By Donald T. Kirkwood
I. How We Changed
A. What we were
Our theology could best be described as “eclectic.” We wore a Mennonite overcoat over a Wesleyan Arminian body and were largely influenced by Dispensational teachers and preachers of the time. When these popular pulpiteers spoke at Mizpah Grove and Conference-wide convocations their teachings gained the tacit approval of the denomination.
We reflected the fundamental theological climate of the time. We were more like thermometers than thermostats. There were, however, vestiges of our Mennonite pietistic legalisms, and we had trouble with “Assurance.” We liked the Wesleyan emphasis on experiential salvation, the Calvinistic emphasis on teaching and the systematic coherence offered by Dispensationalists.
We were Episcopal in government. Our model, however, was not the Church of England, rather it was the Methodist Church. We had District Superintendents, Quarterly Conference, Class Leaders, and the like. On the denominational level, the District Superintendents presided at Annual Conference and conducted the Lord’s Supper at each particular church. The Board of Directors came to serve as a super board. It was to the District Superintendent what the Board of Trustees was to the pastor on the local level.
There was little in the way of officially prescribed procedures for initiating action or for redress for real or perceived wrongs.
Movement came from the top down. In short, we were what Samuel Stone said of the New England Congregationalists: “a speaking aristocracy in the face of a silent democracy.”
What we were/would be had we not changed
We were Media, PA.
In Media, PA the trolley still runs down the middle of Main St. – stores on each side.
To the East one block is Rt. One, the old main road between Philadelphia and Baltimore, Md. It replaced Main St. where the trolley runs.
To the West a few blocks is the bypass that replaces Rt. One, that replaced Main St. where the trolley runs past the print shops, restaurants, the Woolworths, and the law offices. Media is county seat for Delaware County.
There are not many places to do serious shopping in Media.
It is almost like the clock stopped ticking and time stood still, December 6,1941.
Media is frozen in time – pre World War II.
Where, you ask, do people shop in Media, PA? Don’t worry. To the North where the bypass begins is Springfield Mall with Wanamakers and Macys. To the South where the bypass ends is Granite Run Shopping Mall with Sears, Pennys and Boscovs. No problem with getting rid of money.
We, the M. B. C., were Media – an institution, a church to be admired for quaint practices, traditions and beliefs – admired but not imitated.
Media- A place to visit for a trip down nostalgia lane. A place to see trolleys run down
the street on the way to the Mall.
The M.B.C- A church to observe: circuits, Mizpah Grove, etc, but not to commit to. Had we
not changed, we would be an ecclesiastical Media.
We were “preparationists,” not the 17th century variety but the 20th. The precise form of preparation reflected the beliefs and personality of the pastor. Most churches had some kind of revival meetings, lasting a week or two, usually conducted by some evangelists from outside the denomination. On the conference wide level there were Mizpah Grove tent meetings. Since assurance of salvation was suspect, generalized appeals and altar calls were standard procedure.
In name we were the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.
B. What we Became/Are
Our theology is Calvinistic. Even a casual reading of our Faith will reveal that we are not Dispensational or Arminian. We are Reformed but not Presbyterian.
We are a denomination with a Presbyterian form of polity. Our Order reflects a system with rule by elder and parity of the clergy. The particular church is autonomous, with a connectional relationship with others in the denomination.
Authority arises in the particular church and proceeds from there to the churches in fellowship The smaller body is subject to the larger body and the larger body to the whole.
Ours is the “middle way.” We are neither Episcopal nor congregational.
The changes in doctrine and polity spelled out earlier in the Faith and Order produced changes in methodology. The implementation of the changes progressed in varying degrees. In some churches, the changes occurred almost immediately; in others much slower. In none is change complete. The fact that we are now rewriting our subordinate standards to reflect better our changes in doctrine and polity is evidence of continuing changes.
Our methodology could best be described as “gathered church.” Church membership is restricted to baptized “saints by calling” to use the term of our New England forefathers, a term that they soon forgot or bypassed due to their blind adherence to infant baptism. They allowed baptism to define the church instead of the other way about.
Question: Do we, the Bible Fellowship Churches, err by allowing the same?
Summary of Was / Are
We were not de facto Mennonite.
We were not Baptist.
We were a connectional church.
We were not Arminian.
We were ambivalent.
We were not Wesleyan.
Summary of What We Are
In Theology: Calvinistic
In Ecclesiology: Presbyterian
In Methodology: Gathered church, creedal immersionists
We are not Presbyterian, we are not Baptist, we are not Independent – Dispensational. We say we made a 180 degree turn around.
|Mennonite Brethren in Christ||Bible Fellowship Church|
|Methodologically||Pietistic / Legalistic||Gathered Church|
This was a Copernican revolution and without the loss of a single church and only a few pastors? How did it happen?
II. How We Changed
Now the emphasis moves from what we were/became to precisely how the 180 degree turn around came about. For a local church to make such a move is rare. For a denomination to do so is almost unbelievable.
To understand the change, one has to bear in mind the prevailing climate of opinion and over-all condition of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ in the post World War II world.
1. Separation from the church to which we never really belonged.
2. Former leaders passing from the scene either by death or design.
3. The rise of articulate young men with ideas and a willingness to seek for change.
4. The rise of able and articulate lay leaders who, like E. F. Hutton, gained a hearing when they spoke. (Eg.: Byron C.Cassel, Daniel K. Ziegler)
5. A climate of opinion within the membership-at-large seeking significant changes.
Thus the question was not, “Will there be change?” The question was, “In what direction will the change take us and who will supply the drive?” The window of opportunity was wide open. What would we do about it? When describing the “How” we must turn to the internal history of change. We move from reading the Philadelphia Inquirer to reading the National Enquirer
(purchased at the check-out counter of the grocery store), or, speaking theologically, we must move from the external history of the church as found in Acts to the internal history as found in the Epistles.
A. How the Change Came About
Annual Conference in 1956 resolved: “That a committee of seven ministers be elected to study Articles of Faith for the new Discipline” (Yearbook 1956, p. 48). Elected were C.E. Kirkwood, T.D. Gehret, J.E. Hartman, F.B. Hertzog, D.T. Kirkwood, W.E. Cassel, A.L. Seifert; in 1960 Daniel G. Ziegler, P.T.Stengele, and R.W. Smock replaced T.D. Gehret, W.E. Cassel, and A.L. Seifert.
Note the make-up of the original committee. Four of the men were to hold the office of District Superintendent, one was president of Berean Bible School. Of the two remaining names one was the son of a Mennonite Brethren in Christ pastor, the other a brother of a District Superintendent.
The make-up of the committee, combined with our deference to “trust the leadership”, goes a long way in explaining the ready acceptance by the Annual Conference of the work submitted by this committee.
When the elected committee met, members suggested doctrines to be included in the Faith. These were studied, starting with those least likely to be controversial and proceeding to those most likely to be debated.
Sub-committees brought in work for discussion by the whole body. With open Bibles the committee hammered out the articles. When, for example the difference between Eternal Security and Perseverance of the Saints was considered, the problem of Assurance disappeared. The same was true of Sovereignty and Responsibility. Inflamed rhetoric and demagoguery gave way to reasoned discourse, and most importantly, there was a willingness to go where Scripture directed.
To say that men are willing to go where Scripture leads is not to say they go blindly or without question. Change did not come easily nor without retreat. Neither did it come from the top down. In fact, most of the significant changes in the Faith came after initial objections by the established leadership of the church. For instance there was a retreat in the Faith, when, in order to placate a particular church, we modified our position in Sovereignty/Responsibility and compromised by the use of ambiguous language (compare the original article X and present articles numbered X and XIX).
As time went by, individuals and churches began to get a feel for a system of doctrine rather than individual doctrines. For example, Sin leads to Election, Election leads to Perseverance, and so on.
The names attached to the committee report went a long way in securing Annual Conference approval-faith in people.
When completed, the Faith represented a sharp theological break with the past.
The 1953 Yearbook, page 36, reads; “Resolved: That there be elected a committee of seven ministers and three laymen, outside the Board of Directors to study the government of the Conference.” Also, “All work of the committee is to be cleared through the Board of Directors before being presented to Annual Conference.” (Note the enthusiasm for the committed) Elected were W. E. Cassel, W.A. Heffner, J.E. Golla, D.T. Kirkwood, C.L. Miller, J.H. Riggall, R.C. Reichenbach, A.L. Wentz, R.P. Schaeffer, and D.K. Ziegler)
The initiative came from C. L. Miller the charismatic (non-Pentecostal) pastor of Bethel Church, Allentown.
Here Miller had established an Official Board comprised of all those elected church or Sunday School office. Influenced by Miller’s pragmatic approach, the committee got off to a false start by seeking to rewrite the existing form of government instead of turning to Scripture and seeking to find therein a system of church government.
Miller left the Conference in 1954. After his departure the committee started afresh by approaching the study of church government in much the same way as the study of the Faith. In the early 60’s the committee addressed the government on the denominational level as well as the particular church level, and from a biblical basis.
The work of this committee met with much opposition. To quote a committee report: “There were many hours,” “much discussion” “many difficulties.”
Why such strong opposition? It was Cotton Mather who said, “It is one thing for members of the church loyally to submit to any form of [church] government when it is above their calling to reform it, it is quite another matter for them to choose a form of government and governors disrespect from rule.”
Why such strong opposition? First of all, there was no consensus to begin with. Secondly, there were some committee members who had sympathy for a form of episcopacy, some had leanings toward Congregationalism, and still others favored rule by elder. None came to the committee with a predetermined form of government; church polity is given scant attention in seminary. As Americans we did come with a certain predisposition towards democracy and representative government – a predisposition that had to be set aside and Scripture allowed to speak for Itself. Getting rid of preconceptions does not come easily.
The path to the present form of church government was not one straight or unbroken line. We balked in 1963 when some, not convinced of rule by elder, and not understanding the report of the government committee (1963), were able to elect a committee to study an alternative form of church government. The result of this was a third committee whose duty was to harmonize the two reports (1963,1965) – an impossible task. (It was like fitting a Chevrolet engine to
a Ford transmission and a Chrysler chassis). In the end the system outlined by the original committee became the form of government of the Bible Fellowship Church.
Some of the most notable changes were these:
1. The diminution of the role of the District Superintendent and elimination of the office altogether.
2. Elevation of the role of the pastor of each particular church.
3. A board of elders in each church.
4. A more democratic and responsive Annual Conference.
It usually took two or three attempts to get legislation passed. For example:
-Original System-100% security; 0 liberty
-Second System-an endeavor to supply 100% security and 100% liberty
-Harmonization Committee (Yearbook 1968)
-Third System-100% liberty; 0% security (Lifted from U.S. A. Presbyterians)
Name Change – several attempts
Government – ’63, ’65, ’66
It did not matter what the change was, whether Government, Faith, Name, Pulpit Supply, whatever, the same core of names would be found appended to the study or committee report.
As time went by, pulpit and pew made changes, accepted them, grew to like them; and some will even sheepishly admit they like the new so much they would not like to return to the old. We like/don’t like change.
Whereas change in doctrine and polity spoiled out in the Faith and Order are proscribed, there is nothing comparable to this for methodology. Just as form follows function in architecture so methodology follows Faith and Order. The implementation of the new Faith and Order and its effect on the particular church progressed in varying degrees. In some churches change occurred almost immediately, in others much slower. We are still experiencing change, consider the work being done now on subordinate standards.
We have been saying “We are” and thereby making a gratuitous assumption. We said we made a 180 degree turn. Did we? Instead of saying “we are” let us look, not at the de jure but at the de facto.
● What is our Faith: de facto?
● What is our Order? de facto?
● Wherein is the continuity between the Mennonite Brethren in Christ and the Bible Fellowship Church?
● In our Faith – We are Calvinistic, creedal immersionists.
● In our Order – we are a connectional church with rule by elder, Presbyterian in government.
● In our Methodology-we are “”gathered church”, “saints by calling.”
● We are not Presbyterian-we do not believe in infant baptism. Our “morphology of conversion” is different.
● We are not Baptist-we have a different church polity.
● We are not Independent/ Dispensational, we are a connectional church with a Calvinistic faith.
Who are we? What are our distinctives? We have an identity crisis. We seem unsure of ourselves. To say we are not Mennonite, not Presbyterian, not Baptist, not Independent, does not tell who we are.
Who are we? Let me try to answer this by the following analogy: A Mennonite man took to himself a Calvinistic bride. This union produced offspring who seem unsure of either heritage. They are not Mennonite, not Baptist, but like ducks hatched by a chicken they gravitate to the water.
We are the offspring who have the identity crisis. We act like we are not sure what we are. We fear the words “covenant”, “presbytery” even though they are biblical words. We often refer to ourselves as “Baptist” simply because we immerse. In reality our theology, polity and methodology are in sharp contrast to a normal Baptist church. Our name suggests an independent or Dispensational church, and we are neither.
What is the cohesive force that binds us together? The centripetal force of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ was shared beliefs, strong personalities and deep seated traditions. These are all gone. I’m not speaking of mere traditionalism of which Jarsolov Pelikan said, “Traditionalism is the dead voice of the living; tradition is the living voice of the dead.”
We have in the making a body of beliefs which if gotten hold of should provide a stronger centripetal force than authoritarianism. Witness the disintegration of the Soviet Union when authoritarianism collapsed. Compare this with the American Revolution which had shared beliefs as its cohesive force. Is our cohesive force ideas, doctrines and practices, or are we a denomination in which each church goes its own way together? Do we have the will to be what we are?
We are a denomination of autonomous churches
● In theology – Reformed
● In polity – Presbyterian
● In baptism – Immersion of believers
None of these in itself is peculiar to the Bible Fellowship Church. It is the combination of these that make the Bible Fellowship Church distinctive. This combination is not a weakness; it is our strength.
What is the continuity between the Mennonite Brethren in Christ and the Bible Fellowship Church?
●Not the same theological system.
●Net the same church polity.
●Not the same methodology.
But a willingness to go where Scripture leads and it will lead us down new paths if we are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The words of John Robinson are still true.
A personal observation regarding who we “are”
We have been saying that in the ‘60’s we made a 180 degree turn around. Is this correct? I think not. Why?
What the Mennonite Brethren in Christ became was nothing more than the coming to fruition of seeds sown centuries earlier. The maturation period in theology and ecclesiology is not measured in months, years or even decades; it is measured in centuries.
The men who were our forefathers, men who were instrumental in founding the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were influenced by the revivalists of the pre and post Civil War era. And the later were influenced by doctrines and practices arising out of the Great Awakening the converts of which were most likely “New Lights” who liked strong preaching, strict rules of church
membership and hence formed new “separate” churches, separate from the standing order (Congregational).
According to William McLoughlin, except for the Great Awakening, the Baptist movement might have died out. The Armenian Baptists were not interested in the Great Awakening. The revivalists were Calvinists and the movement was perceived as Congregational. Whitefield never preached in a Baptist church, Edwards and Tennet scorned Baptists (Arminian).
It was the heirs of the Great Awakening, the revivalist of the last century, that influenced our founding Mennonite Brethren in Christ fathers, not Mennonite preachers, teachers, doctrines, or practices. In light of this one can say we owe more to Isaac Backus than Menno Simons. Saying this is not to dishonor the Anabaptists or our founding fathers who had the courage and conviction to go where Scripture led them.
We can also say that we made a 360 degree turn. We went forward by going backward. We went back to our roots and in so doing honor both our paternal and maternal grandparents. If, however, we are not consciously committed to our Faith and Order, if it is not our cohesive force we are back where we started in the ’60’s. The difference is simply this: Then we tried to be what we were not (we were the Mennonite Brethren in Christ); now we are trying not to be what we are (Reformed in theology, Presbyterian in polity, creedal immersionists) – and without the cohesive force of shared beliefs, strong traditions and personal leadership.
The Presbyterians have a strong commitment to the Westminster Standards, the Baptists to immersion and congregational rule, the Independents to Dispensational theology. In all of the above, clergy and laity are routinely reminded of their distinctives and are quick to make them known. Do we fail to inculcate in our people what we are and what we stand for?
It is easier to say what we were than what we are.