The announcements of congregational withdrawals from Mennonite Church USA and the subsequent formation of new affiliations have generated considerable anxiety in the church at large. But a similar process of separation and realignment has been taking place in various parts of the Mennonite church for a long time.
In 1963 several congregations in Virginia Mennonite Conference formed the Middle District as a home for other congregations who shared their concerns about modernizing trends in the Mennonite Church. Initially, it remained within Virginia Conference. But when the conference revised its “Rules and Discipline” in 1970, disagreements over church practices prompted the 12 congregations in the Middle District to form a group called the Southeastern Mennonite Conference. In 1995 several congregations in Georgia and South Carolina established a sister conference, the South Atlantic Mennonite Conference.
These two groups have collaborated in mission projects in Puerto Rico, a publishing house, Christian Light Publications in Harrisonburg, Va., and a conference periodical, Life Lines. Now in its 43rd volume year, Life Lines appears six times a year as the official publication of the Southeastern and South Atlantic Mennonite conferences.
Like all church periodicals, Life Lines reflects the priorities and character of the group it serves. The black-and-white format of each 12-page issue — bearing the logo on its cover of a Bible with the words “holding forth the word of life” — is simple, even austere. Issues begin with a short devotional by an editorial team member, followed by several articles, usually focused on a distinctive doctrine, a Christian virtue or a topic related to the authority of Scripture or the church.
A recent issue had an essay on “Biblical Inspiration and Authority,” an article on “critical evidence” in Christian witness, a report on the ordination of a new pastor by lot in a South Atlantic congregation and a reflection on “the role of sisters,” which wrestled with how Scripture seems both to call on women to be silent in the church and to suggest that women are permitted to pray and prophesy. The anonymous writer noted a shared concern “that we avoid going down the path of the mainstream Mennonite church.” But he also worried that in the past 50 years “we have moved in the other direction, toward less public involvement [of women]” and raised doubts about an interpretation that would silence women in the church altogether. The issue also noted that the last Southeastern Mennonite Conference annual assembly addressed issues related to observance of the Lord’s Day, Internet use and “the conference position on requiring intensive counseling.”
Writers often refer to “Anabaptist teachings” as the standard for doctrine and practice. The current issue admonishes readers, contrary to what may be their deepest inclinations, to thank God for President Obama because “he occupies a position of authority that was put in place by God himself” and “because the Bible . . . commands us to.”
Each back cover includes notes on births, deaths, marriages, baptisms, new members and other information.
Although the essays in Life Lines are generally confident and assertive, reading between the lines makes it clear that the challenges of defining identity that prompted the Southeastern and the South Atlantic Mennonite conferences to form have not disappeared.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.