At the South Central Mennonite Conference annual meeting July 24 in Hesston, Kan., the chair gave instructions that raised a theological question.
Be indifferent to your own opinions, he said. Only seek God’s will.
The matter at hand was whether to dissolve the conference. The rationale was to avoid winners and losers — to give every congregation a clean slate to decide whether to remain a part of Mennonite Church USA.
In the end, delegates decided not to dissolve the conference. In a separate vote, they decided not to withdraw from the denomination.
The instruction for delegates lingered in my mind because it was not just a passing comment but emphasized repeatedly: What you desire is not important. You need to find out what God wants.
Is this good advice for Christian discernment? Is it even possible?
It sounds good in some ways. We all want to do God’s will. Perhaps the most admirable form of obedience is to submit humbly when our desires point in a different direction. God may indeed ask hard things of us. Jesus set the example: “Not my will, but thine” (Luke 22:42, King James Version).
Sometimes this is a good way to make a decision. But not always.
It implies there is only one right answer. But not every question has only one right answer.
Further, on some questions, it might not matter to God what we decide.
I believe “Should we be a part of MC USA?” is not a question we should expect God to answer.
It is a human organizational question — an important one, to be sure, but not one that is subject to a divine verdict.
As a rule, discerning God’s will is what the church should do. We search our hearts and try to purge selfish motives. We pray for wisdom, both divine and human.
The search for God’s will leans heavily upon the wisdom that comes from human minds and hearts shaped by the community of faith. Anabaptists believe that through prayer, studying Scripture together and listening to each other, human wisdom moves toward conformity with divine wisdom.
The advice to be indifferent to our own desires prompts a question: Is it possible God wants me to belong to a church in which I feel miserable or stuck in conflict?
I suppose it is possible. But it seems much more likely that God wants each of us to belong to a church that gives us joy, a church whose people we love, whose mission inspires us.
These criteria involve judgments about our feelings, beliefs and opinions. These should be vital considerations, not matters of indifference, when discerning church affiliation.
Most of us congregate with like- minded people. Yet many also see benefits in theological diversity. Even in an era of polarization, some of us are moderate or hold opinions that don’t fit neatly into an ideological box.
Some may be content to remain in churches that frustrate them, because they love the people. Others feel compelled to leave because disagreements have sucked the joy out of church life.
Each can find their place within God’s purposes. All of us, with our flaws, make up the body of Christ. With our gifts, the whole becomes much more than the sum of the parts.
Though we seek unity, we should not be surprised or disturbed when people hear God saying different things.
The fact that South Central Conference delegates split almost 50-50 on whether to withdraw from MC USA doesn’t mean half of them failed to discern God’s will. Or that half selfishly failed to become indifferent to their own desires.
It means South Central is a faith community with a difficult, but not unique, challenge of sorting out its diversity.
We might compare the question “What church should I belong to?” to asking whether it is God’s will to marry a certain person.
Many people have prayed this prayer. Few were indifferent to their own desires. And rightly so.
One can imagine God responding with questions in return: Do you love this person? Do you believe you will always love him or her? Do you want to be together for the rest of your life?
If the answers are yes, God might say you have answered the question for yourself.
“What denomination should I belong to?” seems like a similar question.
Should I be a Methodist or a Mennonite? In or out of MC USA? God has faithful servants in all of these places. Each of us should find the community of faith that we love. We should make our choice and follow Jesus there.
We should still pray about important decisions. Maybe we will hear God’s voice clearly. Some of us are better than others at perceiving divine guidance.
Even if we don’t pick up a clear signal, the very fact that we prayed, that we yearned to do God’s will, can set us on a path toward God’s preferred future.
Because, as Jeremiah 29:11 says, God has plans for us. Just not an exact blueprint.