Mennonite identity amid the Fresno fiasco

Sep 12, 2018 by

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A lot of talk has been happening in the Mennonite Twitter world (which is a pretty weird overlap of two very different realms) in the past few days about changes in a master’s program at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. Since I am a student in that program, I thought I would write out my thoughts publicly as well.

The Masters of Arts in Ministry, Leadership and Culture is a distance ed degree offered by Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, which is a Mennonite Brethren school and part of Fresno Pacific University in California. Three big-name pastors with some level of Anabaptist/Mennonite affiliation and/or conviction were signed on as guest lecturers, namely Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House in Ontario, Brian Zahnd of Word of Life Church in Missouri and Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. The program has weekly online classes where these pastors would each spend half an hour once a month teaching the students on various topics and taking questions from them. There are also annual residency weeks, where these pastors would fly in and give lectures and workshops.

So, what’s the problem? While these men are leaders of large churches and authors of popular books, they are also no strangers to controversy. One central issue is that none of them hold to penal substitutionary atonement theory as the fullest and only way to explain how God saves the world. Essentially, PSA says that God can only forgive humanity and set aside his murderous rage toward sin and those who commit it because of Jesus’ sacrificial death. These three men, and I would argue a growing number of other pastors and theologians also, say that the Bible paints a bigger and more beautiful picture of atonement and PSA paints a narrow and ugly picture of who God is.

For some schools of thought (namely the neo-Calvinist school), to argue against PSA is to argue against the gospel, as though if God doesn’t save by blood, God doesn’t save at all. Also, Boyd holds a theological/philosophical position called open theism. He argues that the future isn’t knowable, and so, while God knows all possibilities and has a plan for all possibilities, God doesn’t know the future. Many of the same people who defend PSA also see open theism as an attack on God’s omniscience (all-knowingness).

It just so happens that many of the people who see open theism and other atonement theories as a threat to the church are also donors to the USMB church and Fresno Pacific University. Leaders within the university and the seminary were taking regular angry phone calls with threats to withdraw donation money, and so the decision was made by the university and the denomination to disassociate with these three pastors.

I’m disappointed by the decision. I’m disappointed by the lack of communication as the decision was being made, and I’m disappointed by the anger and narrow-mindedness that necessitated the decision. I’m not going to withdraw from the program over it, but I certainly wouldn’t have signed up for it without these three lecturers. The seminary faculty are wonderful people, brilliant scholars and people of profound faith and I have enjoyed learning from them. To say that they universally endorse this decision would be inaccurate. The other students in the program have become dear friends whose company I cherish. Most them are more upset than I am and would use stronger language than I do to communicate their frustration.

A lot could be said about freedom of education and about the need for diverse voices in the pursuit of higher learning. I could say more about the need for churches to support their schools, their professors and their young students. I could easily rant about the corrupting influence of wealth, dogmatism and nationalism. All of those things inform the current crisis, but the more pivotal issue that I would like to address is the ongoing question of Mennonite identity.

Up until recently, Mennonites have happily relegated themselves to minority status within the global church. Call it a kind of theological PTSD after being persecuted by more established churches during the Reformation. More and more over the years, we Mennonites have tried to claim a seat at the theological table. Whether or not we should be doing that, we’ve been so worried that we won’t fit in, that we try harder to prove that we belong there.

Some say we should fit in on the right, some say we should fit in on the left, and others say we should crawl back into the hole we crawled out of. I don’t have a problem saying there are merits to all three of those positions. Sure, we need to proclaim Jesus, build big churches and expect to fill them. Sure, we need to give to the poor and radically welcome outsiders. Sure, there is corruption in the world that we need to protect ourselves from. What happened at FPU is that the seminary said that they were going to take a seat at the emerging table and big MB churches said, “No! If you sit at that table, we won’t be welcomed at THIS table.”

The funny thing is that they aren’t leaving old-fashioned Mennonite reclusivism behind; they have simply switched colonies. They have simply taken the old Mennonite colony mindset into evangelical world and behaving just like the ancestors they think they have left behind. They’ve forgotten the lesson we learned that made us want to leave the colony in the first place — that when you build walls to keep people out, you will always find Jesus on the other side.

William Loewen is pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church outside Calgary, Alta. He blogs at Thirdway, where this post first appeared.


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