As a child I remember my mom being concerned about the Mennonite church. It was losing its identity. Mennonites were becoming less different from the world in the ways they dressed and thought. What looks like a shift in the right direction to one person looks like a loss of faith to another.
In the midst of her fretting she remained accepting of outsiders. The family across the road were part of the Evangelical Mennonite Church, a church that Mom lamented had lost their nonresistance stance and wore fancy hats instead of coverings. They were still good neighbors. Catholics were a little more suspect. They played bingo in the church basement. Then my aunt moved next door to a nice Catholic family. Having a face on those bingo players made a big difference.
The believers in Jerusalem were concerned about the direction of the Jesus movement. First Phillip goes into Samaria. If that’s not enough, Peter ends up mingling with Gentiles. Next thing you know we will all be eating pork. When community protocol changes, fear is understandable. New directions aren’t always life-giving. Remember how Samuel warned about having a king and no one listened? How often have God’s people misconstrued their calling?
Peter reports he had a vision inviting him to partake of unclean food. Like a good Jew, he refuses. The vision left him puzzled. Unexpected messengers from Cornelius, a Gentile and an outsider, arrive at his gate. Peter does the unacceptable and goes to a Gentile’s home. He realizes God is at work in a new way. The vision makes sense. God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34). Having a face on those Gentiles makes a big difference.
When the church is shifting, anxiety is understandable. We look to the Bible for answers, but we are humbly aware our reading can be flavored by biases. The movie Twelve Years a Slave reminds us how easy it is to fall prey to surrounding assumptions. We see Christians using Scripture to keep slaves subservient. Where were the slave owners who sensed a new direction, who could see that in the eyes of God black and white are the same?
It’s easy to distance ourselves from those who see church differently. They become faceless. We don’t visit them as Peter did Cornelius. We forget they too desire to be faithful.
In Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Richard Mouw writes of the 17th-century Puritan and Quaker debates. Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote a pamphlet calling Quakers “drunkards, swearers, whoremongers and sensual wretches.” Quaker James Naylor felt compelled “by the Spirit of Jesus Christ” to respond. He characterized his Puritan opponent as a “Serpent,” a “Liar,” “a Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite” and a “Dumb Dog.”
In the midst of church conflict, we like to think we aren’t like Baxter and Naylor. The blogosphere makes insulting easier. How do we connect with distant faceless people? Do institutional ties enable us to walk with one another? Can we carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) across conference borders? What happens if a group becomes mere sinful bingo players instead of neighbors?
I thought it would never happen. I’m starting to be like my mother and worry about the Mennonite church. I worry we’ve become too divided. Some days I think there are Peters among us with puzzling visions. With face-to-face visits from unexpected outsiders, these visions will make sense. Some days I think we will be surprised by grace.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.