Ecumenical dialogue explores Mennonite Church USA-Church of God connections

CLEVELAND, Tennessee (Mennonite Church USA) — Members of Mennonite Church USA and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) recently began a multi-year dialogue, with the first meeting taking place Oct. 16-18 at Lee University. Through the presentation and discussion of papers during these annual meetings, participants in the dialogue will pursue mutual understanding of each other’s history and theology, seek greater common witness to the gospel, and consider concrete ways that they can share their sense of togetherness in the one body of Christ with other members of their churches.

Mennonite Church USA-Church of God dialogue
Groups from Mennonite Church USA and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) met for dialogue last month. Photo provided.

The theme of this year’s meeting was “The Presence and Power of the Holy Spirit,” with each group presenting a theological paper and a historical paper. Jamie Pitts and Gayle Gerber Koontz (who reflected on her experience recently) presented from the Mennonite Church USA perspective, while David G. Roebuck and Daniel Tomberlin presented from the Church of God—a church in the Pentecostal tradition. Each paper was followed by formal response and open discussion.

“I am grateful for the vigorous participation on both sides of the circle we formed,” says Mennonite Church US representative and meeting co-chair Gerald Shenk, who formerly worked at a Pentecostal seminary in Croatia and currently serves as major gifts officer at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. “This dialogue is off to a fine start and holds real promise for further encouragement in the work and witness that Christians share in so many diverse situations around our world.”

The roots of the dialogue go back more than a decade, when Glen Stassen of Fuller Theological Seminary presented “Fourteen Reasons Why Mennonites Should Engage with Pentecostals” at a 2004 Interchurch Relations Consultation. The relationship with the Church of God started soon after with some small-group discussions and the exchange of representatives at the church’s respective meetings before taking this latest step toward more formal conversations.

Andre Gingrich Stoner, director of Interchurch Relations for Mennonite Church USA, said in an article last month that the relationship helps each group to better illuminate the full spectrum of faith, holding “earthly Jesus and the Holy Spirit together” along with the “inner journey and outer journey.”

“Both have been marginal groups who at times have seen church and culture in similar ways,” Stoner says. “Footwashing, for example, has been a symbol and an emblem in both traditions.”

Footwashing sculpture
Dialogue participants David Roebuck, Nancy Bedford, Jamie Pitts, Christopher ‘Crip’ Stephenson, Gayle Gerber Koontz and Alan Kreider pause around the shared significance of footwashing in their traditions on the grounds of the Church of God offices. Photo by Gerald Shenk.

“Many Mennonites globally have been deeply shaped by Pentecostalism,” he adds, “and there are important things we have to learn from Pentecostals about the dynamic presence of God’s spirit in worship and outreach and mission. And there are things Pentecostals are seeking to learn from Anabaptists, as well.”

At the October meeting, members of both groups worshipped at North Cleveland Church of God, one of the oldest churches in the denomination. Sunday afternoon included a tour of local sites of historical significance to the Church of God. Presiding Bishop Timothy M. Hill greeted the participants Monday morning.

Members of the Mennonite Church USA team were: Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, of Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Theological Seminary; Nancy E. Bedford, of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, Illinois); and Gayle Gerber Koontz, Alan Kreider, Jamie Pitts, and Gerald Shenk, all from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

Members of the Church of God team were: Daniel Tomberlin, pastor of Vidalia (Georgia) Church of God; from Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, Tennessee), David Sang-Ehil Han, Cheryl Bridges Johns, and Jackie D. Johns; and from Lee University, David G. Roebuck and Christopher A. Stephenson, co-chair.

Future meetings are likely to alternate locations between Cleveland, Tennessee, and Elkhart, Indiana and will explore themes of following Jesus in daily life and the church “in the world but not of the world.”

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—Mennonite Church USA staff. Staff from the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) contributed to this article.

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