The following review is prepared for print in Canadian Mennonite.
New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology (CMU Press) represents the 16th Believers Church conference held at Canadian Mennonite University in 2008. These essays reflect what must have been broad and lively discussions which ranged from particularly focused accounts like Doug Heidebrecht’s Women among Canadian Mennonite Brethren and the Struggle for Denominational Consensus (chapter 5) to broad global reflections like Fernando Enns’ Believers Church Ecclesiology: A Vital Alternative within the Ecumenical Family (chapter 6).
The book is divided into six sections; 1) Biblical Perspectives, 2) Dynamics of Denominationalism, 3) Reviewing Assumptions, 4) Trinitarian Foundations, 5) Ceremonies Revisited, and 6) Recent Trends. Particularly illuminating were sections three and four. Fernando Enns opens the section by challenging the Believers Church towards more substantive claims that do not simply rest on being in opposition to other expressions (i.e. non-creedal, non-hierarchal, non-sacramental, non-liturgical, or non-constantinian). Brian Hamilton and Scott Holland introduce possible correctives or at lest supplements to dominant understandings within the Believers Church. Hamilton explores the writings of Michael Sattler and puts forward an ‘ontological’ account of Christ’s body to balance the dominant view of Christ’s earthly life and teaching in Anabaptism. Christ is more than his ‘historical career’ (150). This can help guard Anabaptism from tendencies towards moral perfectionism as believers are already in the perfect and perfecting body of Christ as they live out their calling. Holland addresses the pietistic streams in the Church of the Brethren and offers it as a ‘corrective to the Anabaptist communal soul’ (161). This helps to create a tension that should be maintained between shared wisdom and need for ‘new’ influences and insights.
It may be that the most enduring contributions in this book are the clear trinitarian statements in section four that attempt to offer a foundation for both ecclesiology and mission. These chapters help situate the Believers Church high view of following Christ within the overall dynamic of God’s love for the world that is represented in the Trinity. These not only advance Believers Church theology but also provide greater opportunity for ecumenical understanding.
While the final section provided some helpful engagement with the Emerging Church movement three of four chapters focused on this expression. Thankfully the final chapter addressed the possible implications for the Believers Church in the church of the global south. This chapter focused primarily on the presence of these churches in their indigenous settings. What would have been helpful (in place of one of the first three chapters) would have been an engagement with churches of the global south that are taking root in North America. Mennonite Church Eastern Canada for instance is working with a number of new churches that are only marginally connected to the Mennonite church but find enough continuity to build relationships and give and receive support as they find their way in a new land.
This collection is a rich and diverse resource that will likely address one if not many issues currently facing Mennonite churches in Canada (the chapter on baptism had me reading with great personal and pastoral interest). I hope it finds a welcome and active reception as we continue to discern what it means to be a Believers Church.
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Since Brian Hamilton is a contributor and active blogger I thought I would add one question I had after reading his chapter. I appreciated the corrective of exploring the nature of Christ’s ontological body to our participation in and as the church. The question I had was the extent to which this theological reasoning could be advanced with respect to ‘sacraments’ and does Sattler do that all? It seems that the highest ‘sacramental act’ is baptism as this unites the believer in the perfected and perfecting body of Christ. Does Sattler’s theology replace some of the ‘presence’ of the Eucharist and situate it in the act of baptism if this indeed already unites the believer ontologically in the body of Christ. This may be straining the reasoning of this chapter but it was what came to my mind in reflection.