This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Conservative Conference women hear apology

KIDRON, Ohio — Conservative Mennonite Conference leaders apologized for imposing “extrabiblical church traditions” on women during the denomination’s annual conference July 27-30 at Central Christian School.

“We the Executive Board, our Conference Minister, and Executive Director acknowledge that women have been affected by extrabiblical church traditions,” moderator Joe Byler read aloud as the text was projected on a screen. “We are sorry. We confess our sin and ask both God and our sisters to forgive us.

“We commit to shed mere cultural and traditional practices that have determined ‘a woman’s place’ and replace them with genuine biblical practices.”

From left, Jewel Showalter, Mim Musser, Courtney Shenk and Vicki Sairs stand while Musser reads aloud a statement from the four women on a panel discussion about women’s roles. — Rachel Stella/MWR
From left, Jewel Showalter, Mim Musser, Courtney Shenk and Vicki Sairs stand while Musser reads aloud a statement from the four women on a panel discussion about women’s roles. — Rachel Stella/MWR

CMC does not ordain women. In an interview, Byler said nothing had changed in CMC’s “complementarian” beliefs about women’s roles.

Complementarianism is the belief that women and men equally bear the image of God but have differing avenues of service in the church.

“The intent of this day was not to question or even open the subject of changing our complementarian view,” he said. “We on the executive level are not having any conversations about changing our position. The intent was to clarify that we are complementarian and this is why, and then invite churches to consider whether their practices are extrabiblical unnecessarily.”

The apology was read at the end of a seminar on the roles of women in the church. The seminar began with a historical overview of the church’s views on women’s roles, given by Jon Showalter, president of Rosedale Bible College.

“It’s quite clear that men didn’t consider women to be their equals,” Showalter said, noting that these views would have been common outside the church in their times.

The challenge for CMC, he said, is “to work very hard at distinguishing between what Scripture teaches and what we’ve inherited from a centuries-old patriarchy that is anything but Scriptural.”

The second part featured teaching on “a biblical case for complementarianism” by Roger Hazen, pastor of Pineview Mennonite Church in Vassar, Mich.

He presented teaching from Genesis on the creation of man and woman, and from New Testament instructions on women in the church.

“Discussions like this are necessary as attempts to apply the Word of God to real life. We cannot dismiss them as divisive . . . or say, ‘We should just focus on Jesus,’ ” Hazen said. “In Jesus’ teaching we find nothing that would overthrow the understanding of order found in Genesis 2.”

The final part of the seminar was a panel discussion on “maximizing the ministry contributions of women in a complementarian church.”

Mim Musser, prayer coordinator for Rosedale Mennonite Missions, shared that several women she had talked to felt like they weren’t listened to in church.

“These women aren’t saying they want to be ordained, but they love the church,” she said. “One woman said to me, ‘I don’t know if there’s a place for me to use my gifts in this conference.’ I’m burdened for these kinds of women, or for the single women who don’t have husbands or children — they feel like there isn’t a place for them to talk.”

Vicki Sairs, teacher and communications coordinator at Rosedale Bible College, gave an example of extrabiblical limitation when she talked about a female student who had been questioned in her home congregation about whether she should be co-leading worship.

“We really want to be obedient to Scripture, but I think we say, ‘There’s a line here, so to be really safe, let’s draw the line [farther back] here,’ ” she said.

Courtney Shenk, coordinator for the RMM REACH program, said: “I really don’t want this conversation to be about ‘women asserting their rights’ and ‘men are so horrible,’ because I don’t feel that way at all. I just want to be a part of things. Thinking about things like the covering and dress for women — having those decisions made for me felt like men deciding for women what should happen. Maybe we would have come to the same conclusions, but I would have loved to be part of those decisions.”

No change in position

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, Byler asked the members of the Executive Board to stand in affirmation of the statement and prayer of confession he read.

“We declare today that we will seek to follow your scriptural commands,” he prayed. “We ask your Spirit to guide us in empowering and releasing our sisters to minister in your church while being true to your Word.”

The women of the panel then stood while Musser read aloud a statement in response.

“We acknowledge that some of the ways you may have limited our ministries have nevertheless grown out of your sincere desire to follow God and honor his word,” she said. “We commit ourselves to study with you God-honoring ways to minister in each context where God calls us.”

In an Aug. 3 telephone interview, Musser said that after she had received a draft of Showalter’s talk on the historical views of women in the church, she felt there might be more the denomination could do in response. She gave Byler a call.

“As I talked with him, it felt like God had already been preparing him along the same lines,” she said. “He was already thinking about some sort of a statement. It’s a beautiful expression of God working in the two of us in a very similar way.”

Byler said he brought the idea of making a statement of confession to the Executive Board.

“Could we as a board make a simple statement that we heard this and we are sorry?” he said.

CMC’s Statement of Practice, adopted in 2007, reads, “To honor the principle of male headship, CMC reserves ministerial license and ordination for men.” Congregations may decide what roles they allow women to fill.

According to a 2016 survey of CMC members, 26.4 percent of respondents (48.2 percent of whom are women) support women preaching sermons; 16.6 percent support women as pastors and 8.1 percent support women as lead pastors.

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