An open letter to the church from the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges, universities and seminaries

Mar 15, 2016 by

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Dear friends and brothers and sisters in Christ,

As presidents of the schools to whom many of you have entrusted the formation of future leaders for our church’s witness in the world, we want to say with full hearts, that we hear you:

  • We hear your longing for our schools to keep faith with the deepest wisdom of our Scriptural and Anabaptist heritage.
  • We hear your heartfelt desire that everything we do and teach be rooted deeply in faith and spring out of love for God and neighbor.
  • We hear your urgent calls, amid the escalating anguish, polarization, bigotry, violence and fear-mongering of our current world, for us to form leaders with the professional competence and spiritual maturity needed to be courageous, shining ambassadors of the good news of Jesus Christ for all nations.

We speak from the heart to declare as a group and with no hesitation that our loyalty to the global Christian Anabaptist witness in the world runs deep and true. The disagreement stirred up recently by the actions of several of our schools does not diminish what has been and continues to be our preeminent calling:

To form graduates who are rooted and grounded in the love of God, truly Christ-like in character, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, expansively global in their outlook.

We readily paraphrase the words of the Apostle John to his spiritual children: “We have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children [the children you have entrusted to us] are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4).

Any one of us will gladly show you the overwhelmingly persuasive data that details the transformative work our graduates have done and are doing on behalf of the world-wide church and global Anabaptist witness. Over and over again, church and communities around the world have been renewed by the leadership of idealistic, compassionate, visionary, service-oriented, justice seeking, Jesus-loving young adults who were formed in one of our schools.

Each of us, along with many of you, was cheered by the global assembly of some 8,000 Anabaptists at the Mennonite World Conference this summer in Harrisburg, Pa. That assembly inspired in us an extraordinary hope for the church. Many of those in leadership of the assembly, by the way, were graduates of one or more of our Mennonite Anabaptist colleges, universities or seminaries. We came away from that gathering of Anabaptists grateful for the eloquent, straightforward list of seven Shared Convictions of Global Anabaptists. Those shared convictions simply, yet profoundly affirm what unifies us in the midst of our vast cultural, linguistic, ethnic, theological and denominational diversity. The generous spirit of worship and unity we experienced there was a foretaste of an even greater unity in the Spirit that Christ himself longed for in his final prayers.

It is in that generous spirit of worship and unity around shared convictions that we, as a group of presidents, reaffirm our shared resolve to do all within our power to align our schools with these shared convictions — in unity with the global Anabaptist community:

By the grace of God, we seek to live and proclaim the good news of reconciliation in Jesus Christ. As part of the one body of Christ at all times and places, we hold the following to be central to our belief and practice:

  1. God is known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator who seeks to restore fallen humanity by calling a people to be faithful in fellowship, worship, service and witness.
  2. Jesus is the Son of God. Through his life and teachings, his cross and resurrection, he showed us how to be faithful disciples, redeemed the world, and offers eternal life.
  3. As a church, we are a community of those whom God’s Spirit calls to turn from sin, acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, receive baptism upon confession of faith, and follow Christ in life.
  4. As a faith community, we accept the Bible as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance, in the light of Jesus Christ to discern God’s will for our obedience.
  5. The Spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all areas of life so we become peacemakers who renounce violence, love our enemies, seek justice, and share our possessions with those in need.
  6. We gather regularly to worship, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to hear the Word of God in a spirit of mutual accountability.
  7. As a world-wide community of faith and life we transcend boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender and language. We seek to live in the world without conforming to the powers of evil, witnessing to God’s grace by serving others, caring for creation, and inviting all people to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

In these convictions we draw inspiration from Anabaptist forebears of the 16th century, who modeled radical discipleship to Jesus Christ. We seek to walk in his name by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we confidently await Christ’s return and the final fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

As presidents, we humbly confess our imperfections, both personal and institutional. In a world desperate for the good news of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, we recommit to doing what we can to form communities of learning that will be in the vanguard of a spiritual awakening for Mennonite Church USA and beyond.

James E. Brenneman, Goshen (Ind.) College president
James M. Harder, Bluffton (Ohio) University president
Howard Keim, Hesston (Kan.) College president
Sara Wenger Shenk, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, Ind.) president
Loren Swartzendruber, Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.) president
Perry D. White, Bethel College (North Newton, Kan.) president

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  • Hilary J. Scarsella

    I have a question of clarification for the authors of this letter. Could you let us know its motivation? It sounds like you are responding to those who are upset by recent decisions made by some Mennonite colleges to welcome LGBTQ faculty and employees. Am I correct? Clarity about why this letter was written, to whom and for what purpose would be helpful in discerning its implications.

  • Joel Miller

    Possible translation and simplification of the letter:
    Dear Mennonite Church USA. After careful discernment, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with being gay. We think this is good news for our students and employees and the church at large. It flows naturally out of our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It aligns perfectly with our commitment to being institutions that encourage an emotionally healthy and academically rigorous environment. Some of you disagree, and that’s OK.

    • Phil Schroeder

      Joel, you have omitted the part of the letter that says – we don’t care what the Bible plainly states because we are going to interpret it as a community and justify it by saying that the Holy Spirit made us do it.

  • Wilbur H Entz

    I thought, or hoped that, I saw in this letter a welcome letter of repentance. Surely the presidents know or should know that the overwhelming part of the trouble within the MC USA is because of leadership pride and hubris (see where the bishop says “that church leaders will not sacrifice one bit of pride for the sake of the truth”).

  • John Gingrich

    Why do we question the letter? It is beautifully written with a commitment to knowing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. It renews a goal of leading future leaders into a life of servanthood, discipleship, and Anabaptist witness. It concludes with a vision of spiritual awakening in the Mennonite Church.

    But having said all that, I have to confess that I too am tempted to try to read between the lines or look for an ulterior motive for this letter. As Anabaptists we have historically been more impressed by deeds than words. It was fun for us to judge people like the two Jims (Bakker and Swaggart) for talking a Spirit filled message and living the opposite in their personal lives. They raised a lot of money doing this and it would be easy to suspect that money plays a part in this message as well. Perceptions and reputations take a long time to build up and I pray the sentiments of this letter are genuine and enduring. I will choose to take the letter at face value and I challenge everyone to join me in making the concluding paragraph our own personal prayer.

  • John Gingrich

    I should have said it is cleverly written. The glaring internal contradiction is the euphemistic acknowledgement of “The disagreement stirred up recently by the actions of several of our schools” against the assurances that the goal of the schools is a life of spiritual awakening. If they mean a Holy Spirit awakening it will have to include the teachings of Gal 5. It will need to reverse the inroads of the “spirit of the age” It will need actions of confession and repentance. It does seem like we are back to the question of whether the words match the actions. I again reference the analogy of Swaggart and Bakker. The words of the letter will need to be reconciled with the actions taken (“disagreement stirred up” is a clever way of phrasing it) that put them at variance with the policies of the national denomination and broke their relationship with the CCCU. Currently we only have words and time will tell whether they are genuine, clever, or duplicitous.

  • Conrad Hertzler

    To form graduates who are rooted and grounded in the love of God,
    truly Christ-like in character, and with the power of the Holy Spirit,
    expansively global in their outlook.

    I like most of this statement, but something seems lacking. What about graduates who are rooted and grounded in the WORD of God as well? I hope that is being done.