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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Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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