Does the Spirit need our Towers of Babel?

Mar 31, 2014 by

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I’m grateful for an independent MWR serving the people of the church, especially on topics like Eastern Mennonite University’s “trial balloon” on hiring gay faculty and Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s licensing of a lesbian pastor.

Denominational colleges always face tension between promoting church dogma and the academic freedom needed to educate their students in critically engaging the surrounding culture. To resolve such tension, many have left their church behind and become private elitist institutions. If EMU is censured for potentially hiring gay faculty, why not for diluting/confusing Mennonite peace witness by its training military chaplains?

Many Mennonites have moved to the Mountain West not just for fresher air and greater sunshine but to escape the spiritual claustrophobia they felt in their church communities in the East and Midwest. Mountain States congregations are mostly small, scattered, highly congregational in outlook and often have many members from non-Mennonite backgrounds. I fear that if Mennonite Church USA faces a choice between losing large, wealthy congregations in the East and Midwest or expelling a small regional district, it will choose the pragmatic option.

Whether in church or society, decades of theoretical dialogue rarely produce major changes in long-held positions. Tipping points come when someone “breaks the rules” and accepts the consequences — as in 19th-century abolition/suffragette movements and 1960s civil rights. Ironically, in the merger of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church, MC USA lost the Canadians and several thousand conservative members and had to cajole some conferences to join — and now it may expel one?

After the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15), Paul and Barnabas separated. The Spirit blows where it wants; does it really need Towers of (bureaucratic) Babel to do its work? After 17 years, Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia is succeeding as an independent congregation. Is separation sin per se — even if it can be accomplished without animosity?

Dan Leatherman
Fort Collins, Colo.


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  • Forrest Moyer

    Thanks for this perspective, Dan. It’s encouraging to hear a progressive voice from a Leatherman cousin! I imagine our common ancestor Abraham Leatherman would not quite appreciate our openness to diversity. He once said in a letter during the Civil War that he’d sooner see his children carried to the grave than enlisted in the army. That’s a pretty narrow and uncharitable (and staunchly Mennonite) statement! Thankfully, grace leads beyond narrowness to love. It has in my life, and I know the church can continue to learn grace, even if for now some separation is inevitable. –Forrest Moyer, Pottstown, PA

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