A time to scatter
Politics is local, but can the church live with that?
The words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 3 match the experience of Mennonite Church USA: There is a time to gather stones and a time to scatter them. The denomination is scattering. Some believe this is necessary, but few would say it is good.
The regret — some even call it grief — over the scattering is consistent with the Teacher’s poetic message. To everything there is a season: birth and death, love and hate, war and peace. These are not all desirable things. They are simply things that happen. They are parts of life. The Teacher is often a pessimist but always a realist. “Time and chance,” he says, happen to us all.
The scattering of MC USA like stones in a field is happening because some have decided the divide over how to relate to sexual minorities has become too wide to bridge. And it is happening because all politics, even in the church, is local.
Members are putting their own local or regional needs and preferences first. The congregation comes before the conference. The conference overrides the denomination. This is true for traditionalists and progressives alike.
When Lancaster Conference became a full member of MC USA in 2004, its bishops declared the conference retained “spiritual authority” over its members. The conference also retained its all-male bishop board. In a similar way, when Western District Conference delegates last month gave pastors the freedom to preside over same-sex marriages if their congregations approve, they asserted their spiritual authority in their region.
Whether the issue is same-sex marriage or women in leadership, congregations and conferences are doing what their own majorities believe is right, not what anyone else wishes they would do. Their politics is local.
What would the Teacher say? He might observe that there is a time for everything. Members of each conference will be who they are. Each will interpret the Bible in their own way. Each will follow their collective conscience and try to do God’s will as they see it. And those who cannot live with that will scatter.
The Teacher advises accepting life as it is. Perhaps MC USA has gotten to that point. Factions cannot fight unwinnable battles forever. It is futile to try to get everyone to relate to gay and lesbian Christians the same way. The recent Western District vote is the clearest signal yet of tolerance for gay marriage in parts of the denomination, this time in one of the larger conferences. With Lancaster’s vote to withdraw, another large conference has decided to scatter.
Western District and Lancaster prove the battles over homosexuality are ending in failure. Traditionalists have failed to achieve conformity. Progressives have failed to convince enough others to accept diversity. An attempt to compromise — passing resolutions at the national convention affirming traditional marriage and also promising to forbear with each other in disagreement — seems to be failing already.
Battles fail, but visions live on. Those who leave MC USA hope to experience a more unified vision based on a traditional interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps they will be able to maintain this unity for a while. But eventually a contentious question of how to be a faithful church will present itself again and force new decisions about unity and disunity.
Those who remain have a vision of faithfulness, too. It is a wide-angle view that includes those who fully affirm gay and lesbian members as well as those who uphold traditional teaching. It respects local discernment, honors the moral convictions of others and embraces unity among those who share what is most important — a Christ-centered Anabaptist faith.
Time and chance happen, but to gather or scatter is a choice. We hope and pray that even now many will choose to gather.
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