Maintaining peace, withdrawing from MC USA

Dec 11, 2014 by

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A paradoxical way to unite a deeply divided Mennonite Church USA popped into my mind.

It happened one morning as I was memorizing and praying Paul’s prayer for the church (Eph. 3:14-21). One question looms large in our discernment around same-sex attraction. Where should the authority lodge for a congregation’s missional and pastoral decisions around the question of same-sex attraction — in the conference or in the congregation?

I propose that we Mennonite congregations who wish to locate the authority in the local congregation instead of the regional conference withdraw from our conferences and MC USA. Many of these congregations have been asking conferences to “loose” them for missional relationships in their contexts, rather than “bind” or stop their missional efforts.

But how do we maintain unity by withdrawing? And why withdraw?

We have reached a time where more talking will not change minds. When one side forces its opinion, the other reacts with an equal and opposite force, to apply Newton’s law of physics to church relationships. When we continue to press the issues around same-sex attraction, we suffocate the breath of the Spirit. There is little oxygen left for mission. Our lungs of discipleship and worship labor with distress. How can we enlarge the lung capacity of the body of Christ for the breath of the Spirit to freely renew and transform all our Mennonite churches into Christ-likeness? Voluntary withdrawal provides spiritual space to patiently wait for the crucified Christ to break down the barriers of hostility and unite us in one body.

Voluntary membership withdrawal echoes kenosis, that humble, obedient self-emptying hymn of Christ sung in Philippians 2: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who emptied himself of [power] as something to be grasped.” Voluntary withdrawal respects the long history of Biblical interpretation while in our pastoral and missional contexts we sense the Holy Spirit leading differently. It gives power to the voices of our minority constituency groups of MC USA who follow that long history of Biblical interpretation.

Unity is more than membership. Any system whether it be spiritual or secular has three main elements: structure, attitudes and actions. We often assume that if we get structure right, right attitudes and actions will follow; history does not prove that to be true. We all know congregations who are members of a Mennonite conference, but have not attended gatherings nor contributed money to the conference and denomination. Some families have members who never show up. If attitudes and actions demonstrate unity, there is unity: a unity of relationship, purpose and mission.

Structure, attitudes and actions are like a three-piece jazz ensemble where each piece takes the lead and improvises on the theme while the other two instruments provide background accompaniment. I think it’s time to give attitudes and actions opportunity to create and innovate on kingdom music and for the membership issue within our conference and denominational structure to provide background accompaniment.

These networks of Mennonite congregations who voluntarily withdraw membership would do so out of love for the church, not angry reaction. They commit to willingly sustain attitudes and actions of unity and support of MC USA, its mission and theology and its institutions. They will participate in the lively worship, fellowship, mission sharing and resourcing of the conferences and denomination. These congregations, however, would not participate in the delegate discernment of the MC USA or its conferences. Other structural elements, such as credentialing ministers, would need to be worked out.

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph.4:1-3).

Duane Beck is the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina.

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