This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Canadian MBs to review connection between baptism, church membership

While most Canadian Mennonite Brethren link baptism with congregational membership, that has not always been the case. Denominational leaders are beginning a process to look at their Confession of Faith to see how language about baptism can be updated.

The Meeting Place in Winni­peg, Man., is an example of how baptism’s connection to local church membership has evolved.

Jana-Leigh Povey, left, celebrates as Kim Wilson is baptized in August at The Meeting Place in Winnipeg, Man. — The Meeting Place
Jana-Leigh Povey, left, celebrates as Kim Wilson is baptized in August at The Meeting Place in Winnipeg, Man. — The Meeting Place

Lead Pastor John Neufeld said the congregation was among the first to disconnect membership and baptism when it started in the 1990s. Baptism was perceived as similar to salvation, and membership possibly an obstacle.

“Maybe they didn’t feel mature enough or they weren’t interested in being a member because it represented organized religion in ways they weren’t comfortable,” he said.

Many who were attracted to The Meeting Place came from congregations with “stale” membership lists and hundreds more members than active participants. Neufeld said the church felt called to full engagement and a renewal movement.

About four years ago, The Meeting Place’s members who more fully commit to the church’s mission and values — known as Covenant Community — switched from an annual renewal covenant to membership via baptism.

Today The Meeting Place sees about 900 people in weekly attendance and has a membership of about 260 in the Covenant Community.

Neufeld has observed a variety of practices and understandings of baptism’s role in CCMBC churches and said it’s something that should be addressed if the Confession of Faith calls for shared practice.

Addressing the gap

The Canadian MB Board of Faith and Life announced on Feb. 23 it is beginning a review process of its Confession of Faith, beginning with Article 8, on baptism.

The Article says, in part, that “baptism is a sign of the believer’s incorporation into the body of Christ as expressed in the local church.”

Laurence Hiebert, BFL Alberta representative and English pastor of Mountainview Grace Church in Calgary, said Mennonite Brethren, like most Anabaptist groups, have historically linked baptism and church membership.

“Some of our churches, it seems, have a bit of an allergy towards membership,” Hiebert said. “. . . We have to address in some way the gap between what we have in the Confession and the practice in what we do in our churches, and those tend to be the larger churches in our denomination that are taking more leeway or freedom in this issue.”

CCMBC has identified other topics that could also use updating of old language, including articles on salvation (5) and love and nonresistance (13).

Neither Hiebert nor BFL chair Ingrid Reichard anticipate changing any theological positions.

“Right now the BFL is in the process of defining the process for the Confession of Faith review,” she said. “. . . The board chose to begin the review process with the article on baptism and membership because this topic is not only close to our hearts, it also impacts on the life and practice in our churches in very tangible ways.

“The BFL desires the Confession review process to be highly interactive, involving pastors, scholars and leaders from across the country.”

Not just Canadian issue

USMB BFL chair Tim Sullivan said tying membership and baptism together is also an issue in the U.S.
When he entered ministry as a lead pastor of an MB congregation, he wasn’t convinced the two should be linked.

“After thinking about it and a number of conversations with others, I became convinced that it should be,” he said. “However, not all churches in our U.S. conference practice this. A number of them separate the two.

“It seems to me that there is some division among those who have either grown up MB and have an Anabaptist understanding of baptism and membership, versus those, like me, who came to Anabaptism from outside the family and have been influenced by other Protestant groups that don’t hold membership and baptism together as tightly.”

Reichard hopes the Canadian BFL will complete the definition of the review process by July and expects the article review and update will take a year and a half.

The Canadian BFL is the body entrusted with keeping and teaching the Confession of Faith. Any article revisions must be approved by the national gathering of church representatives.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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