What are we learning from interchurch relations that might help in our intrachurch relations? What are we learning from relationships with Lutherans and Pentecostals that can help us be church together in our own Mennonite community? This was the topic for an evening event hosted this spring by the Interchurch Relations Reference Group of Mennonite Church USA.
John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, shared what he described as a conversion experience when he was part of the Mennonite-Lutheran dialogue. “Before that I had never regarded divisions in the body of Christ as a serious problem,” he recounted.
Roth confessed that he had approached the dialogue with Lutherans initially as a way to vindicate Anabaptists and an opportunity to argue Mennonite perspectives on baptism, discipleship and peacemaking. What Roth discovered, however, was that entering into relationship and conversation with Lutherans not only reaffirmed the strengths of his own tradition but helped him see theological blind spots and deficits as well.
Anton Flores-Maisonet, founding member of the Alterna Community in LaGrange, Ga., highlighted the six streams of Christian spirituality that have been identified by Quaker writer Richard Foster: evangelical, holiness, social justice, contemplative, incarnational and charismatic. Each of these streams has valuable gifts in helping us live in faithfulness to Jesus. It is love, Flores-Maisonet said, that helps us cross borders, engage with others, see their gifts and acknowledge our need.
Eleanor Kreider, long-term mission worker, teacher and writer, said one of the shadow sides of our Mennonite tradition is that “we are so keen on being right.” She urged people to approach those with whom we differ in the church with a posture of openness, curiosity and careful listening, and to avoid using words that belittle or are dismissive.
Within the Anabaptist community, from plain to progressive, we share profound convictions about the centrality of Jesus, authentic Christian community and God’s reconciling mission. Some of the streams of Christian spirituality identified by Foster connect deeply with core Anabaptist convictions and practices. Other streams complement, and perhaps correct, our blind spots and deficits. Different parts of the Anabaptist community have dipped more deeply into one stream than another.
The apostle Paul repeatedly drew on the image of the body to talk about the church. Conversations about Christian unity have highlighted issues of structure, procedure and membership. Perhaps this is a concern that body parts stay connected. After all, an arm disconnected from the rest of the body can’t do much.
But beyond an external connection, there must be blood flow between body parts. Oxygen, nerve signals, hormones and nutrients must pass from one part of the body to the other. Often this kind of giving and receiving has been missing when relationships start to fray.
As Roth acknowledged, “It can be much easier to talk to Lutherans, Catholics or Pentecostals than to Mennonites down the street who have different convictions on the issues of the day.”
I find myself returning to the words of the hymn “Heart With Loving Heart United,” from the Moravian Brethren tradition. It is a challenge and a prayer: “Kindle in us love’s compassion so that everyone may see in our fellowship the promise of a new humanity.”
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and director of holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.