ROBERT J. SUDERMAN. Re-imagining The Church: Implications of Being a People in the World. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016. Pp. Xv + 242. $31.00 (U.S.)
Robert “Jack” Suderman, over a lifetime of service to the Kingdom of God in different capacities, has written many papers addressing the life of the larger global church, mainly Anabaptist. The 16 chapters of this book include many writings that remind and challenge today’s church to look deeply at its purpose and possibilities in both theological and practical ways. What does it mean to be in our world as the incarnation of Christ? While none of these papers was written within the last couple of years, the principles and his careful exposition of the scriptures transcend the time difference and appear as relevant today as when they were written.
As I began reading, I feared that the subject matter would be disjointed and beyond my non-seminary-trained mind. Suderman’s clear and concise explanations of words in the original languages and his use of outlines to elucidate his points made it easy to follow his thinking process, however. Although his audiences were different in many of the papers compiled here, the editor (his son Andrew) made it clear to whom and in what context each was written. Thus, his experiences as a missionary to Columbia, a church leader in Canada, and professor and teacher in various Anabaptist institutions became relevant as examples and influences in his understandings of the mandates of the Scriptures. While his Mennonite roots were evident, they did not limit his practical implications for the world church as the Kingdom of God.
Suderman first addresses the nature of the church with both biblical understandings and issues from Anabaptist experience that have become impediments to relevance for today’s churches. Through the beginning chapters, he presents deep understanding and presentation of biblical principles concerning the role of the church in the world. He includes challenges to the roles of both lay members and leaders of a congregation and a larger body. Of particular note is one chapter addressing the role of seniors in the church body, a topic rarely addressed in reflections on the mission of contemporary churches.
Another topic worthy of note is his missiological thinking and study. He does not accept the traditional view of the boundaries between missions and the church. Based on biblical study, he broadens and muddies the historical separation between the purpose of missions and the congregational purpose.
The second part of Suderman’s book is a practical application for us as Kingdom people. While reading the first part of the book was stretching and instructive, the second section appeared very practical to our current church and political world as Anabaptists and Brethren In Christ. He challenges the church to be revolutionary in its witness of peace, again referencing history, but more importantly referencing the study of Christ’s meaning and examples in both the Old and New Testaments. I found these examples refreshing and energizing.
In the section of the book addressing the role of Christian educational institutions, he challenges what he perceives as the easier role of preparing students for Christian service. Rather, as a Christian educator himself, he advocates for our church institutions to take on the more difficult (and perhaps more controversial) role of apostle-making.
Suderman’s emphasis on peacemaking, while not the whole of the book, appears to transcend the different topics within the final chapters of the book. He sees it as the most basic witness that the world needs, with Christ as the ultimate figure who embodied this witness. While I do not disagree with the importance that these chapters impart, I have wondered how our more evangelical brothers and sisters will interpret this teaching and whether they can integrate his thoughts into a world view that will allow us to be one with humanity as he suggests that God sees us—those both within and outside of the Kingdom.
This book is both encouraging and challenging to an Anabaptist community. On some occasions he digs deeply into his topic. At other times he broadens his definitions and understandings to challenge traditional (and I might add, more comfortable) ideas. He even enumerates the strengths and the pitfalls of his thinking on occasion. I find myself continuing to think and meditate on the things that he has so ably discussed. I needed to read this book one chapter at a time in order to digest it. Some of the chapters could well be used as a basis for church board and church staff efforts to find renewed and invigorated purpose as congregations and individuals. As a denomination, the Brethren In Christ would do well to consider Suderman’s insights for deepening our corporate and unique purpose in Kingdom building.
Author: Wanda Lehman Heise
Wanda Lehman Heise has chaired the General Conference Board of the Brethren in Christ Church in the U.S. since 2012, and also served as the denominational representative to the Mennonite Health Services Board. She and her husband are members of the Harrisburg (PA) Brethren in Christ Church.