When I was talking with my mother about this symposium earlier in the week, her comment was,
Why did they ask you to talk there? Thanks for the vote of confidence Mom! But underlying her questions was the reality that I am not a scholar but a pastor, and a relatively inexperienced one at that. And I am a new Mennonite. I hate that term
new Mennonite, but I am coming to terms with it. For yes, I am probably newer to the Anabaptist tradition than most of you. I am also in that small group of people who are non-ethnic-white Mennonites, and it occurred to me last night that the acronym for that would be N.E.W. Mennonites.
I was raised in a Baptist church, so I know about altar calls, and being saved. I attended a Presbyterian seminary, so I know about doing things
decently and in order. (Don’t you envy their Book of Order just a little? If only we had even a
pamphlet of order!) I joined a Friends Church in college, so I know about the light of Christ with us and in us. Then, I became a Mennonite 10 years ago, so I know that I don’t like vereneke and I can’t sing #606 without the music.
Maybe those aren’t fair comparisons — it’s apples and oranges — liturgy, polity, theology, and culture. But somehow we seem, in Mennonite circles, to have them all tangled up together, so that, the church, in addition to being the gathering of committed followers of Jesus Christ, has also become the repository of an ethnic heritage, the guardian of culture, the borderline between the
us and the
them in our worldview.
What do I bring to the understanding of the Anabaptist Theology and the shape of the church in the new millennium from my ecumenical past and my present Anabaptist convictions? I bring the experience that there is no perfect church, there is no one theology or liturgy or polity or culture that completely captures what the Spirit of Christ is doing in all times and places. I bring the knowledge that among faithful believers there are times in all churches, when the church is a visible sign of the reign of God. I bring the experience that there are also times when all churches are visible signs of the brokenness of humanity and our need for God’s grace. And I bring the discovery that the Mennonite church is concerned, more than most, with who is
in and who is
out. There is a concern, in Mennonite Churches, about who is on the inside and who is on the outside, that I have not experienced in other Christian denominations, at least not to the same degree.
I have been trying to come up with a visual
shape for how I see the Mennonite church now, and I’ve had a hard time with it. The best I can do is to draw a boundary. The church is here and here and here, taking different shapes in different places, but all to often with walls around it. (Make a circle with fingers and thumbs of both hands and move as if cutting biscuits or cookies.)
Those who have lived through the changes in the church in the past century, and who have experienced what may have felt like assimilation with mainstream culture, those who have seen external distinctives set aside, may see not the walls, but the rubble where they have been attacked, and I won’t take issue with you over that difference in perspective. Maybe the walls are not as high as they once were, maybe they are not as thick, but they are still there. The Mennonites are still, primarily, an ethnic church where culture as well as theology, is used to determine who is included.
In fact, I find it interesting that current areas of church growth are occurring not within traditional ethnic Mennonite churches, but in new churches aimed at reaching other specific ethnic or immigrant groups. In North America, growth is happening in Hmong Mennonite Churches, Hispanic Mennonite Churches, Indonesian Mennonite Churches, African-American Mennonite Churches, you get the idea, in churches that are largely defined by language or ethnic group. (So at this point I’m thinking maybe I there’s a need for an English Mennonite Church! Is such a thing even possible?) But the shape is still this and this and this. (Again defining small circles) There is no little irony in the fact that a church that claims as a central tenet of faith that the church transcends nations and governments, has found a niche in developing, encouraging and supporting congregations largely defined by ethnic origin.
I will confess that my first contact with Mennonites was the cookbook, but when I joined the Mennonite church it was not out of an appreciation for the culinary arts, or because of a preference in worship styles, but because of theology. And though I am a new Mennonite, this was still before the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, so you can imagine the difficulty I encountered ascertaining just what it was Mennonites believed.
Still, certain themes emerged: The centrality of Christ — in all things, including Biblical interpretation. The value of scripture — but not in a fundamentalist interpretation. The gathered community — as the place for discernment of the Spirit. Discipleship —- as the way to follow Christ in everyday life. Peacemaking — as an authentic witness to the Lordship of Christ.
These core values resonated with what I had believed and lived in my faith. But there was more. I unexpectedly bumped up against the unvoiced theology of what it means to be a believers church in Anabaptist theology. And some of it, I believe, is not helpful theology.
The church is a gathering of committed followers of Christ. So far, so good.
The church is a voluntary community, one becomes a member by choice, not nationality or birth. Yes, that works.
The church is not an invisible reality, but a visible sign of the reign of God, as seen in the lives of faithful discipleship lived by believers. Well, by the grace of God perhaps.
Because the church is made up of transformed individuals, the church is to be pure and spotless, and church discipline is necessary to preserve the integrity and faithfulness of the church. Wait a minute! If that is what we believe, no wonder the boundaries are so important to us!
I want to propose today, that a theology of the church marked by corporate perfectionism has not been helpful in spreading the gospel, it has not been helpful in nurturing the faith of new believers, it has been at times hurtful to those in desperate need of the grace of God. And I don’t believe it’s a good reading of scripture. The letters to the churches in Revelation, the epistles to churches by Paul, and Peter, and John and others, make it clear that the church was never perfect, that the church is always on a journey, that it is Christ who will present the church pure and spotless, not us.
God’s grace includes believers growing in faith as well as those who are in need of salvation. God’s grace includes the church, as it stumbles and falls, and is picked back up again to move on in faith. To demand from one another a perfection that we can not attain ourselves, is to set up a church that nurtures judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and exclusivity. We are not changed and transformed by our will or the will of others, but by the power of the love of God.
Am I advocating abandoning church discipline? Not at all. But there are different ways to discipline. My husband came from a family tradition that valued obedience in children and, despite being part of a peace church tradition, used physical punishment to reinforce parental demands. My family valued autonomy and viewed corporal punishment as an unnecessary violation of a child’s personhood. I managed to convince Ken that we should not hit our children, but when our first child came along he was tense about discipline. It was important to him to be able to demonstrate to his family, that he could raise an obedient child even without hitting her. And so we had many power struggles with that first child. In the name of consistency and parental authority, there were multiple
time-outs and consequences. And you know what? Allison turned out to be a good kid, respectful of others, and having a strong sense of right and wrong.
Then eight years later the third child came along. By this time we were, like most parents who’ve been at it a while, more confident about parenting, more relaxed, and, to be honest, just plain tired. So we didn’t fight with Abby nearly as much. In fact, within reason, we pretty much gave Abby everything she wanted. Sometimes we even gave in after initially telling her
no! And as the youngest grandchild on both sides, with two doting big sisters, not to mention a child care provider who adores her, Abby gets an abundance of affection. The recipe for disaster, right? She’s got to be a spoiled brat! Not at all. Abby is turning out to be a good kid, respectful of others, who wants to please those who love her and is devastated when she thinks she has misbehaved.
Which is the better way to raise children? To give them unconditional love that calls forth their best in an effort to please those they love? Or to enforce strict boundaries and standards that play on their fear of loosing our love? After three children, I can tell you which is the more joyful way.
Discipline, in a family or a church can be maintained by force, or it can grow out of love. We can stress purity and boundaries, or we can stress grace and redemption, and either way can lead to lives of faithful discipleship. It is time rethink our theology of the church and to let the transforming power of the love of Christ rather than a theology of corporate perfectionism create a church pure and spotless. A church shaped by God’s grace, not the force of human will.
And then perhaps we will experience the shape of the church is not like this separate and walled, but like this, (spread arms out to the side as if giving a hug) open and loving — a church that takes it’s shape from our Lord and Savior who reached out his arms and died for us.
Love, like death, has all destroyed,(Charles Wesley)
Rendered all distinctions void;
Names and sects and parties fall
Jesus Christ is all in all.