Opinion: Uniformity is weakness

Sticking with those just like us takes the easy path, impoverishes the church

Aug 29, 2016 by

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While living in Botswana, I talked with a friend who wore a medallion identifying him as a member of the Zion Christian Church. Attached to it was a fringe of blue cloth. I asked what that meant.

“I do it because the Bible commands it,” he replied. Indeed, Num. 15:38 clearly says, “Bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue.”

My friend seemed to be following the adage I heard growing up: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”

It was the custom in Botswana to mix seeds, so I reminded him of Lev. 19:19: “Thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee.” I asked whether he keeps those commandments.

With as much conviction as he had expressed earlier, he said, “Everybody knows those are not meant to be taken literally!”

What everybody knows

Like my African friend, even those who claim to read the Bible literally do not obey the parts that “everybody knows are not to be taken literally” — like killing male homosexuals (Lev. 20:13) or killing children who curse their parents (Ex. 21:17). Jesus pointed out to the scribes and Pharisees that even though they tried to follow the law scrupulously, they did not follow the command to kill children (Matt. 15:4). And everybody knows that Jesus, by pointing this out, was not suggesting we follow that commandment.

When we interpret the Bible and make decisions in the church, our actions reflect our cultural context, history, traditions, education and political leanings. This is true for conservatives and liberals alike.

Our Anabaptist faith teaches that how we live is as important as what we believe. Unfortunately, we have adopted much of our culture’s individualism, materialism and militarism. We have been legalistic and set up unnecessary and harmful boundaries. Jesus had harsh words for the legalism of the Pharisees, who he said strained out gnats and swallowed camels. He had harsh words for those who judge others.

Taking the easy path

I remember people leaving congregations — and congregations leaving conferences — over issues that a few years later they accepted. The fact that there are more than 50 Anabaptist groups in Lancaster County, Pa., all claiming to obey the same Bible and follow Jesus as Lord, shows how deeply divisiveness is rooted in our Mennonite culture.

Culture drives us to cluster with people like ourselves. But the Bible says the church includes people from every tribe and nation. The church has taken the easy path and divided into homogeneous groups. We’ve allowed ethnicity, economic status and race to shape our relationships in the church.

We miss the benefits of cultural diversity. Interaction with people different from us exposes our narrow views, which otherwise go unchallenged. The Bible is interpreted best alongside people of different beliefs, genders, social classes, ethnicities, ages, cultures, experiences and theological views.

When only men interpret the Bible, we get things wrong about women. When only rich people interpret the Bible, we miss things it says about wealth and the poor.

Is it too late?

Our divisions are heavily influenced by our spirit of independence, stubbornness and power struggles. Hiding behind “what the Bible says” can be a delusion to cover our individualism and unwillingness to submit to the community. The fact that groups that divide often soon divide again provides evidence for that.

Recent Mennonite divisions might be greater sins than some of the practices used to justify the divisions.

Jesus suggests in John 17:20-21 that lack of unity in the church is an impediment to the world believing in him. It does not get more important than that.

Christian unity does not mean uniformity. It comes from keeping Jesus, not cultural or religious practices, at the center of our faith. It requires suspending judgment of people who believe the Spirit has led them to different positions. It requires interaction with diverse groups while staying faithful to our own convictions.

I hope it is not too late to reverse the divisive trend in Mennonite Church USA. Might new structures be established to maintain unity, though various groups have diverse practices? The challenge for the denomination is to find a structure that accommodates diversity. The challenge for individuals and congregations is to maintain their own faithful practices while keeping relationships and trusting that those who come to different conclusions might also be led by the Spirit.

John W. Eby, a sociologist, worked in educational, mission and service agencies of Mennonite Church USA, Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Mennonite Central Committee and the Brethren in Christ Church. He lives in Lititz, Pa., and attends Slate Hill Mennonite Church.


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