Friday, March 7, 2014

To Avoid A MCUSA Split: Let Congregations Discipline, And The Denomination Offer Direction

I'm wondering if the only way for the Mennonite Church USA to stay together is if its local congregations become solely responsible for the discipling--and as they deem necessary, for the discipline--of individual members, and to have conferences and the denomination primarily give direction to congregations as they carry out those God-ordained responsibilities.

This would not make us any more diverse than we already are, but could help us maintain some kind of bond in spite of our differences, perhaps through our becoming more like a close fellowship of Anabaptist-minded churches than a well organized denominational institution. Otherwise, we face the prospect of a tragic kind of splintering and splitting such as we have never seen.

According to a recent piece by historian John D. Roth in the Mennonite, "When most of the various branches of the Dutch Mennonite church merged in 1811, the basis of of the union was a general appeal to the unity of the Spirit and the explicit assurance that 'every congregation kept its freedom to make such decisions about doctrine as it wished, without the right to bind others to its convictions.'"

In the ongoing controversy over how to address the issue of homosexuality, Mennonites have become expert at divorcing themselves from other whole districts and conferences. But surprisingly I know of no example of Mennonite congregations having actually removed individual LBGTQ members from their fellowship. In fact, I haven't even heard many conversations on how we practice grace-based pastoral care of such members, in spite of the fact that we all know plenty of fellow believers who are gay, and in spite of our convening many solemn conference assemblies on the subject of same sex attraction.

As a result, individual gay members have usually just quietly removed themselves or remained silent about their sexual orientation. We've created an unspoken policy of Don't ask, Don't talk and Don't tell.

I find this response on the part of the church unloving, inconsistent and unacceptable.

I propose we focus on congregations dealing pastorally and prayerfully with individual members as they are led by the Spirit and as they understand the Bible. There is ample scriptural precedent for this kind of Spirit-driven pastoral care. But I find no New Testament precedent for our excommunicating whole congregations--as in, for example, a Jerusalem Council deciding to no longer be associated with churches like those at Corinth or Laodicea. Nor are there any Biblical examples of congregations leaving the larger body of believers and going out on their own.

How can we defend or approve our wholesale "divorces" of whole churches or conferences--even over an issue as controversial as same sex marriage--when one of Jesus' most fervent prayers is "that they may be one, even as we are one"?

Jesus makes no exceptions in that prayer. He does give instructions (Matthew 18:15-18) for dealing with individual members, but not for excommunicating whole congregations.
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