Confession, polity and ordination

How are we going to be “church together”?

Jul 15, 2015 by

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In “Confessing Without Forcing,” Rich Preheim provides some historical background to the current situation in Mennonite Church USA. The 1995 Confession of Faith was already a fact when I joined the Mennonites during the merger process in the late 1990s. At that time I didn’t know GC from MC from MCC. I’ve since learned about the differences. But until reading Preheim’s column, I still hadn’t known that GCs lacked a common confession until agreeing to merge with MCs. This helps to explain why former GCs have misgivings regarding how the Confession of Faith is to be interpreted and applied within MC USA.

However, Preheim 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 respective stances on the Confession, polity and ordination form an inconsistent combination.

Preheim correctly observes that MC USA polity recognizes the authority to confer ministerial credentials as belonging to the constituent conferences. But then he goes on to imply that ordination is one of the “internal matters” that is the sole business of a conference but which now (due to recent actions by the Executive Board) may be “interfered” with by “outsiders” from other conferences.

From the fact that conferences have sole authority to confer credentials, however, it does not follow that credentialing is the sole business of a conference. Whether that inference follows depends on the status of ordination. Are credentials valid only within the conferring conference, or are credentials implicitly valid throughout every conference of MC USA? If we hold to the former, then we have a consistent combination. If we hold to the latter, however, then we have an inconsistent combination.

Within MC USA, as I understand it, there exists a standing agreement of reciprocal recognition of ministerial credentials between constituent conferences that allows ministers to validly transfer credentials from the conferring conference to another conference. But, if this is so, then credentialing cannot be simply the “internal” business of a conference immune to “interference” by “outsiders,” because each conference expects that the “outsiders” in other conferences will recognize as valid the credentials that it confers.

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. Additionally, the natural candidate for that shared norm would be a common confession adopted (and amendable) by mutual agreement of the constituent conferences through the majority action of a representative assembly. And, in fact, MC USA has such a common confession. I would thus argue: If the constituent conferences generally expect that credentials will transfer validly between conferences, then they should likewise generally expect that constituent conferences will be mutually accountable under the Confession of Faith.

So, on the general expectation that ministerial credentials will validly transfer between constituent conferences, we cannot disentangle the Confession as shared norm from the polity of conference credentialing. Therefore, if we accept not only that conferences have sole authority to confer credentials (per MC USA polity) but also that credentialing is the sole business of each conference (per Preheim), then to be consistent we should dissolve the standing agreement of reciprocal recognition of credentials between conferences.

The underlying unresolved question is whether we are going to be fully “church together” at the level of MC USA or only at the level of conferences. There are two general options available, each of which could admit of specific variations.

On the one hand, we all could be “one body in many conferences.” Through MC USA, we would be “church together” by being “one body.” The Confession of Faith would serve as shared norm for mutual accountability between constituent conferences. Conference-conferred ministerial credentials would transfer validly by agreement of reciprocal recognition between constituent conferences.

On the other hand, each conference could be “one body in many congregations.” Through MC USA, we would be “church together” (for service, education, etc.) but without being “one body.” Each conference would decide independently whether the Confession of Faith would serve as shared norm for mutual accountability between constituent congregations (“conference polity”) or not (“congregational polity”). Likewise, each conference would decide independently whether to recognize ministerial credentials conferred by other conferences.

As things are now, MC USA exists as a confused and conflicted combination of these two options. We cannot carry on indefinitely trying to have it both ways — some (generally former GCs) wanting and acting as if it were one way, others (generally former MCs) wanting and acting as if it were another way. Eventually, we need to decide: Are we going to be fully “church together” at the level of all conferences joined, or only at the level of each conference separately? Unless we resolve this question, we will not resolve conflicts over the Confession, polity, and ordination.

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek is a member of Salem Mennonite Church, Elida, Ohio.


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