Confessional or creedal?

Creeds are binding and forever. Confessions are living documents because the church is alive.

An undated edition of the Schleitheim Confession from around 1560. The first Anabaptist Confession of Faith, the Schleitheim Confession bears the imprint of Michael Sattler, its primary writer. An assembly of Anabaptists ratified its seven articles at the Swiss village of Schleitheim on Feb. 24, 1527. — Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen College An undated edition of the Schleitheim Confession from around 1560. The first Anabaptist Confession of Faith, the Schleitheim Confession bears the imprint of Michael Sattler, its primary writer. An assembly of Anabaptists ratified its seven articles at the Swiss village of Schleitheim on Feb. 24, 1527. — Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen College

Each Sunday after the sermon, the priest called us to stand. By the time I was a teenager, I no longer needed to open the prayer book. I could recite the Nicene Creed by heart.

In unison, the congregation spoke the words the church adopted 1,700 years ago:

We believe in God, the Father ­Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . .

A priest told me the creed was placed after the sermon purposefully.

“No matter how heretical the sermon,” he said, tongue-in-cheek, “the creed makes clear what we believe.”

My journey to the Mennonite church began a few months after this exchange. But it took years for me to understand that I couldn’t slot the traditions of the Episcopal Church into Anabaptist boxes.

Infant dedication wasn’t the equivalent of infant baptism. The denomination’s role didn’t match the authority of bishops.

The most difficult and interesting shift was from creeds to Confessions.

Now, as a pastor in Mennonite Church USA, it is my job to help those new to Anabaptism understand how the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective differs from the creeds of the traditions that many in my congregation are leaving behind.

In membership classes, I say our spiritual forebears affirmed that authority rested in the Bible and that creeds, while useful, were superseded by Scripture as interpreted and lived by a body of believers.

Confessions are different from creeds’ binding doctrines. Rather than marking for all time the community’s boundaries, Confessions describe a church at a moment in time. They address the questions before us and express the discernment of our generation.

Confessions make us clearer to ourselves and others. The first Anabaptist Confession — Schleitheim, compiled in 1527 — leaves out the doctrines Anabaptism shared with the universal church. There is no mention of the Trinity or the divinity of Christ. It simply cites Anabaptists’ distinctive beliefs.

Confessions change over time. The Dutch Mennonite leader Hans de Ries, who formulated a “Brief Confession of Faith” in Hoorn in 1618, described a Confession as “simply a short statement of what we believe we find in God’s Word in contradistinction from others who also claim to hold to the Scriptures.”

“And shall we be bound by it?” he wrote. “We say no, it is subject to improvement.”

Confessions are living documents because the church is alive, growing in faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite exercises in membership class is to look at three Confessions from different periods of history. We pay special attention to the language used for the church’s relationship to the state.

I ask new members to think about the historical moment in which the Confession was written. What was happening in the world? What questions were people asking? What shifts do we see from a generation prior?

The Confession that elicits the most interesting insight is the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith, approved by Mennonite Church delegates in Kalona, Iowa. What historical moment was the church facing at that time?

The civil rights movement was a leading concern. Thus the 1963 Confession called the MC denomination to “witness against racial discrimination, economic injustice and all forms of human slavery and moral degradation.”

This was a departure from previous generations of Mennonites who believed tactics of resistance — boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations — were tools of coercion that followers of Jesus should not use.

But Vincent Harding and other Black Mennonites were challenging the majority white church to take up the call of peacemaking by actively opposing systemic racism.

The majority white church responded to Black Mennonites’ wisdom by writing the concerns of their time into the Confession. Today, almost 60 years later, members of MC USA actively participate in resistance to racism.

(The General Conference Mennonite Church, which merged with the Mennonite Church in 2002 to form MC USA, did not have a Confession until 1995. This reflected GC congregational polity, uniting for ministry while respecting differences.)

It is troubling to see Mennonites treat Confessions as litmus tests rather than as descriptions of a living church. A Confession is not meant as a cudgel to hold people in line.

The Confession of Faith in a Menno­nite Perspective — adopted by MC and GC delegates in 1995 — cites six purposes:

Providing “guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture.”

Providing “guidance for belief and practice.”

Building a “foundation for unity.”

Offering an “outline for instructing new members.”

Giving an “updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times.”

Providing “help in discussing Men­no­nite belief and practice with other[s].”

I believe the 1995 Confession will not always serve MC USA well. Parts of it no longer resemble the church I know. While we confess that marriage is “between one man and one woman for life,” in my congregation there are divorced and remarried people and LGBTQ people who are married.

I experience these marriages as holy and beloved. As our congregation attended to Scripture, we discerned that the faithfulness the Bible anticipates as the gift of marriage is present in relationships beyond those our Confession deems normative and blessed.

Twenty-seven years have passed since the adoption of MC USA’s Con­fession. In those 27 years we’ve seen the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to systemic police violence. Gun violence has exploded. LGBTQ people and divorced and remarried couples are part of our churches. We face the challenges of climate disaster and a widening gap between the rich and poor.

We can use our Confession as a creed, a mechanism to hold people in check. Or we can listen to each other and to God at work among us. We can gather for the holy work of asking what the Holy Spirit says to us as we read the Bible together. We can trust the God who calls us to proclaim that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina and author of How to Have an Enemy: Righteous Anger and the Work of Peace (Herald Press, 2021).

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