Debates in the Western church about same-sex marriage and gender identity may appear irrelevant to some parts of the global church.
Yes, our issues are frequently different. But an outsider’s view is often more perceptive than an insider’s.
Our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia and Latin America are just as worthy and able to engage the most difficult issues facing partner churches as us from the West. To suppose otherwise is either ignorant or arrogant.
We in the West do not hesitate to enter the international dialogue when the subject is “insider movements to Jesus” (Muslim disciples of Jesus), polygamy or “religious rights in China.” In the right spirit, that’s good.
Now it’s our turn. We need the global church.
Significant parts of the North American Anabaptist community face what is arguably the greatest crisis of our identity since the “old order” and “new order” divisions in the Amish and Mennonite communities of the 1860s and thereafter. Our decisions will impact Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches everywhere.
The global church could help us.
There are many moves afoot to “fix” the church with structural adjustments. “Let’s give ourselves a little more distance from each other,” some think, “so more of us might agree to disagree and still remain in one body.” Or “let’s create entirely new bodies to find new empowerment with new identities.”
Maybe that’s the best we can do. But we should try to do better.
What if we were to empower a few key North American spiritual leaders to invite the shared discernment of a few seasoned peers from major Anabaptist groups in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe? Transparently. Face-to-face. For a few days, not a few hours. To talk about how to be a faithful church in the face of this specific crisis.
We might be surprised at the wisdom we find.
Then, what if every North American Anabaptist body would, with its best scholars, give public, clear steps of direction? Not that our national leaders would need to agree with each other, but they would lead. Invite the churches to respond to leadership, rather than vice versa. Empower leaders to lead with spiritual and intellectual substance. Rearranging ecclesiastical Lego pieces could take second place.
Perhaps at the end of the day there would still be only one Mennonite Church USA or Mennonite Church Canada (or name your group), but each could be at peace with clear direction. Perhaps there would be strong new groups to shepherd rather than the fragmentation we increasingly witness. But we all might be more stable, healthy and connected than we are today, and Anabaptist affinities would be stronger.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Without a shift in current trends, even the affinities of Mennonite World Conference, as well as those of North American Mennonites, will be strained.
Can we be that transparent? Invitational? Global? Disposed to listen? Inclined to lead? I hope so.
I will not dare speak for the Anabaptists of Africa, Asia, Latin America or Europe. But they could help us.
I cannot speak for North American Anabaptist leaders. But now is a time for leaders to lead.
Otherwise, our lingering North American ethnicity, mixed with growing theological diversity, threatens to cripple us. Let’s find heaven’s help, and let “leaders take the lead,” as Deborah and Barak sang in joy long ago (Judges 5:2).
Richard Showalter, of Landisville, Pa., is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission.