Confessions of Faith stand in an awkward spot between ideals and realities. They say “we believe” when in fact not everyone believes the same thing. And so the writers of Confessions face a choice: They can prescribe or describe. They can tell us what we ought to do, or say what we actually do.
U.S. Mennonite Brethren are making a prescriptive-versus-descriptive decision as they consider revising their Confession’s article on peace. The current document prescribes: “In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible.” The proposed revision describes: “As in other peace churches, many of us choose not to participate in the military but rather in alternative forms of service.”
The overall revision makes some improvements, but on this point it takes a step backward. A peace church’s witness is diminished when it no longer directs its members not to join the armed forces. Since conscription is unlikely ever to return, it is virtually meaningless to say that “many of us choose not to participate in the military.” One could say the same of the entire U.S. population.
The Mennonite Church USA Confession takes a stand: “As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war or participate in war or military service.” This is what a peace church should teach, though not everyone follows it.
The proposed MB revision attempts to solve a hard problem: If a Confession declares something that few members believe, it loses credibility. The MC USA statement works because it describes the majority position. But if a church’s peace stance has eroded, there may come a time when it is no longer honest to say, “this we believe.” The MB Board of Faith and Life hopes the revision will revive the teaching of peace by restoring unity on an issue of “longstanding ambivalence” (see page 3).
Yet one should not overstate a Confession’s importance. Just as there is more to being a peacemaker than not going to war, there is more to being a Christian than affirming a list of beliefs. In fact, some faith traditions do quite well without such a document. Other peace churches, the Quakers and the Church of the Brethren, claim they don’t need to profess a creed but simply try to follow Christ as revealed in Scripture. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these denominations are much less divided than Mennonites. The more a church defines the details of theological and behavioral correctness, the more it builds walls between people who share the same essential faith.
Mennonites, too, are considered noncreedal because we do not give our Confessions the level of authority that mainline Protestants traditionally give theirs. The MC USA Confession describes itself as a guide for teaching and nurture. A statement about faith is not a substitute for a life of faith. Nor is it a tool for requiring uniformity of belief.
What does a declaration of faith need to say about peace? The 2006 Mennonite World Conference Statement of Shared Convictions offers a good example of painting with broad strokes. Peacemakers, it says, “renounce violence, love our enemies, seek justice and share our possessions with those in need.” All the specifics of peace flow from these principles.