Conservative Conference seeks clearer definition

Name-change proposal — part of an effort to clarify mission, identity — may avoid 'conservative,' 'evangelical'

May 8, 2017 by and

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When people hear the word “conservative,” what do they think? It’s a question confronting Conservative Mennonite Conference as society becomes more polarized politically and denominations fracture and decentralize over questions of doctrine, practice and resources.

Leaders of CMC, a denomination of 12,400 members in 111 congregations mainly in the eastern and midwestern U.S., are looking at a new name to more clearly communicate the group’s identity.

Conservative Mennonite Conference ministers meet to discuss business at the annual Pastors Conference Feb. 13-16 at Bethel Mennonite Church in Sarasota, Fla. CMC does not ordain women but may look at making space for women to serve in leadership roles at the denominational level. — Conservative Mennonite Conference

Conservative Mennonite Conference ministers meet to discuss business at the annual Pastors Conference Feb. 13-16 at Bethel Mennonite Church in Sarasota, Fla. CMC does not ordain women but may look at making space for women to serve in leadership roles at the denominational level. — Conservative Mennonite Conference

“There’s been a strong call from our ministers to change our name,” said CMC executive director Brian Hershberger. “We don’t really see keeping the same name as a viable option.”

A survey circulated at CMC’s 2016 annual conference in Greenwood, Del., that asked questions about mission and identity drew 1,282 respondents from 83 CMC congregations.

Data in a report by Conrad L. Kanagy and Jacob L. Kanagy included survey results as well as responses from 200 people in listening sessions. Open-ended questions asking what CMC should embrace and lay aside yielded calls for a new name.

Proposed new names won’t be revealed until the annual conference July 27-30 in Kidron, Ohio, where a name-change proposal is scheduled for discussion and possibly a vote. But Hershberger said there was a desire to avoid the words “conservative” or “evangelical” because of cultural connotations.

“What most people think of when they hear ‘conservative’ is not what we are,” he said, citing interpretations of the word that connect it with plain dress or the Republican Party.

Matthew Showalter, dean of students at CMC’s Rosedale Bible College in Irwin, Ohio, noted the reports of evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“We just came through an election cycle where ‘evangelical’ was used to denote all sorts of things that we’re not about,” he said.

Hershberger emphasized that CMC remained conservative theologically and evangelical in the classic sense of an evangelistic focus.

“There has always been a strong emphasis on biblical orthodoxy and a commitment to mission,” he said. “That’s one thing that has been very solid in Conservative Mennonite Conference from the beginning — the authority of Scripture in our lives, the inerrancy in its original form.”

In a document presented at the ministers’ business meeting Feb. 15 during the CMC Pastors Conference in Sarasota, Fla., leaders emphasized their priority “to articulate a mission statement and core commitments . . . followed closely by continued work on a new name.”

The document’s proposed commission for CMC is “to mature and multiply churches locally and globally” and adds: “This is not a new commission, but a new articulation of it.”

The survey and listening sessions indicated many participants could not identify a clear mission statement for CMC.

Women in ministry

Women in leadership is another area in which CMC is looking to clarify its position. According to the report, only 26.4 percent of respondents (48.2 percent of whom are women) support women preaching sermons; 16.6 percent support women as pastors and 8.1 percent support women as lead pastors.

Several women in the listening sessions said they felt “inhibited from partaking in leadership roles” and noted there are no women on the boards of Rosedale Bible College, Rosedale Mennonite Missions or CMC.

CMC does not ordain women but allows congregations to decide what leadership roles women may have, Hershberger said.

“We hold a complementarian position, recognizing that within that there’s a lot of different places where people draw the line,” he said.

Hershberger acknowledged that most of CMC’s denominational committees are made up of men due to policies stipulating seats be filled by ministers. He suggested there was openness to reviewing these policies.

Anabaptist identity

Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents identified as Mennonite/Anabaptist. Slightly more than 50 percent said a Mennonite/Anabaptist perspective is very important; 34 percent said it is somewhat important.

The report indicates strong agreement (95 percent or more) on the moral unacceptability of practices such as premarital sex, abortion, homosexual relations and viewing pornography.

“CMC members are solidly committed to biblical understandings of sexuality and marriage, and the conference has the advantage of not being divided on these issues,” the report states. “This unity will be helpful as CMC clarifies its mission and identity, since these issues are contributing to division in many other denominational affiliations throughout the U.S.”

Support for traditional distinctive Anabaptist beliefs was somewhat lower: 58.1 percent disagreed that it’s OK for Christians to fight in a war, and 47.1 percent disagreed that it’s OK for Christians to file a lawsuit.

“There’s a desire to be identified as Mennonite-Anabaptist, but when it comes to the issues that are tied to that — nonresistance, for example — there’s some difference of opinion there,” Hershberger said. “We desire to be Anabaptist, but we’re wrestling with what that means.”

He said CMC was aligned with groups like the Evana Network, Lancaster Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Brethren, which share concern for social justice but see spreading the gospel as their central mission.

“Being missional to us means we have committed to a renewed focus on church planting,” Hersh­berger said. “What goes with that is ministry to the poor, etc. But we’re not turning away from gospel evangelization. . . . If we understand God’s mission for us, hopefully that keeps us focused so we don’t have all these other peripheral things we get bogged down by.”

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  • Conrad Ermle

    Trumpite evangelical republicanism has no place in an Anabaptist community. Since Trump is not a conservative that word is not as problematic as the other three. – Conrad Ermle

  • Gene Mast

    So we are Anabaptists but find the question of whether it is okay for Christians to fight in a war a “peripheral” issue? To call us confused may be overly charitable.

    Changing the name and enlarging the range of acceptable belief and practice may lead to church growth, though observation of MCUSA is hardly encouraging in this regard.

    • Conrad Hertzler

      Gene, I think that what Brian and the rest of us here at CMC are wrestling with are these things that tend to distract us from fulfilling the Great Commission and bringing new believers to maturity. The larger question at stake here is, what is more important: for us to be identified as Anabaptists or as Followers of Jesus? I believe strongly in our stance of nonresistance as well as other doctrines that have been passed down to me. However, if the word “conservative” or “Mennonite” has negative connotations for someone or if it causes them to automatically stick me into a category which isn’t accurate, should it be below me to simply identify as a follower of Christ? I do share your concerns regarding what CMC will look like 10, 15, or 20 years down the road. But I also think that in a changing world, it is OK for us to be looking at our name and thinking about what it communicates. The adherence to the doctrinal issues mentioned is already changing despite our name remaining the same. So the “problem” with the “peripheral” issues is not the name, but something else.

      • J Showalter

        Conrad, I agree that a name change indicates a more profound shift, and in that regard, Gene’s concern seems fair. Anabaptists have long believed that love/forgiveness of enemies lies at the heart of the Gospel in that God extended these to us while we were still his enemies. That Jesus links God’s forgiveness to people’s forgiveness of others strengthens that case. But with significant numbers of respondents either supportive of (40%) or unsure about (20%) concealed carry of lethal weapons, the writing is on the wall. It seems more honest to drop theological adjectives that no longer accurately describe the gospel we embrace.

      • Gene Mast

        If one claims to be a follower of Jesus but can not or will not define what a follower of Jesus looks like, I suppose no one would be offended. Anabaptism is a definition of what following Jesus entails, one we have written documents detailing. Even a brief look through our statement of theology, particularly the portion regarding the state, reveals that a lot of us have significant variance with what we as a denomination claim to believe.

        Of course, as a member of the hoi polloi, who is clearly not on the wrestling team, so to speak, I tend to look on the kerfuffle with a bit of detachment, perhaps mixed with cynicism. It seems reasonable to think there is zero chance CMC leadership will take any action to enforce denominational positions. Which maybe they should not, if they think the issue of killing each other is a distraction. Either way I suppose it will make no difference to most members. Not that this is a necessarily desirable situation. We should all be aware of what it is we are supporting.

        This then begs the question of just what it is that is thought to define mature Christianity. A denominational name is a least partially a statement of aspiration.We can be certain there was never complete agreement on any position of the church but “Mennonite” indicated in some degree where we wanted to be as a group of people who endeavored to follow Christ in a particular way. Can we no longer set some sort of goals for Christian belief and conduct? Has the whole thing become an intellectual exercise with every person their own source of the definition of Holiness? In this case denominational organizations pretty well lose the rational for their existence. How can you possibly grow mature Christians with no agreed upon idea what one is?

        I may be the only one who thinks this way, but what CMC will look like in the future is not of immediate concern but rather what it appears to be currently. Is there no concern that a stunningly high percentage of us appear to think violence against others made in the image of God is compatible with The way of Christ?

        How great it would be if time at Kidron this summer could be spent formulating a strategy on how to regain a conviction on a critical teaching of Christ; loving one’s enemies, rather than on selecting a name that says nothing.

        • Conrad Hertzler

          Gene, again, I do understand what you are saying and I share many of your concerns. You again mention the issue of non-violence. This is an issue that I also feel strongly about and I will continue to teach and speak out against Christians bearing arms, as well as the killing of unborn babies. I am one who is concerned with the current lack of understanding in our conference about issues such as these. And I say a resounding “YES” to having a conference weekend dedicated to the teaching and reaffirmation of, non only non-violence, but other teachings which have been important to us. However, I keep coming back to the question of what is the MOST important thing. As we strive to be disciple makers both at home and around the globe, I ask, is it important to teach new converts to identify as Mennonites? Or is it sufficient for them to identify as Followers of Jesus and we teach them about loving their neighbors, the sanctity of life, and so on. Maybe I’m not the right person to be asking the question. I do identify as a Mennonite because of my upbringing. But as I have looked at the diversity that is the global Mennonite church, I have asked time and again, “What is a Mennonite”? I have had people ask me this and I really can’t give a good answer. Besides for the subject of non-resistance, what is it that binds us together and makes us Mennonites? I have never read anything by Menno Simons. Am I or am I not a true Mennonite? And so I wonder how necessary it is to identify as one as I think about new churches and discipleship. And what really does “conservative” mean? Cape dresses and bonnets and plain cut suits and hats? Does it mean that I always vote republican? Theologically conservative? I like what you said about our name being “what we aspire to”. I do believe that the name should be meaningful and so I struggle with the suggested names put forth. However, I also recognize the confusion about what “conservative” and “Mennonite” mean. And so I go back and forth quite a bit on this whole thing. Anyway, good to chat with you. Will I see you in Kidron this summer?

          • Gene Mast

            The problem, or confusion, of Identity is not relieved by becoming less specific. Substitute “Follower of Christ” For Mennonite and the questions remain. What is a FOC? If anything it just gets more fuzzy. There is a wide range of those we would consider fellow Christians, even those we may think believe and practice in ways contrary to the way of Christ. I think it is instructive that in the passage from whence we once got the practice of shunning Paul specifically refers to “anyone who calls himself a brother” as being the subject of expulsion and social ostracism. Apparently self identification is not adequate.

            The names I have seen as being considered do seem designed to say nothing about conviction, as well though I do not consider myself particularly well informed on the matter.

            On a lighter subject, that of Kidron, let me appeal to a quote from Niels Bohr, sometimes attributed to Yogi Berra, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. But I have made lodging arrangements.

            On an even lighter subject, and a more personal one, I find that over forty years after being required to, I can hardly refer to your father as anything other than “Mr. Hertzler”.

  • Rainer Moeller

    Instead of “conservative” I should recommend “restrictive”. They are mostly united about a restrictive sexual life – which is indeed important because sexual restriction helps to train restriction in general matters, as a way to lead a well-ordered life, in regard of the long-time consequences of one’s actions.
    Catholic orders have the term “strict observance”, and this describes their intentions rather well. It would as well describe the intentions of conservative Mennonites, so a term with “strict” in it would be fine.

    • Conrad Hertzler

      I assume (at least I hope) that you are speaking “tongue in cheek” here. As a CMC pastor, I do differ with your saying that “strict” should be in the name. I’m not sure what your exposure to CMC has been, but if it is limited, I suspect that who we really are may differ a bit from what our name suggests. It is important to us to remain theologically conservative and to teach holy living. But missions and church planting efforts, both overseas and domestic, are things that we are passionate about. I don’t think that “strict” belongs in our name, but if that word describes striving to be biblical and following the command of Jesus to make disciples, then maybe you are on to something.

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