Does a Confession of Faith prescribe or describe? Does it say what church members ought to believe and do, or does it reflect what church members actually believe and do?
Many confessional sentences say, “We believe . . .” Literally, this is descriptive. Implicitly, it is prescriptive: “We [should] believe . . .”
What if the description isn’t accurate? What should a denomination confess — that is, declare — about a topic that’s disputed?
These questions are pertinent in Mennonite Church USA because there’s a tension, maybe even a contradiction, between the Confession and a recent resolution.
The friction point is the place of LGBTQ people in the church. The 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective affirms traditional marriage and, by implication, rejects same-sex marriage: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”
In contrast, the 2022 Repentance and Transformation Resolution affirms the “full participation” of LGBTQ people “in the life, ministries and rituals” of the church. It says the Holy Spirit “empowers LGBTQIA Christians to give and receive every gift in the body of Christ.”
The resolution doesn’t mention marriage, but its emphatic affirmation of LGBTQ people is hard to reconcile with opposition to same-sex marriage.
In addition to the tension between the Confession and the resolution, there’s the question of honesty. Is it truthful for a church with many LGBTQ-affirming congregations — and now an official statement of repentance for LGBTQ exclusion — to say “we believe” God blesses only heterosexual marriage?
A decade ago, the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches was asking a similar question about the article on peace in its Confession. The Board of Faith and Life led a process that resulted in a 2014 revision: deleting the claim that “we believe” members should avoid military service and saying instead that “many of us choose not to participate in the military but rather in alternative forms of service.”
On a point of disagreement, U.S. Mennonite Brethren decided their Confession should describe rather than prescribe.
Tim Geddert, a professor at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, wrote recently in the USMB magazine Christian Leader about why he changed his mind to support the change.
“I had previously assumed I should try to get the Confession of Faith to say whatever I believed,” he says. But later he concluded that “if ‘we’ cannot credibly claim that ‘we’ believe something, then we should stop saying we do.”
Rather than forming “insulated and isolated communities of like-minded people,” Geddert says, we should “honor sincerely held beliefs that are different from our own and model for the world a core Christian conviction: Unity does not require uniformity.”
Is it time for MC USA to consider what its Confession can credibly claim about its members’ beliefs?
The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective says “confessions give an updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times.” They “provide guidance for belief and practice.” They both describe and prescribe.
Anabaptists vary in how they define “prescribe.” In MC USA (and MC Canada, which uses the same Confession), it means to offer guidance. In the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, it means “individuals and churches are not free to disregard [the Confession] or teach convictions that are not in agreement with the Confession.” The CCMBC has enforced this by expelling LGBTQ-affirming congregations.
Due to generational change and the withdrawal of conservative congregations, today’s MC USA is very different from its predecessors — the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church — that adopted the 1995 Confession of Faith. It is even different from the MC USA that was founded in 2002.
At some point, MC USA will need a confessional update, whether minimal or extensive. If it decides to start fresh, as the MC and GC denominations did before the decade-long process of writing the 1995 Confession, the writers could be directed to produce a much shorter document — one that focuses on core beliefs and that fulfills the 1995 Confession’s stated purpose to “build a foundation for unity.”
There’s a precedent for this. Mennonite World Conference’s 2006 “Shared Convictions” statement is not a Confession of Faith, but it reads like one. In a little over 300 words, it covers seven topics: God, Jesus, the church, the Bible, peace, the Lord’s Supper and witness to the world. By sticking to core beliefs, it is both unifying and honest. It fulfills the descriptive and prescriptive functions of a good Confession.