Confession change aims to get MBs talking

Apr 20, 2015 by and

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HILLSBORO, Kan. — Larry Nikkel wants to start a conversation among Mennonite Brethren about peace and nonviolence that hasn’t happened in decades.



Nikkel, chair of the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches’ Board of Faith and Life, shared April 7 at Tabor College about the group’s work to revise the denomination’s Confession of Faith.

Speaking at an event sponsored by the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, the former Tabor president said peacemaking has been a core Anabaptist value since the beginning of the movement, but MBs have always had a bit of ambivalence about the topic.

During a 2010 gathering of the U.S. and Canadian MB conferences in the Vancouver, B.C., area, U.S. delegates reviewed their Confession. Nikkel said that while most articles received widespread agreement, more than half of the delegates indicated a need to revise Article 13, “Love and Nonresistance.”

The article called for being peacemakers in all situations, love of enemies and alternative service in times of conscription. When a review returned it to prominence, some ministers and laypeople such as military veterans and police officers questioned whether they should begin looking for another church.

Nikkel said multiple factors led to the situation, including cultivating pastors from other evangelical communities rather than within MB congregations.

“We welcomed them, and I’m glad we did; we’re richer for it,” Nikkel said, but Article 13 was a common stumbling point when college staff and pastors were interviewed for jobs. “What we’ve said is, ‘You don’t have to preach it, but you can’t preach against it.’ ”

Beliefs and practices

The BFL undertook a revision process that sought conversations across the country. It was an intentional approach to what was usually avoided.

“It got to be such a contentious issue that you couldn’t even talk about it. For the Board of Faith and Life, that just wasn’t right,” Nikkel said. “It became an issue of our own personal integrity.”

Tim Geddert, a seven-year BFL member, agrees. In an email while visiting MB congregations in Germany and Austria this month, the Fresno Pacific (Calif.) Biblical Seminary New Testament professor said he became convinced a new article was needed to express what most church members actually believed.

“Churches had started to put asterisks on Article 13 and tell their new members they were expected to agree with all the articles, but not necessarily Article 13,” Geddert said. “And others started saying, ‘If that church gets their mulligan on Article 13, we’ll take ours at Article X or Y.’

“The entire Confession of Faith was losing what little normative value it had because we were claiming to believe what [only] 50 percent of the leaders actually believed.”

Rather than expecting leaders to conform, the BFL crafted a statement reflecting actual belief. Delegates approved it at their convention last July in Santa Clara, Calif.

“Some would have wanted it to say more, and possibly voted against it because it didn’t,” he said. “But I have never heard any of those people say that they do not agree with what the new version actually says.

“That means it actually confesses in a document what we as MBs in the U.S. actually confess in our personal convictions. That is its primary reason for being legitimate.”

To retreat or re-engage

The new Article 13, now titled “Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation,” stresses pursuing peace and reconciliation in all relationships. In an effort to not limit peacemaking to times of war, it does not mention conscription. It adds a statement about Christ’s teachings taking priority over nationalism and human authorities.

The old article’s statement that “in times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible” was changed to “many of us choose not to participate in the military, but rather in alternative forms of service.”

Critics see the change as weakening the stance against military service.

The BFL invited input not just from USMB members but also Canadians and members of the International Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

“They encouraged us not to water this article down,” Nikkel said. “A lot of them are dealing with this directly. They are in the thick of it, and it’s an active decision to live this out or not.”

Nikkel said the revision process was a decision to either retreat from the Anabaptist distinctive of pacifism or to re-engage with it. The BFL chose to start a conversation.

“Whatever this new statement says, there are a lot of questions that it doesn’t answer,” Nikkel said. “But we have to be able to talk about it, and we haven’t been able to talk about it for 50 years.”

The conversation could start in Sunday schools. Nikkel envisions possibly developing a curriculum in the next couple of years with materials for children, youth and adults that looks at peace with God, ourselves, the church and the community, and then asks about relationships with the state and military.

“We don’t teach that anymore,” Nikkel said. “We ignore it, and we can’t do that.”

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