Caution: Mennonite Church USA Institutional Politics Ahead

One of the items discussed by delegates at the Mennonite Church USA churchwide assembly this month in San Jose was an resolution proposed by a group called Menno Neighbors. It is an informal group that meets once a year and they have a pretty active listserve. The resolution was changed to a statement for discussion by the resolutions committee of the executive board so there would not be a vote, just discussion. I was one of delegates that signed in support of this statement (didn’t get on the printed copy because I signed to too late).

The resolution is a call for conferences to stop disciplining congregations for differences in interpretation of the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective and was written largely in reference to a number of congregations that have been disciplined or expelled from their conferences for being publicly welcoming and affirming of LGBT members (most recently Hyattsville Mennonite in Maryland).

The discussion at San Jose consisted of statements from two conference ministers (one in favor, one against) and then some table discussion and some time for representatives from the tables to speak to the assembly open mic style. Lloyd Miller of the Central District Conference (CDC) spoken first, then Kurt Horst of Allegheny Mennonite Conference (AMC). CDC has become a sort of sanctuary conference for some congregations that have been disciplined by their home conferences and AMC recently disciplined one of its congregations.

Here are links to the original statement and the text of Lloyd and Kurt’s statements. I’m not going to include my own commentary for now but I thought it might make some interesting fodder for discussion, I’ll likely chime in in the next days or weeks. I find the different arguments very telling of the very different approaches and truths in the Mennonite Church right now.

Some questions I’d love to hear y’alls YAR thoughts on:

  • Do you find anything especially compelling/troubling or valid/invalid in one or both of these arguments?
  • How would you summarize both statements? (both quick and dirty first impressions and more thoughtful and maybe even more gracious synopses are welcome)

Comments (8)

  1. PeterK

    Although I wasn’t at the assembly, I heard about the discussion of this issue. Now my initial reaction, as a member of a church that has been disciplined in the past and as someone rather skeptical of church discipline in general, is to support this resolution. Upon reading the resolution, I found myself pretty much agreeing with the main points. However, upon reading both of the conference ministers’ responses I think that there is definitely a case for conference discipline. First, it’s true that “without discipline we don’t have a church.” In order to be a body of believers that actually share common beliefs there need to be lines drawn somewhere. However, it seems to be the case that these lines are more often drawn in regards to LGBT issues than on other issues. For example, how many churches have been disciplined due to their support of the Iraq war or other non-pacifist teachings? Therefore, I realize that this inconsistency is troubling and should be something that is addressed by any conference considering disciplining congregations. However, I also don’t think that it is MC USA’s place to tell conferences that they can’t discipline congregations. I grew up in a fairly liberal part of the Mennonite Church in Goshen and I’ve only recently (this summer especially, doing the ministry inquiry program in Philadelphia) had more contact with Lancaster Conference, the largest and (it’s fair to say?) most conservative conference. If accepting LGBT members is not something that they are ready to do in their conference, then wouldn’t it create even more division if MC USA didn’t allow them the freedom to discipline congregations in their conference? And if a congregation wants to accept LGBT members can’t they join a conference that is more accepting (I’m not aware of the process of switching conference affiliation)? Basically, I think that if MC USA did decide to take away conferences rights to discipline, many more churches would end up leaving MC USA (on the conservative side, which has already happened a lot- I think there are far more conservative churches that have left MC USA than liberal churches that have been kicked out-someone correct me if I’m wrong). I think there should be a place for accepting congregations in conferences that are ok with that, but if a conference sees a practice as inconsistent with their interpretation of the confession of faith then they should have the right to discipline congregations in their conference.

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  2. eric

    Peter, is avoiding division really the main goal of denominational administration? I would think anyone arguing for disciplining congregations would have to argue against that. Why would disciplining conferences be any worse than disciplining congregations?* After all “without discipline we don’t have a church.”

    Also, it’s been said before: You can’t say ‘just let them hate gays if they want to’ without taking into account the real, human implications of that. Is complacency consent? Would you consent to blatant racism in church politics?

    (Of course, many people aren’t willing to look at LGBT rights as a human rights issue. That difference seems to be a source of much miscommunication. What a bother.)

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  3. lukelm

    Just wondering (sorry, haven’t had time to read the actual statements yet) – has anyone ever heard of any congregation being disciplined in the last, say, 25 years for anything other that fraternizing with the queers?

    What if the death penalty had never in recent history been applied to anyone other than lots of black men from five specific neighborhoods in the country? Without even having to debate the justice and utility of the death penalty, wouldn’t that in itself delegitimize the process – that the sheer blatant injustice of the prejudice of its applicaton would make it impossible to continue using, no matter how just or helpful it might be in theory?

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  4. DevanD

    I spent some time reading over the statement, and the responses from Lloyd and Kurt.

    Lloyd’s response seemed to understand what MennoNeighbors was getting at: it wasn’t that discipline should no longer be used, but don’t use the Confession of Faith for it. The Confession is not a Cathechism, otherwise we would have called it that.

    Kurt’s response seemed to take an entirely different interpretation of the statement in question. He broke it up into two parts: 1) is it ok to ban?; 2) is it ok to use the confession to ban? This was a cleverly devious rhetorical device; as the first question was not even up for debate, only the second. The first question used evidence from the confession to prove the validity of church discipline. So, it was clearly to follow that the Confession was sufficient for use in banning.

    I’m not sure if members of our church understand what they are giving up when they allow the confession to define the parameters of faith. If we are going to ban people based on a church document and not without sufficient discernment from the community of believers, how about we all just rejoin the Catholic Church? It’s the same thing over there, and they have had millenia to work out doctrine.

    This isn’t being cute, I’m dead serious. That’s the implication of giving the Confession of Faith the kind of power it currently has. We basically say that the premise of Anabaptism – i.e., a community in constant discernment of faith – is no longer relevant and we will stick to this one document.

    The Confession of Faith is not MY faith, as I had no part in writing it. It is not YOUR faith, as you may not have either, and you may not agree with it in particular parts. And it is not OUR faith, because we are learning that it isn’t applying to all of us believers anymore. And it certainly isn’t God’s faith, as God has bigger plans each day.

    So who’s faith is it? And who is benefiting from it staying that way?

    As a final note, I shudder to think that anyone gave creedence to the insidiousness of the claim “without discipline, we don’t have a church”. How about “without reconciliation, we don’t have a church?”; or “without Christ, we don’t have a church?”

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  5. PeterK

    So I feel like there are two main questions here, one as stated by Eric,”is avoiding division really the main goal of denominational administration?” Now, the answer to this question is obviously no, the main goal of denominational administration should not be to avoid division. However, I feel like it can and should be a secondary goal. In fact one of the main reasons for supporting the resolution is to maintain unity in the church. Or in the words of the resolution,”We can witness to
    God’s love by rejoicing in our unity as the body of Christ.” And I think that unity as a body of Christ is something to be valued, especially considering the long history of division within the church in general and specifically the Mennonite Church. Therefore, I would think long and hard before simply coming to the point where further division is the conclusion. I don’t think that’s what the supporters of the resolution want and I don’t think that what conferences are trying to do when they take disciplining actions. However, it is true that the tension between unity and a commitment to a belief or ideal is sometimes a really hard line to walk. And sometimes division is the only option, however, like I said, I think this should be really thought out before being suggested as a good option. So the question here is how can we stay true to our understanding of Jesus’ love for everyone while also trying to maintain some unity in the church (maybe this resolution is the right way to go, I’d like to hear what other responses have been on both sides of the fence)? Another question that seems to be out there too is this, if the majority of the church is not ready to see LGBT rights as a human rights issue, then are you suggesting the minority that does break off from the larger church?

    The second response is that like I noted in my first response, church discipline has been unfairly used in regards to LGBT issues and not other situations. I agree with this assessment and I feel like any conference or body that is going to take church discipline seriously needs to reexamine its practices and either use church discipline consistently (in regards to other “sinful behaviors” as well) or reevaluate its methods of discipline to find something that is more life giving and is not simply a one-issue discipline system. Even if conferences see people who are LGBT as sinners, they should evaluate why they choose to discipline only a certain kind of sinner, rather than other sinners, which we all are(or even other “lifestyle sins”-abusive families, drug alcohol addictions, etc.) Therefore, if there is to be some kind of conference discipline it should be used across the board rather than as a one-issue system.

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  6. stevekimes

    I was also a delegate at San Jose and heard both presentations. There are points in both presentaitons that were good. In the end, however, we need to accept that conference discipline is necessary. We had a situation here in the NW of a pastor (not, in this case having credentials) involved in an adulterous affair with one of his church members. The congregation was willing to turn a blind eye to the issues because he was charismatic and significant to the growth of the church. While we didn’t need to specifically “discipline” the church, as they were not yet a member, we did take them off of our rolls.

    What if a church recommends their young people to join the military? What if a church participates in infant baptism? This doesn’t mean they are bad people, but the congregation doesn’t belong to the Mennonite church. Lines have to be drawn and something has to be done.

    The question is not whether the lines should be drawn– a pastor should NEVER be a sexual predator, and the conference should discipline such a one if the congregation will not. And there are other issues that could be raised, such as the ones above. Again, lines should be drawn, but the real question is WHAT lines? Where should we make our stand, where should we not? And what appropriate discipine should be done at what time?

    The problem most of the folks supporting LGBT, is that they have already lost. The line has already been drawn in MCUSA. Obviously this can change, but this is what was stated from MCUSA’s inception. But taking out discipline isn’t really an option. IMHO.

    Steve K

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  7. DevanD

    Steve,

    Your comments draw us into an inevitable question. Where is the place of denominationalism? I ask this not as a critique of denomination, but as a sincere response. If a church recommends their young people join the military or participates in infant baptism, as you say “they aren’t bad people”, but they aren’t Mennonites. So at what point do the lines become helpful and when do they become hurtful? And at what point do they reflect a need for “overpower” rather than “underpower”? And at which points are “Mennonites” more faithful than “other” Christians? JH Yoder even makes a strong case that Christianity itself was schismatic (see The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, Eerdmann’s, 2003.)

    Additionally, I would say once again, I don’t think MennoNeighbors was specifically bringing into question the necessity of church discipline (though this may be something they want to question in the future). They were, however, concerned with the confession of faith being used as a basis for such discipline, as it isn’t reflective of some of the changes that have occurred in the church over the past 11 years, and as it was never meant to be proscriptive in regards to discipline.

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  8. Kurt Horst

    After more than two years I decided to read responses to this. (No one may read this since it has been so long).

    I agree with the strong call for community discernment in previous posts. Just as the “Confession of Faith” was discerned by the community (delegates at Wichita ’95) it also must be applied in the context of a covenanted community. Since MC USA, as a community of delegates, adopted the Confession it is up to that same community to review and discern its use. My comments about the descriptive vs. prescriptive use of the Confession tried to address this question. A Confession can never simply be a prescriptive document (even the Bible is subject to interpretation), it can only be prescriptive in the context of a community that has agreed to discern its authority, meaning and application together. This can’t help but raise the question of the locus of authority; individual, family, local church, small group bible study, conference denomination, etc.. All of the above have been tried, used and abused at various points in our history. As Mennonites we have held one thing clear over our history; these discernments cannot be enforced by coercion.

    However, for some, any form of discipline becomes coercion as a result of the psychological/emotional forces involved. For others discipline is part of discernment even with the emotional/psychological dynamics. For many of us (on this issue as well as others), how we respond to disciplinary action is influenced by our personal position on the specific issue (our own emotional/psychological reactions) more than by any philosophical perspectives on discipline. (Lloyd and I tried to keep the discipline issue at the core of our arguments rather than the LGBT issue.)

    In the future MC USA (and the church in general) will continue to see a variety of affiliative forms and organizations as we continue to practice “voluntary” membership and non-coercive structures and at the same time maintain an agreed on set of core practices and values? The future may be much more a conglomerated network (web) of affiliated like minded groups rather than the large denominational structures of the recent past.

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