Opinion: Mennonite Church USA’s biblical evangelism

Apr 4, 2018 by

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As a member of a Mennonite Church USA congregation, I would like to respond to E. Daniel Martin’s characterizations of us (“Why Lancaster Conference Got an Annulment,” Letters & Comments, March 12).

According to Martin, MC USA “has distanced itself from the evangelical root of historic Anabaptism,” whereas “LMC has indicated its desire to align with its historic evangelical Anabaptist roots.” A lot is going to depend on how one defines “evangelical” here. What most of the world regards as “evangelical” is a 19th- and 20th-century American theological innovation, often only loosely connected to the Gospels or to the Bible as a whole. (Where in the New Testament is Jesus described as anyone’s “personal Savior”?)

But perhaps Martin has in mind something more like what Richard Showalter (“Why Lancaster Left,” Opinion, March 26) describes as “the Anabaptist trajectory”: “evangelical in its twin embrace of the Great Commission (‘Go make disciples’) and the Sermon on the Mount (‘Enter by the narrow gate’).” Perhaps also some of the differences among Mennonites just now are over what constitutes that narrow gate. Is it sexual identity and gender roles? Or is it other matters of lifestyle, connected more to economics and politics, such as wealth, materialism and nonviolence? I believe MC USA churches see the latter to be more central to the Sermon on the Mount and thus to an evangelical faith.

Toxic doctrines?

More pointed is Martin’s reference to “toxic doctrines” and his claim that “many in MC USA did not share LMC’s beliefs about the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, the uniqueness of Christ as the only way to the Father and the cross of Christ (not peace activism) as the center of our faith.”

I don’t think I’m the only one in MC USA who holds gladly to the divinity of Christ or who thinks peace activism is fully evangelical. “The gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15), the gospel of the cross with peace as its goal (Eph. 2:14-16), is what is most desperately needed in this violent age. If “evangelicalism” cannot recognize peacemaking as evangelical, that is tragic. The Anabaptists certainly did.

As for the authority of Scripture, I will take such an accusation more seriously the first time any church disciplines a member who “stores up treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19). But perhaps MC USA churches fear that this authority is compromised more by demands for conformity than by openness to hearing something new from Christ’s Spirit. Perhaps we believe that the presence of Christ among us authorizes new “binding and loosing” (Matt. 18:18-20). Perhaps we believe the Holy Spirit is still “teaching us all things,” even while “reminding us of everything that Jesus said” (John 14:26).

Here is another authoritative passage of Scripture: “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12, NIV). God’s love reaches its goal — God’s evangelical mission is completed — when believers love one another, not when we all agree on doctrine or when we form a pure religious community.

Martin is convinced that “MC USA itself is dying, having lost 40 percent of its members.” (He professes to be sad about this, though his letter does not sound sad.) Walking out the door and saying, “Look how you’re shrinking” is an obvious exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy.

But maybe the prophecy won’t be fulfilled after all. Maybe a peacemaking, justice-seeking Anabaptist denomination that claims these things as its evangelical Anabaptist identity rather than hiding from them will prove more attractive than those who assume the right to hand out those labels imagine.

Dave Rensberger is a member of Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship and retired from 30 years of teaching New Testament at the Interdenominational Theological Center, a seminary in Atlanta.


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