We are preparing as a denomination to assemble for Kansas City 2015. We will gather as a diverse body for a time of discernment. Already our congregations and conferences have been involved in surveys and conversations. Particularly challenging have been discussions about the church and same-sex relationships. How might we prepare ourselves to assemble and discern in as positive and hopeful a way as possible? How might we stay together, as congregations, as conferences and as a denomination called Mennonite Church USA, given our diversity? My hope is to make a small contribution to this time of local and national discernment.
The church is called to follow Christ in life.
To do so, followers of Jesus make decisions about how to participate in God’s creation-wide reconciling work.
As we decide and participate, we face a major challenge: How will we be God’s people together when we have a variety of opinions on the issues of the day? How will we be brothers and sisters to each other and mission partners with God in our diversity?
A first step toward addressing this question is to recognize that diversity is not merely something between Christians; it is also something within Christians. That is, the pursuit of biblical faithfulness can pull an individual believer in more than one direction at the same time. These forces exist in legitimate and creative tension.
The Scriptures themselves describe these tensions.
For example, the Bible describes God as one who forms a distinct people to partner in calling all people. God’s covenant community has a distinctive identity for an inclusive mission. Both being a distinctive people and an including people have biblical integrity, yet these identifiers can pull in different directions; these descriptors stand in some tension with each other.
How can we be specialized unto God and widely welcoming at the same time? Jesus himself disclosed this tension when he said his followers are in the world but not of the world, yet ultimately for the world.
We can briefly mention a pair of texts that reflect these forces that pull in different directions.
First, in Isaiah 19:18-25, the prophet provides a glimpse of God’s approaching future.
He foresees the following things happening in Egypt: Speaking in Hebrew, Egyptians swearing allegiance to the LORD and worship centers for the God of Israel. That these things are happening in Egypt is especially striking because Egypt is the place of Israel’s former enslavement. Isaiah says, “The LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians [as Egyptians], and the Egyptians will know the LORD.”
Moreover, Isaiah envisions a road between Egypt and Assyria, the other “superpower” of that day, and Egypt’s archenemy. Israel was the tiny buffer state in between. On this road, the enemies won’t travel for battle but for worship in each other’s territory.
The prophet says, “On that day, Israel will be the third along with Egypt and Assyria. And the LORD will say, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’”
That’s like saying, “Blessed be Iran my people and North Korea the work of my hands and America my heritage.”
The inclusiveness of this passage is astonishing as the prophet imagines for us a road. The text has a connective outlook akin to Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) and discloses an authentic impulse of discipleship, namely, welcoming.
The second passage is 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.
Here the pull is opposite; while the Isaiah text promotes inclusiveness, this text promotes distinctiveness, specifically clear definition for God’s people by means of difference and separation. If Isaiah envisioned a road, this text is like a fence. 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 discloses another component of authentic discipleship, namely, boundary setting.
While there is some tension between these forces, distinction and inclusion are complimentary aspects of God’s mission and being God’s mission partner.
My experience has been that when our churches, conferences and denomination engage a challenging question of the day, we always hear some voices that incline toward distinction and other voices that incline towards inclusion.
In fact, two major components of our Mennonite Church USA discourse in recent years are related to these complimentary forces: The impulse toward maintaining Anabaptist distinctives and the impulse toward being a welcoming church.
Both “pulls” are good and right, and both are reflected in the Scriptures.
Fences give definition, order, clarity, focus. Roads allow freedom, connection, space, movement.
Since almost any physical landscape that has one has the other also, it shouldn’t surprise us that complete spiritual landscapes have both roads and fences.
Some years ago, a church discovered it had a homeless person living in its building. There had been no harm to the facility or threat to any person. The church simply discovered a tenant people hadn’t known about. And that presented a challenge. So the church held a meeting on what to do about the unexpected resident.
As the discussion proceeded, some people mentioned caring and reaching out and including.
Other people spoke about policy and precedent, liability and legality and safety; that is, voices about what are the appropriate boundaries. Moreover, in a few cases, there were road and fence comments that came from the same individual. The road and the fence are helpful perspectives that emerge in situations of discernment, and those defining impulses are not only among us but within us.
In other discernment situations, I have observed people who consider themselves champions of the road, that is, champions of openness and making the church accepting to everybody. And I have watched these good people get humbled when somebody like a registered sex offender decides to attend their church.
These champions of the road suddenly discover they have a healthy portion of fence in them they didn’t realize they had. It is indeed humbling to discover that, or the reverse, about yourself. Even the most inclusive Christian sets boundaries somewhere, and even the most boundary-conscious Christian is open somewhere. Both forces are in our Scriptures and in us.
To sum up, diversity on issues is not only among us but within us.
Opposite pulls, like being distinct for inclusion, operate in us as a good tension that generates authentic discipleship and missional engagement.
As we gather at KC 2015, we assemble as a discerning people and a diverse people.
I encourage us to be respectful and patient with one another because everybody’s a road and a fence; everybody’s open somewhere, and everybody sets limits somewhere.
The “where” will differ from one person to the next, but the fact of the road and the fence, among and within us is common ground.
Dave Stevens is Pastor of Hope Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan. He is married to Carole, a registered dietician. They have two adult daughters and one grandchild.