Opinion: Don’t break up the body

Church is our laboratory for learning to love, even when we disagree

Apr 27, 2015 by

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About 40 Franconia Mennonite Conference leaders gathered March 14 to discuss the Mennonite Church USA survey of credentialed leaders on issues related to people in same-gender relationships.

We learned that the credentialed leaders in Franconia and six other conferences are fairly evenly divided in their views.

Conrad Kanagy, a sociologist and pastor who interpreted the survey results, observed that these responses offer a proxy for deeper issues that contribute to our current tensions.

In other words, when we discuss our different responses to homosexuality, other themes feed these differences, like how we understand Scripture, Jesus, mission and the church.

What shall we do with our differences? These convictions run deep. We will likely always disagree on this and other important questions.

Is that unlike the New Testament church? We might think our issues are different and more serious than theirs. But are they really more substantial than those we read about in Acts 15 regarding the inclusion or exclusion of Gentiles in a Jewish church?

We hear of those who think they must break ties with MC USA over the issue of same-gender relationships. This is a common response when we disagree — to separate and form a new alliance of like-minded people.

But the body of Christ, including Mennonites, reflects a great assortment of people who claim to follow Jesus and disagree on some point of doctrine or practice. To divide reinforces our sense of faithfulness and purity. But does it honor Christ and the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17?

A third-way response

Might there be a third-way response? What if our focus shifted from boundary maintenance to the center we all claim in Jesus Christ? How might that focus cast our disagreements in a different light? Might the tone of the conversation soften? Might we discover more grace for one another?

We can still debate, argue and exhort one another on our understanding of Scripture while extending respect and love in keeping with the first and greatest commandment.

What holds the body together is our allegiance to Jesus, not theories of inspiration or atonement, details on being peacemakers or our views about people with same-gender attraction. Must our disagreements break relationships in the body of Christ?

God seems to have created us to be different. Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that our diversity is not an accident but God’s design. The church becomes our laboratory for learning to love, even when we disagree. The New Testament letters command us to love one another, extend kindness and grace, forgive quickly and respect our brothers and sisters with different personalities, convictions and styles of living out our discipleship.

Pastors lead the way

Some years ago I read a statement by John A. Esau, a sage in the field of pastoral leadership, who said churches do not leave conferences. Pastors lead congregations away from their conference or denominational connections.

How congregations respond in this season of tension and stress will often reflect the tone and character of their pastors.

A pastor should ask: Does my own anxiety spread to those I serve? Do I plant seeds that undermine trust in relationships, or do I engender hope and generosity? Do I emphasize boundaries and who is in and who is out? Or do I call people to a magnanimous love and grace when discussing contentious topics like sexuality? Leaders make a powerful difference in the direction a church takes.

Pastors need not minimize the importance of sexuality. Neither dare they abdicate their leadership role in providing direction. The Holy Spirit has come to provide inner clarity and wisdom to leaders (John 16:12-13). May all of us be attentive to the Spirit and not allow the forces of society and the strong voices around us to determine our direction. Let’s reach out to each other in mutual support as we discern and carry out the will of Jesus, the Lord of the church.

James M. Lapp and his wife, Miriam Book, are interim pastors at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pa.


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  • Berry Friesen

    This is a helpful essay. For example, I appreciate Lapp’s call for us to “focus” on “the center we all claim in Jesus Christ.”

    But as the story told in Acts 15 illustrates, that does not mean we will leave boundaries out of it. The early church fathers instructed the Jesus-following synagogues and assemblies to require Gentile converts “to abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever [had] been strangled, and from blood.”

    That may not seem like much of a boundary to us, but it was a big deal to first century Gentiles. This becomes clear in 1 Cor. 10:20-21, where Paul told the Gentile believers in Corinth to stay away from the civic festivals and banquets. Useful social and economic alliances were formed at those venues. So by honoring the Acts 15 boundary, Gentile converts visibly cast their lot with the odd and often despised Jews whose loyalty to the imperial order of Rome was in doubt.

    Should we think of the current debate within MC USA as an effort to articulate the Acts 15:20 boundary for us today?

  • Jim, these are words for this time. We all, especially me, need to hear wise, seasoned leaders such as youself reminding us that “our diversity is not an accident but God’s design,” that the church can be “our laboratory for learning to love, even when we disagree,” that pastors’ words and attitudes “make a powerful difference in the direction” a congregation takes.

    I know you can’t say everything in a column. But here are two things in the back of my mind that it would be good to hear you or others address:

    You write of “the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.” That was a prayer for the church to be one as Jesus and the Father are one, a oneness that includes oneness in purpose and values. Help us sort through how Jesus feels about a unity that doesn’t include oneness on those proxy issues that Conrad mentioned such as “Scripture, Jesus, mission.”

    You write of shifting our focus “from boundary maintenance to the center we all claim in Jesus Christ.” I fully agree that we must move to a centered-set focus as much as possible, rather than the bounded-set. Yet, as Berry just said in his comment, the church cannot leave boundaries out of the story. As Miroslav Volf wrote: “Every discrete identity is marked by boundaries. Some things are in, others are out; if all things were in or all things out, nothing particular would exist.” If some boundary maintenance is necessary, help us know when it’s too much and when it’s enough. Particularly in the areas of “Scripture, Jesus, mission.”

  • Dick Benner

    Well said, Jim. Spoken like a true leader.

  • Ermle

    I’m not sure Conrad Kanagy is the guy to interpret this survey. His record is very slanted. As for John A. Esau implying that pastors lead their flock out of conferences is simply ridiculous. Any congregation leaving or joining anything do so by majority vote. To blame the pastors is totally off the wall. John is out to lunch on this one or doesn’t understand Mennonite church polity. As for Lapp’s call for us to focus on Jesus, this is good. He is speaking clearly. Just remember, “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.” The Scriptures are clear. We don’t want to empty the chuches over anybody’s private interpretation of right and wrong. What does the Word of God have to say? Perhaps a long season of fasting and prayer would be in order. — Conrad Ermle

  • Jeff Linthicum

    We always hear about the unity prayer of Jesus in John 17, and I would say a hearty yes and Amen, as long as we do not forget what led up to that prayer for unity.
    14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.[a] 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them[b] in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself,[c] that they also may be sanctified[d] in truth.
    There is a basis that unity lies on. You do not have unity for unities sake. It has a source and when you do not agree on what the source of unity is you will never have it. You can get along, you can be cordial, you can speak out and work for similar things, but you will not be united.

  • Conrad Hertzler

    I understand what you are saying about pastors leading their flock out of the conference but I don’t think that John A. Esau is “totally” out to lunch. We look up to our leaders and are affected positively or negatively by what they say and teach. There is a reason that James chapter 3 warns that teachers will be judged “with greater strictness” (ESV). Our pastors/leaders many times come from the church body, true. But at ordination they are put in a position to sway the consciousness and direction of the church. I don’t mean to picture the church as a flock of helpless lambs following their shepherd to destruction but instead to say that there is more truth in Esau’s statement than what you credit him for in your response.

    • Conrad Ermle

      As I said, perhaps the time has come for a long season of fasting and prayer by the Mennonite church worldwide. God still hears and answers. — Conrad Ermle

  • Joshua Rodd

    If the overarching goal is unity, then we as Anabaptists need to repent for causing schism with the Catholic Church and the Reformed Church in the 16th century and reunite with one of them.

  • Barbara Brooks

    Unity in Christ is a beautiful thing, but it must be based on biblical teaching. I Corinthians 5 makes it clear that we are not to associate with people who claim to be Christians, but commit certain serious sins, including immorality. We cannot be unequally yoked. Having people who advocate ungodly behavior will lead the weak and the young astray. The church needs to exercise Matthew 18 instead of allowing people who refuse to repent of serious sins and false teaching. We can’t let the world determine our morality.

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