In 1997 a group of ministers from the Conservative Mennonite Conference formulated a resolution lamenting the conference’s “theological drift” from its “historic moorings.”
“We believe that doctrinal drift is unnecessary in order to accommodate a changing culture,” the resolution said. On the surface, the tensions focused on CMC’s reluctance to enforce its traditional standard regarding the prayer veiling. But, as in all divisions, the conflict also reflected a host of other issues, including understandings of scriptural interpretation, church polity and leadership style.
The following summer, the new group that emerged from the division adopted the name Biblical Mennonite Alliance and set about to shape a new identity. One of the first steps in that direction — in addition to formulating a new constitution and a “position and policy statement” — was the creation of a bimonthly publication, The Alliance Newsletter.
Now in its 17th volume, The Alliance Newsletter enables more than 60 BMA congregations, located mostly east of the Mississippi, to remain in regular contact. Each eight-page issue begins with an article by BMA moderator Todd Neuschwander or another church leader providing a perspective on the work of the church.
In the January issue, Neuschwander offered four arguments why an unaffiliated Mennonite congregation should consider becoming part of BMA. In addition to providing access to BMA’s mission agency and Bible school, Neuschwander noted that BMA enables isolated groups to have a deeper sense of connectedness with like-minded congregations and provides accountability for the inevitable struggle churches face in maintaining their commitment to doctrinal and personal holiness.
Featured prominently in most issues of The Alliance Newsletter are updates on the programs BMA has generated during its short existence.
The Elnora (Ind.) Bible Institute offers courses for training lay BMA leaders and pastors. The mission arm of BMA, DestiNation International, is always highly visible in the newsletter, with lists of prayer requests for its missionaries in Canada, Mongolia, New York City, Mexico, Spain and South Asia and appeals for financial support. The mission agency also has its own quarterly newsletter, DestiNations Near and Far, and is in the midst of a $1 million building fund project to support its Mission Training Center in New York City, which offers a six-week training program to future mission workers.
Rounding out each issue of The Alliance Newsletter are reports from congregations and listings of births, new members, engagements, weddings and deaths. At times, the periodical includes a closing sermon by a BMA pastor or a term paper by an Elnora Bible Institute student.
BMA’s identity is still in formation. In contrast to its beginnings, the overwhelming majority of its congregations today were never part of CMC, though most have Anabaptist roots. Some BMA churches were attracted to the group because it was less legalistic than their former affiliations. Others were seeking a conference that maintained clearer doctrinal boundaries. A glimpse into The Alliance Newsletter suggests that these various, sometimes conflicting impulses are held together in part by a shared commitment to the church’s mission and educational institutions and the visibility a periodical gives to those initiatives.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.