An Open Letter to the MCUSA

When I began looking for an Anabaptist congregation, I was immediately drawn to the San Antonio Mennonite Church here in the Alamo City. Truth be told, I probably would have stayed within our house-church if it weren’t for the fact that many of our families were moving. But as necessity compelled me to search for a tribe, the Anabaptist emphasis on Jesus discipleship, servant minded non-violence, and its history of persecution welcomed me. I’m glad we found a home in the MCUSA.

Having grown up as the son of an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, I was frightfully aware of the denominational politics our family encountered having served under two SBC Presidents. But Anabaptism offered more than that, with less, or so it seemed.

Theda Good’s recent ordination seems to have served as a sort of catalyst in the ever growing divide between the young and old, urban and rural MCUSA membership. But from my location, these reactionary reverberations seem to find their epicenter on the conservative side of the aisle while the almost certainly inevitable LGBTQ ordination seems to originate on the progressive side. Regrettably, I feign to even use the binary language associated with progressive versus conservative politics, but it seems that such language indicates that we have already bought in to the us vs. them mentality that dominates our American culture.

What about the Third Way?

I’m perplexed as to why we’re having this conversation in the first place. Looking at arguments from “both sides,” I keep asking myself, “where is Jesus in this?” I see Jesus in the calls for humility and servanthood. I see Jesus in the cautionary language encouraging dialogue instead of schism. But I don’t see Jesus in the Soddom and Gommorah rhetoric, and neither do I see it in the practice of ordination.

As I realize I have probably already lost most of my readers at this point, please allow me explain. We find no precedence for ordination in the New Testament, and the Old Testament structures of priesthood are hierarchical and hereditary. Is it any wonder that the term takes its name from the Latin “ordo,” –to set in rank, row, or order? Although this ecclesial tradition certainly arrives from the Catholic Church, its precedence can be seen in ancient Rome, as a distinctive hierarchy differentiated the order of senators from the order of plebes. According to ecclesial practice, to ordain is “to invest with ministerial or priestly authority.” But such a distinction is never made in the New Testament.

Would we be hearing of schism and Sodom if it weren’t for ordination in the first place? Throughout the NT, we do find a precedence of the laying on of hands–as distinct from the exact terminology used for doing violence. Christian laying on of hands is synonymous with healing, blessing, and the reception of the Holy Spirit. This laying on of hands is also referred to by the author of Hebrews 6, where its practice is mentioned in conjunction with the basics of baptism, resurrection, and faith in God. But perhaps most pertinent to the situation at hand, the most often quoted passages concerning “ordination” are often found in 1 Timothy, 4 where the author admonishes Timothy to remember the giftings he received when the elders prophetically laid hands upon him.

Yet 1 Timothy also instructs that slaves should respect their masters, even moreso if those masters are also Christians (ch. 6), and 1 Timothy also instructs that all women should not braid their hair, wear gold, pearls, or expensive clothing (ch. 2). While we’re at it, the author of 1 Timothy clearly states that he does “not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (2:12) but that in church “women should learn in quietness and full submission.”

Our local MCUSA congregation happens to be pastored by a woman. It is hard to imagine that just 30 years ago or so it would have been unthinkable to expect an announcement that anyone but a straight, white, male would be ordained as a Mennonite pastor. Yet here we are, and our pastor’s gifts are self-evident to all who are blessed by her ministry.

Yes, it seems we pick and choose which admonishments from Scripture we want when touting of schism and Sodom. We’re quick to throw stones at those of a different gender, race, or sexual orientation than we. But when I take the words of the Sermon on the Mount seriously, I wonder how many straight adulterers the MCUSA has ordained, since to lust after a woman is tantamount to adultery. In short, those wishing to jettison Theda Good’s ordination on the grounds of Scripture must also be willing to remove all women from the pastorate and enforce strict hair and dress codes in all churches of the MCUSA.

Ordination seems to prop up power over others instead of empowering all. It is a tradition from an age of violence and classism. It specifically distinguishes the laity against the clergy, denying the priesthood of all believers. While it may have its practical benefits according to the ways of the world, it seems unscriptural to me.

Instead of propagating the hierarchical power structures that also define the culture of this world, what would the MCUSA look like if we practiced a Third Way? Instead of laying hands on someone in violence, what if each congregation simply affirmed the Holy Spirit in others? After all, it is the duty of humans to affirm, but it is the freedom of the Holy Spirit to anoint.

Tyler Tully is an emerging voice within the Neo-Anabaptist movement. A speaker and author based out of San Antonio, Texas, Tully is a graduate of Our Lady of the Lake University with a BA in Religious Studies and Theology. He is currently pursuing an M.Div. from the Chicago Theological Seminary. You can also follow him at his blog, The Jesus Event and on Twitter.

UPDATE: A RESPONSE TO CRITICS

Given the response of the article, both positive and negative, I wanted to clarify a few misconceptions concerning my appeal. First of all, I’m not advocating for a disregard of any leadership roles. These roles are clearly functional and apparent in the Scriptures. But they are not hierarchical–they are organic. The Body of Christ operates as an organism, each member bringing different charisms and abilities, yet each operating in conjunction with the holistic context of their identity together. The key word is Body. Secondly, there seems to be a giant misconception regarding the difference between ordination and the local affirming or enabling of leadership roles and gifts. This probably stems from Christendom’s preoccupation with identifying leadership as hierarchical, holding “ordination” as an apriori interpretation of church leadership. This just isn’t the case. It does not follow that every leader must be ordained, and it does not stand to reason why anyone planting a church, serving, operating, or evangelizing must first be ordained (or ever).

Finally, I wanted to briefly point to the historical context regarding ordination and where it comes from in the NT and in the history of Christendom. The term “pastor” appears only once in the NT (Eph. 4:11) while derivatives of the term “poimenas” (shepherd) do arrive in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2-3. There are many other leadership roles than that of pastor, which I have already argued is not necessarily synonymous with Christendom’s ordination. The term “priest” is used many times in the NT, and each time it refers to the entire Body of Believers–the priesthood of the saints. It is of great consequence that the NT never uses any secular word to describe these authorities or leaders in the Church, and neither do they refer to these leaders using terms associated with priestly titles from the OT (e.g. hiereus). Three times the NT offers us episodes of elders being recognized by their congregations (Acts 14:23, 1 Tim. 3:1, Titus 1:5). Contra to the KJV, the term for “appoint” in these passages is not “ordain,” but according to many scholars, simply means to endorse, affirm, or blessing what has already been done by the work of the Holy Spirit. The affirmation points to function, not to office. Regrettably, this begins to change after the time of the Apostles.

By the time of Hippolytus, ordination had been turned into a rite. By the 4th century, it was formalized using clothing, vestments, and ritual patterned after the Roman custom of civil appointment–even down to the very words used to install them into office. Viola and Barna write, “Up until the second century, the church had no official leadership. That it had leaders is without dispute. But leadership was unofficial in the sense that there were no religious offices or sociological slots to fill.” [1] But during the time of the Apostles, Christian practice was distinct from its pagan counterparts in that it offered no sacrifices, held no hierarchy of priests or offices, with no temple to speak of but their own bodies. The point is that all roles were organic, functionary, and communal–a new family and a new Kingdom–a new way of doing life that rejected the hierarchies of the world. Everyone had a role, and each supported each other in these giftings.

It is not until the time of Ignatius that we see Christians begin to argue for offices and hierarchies concerning geographic locations. In fact, Ignatius argued in his letters that the bishop should be treated as Christ Himself, is the highest authority in the Church, and that each local congregation should do nothing without the approval of the bishop himself. [2] By the end of the third century, this one bishop rule (monoepiscopate) was the norm almost everywhere. It is Clement of Rome who first distinguishes between the leaders the laity (the term he used)–between the leaders and the non-leaders. [3] And Tertullian is the first to refer to these leaders as the clergy–(from the Latin clericus, taking its name from an allotment). During the time of Cyprian, bishops began to be referred to as priests, working over the bishops or elders at each local congregation. It is to Cyprian that we owe the doctrine of spiritual authority, as he argued that bishops were accountable to God alone. Constantine built upon Cyprian’s language, and created the “clergy” and “clerics” as a separate and higher class than the plebeians.

History is rife with examples of writings indicating the classism associated with ordination. However, during the time of the Reformation, many (including the Anabaptists) rejected these unBiblical hierarchies. That is not to say they did not have leaders, and it is not the same as stating that ordination is synonymous with leadership. Distinct from the Magisterial Reformers, the Anabaptists not only advocated for the priesthood of each individual believer, but the corporate priesthood of all believers. It was the Anabaptists who affirmed the activity and roles of every believer present during times of corporate worship. (This does not mean they did away with functions and leadership). Yet Luther was so set against this practice that he condemned Anabaptists to the “pit of hell,” and passed laws naming this Anabaptist practice as a capital offense. [4] It was the Protestants who maintained the doctrine that ordination remained only for a privileged leadership–a group that was expected to fulfill priestly duties. This identity would later develop into a very real sense of the ordained pastor serving as a mediator between God and man.

But all of this is really off point. My original intention remains to show the MCUSA need not operate by the ways of this world. If ordination stands as a stumbling block, we should remove it. Let each individual congregation is capable of appointing its own leadership, but it need not require ordination.

Footnotes:

[1] Frank Viola & George Barna, Pagan Christianity, (109).

[2] see Ignatius’ epistles while en route to Rome, which are full of this rhetoric, Early Christian Writings: the Apostolic Fathers (75-130)

[3] Marjorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, (38).

[4] Peter Hoover, The Secret of the Strength: What Would the Anabaptists Tell This Generation?, (198).

Comments (9)

  1. Steve Dintaman

    Interesting. This rejection of ordination or any “setting apart” of leadership was huge back in the 70s when I was a college and seminary student. Whole communities were founded on the idea. They mostly failed or evolved into communities with clearly defined leadership roles. That ordination is not taught in the NT is really questionable. Roles of apostle, teacher, evangelist, elder were clearly identified and recognized. I’m convinced that the rejection of designated leadership roles has little to do with the NT or Anabaptism, but is an elitist idea that appeals to highly privileged, educated, articulate urbanites and has little to offer people outside these privileged circles.

    Reply
  2. TylerT (Post author)

    I’ll try not to take that personally, seeing as its probably aimed at me. However, I fail to see why one who argues for functionary leadership vs. scradotal ontology is one who offers nothing to those outside or privileged roles. In short, apostle, teacher, evangelist, elder are identified and recognized as leadership roles, but your argument is a non sequitur fallacy–one does not need to be ordained to serve in any of those functions. It seems you are reading this conversation through a lens that assumes I’m arguing for abandoning all leadership functions. I’m not.

    Reply
  3. Sam

    Just a reminder-Theda has not been ordained yet. She is licensed for ministry, which is a precursor to ordination (the source you link to gets this wrong as well).

    Reply
  4. Jenna

    Is the actual ordination really the stumbling block for conservatives? I am having trouble believing that conservatives would be fine with congregations choosing LGBTQ leaders so long as they were not “ordained”.

    If the issue were solely about ordination, then conservatives would be speaking out in favor of hiring LGBTQ teachers and professors in Christian colleges and high schools. But I’m not hearing any of that. So my conclusion is that the issue isn’t just about ordination, it’s about LGBTQ people in general in any positions of influence in a Christian organization.

    I’m not seeing a 3rd way out of this.

    Reply
  5. klw wallace

    “But I don’t see Jesus in the Soddom and Gommorah rhetoric…”

    Do you see it when Jesus is employing the Sodom and Gommorah rhetoric himself, by chance?

    Reply
  6. Tim B

    So my conclusion is that the issue isn’t just about ordination, it’s about LGBTQ people in general in any positions of influence in a Christian organization.

    That’s not really the issue either. Lutherans, UCC, UMC, and Episcopals will al ordain LGTBQ pastors. What we see, as conservatives, is a growing movement of Godless congregants asking for things based on trends of the day, not stemming from a place of orthodoxy. The truth is those who support inclusion of LGTBQ pastors have not made a commanding theological argument. We sit perplexed as why you don’t leave for denominations that suit your needs. Go to the UMC or Unitarians. In many cases you already agree with them on nearly everything. Why are you here, in this denomination, causing this divisive rift when other organizations exist that fit your needs? You could easily and comfortably walk across the street to a Methodist church and fit in within seconds, yet you remain. We’ve lost churches and congregants to this issue and we’re not done yet. Why can’t you just be happy and go elsewhere and let us be friends at an annual interfaith dinner? Or would you rather us be unified enemies?

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  7. Tyler

    That is very difficult and unproductive language, Tim. First of all, there are _many_ “trends of the day, not stemming from a place of orthodoxy” that already affect the MCUSA. For instance, why do you think the MCUSA does not fellowship with the Mennonite Brethren, or the Amish, or the conservative Mennonites? I’m sure you’ll agree that what is “orthodox” for some is “anethema” to another, depending upon their own priorities “of the day.”

    Secondly, you assume to much when you state that MCUSA congregants are “Godless.” How do you know they are Godless?

    Finally, if unity, gaining church congregations, and doctrinal “orthodoxy” you are after, why don’t you take your own advice and leave the MCUSA to join another Mennonite or Brethren institution? Why do you assume that the only people that need to pack are the ones that disagree with your position? Maybe it would do everyone some good to stop throwing stones and starting listening.

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  8. Tim B

    I did not say MSUCA congregants are godless, just that some of them are. There was a post here several years ago, I wish I could find it, on what some here actually believed and it was all well outside of even the most progressive of beliefs.

    Secondly, I don’t belong to an MCUSA congregation. It’s true, I attend an MCUSA church, but I am not a member nor do I hold any power what-so-ever within the denomination or my own congregation. I do this of my own volition.

    1) It’s not my space. I didn’t grow up Mennonite. Unlike some people, I don’t want to bring my preconceived notions of what MCUSA should be to what it is.
    2) MCUSA as a denomination is in a state of upheaval.
    3) MCUSA is a sinking ship. While everyone is fighting over which dinner you all’ll be having on the Titanic, I have my life raft ready to go.
    4) MCUSA isn’t even a denomination in the loosest of terms. It refuses to take any sort of control over anything. Congregations are in fellowship because they say they are, nothing holds them together.

    And last, I don’t want to listen. I’m tired of listening. Everytime the conversation comes up, the progressives lose. Then they insist we aren’t listening. It’s like that kid you keep beating in Street Fighter 2 at the Arcade who keeps insisting “One more game! One more game!” So you finally let him win and he acts the braggart. Far be it from me to participate in that losing proposition.

    The progressives will win. It will take time on this issue. It will require them to drive enough congregants and congregations out, which they are doing with some success now. Once those who have some fight in them leave all that remains will be those who were too quiet and passive to speak up. They may still have the numbers, but they’ll lack the gall to stick up for themselves.

    In other words, when the official position turns it’ll be because the progressives managed to drive away enough people to do it. They’ll have their denomination, impotent as it is now, casually diseffective in everything. Dozens of churches and thousands of congregants will leave, but they’ll still proclaim unity was achieved.

    No, see, unlike the progressives MCUSA attracts, I know when my voice isn’t wanted. I know my place. That’s what separates us.

    Reply
  9. Jenna

    For what it’s worth, I *have* left the Mennonite church. I am part of the LGBTQ population, but that’s not why I left, not really — most of the Mennonites around here are open and affirming and as progressive as you can get. No, over the years I have become more agnostic and it feels strange to be involved in a church when I don’t hold the basic beliefs about God and Jesus.

    I still feel connected to Mennonites and am interested in the whole debate about inclusion of lgbtq people in the church, and I am rooting for inclusion, as a spectator.

    I like Bruce Brawer’s take on the conflict between “progressive” and “conservative” Christians. It boils down to – do you see the church as about Law or about Love? If you see Jesus’s love and acceptance as primary, then you place that first. If you see the Bible as the authority, then you place Biblical teachings and rules first.

    http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/bawer-jesus.html

    Reply

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