Unity and uniformity

The Church Here and There

June 29, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 13
Arli Klassen | Columnist
(Photo by Gilbert Mercier, Flickr)

As a preteen more than 50 years ago, I remember asking my mom about the difference between Baptists and Mennonites, given that we were members of a Fellowship Baptist church while all our relatives were Mennonite Brethren. My mom stumbled to find an answer. She finally gave me a response that focused on confidence in one’s salvation, and that Baptists preached “assurance of salvation” more than the Mennonite Brethren church where she had grown up. I later learned that this question of assurance of salvation troubled my Mennonite Brethren father-in-law and his preacher father for much of their lives. That is not a doctrinal issue that we talk about these days!

Some denominations are focused on different doctrinal issues. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada and the U.S. The SBC president, J.D. Greear, indicated in his address to their June convention that Southern Baptists can hold different opinions on matters not essential for salvation.

Rick Warren, the founder and retired pastor of Saddleback Church, which was expelled from the SBC in June because of its women pastors, said, “In essentials, unity, in nonessentials liberty. . . . Messengers voted for conformity and uniformity rather than unity.”

The Manitoba and Ontario provincial bodies of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC) recently expelled some of their member congregations because they are pro inclusion of people who are LGBTQ+. The CCMBC hold all their congregations accountable to their Confession of Faith, which they say, “describes a shared understanding of the teaching of Scripture, which we have discerned and publicly confessed together as a community.”

The key question, always, is what is essential and what is nonessential for faith? Most denominations have a lengthy “Confession of Faith.” I think there are very few people in any denomination who agree with everything in their church’s Confession of Faith, but maybe I’m too cynical.

Does believing in a specific set of doctrines make one a Christian? I don’t think so.

I suppose membership in a specific congregation that is a member of a specific denomination is different from faith, and that requiring belief in specific interpretations of the biblical text can be a membership requirement.

Our Mennonite Church Canada Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective is shared with Mennonite Church USA. It was approved in 1995, and likely needs revising to reflect today’s issues, just like my mom’s understanding 50 years ago does not reflect current issues. Our confession of faith says it serves several purposes, of which the first three include:

  • Guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture,
  • Guidance for belief and practice, and
  • Foundation for unity within and among churches.

I like our emphasis on guidelines instead of insisting on a single interpretation, and our emphasis on unity. I am glad to be part of the Mennonite Church Canada communion through my local congregation and regional church, and through Mennonite Church Canada, we are members of Mennonite World Conference (MWC).

MWC has a one-page Statement of Shared Convictions, getting a little closer to essential ideas of what it means to be an Anabaptist/Mennonite Christian. This statement does not say anything about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, mode of baptism, ordination of women, or inclusion of people who are LGBTQ+, all areas of great diversity in MWC.

I’m with Rick Warren: “The only way to have unity is to love diversity.” Uniformity requires holding the same beliefs and ethical standards, without any space for difference. I pray daily that we might experience unity, requiring a constant effort to treat each other with respect, even and especially when we disagree. 

Arli Klassen is a member of First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, and can be reached at klassenarli@gmail.com.

Read more The Church Here and There columns:
Communal prayers
Talking more about power
The limits of control
Belonging comes first
The wider church and church budgets

(Photo by Gilbert Mercier, Flickr)

Share this page: Twitter Instagram

Add new comment

Canadian Mennonite invites comments and encourages constructive discussion about our content. Actual full names (first and last) are required. Comments are moderated and may be edited. They will not appear online until approved and will be posted during business hours. Some comments may be reproduced in print.