Alfred Neufeld reads the past, for the future

I’m home from B.C., tired and brain-full. The Renewing Identity and Mission (RIM) event I mentioned at the end of my previous post was interesting and well worth attending. It was packed with workshops — three tracks running concurrently in every time slot, which means it was impossible to attend more than a third of them.

For now, I think I’ll simply post a few notes and reflections on the opening address of the RIM consultation, delivered by Alfred Neufeld of Paraguay. His paper served as a kind of foundational analysis for much of the conversation in subsequent sessions, as well as provoking some good discussion immediately. It deserves — and needs — further discussion, it seems to me, especially when the longer paper upon which his presentation was based is available as well.

Neufeld is an educator and writer with a long list of credentials which I won’t list here, except to say that he’s one of the denomination’s leading theologians and so it was fitting, I think, that he deliver the keynote address, attempting to draw an analysis of Mennonite Brethren (MB) identity with reference to its founding in 1860, as well as posit a vision for the future. He is also, thankfully, easy to listen to.

Neufeld’s reading of 1860 (shorthand for MB origins), he said, is threefold:

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the essential nature of the church.

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the existential dimension of salvation.

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the transcultural mission of the Holy Spirit.

More precisely, Neufeld follows J.B. Toews in calling the MB origins “a phenomenon of renewal.”

Neufeld then provided a fascinating list of how historians and various members of  “the community of scholars” over the past 150 years have described the essence of the 1860 dissent that formed the MB Church. (I’m working from my scribbled notes here and apologize in advance for their inadequacy). Continue reading

The pieces we’re missing

A news article in the latest MB Herald, with the headline “MB seminary professor apologizes for remarks,” reveals that B.C. conference minister Steve Berg sent an email to the MB seminary (MBBS) board in November expressing “his concerns” that “Mark Baker states that penal substitutionary atonement is unbiblical.” The email also said, “In what is already a very challenging time for MBBS, we are concerned that there is a disconnect underway between BCMB churches and MBBS, and the atonement debate is accelerating the process.” 

The article describes and quotes Baker’s response to the B.C. executive and pastors. Baker sounds gracious and thorough in explaining what he believes and what he wishes he’d communicated more clearly, what he wishes he had not written. The content of it sounds very much like what he stated at the MB study conference in Saskatoon in October — the same affirmations, clarifications, attempts at nuance — though he goes further to address a number of his responses at the conference itself. At that event, he stated his first book will be revised. He also clearly affirmed the MB Confession of Faith, Article 5 on Salvation, and does so again in his letter. I attended and reported — here — on the Saskatoon conference. I don’t recall “‘unbiblical’ rhetoric.” I do know that Baker felt himself rather on the block, so to speak, which is never an easy place to be, and I do recollect that he responded carefully and with integrity to the challenges raised to him. 

My opinion on whether an apology is necessary is beside the point, however. He made it, and it needs to be received.

But, will it be received? Has it been? Maybe that’s what’s bothering me about this article. It’s not what’s here, but the pieces we’re missing. The back story. And what happened next.

Re. the back story, I’m wondering why Berg sent this email to the seminary board after the October conference, when Baker’s views had been clearly indicated there. Berg himself led the session in which Baker presented. Is there other pressure coming to the B.C. executive? From the two people Baker says he wishes he had responded to more affirmingly? From those who did not attend? What’s going on?  Berg notes an accelerating debate, but it’s hard to believe that Baker is responsible. And, to be honest, I’m queasy, fearing he’s being made the fall person. 

MBBS president Lynn Jost is also quoted in the article. He thanks the B.C. executive  for communicating their concerns directly with the seminary, and reminds of the seminary’s commitment “to biblical authority and to interpreting the Bible in a way consistent with the MB Confession of Faith.” This commitment, truly said and truly meant, is also not new. Has it been heard and truly received? I can’t help recalling Jost’s words at the MB Forum recently, about “the difficult position that a culture of suspicion raises for the Seminary.” 

Yesterday, I happened to be sorting through a pile of papers and came upon the candid words of a young B.C. pastor to the recommendation on women in ministry at Calgary some years ago. He intended to support the motion, he said, even though it hadn’t gone as far for full and equal participation as he wished. Because of that, it would require his own “self-control and respect of people who believe very differently.” He went on to say, “It will also require some of you to stop labeling me and others who believe similarly, as heretics or on a slippery slope to liberalism, or as being soft on ethics, or whatever other label you might use to write off people who hold a reasoned opinion that disagrees with your own.”

His words felt oddly familiar within this new context. There’s been labelling, baiting, mollifying of behaviors that foster a culture of suspicion, withdrawing of financial support. (The latter has always struck me as the most pernicious, and I’d even say ungodly, strategy individuals or churches can use to exert pressure, because it’s so powerful and puts others into danger not just economically but spiritually.) 

The letter has now been reported. But is there more we should know? And will there be other, good, responses to come?