Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mennonites Should Be Able to Work Things Out

Today there are twelve different Mennonite subgroups in Rockingham County alone.

When I became a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference as a part time pastor in 1965 (at Zion Mennonite), there were only four, three of these being Old Order groups at variance with each other. The main Virginia Conference body had at that time experienced only one division since its beginning 130 years earlier.

Since then an increased number of additional groups have formed, mostly through some kind of church split. Here’s the list:

1835 Virginia Conference (formed from Lancaster {PA} Conference)

    1900 Old Order Mennonite Conference (known as Showalter group)

    1953 Wenger Old Order group

    1957 Mt. Pleasant Old Order Church (Horning group)

    1972 Southeastern Mennonite Conference

    1976 Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church

    1985 Timberville Mennonite Church

    1990 Calvary Mennonite Church

    2001 Cornerstone Churches (originally Mennonite)

    2002 Mountain Valley District churches
    2003 Broad Street Mennonite Church

    2005 Shalom Mennonite

    2007 Lloyd Wenger Old Order group

As a committed Anabaptist/Mennonite, and as teacher of a JMU Lifelong Learning Class on "Mennonites in the Valley" for the past 15 years I find this multiplicity of divisions beyond embarrassing. We are, after all, supposed to be a church that’s all about peace and reconciliation.

In the past, our church splits were often accompanied by rancorous debates and hard feelings. But those days seem to be largely behind us as we become ever more masterful at conflict evasion and less inclined to do conflict engagement. We tend to “divorce” amicably and continue to get along just fine, remaining exceedingly nice to each other in a way that seems quite OK on the surface.

What we lose as we politely "agree to disagree" and to go our separate ways, however, are the kinds of church family connections that enhance learning and create a sense of needed accountability with each other. More homogeneous but separated groups tend not to experience the kind of healthy growth and maturity they might if they did the hard work of respectfully listening to each other and trying to work things out (see "Knit together by Differences").

My modest proposal for our Conference would be that we agree to something like the following:

In light of Jesus' and the apostle's teachings on church unity, we are committed to steadfastly maintaining our “unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” and will seek to grow toward an ever stronger “unity of the faith” until death do us part. We will practice redemptive forms of discipline for erring individuals, but we will never again separate as whole church families from one another.

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