Building a capacity to love: Confessions, authority, and virtues in the Mennonite Church

In the ongoing discussions around authority and the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process in Mennonite Church Canada I recently heard a well-known leader in the Mennonite Church suggest that we suspend the authority of our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective for a period of, say, 1o years. As much as I can be critical of the various institutional mechanisms of authority in the Mennonite church I was not sure of the usefulness (never mind possibility) of such a suggestion.

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Faith, confession, and authority: Introducing a work in progress

The feedback that emerged from the Being a Faithful Church[1] process indicates that as a national body Mennonite Church Canada does “not have an appetite to change the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” (BFC 7). I do have an appetite and I am guessing others may as well. Over time I hope to work article by article to bring our current Confession into conversation with some of my own thinking in this area. I want submit these reflections here so that further conversation could emerge from those who also have an appetite to re-visit this document.

I first wrestled with my relationship to our Confession in my ordination process with Mennonite Church Canada. Part of the process was to read and comment on aspects of our Confession. I was generally familiar with the Confession but a new question formed in my mind as I read over it again.  How does the Mennonite church articulate and express authority?  I did not find a clear answer to this question and I it is important to be clear about this ambiguity.  Already in the introduction to the Confession we find a puzzling statement,

[Mennonite confessions of faith] provide guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture.  At the same time, the confession itself is subject to the authority of the Bible.[2]

While I appreciate the openness of such a statement what is troublesome is that this irony, paradox, or conflict of interest is nowhere further clarified or engaged.  Instead of wrestling with that fundamental tension I found that the waters were only further muddied in the Articles themselves.  Within the Confession we now have authoritative statements on Scripture, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and the church that create additionally confusing lines of authority.  In the course of these posts I hope to further clarify these tensions but for now I will try and summarize what I see happening (but don’t take me as authoritative, go and read the Confession for yourself!).

  1. The confession teaches us how to read the Bible.
  2. The confession is in submission to the Bible.
  3. The Bible is the Word of God written and is authoritative for establishing truth and error.
  4. Jesus is the Word made flesh and so the Bible finds its fulfillment in him.
  5. Jesus is known in the words of the Bible.
  6. The Holy Spirit continues to speak.
  7. The Holy Spirit will not contradict the Bible’s witness of Jesus.
  8. The Bible is authoritative for the church.
  9. It is in the church that the Bible must be interpreted.

Without acknowledging the initial tension of the confession and its relationship with or as authority these statements unfold as a recipe for confusion, frustration, and abuses.  As I read our Confession as well as our Being a Faithful Church documents I see the commendable desire to engage the ongoing task of discernment but I remain concerned over the continued ambiguity of authority.  The lines of authority that are mapped out in these documents continue to end ultimately with the question of who holds the most persuasive or influential reading of the Bible.  Setting aside all of this ambiguity the BFC documents in particular continue to assert that the final authority rests in the Bible. What I want to suggest is that such statements are not only unhelpful but also unbiblical. In the next post I will offer a few biblical images that could hopefully shift many current notions of biblical authority in the church.

[1] The Being a Faithful Church documents reflect a multi-year process of developing tools for congregational discernment and the application and development of these tools for specific issues. These documents develop a commitment to ongoing discernment and the openness to reaffirm, modify, or change previous positions. The full package of documents can be found at http://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/43/13465.

[2] Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995. Waterloo: Herald Press.