Finding A Third Way?

By Ervin Stutzman

Ervin Stutzman is executive director of Mennonite Church USA

We live in a world of hyper partisanship. Statisticians indicate that the United States Congress votes more consistently along party lines now than at any other time since the Civil War. Yet I am not convinced that most of the good ideas reside on one side or another of the congressional aisle.

For one thing, partisan politicians generally compare the best of their own accomplishments or ideas with the worst of their opponents’. And they work hard to please the partisan voter who elected them, often because of strong convictions regarding the issues at hand.

Still, I’m confident that if leaders from different political parties would combine their energy and intellectual capacity to govern this country in a more cooperative manner, the average citizen would be far better off. Even the thorniest of issues like the broken immigration system might be solved in this way. Meanwhile, a lot of people suffer.

Unfortunately, our church too often reflects the nation’s ideological divides. This poses a leadership challenge; pastors have told me that national election season is one of the most challenging times for them to preach. They feel like they’re walking a tightrope, fearing they will unduly offend their parishioners’ political sensibilities.

One of the reasons why the current church debate on human sexuality is so divisive, particularly regarding same-sex marriage, is because it is a political “hot button” in our nation. Rapid changes on the societal front present significant challenges for the church. However, in the church, we must be vigilant lest any social issue, even same-sex marriage, distract our attention from a larger question: How will we live together as a community of God’s people committed to God’s mission in the world? Answering that question can help to bring clarity to the pastoral and missional concerns which help us carry out our ministry to people in any kind of social situation.

We know from long experience that thoughtful, sincere, respectable and Spirit-filled people may disagree on social and political issues. At the moment, the ones getting the most attention on the national scene are abortion, gun control, immigration laws, health care, the scope and role of the federal government, the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and same-sex marriage. Given the way that many of us participate in the national political process, it is both predictable and somewhat shameful that we import these differences into the heart of our church.

I confess that I cannot imagine Jesus as a fiery advocate for the political approach on either side of many of these social issues. I believe he would be more likely to confront the rhetorical tone and many of the presuppositions and actions of all the parties in many of these public debates.

It’s not that we shouldn’t have spirited debates, even heated ones. I wouldn’t trade the democratic process in our nation’s capital for that of any other nation in the world. But the hyper partisan environment diminishes its effectiveness. Particularly in such polarized times, no political party deserves our highest loyalty, which rightly belongs to God and to God’s kingdom community, the church.

I pray with hope that we can find a third way in Mennonite Church USA. We need not be divided by a party spirit, so that one side or the other must win. Rather, we must seek for shared values and norms for Christian living that benefit our whole community. As Anabaptists, we must find our most pressing common cause in our covenant commitment to follow Jesus. That’s why the Purposeful Plan for Mennonite Church USA asserts that as a church, we will emphasize common vision rather than divisive issues. (p. 15, February 2014).

I’ve worked for years on leadership teams with people who have very different gifting, personalities and motivations. Some are introverts, others are extroverts. Some are cautious, others readily take risks. Some shun noisy crowds; others love interaction with large groups. Sometimes we have very different convictions about the best way to approach a particular social situation. You get the picture.

At times those differences mean that we disagree strongly on the way to proceed on a certain project, or how to go about making a decision. Although the process of cooperation may at times yield a grudging compromise, it can also result in an energizing synergy. Compromise implies giving up something for the sake of the other, resulting in less than what each would have hoped. Synergy implies something better and greater than each would have hoped for. It’s a win-win situation for all parties who have come together to form an alliance.

On my most hopeful days as executive director of Mennonite Church USA, I dream of a synergy between conservatives and progressives in the church. I know from experience how much both perspectives have to offer in fulfilling God’s mission in the world. I do not expect that a third way will bring all to agreement on divisive topics. But I live with the hope that we can find the synergy to write a covenant that captures our heartfelt commitment to be a grace-filled and loving community of God’s people, committed to God’s mission in the world. That’s what I mean when I speak of a “third way” in the midst of our current debate.

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22 thoughts on “Finding A Third Way?

  1. How exactly can there be a “third way” when one side wants to explicitly deny the humanity of their brothers and sisters in God? What does that path look like?
    The “problem” of LGBT inclusion in the church is not a problem at all, but a mandate. This must happen, or the church itself will forfeit any claim that it has to speak on behalf of its people–many of whom are crying out for inclusion, and being met with this anemic mewing.
    Don’t be afraid of conflict, Ervin. That’s how the Mennonite Church got it’s start, after all. But, neither should you stick to orthodoxy here. Instead of shaming people who are asking for help and love, try listening first. If you still insist on this morally bankrupt equivocation, at least the rest of us will know which way the exits are.

    1. I always find it interesting when people in “high places” within the Mennonite Church refer to our “man made” documents, instead of God’s Word. The Mennonite Church is on a downward slippery slope as it agrees with sin more and more every day. I also would call you to be the Berean and check out the Scriptures on these subjects that seem to be devisive in the church. Why? Because they should divide the true believers from the goats! Listen to the link above and consider what it means to be a lukewarm church. Hot and Cold and the “third way”.

  2. Sorry; but I don’t think this is an issue between conservatives and progressives; this is an issue of right and wrong. I don’t think of myself as conservative; but when wrong is wrong, I can’t bless it.

  3. I think Jesus would get pretty fiery in the political debates on social and economic issues. I wouldn’t consider calling people “vipers,” and saying that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.” as mild rhetoric. I wouldn’t call driving the supporters of the domination system out of the temple, treating both sides equally. I wouldn’t call Matthew 25 not taking sides on the issue of helping the poor and disenfranchised.

  4. Zack’s comment indicates that he MUST win. It well illustrates the dilemma Ervin identifies. Orthodoxy and Biblical tradition are dumped by social activism in the name of radical individualism. Wow.

  5. Ervin, I’ve appreciated your past warnings against importing partisan arguments into the church. Though I may be wrong, I seem to recall you framed those warnings in terms of identities: do we engage in debates within the church as Rs and Ds, or as brothers and sisters who derive our primary political identities from an entity other than the USA? For example, when you used the analogy of a bus in your speech to Lancaster Mennonite Conference a few years ago, I don’t recall you saying we all should try to stand in the center aisle; you urged us to ride a different bus!

    But this piece is framed differently; it suggests that if we emphasize shared values and norms, we can reach consensus as Rs and Ds. That is thoroughly unconvincing and suggests you need some new sources for your political reading. Remember: “abortion, gun control, immigration laws, health care, the scope and role of the federal government, the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and same-sex marriage” are hyped and manipulated to keep people yelling at one another. That’s the way the game is to be played so that we don’t pay attention to the amazing consensus in Washington in support of imperial expansion, federal surveillance of the people, enrichment of the 1 percent, the entrenchment of incumbent politicians and the impoverishment of our public sector.

    Don’t go soft on us now, Ervin.

  6. Let’s just cast sacred lots and be done with it. I’m only slightly kidding here.

  7. From Joanna Harader: “There is a place for synergy–and even compromise–when it comes to many of the questions we face as churches. But if we are talking about compromise, we are talking about something different from the third way. The third way is for people who have no power to negotiate a compromise or participate in the decision-making synergy.”

    The rest of her piece is here: http://spaciousfaith.com/2014/06/03/lets-talk-about-the-third-way/. I hope you’ll make time to read it, Ervin.

  8. If there is a third way, let’s get to work trying to find it rather than talking about the possibility that it exists. I strongly suspect it is not a third way we are looking for, but a new Mennonite Church USA Way. Consensus around the old MCUSA way articulated in the ’95 Confession and attendant membership guidelines has most certainly evaporated. The articles by Shupack and Nation in the most recent issue of The Mennonite, as well as the responses to this blog illustrate well. This new way will be found only by engaging the serious, messy, maddening, funny, joyful, challenging, task of studying the scriptures, listening to each other and to the Holy Spirit. EMU has engaged the process. Mountain States Conference has engaged the process. Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg is only the most recent congregation to engage the process. All three, rather than being affirmed for engaging a process with integrity, prayer, and careful listening and searching have been ridiculed and maligned. Its high time for a church wide two or three year study process. This will not result in compromise, but either reaffirmation of the old way, or consensus agreement on a new way. People and congregations will leave either way, but if the process is carefully constructed and led, the result will certainly be more desirable than the current atmosphere of anxiety, fear and fighting happening all across the church.

    1. My husband is a pastor in the Rocky Mountain Mennonite Conference and I am also a chaplain, licensed through the RMMC. I would like to make a clarification regarding the Mountain States Conference Leadership Board’s decision to license Theda Good and their ‘process.’ Not all churches or pastors supported their decision. There was never a time when the conference supported open discussions between the board and church members regarding this issue. Many people, pastors included, were opposed to this licensing because 1) they believe it stands in direct opposition to the historical biblical interpretation of Scripture, 2) their individual churches had not yet had time to process the issue (or were already divided on this issue) and were afraid of the division it would cause in the larger Mennonite community, and, finally, 3) their action stood diametrically opposed to the guidelines approved in the Mennonite USA Confession of Faith. If the Confession of Faith no longer represents the majority of those in the Conference, either locally or nationally, then there are procedures in place to take it to the national assembly to change it. Until such time, it is believed by many that the guidelines should be followed by local and national leadership.

  9. i have concluded that there are 2 things we must come to consensus on if we are to have unity in the church–of which unity Jesus spoke in John 17, though not as the Mennonite brothers and sisters speak. He spoke of us, Christians, being one with the Father as he was one with Him. Jesus only did what the Father told him, He got His directions from the Father. If we will do that–look to the Word as the highest authority the church has, treat it as such, THEN we can learn from it, and discern what it says. but if we decide to put our mind and intellect above the Word of God, we will take out what we don’t want, and destroy its power to wash us.
    the other thing is to agree on the power of the death of Jesus to take away our sin and make us new creations. this means we acknowledge that sin is, and needs judgment, and Jesus took the judgment for our sin, and gives us His righteousness. We unload our sin, we do not live in it anymore. if those who see their christian brothers and sisters living in sin would speak up, there could be lots of transformations–from gluttony, greed, sexual sin, and multiple more sins that we need deliverance from. but if these two things are not agreed on, how can there be unity? the very things that tell us about Christ and show us our need for Christ are done away with? we are left to our selves and our mind games of selfishness and self indulgence? God, help us see Your ways–Higher than ours, Your thoughts, higher than ours. Love and righteousness both reside in our God. Let’s return to our God and His Word, written and Living.

  10. I will see you in Kidon on June 17th, Ervin.

    There was never a true compromise and consensus between Mennonite Conference & General Conference from my study of recent Mennonite history. The churches who were more progressive gave up their fight for equality for the larger picture of having a unified denomination. This “issue” was never solved. The ONLY reason it is now a more pressing issue is because socially, more and more people are finally realizing that what two people do in the bedroom harms NO ONE ELSE in the world and that those two people having equal legal rights harms NO ONE ELSE in the world. I don’t quote the Bible here because you did not either, but instead tried to appeal to a logic you yourself do not understand. I will be wearing my Pink Menno shirt on June 17th. I will bring my voice and courage. I hope you plan on listening at some point in time. Your rhetoric is not working. Its painfully clear you haven’t read Ted Grimsrud’s blog I emailed you a long time ago about not letting the negative threatening people rule the church with fear. You still fear them. At this point, I’m not even sure you’re listening to the Holy Spirit for you seem to not even understand Jesus. I will pray for you.

  11. I wish the following were a true description of us:

    Our unity is not based on “shared values and norms” or “common vision.” Our unity is based on our Lord’s desire that we be one. It is a unity that is not dependent on our common ethics. We are in communion with people we think are doing mortal wrong. We refuse to give up on treating each other with respect and dignity even as we struggle with each other over these deeply held differences.

    We will behave differently. Some of us will bless same-sex unions, some of us will refuse to bless them. So be it. We stay in communion. Communion does not mean approval–communion means commitment to a good fight, a clean fight, a fight that entails vulnerable listening to others’ voices because it’s the only way you can expect a vulnerable listening to your own.

    1. As a former Mennonite I found this article intriguingly revealing. There is no appeal to a higher authority. There is no mention of scripture. Could it be that Mennonites struggle so much on these issues because they are following two very different masters?

  12. So, we’re already trying to incorporate the “third way” concepts into the denomination. Sorry, but it’s God’s Way for me and always will be. And if you’re concerned about conflicts then why are you calling Israel Palestine?

  13. I agree with Stan below. There is no “third way”. A “third way” only leads to a lukewarm church. Listen to the link that Stan gave you. Be a Berean… and check things out using God’s Word. It doesn’t matter what the “community” of believers discerns if it is heresy. And this “third way” and “agreeing to disagree” in love is not what Jesus would want… Listen to the following: http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/06/02/the-briefing-06-02-14/

  14. I listened to Dr. Mohler’s briefing recommended by Stan and Brett above, which argues that there is no third way–that this comes down to practice, and a given congregation, organization or denomination eventually either accepts or rejects same-sex relationships. But there is a flaw in his argument. Logically, we can be in communion with people whose actions we consider reprehensible. Jesus accepted the hospitality of, or extended his own hospitality to, all kinds of people he disagreed with: sinners, prostitutes, tax collecting collaborators with the Roman occupation, and Pagans. He accepted to eat with them (though it cost him much public disapproval). And from within that communion he voiced his disagreement loud and clear, and called them to repentance.

    So it depends on what communion means to us. If it means “live in community with, including continuing to challenge each others behavior,” then there is a third way.

  15. I weep and prayer for the Mennonite Church. My family has been involved in the Mennonite church for at least 200 years and I am the first generation to leave. Thank GOD!! I am serious. All this arguing about same-sex marriage and politics. What does the scriptures say. I suggest reading the following “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men.” 1 Cor. 6:9. (NIV). By the way, I also suggest someone reading the preface of the NIV bible and who helped with the translation.

    The Mennonite leadership is getting it wrong. Your job is not to build a consensus of charity but proclaim the word of God and his salvation to the world. I live in South Carolina and not a single Mennonite USA church in a state of over 4 million people. Continue to argue your points all you want while people are losing their souls.

    What’s next for the Mennonite Church? Getting rid of John 3:16 because it doesn’t match the consensus of the world on religion.

    I will continue to pray for the Mennonites!!

  16. 1 Cor.6:9 “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (NIV).” My previous comments were removed because they were too inflammatory and not “consensus” in manner. I am reporting the verse. I am sorry that this does not help the consensus of the faith.

    While you continue to argue worldly points, 4 million people in South Carolina are still waiting for the Mennonite USA church to open up at least one church.

    Where’s the Mennonite faith again?

    I hope you stand in the consensus of God soon and find the right way.

    Still praying for the Mennonite Church in a loving, confronting, caring heart. God Bless!

  17. How about the Mennonite church and its leadership make this their consensus?

    Articl 4 of the Mennonite Confession of Faith: We believe that ALL Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures AS the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life. We seek to understand and interpret Scripture in harmony with Jesus Christ as we are led by the Holy Spirit in the church.

    Preface to the NIV Bile: The fact that participants from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand worked together gave the project its international scope. That they were from many denominations – including Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Brethren, Christian Reformed, Church of Christ, Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Wesleyan and other churches – helped to safeguard the translation from sectarian bias.

    1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (NIV).

    Leviticus 18:22 – “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” (NIV)

    Leviticus 20:13 – “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” (NIV)

    Romans 1:26-27 – “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” (NIV)

    Still prayering for the Mennonites!

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