Confession of Faith in a Progressive Mennonite Perspective

Jun 20, 2019 by

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Introduction

Every age group in the United States is less religiously involved than it was a generation ago. In particular, the number of youth and young adults dropping out of the church has been growing at an alarming rate. Why are so many people leaving the church? In national surveys the most frequent response is a loss of faith. The church has failed to present and live out its faith in a way that is attractive, persuasive, and morally and intellectually credible. This Confession of Faith in a Progressive Mennonite Perspective is meant to articulate the Christian faith in a way that may speak meaningfully to contemporary seekers.

Mennonite Church USA already has a Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. It was published in 1995, has served us well, and will continue to do so. But it has limitations. First, it’s too long for easy digestion. Also, its use of biblical language often lacks interpretation, leaving it open to literalist or fundamentalist understandings. Finally, it does not address — or sufficiently address — some of the issues that have become prominent and pressing in our society in the past 25 years.

But why produce a confession of faith in a progressive Mennonite perspective? Because although conservative members of our denomination have been mostly clear and consistent about what they believe, progressive members have been less so. A progressive perspective is, by its nature, multifaceted and resists codification. As a result, our denomination is filled with various and sometimes competing progressive visions. Some of these visions are, perhaps, not entirely helpful for our future, and I have been concerned by a lack of affirmation among some progressives on such crucial topics as prayer, the cross, Jesus’ resurrection, the role of government and eschatology.

This confession of faith seeks to be both progressive and Mennonite. It is progressive in the sense that it seeks to use contemporary language and understandings, and move us toward a more authentic, moral and healthy faith. It is Mennonite in the sense that it is biblically conceived, Christ-centered and continues to affirm the distinctive understandings and emphases of Anabaptist theology. It is not the progressive Mennonite perspective; it is a progressive Mennonite perspective.

Confession of Faith in a Progressive Mennonite Perspective is not meant to further divide us. On the contrary, it is meant to offer a possible direction for progressives, build a bridge of conversation and understanding to conservatives, and reach out to those no longer in the church or who have never been in the church.

May God’s Spirit enliven the church and use us all to spread God’s reign.

God

God is ultimate reality, abiding mystery, the ground of all being and creativity. God is supremely characterized by: grace — unconditional favor, mercy and generosity; justice for the weak; and self-giving love. Humanity reflects God’s image, and as such all humans have equal and irreducible value.

Jesus

Jesus was fully human and filled with God’s Spirit. Through his ministry and crucifixion, he embodied the self-giving love and presence of God and became the supreme human metaphor for God. During his ministry he inaugurated the reign of God: God’s will being done on earth. After his crucifixion, his followers experienced him as transformed and timeless, now exercising all the authority and power of God, and he commissioned his followers to bring the reign of God everywhere. He is the hope of the healing of creation, and the promise of the communion of saints in the timelessness of God.

Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the power and influence of God unleashed in the world, especially through those who have oriented themselves to self-giving love.

Bible

The Bible is the human witness to the movement of God’s Spirit among humanity — in particular, the Hebrew people, Jesus and the early church. It is comprised of sacred story, religious law, doxology, philosophical reflection, proverbs, epistolary guidance and visions expressing God’s Word for us. It is the product of centuries of spiritual experience, reflection, writing, editing and selection of books and letters by the community of faith. It is not one voice, but a holy dialogue, holding together various tensions and disagreements and perspectives. Jesus, as the embodiment of the Word of God, is the interpretive center for the Bible; all should be understood in the light of his ministry and teaching. The Bible is our highest authority for reflecting on God and God’s will, but we read it aided by reason and experience, interpreting it in the context of the faith community and by God’s Spirit of self-giving love.

Salvation

Salvation means being rescued from whatever endangers or undermines our welfare and wholeness. Humanity rightly seeks salvation from violence, abuse of power, systemic injustice, needless suffering, isolation, bitterness, broken relationships, despair, meaninglessness and fear of death. Behind all human-caused suffering is unbridled self-centeredness. Our salvation, therefore, depends on shifting from selfishness to self-giving love, in ourselves and in our systems. We are empowered to do this through experiencing God’s unconditional, self-giving love for us. We are saved by trusting in love. When we make this shift, we are in the process of being saved from all that undermines our wholeness. In Jesus’ language, we are entering the reign of God. The sacred story of Jesus and the Bible assures us of God’s abiding love and presence, which removes the fear of death and enables us to become self-giving and filled with gratefulness even to death.

Christian

A Christian is one who follows Jesus’ way, and has made that commitment public through a freely chosen baptism or reaffirmation of one’s infant baptism. Baptism symbolizes death to self-centeredness, cleansing of guilt and shame, and a new birth as a selfless person oriented toward God’s love. Christians are not the only ones who love and are being saved. All who truly love are born of God and know God, even if they do not cognitively believe in God. Being a Christian is not for the purpose of obtaining exclusive rights from God, but for the purpose of maturing in love.

Church

The Christian life of self-giving love and extending God’s reign is nurtured, amplified, and embodied through a community of Christians bound to each other in a covenant of cooperation and faith. Together Christians live out a community of love, forgiveness, hope, sharing, promoting justice, studying scripture, prayer, and worshiping God. The church is a witness to the larger society of God’s way. It is meant to be a community so attractively living out wholeness, and so welcoming to all, that it continues to expand to include as much of humanity as desires what it embodies.

Prayer and Holy Ritual

Christians deny and challenge the materialist philosophy of Western society by embracing the spiritual practices of prayer and holy rituals. Prayer is the essential practice for nurturing an ongoing awareness of God and trust in God’s love. By regularly expressing gratitude to God, turning our lives over to God and lifting up others to God’s care, we open up space for God’s Spirit to be at work in the world as well as enhance our own capacity for love. The holy rituals of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, anointing and footwashing are not mere symbols for our minds. As we embody these rituals, they root our faith, transcend reason and merge us into God’s underlying reality.

Cross and Resurrection

Jesus’ crucifixion and subsequent transformation in his resurrection reveal crucial truths for Christians. Among them are: the cross reveals the deep injustices in human systems and the selfish fears in human hearts; the cross reveals God’s vulnerability and self-emptying love embodied in Jesus all the way to death; the cross reveals God’s offer of forgiveness and healing to humanity, even in our most broken condition; the cross enables us to crucify our own self-centeredness as we identify with Jesus and respond with gratitude to God; the cross and resurrection reveal that self-giving love is the ultimate power which cannot be stopped; the cross and resurrection reveal that Jesus is Lord: the embodiment of God’s healing and reconciling power in creation; the cross and resurrection offer hope that death, and dying to ourselves, is the way to timeless communion with God.

Sex

One of humanity’s strongest drives is the desire for sexual intimacy. In addition to its potential for pleasure and excitement, it is often an experience and expression of unity overcoming division and isolation. But the strength of the drive makes it especially prone to selfish use and abuse. Sexual intimacy is naturally an emotional bonding experience, so without a context of love and commitment, sexual intimacy becomes exploitive and emotionally damaging. The church advocates for a mutual, exclusive, lifelong commitment of self-giving love as the proper context for full sexual intimacy. In the Bible, the lifelong commitment that brings together and transcends the polarities of male and female is marriage. As a matter of justice, and recognizing that self-giving love is the basis of marriage, we affirm marriage for those who wish to make a commitment with a person of the same sex. A healthy marriage also provides stability and support for raising children.

Singleness

Some people never find another person with whom to make a lifelong commitment of self-giving love, or they choose not to make such a commitment. Singleness appears to have been chosen by Jesus as well as by the Apostle Paul. Singleness allowed them undivided attention and commitment to living out the ideals of God’s reign, enabling them to contribute to God’s work in the world in extraordinary ways. The church affirms the dignity and value of singleness.

Gender

At birth, infants are assigned female or male gender based on the appearance of genitalia (though some infants have ambiguous or both female and male genitalia). Regardless of physical characteristics, some people’s lived experience does not match the gender assigned to them at birth. Gender is more complex than sex chromosomes, genitalia and the binary categories of male and female. As we continue to learn about the nature of gender, we affirm each person’s experience and expression of gender identity.

Creation Care

Humanity’s wholeness depends not only on reconciliation with each other, but also a respectful and sustainable relationship with the earth and the animal kingdom. We are an integral part of nature, and so we must cooperate with nature rather than simply exploit it. Human activity is the most likely cause of accelerating global warming, climate change and the current mass reduction and extinction of animal life on this planet. The flourishing of humanity, as well as of the animal kingdom and the environment, depends on us vigorously pursuing a sustainable lifestyle. Self-giving love demands that we extend that love to all future generations and to creation itself.

Government

Local and national governments are for providing necessary laws and services for the just ordering of society. Governments depend, in part, on the threat and use of force and punishment to maintain that order. Christians are to respect this necessary function of government and may participate in government, but they give their ultimate allegiance to God and Jesus’ way of love. The church must be independent of the government so that it may provide a prophetic critique of society and the government, resist the idolatry of coercive power and urge an ever-greater commitment to compassion and justice. As an expression of the reign of God — God’s meta-government transcending ethnicities and borders — the church avoids alignment with or displays of nationalism.

Violence and War

When a nation goes to war, there is often a call to patriotism that assures citizens that the war is righteous, the enemy stands for evil and one’s own soldiers are doing something heroic and exciting. But war is not a glorious adventure or an appropriate test of manhood or womanhood; it is nasty and appalling, often indiscriminate in its violence, and corrosive to one’s soul. On occasion, the government may determine that war is necessary as a last resort to prevent even greater violence. One of the tasks of the church is to oppose the government whenever the cause is not justified, or the war not defensive in nature. But even a so-called just war must never be viewed as a righteous activity. It is always a heartless operation to slaughter others, and it morally wounds all of those who participate in it. The church must never celebrate militarism or the use of violence; rather, it witnesses to Jesus’ way.

Nonviolence and Peacebuilding

Jesus’ way of self-giving love renounces the use of violence, revenge and the holding on of hatred and grudges. Jesus’ way is to overcome evil with good, to interrupt the escalation of hostility with positive action, to surprise the opponent with grace. The reign of God builds peace and reconciliation between all people and with creation. The presence of police and military forces that threaten the use of force may be an effective deterrence to further violence. But the calling of the Christian goes beyond keeping violence in check through threats and fear; the Christian is called to undermine and reduce violence through self-giving, nonviolent love. The community of Christians is thus enabled to serve as trusted negotiators for resolving conflict, to provide relief and reconstruction from the effects of violence, and to serve as a witness to the world of the possibility of living in community without violence.

Reign of God

The ultimate hope of the Christian faith is that all will live in love and wholeness: with each other, with nature, with oneself and with God. Death is not the end; God’s love will have the last word. Hell — as understood as a place of eternal punishment and torture — is contrary to morality and to the nature of God; it does not exist. But hell exists in this world whenever we live selfishly, or harm others, or despair. After death we are in God’s hands, and the healing and redeeming work of God continues. Our ultimate hope is that hell — on earth or beyond death — is emptied, and the reign of God is all.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois.


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