Statement on the Believers' Church (General Conference Mennonite Church, 1956)
Statement on the Believers' Church (GCMC, 1956)
Based on the Statement of Findings adopted by the delegates to the Study Conference on the Believers' Church on August 24-25, 1955. Prepared by the Church-Home-Community Committee of the Board of Education and Publication to be presented to the General Conference Sessions in. Winnipeg, Manitoba, in August, 1956, for adoption.
As a living brotherhood which draws directly on the Bible for its faith, we consider the purpose of this statement to be suggestive rather than legislative, and constructive rather than final. It is designed to help in the development of a more united mind among us as to what we are and what we ought to be as "a believers' church" which patterns its faith and life after the Holy Scriptures. We hold that the Word of God alone is finally authoritative in spiritual issues, but that it is, nevertheless, of real value also, to recall our historic Anabaptist-Mennonite convictions concerning the church and to restate them in terms which are relevant to contemporary situations. This statement may thus be viewed as an elaboration and extension of the Souderton statement (1941) which declared concerning the church,
"We believe that the Christian Church consists of believers who have repented for their sins, have accepted Christ by faith and are born again, and sincerely endeavor by the grace of God to live the Christian life."
The Believers' Church in the Bible
- The church as portrayed in the Bible is "the household of God" (Ephesians 2:19), "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:26; Ephesians 1:22, 23), and "the fellowship of the Spirit" (Philippians 2:1). It is first of all God's community of grace found only where God is actively redeeming men, where Christ is saving souls, and where the Holy Spirit is regenerating human hearts. It is where Christ is, living and reigning, in the midst of His gathered people, according to His word, "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20).
- The church is, therefore, also God's community of discipleship, consisting of those who bear a vital personal faith-love relationship to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. It is the brotherhood of the redeemed, purchased by Christ's own blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 1:18), the fellowship of the regenerated who as "living stones" are built up into a spiritual temple (1 Peter 2:4; Matthew 16:18) into "a habitation of God through the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22), and the body of Christ-centered faith and brotherly love where each bears the other's burdens and so fulfills the law of Christ.
- As the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:27), the church is the fellowship of "sinners saved by grace" who are at once also "the saints striving after holiness." It is, therefore, a disciplined brotherhood, earnestly seeking to be pure.
- It is thus primarily people, not buildings; primarily organism, not organization, though buildings and organizations may be needed. It centers in the local visible congregation, though it is also universal. It is primarily fellowship rather than churchly form, a togetherness and sharing rather than institutionalism, a participation in a common faith and a common life.
- As to function, it is the community of those who not only worship God and learn of Christ but who witness and serve, proclaiming in word and deed the unsearchable riches of the Lord Jesus Christ and His full salvation.
- In fulfilling its function, the biblical church is, in short, the church of the great Commission -- witnessing (Acts 1:8), evangelizing (Acts 4:30; 8:4), worshiping (Acts 2.47; John 4:24; Ephesians 5:19, 20), praying (Acts 2:46; Hebrews 10:25), admonishing one another (Hebrews 10:24-25), ministering in love to each other (Acts 4:34; Acts 11:29), and to the outside world (Galatians 6:10), thus also fulfilling responsibilities to society and to the state (Romans 13:1-7 ; 1 Peter 2:13-17), as the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Thus the biblical church is the "embodiment of the risen Christ" being in the world, but not of the world, yet sent into the world as God's own society to do God's special work.
- While we recognize that no such attempts to restate the doctrine of the church are in themselves sufficient, we declare that for us as for our Anabaptist-Mennonite forefathers the Word of God is authoritative, and that this Word calls us to seek to establish and maintain the church as a fellowship of regenerated believers following the pattern of the New Testament church.
The Anabaptist View of the Believers' Church
- We recognize that the Anabaptist vision of the church was to seek the restoration of the New Testament fellowship as a brotherhood of regenerated and disciplined believers whose faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ.
- We recognize that this view of the church involves the practice of believers' baptism, scriptural church discipline, brotherly love and mutual aid, the separation of church and state, and the responsibility of giving individual and corporate witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.
- We confess that our Anabaptist forefathers did not always succeed in achieving their goal as a believers' church in all respects but we praise God for the high levels of personal and group living and witnessing which they did attain.
- We further confess that the spread of, materialism, the increase of prosperity, the relaxation of morals, the growth of ritualism, the development of a hierarchy of offices, the trend toward rigid institutional forms, and the loss of an urgent missionary concern characterized the decline of Anabaptist vitality.
- We would, therefore, be inspired and challenged by the spiritual heights our forefathers reached, but we would also be sobered and instructed by their failures to achieve the Anabaptist vision in history.
Practical Implications for Our General Conference Life
- We are humbly grateful that God has manifestly worked in our General Conference history to effect His purposes and that He still has a significant mission and destiny for us as we follow His leading.
- We recognize that the autonomy of the local congregation. and the freedom of the individual which we have often emphasized must always be qualified by the constraints of Christian fellowship, the authority of the Scriptures, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
- We aspire to overcome in our larger conference life those things which would hinder and frustrate our full spiritual development and witness, such as the tendency to compromise our convictions, failure to instill a sense of responsibility in all members, the temptation to materialism, lack of reverence, lack of earnest Bible study and an active prayer life, failure to love one another, and an absence of a real concern for the lost.
- We desire to provide and keep open channels of communication within our conference family so that the spiritual concerns of individuals and groups may find expression and be given consideration in the larger fellowship. Likewise, we would seek and maintain contact with other Mennonite groups for mutual encouragement and instruction and for co-operation as the Holy Spirit may lead. We would also seek to find and fulfill our responsibility in the Church of Christ as a whole.
Practical Implications for the Local Congregation
- We hold that the minimum essentials of a believers' church would include: (a) membership based on a personal acceptance of Christ as Saviour and Lord, issuing in a life of discipleship, (b) a fellowship of brotherly love and discipline, controlled by the Holy Spirit, (c) authority centered in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible, and (d) a missionary outreach with each disciple an active witness.
- We hold that becoming a member of a believers' church involves a conscious acceptance of Christ as personal Saviour and Lord, giving evidence of an intimate and vital relationship to the person of Christ in terms of His Saviourhood and Lordship which issues in saintly conduct. Of this experience the believer should be able to speak with heartfelt conviction. Baptism is to be administered upon confession of such faith and the entire local congregation shares in the responsibility of considering the sincerity and readiness of candidates for baptism and church membership.
- We recognize that the practice of scriptural discipline is a necessary characteristic of a believers' church. We confess that our traditional patterns of discipline have often been negative, legalistic, harsh, and unloving, and hence, have not always contributed to the repentance and restoration of the fallen one. Moreover, we confess that we have often failed to deal effectively with the sins of the spirit and the sins of human relationships which are often difficult to identify.
- We affirm that scriptural discipline must be constructive and corrective in approach, redemptive in spirit, and must seek to employ all the varied ministries of the church. Such discipline finds birth within the brotherhood through prayer and Bible study, fellowship, and through a process of mutual sharing resulting in corporate agreement as to the standards which are to be maintained. It seeks to reclaim the offender, to attain purity and order in the church, and to recall the whole brotherhood to the life of discipleship in Jesus Christ. It operates, therefore, in a setting of suffering love, a thorough teaching and counseling ministry, and a repentant brotherhood.
- We declare that the gospel of Jesus Christ which is committed to the believers' church must be shared with those who have not yet heard or believed and that it is the responsibility of every member of each congregation to share in some way in the witness of the church at home and abroad and in every area of life. We must therefore seek to make every member aware of this commission and to develop effective ways of communicating this gospel in the modern world.
In the light of biblical teaching and in view of the Anabaptist vision and our own historical experience as a General Conference, aware of both our weaknesses and our victories, we do rededicate ourselves to strive toward a fuller realization of what God intends for us as a believers' church. We recognize that the true believers' church can blossom forth in new vigor only (1) where Jesus Christ is really given the pre-eminence with the Holy Spirit in full control, (2) where believers faithfully assemble to search the Scriptures and to seek God's will, (3) where a humble spirit of heart-searching and repentance is manifest, (4) where the local congregation takes initiative in the restoration of a vital spiritual life, and (5) where Christians, individually and together, recover a divine sense of mission in the world.
Context of the Statement
The 1955 study conference mentioned prior to the Introduction was called by the General Conference Mennonite Church to help focus a renewed vision for the denomination. In his "statement of our task" at the beginning of the conference, Elmer Ediger suggested the Conference needed to decide whether it wanted to revitalize a "brotherhood" church or whether it was becoming a "Volkskirche." If the "brotherhood" approach was still to be sought, what were the implications for church polity and church discipline.
Canadian participation in the conference was extensive, including P.J. Schaefer, P.R. Harder, David Schroeder, Isaac I. Friesen and Henry Poettcker. Poettcker served on the findings committee that provided input to this statement.
The 1956 convention that approved this statement also approved cooperation with the Mennonite Church in seminary education through the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries.
Study Conference on the Believers' Church: General Conference Mennonite Church at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Chicago, Illinois, August 23-25, 1955. North Newton, Kan. : The Mennonite Press, 1955.
Reports and official minutes of the thirty-fourth session of the General Conference Mennonite Church at Young United Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, August 15-22, 1956. Newton, Kan. : The Conference, 1956: 132-135.