Mennonite Church USA faces the pivotal question of what unites us and what divides. The dominant issue in our time is acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the church.
It’s a question of what constitutes the body of Christ: Regeneration and baptism into a redeeming community? Commonality of specific core beliefs? Agreement on ethical standards? Consent to organizational agreements and structures?
The New Testament confronts us with the proposition that belonging to the church of Jesus Christ depends on the confession that Jesus is Lord. Jesus established this norm in calling people to follow him. It involved no belief in a specific theory of the atonement, understanding of the Trinity or commitment to a certain biblical hermeneutic. Rather, it was a commitment to relationship with and obedience to Jesus.
We have exchanged this fundamental dynamic that unites for a set of opinions that divide. Front and center in the debates about the future of the denomination are the 1995 Confession of Faith and the 2001 Membership Guidelines. These are considered foundational and sacred.
The critical issue in all the discussion about these two documents relates to the statement in the Confession’s Article 19, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” Nearly all the emphasis is put on “between one man and one woman.” Many congregations and most all conferences are at variance with regard to “for life,” having found biblical reasons to accept divorced and remarried people.
The core question is: When does our disagreeing with someone else’s belief and practice interrupt our relationship with Jesus and our unity with other followers of Jesus Christ? Jesus calls us to be witnesses to him, not coercers of others. Moves to expel or to separate are tactics of coercion rather than witness. Does the ordination in another congregation or conference compromise my identity as a follower of Jesus Christ? Jesus warns us to be concerned about our own obedience rather than that of others.
In January, a group met in Hartville, Ohio, to create a new structure as an alternative to MC USA. While they articulated values of obedience to God, faithfulness to Jesus, transformation through the Holy Spirit and “embodiment of the Anabaptist tradition in our contemporary context,” the triggers for this event were the licensing of a pastor in Mountain States Mennonite Conference and Eastern Mennonite University’s re-examination of its hiring policy with regard to people in covenanted same-sex relationships.
This movement away from unity results from a difference of understanding about the interpretation of Scripture and the authority of denominational structures to impose discipline.
Lancaster Mennonite Conference (of which I am a member and which holds my credentials as a retired ordained minister) participated in this effort to create an alternative to membership in MC USA. The dynamics that push Lancaster in this direction are deeply imbedded in its history as a conference that has emphasized boundary setting and authority structures. Divisions in the past have occurred because of one faction’s belief that its interpretation trumps that of another’s and that purity or faithfulness requires separation.
There are forces within Lancaster today that insist that if Lancaster does not separate from MC USA, they will leave Lancaster. It’s a political cudgel.
Scripture suggests another way is possible: that we recognize our unity resides in our mutual confession that Jesus is Lord. Renewal and fruit-bearing result from having our life grounded in Jesus and his life flowing in and through us.
In Rom. 14:1-15:7, Paul seeks to keep the church together in spite of disagreement about important issues. He pleads for unity based on the mutual confession that Jesus is Lord rather than agreement on the ethical issues that divided them. Paul deals with these as “disputable issues.” He exhorted the Romans to mutual acceptance and attitude correction. The ones with stricter interpretation were not to judge those more liberal. Those with freer conscience were not to despise those more conservative. That kind of attitude shift would go a long way to pulling us back from the brink of schism.
Is it possible that even at this late date the momentum can shift and our rush toward division be turned back? From a human perspective it seems unlikely. But with renewed yieldedness to our Lord and openness to the Holy Spirit, it is not impossible.
God’s answer to our situation involves rethinking how we conceive being the church of Jesus Christ. We will have to eliminate the idea that my faithfulness involves coercing others to my point of view. We need to learn respect for those with whom we disagree and to love them. We need to understand that my purity is not determined by what a congregation or a conference across the continent or across the country does. My faithfulness is manifest in how I follow Christ and in the integrity and power of my witness to Jesus. The confession that Jesus is Lord brings us together.
John M. Miller, of Leola, Pa., served with his wife, Doris, as a missionary in Mexico and taught missions and social ethics in seminaries. He is a member of Stumptown Mennonite Church.