What do Mennonites say when Lutherans ask whether we see them as fully part of the body of Christ? The question was posed during informal conversations at the edge of meetings in recent years. The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board addressed this question in a letter sent recently by Ervin Stutzman on the board’s behalf to Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The letter states:
“At first the question surprised us, but given our historic differences related to the central matters of baptism and warfare, we came to understand this as a genuine and important question that requires an answer. We are painfully aware that the body of Christ is fractured and deeply compromised. Each of our traditions, with their graces and gifts, also bears wounds, brokenness and sin. We want to affirm that we see Christ in you, that we regard you as brothers and sisters, and that we are on a journey together seeking to be faithful to Jesus. We want to affirm that though the body of Christ is fractured, compromised and broken, we are deeply grateful to find our place in that body together with you, our Lutheran brothers and sisters.”
When Lutherans first posed these questions, it was decided not to send a quick and easy response. Theologians John Rempel, Tom Finger and others offered input and helped with the drafting. Finger was part of the 2002-04 ELCA-MC USA dialogue. John Rempel is currently part of a three-way dialogue with Lutherans and Catholics, on behalf of Mennonite World Conference.
The letter also celebrates the “powerful expressions of apology, forgiveness and reconciliation” that have taken place between Lutherans and Mennonites in the past decade. The letter of greeting and Christian fellowship is a bit of a summary of a dozen years of formal relationship between MC USA and the ELCA.
The board reflects on how the Lutheran apology has caused Mennonites to ask “where we need to apologize and seek repentance, both in relation to Lutherans and to others.” The board continues: “We regret and confess the sinfulness of the ways in which we and our Anabaptist ancestors have sometimes misrepresented Lutherans and Lutheran practices. . . We have sometimes been tempted to tell the best of our story while telling the worst of your story.”
The letter does not gloss over areas of continuing disagreement between Lutherans and Mennonites. “We believe that in listening and speaking carefully, in giving and receiving counsel, in studying Scripture and entering into prayer together, Jesus will be present to us and God will lead us to greater faithfulness to our common Lord and Savior.” The letter expresses openness to further conversation about Jesus’ way of peace and affirms a three-way conversation about baptism being conducted by the Vatican, Mennonite World Conference, and the Lutheran World Federation.
In a response received a few weeks later, Bishop Eaton expressed gratitude for the remarkable process of reconciliation that has taken place and hope for continued conversation.
Mennonites have often struggled mightily with differences and conflicts among us. In our interchurch relationships we are learning to practice humility, care, honesty and patience as we find ourselves on a shared journey with others seeking to follow Jesus. How can these practices help us presently as we work at differences among us?
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.