This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Opinion: Why Lancaster Conference left

Since leaders and writers from outside Lancaster Mennonite Conference have offered their perspectives on why LMC withdrew from Mennonite Church USA, I will add my voice. I was part of LMC when we decided to join but not when it decided to leave.

I was president of Eastern Mennonite Missions, the mission arm of LMC, from 1994 to 2011. During these 17 years, MC USA was born, and LMC became a member of it in 2004.

Though my ministerial credentials were moved in 2012 back to Conservative Mennonite Conference, from which I had come in 1994, I continue to maintain close relationships within both LMC and MC USA.

I believe LMC left MC USA for these reasons:

To pursue a different unity than MC USA seemed to own. For nearly 500 years, the Anabaptist trajectory has been quintessentially evangelical. Not evangelical in a narrow “God-and-country” sense but evangelical in its twin embrace of the Great Commission (“Go make disciples”) and the Sermon on the Mount (“Enter by the narrow gate”).

The 16th-century Anabaptists were key progenitors of Western, and now global, evangelicalism. LMC has a long history of evangelical Anabaptism, and it did not want to diminish that heritage in favor of what it felt to be other-than-evangelical, and other-than-Anabaptist, options.

For the sake of its apostolic unity. LMC missionaries have traveled the globe for a century, planting circles of churches and serving holistically in the name of Christ in many cultures. In LMC, the apostolic bonds — that is, the spiritual bonds — with those groups are as strong as the ethnic ties that connect many North American Anabaptists. North American Anabaptist unity is more, indeed, than mere Swiss/German/Dutch/Russian ethnicity.

Yet this ethnicity has constricted as well as enriched Mennonite unity. LMC’s apostolic unity is with U.S. and international circles of churches — two of them much larger than LMC — that are arguably even more evangelical and Anabaptist than LMC itself.

For the sake of its traditional unity. After the two major actions of MC USA delegates at Kansas City in 2015 — one offering forbearance of diverse views on same-sex marriage, the other reaffirming the Membership Guidelines’ traditional stance — if LMC had tried to stay organizationally tied to MC USA, it would have splintered. Yes, a number of congregations did leave the conference after its decision, but by far the majority stayed, and a new door was opened to others. By leaving, LMC maintained its internal unity and opened the door to growing again, which it has.

For the sake of its unity with MC USA. LMC has never disowned a desire for fraternity with the whole body of Christ, including MC USA. It affirms fraternity (or sorority) for the sake of a robust, visionary kingdom life rather than a stifling organizational union for the sake of keeping a particular small family together in a way that is not fully owned by all.

MC USA will be stronger and healthier when LMC is stronger and healthier. And it appears that LMC, despite the pain of disengagement, is flourishing.

Entirely apart from LMC’s departure, MC USA faces the same question as LMC: Are we flourishing? I pray that MC USA also does. I am confident that, as it embraces our spiritual heritage, it will.

Provincial or visionary?

Two questions, then:

  • Was it a self-interested, self-righteous and provincial impulse that led LMC to leave MC USA?
  • Or, was it a visionary, obedient and loving response to the leading of the Holy Spirit, with the unity of the body of Christ in view?

I believe it was the latter.

Of course, being a “third-way” Anabaptist myself, I’m confident some of us will propose a third question. But if we do, let’s make it a really good one.

Perhaps this: What kind of unity is Jesus’ unity?

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.

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