Confessing without forcing

Jun 22, 2015 by

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Like so many other Christian groups, Mennonite Church USA has an LGBTQ issue. But more than that, MC USA has a history problem. Unfortunately, as has happened for three decades, the two will no doubt clash at next month’s denominational convention in Kansas City. Fortunately, examining the past can go far in addressing contemporary conflicts.

“Alice in the Land of Many Knights” helps Tweedledee and Tweedledum, wearing T-shirts marked “GC” and “MC,” understand they’re not so different after all at the 1992 General Conference Mennonite Church triennial assembly in Sioux Falls, S.D. — MWR file photo

“Alice in the Land of Many Knights” helps Tweedledee and Tweedledum, wearing T-shirts marked “GC” and “MC,” understand they’re not so different after all at the 1992 General Conference Mennonite Church triennial assembly in Sioux Falls, S.D. — MWR file photo

MC USA’s Confession of Faith is often cited by members with a traditional view of same-sex relationships. Adopted by the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church in 1995 as part of their merger process, the Confession states that sex is only for a man and woman married to each other. For some church members, that’s the rule, and rules are necessary to ensure faithfulness.

The problem is, such an approach is in tension with both of MC USA’s historical legacies. MC and GC Confessions of Faith, while defining orthodoxy, never were used as doctrinal instruments of punishment, at least not on the churchwide level.

In fact, the General Conference Mennonite Church never even had a Confession of Faith until 1995. That reflects its origins and congregational polity. In 1860, a disparate group of congregations decided to do together what they couldn’t do separately, such as foreign missions and higher education, while respecting everyone’s understandings of belief and practice.

That remained a strong denominational characteristic and is still prominent in most former GC groups, as well as in some former MC ones. GC delegates rejected a 1933 attempt to implement “Articles of Faith.” In the absence of a churchwide code, conferences and congregations wrote their own Confessions.

The Mennonite Church, meanwhile, approved Confessions in 1921 and 1963, but they weren’t used to enforce faith.

As in the General Conference Mennonite Church, that was left to the congregations and area conferences, although they were often more authoritarian than their GC counterparts.

Before 1921, the Mennonite Church (organized in 1898) and its predecessor groups used the Dordrecht Confession, written by Dutch Mennonites in 1632. But that hardly meant uniformity in its application. “While all of the established communities adopted the Dordrecht Confession, not all of its articles were adhered to in every community,” wrote scholar Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, a member of the committee that developed the 1995 Confession.

The differences didn’t mean they couldn’t be in fellowship with each other — and, starting in the 19th century, work together in missions, publishing and other ministries.

That was also the case in the 1960s and ’70s, when adherence to the longtime prayer-covering requirement started to relax in the Mennonite Church, though it was mandated in the 1963 Confession. Many tradition-minded MC members withdrew during that era, but it was a voluntary move, not a punitive measure meted out by church officials. Those members who remained, including prayer-covering supporters, could live together in a common commitment to Christian discipleship, even as the 1963 rules were still in place.

Fast-forward to the present, and MC USA leadership is going a different direction. Its leadership has taken the unprecedented step of declaring the Confession of Faith one of the denomination’s “foundational documents.” While ambiguous, this phrase appears to elevate the Confession to ecclesial legal status, similar to the Constitution’s role as foundational to U.S. law.

By doing this, denominational leadership seems to have reneged on assurances made to the General Conference Mennonite Church that the Confession of Faith would not be used as a tool of enforcement, which was a concern during the merger process.

Leadership has also indicated it will enforce the law as well as make it. After Mountain States Conference last year licensed a lesbian pastor, which generated protests and calls for discipline from outside the conference, the MC USA Executive Board declared it would not recognize the credential.

Some contend the board’s action was a moderate alternative to more severe consequences that some constituents wanted for Mountain States. But it was still punishment, and it signaled leadership’s willingness to judge and discipline those it rules in error, something neither previous denomination ever did. (The board’s action was also technically impermissible, since the denomination’s bylaws state that credentialing belongs solely to the area conferences.)

Whatever its intent, the board departed from both GC and MC histories and the varying expressions of genuine faithfulness they allowed — within the traditions of congregational autonomy for GCs and conference autonomy for MCs. Now the door is open for outsiders to interfere with an area conference’s internal matters.

If MC USA would turn its attention to the past’s lessons on discernment and polity and away from the volatility of the LGBTQ issue, it might find its way through the current crisis and write a new and better chapter of history.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.


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  • Lamar Freed

    The issue of accepting members regardless of sexual orientation seems to lead to the breaking of rules in many situations. It reminds me of the fact that Franconia Conference had to use a mail in ballot to eject Germantown Mennonite Church, a method of decision making that was never before or since used, nor is sanctioned in its bylaws. Similarly, when the Eastern District of the General Conference ejected Germantown years later, it did so under the rules of the new Mennonite Church, rules that were not to be in place until months later. They did this in a vote that included a group of conservative delegates who had already announced their intent to leave the denomination once it was officially part of the Mennonite Church.

  • Berry Friesen

    This article contains numerous inaccuracies and unsupported assertions. It should not have been published.

    Notice that the first example of the alleged misuse of power by denominational leaders is their characterization of our Confession of Faith as “foundational.” What is egregious about calling a founding document foundational? “By doing this,” the author states, “denominational leadership seems to have reneged on assurances made to the General Conference Mennonite Church that the Confession of Faith would not be used as a tool of enforcement.” The author cites no example of the Confession actually being used as a tool of enforcement.

    The “law” that the Executive Board (EB) “enforced” was not something of its own creation, but the commitments district conferences themselves made to one another. Under denominational bylaws, the EB has a duty to act in the best interests of the entire denomination when the delegate body is not in session. I quote from its report of its June, 2014 decision.

    “Regarding Mountain States Mennonite Conference, (we) acknowledge that in granting credentials to a pastor in a same-gender relationship, MSMC failed to honor the relational covenants they made to the broader church in 2005. (We) invite MSMC to renew the commitments they made to affirm foundational church documents when they became a Mennonite Church USA area conference in 2005. (We) also ask MSMC not to consider a request to ordain Good unless the Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly changes the stated polity on same-sex relationships.

    “(We) request that no area conference license or ordain a person in a same-gender relationship and (we) note that such credentials (including Good’s) would not be recorded in the national ministerial database unless the Delegate Assembly would take action to change the current polity.”

    Note that the EB did nothing to interfere with the ability of Theda Good to function as a licensed pastor within the Mountain States Mennonite Conference.

    As for the author’s claim that current leaders have departed from tradition in their zeal as enforcers, I encourage everyone to read their June 13, 2012 letter to the entire church. It carefully explains the polity of our church and the major decision-making roles of area conferences and congregations. It further explains that we should not be alarmed by the fact that area conferences handle congregational variances differently. While acknowledging frustration with this sort of decentralized structure, it ends with a call to patience and “unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

    I feel sorrow that our executive’s work is so grossly misrepresented in the pages of MWR just days before our convention.

    • Ryan Harker

      Very well said, Berry. I was about to try to articulate something similar, but you said it better than I could have. I once heard a sermon that sounded an awful lot like this as well.

    • Craig Anderson

      Maybe I’m too dim, Berry, but for me to accept your points I need you to go back to the article and again point out the flaws. I tried to re-read both the article and your response several times sincerely endeavouring to set aside my biases. Can you please do likewise? You state that “[t]he author cites no example of the Confession actually being used as a tool of enforcement.” Please don’t be disingenuous in responding to the writer, your brother in Christ. You are extremely bright and articulate. Surely you see the example he attempted to cite, even if you disagree with his interpretation and conclusion. I know you have a strongly documented gripe with MSMC’s action. If that is what you truly want to write about again, do so. Don’t instead strain for gnats here and blow them up to the extreme of stating that the article should not have been published. How do you respond to his general assertion that previously denominational authorities did not attempt to enforce adherence on matters of doctrine and practice? You say that current leaders are not enforcing. Come on! Re-read the article with general grace for the writer rather than primarily exercising your lawyer’s eye to try to pick it apart by any means possible. Can you not see what the writer sees as enforcement (defined broadly), even if you disagree, citing the technical details you do? Do you really see the role of the 1963 and 1995 confessions as inherently and substantially different? If the real difference is in the precise language used in the processes by which they were adopted, please say so (though I suspect we both think that would make your overall point less compelling). Even if one concedes significant differences in how those two confessions were adopted, what do you personally think MC congregations and conferences in the 1960s should have done when many women who were members stopped wearing coverings? Please do give your answer. What should the denomination have done? What should we do now about those who don’t wash feet? Though I suspect you will elevate the procedural matters involved far above answers specifically to me and my questions, and reasonably and understandably so, please do understand that as I read the article you so oppose, trying to be quite objective (something I am clearly very imperfect at, but still generally quite good at) I find the article very valuable and quite compelling. Help me see otherwise. Please! I wish I could send this to you personally rather than publicly posting it but I do not have your email address.

      • Berry Friesen

        Please notice, Craig, that the author wants us to perceive “MCUSA leadership” as the ones with an unprecedented zeal (at the denominational level) for enforcement.

        So though the author does not remind us of the fact, to accurately evaluate his broad claim, we will need to exclude from consideration all of the enforcement actions by district conferences.

        So now, what is left of the author’s case? The June, 2014 action to name MSMC as the wrong-doer and its refusal to recognize the licensing of Theda Good. That is all of it.

        On what basis did the Executive Board make its finding and take its action? The Membership Guideline on sexuality to which all district conferences bound themselves when they sought admission to the denomination.

        What does this have to do with using the Confession of Faith as “a tool of enforcement”? Nothing.

        So the author has leveled a broad accusation against our leaders without citing a single example to support his accusation. But his approach will work with Mennonites who enjoy imagining a black-hatted bishop lurking behind every attempt at leadership. Witness all of the nonsense last summer about Stutzman wanting to be a Mennonite pope. It’s a Mennonite perennial, like crab grass in the garden.

  • Joe Springer

    It is perhaps worth noting that the 1632 Dordrecht Confession was a result of reconciliation and compromise among deeply divided congregations. Absent from most subsequent printings, an original introduction provided interesting detail about how those gathered worked in reaching a common confession. Acknowledging that both sides had failed to recognize “love as the principal garb and characteristic of the true followers of Christ,” the group “set free and unbound all those whom we and our former leaders, together with their congregations, had bound, banned, or burdened in any way,” and sought each other’s forgiveness, acquitting “each other of everything which had been done.” Their conclusion began by stating, “In this union we have accepted and included all fellow members, present and absent, both as a group and as individuals, those residing here as elsewhere, those invited as well as all others—excluding none.” To be sure, the confession called for unity “in goodwill, doctrine, and practice,” going forward, but did so on the basis of the articles upon which they reached common agreement, leaving behind much of what had divided them. (Quotations from Irvin Horst’s translation published by Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1988)

    • Conrad Ermle

      Perhaps the Dordrecht Confession would be one to which we should return and embrace wholeheartedly. Then we would have unity “in goodwill, doctrine, and practice”. The Confession is biblically valid today and is embraced by tens of thousands of Mennonites wholeheartedly. It is an early statement of the Anabaptist vision, and remains valid for many. – Conrad Ermle

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Rich Preheim’s piece “Confessing without forcing” provides some helpful historical background to the current situation. The Confession of Faith (1995) was already a fact by the time I joined the Mennonite fold during the merger process in the late 1990s. At that time I didn’t know GC from MC from MCC. I’ve learned a bit about the differences over the years but still hadn’t known that the GCs lacked a common confession until agreeing to merge with the MCs. This helps to explain why former GCs have misgivings regarding how the Confession of Faith is to be interpreted and applied within MCUSA (and thus why some may be experiencing “buyer’s remorse” about the merger).

    At the same time, Preheim’s piece glosses over a crucial factor in differing views on the relationship between the Confession of Faith and the polity of the denomination–namely, the status of ordination. For it could be that one’s view of the Confession, polity, and ordination form an inconsistent triad. Let me explain.

    Preheim correctly observes that the MCUSA polity recognizes the authority to confer ministerial credentials as belonging to the constituent conferences (and thus to neither the general assembly nor the individual congregation). But then he goes on to imply that ordination is one of the “internal matters” that is solely the private business of a conference but which now (due to the actions of the EB) may be “interfered” with by “outsiders” from another conference. From the fact that conferences have sole authority to confer credentials, however, it does not follow that credentialing is solely the “internal” business of a conference immune from “interference” from “outsiders.” Whether that inference follows depends on one’s view of the status of ordination. To wit: Are conference-conferred credentials valid only within the conferring conference, or are those credentials valid within every conference of MCUSA? That is, when ordained by one conference, is the minister ordained only within that one conference or is the minister thereby ordained in effect within every conference of MCUSA? If the former, then Preheim presents a consistent view: conferences are strictly on their own regarding credentialing. If the latter, however, then we have an inconsistent triad.

    Within MCUSA, as I understand it, there exists an agreement of reciprocal recognition of ministerial credentials between constituent conferences: that is, if a minister is ordained in one conference, it is generally expected that he or she need not be re-ordained in a different conference because ministerial credentials can be validly transferred from one conference to another conference. The action of the Executive Board to withhold recording of Theda Good’s credentials in the national registry, as I understand it, reflects that agreement. But, if this is so, then credentialing cannot be solely the “internal” business of a conference immune to “interference” by “outsiders” because each conference expects the “outsiders” in other conferences to recognize as valid the credentials that it confers on the ministers in its own conference.

    Now, I submit that the ecclesial corollary of the reciprocal recognition of ministerial credentials between constituent conferences is the mutual accountability between constituent conferences to a shared norm. And, I submit further, the natural candidate for that shared norm is a common confession adopted by mutual agreement of the constituent conferences. Thus, I would argue, if the constituent conferences generally expect that ministerial credentials will transfer validly from a conferring conference to another conference, then they should likewise generally expect that constituent conferences will be mutually accountable to that common confession adopted by mutual agreement.

    Therefore, on the general expectation that ministerial credentials are validly transferred to constituent conferences beyond the conferring conference, we cannot disentangle the Confession as shared norm from the polity of conference credentialing (as Preheim would prefer). So, if we are to accept not only that constituent conferences have sole authority to confer credentials (per MCUSA polity) but also that ministerial credentialing is solely the internal business of each conference and thus unaccountable to a shared norm of common confession (per Preheim’s view), then we should dissolve the agreement of reciprocal recognition of ministerial credentials between constituent conferences.

    The underlying question at stake, it seems to me, is whether we are “church together” at the level of MCUSA or whether we are “church together” only at the level of conferences. Being “church together”–being “one church”–requires mutual accountability between constituent members; and mutual accountability requires some agreement on shared norms. Is MCUSA “one church” in its many conferences under a common confession or is it a federation of conferences each of which is “one church” in its many congregations (with or without common confession)? This, it seems to me, is the unresolved polity question we face. Only by deciding this question can we attain a consistent triad of Confession, polity, and ordination. There are two possibilities.

    On the one hand, we could be one church in many conferences, such that MCUSA would comprise constituent conferences that are mutually accountable through the general assembly (and Executive Board between assemblies) under a common confession. In this option, the Confession of Faith would have the prescriptive status of a doctrinal agreement and would serve as the shared norm according to which constitutive conferences would be mutually accountable. In this option, likewise, ministerial credentials would transfer validly beyond the conferring conference by agreement of reciprocal recognition between constituent conferences that are mutually accountable under the shared norm of common confession.

    On the other hand, each conference could be “one church in many congregations,” such that MCUSA would exist as a federation of several churches joined for common purpose and action, the shared goals of which would be articulated by the general assembly and the organizational functioning of which would be overseen by the Executive Board. Each conference would comprise constituent congregations mutually accountable through conference assemblies and conference ministers. In this option, the Confession of Faith would have only the descriptive status of an historical document, with each conference left to decide independently whether to adopt it as a shared norm for mutual accountability. In this option, likewise, ministerial credentials would be generally valid only within the conferring conference, with each conference left to decide independently whether to recognize credentials conferred by other conferences.

    As things are now, MCUSA exists as a confused and conflicted combination of these two options. It does not seem to me that we can carry on trying to have it both ways–some (former GCs) wanting and acting as if it were one way, others (former MCs) wanting and acting as if it were another way–and maintain a peaceable union. The long-term stability of MCUSA, it seems to me, depends on resolving this question: Do we want to be “church together”–reciprocally recognizing ministerial credentials and thus mutually accountable to a common confession–at the level of the whole denomination or only at the level of independent conferences? Which do we truly want?

    • Dave Hockman-Wert

      Darren, this is a very clearly laid-out discussion of the “inconsistent triad”. But I feel that you are making a leap when you describe the two possibilities for the denomination. In your description of the two models, you indicate that a more centralized model would have a confession that is a “prescriptive … doctrinal agreement”, whereas the decentralized model would have a confession that is a “descriptive … historical document”. This seems to move the discussion away from consistency among confession, polity, and ordination, and implicitly introduce enforcement, i.e., “prescriptive”.

      Couldn’t there be similar models of more or less centralization (and triadic consistency) without assuming the Confession of Faith is an enforcer of doctrine? Couldn’t it be a description of orthodoxy that supports a central denomination without prescribing doctrinal rigidity? That is one of Preheim’s main points, as I read the article.

      Dave Hockman-Wert

      • Darrin Snyder Belousek

        Thanks, Dave, for your comment. Sure, one could imagine variations around the two general possibilities I put forward. Accepting a common confession as doctrinally prescriptive, however, need not entail either legalistic enforcement or doctrinal rigidity. It would be up to the assembly to decide how to make mutual accountability to the common confession work, and the assembly could vote to change the confession. At the same time, I think, the mutual accountability necessary for reciprocal recognition of ministerial credentials does require that the common confession have some normative status (is that better than “prescriptive”?).

      • Joshua Rodd

        Agreeing on a description of orthodoxy is, by definition, doctrinal rigidity.

        If we could find some way to somehow get past this, we would all find ourselves in warm communion with Eastern Orthodox, the Catholic church, and all manner of schisms since the Reformation.

        Alas, this is not to be.

  • Conrad Ermle

    I’m amazed at Preheim’s attempt at revisionism and rewriting the history of the Mennonite and Anabaptist movement. Even an elementary reading of our history would show Preheim’s interpretation to be shallow and weak, not based in reality. The pure church concept of Anabaptism did sometimes result in extremism, I realize, but the core of the Message was nothing close to that which Preheim would have us believe. Good try, my friend, but you can’t rewrite history. – Conrad Ermle

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