God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
- from I Corinthians 3 (New Living Bible)
Since becoming a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference nearly fifty years ago I've lost track of the number of times I've been through the grief of church divorces, where God's "people temple" (see above) is structurally damaged.
Last evening at our quarterly Harrisonburg District delegate meeting we were again asked to approve a motion granting a release to a local congregation breaking ties with us--separating themselves from our district, from the Virginia Conference and from Mennonite Church USA.
Heartsick, I abstained. I just wasn't prepared to vote either yes or no. How could I, with many of the members of this congregation being my friends, and all of them brothers and sisters in my faith family?
A part of me understands where these family members are coming from. Like others before them, they see leaving as a necessary part of being faithful to the Bible, believing the mother church is on a wrong course. I went through similar distress when Virginia Conference agreed to accept as members, in some cases, people who were already a part of the military. To me this meant violating the clear teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early church, as well as being contrary to our church's Confession of Faith.
The current issue, of course, is over same-sex marriage, even though currently we have no openly gay couples as members of any of our congregations. But at least one church has stated it would be open to receive such, and Eastern Mennonite University, a part of MCUSA, is currently debating the question.
Of course, at worst, no more than 3-5% of our members (estimated percentage of people who are gay or lesbian) would ever even think of choosing such a partnership.
Nevertheless, these are the kinds of concerns the church must take seriously. But must we walk away from each other as soon as we even talk about controversial issues--like accepting divorced persons who have "married another", or blessing members choosing to "fare sumptuously every day" while billions are in want, or baptizing people who believe killing as a part of military service is OK?
Or should we stay with each other, meanwhile encouraging congregations, as they feel led, to discipline individual members who refuse counsel or correction from the church, but not separate ourselves from whole congregations or districts? And meanwhile, shouldn't we at least allow for time to discern and pray with each other, to confront and engage each other, and love and weep with each other as members of fellow congregations or districts? Even no-fault divorces of married couples in Virgina require a year of waiting before formally severing ties.
Our Swiss Anabaptist forbears didn't seek to see the church divided, but appealed to their entire church in Zurich to follow Jesus' call to voluntary discipleship and a renunciation of violence. They were forced out, were persecuted, tortured and exiled for preaching a baptism of the willing rather than having everyone forced into membership in the state church.
I know there is much about today's churches and congregations that is broken. We are a mix of flawed, imperfect people, to say the least, as have been members of churches ever since their first century founding.
But dare we just ignore Jesus' fervent prayer for unity, "that we might all be one"? Are we assuming there is more than one Lord, faith, or baptism? Are we not to become one beloved bride of Christ rather than resembling a fragmented harem? Do we believe that in our Father's house there are separate rooms reserved for each of our kind, or that only those who agree with us can even find a home there?
Or can we affirm there is "a wideness in God's mercy" that is beyond our imagination?