Two values tested

Central authority, local freedom clash in MC USA

Jul 21, 2014 by

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Within one week this summer, two competing visions of Mennonite Church USA’s future — one with stronger central authority, the other with more local freedom — emerged.

First, national leaders extended their power into new territory. The denomination’s Executive Board said the national conference would not recognize the licensing of Theda Good, a Colorado pastor in a committed same-sex relationship.

One week later, a congregation asked an area conference to assert local freedom. Rainbow Mennonite Church of Kansas City, Kan., presented for discussion but not action a resolution to Western District Conference that promises not to punish any pastor who officiates at a same-sex covenant ceremony.

These two developments push against the edges of competing values: central authority and local freedom. How much power can leaders claim? How much autonomy is everyone’s right?

The church needs both central authority and local freedom. The challenge is finding the right balance. The best path for MC USA today would be to preserve the local freedom that already exists and not expand central authority.

The Executive Board’s refusal to recognize a pastor’s ministry credential tests the limits of the board’s power. Area conferences alone have the right to license and ordain pastors. Such credentials “are respected by all Mennonite congregations and conferences and churchwide organizations,” according to MC USA’s 1996 ministerial polity book.

Good’s licensing deserves the same respect as any other. Respect does not require blessing or agreement. It does not obligate any other conference to accept a transfer of her credential in the future. But it does recognize the integrity of Mountain States’ people and their work. The credentialing process, conference leaders say, was “bathed in prayer from many folks in many places seeking the heart of God.”

In the spirit of Matthew 18, which requires believers to resolve their conflicts face to face, decisions about a pastor’s fitness for ministry should remain local. People who have observed the pastor’s gifts and established a relationship over time should make the decision. A distant national board should not pass judgment.

Nor should it single out one variance as intolerable while accepting others. Good’s relationship with her life partner is at variance with the MC USA Confession of Faith’s declaration that “God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” But a pastor who is divorced and remarried is just as much at odds with this statement.

There are many variants. Two conferences have chosen not to discipline pastors who officiated at same-sex ceremonies. These pastors are in violation of the Membership Guidelines, but the Executive Board has not declared their credentials invalid. There are conferences and congregations at variance with the Confession of Faith on women in ministry. There are pastors with a weak commitment to the Mennonite core value of nonresistance.

Variation is a fact of life in the church. And it is accepted in all these cases but one. The Executive Board should lead a conversation about how the church can deal respectfully with differences rather than rebuking one.

A Central District Conference resolution offers good counsel: “The answers we seek are best found in dialogue and mutual discernment rather than denunciation.”

For everyone in MC USA — those calling for more authority and those desiring more freedom — here are two words from the Lord: patience and persistence. At the Western District assembly in Waxahachie, Texas, several pastors spoke of Scripture as the story of God’s patient and persistent love for human­kind. The same love for the church and for each other can hold MC USA together even now.


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