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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