Let’s ask for help

Dec 22, 2014 by

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Debates in the Western church about same-sex marriage and gender identity may appear irrelevant to some parts of the global church.

Showalter

Showalter

Yes, our issues are frequently different. But an outsider’s view is often more perceptive than an insider’s.

Our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia and Latin America are just as worthy and able to engage the most difficult issues facing partner churches as us from the West. To suppose otherwise is either ignorant or arrogant.

We in the West do not hesitate to enter the international dialogue when the subject is “insider movements to Jesus” (Muslim disciples of Jesus), polygamy or “religious rights in China.” In the right spirit, that’s good.

Now it’s our turn. We need the global church.

Significant parts of the North American Anabaptist community face what is arguably the greatest crisis of our identity since the “old order” and “new order” divisions in the Amish and Mennonite communities of the 1860s and thereafter. Our decisions will impact Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches everywhere.

The global church could help us.

There are many moves afoot to “fix” the church with structural adjustments. “Let’s give ourselves a little more distance from each other,” some think, “so more of us might agree to disagree and still remain in one body.” Or “let’s create entirely new bodies to find new empowerment with new identities.”

Maybe that’s the best we can do. But we should try to do better.

What if we were to empower a few key North American spiritual leaders to invite the shared discernment of a few seasoned peers from major Anabaptist groups in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe? Transparently. Face-to-face. For a few days, not a few hours. To talk about how to be a faithful church in the face of this specific crisis.

We might be surprised at the wisdom we find.

Then, what if every North American Anabaptist body would, with its best scholars, give public, clear steps of direction? Not that our national leaders would need to agree with each other, but they would lead. Invite the churches to respond to leadership, rather than vice versa. Empower leaders to lead with spiritual and intellectual substance. Rearranging ecclesiastical Lego pieces could take second place.

Perhaps at the end of the day there would still be only one Mennonite Church USA or Mennonite Church Canada (or name your group), but each could be at peace with clear direction. Perhaps there would be strong new groups to shepherd rather than the fragmentation we increasingly witness. But we all might be more stable, healthy and connected than we are today, and Anabaptist affinities would be stronger.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Without a shift in current trends, even the affinities of Mennonite World Conference, as well as those of North American Mennonites, will be strained.

Can we be that transparent? Invitational? Global? Disposed to listen? Inclined to lead? I hope so.

I will not dare speak for the Anabaptists of Africa, Asia, Latin America or Europe. But they could help us.

I cannot speak for North American Anabaptist leaders. But now is a time for leaders to lead.

Otherwise, our lingering North American ethnicity, mixed with growing theological diversity, threatens to cripple us. Let’s find heaven’s help, and let “leaders take the lead,” as Deborah and Barak sang in joy long ago (Judges 5:2).

Richard Showalter, of Landisville, Pa., is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission.


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  • Charlie Kraybill

    Of course Richard Showalter wants to consult the mission churches in the Global South on the LGBT issue. Because he thinks he knows already where they’ll come out, which is: On his side. Against inclusion.
    What Showalter doesn’t acknowledge is that Mennonite churches outside of North America also have many members who are gay. Most, undoubtedly, in the closet. But they are there, and they yearn to be included, openly, as well.
    The Mennonites of the Global South are not a monolithic group with regard to inclusion. We may not be hearing from pro-inclusion voices (largely because the American missionary community has set themselves up as the primary conduit of information between First World and Third World Mennos). But we can be sure there are Mennonites in Africa, Asia, and Latin America who want the doors opened wide. It only stands to reason that they exist.
    It further stands to reason that eventually the Mennonite churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America will engage in their own open discussions over how and when to include their gay brothers and sisters. Their day will come, just as it has come for the North American churches. It makes little sense for the Mennonite groups who are further ahead on this issue to ask for help from groups who are not yet working through it.
    I challenge Showalter’s selective listening process. I wonder whether he and his colleagues are listening when the churches in the Global South tell North American Mennonites that they have become too fat, too rich, too enmeshed in the world’s money system (at the expense of poor countries and peoples)? Is this an area where North American Mennonites are open to getting help from Global South Mennonites? If not, then we should quit pretending we’re interested in what they have to say about anything.

    • Conrad Hertzler

      Isn’t a bit presumptuous to claim to know what Richard is thinking or why he is encouraging discussion with Mennos from other countries? Richard’s feelings on the matter are no secret to be sure. However to immediately discount someone because “I already know how he will respond anyway” shows an unwillingness to listen and engage with someone who holds viewpoints different from your own. And do you know that churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are not dealing full on with this issue? Have you lived in any of those places and engaged with church leaders to know what their issues are? If you have, good. You can speak from what you know. If not, be very careful in discounting them and saying that they have nothing to offer the North American churches on this matter.

      • Charlie Kraybill

        Conrad, several voices from within the Mennonite missionary community (to which Showalter belongs) have already said publicly that they’ve received communications from Mennonite leaders in Africa stating their concerns about inclusion of LGBT persons by North American Mennonites. The missionary community (steeped as it is in American fundamentalism/evangelicalism) is clearly opposed to inclusion, and they see the African opposition to inclusion (at least amongst African leaders) as a way to bolster their case. The implication is this: If MCUSA moves to become a welcoming and inclusive denomination, then the Mennonite churches in the Global South will sever their institutional relations with us. And if that happens, then the Mennonite missionary community will no longer be able to boast that “there are more Mennonites in Africa than in North America.” In other words, keeping the mission churches of Africa securely inside the Mennonite fold is more important than opening the doors here in America to the church’s gay children and family members.

        • Conrad Hertzler

          Thanks for your reply. Clearly there is room for debate here. The arguments you have presented do not shut the door on it at all. You make a lot of blanket statements which need a lot of support to become good solid arguments e.g. “keeping the mission churches of Africa securely inside the Mennonite fold is more important than opening the doors here in America….”. More Mennonite churches in Africa than in North America I have heard presented as a statistic or a fact but not as a boast although there may be a slight bit of truth to what you are saying. Denominations generally plant denominational churches and we use the number of denominational churches planted as a way to measure our effectiveness at introducing people to Jesus and making them a part of His Church. So when North American Mennos see the number of Mennonite churches in Africa there is a feeling of ownership, pride, call it what you will. However, I hope that the vast majority of Mennonites are mature enough and understand that the call of Jesus does not mean for us to make Mennonites but to make disciples. If a church severs ties with North America Mennonites but continues to live out the call of Jesus and grow in His grace, I would bless that church. For me and many other missionaries, the issue of inclusion runs so much deeper than denominational ties. You know this and that is why I take exception to your argument. The real arguments against inclusion have been hashed and re-hashed on this forum so I won’t open them again. Peace.

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