taught for nine years at the MB Bible School in Herbert, Saskatchewan. There, and elsewhere in MB schools,dispensationalist hermeneutic  was unquestioningly  accepted and this became the predominant mode of understanding the Bible.[32] It would remain the accepted theological paradigm for decades and remains an influence, albeit diminished, today.

Renewed Attempts to Articulate Identity: Biblical Theology

In the 1960s, MB leaders, recognizing the pervasive but unacknowledged influence of dispensationalism,  shifted the  theological orientation  of the MB seminary in Fresno, California from the literalism of a predominantly fundamentalist approach to Scripture to one that attempts to allow biblical language and categories to shape a theological system. While this has allowed for a theological approach that integrates biblical studies, theology, and ethics, it has not actually created a theological system to do this integrative work. Rather, the emphasis on biblical theology that has became prominent since the 1970s has perpetuated the notion that Bible teaching—usually the sort of plain and direct interpretation that has long prevailed at a grassroots level— provides all the theological resourcing necessary for a diverse denominational constituency.[33] This emphasis has also enabled deeper and more sophisticated study of biblical texts, but such study has not generally translated into deeper and more sophisticated contextual reflection on the texts, nor has it attempted to equip lay MBs to do theological reflection on their own.

Increased levels of theological education among MB leaders have contributed to theological diversity in the past forty years. In seeking higher levels of preparation they naturally came into contact with diverse ideas and institutions.[34]  This trend is not to be lamented; indeed, for some time MB leaders have regarded such diversity as completely legitimate. More than thirty-five years ago, David Ewert noted the trend toward diversity, then already well established, citing examples to show that there can be great diversity in a denomination without destroying unity in basic matters of faith and practice.[35] However, largely absent today is an explicit description of a contextual theological method, i.e., how and why MB theological commitments are structured as they are. MB theology has rested largely on a historical review of sociological and phenomenological treatments of theology. What is missing is a rationale for a hermeneutic that can serve an apologetic function and offer a coherent description of the denominations theological priorities.[36]

Recapturing a Narrative? The Problem of the Anabaptist Vision

In discerning how MB theology can fairly represent a stream of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, the question of what makes teaching authentically Anabaptist-Mennonite is a logical one to raise. In trying to recover a fuller sense of identity, MB leaders found that Harold Benders Anabaptist Vision[37] provided an ideological starting point. His work was familiar to church leaders and scholars, and had been presented to delegates at a centennial celebration in Winnipeg in 1960.[38] Benders thesis was that a pure Anabaptism originating with the Swiss Brethren in the 1520s lay behind not only subsequent incarnations of the Radical Reformation but the entire Believers Church movement (of which many Protestant denominations were a part), and informed contemporary views of the separation of church and state, religious toleration, and the development of modern liberal democracy. His rhetoric motivated MB leaders and others to call members to return to the simplicity and nonconformity of early Anabaptist spirituality. The Anabaptist Vision would be a powerful tool to clarify self-understanding and to focus evangelism and service.

However, as compelling as this vision was, major flaws hampered efforts to harness its potential. The first flaw was historiographical. Benders assumption that Anabaptism sprang from a pure and simple source was shown by later scholarship to be inadequately supported by historical evidence.[39] The shift in 16th-century Anabaptist historiography from monogenesis” explanations to polygenesis” explanations provided much fodder for historians, but in the long term it was insufficient for articulating a singular identity. The second flaw was that Bender assumed 16th-century Anabaptism can speak with self-evident immediacy to a 20th-century Anabaptist-Mennonite constituency. For Bender, and for Canadian leaders like John A. Toews whose work to recapture MB identity was influenced by Bender,[40]  what was needed was a reappraisal of the presumed founding narrative. Ethical imperatives would be obvious, and matters of contextual theological method superfluous. Further, for his part, Bender considered the MB renewal movement of 1860 a renewal of the Anabaptist Vision of the 16th century.[41] In light of this, it is easy to see why his version of Anabaptist and MB history would have received a favorable reading. Nevertheless, appealing to a preferred version of a founding creation myth has not proven effective for uniting MBs.

It is also worth noting that Benders Anabaptist Vision, as influential as his apologia for Anabaptist-Mennonite theological orientation has been, is a revisionist reading of the Anabaptist tradition. The Schleitheim Confession of 1527, the guiding document of the Swiss Anabaptist tradition that Bender championed, “has not had a high profile in the North American [MB] confessional tradition,noted Stephen Dintaman.[42] The original confessional influences on MB leaders likely did not come from Schleitheim, and trying to reorient MB theology based on a recovery of the Anabaptist Vision based on it is a dubious enterprise at best. Benders Anabaptist Vision validated Anabaptist emphases on peacemaking, godliness, and mutual aid (among other things) in a way that renewed awareness of their historical significance. But his view takes a vital spirituality and theological system for granted as a foundation for his ethics, and consequently he says little about theological foundation or method. For MBs struggling to articulate their own vision that would transcend parochial legalism, his strong ethical orientation did not fit. They were not alone in making this observation; Dintaman memorably noted a reductionist focus on ethics in the Anabaptist Vision.[43] As a group that has emphasized spiritual rebirth and adopted a deliberately evangelical- Anabaptist posture, MBs may have a pedigree compatible with Benders vision. However, it is far less clear that this vision, even as a paradigm for refocusing, provides enough clarity on theological method to orient and guide the denomination.

In the 1970s, a focus on older Anabaptist theological commitments (rather than on newer theologies such as dispensationalism) was seen as integral to creating a renewed identity, and an effort was made to identify influences that detracted from the expression of pure Anabaptism. The 1973 Canadian Conference yearbook notes a resolution presented to delegates concerning MB identity. It laments that “as a result of exposure to various winds of doctrine,and due to the indiscriminate acceptance of views which are contrary to both the New Testament and the Anabaptist Vision, we have in recent years experienced an identity crisis.[44] The teaching of the NT and the Anabaptist Vision are mentioned so closely together as to suggest that they are nearly synonymous. But the association is more assumed than demonstrated, leading to a perpetuation of the identity problem. Even if the story of the 16th-century Anabaptists is compelling, it is not clear either how it (or the origin of the MB movement in the 19th century) offers a normative representation of biblical teaching, or how such a representation, were it to exist, might appear today.

Nevertheless, the attempt to make a renewed Anabaptism central for MB identity was a long-term priority, and the influence of North American evangelical Christianity on MBs was lamented. In a 1985 article on the denominations theological climate, John E. Toews observed that Mennonite Brethren piety looks more popularly evangelical—“save me Lord and make me feel good, but ask little from me”—and less Anabaptist-Mennonite— empower me Lord to be a disciple-missionary for the Kingdom of God.[45] While the Anabaptist Vision remained a focus for some, it did not provide a theological center of gravity sufficient to attract a majority of MBs. Generally, it seemed far easier for individuals to articulate their uneasiness with trends in spirituality than to identify theological correctives.

Challenge of a New Identity: New Calvinism

In the absence of theological clarity, various proposals have emerged in recent years. The MB theological journal Direction devoted an entire issue in 2013 to the question of how neo-Reformed theology, identified as New Calvinism,has influenced Canadian MBs. A feature article by John Neufeld, former MB pastor and advocate of neo-Reformed theology, argues for the legitimacy of a theological identity that seems foreign to MB origins. The article provocatively states that Anabaptism as a movement was never intended to stand alone. It is a corrective movement, and no one should take a correctiveand make it the central thing.[46] Neufeld is not simply saying that Reformed theology can coexist harmoniously with Anabaptist theology; he insists that MB theology needs Reformed theology to supplement and correct the inadequate foundation of Anabaptism.

The Reformed side of me wants to chastise the Anabaptist by saying that while you think of the church as the people of God and following Jesus as the calling upon the church, you have not asked how it is that individuals can become the people of God. It is the lack of a clear doctrinal formulation that leads to a church  no  longer  founded  on  grace,  premised  instead on human opinion, and led astray by every wind of doctrine. Anabaptism needs the Reformed movement,  or  it  vanishes into the very lifeless morass in which Eduard Wuest found the Russian Mennonite colonies in the 1840s and ’50s.[47]

Two features of this article are notable. First, Neufelds revisionist view of MB history not only gives rise to a competing theology, it challenges the traditional foundational narrative. Neufeld  insists  that  the  original MB leaders intentionally melded Reformed soteriology with Pietism in their new amalgam of Anabaptist spirituality.[48] Second, his proposal to repristinate an older theological agenda in line with the 1902 MB Confession of Faith suggests a significant devolution in MB theological integrity in the intervening period. While both his theological and historical assessments are largely without foundation, they nevertheless exemplify the problems arising from the lack of a clearly defined theological method.


Without a commonly accepted theological method, seeking common ground amid diverse contexts and commitments will be increasingly difficult, especially as traditionally strong relational connections are weakening. For example, Canadian MBs have already expressed a sense of disconnect between their local church experience and the Canadian MB Conference. While 76 per cent of respondents in a 2017 survey agreed with the statement It is important to me that my church is part of the national MB conference,” Only 21 per cent agreed with the statement The national conference understands the needs of my church to effectively support us.[49] The survey results not only indicate that organizational responsiveness is a key concern but also suggest that theological cohesion is the real underlying issue. Organizational cohesiveness should follow theological identity, not the other way round.

Theological disputes are difficult to resolve, because differing approaches cause people to talk past one another. MBs continue tenuously agreeing on theological content, but with some disagreement on baptism and membership, and on love and nonresistance. Despite disagreements on theological method, there is a surprising degree of consensus, as evidenced in conversations about atonement theology in 2010-11. Although there is broad consensus on many issues, it has arisen more incidentally than intentionally, and is largely the residue of past unity. Fears about disagreements on the atonement gave way to an almost sheepish acknowledgment of substantial agreement after the conversations concluded. Lack of a common method meant that there was no ready way to have ongoing conversations that could engender a deeper consensus. In the absence of such conversations, fears of unfavorable theological diversity grew. The exchanges on atonement theology revealed that despite different approaches, there was still a common commitment that some found surprising. Yet there was also more diversity than these discussions displayed, if we consider what was not said at the time and who did not participate in these exchanges.

Theological conversations among Canadian MBs can become fractious. In the case of neo-Reformed theology, the New Calvinism hermeneutic implies that theological work answers a set of predetermined questions in order to demonstrate orthodoxy. This hermeneutic makes Anabaptist formulations in certain areas, e.g., soteriology, biblically unfaithful or even heterodox, because they fail to align with the priorities of the neo-Reformed theological system. But what is not readily acknowledged is that the questions posed in neo-Reformed theology, rather than the answers, significantly contribute to the problem. This occurs because the questions focus heavily on matters of doctrine, often at the expense of discipleship. Put another way, Anabaptist theology has historically not asked the same questions as Reformed theology. Neo-Reformed theology and Anabaptism come from two different contextual theologies. Commitment to having theological conversations—about issues, not about different kinds of theology—can go only part of the way to creating and strengthening denominational identity. What I have in mind are conversations that shed light on various questions in order to better understand the reasons for diversity. MB commitments to be both evangelicaland Anabaptist” will mean little without investigating what these terms mean and how they can coexist.

Appeals to the unifying power of the current 1999 Confession of Faith have been useful for connecting disparate groups within the denomination. But the role and authority of the Confession is eroding; it is now frequently described as an ideal or as an aspirational document rather than a statement of what MBs actually believe together.[50] Further, appeal to a confession rooted in a distant founding narrative will face increasing contextual remoteness from contemporary concerns. The Confession was intended to be reviewed and revised periodically, but a lack of consensus on theological method makes that difficult, even impossible. Theological identity then dissipates for lack of a methodology, even if there is consensus on historical origins.

As is the case with MBs, Canadian Mennonites more broadly appear to be experiencing a theological diversity that strains unity (witness the evolving discussions in Mennonite Church Canada and in provincial Mennonite conferences). With reference to some especially difficult issues, their decision to remain together seems anchored in a commitment not only to process but to a common identity as a peace church, notwithstanding diverse theological convictions.[51] This may prove to be a model for MBs as they look for ways to strengthen ties within the denominational community. Theological educators may have an opportunity to occupy a strategic role in these discussions, and perhaps can learn from the self-articulation of Jewel Gingerich Longenecker of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary regarding difficult conversations (in this case, about sexual expression). Perhaps membership in Mennonite Church USA should be based, not on our beliefs about sexual ethics,she writes, “but on our willingness to commit to participate in in-depth weekly Bible study in our own congregations.[52]

This statement is helpful, because Bible study that focuses on the process rather than simply the product—for example, beliefs about sexual ethics or other matters—will more likely create real consensus because a common process or method will generate unity better than an insistence on a single, often predetermined, answer or belief. Denominational identity cannot exist without a willingness to engage in ongoing conversation even where agreement is difficult to discern. I believe that a common core of conviction based on a common theological method is necessary to anchor Canadian MBs. It remains to be seen whether such a core can be discovered and whether it can provide an adequate basis for identity—for MBs or for Canadian Mennonites in general.

In this article I have sought to move the conversation more explicitly towards issues of theological method so that MBs (and others) can have more fruitful dialogue, greater mutual understanding, and ultimately greater unity. This conversation will ideally generate agreement on principles that should guide theological reflection and how they should interact. Such a theological core will not result from appealing to either an evangelical vision or an Anabaptist Vision. Rather, it will be necessary to imagine a new theological vision together—and thereby to create a new identity.

Brian Cooper is Director of Student Development and Associate Professor of Theology at Mennonite Brethren Seminary in Langley, British Columbia.


[1] This paper is based on a presentation prepared for the 50th Anniversary Conference of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, held in Winnipeg in November 2018 and entitled A People of Diversity: Mennonites in Canada since 1970.

[2] Doug Heidebrecht, “Living Our Identity,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, October 3, 2019. https://mbherald.com/living-our-identity/.

[3] Identity has been a recurring theme in works produced within the MB community. Consider these articles in Direction, the MB theological journal: Delbert L. Wiens, Immersion and the Mennonite Brethren Identity Crisis,Direction 14, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 14-25; Paul Toews, Two Moments in the Search for a Mennonite Brethren Identity,” Direction  23, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 18-30. See also Abe J. Dueck, Bruce L. Guenther, and Doug Heidebrecht, eds., Renewing Identity and Mission: Mennonite Brethren Reflections After 150 Years (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Productions, 2011).

[4] This topic was the focus of an entire issue of Direction. See “The New Calvinism Considered,Direction 42, no. 2 (Fall 2013).

[5] John Neufeld, Ploughing with a Donkey and an Ox: On Being Anabaptist and Reformed,” in ibid., 130.

[6] Yearbook of the 63rd Convention of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (Winnipeg, MB: Christian Press, 1973), 9-10.

[7] Abraham Friesen, Mennonite Brethren Beginnings: Background and Influences,Renewing Identity in Mission, 99.

[8] Baptism was the traditional entry point into the church in Mennonite theology. MBs contested the formalism of this practice, insisting that baptism “is not the new birth, as some of the unconverted maintain, but serves as a sign for the baptismal candidate, that he is really born again.New birth would be confirmed at least in part through baptism, but new birth could not be overlooked. See Mennonite Brethren Church, Document of Secession (Mennonite  Brethren  Church,  1860),”  https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Document_of_ Secession_(Mennonite_Brethren_Church,_1860), accessed March 8, 2019

[9] For example, Hans Kasdorf, Reflections on the Church Concept of the Mennonite Brethren,Direction 4, no. 3 (July 1975): 339-46. Cf. Friesen, Mennonite Brethren Beginnings: Background and Influences,” 83-102.

[10] MBs did not display a classically sectarian attitude, but they were cautious about close cooperation with Christians from other traditions. For example, a 1943 conference resolution, reaffirmed in 1948, chose not to recognize ordination of ministers coming into the MB conference from other denominations. Even marrying a Christian from another church tradition brought one under scrutiny to see if ones church membership ought to be continued. See A.E. Janzen, ed., We Recommend: Recommendations and Resolutions of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1878-1963 (Hillsboro, KS: Board of Reference and Counsel of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1964), 53, 124, 157.

[11] We Recommend, 219.

[12] Ibid., 97.

[13] The Allianz was an interdenominational evangelical group in Germany that was related to the Evangelical Alliance in Britain. See Christian Neff, “Evangelical Alliance,http://gameo. org/index.php?title=Evangelical_Alliance, accessed April 10, 2018.

[14] John E. Toews, Theological Reflections,Direction 14, no. 2 (Fall 1985): 63.

[15] The best treatment remains Richard G. Kyle, From Sect to Denomination: Church Types and Their Implications in Mennonite Brethren History (Hillsboro, KS: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1985).

[16] Kyle, From Sect to Denomination, 109.

[17] The introduction to the 1902 MB Confession of Faith makes it clear that MB sought to clarify, rather than sever, the common commitment to Mennonite theology that they believed they shared with Mennonites: “That which the Mennonite Brethren Church has always maintained is repeated today: our new organization did not dissolve the confessional fellowship with the Mennonite Anabaptist churches in Russia in 1860; the organization of our Brethren Church was a protest against the ecclesiastical practice of the church referred to, especially regarding baptism and church discipline, and continues to this day, despite the heartfelt brotherly fellowship that we enjoy with many of them.See Abe J. Dueck, Moving Beyond Secession: Defining Russian Mennonite Brethren Mission and Identity, 1872-1922 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Productions, 1997), 109.

[18] “DGR Mennonite” refers to those Mennonites whose ancestry can be traced through the history of Dutch, German, and Russian settlements. Cf. Bruce L. Guenther, “From Isolation and Ethnic Homogeneity to Acculturation and Multi-cultural Diversity: The Mennonite Brethren and Canadian Culture,Direction 39, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 138-61.

[19] Peter Penner, No Longer at Arms Length: Mennonite Brethren Church Planting in Canada (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Press, 1987), 45.

[20] In  the  1990  update  to  a  Mennonite  Encyclopedia  article,  Abe  J.  Dueck  noted  the denominational struggle with issues of nationalism, regionalism, and fragmentation…,pointing to increasing theological diversity and a loss of denominational identity as important factors. See Abe J. Dueck, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches,http://gameo.org/index.php?title=General_Conference_of_Mennonite_Brethren_Churches, accessed April 12, 2018.

[21] As a boy, I had a number of arguments with my mother, who was raised a Bergthaler Mennonite, about whether Mennonite” referred to religious conviction or ethnicity.

[22] Delbert Wiens, speaking only somewhat facetiously about his MB upbringing, quipped, I might become an atheist; but, even so, I would be a Mennonite atheist.Delbert L. Wiens, “From the Village to the City,” Direction 2. no. 4 (Oct. 1973-Jan. 1974): 147.

[23] J. Howard Kaufman and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975), 343.

[24] Ibid., 342. The MB denomination was one of the groups surveyed.

[25] John E. Toews, Theological Reflections,Direction 14, no. 2 (Fall 1985): 68.

[26] Kyle, From Sect to Denomination, 109.

[27] Peter M. Hamm, Continuity and Change among Canadian Mennonite Brethren (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 1987), 226.

[28] Alfred Neufeld, “Recovering Apostolic and Prophetic Origins and Identity,” Renewing Identity and Mission, 20.

[29] Penner, No Longer at Arms Length, 16-17.

[30] Ibid., 101.

[31] Calvin Redekop, Future Options for Mennonite Brethren Higher Education,Direction 7, no. 4 (October 1978): 15.

[32] Abe J. Dueck, “The Changing Role of Biblical/Theological Education in the Mennonite Brethren Church,” in A.J. Dueck, H.J. Giesbrecht, and V.G. Shillington, eds., The Bible and the Church: Essays in Honour of Dr. David Ewert (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Press, 1988), 136.

[33] Brian Cooper, The Theological Poverty of the Mennonite Brethren Vision,Direction 47, no. 2 (Fall 2018): 169-83.

[34] Abe J. Dueck traced the educational paths of MB scholars. He found that most had advanced education from either universities or non-MB theological institutions. See Abe J. Dueck, The Changing Role of Biblical/Theological Education in the Mennonite Brethren Church,” in Dueck, Giesbrecht, and Shillington, The Bible and the Church, 145-46. My survey of MB theological educators shows similar diversity. Faculty education has taken place in Canada, the US, and Europe, in both universities and seminaries. Despite their frequent pursuit of advanced education, MBs have not created any advanced level degree programs in denominational  institutions.

[35] David Ewert, Can We Have Diversity with Unity? Unity and Diversity in the Body of Christ,Direction 11, no. 3 (July 1982), http://www.directionjournal.org/11/3/can-we-have- diversity-with-unity-unity.html. accessed April 12, 2018.

[36] David Ewerts own work is a notable exception to this trend, although he did not describe his theological approach as distinctly Mennonite Brethren. For example, see David Ewert, The Unique Character of Christian Ethics,Direction 2, no. 3 (July 1973): 66-70.

[37] Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944), reprinted as The Anabaptist Vision (1944),http://www.anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index. php?title=The_Anabaptist_Vision_(1944), accessed November 13, 2018.

[38] Abe Dueck, Canadian Mennonites and the Anabaptist Vision,Journal of Mennonite Studies 13 (1995): 73.

[39] James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (January 1975): 83-121.

[40] This list includes several faculty members at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg and a number of leaders in the Canadian MB Conference. Cf. Abe Dueck, Canadian Mennonites and the Anabaptist Vision,” 71-88.

[41] Dueck, Canadian Mennonites and the Anabaptist Vision,” 73.

[42] Howard John Loewen, One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith (Elkhart, IN: Institute for Mennonite Studies, 1985), 27.

[43] Stephen F. Dintaman, The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,The Conrad Grebel Review 10, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 205-208.

[44] Yearbook, Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (Winnipeg, MB: The Christian Press, 1973), 9.

[45] Toews, Theological Reflections,” 61-62.

[46] Neufeld, Ploughing with a Donkey and an Ox,” 126.

[47] Ibid., 130.

[48] Ibid., 126.

[49] “MB Survey - National and Provincial Conferences,https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/ wp-content/uploads/2018/02/2017-Survey-Conference.pdf, accessed November 15, 2018.

[50] This statement comes from the authors personal experience on the Board of Faith and Life of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, and on the Pastoral Ministries Committee of the BC MB Conference.

[51] Being a Faithful Church 7: Summary and Recommendation on Sexuality 2009-2015. General Board, Mennonite Church Canada, https://www.commonword.ca/FileDownload/21757/ BFC-7.pdf, accessed November 15, 2018.

[52] Can our disagreements about sexuality be solved with the Bible?” https://www.ambs.edu/publishing/blog/715830/can-our-disagreements-about-sexuality-be-solved-with-the-bible, accessed November 11, 2018.