A July 13, 1995, editorial in this newspaper asked what kind of unity the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church might be able to achieve. A merger was being considered. This would accomplish structural unity. But was that all it would do? Would the unity also be spiritual?
“Mennonites today are at risk of spiritual disunity,” the editorial stated. “If this risk becomes reality, we could find ourselves in the ironic and destructive position of creating a structural merger on a foundation of weakening spiritual unity.”
In 2015, members of Mennonite Church USA are wondering whether this is exactly what happened.
Structural unity emerged from decisions made in the summer of 1995 in Wichita, Kan., and six years later in Nashville, Tenn. But spiritual unity? As conflict looms over the Kansas City, Mo., convention beginning June 30, both spiritual and structural unity are in doubt.
What was true 20 years ago remains true today: Structural unity can’t succeed without spiritual unity.
We believe that MC USA — like the GC and MC denominations of 20 years ago — has enough spiritual unity to make structural unity work. But the forces pulling the church apart have grown stronger. Members of MC USA will have to work harder than ever to preserve spiritual unity.
This kind of unity does not require agreement on contentious issues. It depends on acceptance: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Rom. 15:7). It depends on love, “which binds all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:14). It depends on being “like-minded,” which Phil. 2:2 defines as “having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”
When it is hard to feel joined in spirit and purpose with each other, our unity with Christ and in Christ must come first. Our unity with other believers has a chance to grow from that.
Various scriptures describe Christ and the believer as “in” each other — a spiritually mysterious union. In 1 Cor. 1:10-13, after Paul urges “that there may be no divisions among you,” he asks: “Is Christ divided?” He implies that the answer is “no.”
Paul’s question is disarmingly simple. Far too simple, it would appear, to solve any complicated issue of biblical interpretation or church polity that is tearing the church apart. But in these final days before the Kansas City convention, a simple question might be exactly what everyone needs.
Leaders of MC USA are asking members to pray for the church in these crucial days. At a recent gathering in Hesston, Kan., to pray for the denomination, John C. Murray, pastor of Hesston Mennonite Church and co-chair of the Kansas City convention prayer team, said, “We believe the most important yet often neglected preparation is prayer.”
If we want spiritual unity, we will have to pray for it. And if prayer is listening as well as speaking, it might begin with a question: “Is Christ divided?”