Loosening the ties that bind might solve some of Mennonite Church USA’s problems. But what the church needs most is to agree on two things: Unity is not uniformity, and accountability should be relational, not punitive.
Agreeing on these points requires a vision that is bigger than keeping everyone’s disagreements at a safe distance. It means respecting each other’s decisions. It means recognizing the integrity of each other’s beliefs. It means loving with the perfect love that drives out fear and suspicion.
The stakes are high as a committee begins exploring new structures for MC USA. Tensions over such issues as the credentialing of a pastor in a same-sex relationship may force major changes in an effort to keep MC USA’s 12-year-old coalition from falling apart.
Ironically, conservatives and progressives alike might prefer a looser relationship, one better defined as a network than a denomination. For progressives, it would ensure local freedom to make decisions without fear of censure. For conservatives, it might ease the sense of guilt by association when actions in another conference are perceived as unfaithful to Scripture and to church covenants.
But, as executive director Ervin Stutzman has said, structure must follow vision. MC USA needs a vision for repairing its frayed relationships. In fact, one has already been written. A statement passed unanimously by Central District Conference delegates in June defines unity and accountability in ways that show a positive way forward.
On unity, the statement says: “We believe that Christian unity is not ours to create but is a gift from God already given. . . . We are aware of our human tendency instead to seek uniformity of belief and practice through the setting of boundaries and the creation of rules.”
How would we relate to each other if we saw unity as already present and God-given rather than as something to achieve by insisting that dissent on a specific issue is intolerable?
On accountability, the statement says: “We believe that the answers we seek are best found in dialogue and mutual discernment rather than denunciation and separation. . . . We believe that a strength of our denomination has been its understanding of accountability as being relational rather than punitive.”
How would we relate to each other if we recognized that Christian accountability is a relationship of growing in faith and of seeking God’s will together rather than a license to punish or to walk away if we disagree?
This is a twofold vision for MC USA: Relational rather than punitive accountability, and a spirit of unity rather than enforced uniformity. Can MC USA see it? It is a vision of extending grace to each other and saying: “I know you want be faithful, just as I do. I will follow where I believe the Spirit leads; you will do the same, and God will judge. We are in this together.” Then all will see that we have accepted Christ’s gift of peace within our own household of faith. This peace is not as the world gives, and it is already in our hands.