A time to scatter

Politics is local, but can the church live with that?

Nov 23, 2015 by

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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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  • Aaron Yoder

    Paul, I believe your use of Ecclesiastes as a backdrop against the MC USA conflict is slightly misplaced. You suggest that The Preacher advises that we “accept life as it is.” That is not the point of Ecclesiastes 3. The point is found later in the chapter. Humans encounter birth, death, weeping, laughing, gathering, scattering (etc.) because “God is teaching them that they are but beasts (Ecc 3:19).” In other words, the roller coaster of life is to remind us that, when left in our sinful state, we are very similar to animals. We will only chase vain things and just accept life as a cycle. But The Preacher’s broader point is found in chapter 3: “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work” (3:17). The Preacher doesn’t advise his readers to just accept life as it is, but to remember that they are all under authority of a Living and Holy God. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). If you wish to use Ecclesiastes as a backdrop for MC USA, I believe this point ought to be this: We are all under authority and let’s not forget that! If you are voluntarily part of MC USA, you have agreed to submit to The Confession of Faith, Membership Guidelines, and the direction set by the Delegate Body every 2 years. To step beyond these agreements means that you no longer wish to be held by this common authority. But, and here is the point, ALL PEOPLE (congregation members, atheists, bishops, gay or straight) will someday have to give an account for their thoughts and actions before a Holy God. “For God will bring every deed into judgement with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14). Our bodies will become dust. (Our Confession will become dust). And every spiritual being will stand before God. The standard will be much higher than a simple confession of faith. The standard will be the holiness of The King of Kings. Therefore, our decisions on earth (personal or congregational) ought NOT to be guided by just accepting life as it is. Our decisions on earth ought to be based on whether it is holy or not.

    • Charlie Kraybill

      Man, we can all be grateful that none of us will ever have to stand before Aaron Yoder for judgment. As a Denckian Anabaptist (and Marginal Mennonite), I’m inclined to believe that, in the end, our Merciful and Compassionate Parent in the Heavens will open her arms wide to receive all her children (bishops and atheists, gay and straight), no questions asked! As long as we’re cherry-picking scripture passages (hey, everybody does it, am I right?), here are mine: Psalms 145:9, Ecclesiastes 9:2, Lamentations 3:22, Isaiah 49:15.

      • Aaron Yoder

        You are right, Charlie. I am unfit to judge the world and distinguish between righteousness and unrighteousness.

      • Jeremy Martin

        I think Aaron’s point was that everyone will stand before God on judgement day. (Ecclesiastes 12:14) i.e. God is the ultimately the judge. The wisest man who ever lived, Solomon concluded that “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:13. Every sinful human being can choose to accept God’s grace and plan of salvation and follow God’s perfect plan, or choose their own way. The Bible is full of examples of this choice: Noah’s family or everyone else, Rehab or everyone else in Jericho, Samuel or Eli’s sons, King David or Saul, the thief on the right side of Jesus vs the left side, etc. Our acceptance or rejection of God has a profound impact on our eternal destiny.

        • Charlie Kraybill

          Some of us don’t believe that, Jeremy Martin. Some of us don’t believe there will be a “judgment day” where God will divide human beings into the “acceptable ones” and the “unacceptable ones.” Rejecting belief in divine judgment is not a modern frivolity, by the way. Thoughtful persons throughout history (including some early Anabaptists) questioned the church’s doctrine of eternal punishment. You should consider calling it into question yourself. Further, some of us don’t believe Solomon was the “wisest man who ever lived” because the details of his life story make it clear that he wasn’t. Some of us don’t believe there’s any such thing as a “plan of salvation,” because that’s church-speak for “join our church — or else.” Some of us don’t believe in “God’s perfect plan” because the evidence that such plan doesn’t exist is all around us in this world. Some of us don’t believe Noah was an historical person, because the Flood story is an obvious myth to most educated persons. Some of us don’t believe the Jericho story happened as described in the Bible, because the stones in the ground uncovered by modern archaeologists give a more accurate and reliable picture of Jericho’s history. Some of us decline to speculate on “eternal destinies” because we just don’t know for certain what lies on the other side of the grave. And neither do you, despite your insistence to the contrary.

          • Conrad Hertzler

            Really sorry you feel that way, Charlie. Man, I guess the Apostle John was delusional when he said, “These things are written that you might believe and that believing you might have life through His name”. I sure am glad that I believe in these things. Living in a world where you don’t know anything and can’t believe anything would have to be pretty aweful.

          • Jeremy Martin

            Charlie, if you do not believe the Bible, then how do you determine what is true? Further, what “early Anabaptists” questioned eternal punishment? Can you name names?

          • Debra B. Stewart

            Jeremy, might I respectfully suggest a little book by Gulley and McHolland, two Quaker preachers, called “If Grace is True.” Read it carefully.
            Charlie, keep on keepin’ on, brother!!!

  • Berry Friesen

    Unity across diversity requires sacrifice, right?. As we’ve seen repeatedly over the two years since Mountain States Mennonite Conference pushed MCUSA into crisis (and even before, when it gave fair warning of its intent), few have been willing to give up much of anything for unity.

    Is it because MCUSA members feel so comfortable and secure that they don’t perceive the need for unity? With endless war, pervasive government surveillance, oligarchic economic control, the lawlessness of the elite and climate change, how could that be?

    Maybe it’s that we don’t perceive a unified church to be relevant to those threats.

    • Elaine Fehr

      Even with “endless war, pervasive government surveillance, oligarchic economic control, the lawlessness of the elite and climate change” there can be unity in the body of believers in Christ. At the heart of that unity is faith in the one True God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to Whom we surrender ourselves completely, striving to know Him and do His will. Our faith doesn’t depend on whether or not chaos reigns in this world. Actually, it’s been my personal experience that my faith has grown stronger in adversity. And I’ve heard many others testify to that too.

      I love how Ephesians 4 addresses this subject of unity and how to walk the Christian walk. At one point it says, “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”

      Now there’s a hope for those who walk in obedience to Christ…We no longer will be “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” if we all “attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God…”

      To sum it up, in deception there can be no unity. I see deception and attempts to deceive as one major catalyst of the ongoing struggle for unity in the church today.

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