Robert J. Suderman. Edited by Andrew Gregory Suderman. Re-Imagining the Church: Implications of Being a People in the World.

Ervin R. Stutzman

The Conrad Grebel Review 36, no. 1 (Winter 2018)

Robert J. Suderman. Edited by Andrew Gregory Suderman. Re-Imagining the Church: Implications of Being a People in the World. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016.

This book is an anthology of sorts, a collection of essays penned by Robert Suderman over a period of more than a decade, presented here with a short editorial introduction to each of the 16 chapters. Most of the essays originated as public presentations in a range of gatherings—from Canada to the Southern Cone of South America and reaching to Southeast Asia. All draw upon the deep well of scripture and theological study that informs Suderman’s bracing ecclesiology.

Although Suderman has served as the top administrator of a church denomination, this book does not address questions about the polity and practice of church organizations. Rather, it is a theological exploration of God’s preferred strategy for God’s people in the world. Suderman takes an aspirational approach, consistently emphasizing what the church could be if it were fully living up to God’s design. By means of careful exegesis at crucial points, he looks back to the testimony of New Testament scriptures, and then looks forward imaginatively to the ways that God’s mission may be realized in today’s context.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part sets forth Suderman’s vision for the nature and being of the church. Particularly in the first two chapters, the author lays out a solid theological definition of the church as “an alternative community, subverting the values of our dominant society with kingdom of God priorities” (10). He argues that “Jesus’ vision for covenanted-kingdom-peoplehood” is essentially equivalent to the Apostle Paul’s concept of the church (9). He goes on to explore the uniqueness of Anabaptist ecclesiology, with its implications for leadership, peacemaking, mission, communal discernment, and more.

In the second part, Suderman addresses the church’s role as people in the world. Here he shows how the church can make its mark in the public square, particularly with its concern for peace and justice. He also speaks of the role of the church in Christian education, or church-related schools.

Given his focus on a re-imagined future, Suderman says little about the failures of the church to live up to her high calling. I would like to see how he might envision a future that acknowledges the church’s corporate sins in the past and seeks to set things right. A remarkable example of such action occurred in July 2010, when delegates of the Lutheran World Federation sought forgiveness from representatives of Mennonite World Conference for the sins of their Lutheran forebears who persecuted 16th-century Anabaptists. They asked not only for forgiveness but for a transformed relationship with Mennonites, a request that has borne fruit in remarkable ways.

I would also like to see an essay, or at least some references, to the varying dimensions of the church community in its congregational, regional, and global expressions. Suderman consistently portrays the church as an alternative society—a covenant community—but he says little about the concrete ways in which this community adapts its strategies to fit its varying social arrangements. The work would be strengthened by exploring the implications of being the people of God in each of these social contexts. For example, the covenantal obligations of being a member of a church in a local neighborhood must of necessity differ from that of being a member of an international body, such as Mennonite World Conference, where a majority of members will never meet each other in person.

Readers who will perhaps benefit the most from this volume are those engaged in church leadership or preparing for ministry roles in church- related settings. Seminary students, pastors, or Bible study leaders can benefit immensely from the author’s masterful approach to Biblical exegesis and theological formulation. Because the book excels in its portrayal of the church in peacemaking and justice-making, Christians with a calling to those ministries can profit greatly from the theological grounding that Suderman provides. The fire that burns in his bones may help to ignite new vision and fresh hope for the Shalom which God’s church can demonstrate in the world. As with any collection of essays, this one may yield its best fruit for readers who browse the Table of Contents and begin by reading the articles most relevant to their specific interests. But by beginning with the first two chapters, they’ll be best prepared to read any of the rest.

Ervin R. Stutzman, Executive Director, Mennonite Church USA.