By Ervin Stutzman
Over the past several years, people from across Mennonite Church Canada have engaged in Biblical discernment regarding several important issues of the day. They call the process “Being a Faithful Church.” Currently, they’re receiving feedback from churches all across Canada regarding questions of human sexuality. I just received a report of the latest developments, which point toward an emerging consensus, with some areas for further discussion.
During a time of discernment in Mennonite Church USA, we might have something to learn from our sister church north of the 49th parallel. That is, we could imitate their interest in hearing from every congregation with a single goal in mind—to clarify where we are as congregations on matters that really matter.
It may be a bit too early to come to conclusions about the outcomes of their process, but I’d like to suggest that Mennonite Church USA pursue this unique opportunity. That is, to address the key questions facing our church while the situation is malleable and interest is high.
I’m fascinated by a note I received from Loren Johns, a professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, Ind.). He wrote: “This current situation has kicked up more interest in—and more intense discussion about—theology, ethics, and ecclesiology than I think I have ever seen in the Mennonite Church in my 59 years. Thanks be to God! I continue to think that these theological discussions in the church can be a wonderful gift to the church—an almost unparalleled opportunity . . . if we are able to approach these discussions with appropriate patience and love.”
Further, Loren urges us to take the opportunity to address the primary question: “How should the church respond ecclesiologically [in a churchly manner] to the theological diversity that has become more apparent recently?”
There are several theological or ecclesial issues at stake reflecting significant diversity, and we would do well to keep these issues somewhat separate, at least for purposes of clarification. There are five issues or values reflected in the Membership Guidelines that were adopted as a crucial step in forming Mennonite Church USA in 2001. These written agreements explain:
- The covenantal and voluntary nature of belonging in a diverse church
- The foundational vision and commitments expected of member area conferences and their congregations in Mennonite Church USA
- The multi-level polity for determining the criteria and process for membership in the church
- The theological position opposed to premarital, extramarital and same-gender sex
- The leadership polity forbidding pastors to perform same-gender covenant ceremonies
In light of the differing responses to these five matters across our church, I agree with Loren Johns, who noted that “It is important to consider if and how, or to what extent, our written agreements should be used to enforce uniformity.”
The Executive Board takes seriously its responsibility to encourage faithfulness to God at all levels of the church. Some groups within Mennonite Church USA have called for the expulsion of Mountain States Mennonite Conference following their approval of a congregation’s request to credential Theda Good, a woman in a committed same-sex relationship.
This raises profound questions about the way we exercise power and authority at the national level. Do we prefer to function like a “denomination” that enforces the agreements we have made together, or do we prefer to be a network or fellowship of churches who gather mostly for worship and fellowship? The Constituency Leaders Council recently pondered such questions, providing various perspectives for the Executive Board to consider.
The Purposeful Plan states that: “As Anabaptist Christians, we believe that congregations are the primary expression of God’s work in the world. Following the lead of other fellowships of faith, we have also organized ourselves at the level of area conferences and a national conference. We do not, however, see ourselves as a highly centralized denomination organized to regulate the life of conferences or congregations.”
How then shall Mennonite Church USA tend the relationships between congregations and area conferences when they take actions at variance with the written agreements reflected in the Membership Guidelines and other core documents? That is the question a Task Force of the Executive Board is addressing. Ultimately, the Executive Board will need to come back to the pastors and delegates of Mennonite Church USA to help answer that question, beginning with discernment in congregations and area conferences, and through discussion at the delegate assembly in Kansas City 2015. To send your thoughts to the Task Force via email, you can be in touch with Shelley Buller. I am grateful for your ongoing prayer for the church in this time of discernment, and for your prayerful responses to the questions we face.