Less strict, still vigilant

Oct 26, 2015 by

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Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s classic 17th-century spiritual autobiography, describes the Christian life as a tale of a solitary individual on a long and difficult journey.

John D. Roth

Roth

Members of Pilgrim Mennonite Conference, a group formed out of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church in the early 1990s, share much in common with the challenges faced by the hero of that story — particularly Bunyan’s description of “Vanity Fair,” where worldly temptations threaten to divert Christian from his journey to the Celestial City.

But they differ with the famous story in at least one significant way: Pilgrim Mennonite Conference members do not think of the Christian life as a solitary quest but as a journey in the company of others. The challenge is not only to resist the world’s snares and entanglements but to do so while remaining in unity with each other.

The origins of Pilgrim Mennonite Conference are rooted in the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church, a group formed in the late 1960s in an effort to maintain the rules and discipline of Lancaster Mennonite Conference more consistently. By the early 1990s, however, several ministers had come to believe the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church was too legalistic in its discipline, and they were eager to provide more biblical training for their young people. In 1992 a group of ordained men left to form Pilgrim Mennonite Conference.

Almost immediately, the new group created a periodical, The Pilgrim Witness. Published monthly, it offers a window into the challenge of forging a group identity — charting a course somewhat less strict than their former church while still maintaining clear boundaries with the broader culture. Articles frequently refer to Anabaptism as a point of reference for biblical interpretation, evidenced in frequent essays on church discipline, humility, simplicity, mutual aid and nonresistance.

The sermons given at the 2015 spring and fall conferences, as reported in The Pilgrim Witness, suggest similar concerns: “Promoting and Maintaining Biblical Holiness”; “The Permanence of Truth”; “Tenets of Church Discipline”; “Mortal and Venial Sins”; “The Doctrine of Excommmunication.” In response to the question, “Does the type of covering matter?”, raised in a presentation on “The Women’s Prayer Veiling,” the speaker responded, “We must preserve consistency, or we will lose everything.”

Each issue includes marriages, births, deaths, baptisms, ordinations and prayer requests, an update on mission efforts in Honduras or New York City, reports on Bible-training opportunities and the worship themes and preachers for the coming month in various congregations.

One concern is the impact of technology, especially in the area of cellphones, social media and the Internet in general. A recent article acknowledged that “it is difficult for the church to legislate technology.” The same issue included a notice that The Pilgrim Witness is now available via email.

The group’s shared discipline — summarized in a detailed document, “Decrees to Keep for the Pilgrim Mennonite Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ” — reflects vigilance in resisting many changing cultural realities.

Pilgrim Mennonite Conference today has 26 congregations, located in the northeastern U.S. and Honduras. An online edition of The Pilgrim Witness is available at pilgrimministry.org.

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.


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