New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology.
The tension between individual and communal dimensions of the church and the interplay of congregational, denominational, and global aspects of the church lie at the heart of this new collection of essays on believers church ecclesiology. Emerging from the sixteenth Believers Church Conference, held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2008, the volume contains several high quality essays, including a description of the Apostle Paul's ecumenical theology of the church and a study of the implications for the believers church of the southward shift in world Christianity.
Because of the location of the conference many of the authors are Canadian, a welcome turn from U.S.-dominated conversation. In addition several contributors are from the Mennonite Brethren Church, which has been underrepresented in the past. Fernando Enns, the vice chair of the Association of Mennonite Churches in Germany and a lecturer at the University of Hamburg, also wrote two chapters, both of which were shaped by his extensive experience with the World Council of Churches.
However, with the exception of contributions from one Baptist and two Church of the Brethren members, all of the essays were written by Mennonites. Missing are other believers church voices--Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, other Baptists, Pentecostals--who could bring additional perspectives to a conversation about unity and diversity in the Christian church. As I write this review in Guatemala City, I am struck by the realization that North American believers church conferences have been wrestling with issues of ecclesiology without including some believers church theologians from the global South, an omission especially problematic given the development of theological leadership in the two-thirds world in recent decades.
In spite of these limitations, the volume deserves broad attention by believers church leaders, pastors, and scholars. Some of the contextual realities that the writers address--the changing evangelical world and nondenominational "emerging" churches; challenges to believers church baptism when individuals are cynical about church membership; fragmenting conflict within congregations and denominations; long histories of misunderstanding that shape believers church interactions with other Christians--are realities shared by believers churches across North America and some of them by "baptists" in other places as well.
The book is organized in six sections: Biblical Perspectives; Dynamics of Denominationalism; Reviewing Assumptions; Trinitarian Foundations; Ceremonies Reconsidered; and Recent Trends. The volume opens with two essays that respectively anchor the call for Christian unity in the testimony of the Gospel of John and in Paul's profound trust in God's redemptive work through the Messiah. Sheila Klassen Wiebe moves beyond the typical appeal to Jesus' prayer for unity among his disciples in John 17 to consider how the Johannine tradition responded to competition between Peter and the Beloved Disciple, accepting their diversity by blessing both. Gordon Zerbe, addressing the relevance of Paul's eschatological ecclesiology in a fresh way, concludes that it "allows no room either for any final ecclesial self-assurance or for any confidence in a presumed destiny of the other, the enemy" (45). Paul's vision is ecumenical; it encompasses reconciliation of the entire inhabited world. This challenges "any final form of 'denominationalism'" and "any retreat to 'Congregationalism'" (46). The careful biblical interpretation in these essays should fruitfully engage readers from a variety of believers church groups.
Several of the contributors push the believers church to more explicitly embrace its implicit trinitarian heritage. Fernando Enns, building upon Miroslav Volf's development of free church ecclesiology rooted in a trinitarian relationship of love, suggests that the believers church "ethically-directed, local and experience oriented understanding of community ... complements and completes the predominantly ontological description of koinonia in ecumenical discussion" (191). He further argues that peace churches would benefit from a trinitarian grounding for nonviolence centered "in the koinonia that God offers to all of humanity" because it does not risk legitimizing suffering the way a focus on Jesus sometimes does. In the trinitarian view, "Resorting to violence is the strongest manifestation of breaking away from community, since such a course of action always degrades the personhood of not only the victim but also the perpetrator. ... Violence has no place in a relation established by God in Christ through the Spirit" (196-197). Anabaptist feminists and liberation theologians concerned about the way a simplistic "turn the other cheek" ethic can result in continued victimization may find this a helpful reorientation.
Arnold Neufeld-Fast adds further reason for a stronger trinitiarian theology of the church --"the missionary grounding of the Christian community in the being and act of the Trinitarian God ..." (200). Such a believers church ecclesiology can hold together peace theology and missional theology, appealing to trinitarian theologians like Karl Barth and Thomas Finger, an ecumenically articulate Mennonite theologian who draws these emphases together.
Supplementing these essays on theological foundations, Jonathan Wilson, Paul Doerksen and Gareth Brandt consider recent ecclesial trends, particularly among evangelicals. Wilson, a Baptist, describes ecclesial ferment among evangelicals and gives five examples: ancient/future Christianity; the Ekklesia Project; emerging churches; the missional church; and new monasticism. He suggests a contribution each can make to believers church ecclesiology and something that believers churches can offer in return. Brandt and Doerksen both engage Brian McClaren and the "omnivorous ecclesiology" his emerging/emergent church movement represents. Doerksen is concerned that accepting all ecclesiologies without standing within one of them actually supports radical individual choice, an aspect of the existing evangelical church from which McClaren "is so desperate to emerge" (295).
Unfortunately, Wilson did not include neo-pentecostalism among his examples. However, George Pickens's essay at the end of the book identifies this type of ecclesial ferment, at least in the global South. Pickens believes that it is a kairos ecumenical moment for the believers church because of shared themes "in the faith stories of Christians within the Believers Church and inside the majority church in the South" (312), one of which is "communities formed without the support of the powerful." As a result he suggests that in ecumenical relationships, the believers church is in a special position to interpret God-talk between Northern and Southern Christians. If the church responds to this significant call, I hope that members of believers churches from the South and North would carry this role together in genuine partnership.
Two chapters focus on ceremonial dimensions of ecclesiology--one on Pilgram Marpeck's sacramental legacy and the other on contemporary challenges to believer's baptism. Irma Fast Dueck's chapter offers a culturally sensitive and theologically sound approach to believer's baptism that can be helpful for congregational teaching and shaping practice. Andrea Dalton rightly encourages a stronger sacramental sense in believers church approaches to the Lord's Supper but unfortunately ends her essay with the statement that this ceremony is the means (rather than "a central means") by which the church maintains its unity with Christ.
Some tension between recommendations in the book might be explained by the way specific authors read challenges facing the believers church. For example, a Church of the Brethren professor, Scott Holland, calls for believers churches, especially Mennonites, to recover an emphasis on the individual, the solitary experience of God, love of God, and the role of emotion in thought and theology. The essays by Gareth Brandt and Irma Fast Dueck, on the other hand, undergird the need for believers churches to emphasize communal dimensions of ecclesiology. The difference in part is due to their line of vision--Holland focuses on the "traditional" believers church, which has a strong external community life and ethic, while Brandt and Dueck focus on the culture that is shaping many contemporary believers churches--individualistic consumerism, evangelicalism that tends to focus on individual salvation, and an increasingly secular ethos in which the identity of the church is at risk.
From an intriguing chapter on the struggle for denominational consensus regarding ordination of women among Canadian Mennonite Brethren to a chapter defending aspects of denominationalism, the collection as a whole reminds us that ecclesiology makes a difference. Recurring themes provide a compass. The church is first and last of God's making, not ours. A trinitarian believers church ecclesiology, spilling out from the love of God, emphasizes unity not enforced by creed or structure but based on personal relationship. And while believers churches rightly recognize that diversity in the larger church can be both gift and fault, they should never forget that unity is important in order "that the world might believe" (14.0), for the church is only the church when it exists for others (304).
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary
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|Author:||Koontz, Gayle Gerber|
|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2011|
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