Affirming Our Faith in Word and Deed (Mennonite Church, 1979)
Affirming Our Faith in Word and Deed (Mennonite Church, 1979)
Preface to the final published document
This document seeks to spell out some central issues of Mennonite faith today. It is not a last word nor is it a definitive word, but is simply the completion of the work of the Affirmation of Faith Task Force of the Mennonite Church General Assembly.
The Task Force submitted a first draft of the statement to the 1977 General Assembly. Following this, significant revisions of the statement were made. This became the basis for congregational study and response. The revised statement was presented to the 1979 Assembly. Responses from congregations and counsel from the Assembly were taken into account, and are reflected in the present statement.
This statement differs from the one brought to the 1979 General Assembly in several significant ways:
1. Rather than having two different parts, one emphasizing word and the other deed, these divisions have been removed. In each area of the Affirmation word and deed are involved. Thus emphasis is on word and deed throughout the statement.
2. There has been some reorganization. For example, in the material relating to the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the spirit are placed before the gifts of the Spirit.
3. There have been a few additions. For example, the meaning and place of foot washing have been made more explicit.
4. New headings have been given to sections with the hope of making greater simplicity.
It should be said again that this is not a confession of faith. Rather, it is in the tradition of the ancient Schleitheim Confession in which not all beliefs were dealt with, but only those that were of special importance at the moment -- from pressures outside or from within the church to change or even to overlook central commitments of the faith.
It is the hope of the General Assembly and of the Task Force that over the next few years this document will have continued usefulness for congregational study and discussion. Likely another series of affirmations will soon be needed as the church faces new problems, new temptations, and new pressures, both from within and without, as it continues on its pilgrimage toward "the city which is to come."
Paul M. Lederach Task Force Chairman
Context of this Statement
In 1976 the Mennonite Church General Board appointed a Task Force to prepare a statement to help clarify the central themes of our Christian beliefs which we as Mennonites affirm and to equip us to share our faith in a better way. An initial statement was brought to the 1977 General Assembly and following that a study guide was proposed for use in the congregations.
During the following biennium a small number of congregations submitted counsel, suggestions, and responses as a result of their study experience. The statement as revised was presented to the 1979 General Assembly which affirmed it and directed the General Board to be responsible for its further conclusion.
The General Board assigned the final work to the Task Forces' Chair (Paul Lederach) and Secretary (George R. Brunk, III) of the Task Force, and the Moderator (Glendon Blosser) of the General Assembly.
The Task Force was composed of eight members. Wilmer Martin of Waterloo, Ontario, was the only Canadian in the group.
This summary statement sought to express a consensus of understanding and insight on this subject for the late 1970s. It was intended as guidelines and resource material for personal, congregational, or churchwide use.
Statements by the Mennonite Church General Assembly state the understanding of the Mennonite Church at the time of the action. Statements have informal authority and influence in the denomination; they have formal authority as confirmed or endorsed by area Mennonite Church area conferences and/or congregations.
Affirming our faith in word and deed: a summary statement affirmed by Mennonite Church General Assembly, Waterloo, Ontario, August 11-16, 1979
The Mennonite Church in North America, after some 300 years of experience in the New World, has reached a point where it is necessary to reflect again on basic affirmations of faith. The changes in society, the move by many Mennonites from social isolation to involvement in most aspects of North American society, and the coming of peoples from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds into the church have created new relationships, new insights, new problems, and new temptations. The move from rural, agricultural roots to urban, professional settings has lessened the cohesive community awareness of many. It has brought diversity of interests and occupations. It has challenged the faith, as questions arose from new knowledge and endeavors. The church itself has too often sought respectability and acceptance rather than obedience and service whatever the consequences. Thus, the traditional forms of faith and the structures of the church are challenged by the new experiences.
The present situation has, on one hand, opened to us secular thought and views of other Christian traditions, many of which do not correspond with our historic understandings of faith and life. On the other hand, the historic understandings often seem inadequate to resolve new issues and to hold the church together in the midst of our fragmented, contemporary society. The time has come for our church to take stock of what we have become in the light of our historical roots (who we are) and in the light of the Scriptures (who God's original people were).
An affirmation of faith, when truly accepted, is the occasion for rejoicing and repentance. As a people from many backgrounds, we rejoice in the affirmation of faith which gives us self-identity. "Once you were no people but now you are God's people" (1 Pet. 2:10). But also, we are called to repentance since each new insight into faith is a call to move from where we are to where we must be. An affirmation of faith is an occasion for renewed, courageous witnessing growing out of a new confidence and a new thankfulness (1 Pet. 2:9).
This Statement of Affirmations is based upon our current confessions of faith; it does not replace them. Here comprehensiveness is not sought; rather, this is a response to the present situation in our church with its challenges and needs.
We Affirm . . .
1. The Centrality of Jesus Christ
"For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:11).
The Anabaptists rediscovered the apostolic concern "to know nothing . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2) "in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 4:11). These spiritual forebears committed themselves to a thoroughgoing pursuit of this principle. The idea of a Christ-centered faith is not only a statement of belief, but also it is a program of obedient action. To be truly Christian is to give oneself completely to the task of seeing Christ formed in all things -- from myself, to all people, and to all creation (Ephesians 1:22, 23; Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 28:18-20). Salvation is a process by which this is brought about, at all levels, through the work of Jesus Christ. The Bible is the indispensable source of knowledge of the person of Jesus and the shape of His life. The principle of Christ as the center, however, needs definition and application to avoid a partial and incomplete expression of it.
A Christ-centered faith is not a narrowing of a full Christian teaching. To make Jesus Christ the center is to include: A) the depth of God and B) the breadth of divine revelation.
A) God Himself is most fully revealed in Jesus who lived among us (John 1:8; 14:9; Colossians 2:9; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Hebrews 1:3). All of God's relations to the world find their completion in Him. "All the promises of God find their Yes in him" (2 Corinthians 1:20).
B) The Old Testament is included in the Christian vision of truth (Matthew 5:17). The great deeds of salvation in Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension are God's accomplishment (Ephesians 1:20), and are the outworking of His purposes throughout history (Acts 2:23; Ephesians 3:9, 11). God and His self-revelation are best in focus when viewed through Jesus Christ.
It is in a Christ-centered faith that the ministry of the Holy Spirit can best be understood. The Spirit is a gift of the ascended Christ (Acts 2:33) and is His Spokesman (John 16:13, 14). The work of the Spirit brings into fruition the work of Christ in our personal and social existences. The Spirit is the Executor of Christ's will and testament (Galatians 3:14; Galatians 5:5, 25; Romans 8:9-17; Romans 14:17, 18). On one hand, all claims to the Spirit's work and leading must be judged by their harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus. On the other, the way of living that Jesus taught cannot be followed unless the Spirit empowers believers. To be a disciple of Christ is to be molded into His likeness by the ministry of the Spirit from conversion to consummation (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The meaning of a Christ-centered faith is further clarified by the insight that the Christian is to be conformed to the image of God's Son (Romans 8:29). Conformity to the person of Christ involves the whole person -- mind, will, emotions, and deeds. To be Christian is to be transformed at every level of being. This conformity needs to express the full meaning and worth of maleness and femaleness. The distinctiveness of each sex as created by God (1 Corinthians 11:7-12) will find meaningful ways to complement one another in the body of Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). A Christ-centered faith is not restricted to certain areas of existence. Christ's control is to be extended to occupation, to leisure-time activities, to the arts, and to the sciences. A separation of secular and sacred is not permitted. All of life is under His direction. The only separation is between believers and the world not submitted to Christ.
A Christ-centered faith is not aimed only at the individual, nor even at a series of isolated individuals. The full shape of this faith is found in the body of Christ -- which is the church of Christ-shaped persons! No one can mature in the image of Christ apart from participation in the church, His body, in which His fullness dwells (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12; Ephesians 2:15; Ephesians 4:11-13).
A Christ-centered faith reaches out to encompass all of creation -- not merely our own people, culture, or country. It is a universal faith in that it sees Christ as the origin and destiny of all creation (John 1:3; Philippians 2:10). This faith is directed to the realization of Christ's universal lordship (Ephesians 1:9, 10; Ephesians 3:10). Thus a Christ-centered faith is expressed in a community governed by Christ and committed to a universe filled with Christ (Ephesians 1:9, 10, 20-23).
While Christ includes all truth, He also excludes. That which is totally formed by Christ is conformed to Him alone! The concept of separation from the world means living a Christ-centered life in a world that is dominated by molding forces which are not Christlike (Romans 12:1, 2). When we hold back Christ from control of all of life, we allow other lords to move into the vacancies. No one truly knows Christ except he follow Him daily in all of life.
2. The Primacy of God's Kingdom
The biblical story centers in the history of a special people who represent and carry forward God's purposes in obedient response to His call (Genesis 12:3; Exodus 19:5, 6). God's choice of the few to bless the many is, in Scripture, called "election." The people of God, who have Jesus as Lord, are chosen for this momentous task: "You are a chosen race . . . God's own people, that yon may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). To avoid the pride of such an important claim, we must acknowledge that it is God who works in us to will and to do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13)
A. The Two Kingdoms
A tension arises when there is a particular people with a special experience of God in the midst of a society which either willfully or unwittingly ignores the will of God. The Bible sees the world divided into two distinct kingdoms. The doctrine of the two kingdoms expresses the fundamental difference between the way of God and the way of evil, i.e., opposition to God. We believe that the church is called to an uncompromising stand for the kingdom of God. When it does so, it is marked by righteousness and peace and joy (Romans 14:17).
The kingdom of God is His rule, and dominion in effect. Wherever the will of God is realized, God's kingdom is present. The church demonstrates kingdom reality when it is faithful. 'The church, however, is a human institution. It is imperfect. Thus, the kingdom is not identical with the church itself.
B. The Kingdom -- Already But Not Yet
Where Jesus is (where His way is lived) the kingdom is at work (Luke 17:21). But the kingdom of God is both a present fact and a future hope. It is realized, in part, whenever God's will is done, but we also look to the day when His kingdom is to be overall (Ephesians 1:10; Revelation 11:15; Revelation 19:6). We express the true situation when we pray, "Thy kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10). The claim and the right of the kingdom is already established by God's Son in the victory of the cross, the resurrection, and the ascension (Colossians 2:15; Ephesians 1:20, 21; Revelation 1:5). It will come into full reality at Christ's return (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).
We experience the kingdom now, as a foretaste of what will be when the kingdom comes in its fullness. Many characteristics of what kingdom life will be like have already burst in upon us. Participation in the community of love gives us a foretaste of what kingdom love will be in its glory. Today those in the kingdom beat their swords into plowshares -- they are peacemakers. The many languages, cultures and ethnic backgrounds of believers give us a foretaste of the glory before the throne of God (Revelation 5:6-10). There are dimensions of the kingdom already within our midst, but there are dimensions not yet experienced and for which we wait.
A lack of clarity concerning the "already but not yet" nature of the kingdom has led to claims that are on one hand "too little" and on the other "too much." For example, the "not yet" emphasis has led some to expect "too little," to put off till later what God expects and offers now. To see the Sermon on the Mount as belonging to another time is "too little." Some have given in to a spirit of defeatism before sin. It is true that now we cannot do God's will perfectly, but we reject a spirit of hopelessness, because the power of the Spirit is available in the face of temptation to sin.
The "already" emphasis has led to the extreme of "too much." For example, some claim that physical healing is as available now as forgiveness. The Bible makes clear that though physical healing is available (James 5:15, 16), it is not a necessary part of the present life of every believer (Romans 8:10, 23; 2 Corinthians 12:9, 10). Some claim unconditional security. While we recognize the keeping power of God now, we are still in the midst of the struggle of flesh and Spirit (Galatians 5:17). Now our security rests on faithfulness and dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:5).
When we lose sight of that which is "not yet," we accept the standards of the present age. The church is summoned to demonstrate "the world to come" in the present time (1 Peter 3:9).
C. Kingdom Life
Christians who are faithful to the vision of an "already but not yet" kingdom are in but not of the world (John 17:16-18). They are sojourners, or pilgrims. They are a witnessing minority in the world. They stand in a world that is hostile to the faith. Inevitably, they suffer (Matthew 5:10, 11; Romans 8:17, 18; 2 Timothy 3:12; Philippians 1:29; Hebrews 13:13, 14). Suffering for Christ is not the pain of what is old and dying being replaced; rather, it is the pain of birth, in that the new order of things is about to appear. Christians take up the cross and follow the Lord into His glorious future (Mark 8:34), witnessing until that which "is not yet" comes Hebrews 13:13-16), and enduring the suffering of the cross in the power of the resurrection (Philippians 3:10, 11).
3. The Visibility of the Church
The followers of Jesus, the church, are called out of the world and into commitment one to another. They are identifiable because of their life of obedience to God and separation from evil. Thus, the church is visible (Matthew 5:14; Matthew 7:15-20; 1 Peter 2:9-12).
A. The Church Is the Community of Jesus, the Christ
The purposes of God are being carried out in history by a special people who are His servants in behalf of the world, which is the object of His love (John 3:16). In His ministry, Jesus was a Servant. His followers are also to be servants. "Whoever would be the greatest among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:44, 45). Jesus is both "Servant of the Lord" and " Lord of the servants."
Insights concerning the nature of the church as the community of Jesus are found in Matthew 16:13-20.
1. The Church is a Person-Centered Community
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16). Here is confirmation of the centrality of the person of Christ in the people of God. Jesus Christ, in what He is and does, draws believers together into a common fellowship out of which common ideas, programs, and interests are formed. This indicates that the community is relational in nature. To become a member of this community is to come into relationship to Jesus Christ and into relationship with other believers (Ephesians 2:13-19). These relationships are built around a specific truth -- Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (v. 16, see also 1 John 4:2; 1 John 5:1, 12). This makes life in the church a confessional one. Christian living begins in confession and continues in confession (Romans 10:9; Matthew 10:32) -- the confession of Christ. Herein also is the root of both worship and witness -- the acclamation of Jesus as Lord. Every act of life is both worship and witness (Romans 12:1) when done in Christ's name.
2. The Church Is a Called-out Community
"Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you . . . I will build my church" (vv. 17, 18). Natural causes and natural means do not create the church. A Christian community is the work of divine power. Jesus is the Builder of the church. The church cannot be reduced to a self-controlled and self-perpetuating institution. The true definition of the church is not right theology confessed and correct ritual practiced. Rather it is a community of faithful persons in relationship with Christ and with each other, following Him in all of life.
3. The Church Is an Overcoming Force
"The powers of death shall not prevail against it" (v. 18). While the church is a spiritual reality, it is no less a visible, earthly, physical reality. Christians are related to specific realities of this world. In the context of this life in the world, the church wrestles against the powers of evil, and is committed to establishing the order of God wherever possible. In this order the church is strengthened by the reassuring word of final triumph. That victory, present and future, is conditioned .by her continuing steadfastness.
4. The Church Is a Discerning People
"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (v. 19). The people of God become a visible community because their life, their actions, and their decisions in this world are interlocked with eternal "actions and decisions." Members commit themselves to wait expectantly in the presence of Jesus Christ to discover together the mind of Christ through. the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures.
The Lord of the church addresses His people through individuals. Believers, however, test the genuineness of these addresses to see if they are truly the word of Grist (1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). The authority of the word does not depend on the position of the speaker. Rather, the authority of the word is confirmed by the community which is committed to do the word.
"Binding and loosing" take place within the circle of believers (Matthew 18:15-20). This process of correction and discipline is intended to guard brothers and sisters from loss of faith. In this way the Lord of the church forms visible communities of holy living. The disciplined church is the holy community where the goal of obedience is high, but where the weaknesses of the disciples are confronted by loving concern and offers of forgiveness (Galatians 6:1). Binding and loosing is legitimate only when done "in the name of Christ, that is, in His character and will (Matthew 18:20; Colossians 3:17). It is the work of the congregation rather than of a hierarchy controlling the congregation. (Compare the singular "you" and the plural "you" in Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18. )
B. The Church Is the Community of the Spirit
The transition from a disciple band in the company of Jesus of Nazareth to the church under the lordship of the exalted Christ changed the form but not the substance of the new community of Christ. The resurrection of Jesus made it possible for Him to be present in a new way, by the Spirit who is the "other Christ" John 14:16-18; John 16:14; Acts 2:33). In the present time, therefore, the true church is defined as a visible company of believers in whose midst Jesus Christ is present by the Spirit.
1. The Church Is the Firstfruits of the Spirit
The work of the Spirit is described as firstfruits (Romans 8:23). As Christ is the firstfruits of those who sleep by reason of His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20), so Christian believers are firstfruits of the future kingdom of God. The Spirit creates a new order of things in and among them. Believers see themselves as a colony of heaven, a city of God erected in the midst of an unreconstructed world (Matthew 5:14). This community of the Spirit is, in God's intention, a model of the way things will be in the consummation of all things.
2. The Church Demonstrates the Fruit of the Spirit
The fruit of the Spirit is that which characterizes the new person and his/her relationships, in the new order of existence under Christ. The list of the Spirit's fruit (Galatians 5:22, 23) follows closely the virtues in the Sermon on the Mount -- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Just as Jesus presupposed that such traits were possible only for the disciple who lives in the Master's presence and who participates in the saving power of the kingdom (Matthew 4:17-25), so also Paul observes that the believer lives in this fashion through the power of the Spirit released in the new Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). There are several aspects of the fruit of the Spirit which are crucial among the people of God:
a) Love is the key to all Christian relationships. The self-giving desire for the good of another is what the believer has seen in the Father and the Son, and he passes it on in his own relationships. The specific shape of this love is seen in the servant role -- "through love be servants of another" (Galatians 5:13). No characteristic so marks the church as different from the unredeemed society. Paul's insight that freedom is experienced in service to another is incomprehensible to the unregenerate mind -- and unfortunately also to many confessing believers. Other virtues such as patience, kindness, and gentleness are extensions of this basic outlook.
The church gives visible expression to its commitment to serving love by the observance of foot washing. This symbolic act, commanded by the Lord Himself (John 13) is a reminder that disciples are servants just as Jesus was a servant. This simple act challenges the believer to display love in service in all of life.
b) Joy is the characteristic attitude and mood of the new life. It is not mere coincidence that the earliest church broke into joy and praise at the realization that Jesus had been raised by the Father (Luke 24:52) and that Jesus had poured out the Spirit who gives a shower of heavenly foretastes, pledges of the final establishment of the heavenly order (Acts 2:46; Acts 3:19-21). In the same vein, Jesus pronounced blessedness and joy upon the disciples who had cast their fortune with the new work of God in Jesus (Matthew 5:3-12). Suffering was only a confirmation of the blessedness, not its negation.
c) Peace is the description of the order of things when the will of God is in effect. Each thing is in its proper place and each person is in a proper relationship with God neighbor, and world. The experience of peace in a world of chaos is a foretaste of the peaceable kingdom of biblical prophecy. For this reason believers pursue peace and dedicate their efforts to bringing it to realization (Psalms 34:14; Matthew 5:9; James 3:18; 1 Peter 3:11). Witness and service for peace stand, then, at the heart of our faith. Negatively, it means refusing to participate in the military or to exercise a vengeful spirit (Romans 12:19). Positively, it means to follow Christ in peacemaking (Matthew 5:9). This is a work of the Spirit among and through believers.
3. The Church is Gifted by the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit distributes gifts to the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 27-31; Romans 12:4-8; Ephesians 4:11-16). These gifts enable each member to contribute to the well-being and growth of the entire body (1 Corinthians 14:12). The Spirit gives gifts to men and women as He wills.
It is in a proper understanding of the gifted community that our concept of authority among believers emerges. Here a course is steered between the democracy of majority rule and the authoritarianism of minority rule. The gifts of the spirit remove the idea that everyone is equally able to play every role. The gifts of the Spirit also remove the tendency for a representative elite to decide things "too difficult for the whole body." In a gifted community, every member has equal access to God (Galatians 3:28) and, therefore, may at some particular time be God's channel of communication to the community (1 Corinthians 14:29-33). There is a need for structure and for order in leadership (Hebrews 13:17), but these should reflect the actual distribution of gifts. Gifting by the Spirit should encourage believers to submit themselves one to another as servants Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 5:2).
The authority of the Bible in the church emerges at this point. The Bible is the result of the gifts of prophecy and apostleship (those who saw the Lord) by which the Holy Spirit has given guidance of a once-for-all character to the church. These documents, therefore, provide an accurate picture of Jesus Christ who is our authority (John 5:39, Luke 24:27). They reveal truth by which believers test but not displace the living voice of the Spirit today. The uniqueness of these writings is indicated by their God-inspired character (1 Timothy 3:16).
4. The Church Is Empowered by the Holy Spirit
The work of the Spirit is directed toward giving the new community power for the task of mission. The church is not made a power among the powers of the world. Rather, the church is given power to confront centers of power in economics, in government, and in religious establishments (Mark 13:11; Acts 4:29-31; Acts 19:23-27). The power of the witness consists in being true followers of Jesus Christ, the group which anticipates the heavenly city in the world (Matthew 5:14).
The mission of the disciple community has a unique power which is in harmony with its inner life:
a) Mission begins in demonstration. The very life Christians live, as an alternative to that of a fallen world, is a witness, simply in its being present in the world (1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 3:1, 2). In Jesus' ministry the works of power demonstrated the presence of God's kingdom. In the church the works of the Spirit (see above) are signs of eternal life at work. Therefore, ministries of service and peace are essential to being God's people in mission. They are acts of blessing for mankind, and point the world to the new life in God's kingdom.
b) Mission moves to explanation. The most effective witness is explaining something that has been demonstrated. At Pentecost the first evangelistic sermon was an explanation of the display of Spirit power. The importance of explanation lies in the fact that good works can be variously interpreted by the observer.
c) Mission involves declaration (announcement). Gifted persons come forward to declare to the world the will of God, the way of salvation, and the results of disobedience. This prophetic ministry is related to the community where the life that is offered is observable.
Thus mission is a function of the Spirit. Mission is a movement from the gathered life of the community where worship, exhortation, and empowering takes place, to the scattered life in the world where spiritual power is released in acts of love and in words of liberation.
4. The Wholeness of Salvation
Salvation has a wide meaning in the Bible. It includes all the gracious acts of God for man in both spiritual and material realms. It includes the present benefits as well as the future. Salvation is a process. Salvation is individual and corporate. Salvation is simple, yet complex. Salvation provides liberation for spirit and body. Salvation provides a new nature created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). The first experience of salvation makes us desire the completion of it, and assures us that this will indeed be the case (Romans 8:24).
In recent times we have been influenced by a view that limits salvation: salvation is an act whereby God gains control of the soul and purifies it from sin, so that when the person dies or the world is destroyed, the soul will dwell with God in another sphere called heaven. This is not the biblical view of salvation, of man (body and soul are not against one another), nor of the future (the new "world" will be a new heaven and a new earth). This definition is wrong because it is incomplete, not because what it says is incorrect.
Salvation viewed in the framework of a Christ-centered faith, the two kingdoms, and a visible church maintains an all-inclusiveness. The spiritual pilgrimage of a believing disciple involves various stages. These are not consecutive, rather they are a constellation of experiences that compose the meaning of salvation:
A. Repentance and Conversion
The new life begins in a new way of seeing life and oneself. It is a change of mind. When a person is offered an alternative way of life, he is free to "change his/her mind." When Jesus brought the kingdom of heaven (of God) and demonstrated it, people were encouraged to repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15). When the believer acknowledges the error of the old life and embraces the new, this is called repentance. When the believer identifies with the source of salvation (God), with the Master (Jesus), and with fellow believers (the disciples), this change is called conversion.
B. Forgiveness and Reconciliation
God's forgiveness and His desire for reconciliation with His children are expressed in the parable of the loving father fully accepting the prodigal son and joyfully restoring him to his place within the father's family (Luke 15:11-32). This does not mean that sin and disobedience are overlooked. It is necessary that right relationships be restored with a righteous God.
The fact of sin in our lives creates a two-directional barrier: a barrier between us and God, and a barrier between people. This barrier runs counted to God's purpose of "uniting all things in him" Ephesians 1:10). As sinners (Romans 3:23), we are unable to tear down this two directional barrier ourselves. It is God through Christ who reconciles us to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). In the death of Jesus a covering and removal of sin were made possible (Romans 3:23-26). Furthermore, the blood of Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility and has made one those who were divided (Ephesians 2:13-16).
By faith we are reconciled to God and receive the power of forgiveness. It is God's forgiveness which enables us to forgive others as we have been forgiven.
C. Regeneration and New Birth
The change that Jesus Christ brings to the believer is so thoroughgoing that it is described as passing from death to life, from one kingdom to another, or as a new birth (Colossians 1:13). The new birth means the passage from nonexistence to existence in spiritual relationship (John 3) -- to the position of sons and daughters in the family of God. The same change is also described as a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). This suggests not only personal transformation, but also a change of social context -- environment. This is not removal from earthly existence; rather, it involves identification with the family of God, the church, where the new order of things -- the new creation -- is already being experienced.
D. "In Christ"
A comprehensive way to describe salvation is "in or with Christ." The disciple identifies with the master, lives the experiences of the Master, in whose presence he constantly remains. Jesus is the model for Christian experience as well as its Giver (Romans 8:29).
Two observances of the church, baptism and breaking of bread, remind us of the wholeness of salvation. They remind us of dying and rising with Christ and putting on Christ. These are not mysterious hidden occurrences. Rather, believers place Jesus Christ at the head of their lives, so that the character of Jesus and the historical events of His death and resurrection are brought to bear on their personal experience (Galatians 2:20; Romans 6; Mark 8:34-38; Philippians 2:5 ff.; 1 Peter 4:1). "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ . . . you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27, 28).
Water baptism is the confession that salvation has begun in one's life. It is also the expression of personal commitment to Jesus. At the same time the congregation observes and acknowledges that the Spirit indeed has worked in the life of the one baptized.
The person being baptized looks forward to the disciple life, and promises to be faithful till death. Historically, the one being baptized puts all possessions at the disposal of the community, in recognition that all of life belongs to Jesus Christ, and that life is a stewardship. At the same time members of the congregation commit themselves to that person, offering counsel, care, and help in time of need.
Baptism marks the point of identification with the visible body of Christ, apart from which the full stature of Christ is unattainable (Ephesians 4:13). A baptismal service which does not provide a relationship to the visible church does not fully symbolize the meaning of the act.
Since baptism is a mark of conversion and identification with Christ and His body, it is property administered only to those who are capable of making a decision to be a disciple of Jesus. Baptism is for those who are ready to devote themselves to discipling in a local community of faith where the life of discipleship and the activities of admonition and encouragement are part of the common life. The age of readiness for baptism is a matter needing careful discernment on the part of the congregation. In general, any sincere requests for baptism should be honored as long as the candidate is able to perceive clearly the implications of the request and is capable of living a life of discipleship.
2. Breaking Bread
Breaking bread reminds us how God both initiated and works out His whole salvation, as it recalls the death of Jesus, reviews its benefits, and proclaims the good news till He comes again.
Just as baptism assumes a visible community with which to be identified, so breaking bread assumes a visible body -- the congregation or community of God whose Head is Jesus Christ.
Those who break bread in remembrance of the broken body of Jesus Christ, and those who drink the one drink in remembrance of the shed blood must be united beforehand in the one body of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:17-32). Those who partake examine themselves (1 Corinthians 11:28). They are also open to their brothers and sisters for admonition and correction because they take seriously the warnings of Paul about drinking the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils (1 Corinthians 10:21). In the historic view of breaking bread, neither the nature nor the meaning of the bread and cup, nor the status of the one officiating is the point of concern. The concern is with the community -- those who take part, that all should share the one calling of God, the one faith, the one baptism, the one spirit, and thus be made one loaf together (1 Corinthians 10:17).
The call to discipleship is the Christian's vocation. Vocation, however, is never isolated from occupation -- lifework. In fact, God's call to salvation is stated as being for the purpose of doing a work for God (Acts 9:15). This is the dimension of faith which needs emphasis today when spirituality is often reserved for religious spheres of activity, and when members are moving into an increasingly wide range of occupations. All realms of life are under Christ's lordship, and are part of His saving purpose (see above). Thus, all areas of human activity are potentially meaningful areas of work for the believer -- on condition that they are consistent with the character and purpose of God in Christ. Since the servant style is characteristic of disciple life, those occupations with a strong service dimension are particularly appropriate.
F. The Christian Way of Life
Our whole life must witness to the healing and wholesomeness that salvation brings. The new style of serving,, loving, discipleship finds application in relationships to nature and to neighbor.
The Christian is a steward of God's good earth, of possessions, and of time. The establishment of justice and peace in relationship with others is also of great concern. The simple life avoids both pride and greed.
An important result of salvation is corporate and personal piety. Regular, disciplined study of the Word combined with prayer that listens for God to speak, enables one to discover the depths of self and the depths of Christ. The Christian also needs the challenge of the group; the group needs the insights that come from individual reflection and prayer.
Often when the disciplines of personal and corporate piety are not cultivated, persons will long for a subjective experience with Christ, but will look to others to fill that need (the super-preacher, thrilling teacher, or sparkling testimony and music). This may weaken the overall strength of the congregation and open the
way for ambition, competition, and manipulation in the fellowship.
5. The Practice of Faith
Both the content of faith and the expression of faith are essential in practical living. The process by which faith is kept new, passed on to children, shared with the world, and adapted to new situations must be guided by the creativeness of the Holy Spirit and fulfilled through the obedience of faith in the life of the church. Perhaps we are threatened more by a breakdown in the processes of our common life than by an erosion of our unique doctrines. Here are some processes which need our response.
A faith that is openly expressed is lively and grows in meaning for the believer. The experience of God's people in every age shows that the telling of the deeds of God is a spontaneous and meaningful act, beneficial to speaker and listener (Malachi 3:16). It clarifies and confirms the understanding and commitments of the speaker; it challenges or confirms the experiences of the hearer. The confession of the mouth is a confirmation to the heart. Faith that is not affirmed will not remain firm.
The community of faith will want to provide a variety of opportunities for collective and individual statements of faith by all its members. As the New Testament shows, these expressions will range from formal recitations of the basic tenets of faith (see 1 Timothy 3:16) to spontaneous, testimonials in worship -- "a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (1 Corinthians 14:26). Sometimes, avoiding set patterns and encouraging variety will allow more persons to participate comfortably and meaningfully.
A faith that is deeply understood and personally appropriated affects changes at the center of one's person; such faith is both lived and shared. The personal commitment of members to a believers' church cannot be coerced. It is a voluntary matter. The transmission of faith is a primary concern. The people of God cannot depend upon forms of education by which they became members of secular society or even of the natural family. Education in the congregation is under the direction of the Lord of the church, as the Holy Spirit teaches, guides, and gives gifts so that all persons may grow toward maturity in Christ.
What does this mean for the handing on of faith from generation to generation in a voluntary church? First, there is the possibility that our biological children will not be our spiritual offspring. Christian parents can provide opportunities for faith to be learned, but they cannot guarantee that children will accept the faith. Parents must avoid both false guilt and unspiritual compulsion in relating to children.
Second, education in Christian contexts is primarily by example, explained by word. Jesus transmitted His cause by selecting a group of disciples who would demonstrate the message along with their telling of it. Jesus did what He saw the Father do (John 5:19, 20); the disciple is to do as he has seen Jesus do (John 13:15). The new believer looks to the example of the spiritually more mature (Philippians 4:8, 9; Hebrews 6:12, Hebrews 13:7). For a spiritual community that takes its life model from discipleship, learning by example is expected: " . . . but everyone when he is fully taught will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40).
Third, the symbols of brotherhood life are important. A church which emphasizes visible, concrete obedience in all of life will develop acts and forms which will remind the members of its convictions. Jesus Himself gave a symbol of entrance into the community -- baptism; a symbol of fellowship in His presence -- breaking bread (see above); and a symbol of brotherly love and service -- foot washing. Other symbols have been observed on biblical grounds -- the prayer veiling, the kiss of charity, anointing with oil, and laying on of hands.
Several guidelines are clear in regard to symbols: 1) symbols are inevitable in a religious, social institution like the church. We cannot express faith in life without them. Therefore, the church must use seriousness in their preservation or modification. Apathy and change by default are not virtues. 2) Symbols are not the reality of faith, but are the expression of it. Therefore, symbols are secondary. The reality guarantees the symbol, but the symbol does not guarantee the reality. 3) Symbols can, and will, come and go, but the essence of faith still remains. The symbols of universal application based on Scripture, however, are a differing matter.
Faith is expressed in love and service, in word and deed. Serving is the Christian's response to God's grace. Because salvation is more than a private matter, it becomes salt and light and leaven, visibly demonstrated in the world. Jesus modeled serving. He went about the cities and towns teaching . . . preaching . . . healing . . . and serving (Mark 10:46-52). He demonstrated that loving servanthood is an alternative kind of power-more powerful than hostility and more convincing than force.
Following Christ's example, His servants model a new humanity. They demonstrate alternatives to bondage, and offer life renewed in Christ. This offer is extended to everyone (John 3:16). As the Father showers rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:43-48), and as Jesus showed no partiality (Mark 7:24-30), so Christ's servants do not restrict their acts of love to a particular group of people. Jesus' forgiveness of His executioners was an extraordinary manifestation of this kind of love, given with extravagance even to those who did not ask for it. In this is revealed love, that while we were sinners and enemies, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8-11).
Christ's servants go into the world fully aware that their values differ sharply from society: 1) Christ's servants go in the spirit of love as advocates for the victims of injustice. In contrast, worldly servants tend to lord it over others and make them feel the full weight of their authority (Mark 10:42, 43). 2) Christ's servants consciously challenge the values of society. Through creative resistance they consciously separate themselves from and witness against the power structures of the prevailing culture which perpetually deny to many people basic human rights. 3) Christ's servants show another way. They offer the new community, made possible through Christ, where persons are of higher value than property, and where property is used to serve the common good (Acts 5:32-37). 4) Christ's servants confront both personal and social sins. They offer a gospel that has both personal and social implications (Ephesians 2:17-22). To offer one without the other is to present a half gospel, which is not a gospel at all. The good news includes both.
Thus Christ's servants invite individuals to Christ. They are concerned about individual morality and personal sins such as pride, lust, greed, lack of love. Christ's servants also confront any evil which threatens God's creation -- the waste and misuse of God's natural resources (air, water, land, energy). They confront the militarization of society, the overconsumption of the rich, the exploitation of the poor (Matthew 6:24), the oppression of unscrupulous landlords, the neglect of prisoners (Hebrews 13:3), and the bigotry of racial bias and discrimination.
Christ's servants do not accept the world as it is. They constantly extend the invitation to all persons to come to Christ, and to participate in His kingdom, the new order that is beginning now. To witness for Christ as servants is risky, and leads to suffering. The cross has demonstrated that through suffering love, evil is confronted and overcome.
Faith is to be proclaimed; its integrity must be preserved. The faith of a disciple church becomes credible to the world when it is illustrated in believers' lives. Faith retains its credibility to the church when it sees the results of its proclamation in changed lives. The healthiest atmosphere for personal, disciple growth is in a growing church, where: 1) new members are being born into kingdom existence; 2) where members serve one another and minister to those in need; 3) where persons are growing in Christlikeness. Where no "new births" and no witness and service occur, that community faces extinction in the next generation and gradual paralysis and decay in the present.
Proclamation provides many benefits for the community itself. Problems of relationships within the fellowship are kept in proper perspective when the primary tasks of proclamation and of service unite the fellowship in common task. Furthermore, the process of stating the faith in the public arena helps to keep faith honest and intelligible in the world in which we are called to represent Christ's kingdom. The church's faithfulness is worked out between the two tasks of preserving the integrity of faith and of propagating the faith. Neither task can be effectively carried out without the other.
The centrality of Christ is not an "exclusive" conviction of Anabaptist/Mennonite faith. That this is shared with other Christians results in a basis for discussion and interaction. This leads hopefully to increased consistency of faith for each group, and thus common ground for fellowship. The search for unity among Christians is based on the conformity to the mind of Christ. Our family of faith has recovered and discovered unique implications of the centrality of Christ. This gives us something unique to contribute to the larger family. In fact, it is only in maintaining our self-identity that we can make a larger contribution.
Faith must be tested for genuineness and applied to new situations of life. Few questions of the believers' church are more crucial than that of the process by which we deal with decision-making in matters of faith. We tend to seek protective conditions where the labor and risk of evaluating and correcting are avoided. Often authority is delegated to a few who decide, or we create isolated communities where the cultural and doctrinal expressions of one generation can simply be perpetuated in a static situation. The appearance of preservation is an illusion. It is done at the cost of maturity in each believer, and at the cost of a vital witness to a way of life that is a visible alternative to that of general society.
The church, to remain true to herself, must be on the move in a changing world. The church cannot stand still. The comforting thought that all things are the same as before is the first step to the loss of the first love. Only a living faith that goes out to meet the future will avoid the deviant path or the imperceptible drift. "Keeping the faith" is possible only in testing, correcting, adapting, and growing to meet new situations or in response to new understandings. Freezing words, actions, and expressions of our faith does not preserve the faith. An open stance to faith is not "too risky." Risk cannot be removed from true faith. There is risk in change and in no change.
Finally, here are two areas in which discernment is needed:
1. The Relation Between Faith and Culture
Culture is the external expression of a people's life. A disciple church which stresses obedience in all of life faces the issues of how faith relates to the cultural aspects of life. Cultures of this world differ and change. For this reason, discernment is constantly needed as the gospel penetrates new cultural settings and as old cultures change. The gospel cannot avoid a cultural dress, but it is obligated to demonstrate its own unique quality in and through cultural forms -- in conformity to Christ.
In cultural matters testing and checking are necessary. History shows and contemporary experience indicates that the cultural expressions of Mennonite faith have not always developed in consistency with our Anabaptist vision. This split between the vision and the reality within our congregations must be carefully assessed. As long as we live in the present age, our imperfections will cause differences between the vision and the reality. But the vision both corrects our failures and helps us to move in the proper direction.
2. The Relation Between Scripture and Tradition
Mennonites have always been clear that Scripture is above tradition. But in practice this has not been clear. Many are fearful that the way of our fathers (tradition) might need modification. For them change appears to be unfaithfulness at the most, and disrespect. at the least. Yet, since Scripture is the greatest authority, this conclusion is inevitable: faithfulness means readiness to correct what we do in light of clearer knowledge of God's Word. Each new generation must discover this for itself, and be open to new light that might correct or enrich our biblical faith.
Finally, there is no substitute for a living, dynamic relationship to Jesus Christ in the present moment. However, the present must be guided by the truth from the past (Scripture illuminated but not interpreted by tradition) and the hope toward which we move (1 John 3:2, 3). A church that looks for a city to come is faithful only if it is on the move.
"This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works" (Titus 3:8).
Affirming our faith in word and deed [Study guide]. Scottdale, Pa. : Mennonite Publishing House, 1978
Assembly workbook: Mennonite Church General Assembly, August 11-16, 1979, Waterloo, Ontario. Lombard, Ill. : Mennonite Church General Assembly, 1979: 49-50.
Affirming our faith in word and deed: a summary statement. Scottdale, Pa. : Mennonite Publishing House, 1980.